Understanding the local language could benefit you in more ways than you think
As an expat living abroad, it can be overwhelming when you don’t speak the local language. No doubt there have been times – struggling to communicate with a traffic warden or wanting to join in a conversation with colleagues – when you desperately wish you knew how to speak Arabic, even if just to politely say, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Arabic”.
Learning the language of the country we call home is also a sign of respect to the local population who welcome us. Other than simply being able to converse, learning Arabic could have numerous benefits and help make your time in the UAE more rewarding.
“Living in an Arabic country, I think if you start to learn the language, you will get to know the culture,” explains Najat Natour, Arabic instructor at Berlitz language centre.
“You start to know how we think, because the way we think is very different.”
The Arabic language is one of the richest in the world, with a huge amount of vocabulary. Traditionally, many Arabic speakers learn the classical form in schools, which can even be a foreign language to them as they get to grips with the countless, strict rules.
However, in everyday life, colloquial Arabic takes a less formal approach to the language with looser rules, making it easier for non-Arabic speakers to learn and integrate.
“It’s a very rich language, very detailed and descriptive,” Najat explains.
“For one word in English, we have multiple words in Arabic.
“Other than that, in Arabic the verb can be a verb, subject and object at the same time. So in Arabic, ‘I see you’ is one word. The structure of sentences is different; we can start sentences with verbs. We can have sentences without a verb. It’s a very different way of thinking.
“In classical Arabic, there are rules about pronunciation, but in colloquial Arabic we can have different pronunciations – it depends where you come from.”
Many institutes like Berlitz offer courses that teach the basic rules to help you speak correctly, while taking a more informal approach that allows you to converse effectively in daily situations, whether at the bank, in meetings or at the airport.
Some of the biggest challenges you may come across while learning are the unique letters and sounds that aren’t common in other languages. Najat explains that Arabic simply has sounds that many other languages don’t.
One such sound is conveyed with a ‘3’ in colloquial Arabic – you may have seen this on social media or in text messages from Arabic friends or colleagues. Najat explains the sound is best explained as the ‘a’ in apple.
Other than the sounds, Najat explains, “We have 13 subjects, 13 pronouns, which you don’t have. We have as well; the ‘you’ for plural, ‘you’ for two people, ‘you’ for feminine, ‘you’ for masculine…
“It sounds very different and strange,” she continues. “It’s important to pronounce heavy letters and light letters, otherwise it sounds like a different word. We have long and short vowels, although there are only three but they make a big difference. It’s is an interesting language.”
While it may all sound overwhelming, being surrounded by Arabic speakers means you could pick up the language quicker than you think.
Here are Najat’s top words and phrases you should know for everyday situations to help you practise. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be able to impress colleagues and friends with your new knowledge.
- Good morning (Sabaah il khair)
Reply: Sabaah in-nuur
- Good evening (Masaa il khair)
Reply: Masaa in-nuur
- How are you?
Arabic: Kiif il haal?
- I am fine, thank you
Arabic: Ana bikhair, shukran
Arabic: Ma3 is-salaama
- I do not speak Arabic
Arabic: Ana maa atakallam 3arabii
- Thank God
- No problem
Arabic: Maafii mushkila
Arabic: Il yawn