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Egyptian Arabic, Day 30: Disjointed Conversation

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Here’s our second video (a follow-up to our first Day 1 Egyptian Arabic video), after a month of kebab, gritty Arabic coffee and occasional study.

Update: Our final 60 day videos are live — watch us speaking reasonably decent Arabic here!

Highlights of the 30-day video include

  • Our thoughts on life in Cairo, featuring the words “traffic” and “noise”
  • Praise for kebab
  • Hopefully obvious avoidance of political commentary

I forgot to tell her things are haram as I promised earlier, but I do tell her that often.

Here’s a few questions we get about learning Arabic…

What has been harder about Egyptian Arabic than we expected?

We’ve been charting our own course, using tools and methods that we kind of came up with ourselves. This means relying on books that we like ourselves and primarily using italki as the main source of instruction. It has been gong pretty well.

The hardest things have been

  • It has been hard to maintain a fixed classroom schedule. When you use italki tutors, you have to book every individual class. Teachers availability changes. Of course, this also means near infinite flexibility. The hardest thing with less common languages is that there are fewer teachers. (See our italki review and recommendations to get the most out of the platform.)
  • Lots of words are hard to remember. Sometimes I get lucky and a word reminds me of one in Persian, but usually we have no such luck. I think the hardest word for me is “disadvantages” (سلبيات). I’ve learned it over and over. “Every country has its own advantages and… &%$&#!!!”. For Jo, it’s “time” (مرّه), as in “she has learned it so many times”.
  • It’s hard to hear some short words because they’re over before you know it. Like the word for “contract” (عقد). It’s difficult to describe how it sounds, but when someone says it, it sounds like they kind of choked on something. That’s the whole word!

What has been easier about Egyptian Arabic than we expected?

Spoken Egyptian Arabic is described as an “accent” locally (لحجه), or as “slang” (عمييه). Those words are synonyms for “dialect” and “colloquial” respectfully, but people think of them in similar ways.

The colloquial nature of Egyptian Arabic is a huge advantage for learners. There are generally accepted ways of saying things, but always multiple ways. There are many ways of putting sentences together and often, something isn’t strictly “wrong” and people will understand us, even if it’s not the way people normally speak.

It’s a contrast with French, for example, where there’s always a more correct way of speaking according to some organisation that nobody wants to listen to (neither of us deals with authority figures well).

When has knowing Egyptian Arabic been an advantage?

It has been really useful in a few specific situations, all critical to our lives.

  • Buying food. Jo can buy ta’meyya (like falafel) sandwiches, and therefore can continue to exist as a human. Some day, I hope she’ll talk about me in the same hushed whispers of admiration she uses for sandwiches. My biggest success was ordering home-delivered kebab over the phone. It arrived and was pretty much what we ordered even though I panicked and forgot several words like “deliver” (“do you… um… do you have service to house”). Success!!
  • Bartering. We regularly barter prices down to around 30-40% of the original starting price. Even though I feel like it should be 10-20%, it’s a good start. (I still hate it. Bartering is a waste of time, and it’s the same conversation every time.)
  • Explaining things to police/security. Police have a bunch of rules about things like where you can take cameras, what you have to wear, or even where we’re allowed to travel. I’ve seen people have to wait around for someone to come and speak English to explain a situation. It has saved us time being able to explain things like “we won’t take photos, but don’t want to leave the camera here” or figuring out how to buy tickets on a train (I don’t know why police was involved in this).

We still don’t get “local prices”. One look at our fancy Patagonia and Nike gear and we get the initial khawaaga price every time.

What’s next on our Egyptian Arabic quest?

We have another month of study in Egypt. Then we’re going to look to broaden our horizons to elsewhere in the region and try our hands at Levantine Arabic — the kind spoken in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Or we might just chill in Egypt more. We’re getting used to it 🙂

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