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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Learning Arabic:
My Journey, Part 1

by Shira

On my first six trips to Egypt, I found myself wishing I knew some Arabic.  I was familiar with a few isolated words that appear in song lyrics, such as “habibi” ("my sweetheart"), but I had never learned how to put my own sentences together, nor had I learned words that might be useful in tourist situations. So when preparing for my seventh trip to Egypt, I decided the time had come to begin learning Arabic.

This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on learning Egyptian Arabic via audio CD. 

  • Part 2 covered what I experienced when I actually used my new knowledge in Egypt after completing 10 lessons.
  • Part 3 covers what I experienced when I returned to Egypt after completing the full 30-lesson instruction by Pimsleur.

I began my studies in March 2008, and continued until I left for my trip 2 ½ months later in June 2008. I spent about 15-20 minutes a day on my lessons.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Shira.




Why Learn Arabic?

There were a number of reasons why I wanted to learn a little Arabic.  They included:

  • Empower myself to deal more effectively with tourist situations in Egypt when the person I’m talking to knows little or no English.
  • Communicate a little better with local Egyptians who don’t speak English, such as the women I meet when I’m invited to people’s homes.
  • Begin understanding bits and pieces of song titles and lyrics when I don’t have access to translations.
  • Begin understanding bits of dialogue when watching Egyptian movies on DVD.

I’m a realist.  I knew I wouldn’t be capable of understanding everything in a song or a movie with the kind of casual language study that I was planning. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and I was ready to take that first step.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.




The Barriers

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  The barriers I faced were:

  • I find it difficult to learn languages.  Although I have a university degree in French, and I also know some German and Spanish, learning languages does not come easily to me. I worked very hard to learn the ones I know, and I dreaded the level of effort that learning yet another language would require.
  • I didn’t have time available to devote to a regular weekly class, nor did I have time to work with computer-based tutorials. I needed to find a way to fit learning Arabic into my already-crowded daily schedule.
  • I dislike the rote memorization required to learn vocabulary.
  • I knew that with only a few minutes per day available for my studies, my progress would be slow, very slow. It can be difficult for adults to remain motivated when we don’t see instant results.

I considered these issues before deciding to move forward.  I solved the problem of limited time by using instructional audio CD’s when driving short distances around town in my car.

I gave myself permission to learn slowly.  I kept my goal very simple: to learn whatever I could in the time available, and I promised myself I wouldn’t feel discouraged if that turned out to be a small amount.  I told myself that even if I learned only a small amount, it would be more than I knew the previous time I went to Egypt.



Deciding Which Product to Buy

I had heard of several tools for Arabic self-study, including Rosetta Stone, Berlitz, and Pimsleur. 

I quickly rejected Rosetta Stone, because it teaches Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is modern-day version of the Arabic dialect used in the Koran.  Although people throughout the Middle East understand MSA, this dialect is not used in everyday speech anywhere.  Because of my desire to have conversations with the locals when I went to Egypt, I wanted to start with a dialect that wouldn't sound stilted or silly to people when I spoke it.  Another benefit of Egyptian Arabic was that I wanted to begin learning to understand song lyrics and Egyptian movie dialogue. Because Egypt's movie industry has always dominated the Arabic-speaking world, Egyptian dialect is widely understood — another benefit of starting my studies with Egyptian. The other problem with Rosetta Stone is that it presents the lessons via computer software rather than through audio CD.  It wasn’t something I could work with while driving around town in my car.

I owned an old Arabic instruction cassette tape made by Berlitz which I had attempted to use some years earlier.  I had been unsuccessful with it at the time, because I found its format difficult to deal with.  The tape gave me phrases to memorize by rote, whereas I preferred to find a product that would teach me enough about grammar to put my own sentences together.  The Berlitz tape expected me to refer to a printed booklet while using the lesson, and that wasn’t compatible with my plan to learn while driving my car around town. I decided to try a different product rather than making another attempt with Berlitz.   

