To Learn Arabic, You Have to Walk the Walk

I have been asked several times at my university in Oman to do a brief “cultural introduction” to native speakers of English from North America and Europe who have come to improve their Arabic. I start by mentioning that there is a large difference between learning how to speak a language and learning how to navigate a culture. Then I segue into a discussion of how to dress appropriately. My watchwords are: no knees or elbows on display in public. Usually, at this point, several of the listeners look angry, disbelieving and/or bored, especially the men wearing tight, casual T-shirts and women in spaghetti-strap underwear shirts.

I say what I have to say and leave, wondering why people bother learning Arabic if they are so clearly uninterested in aligning themselves with cultural expectations. Most Arab women around the Persian Gulf leave their houses in large, black, shapeless cloaks with scarves that cover all or some of their hair. Most Arab men here appear in public in spotless, ironed dishdashas.

Oman is fairly conservative in dress, especially where I live; all local women cover their hair. At the university, most male expat professors wear suits and ties for the first day of class, then switch to clean, pressed, fitted pants and ironed, button-down shirts, with the sleeves rolled up, for the rest of the semester. But when I speak with Western students who are studying Arabic, most of them are dressed casually: sloppy flannel shirts, ripped jeans, shorts, bra straps, and sometimes underwear on display. As Christina Paulston, a sociologist who has written about language education, says, it is “possible to become bilingual without becoming bicultural.” Read More ..

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