Saturday, December 10, 2005

Arabic in the Office

My ability in Arabic has not improved since I've been in Iraq. I know more words in Iraqi dialect, but my ability to read and converse is unchanged. As was the case when I arrived, I can make myself understood on basic issues and engage in simple conversations as long as the other person speaks slowly and uses plenty of formal Arabic. I occasionally crack the Arabic textbook I brought, but not as much as I would like.

This is not unusual. I have yet to meet a single Westerner who has learned Arabic during their time here. That's not because there's any shortage of Iraqis to learn from. Instead, most people who work in Iraq are quite satisfied with their current set of skills and see no reason to add another language. I met a water specialist who had worked in Iraq for over six years, before the fall of Saddam, but only had a knowledge of Arabic that was rudimentary at best.

One of our PSDs is fluent. I've heard him speak Arabic more than any other Westerner, including the second in command on our project, who is also fluent. The PSD worked on a development project earlier, and took a job (with a much higher salary) in security once it finished. It comes in handy for him occasionally. When clients arrive at the airport, he talks his way past the arrivals gate, into the baggage claim, and helps with luggage. He was kidnapped once and was able to talk to his captives. The Arabic, he explained, encouraged his release.

There are plenty of opportunities for study. The Arab staff speak to each other in Arabic, but all know English and will use it when they speak to expats. A coworker of mine provided a creative explanation for her indifference to learning Arabic. Its more important that the Iraqis learn and practice their English than we learn Arabic. This is the age of globalization, and English the international language, she said. How thoughtful. And some say Americans working here don't care about Iraqis!


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