This blog has moved

October 11, 2009

This blog has moved to Language on the Move. The new blog address is See you there!


Muslims around the world were celebrating the holy month of Ramadan recently and the greeting de jour here in Abu Dhabi was Ramadan Kareem!, which literally translates as “Ramadan is generous.” Ramadan Kareem! is one of the many Arabic expressions that the vast majority of Abu Dhabi residents use in their English. Some of my personal favorites include yanni (“you know”), yallah (“come on, let’s go, just do it”), chalas (“finished, over, done”), Inshallah (“God willing”), al-hamdulillah (“Thank God”), Mashallah (“Congratulations!” literally “God’s gift/will/blessing”) and, of course, shokran (“Thank you!”).

According to the CIA World Fact Book, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the country in the world with the highest immigration rate: around 19% of the population are Emirati nationals and everyone else here is an immigrant. Around 50% of the population are South East Asians, 23% are Arabs and Iranians, and 8% come from elsewhere. With these kinds of population statistics it is hardly surprising that Abu Dhabi is a very multilingual place and pretty much everyone learns to speak bits and pieces of other languages. In their book chapter about “Teen life in the United Arab Emirates”, the authors write that all young people in this country grow up bi- or multilingual “except the children of Western expatriates who remain monolingual” (p. 239). I find that very puzzling – not the statement, but the actual fact. I have no doubts that the observation itself is correct – many of my American, Australian and British acquaintances who have raised children in Abu Dhabi or Dubai confirm that their children haven’t learnt Arabic (nor any other language). It’s the fact itself that I find puzzling.

So, here is a research challenge: much has been written about how people learn second or additional languages but has anyone ever researched how some people manage to not learn other languages despite being surrounded by them? If there’s any budding sociolinguist in search of a PhD project out there: “Not learning to speak another language:” an ethnographic study of Western expatriates’ language trajectories in the UAE (or any other multilingual context of your choice)” is a PhD study I’d love to supervise.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t be worth my salt if I didn’t have some preliminary observations to offer. It all seems to start with willfully ignoring the existence of languages other than English. Many English speakers tell me “no one here speaks Arabic.” Hello?! Around 40% of the population of the UAE (see above) are native Arabic speakers. Surely, that’s not exactly a negligible quantity. And how can you overlook all those Arabic (and English, i.e. bilingual) streets signs and billboards and ads and other signage in the public space?

If I point out any of those, then I get the response “oh yeah, but everybody speaks English.” That is certainly true (to various degrees) but – seeing that all these people around the world make an effort to speak English, why is it that monolingual English speakers (and, I hasten to add, the monolinguals of some other languages) find it so hard to extend the same courtesy to speakers of other languages? So, I declare that greetings, congratulations, apologies, and thank-yous in the language of the person you are speaking to are de rigueur for any self-respecting contemporary urbanite!

And, in my experience, starting with those everyday expressions is the first step to learning how to speak another language: fake it till you make it!


Caesar, J., & Badry, F. (2003). United Arab Emirates. In A. A. Mahdī (Ed.), Teen life in the Middle East (pp. 229-246). Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press.

You know you live in a truly multilingual and multicultural place when your local church does not only advertise their times of worship but also the languages in which the services are conducted. Abu Dhabi Week was running a feature about “Churches in Abu Dhabi” a few weeks ago and it turns out that all three Christian churches are very multilingual.

Christians and other non-Muslims are welcome to practice their religion freely in this Muslim nation and two of the three churches are even built on land generously donated by the late President of the United Arab Emirates, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

According to the feature article, English is the main language of all the three denominations in the city and the Anglican parish also offers services in Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog, Korean and Arabic. The Evangelical Community worships in three additional languages, namely Filipino, Afrikaans, and Mandarin and the Catholic parish is the most multilingual of them all, with services in Tagalog, Malayalam, Urdu, Arabic, Konkani, Tamil, French, Singhalese and Malankara.

All this is of course a wonderful testimony to the incredible diversity of the city of Abu Dhabi and one of the reasons I love living here (I’ll write about how frustrating and infuriating multilingualism and lingua franca use can be when you try to get something done, some other time 😉

It also reminded me of my childhood fascination with Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy. Schliemann had to leave school at age 14 because his parents could not afford to continue his education and so he was pretty much a self-educated man. What I admire most about him is the way in which he successfully taught himself a number of languages. No private language schools, best-teaching-method-ever, most-innovative-curriculum-ever or learn-a-language-in-your-sleep for him (if you stay tuned to Language on the Move you are bound to hear more about what we think of the contemporary English language teaching industry …).

So, how did Schliemann learn to speak English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, and Turkish (I take this list from the Wikipedia entry about him) in addition to his native German? He attended church services in all these languages while stranded in Amsterdam! It seems that the foundations for his life-long love of languages and his knack for learning them was laid when the Venezuela-bound ship on which he worked stranded in the Netherlands and he worked as an office boy in Amsterdam for two years before moving to St Petersburg. Amsterdam being the international port city it was back then – and still is today, I suppose – church services were being offered in many languages for seafarers from many nations, and Schliemann made good use of them by sitting in on as many as he could.

As a language learning method it makes a lot of sense:

  • You start with a “text” you already know so you won’t get frustrated by “not understanding a word the teacher is saying”
  • You get to listen to real language from the very beginning and don’t have to scratch your head wondering whether you’ll ever have occasion to use “The cat is on the mat”
  • And you can sit there quietly, and don’t need to be in a constant sweat for fear of having to speak in the new language before you are ready to.

All this is based on the assumption that “you are preaching to the converted” and all that is new for the language learner is the language. It’s a very different story if you are trying to learn a new language through a new faith simultaneously as our colleague Huamei Han has so insightfully described in her PhD work about the interplay between English language learning, conversion to Evangelical Christianity and immigrant settlement in Canada. You can list to a recording of Huamei presenting a paper on “Accumulating Linguistic and Socio-Economic Capital on the Margin at and through Church” on the Language-on-the-Move portal.