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 initiative from patients and co-workers, by writing down a few words each day and then using them in my daily work. I 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. Learning a few new words won’t hurt anyone!
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 any Arabic, and my encouragement to try and learn at least some 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 from 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! Personally I found learning the alphabet was very easy, I memorized all the letters during one class.
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!
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Hello there, I’m Laura, the founder, author and manager of Blue Abaya, the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia established in 2010. Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 69 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia! Having visited all corners of the Kingdom with over a decade of experience, I have a vast knowledge base about travel and tourism in Saudi Arabia.