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KT Comment: The folly of not learning Arabic

Bikram Vohra
Filed on August 23, 2020 | Last updated on August 23, 2020 at 11.40 am
learning arabic, arabic language, speaking arabic,

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When I look back over these 35 years, I think of the rank foolishness and shortsighted limitations I placed on myself by not doing the obvious.

I intended to learn Arabic. More than intended, wanted to. I believed fervently that it was on top of my priority list in 1985 when I arrived in the Emirates. It made sense. After all, if you are living as a guest in another country, the least you can do is absorb the nuance of their culture and certainly have more than a rudimentary knowledge of the language.

Read - KT Debate: Have you learnt Arabic yet?

Thirty five years later, having missed the bus completely, I come home a few days ago to hear my grandchildren, all under the age of 10, speaking in Arabic over the e-learning programme. It is such a good feeling. My adult children know it but they do not get a chance to practise it or they do not look for that chance. But at least they understand what is going on.

When I look back over these 35 years, I think of the rank foolishness and shortsighted limitations I placed on myself by not doing the obvious.

Let me tell you, I did make a few sincere stabs at it, even hiring a tutor who melted away and trying to co-opt my driver, a person from Kerala who spoke it fluently and made several attempts to sit me down but there was always something to interrupt us.

To a great extent, the system allowed me to renege on a very basic imperative. I used to go to Toulouse a great deal years ago and by day five, since no one would speak in English, you began to pick up phrases and words in French and made yourself understood.

But back in the UAE, the tolerance for not knowing Arabic is accepted because we can run parallel lives in other languages. There we are, all of us expats in senior positions, looking blank and idiotic with that silly grin pasted on our faces as Emiratis speak in their language and we have no clue what they are saying. Think of the whole massive dimension to life we are missing or have missed.

Instead of years of mumbling 'what's he saying' we could have been part of the conversation. In courts, when dealing with the police, in top level meetings with those in high command, even with colleagues and friends.

I am sitting the other day last week with a high profile Emirati and his two colleagues and they are speaking in their language, which is their right. It hits me most forcefully that because you can say marhaba and zain, it does not make you a linguist. And migoodness, what an opportunity to enrich yourself and the experience of living here have you lost because you were happily floating on the 'no need to' option.

What it really amounted to is a dereliction of duty. No, really, how many thousands of us didn't take the opportunity because we didn't have to and more's the pity.

So, I told my children to ensure that their children get fluent and make it equal to their first language. It is not just the fact that you can speak it or write it but also that it is now one of the foremost languages in the world spoken by 450 million people in over 30 dialects. Go on then catch the bus. 


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