!مرحبا (Marhaba – Hello!) Can you answer me in Arabic? Good for you!! So how’s it going? ما الجديد؟ (Ma al-jadeed – What’s new?) If you’ve been practising your greetings as suggested in my previous piece, you must be quite comfortable breaking the ice in Arabic, so I assume you are eager to learn how to continue a conversation with an Arab friend.
As I mentioned before, Arabs like to go back and forth with greetings and questions in the beginning of a conversation in order to build a comfortable chatting environment. Comfort is one of the biggest words in the Arab world, so everything related to people and social interaction must be comfortable, including where and how you talk. So, once you and your interlocutor have made sure that everything is OK with each other, it’s time to introduce yourselves, if you are meeting for the first time.
However, before we examine the best way to introduce yourself, you should find out if the person in front of you actually speaks Arabic! You might be at an exhibition or a fair, and you might want to talk to someone who looks like an Arab, but they might not be Arab, so make sure about it by asking a simple question: لو سمحت، هل تتكلم العربية؟ (Lau samaht, hal tatakallam al-‘arabiyah?), which means “Excuse me, do you speak Arabic?”. Please note that if you address a female, you should say لو سمحت، هل تتكلمين العربية؟ (Lau samahti, hal tatakallameen al-‘arabiyah?). Also, some people might skip the هل (hal) part, which is a question particle that Arabs do not normally use in their daily speech. If someone asks you this question, just give a humble answer, even if your Arabic rocks: نعم، قليلا (Na’am, qaleelan), which means “Yes, a little”.
Now, you are ready to introduce yourself! As with almost everything else in Arabic, there are several ways to introduce yourself, most conveniently divided into the standard way (rarely used), the ICL (Improvised Common Language) way (commonly used) and the dialectal way (locally used). (For more information on ICL, please check my second piece in this series, where I provided a more detailed description of this type of Arabic).
Thus, in standard Arabic, you would say … انا إسمي (Ana ismi …), which means “My name is …”. However, “Ana”, which means “I”, is mainly used for emphasis in formal situations, so in informal situations, you may just say: … إسمي (Ismi …), which has the same meaning. When it comes to asking someone about their name, gender comes into play, so you would say ما إسمُكَ؟ (Ma ismuka?) to a male and ما إسمُكِ؟ (Ma ismuki?) to a female. Now, you will only hear this way of asking about someone’s name in audio recordings for self-study guides on learning Arabic, movies, and children’s programs. Nobody will ever ask you about your name that way, unless they want to sound funny to an Arab friend who’s listening.
Therefore, you should just learn the ICL version that Arabs use amongst themselves and with Arabic-speaking foreigners: ما إسمَك؟ (Ma ismak?) to a male and ما إسمِك؟ (Ma ismik?) to a female. Oops! Isn’t this version spelled exactly like the standard one above? Yes, it is, except for the short vowels, which contribute to the change in pronunciation! (Ta daaah!)
Once names are exchanged, it’s time to express your delight at meeting the other person (well, at least be polite and complete the introduction formalities without antagonizing anyone). In English, the most common phrase is “Nice to meet you”, with slight variations on the theme that usually replace “nice” with “happy”, “pleased”, and the like. In Arabic, however, we can choose from a variety of colorful phrases, the most common of which is: تشرفت بمعرفتك (Tasharraft bema’arifatak), which means “Honored to know you”. Just note that, if you address a female, you should say “bema’arifatik” instead of “bema’arifatak”. The best way to reply to this phrase is انا أيضاً (Ana aidan), which means “Me too”.
In addition to these expressions, which can be used both formally and informally, there is another version that is mainly used in formal situations. Thus, as soon as the other person has introduced oneself, one could say تشرفنا (Tasharrafna), which means “We are honored”. In this phrase, “We” is the polite way of saying “I”. The use of the plural instead of the singular to refer to oneself in a formal conversation is a reflection of the Arab focus on the group rather than the individual. The Arab society is highly collectivistic, so the individual is supposed to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of the group. Likewise, when addressing new people, Arabs are keenly aware of the fact that they represent their family, community or nation, depending on the situation, so it is normal for them to use the plural form in formal situations. The best reply to this phrase is نحن أيضاً (Nahnu aidan) which means “Us too”, where “Us” is just the polite way of saying “I”.
