Arabic Language Day: watch your vocabulary grow as your kids do

A look at how raising a child in Abu Dhabi has kick-started her lessons in the Arabic language

Al Ruwais Primary Boys School students work on new letters during an Arabic class on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 at the school's campus in Ruwais. (Silvia Razgova/The National)
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When you move to a new country, the language you learn changes along with your experience. I had a baby just after arriving in Abu Dhabi, and for my first year here, every time I stepped out of my apartment, it was a resounding chorus of mashallahs.

“Mashallah!” in the elevator.

“Mashallah!” on the street.

“Mashallah!” in the park.

Sometimes, it was accompanied by an explanation of what the word means. "This is what we say to protect her." "So that your baby does not get the evil eye."

In the summer, back home in New York, I visited Governor's Island with an Arabic-speaking friend. We bought our kids ice creams and the youngest smeared hers across her face. "Mashallah!" we heard from a group of hijabis who were visiting the island, too. Surprised, we swivelled round. They were surprised, too. And there it was: my first pang of homesickness for a new country. Few people care about other people's children like Arabs do.

As your kids grow, you learn new Arabic words. “Yalla,” for starters. And “khalas.” And you learn a lot about Arab etiquette in ­playgrounds. For instance, if there is any hint of an altercation, you must demonstrate broadly and ­unmistakably that your child has been at fault.

First, you loudly exclaim, “khalas!” as your progeny looks quizzically back at you. They look extra quizzical if, like me, you are addressing them in a language they do not speak. Then, you soften it a notch: “Schway, schway.” Finally, you point out the reason: “Baby.”

Trying to make friends, I sometimes threw in a mashallah for old time's sake. But either I had misunderstood the age window at which it's appropriate to say that for another child, or my pronunciation was so terrible that no one on earth or in high heaven had a clue what I was saying. I would say it again and again, each time at a slightly reduced volume, until I was saying absolutely nothing at all, and could slowly walk away.


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Even though I complained at the time, I miss the slightly grotty playgrounds of the Corniche Family Park now that I’ve gone back to work full-time. Here, the coterie of words I’m learning isn’t nearly so nice.

"Kay fi?" our lovely receptionist calls out in the morning. She knows I am learning Arabic and is the only person in the country patient enough to speak it with me. I mostly answer with what she taught me: mizhooli (busy). The other day, just at the sight of my face, she decided to teach me a new word: tabane (tired). What could I do but nod?

Having reached adverbs in my Arabic lessons, our ­conversation has taken on a new level of complexity. “Kay fi?” she asks. “Mizhooli?” “Daimon!” I crow, less like a statement of feeling and more as a celebration of new vocabulary. Always!

But there is nothing more beautiful than the variation on the call-and-response with which she greets people in the morning. (To the English-speakers in my office: you are missing out.)

“Sabaah Al Khayr,” I say to her. Morning of health.

"Sabaah Al Wallad," she sings back. Morning of flowers. ­Sometimes it's nice not knowing a language. Then you get to hear it for the first time.

World Arabic Language Day is today