Egyptian Arabic in 60 days: From Start to Finish and What we Learned
Here is a recap of us learning to speak Egyptian Arabic in 60 days, including notes on what we learned from this experience and for next time.
Learning to speak 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!
Highlights of our first video were me not understanding Jo was pleased to meet me, and Jo mixing up whether I’m a man or woman.
And here’s our intermediate 30-day video.
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
What we can and can’t do after learning to speak Egyptian in after 60 days
Here’s an overview of how far we made it, and how far we have to go.
What we can say in Arabic:
- Exist in everyday 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, I love bread”
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”)
- Understand others when they’re joking with each other
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 many gaps remaining.
We tend to not worry about not 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, unless you’re listening carefully.
Jo regularly doesn’t understand my Australian drawl, 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.
Did you know Arabic before starting in Egypt?
A tiny bit, but not really. We prepped for a couple of weeks before coming here.
Also, around twenty years ago (I’m old) I (Dana) spent a couple of years in Israel (or as I call it in Egypt to avoid weird situations, “Lebanon”).
I hung out with a mixed bunch in Israel, and learned maybe a couple of hundred words of Arabic and Hebrew. Enough to get around and get the local price for watermelon. I barely knew anything, but I still have those basics.
Jo knew nothing and has rocketed ahead in progress already.
What’s “Egyptian Arabic”? Is that not like “real Arabic”?
You may think Arabs speak Arabic. But who or what is an “Arab”? And what’s “Arabic”? Unsurprisingly, the answer is surprisingly complicated.
Egyptian Arabic is one of the major dialects (or languages) in the Arab world. “Arabic” is grouped into various levels of formality. Loosely, there’s three levels.
- The most formal level is Classical Arabic. This is used in the Qur’an and Islamic religious proceedings. Nobody talks like this, though they might have studied it in school. If you want to hear it, watch a religious scholar getting preachy on Youtube.
- The next most formal one is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This is used in news, inter-governmental proceedings and higher education. Everyone understands this, though people wouldn’t speak it back unless forced to, and then might struggle because it’s not natural. Speaking this is a bit like speaking Shakespearean English. The major thing in its favour: it’s universal across the Arab world, only varying regionally in accent.
- Finally, the least formal level of Arabic is colloquial Arabic. This also has various levels, but for us, we’ll stay at the highest level of colloquia). Most day-to-day interactions, popular media (songs, TV shows, movies) are in colloquial Arabic.
Colloquial Arabic varies a lot between regions. It’s mutually intelligible within close regions (like the Lebanese understand the Jordanians, the Moroccans mostly understand the Tunisians, etc.), but the further you get, the more people will struggle to understand each other without a conscious effort to not use local slang and speak more “standardly”.
So why learn Egyptian Arabic of all kinds? This is a big topic, so we wrote a whole post on why we are studying Egyptian Arabic. We address a bunch of those questions like:
- Who else understands Egyptian Arabic?
- Why choose the Egyptian dialect?
- How much does it have in common with MSA?
- Is Dana an Arab?
- What’s with the beard? Is he going to shave?
Does Arabic have much in common with Farsi/Persian?
See a bigger article on this — Persian vs Arabic.
Yes. People who speak Arabic and Persian are indeed similar shades of brown.
Arabic and Farsi are like English and French. The hard vocabulary (like “government” or “pugnacious”) is similar, but is used differently.
The alphabet is mostly shared, but pronounced with their own distinct accents, with a few unique letters in Farsi so they can correctly pronounce “Pepsi” instead of the Arabic “Bebsi”.
But everything else — day to day speech and everyday vocabulary like “apple” or “girlfriend” — has almost nothing in common.
The sentence structure is different. The accent is different. The entire concept of what makes a word is different. Farsi works a bit like French or Spanish, conjugating verbs. Arabic is a Semitic language and creates words out of what it calls “triliterate roots”, so you can easily understand the relationship between families of words.
The most famous example of an Arabic verb is the “k-t-b” group of words that all relate to writing: byuktub means “he writes”, maktab means “office”, kitaab means “book” and kaatib means “writer”, as a few examples. Arabic has this for every word. Farsi doesn’t do this.
Still, I do have a leg up, due to the similar alphabet and shared vocabulary. But it’s painfully obvious I don’t speak Arabic any time I open my mouth.
What did you use to learn Arabic?
More on this in a separate resource — our plan to learn Arabic.
- Tutors on italki. This is our favourite. It’s also a cool way to meet people. We’ll meet some of them in real life!