Here’s a list of the expressions discussed in the last two paragraphs:
تشرفت بمعرفتك (Tasharraft bema’arifatak/ik) = Honored to know you
انا أيضا (Ana aidan) = Me too
تشرفنا (Tasharrafna) = We are honored
نحن ايضا (Nahnu aidan) = Us too
Another common question that people ask one another when they meet for the first time is “Where are you from?”. Apart from various dialectal ways of asking this question, Arabic has an easy standard version: من اين انتَ؟ (Min ayna anta?) to a male and من اين انتِ؟ (Min ayna anti?) to a female.
The common reply to this question is … انا من (Ana min …), which means “I am from …”. Just one piece of cultural advice here. Arabs do not normally ask this question immediately, because they don’t want to make you feel as if they are going to judge you based on your nationality. Most Arabs welcome everyone, regardless of their nationality, so this is a question you might not hear very often, but it’s good for you to know in case you need to ask it.
Next, you might want to find out how long your Arabic conversation partner has been in the same place as you. Again, there are too many dialectal versions to discuss here and some of them are unintelligible to Arabs themselves, so let’s stick with the good old fus’ha, which will get you much farther in the Arab world than any dialect: كم هي الفترة التي قضيتها هنا؟ (Kam hya al-fatra allati qadhaytha hoona?) which means “How long have you been here?”. Please note that if you ask a female, you should say “qadhaytiha” instead of “qadhaytha”.
The reply is very easy, as all you need to do is state the number of months or years that you’ve spent in that particular place. Thus, you could say سنتين (Sanatayn) which means “two years” or خمسة أشهر (Khamsat ashhoor) which means “five months”, and so on. I will write a separate article about numbers and time expressions soon, so stay tuned, especially because numbers are some of the hardest units of information to master in any language.
Finally, another question that people who have just met normally ask each other is about their jobs: “What do you do?” Well, I’ve lost count of the number of ways that Arabs from different countries can ask this question, but I can safely inform you about the standard version, which is: ماذا تعمل؟ (Maadha ta’amal?) and it means “What do you do?”. However, if you’re talking to a female, you should say ماذا تعملين؟ (Maadha ta’amaleen?). Just remember that “Maadha ta’amal/een?” can also mean “What are you doing?”, so if your interlocutor stares at you with a puzzled look on their face, just back it up with ما هي وظيفتَك؟ (Ma hya wadhifatak?) to a male and ما هي وظيفتِك؟ (Ma hya wadhifatik?) to a female, which means “What is your job (position)?”. However, misunderstandings would rarely occur, since you would be asking the first of these two questions in context, but it doesn’t hurt to have a back-up plan, just in case.
The answer is even simpler, as all you need to do is state the personal pronoun “I” followed by your job title: انا مدرسة (Ana mudarrisa), which means “I’m a teacher” (female) or انا مدرس (Ana mudarris), which means “I’m a teacher” (male). Since there are too many jobs to list in the span of this article, feel free to check a comprehensive list of job titles in Arabic at the following link: http://www.softarabic.com/2010/11/arabic-vocabilary-job-titles-and-occupations-in-arabic/. The site features an audio recording with the clear pronunciation of each job title listed, so it’s quite useful.
That’s all for now! Next time, I will introduce you to several questions that you can ask when you socialize, such as “Where do you live?”, “Do you have friends here?”, and so on. In the meantime, do your best to memorize the phrases above and make sure you remember the greetings I gave you last time. Saying “Good morning!” to your Arab coworkers in Arabic is a great way to make a good impression on them and have them talk about you in high terms the whole day! (It happened to me many times before!).
So, I will stop right here and give you the chance to begin practising the phrases above by listening to the podcast that I made for you. Check back as often as you need to listen to the podcast below!
!إلى اللقاء (Ila al-liqa’!) Until next time!
Amalia Costin is a language teacher specializing in English, French, and Arabic. She has a B.A. degree in English and Norwegian, and an M.A. degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University. She is fluent in several languages, but Arabic is her greatest linguistic achievement so far, as it was the hardest one to master. Amalia also has a passion for writing, which she considers to be the best way to share knowledge and debate ideas with people from all over the world.