Thursday, December 30, 2010

Time for an Arabic Language and Cultural Institute in Saudi Arabia?

The article copied below from Arabic News tapped into a theme that I have long found intriguing, and more recently regarding expats in Saudi Arabia who have extremely limited Arabic. The general theme is that of expatriates living longterm in any society without learning the dominant language of the country. A significant aspect of that is bi-national children who have not been taught both languages of their dual heritage. Another variant is those who summer in a country every year for decades and have next to no language skills in the dominant language.

One response to this, especially by those who find it less intriguing than I do, is that English is the lingua franca internationally, the language of professionalism in many disciplines, and the language that is dominant in their workplace, compound, neighbourhood, social group, community or family. Another response is that the language, whatever it might be, is too difficult, that an individual has poor linguistic abilities, or is too old, or that learning is challenging due to accessibility of instruction, including availability, cost, time commitments, and suitability.

Although I appreciate that there are very real challenges to language acquisition, the gains seem to outweigh the challenges, whether in terms of personal enrichment, professional enhancement, better integration in a society, improved understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of others, or better family relationships and friendships for those in bicultural marriages. I think a number of expats who are residing in Saudi Arabia longer term, and who haven't acquired enough Arabic to follow social conversations and the news easily, may feel more alienated and be more apprehensive about certain aspects of Saudi culture than if they did.

Social isolation comes in many forms, and being linguistically cut off from the broader social milieu, from cultural activities, or from certain interpersonal activities is a major one. In my experience, expatriates may arrive in a place with the intention of staying a short time, and postpone language learning or deem there is insufficient time and reason to put one's energy into it. Sometimes the place is heavily English speaking and there is no urgent need or opportunity to learn the dominant language.

However, that may change over time, especially with decolonization or post-colonial changes to the social fabric and societal demands, including overt favouring of the country's national language in employment, education, and social interaction. Over time one also may feel a greater need to connect beyond one's limited circle, in order to have a fuller life, pursue advanced education, expand or initiate a career. Also, over time, inlaws may be less accepting of a family member's seeming refusal to learn the language.

A given language's difficulty level and dialectal variations, and an individual's linguistic abilities, or age are confounds, in my opinion. Speaking, reading, and writing the standardized version of the language is a great starting point for learning dialectal variations. Alternatively, it may be more imperative to learn the local dialect at first, and deepen one's knowledge from there. Either way, and independent of individual talent, one can always learn to speak better than one does--especially if starting from zero.

The Arab News article addresses specific Arabic learning challenges in Saudi Arabia, including the lack of language and cultural institutes that are easily accessible to all, and independent of religious teaching. Other factors include employing unskilled labour or skilled labour and international professionals with out requiring prior knowledge of Arabic or providing classes on site during the term of the contract; and, the ability to get by in English only. The issue of how Saudis view long term expats who seem to have made no effort to acquire a reasonable level of Arabic fluency is another particularly interesting aspect of this article.

In Saudi Arabia, 'no Arabic, mafi mushkila'

Published: Dec 26, 2010 23:26 Updated: Dec 26, 2010 23:26

JEDDAH: A simmering issue that has been in the backburner is slowly seeing the light with many locals wondering why most non-Arab expatriates either do not know Arabic, or speak only a smattering of Arabic words picked up at random, which — although sound gibberish to the purist — does enable them to at least communicate.

There are reasons for the apathy to learning Arabic, despite many having spent years working in the Kingdom. Reasons cited by the non-Arab expatriate community include claims of finding the language difficult and an absence of Arabic schools or institutions. Many, on the other hand, are simply not keen to learn the language.

As a result, many non-Arabic speaking expatriates rely on English as their chosen language of communication, something that Saudis find strange, especially when these expatriates have been living in the Kingdom for over 10 years.

The major obstacle, according to the non-Arabic speaking expatriate community, is a lack of institutions that provide short courses in Arabic that would suit working people. Although some Saudi universities do teach Arabic to non-Arabic students, most of this teaching is done at specialist universities that cater to full-time religious students.

There are also some private institutions that teach Arabic. However, non-Arabic speaking expatriates are either unaware of them, or they do not enroll because of exorbitant fees. One person who did make an attempt to join found that the program was poorly thought out and would not have benefited him.

Arab News contacted 905 phone directory to inquire about Arabic language institutes. The phone operator told Arab News that there was nothing in the system and he could only be of assistance if we could provide a name of an institution to search in his database.

The paper also contacted various English language institutes to find out if they also teach Arabic. All of them said that they only teach English and are not planning to run Arabic classes in the future.

In addition, a computer and language institute, when contacted, also confirmed that they only provide Arabic language classes for company employees.

A Saudi, who did not wish to be named, said that sponsors and companies take no effort whatsoever in teaching their non-Arabic speaking workers Arabic or enrolling them on courses to learn the language. “It would help if people knew the language as interaction between colleagues would be better,” he said.

He added that one way this issue could be addressed is to state, while recruiting from abroad, that knowledge of basic Arabic language is a must in the contract. “This could then be developed when the expatriate comes over here, and not leaving them to learn on their own.”

Often, many non-Arabic speakers make an effort to learn the language on their own or with a bit of help from their Arab friends or colleagues but they end up speaking broken Arabic. This is especially found among expatriates who work labor jobs.

Ali Ashkori, an Indonesian who has been living in the Kingdom for three years and works as a driver, said he worked hard to learn Arabic by himself. He said he found great difficulty communicating with others, especially when he goes to grocery stores. His problem is in speaking the language but, according to him, he partly understands what people say in Arabic.