- Language exchange partners through italki and other apps
- Textbooks (ebooks)
- An online sentence bank called Glossika
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.
When is knowing Egyptian Arabic an advantage?
Knowing how to speak Arabic has been really useful in a few specific situations, all critical to our lives.
1. 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!!
2. 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.)
3. 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 were involved in this).
We never received “local prices”. One look at our fancy Patagonia and Nike gear and we get the initial khawaaga price every time.
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.
We implemented a lot of what we learned in the next language we studied — Swahili, in Zanzibar.
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).
The second thing we (well, I — Jo was already on to it) learned was how useful Anki can be.
I started using Anki for Swahili and now I don’t know how I lived without it. Here’s the getting started with Anki guide that Jo wrote for me!
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!
Recording Sentences — A Hack we developed for learning Arabic
One of the things we really enjoyed about the Egyptian Arabic project was making videos of our progress. It was really hard because we knew our audience was watching. And it takes forever to do the subtitles, let alone do my hair.
But the hardest part was writing something down and getting fluent enough to say it on camera.
And yet, it was also very beneficial! We really, really learned those sentences well. So we tried a new thing: learning ten new sentences a day and recording videos of ourselves saying them.
This was the approach I took to get better at Hebrew in Israel, for example.
There are two ways we write new sentences.
Method number one: translating them ourselves.
For simple sentences, Google or Bing Translate (not a diversity inclusion — sometimes Bing is better!) work pretty well, as long as you know how to correct the mistakes they make (like randomly switching genders in Hebrew).
If you’re slightly more advanced, you can make the sentences yourself. This is helpful where you’re trying to get very fluent at really basic sentences, things like “I really want you to go look at it”.
Sentences like these seem easy, but they become a mess with conjugation, conjunctions, and subjunctives.
Method number two: Use a sentence bank. Try out Glossika. We wrote a full review on it, and think it’s awesome.
You can take those sentences and either copy them verbatim, but I recommend you modify them slightly to make them your own.
You should try recording sentences. It’s surprisingly fun.
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)
How similar is Hebrew to Arabic?
After Egypt, we went to Israel for some work and to recuperate.
I wrote a full post on how similar and different Hebrew and spoken Arabic are, but here’s a summary.
I used to have a viewpoint that Hebrew and spoken Arabic are quite similar, but now that I know a LOT more Arabic (and I have a solid foundation in Hebrew), I can tell you from personal experience with both that spoken Arabic and spoken Hebrew have some things in common, but are not that similar.
It’s tempting to think they may be mutually intelligible as Arabic and Hebrew are related. They are, after all from the same language family — Semitic languages. Like German and Yiddish, of Germanic languages, and which at times are mutually intelligible.
But Arabic and Hebrew are definitely NOT mutually intelligible. Nor even that similar. They’re about as similar as German and English.
Let’s start with the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic
- They’re both Semitic, a fairly exclusive club shared only with a few other, much smaller languages (mostly in Ethiopia).
- They rely on systems of three-letter roots, where groups of three letters form the foundations of verbs.
- Some of the letters look similar and have similar roots.
- Some words are the same. Like at the beginner/intermediate level, the words for “night”, “four”, “house” and “date” are the same, but pronounced differently.
- They both use the past and future tense similarly.
- They’re both written right to left.
- There’s shared slang (in every case I know, borrowed from Arabic into Hebrew)
But the differences are huge.
- Conjugation is quite different. Spoken Hebrew uses four first-person conjugations, modifying for genders and plurals only, whereas spoken Arabic modifies for person as well and does gender a bit differently.
- Plurals are a nightmare in Arabic. Almost all have to be learned individually. In Hebrew they are mostly predictable.
- Arabic is harder to pronounce, with more guttural sounds preserved in day to day speech.
- Egyptian Arabic is harder to parse out. Phrases like “I haven’t seen it” get mashed together into one word. Hebrew keeps them separate.
In fact, the differences are so large that a Persian speaker has more of an advantage in Arabic than a Hebrew speaker, even though Persian and Arabic are totally different.
In summary, if you speak Hebrew or Arabic, you have maybe a conceptual head-start to learning the other. You’d be coming from a closer place than a Chinese native speaker, for example. But you’re still far away.
Any chance you could make your Egyptian Arabic vocabulary spreadsheet available?
I’d love to say yes, but it definitely has some errors in it. I’d rather point you at the materials on Lingualism — Matthew is an absolute authority on teaching Arabic. He charges something like $10 per Anki deck but the attention to detail is incredible.