ADEC has a sales pitch for prospective teachers. It’s effective: housing is provided, insurance is good, pay is pretty high. They’ll tell you need that you should have some experience teaching, you should perhaps (or actually definitely, emphatically) be prepared to deal with some classroom discipline issues, and you have no need to speak Arabic. You are, of course, also tempted by the exotic location and interesting sights. This sales pitch is all true–you’ll have a nifty life here if you sign up. They might mention in the interview that you should be flexible, too. That’s the truth. Living in a different culture is exciting, but it’s taxing, too, as you try to learn what is considered normal, abnormal, and basically try to adapt to a dramatically different way of doing things.
In fact, what ADEC tells you is entirely correct. All of the things are true. There’s much to commend the UAE to visitors and an ADEC job to expatriate workers. English teachers will have good pay and benefits, and if they’re adaptable, they’ll learn how to work in the classroom here. The job doesn’t require them to speak Arabic either. But, there is a difference between being required to speak the language and whether or not you ought to.
Today I substituted for a fellow English teacher. I decided to practice conversational English skills with his students by talking to them. I asked one boy about his rowdy classmates, and asked them why they behaved so badly. He told me, more or less, “With Arabic teacher, it is Arabic and Arabic.” He gestured with his hands, putting them side by side. “But with English, it is English and Arabic.” He moved one hand away from the other one at an angle. He was saying, basically, that the kids don’t understand English well enough to get much out of having a teacher who only speaks English. And after nearly a year here, I’ve got to agree with him. After all, many of these young men speak only the most basic English. The idea is that this will change as the New School Model comes of age, but that day is not going to happen for years yet.
What little Arabic I know I’ve picked up from my students and a few other people. You ought to see the expressions these kids get on their faces when I use a new Arabic word or phrase. They’re thrilled. Their level of interest in what I’m doing increases dramatically, and they like interacting with me. As a result, If I could recommend any one thing to a person considering teaching in the UAE, it would be to learn as much Arabic as possible. The more you know, the more effective you’ll be in the classroom. When it comes to learning Arabic, you might very well be put off to learn that there are many different dialects based on location. When I found out that Emiratis use a rather different version of the language than most other countries, I allowed it to discourage me from learning much beyond “Asalaam aleykum” before I came. Now it’s definitely true that the kids here speak a language that incorporates a lot of slang and words from Hindi and Urdu, but they know and understand standard Arabic.
So the question is, “Should I learn Arabic?” The answer is, “Definitely. Yes.” With only a month or so left of the school year, I’m now setting out to actively try to learn more words and phrases. Next year I may just find myself a tutor and start really trying to learn how to speak conversationally.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also considered other reasons why it’s worth pursuing the acquisition of Arabic. Here’s a list:
1. It engages students.
2. It’s nice to know when students are calling you bad names or saying bad words, just so that you can respond somewhat appropriately (“What did you say? Let’s go talk to the social worker about that, shall we? Or do you want me to call your father?”) and scare your kids into better behavior.
3. It is a challenge–a fun one, if you feel inclined to learn a non-romance language.
3. It can only help you in situations outside of school when you interact with others, such as parents or people in important positions.
4. Learning a foreign language while you are teaching English as a second language gives you a much better measure of sympathy and understanding as to what your students are going through.