“How did you learn Arabic?” This is easily the most frequent question that I have been asked since I came to the UAE! It seems that everyone wants to learn Arabic, but few people actually make any serious effort to do it. Even worse, they don’t know where to start: the alphabet looks indecipherable, the pronunciation sounds impossible, and the fact that Arabs speak different dialects does not make it any easier for prospective learners to get going. Under such daunting circumstances, most people take their chances with ‘fus’ha’ (the standard Arabic that nobody uses except in the media and formal speeches), only to lose steam when they realize that it is not suitable for conversation.
I went through all of the abovementioned challenges, except that I never lost steam! “And that has made all the difference,” as Robert Frost would duly point out. Moreover, when I began to learn Arabic, I had already had experience learning other languages, so I was at least technically prepared to handle the new task. Thus, I armed myself with all the relevant learning materials that I could find. I even bought a dictionary and a study guide before I moved to the UAE, just to be sure that I had enough materials in my hands to set the wheels of learning in motion.
Among the materials that I acquired, the most useful have proved to be Kristen Brustad’s “A Textbook for Arabic”, Barron’s “501 Arabic Verbs”, and Hans Wehr’s “Arabic-English Dictionary”. Within a short period of time, I reached a decent level of reading and writing proficiency, which encouraged me to move on to the next level: speaking. However, I quickly realized that no amount of learning materials was going to help me strike a conversation in Arabic! Unlike other languages, such as English, French, and Spanish, in which I was able to acquire speaking skills through self-instruction, spoken Arabic can only be mastered by interaction with native speakers, as it differs considerably from the Arabic taught in books.
Thus, in order to learn how to speak Arabic, you need to find suitable opportunities for conversation, which is the best way to develop and practice your speaking skills. In my experience, two types of situations worked better than others that I tried: making friends with Arabs who could not speak a word of English and getting a job in an office where nobody could speak English. In short, you need to put yourself in situations in which you must speak Arabic without the option to resort to English when you get stuck.
Now, how do you find Arabs who cannot speak English? Surely, everyone who lives in Dubai speaks some kind of English, don’t they? Luckily, they don’t, as I discovered when I was looking for ways to improve my spoken Arabic. Thus, one day I went to an exhibition at the Dubai Convention Center and I started talking in Arabic with different native speakers. Unfortunately, we had to switch to English, as I couldn’t understand them, although they could understand me (one of the drawbacks of standard Arabic).
However, later that evening, I met an Arab man who couldn’t speak English and who was willing to use ‘fus’ha’ with me. A few moments later, I found myself babbling away in Arabic, blurting out all the phrases that I knew and feeling delighted that he could understand me! Well, at least he kept smiling and nodding politely, although he would invariably widen his eyes and, to this day, I don’t know if he was doing that because he was impressed with my Arabic or because he couldn’t understand everything I was saying. That’s irrelevant now, as the overall experience revealed to me a great way to build my speaking skills, which was what I needed at that time.
The other big break in my quest to learn Arabic came when I was offered the opportunity to join a law firm in Dubai. I grabbed it immediately, mainly because during the interview, I was told that nobody in the office could speak English, so I expected to have countless opportunities to expand my Arabic skills. As expected, my new job did not only enable me to brush up my speaking skills and become more familiar with the vigorous Emarati dialect, but it also allowed me to upgrade my writing skills, as I had to translate and draft various types of legal documents in Arabic.
Needless to say, Arabic has been my biggest selling point in the UAE, despite the fact that I have other qualifications, including working knowledge of all the main European languages, a Master’s degree from a prestigious university in the United States, and years of solid and diverse work experience. For me, learning Arabic was not something that I may have done one day, but a goal that I had to achieve as soon as possible for several reasons. First, learning the language of your host country is the greatest sign of respect you can show to its people. Second, a language is a highly chiseled tool that helps you to dig deeply into the soul of a nation, which comes in handy when you need to deal with the locals. Third, it is a door opener that helps you to scoop out opportunities.
In short, in order to learn a language, you must have a goal, you must believe that it will take you somewhere! So, before you start gathering learning materials and looking for some unilingual Arabs, ask yourself: Why should I learn Arabic? What can I get from it? If you don’t have answers to these questions, you are not ready to learn Arabic and you will not succeed. However, if you have answers, it means you have a goal and a chance to finally learn Arabic. In that case, you will also want to read my next piece on learning Arabic, where I will provide specific advice on how to start learning and keep it burning!
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.