Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Wonder Years, Part 2: Learning to Speak Arabic

I often get asked by Egyptians about how hard it was to learn to speak Arabic. I'm not always very sure why people ask me this. Are they trying to be funny? Do they REALLY want to know? Are they completely oblivious to how terribly difficult it is to learn Arabic?

I think perhaps they're just curious to see my reaction. So you can understand why I almost always pause before answering. And how I answer usually depends on what mood I'm in.

If I'm feeling like everything is right with the world, then I'll just sigh and smile and say "el hamdellah" (Praise God in Arabic.)

If it's just been one of those days when I'd like to crawl up under a rock and hide, my response is more of a snort and a "hard, very hard" (in Arabic, of course.)

I'd say that learning to speak Arabic was perhaps one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my entire life. I know what you're thinking... them's big words girlie. Don't worry, I'll stand by that statement.

I arrived in Cairo in 2002 without knowing a single word in Arabic. And, yes, I really did plan it that way. I figured that it would be better to learn the right language the right way on the ground in Egypt.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I did buy a book called Beginner's Arabic Script while I was still back in the States. It was supposed to help me teach myself how to read and write Arabic. Yeah, a whole HECK of a lotta good that was gonna do for me in Egypt!

I didn't realize that it was all about the talkin'. Talkin', talkin', and then some more!

So what made learning Arabic so difficult for me? I'm not saying that learning Arabic is impossible. I am saying that it's different and probably more difficult to learn than say learning something like Spanish or French which is more similar to English.

1. It's not just one language. Arabic is one of those unique languages where the spoken language is completely different from the written language. There's even a different name for each one. And most of the time, the spoken language doesn't even really have a written form.

So you have to make a choice. Do you learn ameya (colloquial) or foos-ha (formal) or MSA (Modern Standard Arabic)?

2. The letters are different. English, French, Spanish, German, and all of the other Romantic languages all use mostly the same letters. But Arabic script was unlike anything I'd ever seen. And each letter looks different whether it's at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Talk about confusing!

3. You read and write from right to left in Arabic. They read and write *backwards* (for me, at least) in Egypt. Books are read with the binding on the right (not on the left like in English). This took a little getting used to.

4. Figuring out how to make language learning work with my personality. A lot of my friends who were here studying Arabic all seemed to be natural language learners. They were fearless and friendly to everyone they met. They'd talk about this girl they'd met on the Metro and that lady they's spent hours talking to.

I was not like that at all. I think that if I hadn't been absolutely convinced that I was supposed to be in Egypt that I would have been on that plane home so fast, well, the dust wouldn't have had time to settle.

I'm not very outgoing. I've always been a bit introverted. In an unfamiliar situation, I usually tend to clamp my mouth shut and huddle over by the wall rather than to burst loudly onto the scene. I was afraid of failure. My solution for this was to do nothing, because if you don't try then you don't fail.

So after a few months in Egypt, I still was afraid to open my mouth to speak. I was afraid to make mistakes. It was all up in my head but I couldn't seem to get it out of my mouth fast enough to form sentences or even to communicate the simplest of ideas.

In short I felt like a big, fat failure.

I'd look at myself compared to my friends and think that I'd never get this language thing down. I cried from the frustration of it all.

But after a while I began to realize that I couldn't compare myself to other people. My personality was completely different than theirs. I had to make this work for me in my own way. What worked for them wasn't going to necessarily work for me.

If I didn't feel comfortable talking to random strangers on the metro to practice my Arabic, this was okay. I needed someone like the girl down at the stationary shop down the road who I saw on a regular basis to practice my Arabic with. I would go in once a week or so and spend 30 minutes sitting down and chatting with her in Arabic. I asked my language helper to help me do specific things, like to help me know how to pick up my mail from the post office.

It took me a while to find my rhythm. But eventually it came almost naturally to speak because now I was speaking with friends, familiar faces who weren't going to laugh at me if I made a mistake. Maybe I didn't have the biggest circle of friends who spoke Arabic, but the few I had were special and long-lasting friendships.

Here is what I know about learning a foreign language:

You're gonna make mistakes. You'll probably say it wrong at least 100 times before you say it right. Don't freak out. Everybody does this. You are just like everybody else. Nobody can be perfect from Day 1.

You'll probably mix some words up. You might say "cat" for "room" and "room" for "cat" (oh, sorry, maybe that was me.) It's confusing because sometimes words sound the same even though they're actually completely different.

You might mispronounce letters. Arabic has some sounds in there that do not exist in the English language. Some of them seem almost unnatural, like the "gh" sound that comes from the back of your throat. And others may come out forced. For example, there are 2 "h" sounds in Arabic. One has air behind it and the other one doesn't. I still sometimes put too much *umph* behind the one with the air behind it. It gets a few strange looks from time to time, but it works for me.

You may embarrass yourself just a little. This was what I was most terrified of (note the bit above about being afraid of failure.) Somehow when you get a word wrong it seems like it always manages to mean something bad. And while no one ever told me that I made this kind of mistake, I did get a few laughs which was almost as bad.

You'll learn to laugh at yourself. Or at least I hope you do. Because if you don't already have a good sense of humor, learning a foreign language will teach you that pretty quick. I've never laughed so hard as I did when I realized that I substituted the word "lettuce" (khas) for "shame" (ikhs) without realizing what I was saying. To this day my husband and I say khas aleek (lettuce on you) instead of ikhs aleek (shame on you - but in a teasing way).

