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I love a wall of language textbooks. They make me feel good, even if I haven’t read them all.
In fact, 90% of the books I’ve retained over the years have been language books. On my last visit to a physical bookstore (in Portland, Oregon), I bought three books, all about Farsi. Jo bought one on Korean. (No, we haven’t read them. Farsi and Korean… probably in 2020!)
But travelling with a reference textbook or dictionary is impractical, which is why I prefer e-books — on Kindle or in PDF format.
There are other advantages to e-books as well. If they’re Kindle ones, they’re on multiple devices — your laptop, your phone and your e-reader. You can use search (which just got WAY faster with the latest software update). You can annotate and bookmark easily.
Of course you can also get these resources in print.
But wait — why buy books when so much is free?
I mean, we even authored a post on free learning resources for Arabic. Kids learn for free. Maybe you can find language partners. Why spend?
I just want to point out a few things:
- If you bought all the books on this list, you’d have spent less than $100. How much did textbooks in university cost? Some cost me over $100 for a single Engineering textbook that I never even used more than 20% of (if any).
- How much did your university education cost? Mine cost US$30K. Some people spend US$300K.
- This stuff is unavailable for free and is extremely good value.
Basically, while many might balk at $40 for an ebook, I’m trying to say that the books in this list are worth it.
Here are what we think are the best Egyptian Arabic textbooks if you’re mostly using them yourself.
I’m usually a fan of the Teach Yourself series (I used it for Spanish, Italian and Standard Arabic) but they don’t have a good book for Egyptian Arabic.
I bought this book in Kindle format and worked my way through the whole thing as a starting point.
I particularly like textbooks like these because of the exercises. You might be tempted to gloss over them and not do them, but by doing exercise you’re reminded quickly of what words and concepts you failed to completely absorb.
What I like about Colloquial Arabic of Egypt
- It explains Egyptian Arabic colloquial grammar in very simple terms. It tells you what you need to know but not any more. See the description below for example in describing how ‘nouns of place’ work, and how many follow a pattern.
- The words and grammar are up to date — it doesn’t teach you anything old fashioned. Also, it doesn’t get Egyptian Arabic confused with other styles of Arabic.
- It teaches you script along the way. I think it’s critical to learn Arabic script, but for many, it can be daunting to learn using the script. Egyptian Arabic actually is better taught using romanisation to fully explain the pronunciation, which can’t be captured in a standardised way using Arabic lettering.
Just a note on this – you can’t actually learn Egyptian colloquial Arabic using the written form. This is because colloquial Arabic does not exist in a standard written form. Standard Arabic can be quite different (even in everyday words). So it’s totally fine to learn it through romanization. That said — you definitely, definitely need to learn how to read. Otherwise, expect to go hungry in 90% of establishments in the country!
(See also: why we chose to learn Egyptian Arabic over Standard Arabic or other dialects.)
What could be improved in Colloquial Arabic in Egypt
- We still think you should really start by learning the alphabet. Even though the best way to learn colloquial Arabic (quickly) is through romanisation, it’s still super useful to know written form. Instead of distributing it over the 16 or so lessons, the first lesson up-front should be how to read. Then you don’t need to force the words down the reader’s throat, but present them alongside romanisation.
- The electronic version’s hyperlinks don’t work. At least the book has a proper index and structure. But the links to more materials online don’t work. I had to poke around on the internet to find them – they’re all here on the Routledge website (which didn’t come up in search on the first page). You can download them all, which is what I advise, rather than streaming (it went offline once for half a day, and I got worried it would never come back).
Two reference books from Lingualism: The Big Fat Book of Egyptian Arabic Verbs and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic Vocabulary
We’re both using these in a shared Kindle library and can’t recommend them enough.
I’m completely blown away by the incredible detail of these books, written by Matthew Aldrich of Lingualism, clearly an authority on colloquial Arabic dialects (he also has a few books about other dialects, but most of his current work is about Egypt). These books are easy to read, extremely rich and have so many examples. Books explaining core colloquial grammar and vocabulary in a non-technical way are so valuable to non-academic learners like us.
Twenty years ago, when I first made an aborted attempt to learn Levantine Arabic (I was doing too much at the time, so never got far), I’d have given my right arm for resources like these.
