Thursday, November 18, 2010

Expats in Saudi-Arabia and Learning Arabic

Many western expats come to the Kingdom for employment not knowing a word of Arabic and that is unfortunately also how they end up leaving. I could strongly recommend expats planning to come to work in Saudi-Arabia to try learning some basic Arabic even prior to arrival. Once here I would recommend attending the courses provided by employers or independent companies and language institutes. If the expat is motivated enough, it's possible to pick up a lot on your own too. I learned my Arabic skills mostly on my own from patients and co-workers and then later went to the classes and learned to read and write Arabic.

Learning the native language of the country one chooses to work in is an act of respect toward that culture and its people. Needless to say it will greatly improve the working experience and time spent in the country. When locals see a foreigner who has gone through the trouble of learning some of their language it creates a positive atmosphere for interaction with them. Many Saudis actually don't understand or speak conversational English and some don't know any words at all. Even some of the middle class and higher class families I've noticed that their English skills are just not good enough to hold even a simple a conversation. For healthcare workers in particular I find language skills would be essential to create a trusting relationship with the patients.

For me personally learning Arabic has made a huge difference in patient care settings and I've found it greatly rewarding. Patients are always showing their gratitude and respect of the foreign nurse being able to explain procedures and ask questions in their own language. It builds trust and mutual respect.

I've noticed that for some reason learning Arabic is the last thing some expats want to do.They would rather spend time within their own circles and are not interested in the local culture at all. In my opinion they are also in a way being disrespectful toward the locals. It's like seeing ones own culture as superior to others.

On the other hand take a look at the exemplary Asian nurses. They will all without exception be willing to learn Arabic and soon have basic language skills to communicate with their patients. Many times western nurses rely on the Asian colleagues to come translate and explain things. Amazingly Asians don't even necessarily go to language courses-they learn on their own and pick up Arabic really quickly.

Why is it that for westerners it seems to be such a huge step to take? Do they have a really bad attitude towards the language itself, or is it the culture as a whole, I wonder? I have heard all kinds of excuses over the years, all of which in my opinion are just that, excuses!
Here are some of the most common reasons people give for NOT wanting to learn Arabic, and my encouragement to learn ARABIC!

"Why should I learn a language I won't need anywhere else?"

You never know if you will face a situation you could make use of your skills! Learning a new language is always good brain exercise, it actually improves the memory and performance of the brain. It feels rewarding and satisfying to learn something new and to succeed.

"I am only coming for a year I don't need to learn Arabic"

More often than not people plan on coming to Saudi-Arabia for one year and then end up staying many. And in any case why not make that one year more tolerable, rewarding and make easier on yourself? Make the most of that one year! There are many quick crash course you can take and they don't take up much of your time but you will benefit hugely form your new skills.

"I can communicate well enough with body language"

Body language in fact varies a lot from one culture to another and can confuse more than explain things. This also frustrates patients and colleagues a lot.

"I don't want to learn their stupid language it sounds funny/vulgar/disgusting/ridiculous"

To this quite arrogant approach one could say, do you think your own language sounds less funny to others? I know Finnish language doesn't sound pretty to many but so what? Arabic language has some unique syllables which can be hard for foreigners to pronounce, but that is the richness in the language.

"This is supposed to be an English-only workplace"

English is supposed to be the language that co-workers use between each other in many work places including the hospitals but dealing with clients/patients is where Arabic becomes essential. Despite the English only rule, many Arab co-workers will still be conversing in Arabic.

"Upon recruitment I was informed I am not required to know or learn any Arabic in my work"

Recruitment often does this "mistake" to make it sound easy to come to work in the ME, they just want to recruit you! I believe this is one of the reasons behind bad attitudes of nurses coming from western countries. But upon realizing how the situation is in reality one can always make the required adjustments and learn Arabic!

"I can use a translator"

Translators are rarely available and they are often not even qualified as translators. A translator can basically be any Saudi that speaks even a few words broken English and therefore there's a risk of the message being distorted by the interpretation of the translator.

"I could be willing to learn some words but I don't want to take the course because you have to learn the Arabic letters."

Learning the Arabic alphabet is very important for correct pronunciation of the words. It is virtually impossible to teach the language without learning the alphabet because there are no equivalents in the English alphabet.For example there are five different T's in Arabic language. Incorrect pronunciation can lead to mistakes like calling a cardiologist a dog doctor!

To make the best out of your stay in Saudi-Arabia, take the effort to learn some Arabic. This will greatly help you in your everyday activities and communication. You will also improve your chances of getting to know and communicate with more Saudis!


Rene´s Bare Essentials said...

