My native language is Arabic. There are many varieties of Arabic spoken in different regions and countries in the Arab world (Middle East). I speak the Libyan dialect, which I learned as my first language and which I use in everyday speaking situations. At school I also learned the standardized Arabic (Classical Arabic), which is used in writing and in formal prepared speech.
Formerly, the formal standardized Arabic was the norm; however, over time and for different reasons, different dialects started to appear in different regions. These different dialects make it a bit challenging for Arabic speakers to be clearly understood by speakers of different Arabic dialects. I tend to adjust my speech to communicate with people from different Arabic-speaking regions. For example, I tend to switch dialects or to avoid using unfamiliar words from my dialect, or attempt to communicate using a commonly understood dialect, such as Lebanese, Egyptian or Syrian. These dialects tend to be commonly understood because of their strong media presence in many countries in the Arab world.
I started learning English at school as a compulsory subject in junior high school. The way in which English was taught was quite traditional: the focus was mainly on teaching vocabulary and structure, and little attention was paid to integrating cultural aspects into EFL lessons. Furthermore, the level of instruction was relatively weak, as a result of a political decision made by the dictator president after the American raid in 1986, which banned the teaching and learning of foreign languages, particularly English and French, in all educational sectors for 10 years. The 10 years were long enough to negatively affect the level of foreign language teaching and learning in the country.
When I started learning English, after the ban was lifted, the standard in my home country was British English. Even though the curriculum incorporated some cultural elements, the lack of the facilities meant we did not meet the goals of the EFL curriculum. That directly influenced learners’ ability to communicate adequately in English. As such, even though I was a teacher and taught English as a foreign language, I still experienced challenges communicating when I came to Canada.
One of the reasons I had trouble was because of the differences between the British and Canadian Englishes. Of course, certain words and expressions are different, and these variations have often caused me some confusion. One example I remember occurred when first I came to Canada and I went to register my daughter at school. The educators mentioned that the required school uniform was a “white top” and “navy blue pants”. And I was like “WHAT?!” because the word “pants” in British English refers to underwear! I was quite shocked until I realize that they were talking about what I would have referred to as “trousers”.
Regional variations in language are not always addressed in EFL classes, even though they can be very significant. It was a bit confusing at the beginning, however, I think that my linguistic background in Arabic, a language with very pronounced regional variations, was helpful and gave me the ability to recognize and expect variation in the way English is spoken, and to try to adapt.