Arabic 101 necessary for cultural integration

Every freshman at NYU Abu Dhabi should take a semester of Arabic. Arabic is the only class, since 12th-grade calculus, that has regularly made me want ...

Aug 31, 2013

Every freshman at NYU Abu Dhabi should take a semester of Arabic.
Arabic is the only class, since 12th-grade calculus, that has regularly made me want to toss my textbook out the window in frustration. The endless vocabulary lists, the ever-varying conjugation of verbs — just as you think you’ve finally got one verbal tense down, you learn that there is yet another form to memorize — and the subtleties in pronunciation make Arabic one of the most difficult languages to learn.
Despite this, Arabic is the most useful class I’ve taken so far. In the first three weeks of Elementary Arabic I, we learned the entire alphabet. It’s incredible to think that what were illegible squiggles when we first arrived in Abu Dhabi so quickly morphed into recognizable letters and then words. I was absolutely thrilled the first time I recognized the word “bab,” the transliteration of the Arabic word for door, inscribed on the glass pane of a bus. Over several months, we progressed from painstakingly sounding out signposts around the city to reading Emirati children’s stories and writing short essays in Arabic. By the end of the first semester, we could introduce ourselves and begin to hold conversations.
Conversation is the cornerstone to relationships and the ability to communicate is what forms bonds between individuals. You don’t need to be fluent for your attempts to be appreciated. Simply making an effort shows appreciation for the fact that you are a guest in a country. It is basic courtesy to at least be able to say please, thank you and nice to meet you in the language of the country you have chosen to live in.
Arabic class does more than just teach the language; it offers incredible opportunities to integrate into the culture. The course itself has an experiential learning component where students have to be exposed to different cultural elements. We have watched Arabic films at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, visited the old quarter of Dubai on a field-trip and have been invited for lunch in our teachers’ homes. One of my favorite outings occurred when we were invited to participate in a maleed ceremony to celebrate the birth of one of the coordinator’s nephews. It was a very colourful, festive occasion and, above all, it was wonderful to feel so included in Emirati family life. Don’t let these opportunities go by the wayside.
As NYUAD students, we spend a minimum of three out of our four years in the United Arab Emirates. Three years, or six full semesters, seem to be an eternity to pick up Arabic. However, as classes geared towards a specific major begin to take center stage, it becomes trickier to fit four Arabic lessons a week into the timetable. As a freshman, there is much more flexibility in taking general electives and core classes. Taking Arabic as an elective even has an academic benefit for non-Arab Crossroads majors. One of our graduation requirements is to complete an Islamic Studies component; taking two semesters of Arabic fulfills this requirement.
If one is going to learn the language of where one is living, an opportunity that enables one to better experience and integrate into the culture, and gain more insight into both the country and the people, why not start sooner rather than later?
Clare Hennig is features editor. Email her at
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