All of the above are very normal. Anybody who learns a foreign language - especially in the country that speaks it - is going to go through this.

That certainly makes me feel better, don't you agree?

What is my advice for anyone wanting to learn to speak Arabic?
  1. Study Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country. 
  2. Learn the colloquial dialect. You might want to learn to read and write as well but consider this a second language.
  3. Speak with native Arabic speakers as much as you can. You cannot learn correct pronunciation without hearing how native speakers pronounce it.
  4. Don't just study in a classroom. If you can find a language helper, use one. Get out and talk to everyday people out on the streets. Schedule in Arabic speaking time (i.e. 15 minutes buying fruit in Arabic, 30 minutes talking to a guy or girl working in a local shop, etc.)
  5. Learn about culture while you learn Arabic. So much of the vocabulary in Arabic revolves around the culture. For example, you can just learn the correct vocabulary words for family (father, mother, brother, sister, etc.) or you can learn this same vocabulary while learning about the roles of each one in the family and the responsibilities of each one.
  6. Buy an English-Arabic dictionary. I highly recommend the Elias Pocket Dictionary with Arabic-to-English and English-to-Arabic in one book. Sometimes it's nice to just be able to look up the exact word you mean and show it to the Arabic speaker (as long as they read).
  7. Participate in a cultural immersion experience. In other words, go spend two weeks living with an Arabic-speaking family (preferably who don't speak much English). This will radically improve your Arabic.
  8. Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Some people have a natural knack for learning languages. And some (like me) are slow starters who may eventually surpass others who pick up some phrases and vocabulary very early on. You just have to discover what works for you and do it.
  9. Learn to laugh at yourself. Enjoy the language learning experience and don't be so afraid of making mistakes. 
  10. Practice, practice, practice. You can't learn to speak Arabic if all you do is study it and never actually speak it. Use the little you have to get a little more. That's the real secret to learning Arabic successfully.
Don't forget to check out the rest of this series:
The Wonder Years, Part 1: Arriving in Cairo
The Wonder Years, Part 3: Seeing the Sights of Cairo
The Wonder Years, Part 4: Dealing with Culture Shock
The Wonder Years, Part 5: Making Egyptian Friends
    The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more about her adventures in Egypt the first time around.


    1. Oh, I remember my miserable efforts at learning a little Arabic while living in Ramallah, Palestine. I took classes, learned to write the letters and some phrases for shopping, since I wanted to learn the spoken language.

      Once my husband and I were on our morning walk and I saw the letters above a little shop and was so delighted that I knew all these letters and could spell out the word:

      m n m r k t

      MiniMarket! A transliteration of an English word using Arabic letters! So it goes.

      (For those not in the know: In Arabic the short vowels are not written -- you've got to guess!)

    2. Yes, I did learn to write as well. Sorry forgot to mention that. While you can't really learn a written form of the colloquial in Egypt, it is important to learn how things are spelled so that you can pronounce the words correctly. For example, there's a "kh" sound and a "k" sound so you have to know which it is so that you can say it right.

      Thanks for sharing!

    3. I just found your great blog today through the nice comment you left on mine!

      I had some British students who had to study Arabic in school in Morocco. Then they moved to China, and now have to study Chinese. I asked them if they found Chinese harder or easier. They said Chinese was MUCH easier than Arabic. I've since heard that from others, as well.

      I recently read an article about Americans trying to learn Arabic for work in government intelligence jobs, etc. Apparently most drop out after 1-2 years because even after two years of intensive study, they still aren't able to do something useful like go into a restaurant and order something off of a menu! The article agreed with you that Arabic is one of the hardest languages to learn.

      I still haven't been able to learn it myself. But I thought your suggestions were really good, and I'm going to try some of them myself, like setting a regular time to try to talk to some real people for 15 minutes or so.

      Best regards,
      Mary of Expat Abroad in Morocco

    4. Thanks Mary! I can't believe that Arabic is harder than Chinese. Wow! That totally makes sense.

      Yes, I found that it worked much better for me to be intentional in practicing my Arabic. So while I wasn't comfortable in going up to complete strangers, it helped to just frequent the same places (you know, the local shops around the neighborhood) and to build up from just smiling at the ladies to saying hello and then having conversations with them.

      Great to meet you! Can't wait to hear more stories on your blog. =)

    5. Hey, I came across your blog and wanted to mention a resource I found that has a cool format for people learning Egyptian Arabic, just thought it could help out the community of Arabic learners in Egypt!

    6. Hi there! (Dustin?) I checked out the site mentioned above and found it interesting. My one piece of advice for anyone who is learning Arabic (in Egypt or not) is that you want to be sure to learn your pronunciation from a NATIVE speaker. This is why I'm don't teach or speak Arabic to my son. No matter how good your Arabic is, if you're not a native speaker so your pronunciation will still sound a bit off.

    7. Salam Erin,
      Love your site, its very informative to say the least, im I am planning to come to Cairo for at least a month in 2011 and maybe live there someday soon. Thank-you so much for relaying all your experiences. Again, very informative and greatly appreciated.
      Lisa-Pennsylvania gal

    8. Hey Lisa (aka PA gal). Well I hope the blog will help you get ready. Are you studying Arabic now or will you wait until you get to Cairo? Let me know if you have any specific questions I can help you out with. Egypt is not for everyone but I must admit that I love it. =) Take care!


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