Student in Arabic Class

Making Emirati Dialect a Living Language

Preserving the UAE’s heritage and culture — one word at a time

When the Gulf War broke out in 1991, Nasser Isleem was an undergraduate student in West Virginia. While in America, Isleem felt that the war had created political tension and a lack of awareness about the Arab world, so as the president of his school’s international student association, he started teaching Arabic within his community.

Isleem taught Arabic to faculty, community members, and interested students from different backgrounds and age groups. He wanted to share more about his roots in the Middle East.

“I feel the need to reach out and build bridges,” said Isleem, now a senior lecturer of Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi and author of Arabic language learning materials.

 

Nasser Isleem, Senior Lecturer of Arabic, NYUAD
 

I feel the need to reach out and build bridges.

Nasser Isleem, senior lecturer of Arabic

Born in Gaza, Isleem was exposed mainly to Egyptian dialects of Arabic through the media and was only introduced to Gulf dialects playing soccer in the US. Listening to his teammates speak Gulf region Arabic piqued his curiosity.

Emirati Dialect Rich in History

“Language is one of the main pillars of this beautiful culture,” Isleem said. “Without it is like losing a limb. It’s an important part of the entire culture.”

In fact, Emirati dialect can help shed some light on the UAE’s past, he added. Some words have been adapted from British, African, and Indian traders.

No Textbooks for Expats

Isleem’s idea to compile a book about the Emirati dialect came about through casual conversations with NYU Abu Dhabi workmates about the lack of textbooks for non-Arab speakers.

After months of research, and with the help of colleague Ayesha Al Hashemi, who was then a coordinator for Arabic culture at NYUAD, a textbook for Emirati dialect, Ramsah, was born.

A copy of the Arabic textbook Ramsah at the NYUAD library. Professor Nasser Isleem and Ayesha Al Hashemi, who worked as a Language Immersion Specialist of Arabic Studies at the university, co-authored the first-ever modern standard Arabic language textbook for the Emirati dialect. Deepthi Unnikrishnan/NYUAD

A Collection of Daily Conversations

Through classroom and personal interactions at community events in the UAE, Isleem picks out commonly used expressions that he observes from daily conversations.

“I always try to listen and pick up the most common expressions,” Isleem added. He believes words used frequently in daily Emirati conversations are essential words for learners to know.

Lecturer Nasser Isleem instructs students in an Arabic language class at NYUAD.
Lecturer Nasser Isleem instructs students in an Arabic language class at NYUAD.

His second book on Emirati dialect, Yalla Narmis, contains more than 2,000 common Emirati words introducing beginners to how the language is spoken in everyday contexts. The book explores linguistic and cultural aspects of Emirati culture.

We need to make the Emirati dialect as a living language, given the fact that English is becoming more popular with the younger Emirati generation.

Nasser Isleem, senior lecturer of Arabic

Besides writing books, Isleem also spearheads a unique three-week course called Colloquial Arabic: Emirati Dialect. This January Term course takes place in Al Ain where students pledge to converse only in Arabic for the three weeks.

Isleem hopes his work will spark more efforts to preserve the Emirati dialect especially in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “We still have work to do to preserve this beautiful culture and tradition.”