Indian expat in UAE uses Twitter account to boost uptake of Arabic

Qamar Najm started the Twitter account GoArabic, which aims to help expats learn Arabic, after being mocked for not speaking the language.

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SHARJAH // Qamar Najm was helping his brother-in-law with marriage certifications at the local Sharia court when he found that people were mocking him for not speaking Arabic.

Mr Najm, 24, was born and raised in the UAE but his family are from Chennai, India. That day he realised there was a need for expatriates to learn the language. So he created a Twitter account, GoArabic, to encourage them.

“For 23 years I was not perfect in Arabic. Seventy per cent of the Arabic that I speak is after GoArabic,” said Mr Najm, who works in marketing.

“So it’s something that has really helped me, and it’s helping others.”

Through the Twitter handle, which he set up in May last year, Mr Najm posts phrases, words and quotes in formal Arabic and the Emirati dialect. They range from the days of the week to everyday phrases, such as “goodnight” and “good morning”.

Mr Najm and a friend designed a logo that simultaneously reads “Go” in English and “Arabi”, the Arabic word for the language. He said he hoped to develop a smartphone application that users could pay for and download.

In November, Mr Najm created a sister account, WeSpeakArabic, which curates tweets from native Arabic speakers, who each take control of the handle for a week.

Since then, it has featured 34 curators, mostly Emiratis and Arabs, as well as some non-Arabs.

Mr Najm thinks that it is the first Arabic language-curation account on Twitter.

“We have received more than 4,000 unique Arabic words and phrases that are used in daily life,” he said.

Aisha Al Owais, 18, from Sharjah, curated the account in May.

She started by translating basic, everyday sentences from standard Arabic to English, but then found that people were asking her to translate from both the standard and Emirati dialects. She enjoyed the opportunity of interacting with non-speakers.

Ms Al Owais believes the language is not difficult to learn.

“The difficulty is that some of the sounds, people cannot pronounce. But generally, it’s not difficult and by practice they can learn, and basic sentences are very easy to memorise,” she said.

“It’s nice to make people happy,” she said. “It’s definitely not easy to get people to learn a new language.”

Aisha Tariq, 24, from Pakistan, curated the account while she was studying the language, despite not being a native speaker.

“It was something very different for me because I was learning Arabic, and then suddenly I was a curator,” she said. “So it actually helped me and it motivated me to learn.”

Like Mr Najm, Ms Tariq has spent most of her life in the UAE but it was not until she began working as a dental intern with patients who spoke only Arabic that she realised how useful the language would be.

“I used to keep calling my friends for translations,” she said. “That was a time when I felt really, really bad that I had lived here all my life and had never learnt Arabic.

“But, you know, better late than never.”

She said she was pleased to see that the handle had gained almost 3,000 followers. “It shows there are many people out there who want to learn Arabic – it’s not just a few people who are interested because their job requires it,” Ms Tariq said.

Mr Najm said his family supported his venture “because it’s something that helps me and them”. He shares with them words and phrases that he learns. “It’s become a passion for learning the Arabic language and sharing what I learn, so they support me,” he said.

Mr Najm said he sometimes found it difficult to practise his skills with native speakers.

“It’s really common these days when you go to speak to someone in Arabic that they reply in English,” he said.

But he thinks that making an effort does make a difference.

“It makes it easier when you try to speak to people in their native language,” he said.