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Languages for Expats in the United Arab Emirates

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: July 2014

The sole official language of the United Arab Emirates is Arabic. However, the UAE is the country with the highest proportion of expats in the world, and many other languages are spoken. These include the Subcontinental Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and Bengali, Farsi (or Persian) and Tagalog, a Philippine language.

Nevertheless, after Arabic, the second most important language is English. It is the language of business and has become the lingua franca that holds the country’s far-flung communities together. Nearly everyone speaks English in the cities, usually as a second language. Road signs and most other signage is bilingual with English, and there are English-language newspapers, TV channels and radio stations. The influence English has is growing still stronger, a situation that is causing concern among locals.

Hence, if you are an English speaker, it may be possible to speak English and get by with basic Arabic for quite a long time. However, if you are staying long-term, you will be increasingly likely to find yourself in situations where fluency in Arabic is required. Furthermore, most laws and official documents only exist in Arabic, and in the more rural areas, English is spoken much less. Above all, if you don’t learn Arabic, you will miss the rich experience that living the UAE offers.

Arabic is spoken by more than 200 million people and is official in 25 countries. There are many spoken varieties, though the chief written standard, Modern Standard Arabic, provides a degree of unity. Which spoken variety of Arabic you choose to learn will depend on your priorities. If you are a beginner, it is best start learning Gulf Arabic; this is also the best choice if you are most interested in conversational Arabic with locals. If you already speak some Arabic, Egyptian Arabic is the best-known colloquial variety of the language, and will be more useful if you are likely to travel around the Arabic-speaking world. Spoken Modern Standard Arabic and Levantine Arabic should also serve this purpose.

Overall, Arabic is quite a hard language to learn. The grammar at first seems formidable, but there are patterns in for example the verb conjugations that make things easier once you have learnt several of them. The pronunciation may seem strange at first, and does contain some formidable consonants. On the other hand, syllable structure is quite simple.

Arabic vocabulary is likely to be almost completely unfamiliar to you. However, due to the way words are constructed in Arabic, once you have learnt a word, you can have a guess at its near relatives. For example, kitab means ‘book’. Take away the ‘i’, add the prefix ma-, which signifies a place, and you have maktab – ‘library’.

The Arabic script is probably also new to you. Arabic script is mid-range in difficulty (compared to, say Chinese, that is!) There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. Although many letters have different forms depending on their position in the word, some are only differentiated by dots above or below the main part of the letter. There are about 39 basic forms of letter in total, compared with 44 for Roman script. However, early progress in literacy is made more difficult by the lack of vowels and other diacritics in normal text. You need to actually become familiar with how the language works before the system will start to make sense.

Arabic language courses are widely available on the internet as distance learning projects. The BBC website (https://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/other/quickfix/arabic.shtml) offers free Arabic language courses and provides information about the language. Meanwhile, Open Culture (https://www.openculture.com/freelanguagelessons) lists a number of websites that offer Arabic language tuition. Learning materials are most often in Egyptian Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic, though they are also some in Gulf Arabic.

Once you have gained a basic ability in the language, you can improve on this by participating in language exchange sessions, in face-to-face meetings or on the internet. Sessions usually involve two to four people speaking in their mother tongue for half the session and using the language they are learning for the other half. Some expat websites offer opportunities for language exchange, as does Language Exchange (https://www.mylanguageexchange.com/). This site offers free membership and provides opportunities for exchanges in Arabic and 114 other languages.

As a multilingual country, the UAE also offers the opportunity to learn several other languages, particularly those mentioned in the first paragraph. Whether you will need to do so depends on who you are in regular contact with.



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