Arabic is hard.
Or should we say “العربي صعب” (el-3arabi Sa3b), because we say that in Arabic now.
If you’re wondering how far we made it, see our videos below, recorded in the “Bedouin lounge” at Habiba Community on the Sinai peninsula.
Even though we have a long way to go, it’s good to remember how far we have come. Here’s our initial video. I think the difference is pretty obvious!
What we can and can’t do in Arabic after 60 days
Here’s an overview of how far we made it, and how far we have to go.
What we can do:
- Exist in every day life. Talk about food, the weather, work, health, how we’re feeling.
- Feed ourselves
- Express opinions, like “I like bread/coffee” to “I don’t enjoy breakfast without bread/coffee”
- Be polite and culturally sensitive
- Say little things to each other in a new mostly-secret language*
- Tell simple stories. Like “Before I came to Egypt, I didn’t know drones were illegal”. Live and learn.
* Spoiler: they’re just things like “Do you want coffee/bread?” and “Of course I do, it’s delicious”
We got told our accents are pretty good. When we’re speaking, we feel awesome!
That said, listening to a recording of ourselves is always hard.
What we still struggle to do:
- Tell complicated stories involving lots of different actors
- Still a lot of work/household things (so many words!)
- Understand foreign accents
- The unknown unknowns. (Although, we can say “the things I don’t know that I don’t know”)
It’s surprising how many nouns and verbs people know in everyday life. E.g. things like “can you wipe the table with the orange sponge”, I’d still say as “can you clean the table with that orange thing” (80-20 language learning at work!). Even though there are 2,000 words on my final vocab list (see below), most of which I learned pretty well, there are a lot of gaps remaining.
- Understand others when they’re joking with each other
We tend to not worry about understanding other people when they speak to each other.
The reason is simple: sometimes it’s hard to understand others speaking with each other even in our mother tongue.
I remember the first time I heard Americans speaking with each other, when I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old Australian traveller. I had no idea what was going on.
I once met a guy from Liverpool who I thought, after asking him to repeat himself twice, was German.
Jo regularly doesn’t understand the ridiculous drawl coming out of my mouth, though to my own ears I’m basically enunciating like the Queen of England.
So in summary, understanding banter between others is a really tall ask.
What did we learn about language learning for next time?
We made some refinements to our process of how we learn languages. Or rather, we re-arranged some priorities.
The main thing we learned is how important it is to record ourselves speaking. We did this three times over the 60 day period. But in the future, we’re going to record ourselves speaking every day, even if it’s just for ourselves or our tutors.
Mostly, this is going to help us get very fluent in expressing simple sentences. It’ll no longer be separately learning words like “you bring” and “bread”, but “Can you bring us more bread please?”
We’ve already started doing this, as Jo works on her Arabic further, and I get stuck into refreshing my Hebrew (never that great, but one of my favourite languages).
We already confirmed a lot of what we already knew:
- Tutors are the building block, and we have to learn how to choose them and manage them ourselves
- Get the right tools, which are usually simple ones: textbooks, a dictionary and wordlists
- Do the hardest things first. Study in the morning!
How will we maintain our Arabic?
It’s really tempting to just keep going with Arabic. Part of this is that it was just getting fun. We were speaking to regular people at Habiba Farm (more on this later, but we did talk about it in our last letter “Tech Worker, Will Work for Vegan Food”). We understand more and more of television shows we’re watching.
But we have to move on — we have a long list of things to do after all, with Swahili next. Every time I hear a bit of Swahili, I think… I can’t wait.
In order to not lose our Arabic we’ll switch to passive mode:
- Reviewing flashcards regularly… maybe just 10 minutes a day
- Watching television shows that we conveniently got addicted to, and maybe movies
- Listening to podcasts (there aren’t many in Egyptian Arabic, but there are a few)
Swahili. In Tanzania. Probably in Zanzibar. We have a bit of research to do as to exactly where and how, but generally, we can’t wait.