A Study of Emirati Arabic in Al Ain

Five NYU Abu Dhabi students set out to immerse themselves in the Emirati culture in Al Ain.

During the 2015 January Term, a group of five NYU Abu Dhabi students set out to immerse themselves in the Emirati culture in Al Ain. For three weeks the students fully engaged in the culture, living in the homes of local Emirati families and exploring the diversity of the Arabic culture through activities, field trips, and discussions, all while speaking and writing only Emirati Arabic.

Taught by NYUAD Arabic Professor Nasser Isleem, the students studied using an Emirati Arabic book entitled Ramsah co-authored by Professor Isleem and Ayesha Al Hashemi. Salaam caught up with the students and asked them to share their favorite moments from the course.

"It’s one thing to study a language and learn about culture. It’s a completely different thing to live it and experience it for yourself. The experiences, knowledge, and understanding that I attained because of the Emirati Dialect J-Term course was unparalleled to any other. The chance to meet and connect with people you would never otherwise even know of and communicate with them in just Arabic was enriching not only for me as a student, but as a person. Staying with an Arab family for two and a half weeks gave me an understanding and appreciation of the Emirati — and wider Arab culture — that has shed much light on how much there truly is to learn. Whether it is singing songs to an oud amongst the sand dunes of Al Ain, or drinking red tea and eating chestnuts with strangers who become close friends, the experience was both a lesson and a memory that I will never forget."

Joseph Chu, Class of 2017 — Australia

"The Emirati dialect learning experience was the most intensive Arabic learning experience I've had the opportunity to participate in. It was an invaluable learning experience where many of us were exposed to the dialect for the first time and thoroughly challenged by it. For three weeks, we slept and breathed Arabic; I even dreamed in Arabic. Not only did we discover the dialect, but also the city of Al Ain, as we saw the city of Al Ain come alive upon interacting with key members of the Al Ain community, visiting hospitals, museums, and most notably thoroughly becoming a part of the families. The homestay was definitely the highlight of my experience. From being overfed at every single meal to ten members of the family comforting my tears of homesickness one night, I saw genuine concern and care that transcended my definition of hospitality and brought me to appreciate Arabic culture at a new level."

Moonie Sohn, Class of 2017 — South Korea

"I can definitely say that the Emirati dialect J-Term course provided me with the most knowledge and experience of any course at NYUAD. I learned so much more than I ever imagined. I felt a great progress, and a transformation of the self not only at the level of Arabic, but at the level of understanding the Emirates and Middle Eastern culture. I cannot express how grateful I am to Professor Nasser Isleem for his constant and outstanding performance. I was always pushed beyond what I imagined were my limits. I was always inspired and encouraged to learn more and was always supported by a brilliant and talented professor who taught me how to speak one of the hardest languages in the world.

Every time I would go to sleep, I would wonder, if this would be the night I might hear Arabic speech in my subconscious. Unfortunately, I dreamt of nothing throughout the course period. A few days after the course ended my roommate tells me: "Oh remember that night you arrived from Al Ain? I walked into the room and you were...Speaking Arabic in your sleep!"

Victoria Blinova

Living with an Emirate/Yemeni family made me incredibly happy. I was exposed to the Arab family, one of the most generous people I have ever encountered in my life. They were always there for us, always patiently explained things to us in Arabic, and were patient when listening to us. After spending the weekend with the family, I felt I picked up so many new words, I was thrilled to use them in class. Leaving the family was tough, and we all cried and promised to never forget each other. And I never will forget."

Victoria Blinova, Class of 2017 — Russia

"We first arrived at our home in late afternoon, and were welcomed by our host-father, with whom we got to know each other over a degustation of castanas — or chestnuts — with some red tea. This was the start of a three week home-stay that became an incomparable opportunity to practice and, most importantly, live the Arabic language. More than learning daily expressions and Arabic idioms, this home-stay experience exposed us to family dynamics and practices, some of which are characteristic to many Arab-Muslim households. Living with a Palestinian family in the heart of Al Ain exposed us to a delightfully diverse experience of Arabic food, conversations, and pastimes. As my first home-stay experience, I was afraid of how to behave with the host-family, but they made us feel at home from our first day and words cannot express the growth I witnessed by spending three weeks in their company. As our host-mother repeated to us: "baiti baitkum" (My house is your house). I am grateful for the personal relationships we have developed with the host-family, relatives, and friends, who helped us approach Arabic learning through a more human and intimate perspective.

Spending three-weeks in the heart of Al-Ain, the Garden City, to start getting familiar with the dialect spoken by Emiratis across the country was a unique opportunity for an Arabic language student, especially for one who spends four years studying in Abu Dhabi! The first days of the immersion my head was aching from the obligatory use of Modern Standard Arabic, trying to incorporate more and more of the expressions and vocabulary learned in the dialect. While most J-Term courses require students to spent three hours daily in seminar mode, this course engaged us from sunrise to late in the evening, through class-time, discussion periods, cultural activities and discoveries, up till our evening conversations around a barbecue with guests and friends of our host-family. We interacted with the Emiratis who worked at the Cultural Center on a daily basis and witnessed how our use of common expressions and grammar structures in Emirati dialect helped us forge stronger ties with the community that has been our host for those four years in Abu Dhabi."

Guillaume Sylvain, Class of 2017 — Canada

"If someone asked me today how our experience throughout the Emirati Colloquial dialect J-term class changed my understanding of the UAE, I would tell him that now I feel I do understand what diversity truly means in the UAE.

It’s true, the Emirates is an extremely diverse country with citizens from almost any nationality. Yet, many of us perceive this diversity as people from different backgrounds walking in the streets or inside the malls of Abu Dhabi or Dubai, or working together in an office in any of the other emirates. But there is a completely new side of this issue that can only be seen through the eyes of an Arab family; out in their courtyard and under the stars of Al Ain, sipping red tea and listening to the stories of a vibrant Arab immigrant and local community.

Throughout our home-stay last month we saw a new face of the Emirates being unravelled in front of us and it was a powerful and enriching experience. Through the stories of our host family, their relatives and friends and the multiple talks of guest speakers from the Emirates, or immigrants from Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and other Arab countries I came to understand that a complex mesh of social networks and shared experiences had been tailored in this single spot: The Emirates.

I fall short of words in explaining how this experience changed my perception of what cultural submersion and language learning meant and I feel humbled and grateful as well for the hospitality of our host family and the efforts of our instructor into making this experience for us possible."

Gabriel Figueroa Torres, Class of 2017 — Colombia

The Emirati Arabic course was also recently featured on Abu Dhabi TV's popular Sabah al Dar program, watch the full video here.