Salaam Alaikum,
I am new to your blog! Im an American living in Spain and know how important it is to learn the language of the country. Before I moved to Spain I was under the impression that most spainards speak english. When I got here I soon realized that barely any spainards speak english. They are taught grammar in grade school but there is no emphasis on conversation. The teachers who teach english are spanish and teach their students the wrong pronunciation. I work as an english teacher here and have had to reteach my students how to pronounce words that were taught to them incorrectly. I would love to be fluent in spanish and unfortuantely have found myself getting lazy with learning the language. We recently moved to a bigger city in Spain and I have been fortuante enough to find more people who speak english. I know though that if I want to continue to live here I will need to learn enough spanish to communicate with others on my own instead of using my husband as a translator. I also depend on him since he is fluent in spanish which makes it difficult doing anything by myself (shopping, going to the doctor etc)
I find arabic to be a very rich and beautiful language. The english language is very limited when it comes to expressing oneself, whereas the arabic language is not. I can read in arabic and I am now learning to write in arabic (my husband is arabic).

Noor said...

I used to learn so much before I came to Saudi but when I got here I was so overwhelmed I figured I could never learn and kinda gave up. Having a son who speaks fluent Arabic helps me a lot though but still I know I could try harder :p

Anonymous said...

I also live in another country than my own, where I am supposed to learn the language. I have noticed that people learn in very different speeds: some people who lived here for many years aren't able to speak at all and some who arrived only a couple of months ago are able to have even some conversations. I have realized that the English speaking people learn slowlier or are often less interested to learn than others, that's because they can manage with English wherever they go and don't have such urgent need to learn to communicate in local language. English is not my mother language but I speak English at home with my husband, don't know many locals and so I haven't been learning very quickly. Only after some months that I arrived here some of my husbands family members started to ask why I'm not learning as fast as some other people they know, insisted on this issue and made me feel like I am somehow lazy or stupid because I am not able to have a conversation only after a couple of months in this country. They can speak English but suddenly stopped, none spoke to me a word in English.. But soon I learned to understand what they were talking about even if I still wasn't able to speak much. People should encourage others to learn and not just compare to others and put them down if they make mistakes... Of course some exchange students or others who are active and part of the society can learn much faster because they are interacting with local people, also talkative and social people learn faster than others.. I have realized this as I am a housewife, spend most of the time at home by myself, not knowing many people here yet and also I am a shy person. But now I have started to go to language lessons which is essential for me to learn the language. It also helps me to meet and communicate with others and have something to do outside home, so that I don't feel very outsider like I used to feel before. It can be hard to get motivated to study by oneself, another good reason to attend a language course. I recommend it to everyone who lives abroad and can't speak the local language yet.


Blue Pearl said...

A sister, "Deros" has recently reverted to Islam.Allahu Akbar, I think you would be able to offer some valuable advise to her... See her latest post "Tea Party" at

Kimnaii said...

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for 17 long years and I do not speak Arabic at all. I never had to use it and I now have the biggest regret in my entire life. I know how to read some of the words but I do not understand the meaning. I know how to pronounce the guttural words but I cannot make sentences to communicate with the locals. So in a way I should be able to pick up the language quite rapidly, but I am now back in Europe where I am not surrounded by Arabic anymore...which makes it even harder to learn.

Learning from my mistakes I then lived in Madrid, Spain for a few months after which I became fluent and what a change it did to my life in a foreign country.

So if I can say this to anyone in any country, please do learn the local language and you will find out that you will feel less depressed and less homesick and more involved and immersed in the local life. It opens up the mind and pushes out the hatred.

Layla said...

Thanks everyone for your great comments and for sharing your personal experiences!
I think Kimnaii sums it up perfectly "it opens up the mind and pushes out the hatred". I love it, well said brother!

Blue Pearl- That is great news!I will check out her blog!

Anonymous said...

very intelligent point i hope westerners can do that to discover the local culture more closely


Anonymous said...

inshallh ill be in saudi in a week and looking forward to learn quraaninc arabic . then itll not be much difficult to grasp few spoken arabic words .where are such institutes in saudi?

Anonymous said...

is there a particular language school that you would recommend?

Layla said...

Sorry I personally dont know any language schools because I took my classes at the hospital I worked in..but surely you can find many by googling it!

Anonymous said...

Selam Laylah,

ehmm no, finding Arabic group classes in Khobar seems almost imposseble.I really would like to learn Arabic and have tried it at the Islamic schools, they have koranlessons and Fiqh but Arabic Nooooo. In the past I have learned the Moroccan dialect but that does not help me here. So if anyone has advice please letme know!

Anonymous said...

You are right if you love and respect a community and their culture you will naturally be drawn to learning their language. I have travelled and worked abroad in many countries and my own personal take on this is that many people do not learn the language of the host country because of a sense of " a delusion of grandeur" an sense that they do not need to is up to others to understand me. This is regretabley true of caucasian westerners working in predominately African, Arab and asian countries. The fact that other non western nationals will learn arabic in some ways reinforces this

Anonymous said...

Learning the language is not as easy as people are saying, working in a hospital here you would think that it could be picked up quickly. No...... why? because of the different dialects patients from outside riyadh who come to the hospital have very different dialect to the people who live here. and then there's also the "old" arabic language. yeah try learning that one!!