Why language is so important to cultural diversity

Ever since he first met people from the Gulf in his student days, Nasser Isleem, a senior Arabic language lecturer at NYUAD, has been fascinated by how languages can splinter and evolve.

Following the publication of his book, Yalla Narmis: The Top 2,000+ Words and Expressions for Understanding Emirati Dialects, features writer Camille Hogg sits down with the author to talk about the intricacies of the local dialect and why we need to try harder to fight linguistic globalization.

Q – Being an expert on the Emirati dialect is quite niche. How did you become interested in it?

I come from Palestine, but I studied in West Virginia a long time ago. There, I mingled with students from the Gulf and I was very interested in learning the linguistic path of their dialects. I started paying close attention to the way the Kuwaitis speak, and how Bahrainis and Saudis speak – and I drew comparisons.

Sometimes, some of the words that they said would have completely different meanings in my shami (Levant) dialect – and sometimes those words got us into trouble! Since then I wanted to learn more.

Q – Why do you think that proverbs and expressions help students to learn a language in more depth?

I’ve taught a course on Emirati dialect and culture for the past five years, integrating common expressions into my teaching, and I found that my students had a passion for these expressions.

Looking up words in the dictionary is not effective; learning phrases and vocabulary in their natural context is much better. My book, Yalla Narmis, aims to give learners the natural feel of the language, allowing them to learn how words come together and make sense of the Emirati dialect away from grammar rules.

When we talk about Emirati Arabic, it falls into colloquial Arabic. Colloquial Arabic, in my opinion, is the natural way of communication between people. There is grammar there, but we don’t need to stuff students’ heads with [verb] conjugations.

Q – How does the Emirati dialect link into culture and social customs?

When you greet an Emirati, besides the linguistic phrases, there are also body gestures. It’s important that people understand this as an entity.

If you shake hands with an Emirati, you’d do what is known as nosing and also a kiss on the cheek.

There are also some cultural expressions that are limited to this region. For example, if you hear ‘marhaba assaa’ it means ‘hello now at this hour’. Some expressions are used only in the Emirates – you won’t hear them anywhere else.

Q – With English a globalized language, what is the value in keeping dialects like the local one alive for the future?

It’s very obvious that English is prevailing – even the Emirati dialect has been influenced, not only by Arabic coming from other places, but also from English and other foreign languages.

Examples [of this] can be found in technical language, which has arrived in the UAE via the interactions with the non-Arab population and then have been adapted and used in Arabic. For example, the word ‘abarkin’ is the local declination for the English word, ‘I park’, and [we use] ‘leisen’ for licence.

English is prevailing but at the same time we need to preserve the identity of the Emirati society within different avenues, including its language.

Each year I take some students to Al Ain for three weeks. They stay with Emirati families, and have to speak, live and breathe Emirati Arabic. They have to follow the rituals
of the families when it comes to eating, drinking and living.

We try to reinforce these customs and traditions to teach our students. I don’t deny that it’s a challenge to save the coming generation from being fully immersed in the English speaking world – but the government is doing a lot to remedy that.

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