Expatriates learn to talk Emirati with course in ‘Arabish’: A shift in the teaching of Arabic

View of Dubai just before sunset.
Image via Wikipedia

I think this is a step in the right direction though of course learning the standard or Classical Arabic is always important if the learner wants to become proficient in reading, wiring and other skills. I usually complain here on this blog about the lack of Arabic language classes most notably in the Gulf, but it seems that that is changing and the learning of Arabic is becoming a priority for many non-Arabic speakers. This is despite the fact that in the Emirates or in most Gulf countries one does not need to speak Arabic as English is the language used by all to communicate with one another in most public spaces.

Enjoy the following article it is without editing as usual—


Amna Al Haddad
DUBAI //More than 40 expatriates can now converse in the local dialect after completing an Arabic class organised by an arts group.

“How to Speak Emirati”, a 12-week course of two-hour weekly classes, was conducted by Shaima Al Sayed and sponsored by Dubomedy Arts.

The course was the brainchild of Ms Al Sayed, who says expatriates often say they cannot speak to Emiratis and the “problem is that we have a lot of locals who are not comfortable speaking in English”.

“So, they don’t speak to you and you don’t speak Arabic, so that’s the wall,” she said. “Language becomes the barrier.”

The course was designed to teach students how to converse, rather than read or write, in Arabic.

“The idea was to create a personalised class, because the employee is different from the housewife and the teacher,” Ms Al Sayed said.

“The environment is different, so would be the words.” Ms Al Sayed asked students to send her material they would like to know about in English. Then she replied in Arabish – phonetic pronunciation in Arabic using Latin characters – so her students could read it.

“We use Arabish, chatting style, because it will help them as they want to talk, and not read and write at this stage. They want to communicate,” she said.

Ridade Bayik, 27, from Turkey, said the courses were helpful. Using Arabish, he wrote: “Law ana drst aktar, ana brmis Emirati eshal.”

Translation: “If I studied more, I would be able to speak Emirati more easily.”

Mr Bayik has lived in the UAE for 11 and a half years. He said learning the language of the country he lived in was invaluable.

“I use Arabic socially with friends who are very impressed with what I have achieved so far,” he said. “The language gives so much insight into the culture, customs and traditions of the country.”

Ms Al Sayed said expatriates often learnt other Arabic dialects but she thought it was important to learn the Emirati dialect.

She said she found expatriate Arabs would often correct the Arabic of others. “For example, one of my students said ‘ish-haluk’ [How are you?], but one Jordanian told one of my students ‘ish-haluk’ is wrong and it’s ‘shlonak’.

“I said, that’s Jordanian. That’s why I teach them how to say ‘Kaif el hal’ because it’s universal, but specify ‘ish-halik’ and ‘ish-halich’ is Emirati.”

Sohan D’Souza, 30, from India, said the course was hands-on and focused on conversational Arabic useful in daily situations.

“I think I gained a nominal level of competence and, just as important, a nominal level of comfort,” said Mr D’Souza, who has lived in the UAE for 24 years.

The course also proved beneficial to Emiratis, especially those who lived abroad or studied in private schools.

Ali Fikree, 34, an Emirati, said he had only a fair level of Arabic due to a lack of emphasis on the language in the private schools he attended.

Mr Fikree said the course could also help to erase some misconceptions about locals.

“It’s always interesting to hear about what other people think about us and it’s always fun to try and dispel the myths and folklore,” he said. “Personally, I think more expats should try this course out as it can truly bridge the preconceived gap that most expats have about Emiratis.”

Ms Al Sayed said the course also allowed students to ask questions about the culture.

“If we keep them in the dark, they create their own opinions and it might be something they don’t understand properly about our culture,” she said.

“If you don’t answer them, foreigners will go back to whatever picture they had and it may be negative.”

Ms Al Sayed will be taking part in a cultural festival at Dubai Mall, where she will be available to teach Emirati. The festival ends tomorrow.


4 thoughts on “Expatriates learn to talk Emirati with course in ‘Arabish’: A shift in the teaching of Arabic

  1. Lane

    Standard Arabic isn’t quite analogous to Standard English for the simple reason that it’s nobody’s native language. There are plenty of RP and “General American” speakers. The weird thing (I say this as an American who has studied years of fusha and Levantine colloquial) in Arabic class is learning an idealized language that *nobody speaks spontaneously* to their wife or kids. I had one particularly bad early teacher, who would teach the fusha, and then the colloquial right after, saying something like “But nobody says that; we say _____.” I wanted to say “why are you teaching us things nobody says!?”

    So as a learner, beginning with a dialect makes me feel like finally I’m getting a *real* language. I agree with you by the way about the importance of learning the standard. And I think you should start with it. I just don’t agree with the analogy Standard English:Liverpudlian :: fusha:’amiya.

    1. Hi Lane, [ahlayn wa sahlayn or ahlan wa sahlan :-)]

      Thanks for your comments I appreciate them. Yes, I can see what you mean that to compare standard English to standard Arabic is not quite the same. My intention was to try to present the reader with a similar example though not an equal one. Your story of learning Arabic with that teacher is one that many new speakers of Arabic go through in their classes, you made me laugh when you said, I wanted to say “why are you teaching us things nobody says!?”- hillarious. And that is the thing I have a quarrel with the non-unification between the spoken and the standard, this is a current weakness of Arabic language overall. Not the language itself has a problem but that as speakers and teachers we have failed to make it a working language on many fronts- but that’s another topic for another post I guess.

      I like that you shared your view point as a learner of Arabic it is something that as Arabic teachers and/or speakers we do not appreciate. The fact that by learning the colloquial you feel like now you are getting somehwere is something I honestly never though of- thanks for that insight. This supports my idea that Arabic language education and its implementation across all areas of linguistic life need to be re-examined ( I published these ideas in a book this May 2011) a language must be usable. You know there is always that struggle of maintining the Quranic language and enhancing the spoken because as I sure you know too well, language is not stagnant.

      Thanks for sharing and I invite you to post something here as a guest blogger that would be an honour!

  2. D is for Dom

    Emarati Arabic? Well I think it just spolis everything why would you want to learn such rubbish? I think Arabic is too pure a language to waste your time learning Emarati, have you even been there and heard that rubbish they speak? Seriously, and why do you put such a story on the blog? It spoils everything, don’t spoil the blog and then you get people approving of learning such slang..rubbish… dirty language. Arabic is being spoiled don’t be a part in spoiling the language, ignore those who want to learn slang… well that’s all for now

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. Yes I agree Arabic is a pure language and it must be preserved in everyway possible. But I have to disagree and say that I do not think Emarati Arabic spoils the Standard or Pure Arabic. I have heard it and in fact I am very familiar with Emarati and Gulf Arabic in general, far from it, it is quite beautiful. Where we begin to have a problem is when Standard or Classical Arabic is not learned and Emarati Arabic becomes the written form and official form used by people- that is not the case currently. I do not even think it will be the case any time soon. I also think that people should be able to come on this blog and make the comments they want even if they disagree with me, so if someone approves the use of Emarati Arabic that’s ok. In the same way that you do not approve of it, and I have allowed you to have your say. WE grow when we recognise and repsect difference- that’s the way this blog works. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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