Watch us speaking Arabic after 60 days

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This is an archive of our letter sent to our subscribers on 22 March 2019. Sign up to get our major notifications!

Our first challenge in our 2019 list is done: See here to see us speaking Arabic!

Learning to speak Arabic in 60 Days

We’re pretty proud of this! Great start to the year.


What’s next?

As I mentioned in our last letter about working in Sinai, we’re in Israel for a brief period, doing some project work and also, frankly, recuperating.

While you probably saw lots of pictures of beaches and vegetarian food, we definitely do want to recover from the traffic of Cairo, the dust of the desert (will our laptops’ keyboards ever recover though?), Jo being stared at, and a general feeling that our behaviour as foreigners was inappropriate.

Blending in in Israel… not that Border Security agreed

In Israel, I tend to disappear more than anywhere else I’ve been.

Israelis usually speak to me in Hebrew, more so than Egyptians spoke to me in Arabic. I go as far as much as I can, but then when I respond in English and say I’m not Israeli they usually say “You’re not Israeli? You look so Israeli.”

This is followed with a pause and then a surprising addition:

“I have friends that look like you!”

Israelis are, of course, a fairly heterogenous group. There are huge groups of people who are of Russian, Arab, African, Sephardic (south European) and Ashkenazi (north European) background. There are also large numbers of foreign workers from Asian countries, mostly the Philippines and China. So, especially in Tel Aviv, nearly anyone (except for our friends from the Indian Subcontinent) can blend in pretty easily.

That said, people mean I look like someone from here. Lots of people of Jewish background come from Iran, Iraq and that whole subregion of Greater Brownistan. I guess that’s who I look like.

Jo blends in, too. Especially compared to in Egypt, where she was greeted either with stares, oddly aggressive cries of “Hello!” or the constant beep-beep-beep from cars declaring their love.

This is a welcome relief for her.

I enjoy disappearing, too, as I said. It’s nice, except… border security wasn’t having any of it.

We — or really, I, and Jo by association — spent a record eight hours at the border crossing from Taba, at the north of Egypt, to Eilat, in the south of Israel.

Eight hours!

I guess it doesn’t help that

  • I’m of Iranian background
  • I was coming to the country from Egypt, where we spent the last two+ months doing something weird (“You were studying Arabic? Why didn’t you go to a school?” All good questions, but c’mon, do you even read our blog?)
  • We were crossing in North Sinai, a conflict zone
  • I have multiple passports (usually cool, but now a liability)
  • I speak multiple languages (ditto on liability)
  • It’s unclear what I’m doing in my life, though it’s extremely clear to us (don’t even ask for our business plan)
  • I have a meandering life story, as evidenced by where I am right now, between Egypt and Israel

I didn’t share that at university, I specialised in information security, that my father is a nuclear engineer and that I regularly read books about Navy Seals. It didn’t seem relevant. (Is this line encrypted?)

Still, eight hours is a lot. It’s usually just one or two. The only food we had all day was a packet of Bamba (like Cheetos, but peanut butter flavoured, and thus basically like crack), and some bread foolishly left unattended by security guards.

Israel, you should know I’m cool by now. Can’t we just get along?

The Lazy Person’s Guide to Fluency

One of the things we really enjoyed about the Egyptian Arabic project was making the videos. It was really hard, because we knew you were 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 awesome! We really, really learned those sentences well. So we’re trying a new thing: learning ten new sentences a day and recording videos of ourselves saying them.

We then put them into a shared folder so we can each hold each other accountable. We won’t show these to you, partly because of the above reason… my hair is crazy early in the morning or late at night when I record them, and I don’t need you judging me, especially next to Jo’s always perfect hair.

(Finding hair salons is an unexpected source of stress for the traveller.)

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 should try recording sentences. And if you really want, we can share a folder together. It’s fun. (I predict zero take-up on this, but I’m hoping to be surprised.)

One last thing… “How similar is Hebrew to Arabic?”

I wrote a full post on how similar and different Hebrew and Arabic are, but here’s a summary.

I used to have a viewpoint that they’re 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 are not that similar.

It’s tempting to think 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:

  • 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 Farsi speaker has more of an advantage in Arabic than a Hebrew speaker, even though Farsi 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.

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