About each book:
- Egyptian Colloquial Arabic Vocabulary is the first one you should buy. This is a list of words by categories, like “Numbers”, “Plants”, and “Feelings”. It’s fun (if you find this kind of thing fun) to browse through, and see random things you think “oh man! I have been wondering how to say that!”
- The Big Fat Book of Egyptian Arabic Verbs is the second one you should buy. This is a book with two pages for each verb. Page 1 explains how to conjugate it in every way. It doesn’t force you to look up a verb table for that ‘type’ of verb (which is an approach he uses in a different book, which would require either memorization or flicking back and forth, which isn’t easy in an e-book), and page 2 has a sweet list of example sentences to make it totally clear how to use the word.
- Shuwayya ‘an Nafsi is the third (and optional) book. This is a series of conversations with real Egyptians, taking what they say and taking every sentence apart word by word.It’s a really cool way of learning how to understand people as they really speak about themselves. Like for example, an introductory book would have the question “Are you married?” with a responses of “yes”, “no”, “not yet”. This book has sample responses like: “No, I’m not married but I’m in a relationship, and I may get married in a couple years.” and “No, I’m single. I was engaged once, but we broke up because he wasn’t right for me.” Whoa!
What we like about the Lingualism books
We love the focus on colloquial Arabic, the example sentences and the abundance of audio recordings.
- Focus on colloquial Arabic, not technical grammar. If you’re a moderate grammar nerd, you’ll know concepts like “subjunctive mood” and “perfect tense”. But if you want ot learn to speak, this is a waste of time. These books focus on telling you how to construct everyday sentences using common words and don’t dive into details unnecessary to anyone but scholars.
- There are SO MANY example sentences. These are critical for learning. Whenever you’re learning a language, unless you’re just learning a noun like “banana”, you need to see a word in context. For example if I tell you that the participle 3and (عند) expresses “belonging”, you still know almost nothing. You have to learn how to use it in sentences like “I don’t have money right now” or know that it isn’t used in the expression “Do you have the time?”. Having example sentences is useful for searching, too. Often random other nouns/adjectives are in the book on verbs.
- There are audio recordings of all the example sentences online! Wow, I have never even seen resources like these for other major languages. The mp3s are downloadable and have the right metadata to import into iTunes or any other media player. The audio is freely available for download, even if you don’t own the books.
It’s also great that despite being really detailed and focusing on something poorly documented (colloquial language), these books are extremely correct. They’re so correct that occasionally, they describe variances in pronunciation. It’s really hard to publish a book without typos (I’ve got a few Kindle books that are just in English that are just riddled with them… seems so lazy for non-fiction) but these don’t seem to. It’s crazy.
Additional thing I like is just that these books and resources exist. Thank you, Matthew & Lingualism!
What could improve in the Lingualism books
Just one small issue: The Kindle structure hasn’t been done so you can’t use the table of contents. Using contents is a quick way to go to the right section. The implication is that for example, That means that in the Big Book of Verbs, the only way I can find a verb is using search, or browsing through hundreds of pages. I don’t think this is critical because I think search is the best way to use them.
What else I’d like to see
I think drills are essential to learning a language well. Especially making sentences and listening to conversation. In the past I’ve enjoyed books with both of these approaches, and would love to see resources like these in every language we study.
Resources forcing you to make sentences: I used a book ages ago called “Teach Yourself Spanish Grammar”. Every page (two facing small pages) had one grammar concept (like “past tense”, then a bunch of exercises to hammer it in. It’s how I learned a lot of hard ideas, like how to say things like “If I had more money, I’d buy a better laptop.” (J/k laptops were barely a thing in 1999)
Resources forcing us to listen to conversation: I’ve used listening drills books in Chinese. You listen to the audio and constantly re-listen to it to catch the nuances of how things are pronounced in everyday life. You might only end up mimicking 10% of it, but the key is volume: do a lot, and make that 10% stretch out.
What we omitted from this list
Just before anyone says “this list is terrible and you’re terrible and smell bad”, I want to remind you that this is a focus on spoken Egyptian Arabic, teaching yourself, and e-books. This means we haven’t included books
- Not yet available electronically as of 2019
- Written in Arabic — beginners can’t use these to teach themselves
- About Modern Standard Arabic or other dialects like Gulf,Levantine, or Maghrebi.
That said, if we’ve missed anything, give us your awesome review and we’ll include it here and give you credit.
We also haven’t included software and online resources we use. Those are coming soon!