More to Arabic than marhaba and shukran

Why do expatriates miss the opportunity to learn the language.

By Abhishek Sengupta (Monday Musings)

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Published: Sun 23 Jun 2019, 9:57 PM

Last updated: Sun 23 Jun 2019, 11:58 PM

So, next month brings up my 12th year here in Dubai - a city of over three million faces, close to 200 nationalities, a multitude of languages and one that's been my 'ephemeral home' for the longest in my life. But talk about my first real 'Arab world expat test' and it only came last week as my eight-year-old appeared for her first ever Arabic exam in school - a 10-mark oral assessment followed by a far more solemn 50- mark written one.
Why? You could ask. Now, it shouldn't have been such a big deal if I had taken the cue from other expat parents and got my child an Arabic tutor who would make her 'exam ready' every three months for a few hundred dirhams a month. But as an amateur linguist and now quite an Emiratiphile (for lack of a better word to express my adoration for this country), I saw teaching my child Arabic as the only opportunity to thrust myself into some sort of a binding and contractual agreement with myself to actually learn 'the language of the land' unstintingly while also passing it on to generation next with some accountability.
Call it UAE's largesse or our lassitude as cogs in the well-oiled, well-moving, well-meaning wheel of the educated, urbane, white collar, nine to five, Sunday to Thursday working class majoritarian, Arabic has neither been a calling nor a concern for most. So much so that you could end up spending five decades here and still return to your neck of the woods with just marhaba (welcome) and shukran (thank you) in your Arabic lexicon. No questions asked, no eyebrows raised.
And it's quite fathomable too. With the UAE 11th in the overall ease of doing business rankings globally and those from the Indian subcontinent - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal - and rest of Asia forming an overwhelming majority, English was, is and always will be the lingua franca here with other languages like Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Sinhalese, Tagalog, Mandarin, Russian, Pashto and Farsi all thinning our need or resolve to learn the 'native language' of our adopted home.
And often, we are too spoilt by this global, multicultural configuration of Dubai and UAE at large to even realise that being tongue-tied in the native speak is a luxury our fellow expats around the world in most non-English speaking countries in Europe, Asia or other parts of the Arab world can't afford. My friend's six-year-old daughter who lives with her parents in Frankfurt is fluent in German and her dad, my friend from school who speaks rudimentary level Deutsch, tells me she's had no choice. It's the same I gather from my other friends and acquaintances in other parts of the world, in China, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Japan and even Iraq where they have all have had to pick up a significant amount of the native language to just get by.
Now tell them about Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of my state West Bengal, whose latest diktat for her people in the state of over 90 million was 'learn Bengali to live in Bengal' and all you might get is a chuckle and perhaps a quiet submission that "they are not alone."
Tell this to a Dubai resident and you will know the joke is on you. Here language is the last thing you need to know to live, work and flourish as an expat. And that's a terrible thing for a linguist even though there's no other place like Dubai where you can also, at the same time, pick up as many languages as you want to just by taking taxi rides around town. Yet, there's no push, no pressure, no nothing for you to learn the language of the place and that's the linguist's paradox of living in Dubai!

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