Marhaban: Greetings. Shukran: Thank you.
You already know what these two words mean. The Arabic vocabulary of the majority of expatriates living and working in the Kingdom is limited to only a handful of words. Isn’t it odd that so many people live here for 10-plus years without learning the Arabic language?
It is embarrassing to walk into a small, local restaurant and not be able to order because the men there speak Arabic only. It is frustrating to drive around and try to reach your destination where street sign posts are written in Arabic only. Although a plethora of institutes exist in Jeddah that teach English to adult males, there is only one place besides Berlitz that offers Arabic classes.
A group of proactive men saw the need for expats to be introduced to the Saudi culture, go on tours of historical sites in Jeddah, and to learn the Arabic language. And they decided to feed that growing need. As a result, Jeddah Cultural Exchange Center was founded.
The Administration Manager, Christopher John Malvar, elaborated on why it is becoming increasingly important to learn Arabic. He said, “Companies are encouraging their employees to learn Arabic to facilitate their businesses here. Our students learn to read and write memos in Arabic, send e-mails, take notes at meetings, and communicate with the locals. By learning Arabic, they get ahead in their professional careers. Our students are able to read restaurant menus, road signs, and newspapers, make hotel reservations, and communicate with hospital staff. The skills they gain at CEC builds their confidence and breaks the barrier that alienates them from the local community. If you want to learn about a culture, you need to learn the language.”
The group at CEC conducted some research to find other Arabic teaching institutes in Jeddah and found none. Dialing 905 and requesting an Arabic language institute is equally futile. One survey showed that, worldwide, Arabic is one of the top most sought after languages. Since more than 50% of Jeddah’s population are expats, the city should provide more centers to teach Arabic to this large mass of people.
Potential students who wish to enroll in Arabic classes must first take a placement test at CEC. Students are evaluated in communication skills, comprehension of the spoken language, reading, and writing. Students are appropriately placed in a class where everyone is at the same level. That way they face the same difficulties, have similar goals, and will overcome obstacles together.
The Cultural Exchange Center will turn none away, no matter how meager their Arabic knowledge. CEC even has a Level Zero or beginner’s level. The courses focus mainly on dialogue and scenarios you encounter in your daily life. After completing the beginner’s level, students will have acquired a vocabulary of 250 new Arabic words. Then, students continue their studies from Level 1 up to Level 12, the final level.
“We have extremely high standards here. Our teachers must have at least a Bachelor’s degree in the Arabic language, with several years of experience in teaching Arabic specifically to non-Arabs,” Malvar said.
As for the students already taking advantage of these courses, they are an interesting mix of diplomats, university professors, nurses, doctors, business men, and flight crew; and they’re all from several different countries. The center also sends an instructor with all the necessary equipment to give corporate classes at the company’s site, if requested.
Regarding the common concern or fear that Arabic is a difficult language to learn, the instructors quickly put you at ease and give you lots of encouragement. Hamdi Saghir is a graduate of the renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo and has 17 years of experience in teaching Arabic to non-Arabs.
“In my opinion, Arabic is the richest, strongest, most eloquent, and most beautiful language. is not the language itself that is difficult. People have this misconception because they probably had a previous bad experience in learning the language. For example, maybe the books were dull, the syllabus too dry and not suitable, or maybe the teacher was not adequately trained in giving lessons to non-Arabic speakers,” Saghir said.
He sighed and continued, “I have to help my students get rid of this negative mind set. In the first class we just have a pleasant conversation and get to know each other. After only one session, they realize that Arabic is actually easy and enjoyable.”
The methods the instructors use are diverse: traditional, modern, and very interactive. Students watch video of an animated series. The cartoon characters speak in Arabic and their story and adventures unravel in each episode. Other tools are Power Point presentations, books, audio CDs, flash cards, marker and large paper boards, and internet access. There is plenty of repetition, discussion, and lots of fun and jokes (Arabic jokes of course).
An American student, Steven Michael Wheat attests, “The CEC is a great place, it’s one of a kind. I am an English teacher and I teach Saudis. A lot of my students have a very low level in English so I could not understand their questions. Now, I am able to reach them and understand them better.”
Abdullah Manafi Mutualo arrived in the Kingdom from Mozambique in the year 2007 as a diplomat. He added, “I had a hard time communicating with the local people here. I searched the internet for months and finally found CEC. I come from a Portuguese-speaking country and there is a huge gap between Portuguese and Arabic. It was a challenge for me at first. But I’m a Muslim and I read the Holy Quran, without understanding it. Now I can understand what I read. I hope to take all the levels at the center until I can speak Arabic well.”
Malvar, the driving force behind the center is also a student himself. He proudly told us, “I am now in Level 3. The courses helped me a lot because now I can understand what everyone is saying in our meetings with the board of directors. I can read Arabic much better, but I still have difficulty expressing myself in Arabic.” Unfortunately, the center does not have a women’s section yet, but they are working to open one next year.
Each course level is 50 hours long and costs SR2,000. However, if you are a current student and you graduated from one level to the next, you will get a 10% discount at each new level. CEC even promises a 75% refund of fees you paid for Level 1 if you are not satisfied after the completion of the course.
Learning a language opens new doors and opportunities. Especially if you are a Muslim, Arabic helps you gain in depth understanding of Islamic teachings.
Be it for religion, entertainment, education, or business, Arabic is a language for all. Seize the unique opportunity of living here in the heart of the Arab world to learn their language. Learn Arabic today!
Cultural Exchange Center is located in Al Hamra District, Jeddah. For registration or more information, call 02-663-7191, or check out the website at www.cec.org.sa.
– Saudi Gazette