Foreign accent determines local attitude

Foreign accent determines local attitude
Updated 13 May 2014
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Foreign accent determines local attitude

Foreign accent determines local attitude

From a foreigner’s point of view, learning Arabic as a second language in Saudi Arabia in an informal setting can surely be a frustrating experience.
Most non-Arab employees pick up Arabic as they go about their daily lives with little or no formal language instruction.
The result is a distorted, simplistic version of the language that determines the way native speakers communicate with non-Arabic speaking expats and which has wider implications on the language itself.
“It is amazing to see how foreign presence influences even our own native Arabic,” said Fahd Al-Sanie, a young Saudi businessman who runs a small factory and a farm with several Asian workers.
This simplistic version of Arabic has slowly influenced Al-Sanie’s use of his native language, even when communicating with his family. “My kids ask me if I’m still a Saudi,” he said.
Mohammed Al-Shehri, a young Saudi university student, said he speaks two languages daily.
“I speak one language while communicating with Saudis and Arabs and one when I communicate with non-Arabs,” he said. “It is much easier to use broken Arabic grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary to communicate with non-Arabs than to speak to them in plain Arabic.”
“I have met non-natives whose accents sound remarkably close to native accents,” Al-Shehri said. “I feel much closer and more comfortable communicating with them.”
Sulaiman, a Pakistani barber in Jeddah’s Nuzla District, speaks “Jiddawi” Arabic with no accent at all.
He has many Saudi friends in the neighborhood. Sulaiman arrived in Jeddah some 30 years ago, when he was only 10, and had totally immersed himself in the culture.
He now has children of his own, who grew up bilingual, speaking both Urdu and Arabic.
“We speak Urdu with them and their neighborhood friends speak Arabic to them,” he said. “They don’t feel discriminated against when they go out to play with other kids.”
“Sulaiman is my homeboy,” said one of his Saudi customers as he was waiting for his turn to get his hair cut.
“He even understands and speaks our slang, prompting us to be cautious when we talk to him or among ourselves at his salon,” the loyal young customer jokes.
“He has acquired our language like nobody else that I know of,” he said.
Young Saudi feel differently, however, toward expats who are less fluent in Arabic.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable using my language normally with someone who doesn’t speak the same language I do,” he said. “I just try to cut it short.”
Nina, a Filipino nurse at a private clinic, has tried unsuccessfully for eight years to get rid of her accent despite her intermediate level of Arabic proficiency.
Although the locals know her background, they talk to her as they would to a newly arrived foreigner, often in a condescending manner.
“I still feel discriminated against because of the language and accent barrier, but that doesn’t compromise the quality of nursing I provide,” she said. “Many patients speak to me in a very telegraphic language with distorted pronunciation and vocabulary, thinking it would make it easier for me to understand.”
Interestingly, highly educated Saudis tend to communicate normally in Arabic with foreigners, said Mujeeb, an Indian national who works as a security guard at an upscale apartment complex in Jeddah’s Naseem District.
One of the tenants, who works for King Abdulaziz University, always speaks to Mujeeb in plain and proper Arabic, but he usually speaks very slowly and clearly.
“It was tough for me to understand him at the beginning, but I got used to it over a couple of years,” he said. “It is always a very short exchange that is limited to service requests.”
The academic always patiently repeats what he wants if he feels there is a communication barrier, said Mujeeb.
“My problem is that I can’t speak like he does, but ‘shwaya shwaya’ (Arabic for ‘slowly but surely’), I will get there,” he said.
A restaurant waiter in Jeddah’s Jamia District said Saudi customers often make complaints using language that he does not understand.
“First, they will order and speak with a non-Saudi accent, thinking that I can understand only if they speak with a foreigner’s accent, but whenever they get mad about an incorrect order, they use words and expressions that I don’t understand. Customers are not always right.”
The waiter said he started his job without any language training.
Nevertheless, every Saudi social segment seems to use language differently when communicating in Arabic with foreigners.
The more educated group converse with foreigners normally, while other social segments either avoid contact or use broken Arabic, or worse still, become abusive.
Dr. Khaled Al-Harthi, a Newcastle University graduate in linguistics who works at the English Language Institute at King Abdulaziz University, said that language can turn out to be an attitude reinforcing stereotypes.
“Locals are to blame for reinforcing distorted Arabic when communicating with foreigners,” he said.
This simplistic version of Arabic could be called Saudi “pidgin” Arabic.
With the help of locals, foreign workers have created their own language, which is a mixture of two or more languages with very basic, or even worse, incorrect grammar and pronunciation, he said.
This type of language is “used as a tool for communication with different minorities in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“As locals have contributed to this phenomenon, they should accept it ‘as is’ unless they change the way they speak with foreigners.”
From a sociolinguistic point of view, language discrimination is largely influenced by social class and education in Saudi society or in any other society for that matter, he said.
“The closer you are to the culture, including its language, the better your chances of being a part of it,” he said.
He called on non-Arabic speaking residents to immerse themselves in the culture, and eventually, acquire the language on a semi-native level of proficiency. “But this is not easy task, which can take years and years of practice.”
“When I lived in the US and the UK to complete my higher studies, everybody spoke to me in normal everyday English, including my homestay family, at school and in the street, with no twisted tongue. I got the language this way, practiced it, and became like a local in my daily life,” he said.
“Interacting effectively with foreigners goes way beyond language acquisition,” he said. “It is a mindset determined by Saudis’ social behavior.”