Rodolpho, a Filipino salesman in his 30s who works at a mall in Jeddah, said, “I communicate with people in English as English is a popular language in the Kingdom. Arabic is very difficult for me. I did not learn it because my job does not require that I do so and there is no institution that I can join to learn the language. I only know basic Arabic words that I hear frequently during work.”

Erfan, an Indian salesman in a Jeddah shop, has been working in the Kingdom for five years and does not know the language. He said that besides the absence of an Arabic teaching institute, he finds Arabic difficult because it is spoken in various dialects. “I only know basic words related to my work. It is sad that when I see two people speaking in Arabic I can only understand a word or two but I don’t have any idea what they are talking about. I wish I could learn but I cannot find anyone to teach me or to talk to me in Arabic.”

For Erfan, part of the lack of interest to learn the language is the large community of Indians who live in the Kingdom.

Muhammad Ali, a Turkish private company employee, realized the importance of the language when police stopped him. He said that he was trying to communicate to the officer but the conversation was totally futile, as neither of them could understand the other.

“I was given the violation without knowing why. I had no interest to complain because I cannot speak Arabic and I cannot communicate with them.” Ali hopes to see Arabic language institutions opening for people like him.


On reading the article, I began thinking of the Alliance Française, Instituto Italiano di Cultura, British Council, Instituto Cervantes, Goethe-Institut, etc, all of which are government funded institutes that teach language and culture, and hold cultural events related to their country's heritage in countries around the world. They are generally good ambassadors for their country, its language and cultural achievements, and maintain high standards with quality teaching at reasonable prices. They also provide a touchstone for expatriates from their own countries, and participate in cultural festivals in the country in which they are based, fostering increased interaction, knowledge, and exchange.

In a way, Saudi Arabia could benefit from encouraging such institutes within the country for expatriates living there, especially on long term contracts. While religion is an inextricable part of Saudi life, there are language and cultural classes that could be held independently of religious teaching; and, the basics of how Islam is integrated into Saudi culture, celebrations, and institutions could be taught in a secular manner, that is, without proselytizing.

An alternative would be a stable and multi-centred private language and cultural institute catering to the needs of expats, including short courses, job or career specific language lessons, and topics reflecting Saudi culture, like sports, hobbies, artisanry, regions, history, flora and fauna, cuisine, calligraphy, non-representational art, architecture, etc.

In either case, one imperative seems to me to have courses helping children of mixed Saudi/non-Saudi marriages newly arrived in the country, and older children of Saudis returning from abroad fast-track their language skills, cultural knowledge, and academic levels in Arabic. I believe that is true even if they will be attending private English language schools. It would be a boon in terms of feeling more integrated, and more rapidly, enabling them to manage their school Arabic classes, giving them better options within the country, and greater enrichment even if they return overseas for university education or career opportunities.

Classes, as opposed to online or home learning methods, also serve as a motivator, a social network, and a quality control, with levels allowing one to be realistic about one's skill level, and areas for improvement. Many institutes organize visits to local sights, or activities to enhance the classroom learning experience, and help students feel more at ease in the society. There is no doubt that with better language skills one feels more empowered to be out and about in the world.

If you are Saudi, do you think long term expats should learn Arabic?
Does it make a difference to you that some have/haven't?
If you are an expat in Saudi, what has been your experience of the language questions raised in the article and in my comments?
If you are a Saudi, what has been your experience of the reverse--learning English while in Saudi or abroad, or learning another foreign language?
If you are a Saudi who lived abroad as a child, what was your experience of learning Arabic and integration on return to Saudi?
If you are in a mixed marriage, how important has it been to learn the language and culture of your spouse?
What has been the impact of doing so/ not doing so, on your marriage, family relationships, social integration, children?
What efforts have you made/ planned for so that your children are bilingual and bi-cultural?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?


Wendy said...

Oh how I wish I could find a good Arabic class to attend. I have the "Dummies" books and cds which are good for the basics but that's about it. My husband is not a good teacher. I need to learn to be better able to speak with my in-laws and more importantly I can speak and understand what is being said when I'm in Arabic speaking countries.
If any Canadians on board know of any Arabic language classes available in and around Vancouver please post. I found one place that teaches Arabic but guess it is primarily for converts to Islam as they wouldn't return my inquiry phone call!!! :(

I am always amazed at the expats who never try to learn the language of the country they are living in. Why bother????

Chiara said...

Wendy--thanks for your comment. I agree with the "why bother" especially if it is to be a stay of any length. While there are situations where one has very little notice of an international transfer most often one has time to take some language courses before arriving in country.

There are Arabic language courses available as summer courses at universities in most MENA countries. In Morocco, the American Embassy affiliate, Dar America, and the British Council provide Arabic courses, along with their primary focus on English.

Most Canadian universities offer non-credit courses in modern languages, including Arabic (more in fashion since 9/11). Many have departments of Near Eastern or Middle Eastern studies which focus on Arabic language and culture courses, as well as links to international relations courses.

Middlebury College in the northeastern USA is renowned for its language courses and many government agencies send their high level employees there for the intensive immersion courses in 4 week blocks. Expensive but effective. (My former Spanish teacher now friend once taught there as her first position in North America).

Here is the link for conversational non-credit courses in Arabic at UBC.

Don't spend too much time hanging on Wreck Beach, eh? LOL :D

Thanks again for your comment, and good luck!

Wendy said...

Thanks for the link, Chiara. I am past wanting to visit Wreck Beach but certainly had some interesting visits in the past. :)

I also have difficulty for expats who never venture outside their compounds. I have relatives who do two and three year teaching stints in other countries and they NEVER live on compounds and generally find local friends quite quickly. Of course they always learn the language as well.


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