For nearly 40 years, the Arabic Language Centre has helped executives speak Arabic. According to director, Shireen Sinno, "How else will you understand the cultural context of doing business in the Arab World?"
Teaching isn’t her main role, but “it’s something that is very dear to me, so I try to reach a class every term,” says Shireen Sinno.
Since 2011, the educator has led the Arabic Language Centre (ALC) first as its manager and now as its director.
From governmental to semi-governmental and private companies, be it DEWA, Ducab or embassies, the centre helps professionals gain Arabic fluency in a region where most expats speak predominantly Arabic and therefore should be easier to take up.
“[They] don’t know enough Arabic because they haven’t yet felt it was required,” according to Sinno. She has a point. With over 200 nationalities in the UAE, many non-Arab speakers, English is the main language used in the Emirates.
But Sinno says learning the language of a host country goes beyond necessity.
“It’s not just language and grammar, but learning a language is very important to understand the cultural context of doing business,” she says.
While learning Arabic is difficult for adults, she acknowledges it is doable depending on motivation.
“It all starts with you and the goals and objectives you have. Once these are ascertained, logistics and time are easy to deal with,” she says.
ALC has been around for 38 years and the organisation’s method revolves around teaching students “functional speaking.” Since formal Arabic is rarely used in everyday life, the centre focuses on vocabulary and language used in social contexts. During classes, Sinno ensures students talk more than teachers to help them practice.
She reiterates that the ideal way for students to learn a language is through “meaning over form”, or communicative competence over linguistic competence.
You don’t need to be the best in conjugating, she says, but you do need to be able to deliver your message across accurately.
“We have a huge student retention rate that tells you how much our students appreciate us. Many have become proficient speakers and go on to score As and above in the Cambridge IGCSEs,” she says.
Individuals in sectors ranging from politics to banking and healthcare are regulars at ALC, and rely on the centre for linguistic as well as social education. Its most popular course is Social and Business Arabic, whereby runs throughout the year and includes 7 week regular courses or 3 week intensive courses.
It takes about 8-9 courses, each 30 hours long with a cost of AED2,000, before students can reach advanced Arabic. ALC’s curriculum, however, allows for equivalence to the European specifications for fluency. The centre rlies on the Maliha Wehbe method, which simplifies the language, brings out its logic and presents it in an approachable manner. Furthermore, it temporarily uses Latin letters to help explain phonetics until students are able to learn them.
“We are 100 percent contextual learning. The other [methods] wouldn’t allow you to put a sentence together… without sounding abrupt or jarring. You might get the message across if you say ‘book, table’ but is that how you want to sound?” she says, adding that it is a common concern with expats who have learned Arabic in local schools for several years, but still cannot speak the language.
Interestingly, ALC also welcomes a large number of Arabic speakers, who wish to become specialised in terms of business writing and media Arabic.
“We also have Arabs whose parents spoke but didn’t pass it on,” she says.
While Sinno enjoys teaching, she relishes in its results just as much.
“If people invest some time in learning language, they will learn to let go of stereotypes, develop tolerance and understand why there are perceived differences. It can bridge gaps and remove misconceptions,” she says.
Tough-to-pronounce Arabic sounds such as ‘ta’ or ‘kha’ sound rough “like fighting,” she says, and are strong sounds that some people aren’t able to understand.
“But we also use very flowery language. Arabic requires you to be poetic. Good morning [translates into] ‘morning of goodness and light’. Nice to meet you is ‘honoured to meet you.’ Honour is a very main idea to any Arab,” she says.
“Language has meaning. It is very communicative. If you’re going to live in Japan, you learn the language. Same if you were to live in the UK; and that helps understand what [the people] are like; how they sound,” says Sinno.
The centre, therefore, is not a business or educational institute, according to the director, but rather an organisation that teaches people culture, geography, social norms and a comprehensive idea of the Arab World’s culture.
“The UAE is trying to preserve Arabic. At least here, you will find both languages. But English is taking over in the rest of the world and Arabic, like many others, is challenged by that particular globalisation,” she says.
There are over 400 million international Arabic speakers, with the language being considered five of the most spoken around the globe. But beyond its rich history and poetic connotations, it is an asset to anyone looking to do business with or in this side of the world.