'It's much cheaper': UAE residents drive boom in Arabic language apps

Language enthusiasts are ditching costly private tutors for programmes such as Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and Babbel

Apps such as Duolingo and Rosetta Stone are tried and tested ways to learn the Arabic language. Photo: Fajrul Islam/The National
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Mobile apps are proving to be a game changer for those seeking to learn new languages, including Arabic.

Apps such as Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone and Promova use gamification techniques — including quizzes, challenges and rewards — that many say are keeping them hooked.

Khushie Mallya, a public relations professional from India, is among them.

She has been living in Dubai for the last four years and unlike many long-time residents, she has already picked up basic Arabic, thanks to Duolingo.

Popular apps such Duolingo — which launched an Arabic course in 2019 — have been likened to having a personal tutor in your pocket but without the high price tag or inconvenience of scheduled classes.

“When I first joined my company, I realised that everybody spoke Arabic,” she told The National. “I thought if I learnt Arabic, it would be easier for me to connect and communicate with my colleagues. That's why I decided to give it a try.”

Within a few days of using the app, she picked up a few words.

“One day when I walked into my office, instead of saying 'good morning', I said 'Sabha Al Khair' and my colleagues were pleasantly surprised!”

Thanks to the app, she can now hold a basic conversation in Arabic.

“I spent 10 to 15 minutes a day learning Arabic. It is easy, fun and self-paced,” she said.

Ms Mallya has closed a 200-learning streak on the app, indicating the number of days she has been practising her lessons without a break.

Learning Arabic has even inspired her colleagues to launch an office Duolingo challenge, with Matrix PR chief executive Hilmarie Hutchison leading by example.

Ms Hutchison, an Australian who has been resident in the UAE since 2007, said she never picked up Arabic because she did not feel the need to use it since most people spoke English in Dubai.

However, she wants to change this.

To encourage her employees to join the Arabic language learning challenge, she promised to pay for the paid version of the app if they completed a 30-day learning streak.

“Our office is made up of 40 per cent of Arabic speakers. Knowing the language definitely helps us connect with them,” said Ms Hutchison.

“As a home-grown agency, I believe we should do better in Arabic and I am glad we are on that path now.”

The mobile language apps are also useful to residents who learnt but lost touch with the Arabic language due to travel and relocation.

Aisha Yaqub, a Pakistani who grew up in Kuwait, told The National that she moved to Dubai 20 years ago, where English became the language she used the most.

“I stopped speaking in Arabic on a daily basis and over the years, I completely lost touch with the language,” she said.

However, she recently befriended an Arab and has helped to revive her interest in relearning the language.

“I started watching Arabic movies and listening to Arabic songs. That's where my love for the language was reignited, and I decided to learn Arabic again.”

Affordable, interactive and fun

Downloading a language app was the easiest way for her to brush up her language skills.

After eight months, using the apps has been a much more engaging experience, and cheaper as well.

“With a full-time job, it is not easy to attend language classes at a specific time,” she said. “Using Duolingo, alongside Google Translation, allows me to learn at my own pace. It's also much cheaper.”

The high cost of private tutors and the fees charged by conventional language learning tools are one of the reasons why many residents prefer to learn Arabic through mobile apps.

Vincent Gomes, an Indian sales manager in Sharjah, said he tried to hire an Arabic tutor but the cost was beyond his pocket.

“He was charging me Dh100 per lesson and I simply could not afford that. I took seven lessons by forking out Dh700,” he said. “That kind of money is not sustainable in the long run.”

He switched to popular language app Rosetta Stone and has been using the app for nine months. He can now speak basic Arabic.

Pandemic learning boom

In February 2023, Duolingo was the most popular language learning app worldwide based on monthly downloads, with almost 13.4 million users downloading it on their mobile devices during the month.

This was partly driven by a boom in interest in languages as people all over the world turned to mobile apps during the coronavirus pandemic to learn a new language to beat the boredom of lockdown.

As of 2022, the app has over 500 million registered users.

Babbel, another popular app, uses real conversations by native speakers to teach a new language.

It generated €198 million ($217.2 million) in revenue in 2021, a 34 per cent annual increase. More than 10 million people have subscribed to Babbel since its launch in 2008.

Arabits, an AI-powered language learning tool for residents, is also helping many non-Arabic speakers to learn the language across the UAE.

“Since its launch in 2021, Arabits has been downloaded over 1.8 million times through Google Play and the Apple App Store,” said Geoffrey Alphonso, chief executive of Alef Education, the UAE-based education technology company that launched Arabits.

“The app aims to facilitate Arabic language learning for approximately 80 per cent of the UAE population who do not speak Arabic, in addition to the student population.

“Learning Arabic is complex and challenging, especially for non-native speakers. That's why we developed Arabits. It helps learners develop their Arabic reading, writing, speaking and listening skills to suit each learner’s ability and learning style.”

But can these apps truly help you become fluent in a language?

Dr Hanada Thomure, endowed chair and professor of Arabic language studies at Zayed University in Dubai, told The National that there was “no conclusive evidence” to prove this.

However, she said these popular apps were helping learners reach a basic or intermediate level.

“It is great to see that many people are grabbing these opportunities,” she told The National.

“Many AI-powered learning language tools are accelerating the language learning process. It is definitely helping bridge the gap in Arabic language learning.”

Updated: August 31, 2023, 7:50 AM