Working in the Arab World: Who Needs Arabic Anyway?
Imagine this: Your boss has just told you that you’re about to spend the next six months working out of the firm’s Cairo office. You’ll be leaving for your new posting in a week and managing a team of Australian and Egyptian staff. You’ve never been to the Middle East before, let alone Cairo …. and you’re freaking out, just a little. Among the zillion questions zipping through your brain, one keeps recurring:
“I don’t speak Arabic, so how am I going to manage?”
Then you remember that your friend Harry - who worked in Dubai for a decade as a property developer - spoke nothing but English and always said:
“I get along just fine … who needs Arabic anyway?”
So, who’s right? Your neurotic self-conscious, or Harry? Before you decide, here are a few points to consider about the Arabic language, how Arabs feel about it, and what that means for foreigners working in the region.
First of all, here’s the bad news:
Arabic is difficult to learn, and this is probably the reason that most foreigners struggle to pick it up. Unlike English, the Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, which primarily represent consonants rather than vowels. Arabic letters also change shape, according to whether they occur at the beginning in the middle or at the end of a word, and sentences run from right to left across the page. All of which makes it difficult to read!
In addition, Arabic also has a range of sounds that do not exist in English, including the ‘kh’, ‘gh’, ‘ayn’ and 'ghayn' sounds. Not surprisingly, English speakers usually find these very hard to pronounce.
If that was not enough, Arabic grammar bears almost no resemblance to English grammar and is mathematical in its codification. The result is a complex, highly logical, fairly frustrating, but very beautiful language.
Arabic comes in a huge variety of forms. The written version is Classical Arabic, the rich and poetic language of the Qur’an which is still used today as the written language of all Arabic-speaking people. Classical Arabic has evolved into Modern Standard Arabic to accommodate new words and phrases. This is the language that you will hear if you turn on Al Jazeera or one of the other Arab news channels, or see if you open an Arabic book or newspaper.
The spoken versions of Arabic are Formal Spoken Arabic and Colloquial Arabic, which includes more than thirty different regional dialects and sub-dialects. Colloquial Arabic was created at the time of the Arab conquests, when Arabic spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, mixing with and assimilating local languages, and spawning the dozens of dialects that are spoken today. It is no exaggeration to say that Arabic speakers from different parts of the region cannot understand each other. Fortunately for you, Egyptian is widely understood throughout the region because of its prolific film, radio and television industry. So if you manage to learn a bit, you’ll still be able to use it in other countries in the region.
The majority of people in the Arab world don’t speak English. There are about 360 million people in the Arab world and unless you are working in Dubai (which is one of the few places in the region where you can operate very well without a word of Arabic), you cannot expect that people will be fluent in English. Although many people in the middle and upper classes are, this is the exception rather than the rule and Arabic remains the official language across the MENA region. This means that official documentation - immigration documents, rental agreements, forms to get your the internet connected are usually in Arabic. So are roadsigns, menus, newspapers and radio programs.
If the staff in your office are well-educated, they are likely to have English ranging from poor to outstanding, depending on their education and socio-economic standing. Fluent English is a badge of honour particularly in Egypt and it’s common to hear young Egyptians in downtown Cairo cafes speaking a mixture of Arabic and English at high volume … just to show that they can!
Once you move out of elite circles though, you should be prepared for the fact that you will need Arabic in order to do even quite simple things such as ordering shopping, talking to the concierge in your apartment building, buying shoes or watching television.
And now for the good news…
Arabs love and revere the Arabic language. While most people from the West like their native language (assuming that they have ever stopped to think about it), the pride that Arabs feel for their language is much more intense.
If you learn Arabic, you’ll be loved. A good command of the Arabic language is prized in Arab culture, because it is difficult to attain, and Arabs have great respect for foreigners who learn it.
Having lived in the Arab world for a good part of my adult life, I can attest to the fact that speaking Arabic opened doors for me that would otherwise have remained firmly shut. It helped me to make good friends, build strong relationships and smoothed my way in many different circumstances. Being able to use Arabic in a professional context has even prompted people to bring me gifts, in recognition of the fact that I had gone to the trouble to learn the language.
Even if you do no more than make an attempt to learn Arabic and pick up some essential words and phrases, it will take you a long way in a region where most foreigners never bother to learn the language and expect that everyone will automatically respond to them in English!
The key phrases are not so hard to learn. Here are a few key phrases that no-one should leave home without:
- Hello - [marhaban]
- Goodbye - [ila al’likaa']
- Please - [min fadlak]
- Thank you - [shukran]
- You're welcome - [a’afwan]
- Yes - [na’am]
- No - [la’a]
- How are you? - [kaifa haluka?]
- I'm fine, thank you - [bikhair, shukran]
- I'm not well - [lastoo bikhair]
- Do you speak English? - [hal tatakallam al ingliziya?]
- Pleased to meet you - [souedtoo bi lika’ek]
- I need help, please - [ahtajoo ilal musa’ada raja’an]
- I'm sorry - [ana a’asef]
- My name is ... - [ana ismee...]
- I don't understand - [lam af’ham]
- See you later - [ma’a ssalama!]
- Hi - [hala!]
- Congratulations - [mabrouk!]
- Great - [azeem!]
In the end, neither Harry, nor your neurotic self-conscious are entirely correct. Although you can operate in the Arabic world as an Anglophone, you’ll be more comfortable, win more respect and have more fun if you can learn some Arabic before you arrive at your new office.
For more on navigating the languages and cultures of the MENA region, pick up a copy of my new book, Camels, Sheikhs and Billionaires: Your Guide to Business Culture in the Middle East and North Africa.