Teaching English in the UAE: Study Arabic to Build Rapport with Your Students!

Teaching English in the UAEWhen I first began studying Arabic, the response from my students and Arab colleagues was resoundingly positive and supportive. They are deeply proud of their language, especially Arab Muslims for whom Arabic (classical Arabic) is the language of the Qur’an, and they love it when foreign teachers attempt to learn the language.

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This is especially important for native English-speakers because there exists a cultural discourse in the Arab world (not terribly common but out there nonetheless) that is deeply suspicious of the affect of English on Arab culture and society. Many fear that English, as the language of instruction in school and universities, will diminish Arabic’s standing as the language of the Qur’an and the great empire it inspired. Some even see the incursion of English in the Arab world as a vehicle for cultural imperialism, whereby Western values will come to supplant Arab and Islamic values.

Student Motivation

When teaching English in the UAE,you may have to negotiate this cultural tension, which might manifest in the classroom as demands to know why the students need to learn English and which language, in the teacher’s opinion, is superior. Teachers who show no interest in learning the language, even common Arabic greetings and expressions, may inadvertently convey the perception that they do not respect the Arab language and culture. By attempting to learn Arabic, teachers will not only model their own language-learning process, which in turn may inspire greater interest and effort to learn English among their students; they are also demonstrating their respect of their students’ first language and their openness to greater cultural awareness. Ultimately, though, studying Arabic has helped me establish strong rapport with my students and colleagues alike, which in turn has made the period of adjusting to life and work in the UAE that much easier.

Classroom Management

One of the first rules of classroom management is building rapport with your students. If there isn’t fertile ground for a relationship between you and your students to grow, then they may be harder to manage and as a consequence have a harder time learning. A colleague of mine could not establish that grounding rapport with a class of students and he was subsequently faced with an entire year of mutual antagonism and resentment where very little meaningful learning occurred.

Having established an initial rapport with my students, especially capitalizing on the good will I earned by trying to learn the language, the next challenge was to build up enough functional Arabic to be able to address behavioral issues in class. This is where my Arab colleagues became an invaluable resource. I envied their ability to manage those behaviors that were the most disruptive to my lessons, but with their help I acquired many classroom imperatives (‘sit’, ‘quiet’, ‘listen’, etc.) that I could use when my students got particularly difficult to manage. Some of these include reference to Islamic values, which were especially effective with my students who come mostly from very conservative and pious families.

Further, as I observed within my first month, the behavior problems in my class increased the more challenging was the work I expected of my students. Oftentimes they would fall into talking with a neighbor when they were lost as to what was happening in the class. As I acquired more Arabic, I was able to help the most problematic students stay focused and engaged, thus mitigating that one source of the behavior problems I faced.

Greg completed Ontesol’s 250-hour TESOL Diploma

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