Spoken by 300 million people (mostly in the Middle East and North Africa), Arabic is one of the most important and widely-used languages in the entire world. It is also the religious language in which the Qur’an was revealed. Thus, many Muslims around the world learn it to a certain level of proficiency even if it is not their mother tongue. For non-Muslims, learning to speak and read Arabic can still be an advantage in a lot of areas of expat life in the Emirates.
Arabic is the official language in the UAE. However, due to the high number of expats who move to the country every year, street signs, restaurant menus, and necessary documents are often available in English as well.
Like Hebrew and Aramaic, Arabic is a Semitic language, written in cursive from right to left. The Arabic alphabet is also used in other languages such as Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, and Kurdish. However, while Arabic learners would be able to read sentences in those languages, they would usually not be able to understand them.
The formal Arabic language, also called Classical Arabic, is mostly used in written form today. It is still taught by many religious leaders and in schools around the world, though. Modern Standard Arabic is similar to its formal counterpart but much easier to learn. Many foreign language schools focus on this language style. Both Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are forms of literary Arabic, also called Fus-ha.
In addition, there are many Arabic dialects which vary from region to region. Between this multitude of dialectic variations, four major dialects have been identified: Arabic of the Maghreb (North Africa), Levantine Arabic (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, as well as Palestine and Israel), Egyptian Arabic (Egypt and the Sudan), and Iraqi / Gulf Arabic. These dialects are purely spoken and differ so much from each other that they are virtually unintelligible at times.
As mentioned briefly before, English is a common denominator for expats and globally-minded Emiratis. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, cities which don’t just attract expats but are also important tourist destinations, it is particularly easy to get around with English. However, in other parts of the country, Arabic is still the main and sometimes only language spoken and, most importantly, understood.
Of course, English is not the only foreign language spoken in the UAE. Due to the large number of South Asian and African workers in the country, Bengali, Malayalam, Somali, Tagalog, Tamil, Hindi, and Urdu are rather common as well.
Unfortunately, the language diversity in the UAE has some drawbacks. Emirati teachers keep expressing their concerns over the poor speaking and writing skills of their students. Even in public schools around the country, where Arabic is the main language of instruction, some subjects are taught in English and students seem to fall back on that language more and more often. Written Arabic is the biggest area of concern, but even in daily interactions, Arabic is often not the language of choice.
Currently, the country is discussing the possibility to introduce measures which would make it obligatory for all schools to use spoken and written Arabic as the main language of instruction. This might also affect expat kids at private and international schools. As a result, the children would be more exposed to the local language in the UAE, but they would also have to face a steeper language barrier.
Where to Learn Arabic in the UAE
There are many language schools in the UAE where you can learn Arabic or, if you already know some basics of the language, brush up on your skills. Although most of these schools will probably not teach Emirati Arabic, they will give you the opportunity to learn Modern Standard Arabic.
In addition, this directory lists various Arabic courses all over the UAE. Do not hesitate to also ask your expat friends and colleagues for a recommendation. They may know of a good language school you haven’t considered yet or a private tutor who will successfully teach you the basics of Arabic in no time.
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