By Shakir Reshamwala
It is not uncommon to find non-Arabs residing in Kuwait for decades who can barely speak Arabic. If they do speak the language, it is mostly rudimentary and just enough to get by. On the other hand, for example, one can find Syrians who can speak fluent German or Afghans who can speak fluent Greek after only a few months or years living in those countries.
The situation is the same across the Gulf – millions of expatriates who cannot speak Arabic and who do not even have the desire of learning it, despite spending their entire lives here. They struggle with official paperwork, muddle through bureaucracy, have difficulty accessing vital information and many a time are also deprived of their rights. Still, they do not enroll their children in Arabic schools, or at least afterschool classes, so that they can learn a new language that will surely boost their career prospects and make their lives easier.
One can argue this is because of the transient nature of residents here who have virtually no chance of obtaining citizenship, but this argument rings hollow when one takes a look at other “guest workers” around the world, who try their best to integrate into the societies they reside in, starting with learning the language.
Looking deeper into this phenomenon, one can surmise the real reason why most non-Arab residents cannot speak the lingua franca of the land is because there is hardly any interaction between the locals and expatriates, and even among Arab and non-Arab residents. Where there is contact or cohabitation, the result is starkly different. Household workers and nurses are a case in point – most of them can speak the Kuwaiti dialect of Arabic relatively fluently with all its nuances and slang words within months of arriving here.
Meanwhile, other non-Arab residents mostly dwell in their own bubbles, with each group populating their own parallel universes. They socialize with their own, send their children to schools whose medium of instruction is usually English, and then on to universities in their home countries or the West. Most have few or no dealings with Kuwaitis or other Arabs, and mostly converse with them in English at the workplace if they happen to be coworkers.
So while there are scores of learners who actually come to the Arab world to immerse themselves into its culture so that they can learn the language and its various dialects, expats already residing here cannot understand basic instructions in Arabic, with reading or writing it out of the question. Even non-Arab Muslims who can usually read Arabic because it is the language of the Holy Quran do so without understanding it, thus depriving themselves of its divine message.
Learning Arabic is also fraught with complications. The Arabic people speak are typically dialects, not the language of the Holy Quran and for a non-native speaker, this adds an almost insurmountable challenge in trying to learn the language.
Learning Arabic – like any other language for that matter – can be a rewarding experience, not only financially, but in many different ways. It can open a window into the rich culture, civilization, literature and arts of the Arab world. Navigating through everyday challenges and red tape will be a lot simpler.
And even if you eventually plan to leave Kuwait and return to your home country, today’s connected world means that rich Arabic content is at your fingertips. With just a click, you can be back in Kuwait, conversing like a local and reliving the years spent in this land you once called home.