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April 21, 2016

“Marhaba” or Two? Arabic to Fill the Gap

By Rabih Hasbany



Marhaba is an Arabic word that simply means “hello” and is a commonly used greeting in the Middle East. I hear it on average 8 to 10 times a day, and especially so while spending a weekend in my family’s lovely village where everybody knows each other and greets one another constantly.

However, when I hear the word from a non-native Arabic speaker it initiates a different response from me. I smile and answer back with a double greeting, Marhabtain, which quite literally means “two hellos.” This simple word is enough to break the ice and give me the impression that the person standing before me admires my culture and is interested in my language, an integral part of my identity.

Speaking a common language shortens distances between people of different cultures and backgrounds and creates space for more profound conversations to take place. Moreover, learning the language of another people gives you the opportunity to better understand the people and their culture. According to Collins English Dictionary, a “language barrier” is defined as the absence of communication between people who speak different languages. In our post-Babel world, lacking a common language is the most natural barrier hindering effective communication.

Having a language in common, on the other hand, allows conversations to move smoothly and more naturally. People always tend to speak to those who understand them better in their mother tongue. When sitting in a group of people from different countries who speak different languages, we always tend to talk to the person that speaks our mother tongue. Furthermore, we use our native language without taking into consideration the fact that others might not be able to understand. So if you desire to build solid relationships with people who speak a different language, then you must learn how to speak the language.

State departments and foreign ministries believe mastering language is so important that diplomats are taught ahead of time the local language of the country to which they are sent, oftentimes completing up to 30 weeks of language training before an initial assignment. As such, it is critically important for cross-cultural workers and missionaries (ambassadors, it might be said, of a much greater Kingdom) to acquire the language of the communities they hope to serve. Common language is the most natural means for the people of a country to identify with and relate to the visiting diplomat or cross-cultural worker. In order to be relevant to the people you are serving and the context of your field work, learn the mother tongue!

For in our post-Pentecost world, learning a new “tongue” can itself be a redemptive act. In 1 Corinthians 9: 20 – 23, Paul points out the importance of contextualization:

“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (NIV).

As ambassador to the Kingdom, Paul was devoted to spread the gospel and he did his homework. Part of his success was his being relevant to the context to which he ministered by presenting himself and his message in a culturally acceptable form.

So, if you are willing to come and serve in the MENA region, I don`t recommend that you study Arabic!

Wait a minute!

I am not contradicting myself here.

We in the MENA do share a common Arabic language, referred to as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), but each country has a distinctive colloquial language. Note, I specifically call them colloquial languages because each has its own syntactic, semantic and even phonetic rules. MSA is used in formal writing whereas the colloquial is the language of the lay person, the heart language so to speak.

Arabic dialects are divided according to regional language groups: Egyptian, Levantine, Gulf and North African. I would like to give a simple illustration on how an expression could differ from one dialect to another. For example, the existential ‘there is’ is expressed differently in each region:

  • In Kuwait & Iraq: /aku/,
  • In Egypt, the Levant, and most of the Arabian Peninsula: /fiː/,
  • In Tunisia: /fama/,
  • In Morocco and Algeria: /kajn/,
  • In Yemen: /peh/,
  • And finally, in Modern Standard Arabic: /hunaːk/.

Therefore, it`s highly recommended to learn the colloquial language of the country within which you work in order to communicate in more effective ways with the natives.

So if Lebanon happens to be the next destination where you hope to start a business, serve in a ministry or be part of any community development project, you are more than welcome to join Arabic classes run by IMES’s Academy of Languages and Practical Skills (ALPS), either in Hamra or Mansourieh. ALPS Beirut teaches both Lebanese Colloquial Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic using its own textbook system developed by linguistic specialists. Our enthusiastic, qualified instructors and small class sizes help beginner and advanced students put their learning into practice. ALPS runs a flexible language-learning program, with class schedules based around your needs in two different locations in and around Beirut – as well as via Skype to students all around the world.

Our newest branch, now open in Mansourieh, also offers translation services. Send us an email to for more information! You can also check out ALPS’s website here:


Rabih Hasbany manages the Mansourieh branch of ALPS Beirut, overseeing Arabic language instruction and translation services, as well as English language instruction to resident ABTS theology students.


  1. Fantastic advice, Brother Rabih,

    I don’t have many regrets, however, my wife and I were so poor when we could have learned the Lebanese Arabic language that we failed to learn i the way we should have. I speak taxi cab and souk Lebanese Arabic.

    In today’s mission world it is hard for people to understand how underfunded we were as new arrivals in Lebanon in 1963. We were not supported by a large denomination. We worked for a “faith” mission, Youth for Christ, and had to raise our own support from friends and various churches. A letter to the USA took at least 2 or 3 weeks to reach those who were praying for us and the same amount of time or more to get back to us. Lebanese who were used to Americans having adequate money even gave us money. We had two very young babies and nothing to spare. Our house was so scarce of furniture that the Lebanese felt sorry for us and brought us more furniture; Lebanese homes were better furnished than the homes of people in the States who were supporting us.

    We did spend 3 months in Jordan trying to learn Arabic while staying in a mud house with little or now drinking water and lots of brown dirt – I hardly recognize Amman these days with its high rise buildings and latest model cars on paved roads; what a change. It is hard to learn Arabic in Lebanon because almost everyone speaks English.

    Even now I feel so inadequate when I visit the Arab world. Thankfully, many Arabs speak three languages, English being one of them. The kindness of the people in Lebanon to foreigners is amazing. God is good and even uses people regardless of their faults and failures. For that I am thankful. Your advice in this article is excellent and I plan to send it to anyone I know of who plans to work in the Arabic speaking part of the world.

    Blessings and peace,

    Len Rodgers

    • rhasbany12 says:

      Thank you Brother Len for your contribution and for planning to share the advice with people willing to work in the Arabic Speaking part of the world. Wish ALPS was there at that time to serve you and your wife.

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