Some people on the Internet spoke highly of Pimsleur, which offers a version that teaches the Egyptian dialect, so I decided to try that.  I discovered that there were two different Pimsleur packages.  One contained ten lessons, and was affordably priced at around $30.  The other contained thirty lessons (which included the first ten that appeared in the lower-priced package), and bore a more frightening price tag of about $250.  I decided to start with the lower-priced package of ten.  When I received it, I found that it came with a coupon that would allow me to upgrade to the set of thirty lessons at a discounted price if I should decide I wanted to do that. Pimsleur



Using the Lessons

Each Pimsleur CD contains two lessons, each lesson 30 minutes in length. It uses two native speakers of Arabic, a man and a woman, which enables me, the user, to hear the different nuances of how the same words might be pronounced by different people.

I found that the way Pimsleur structured the lessons worked well for me.  It would teach something simple, then build on it.  Every step of the way, it would teach what each individual word meant, and talk about how to put them together into sentences.  For example, it started with very simple sentences such as “I understand Arabic,” and “You understand Arabic,” then it would start to build on them, by showing how to say “I don’t understand Arabic,” and how to vary “you understand” when the person involved is a man as opposed to a woman.

I find it easiest to learn when I start simple and then add new information that builds on what I already know. Pimsleur’s approach worked well for me.

I tend to be a visual learner.  By that, I mean that I find it easiest to learn by absorbing what I see, rather than trying to remember what I have heard.  As a result, I found it difficult to learn by working with an audio CD.  I found that if I tried to go straight through a 30-minute lesson from beginning to end, by the time I progressed about 15 minutes into the lesson I had forgotten vocabulary that appeared at the beginning.  I solved this problem by working with the lessons in 10-minute segments.  This also coincided conveniently with the typical amount of time I would spend in my car – my trips around town usually involved only 10-15 minute drives.  But even when I was making longer drives to other cities I still found that breaking the lessons into 10-minute segments worked best for me, in order for me to retain the information.  I would work with the first 10 minutes of a lesson, and I would rewind as often as necessary to remember what that section taught.  I drilled this section over and over, possibly as many as six or seven times, until I could remember each and every thing taught in that section without hesitating.  Only then did I move on to the next 10-minute section.  Progressing in this way, it would often take me about 4-5 hours spread over the course of about a week to complete a single 30-minute lesson.  This methodology worked well for me – although it was a slow way to complete a lesson, once I reached the end I felt as if I really knew the material and would be able to remember it when I needed it. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.



Other people have told me they just listened to the CD’s once through from beginning to end, without repetition – and then they complained that they felt they hadn’t learned anything.  I don’t think this was the fault of the CD’s.  I think it was the user’s fault for failing to take time for the repetition needed to retain the information.  I didn’t see the lessons as a “race” to push through them as rapidly as possible. I saw them as a tool I could use over and over until I had absorbed what they contained.

Beginning with lesson two, each lesson in the Pimsleur’s series is structured as follows:

  • It begins with a conversation between a man and a woman that uses words and grammar taught in earlier lessons, speaking at normal speed (i.e., not slowed).  I found it useful to listen carefully to these, over and over, to train my ear to understand the spoken word. 
  • It goes into a review in which the instructor asks me, the user, to say things that were taught in earlier lessons.  For example, the narrator might ask, “How would you say, ‘I would like to eat something’?” There would then be a pause allowing me to say my response out loud, and then one of the two native speakers on the CD would say the answer, allowing me to check my grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
  • It introduces new vocabulary and/or grammar.  These tend to follow themes.  For example, there is a lesson that introduces how to ask for directions. It includes the words for street, station, where, here, and over there. Another lesson teaches how to ask, “What time?” and how to say certain hours of the day in response.

It ends with a review, following the same question/answer format as the beginning of the lesson, to review the new material taught in that lesson as well as reviewing older material taught in previous lessons.



What I Learned In Ten Lessons

Here is a summary of what the first ten lessons taught me to say:

  • I.  You.  He/She/It.
  • I am American.  I am Egyptian. Are you American/Egyptian?
  • I understand English.  I understand Arabic.  I speak English.  I speak Arabic.  I don’t speak/understand English/Arabic.  Do you understand/speak English/Arabic?
  • A little.  (Such as, “I speak a little Arabic.”)
  • Yes.  No.  Not.  Please.  Thank you.  Excuse me.  Sir.  Madam.  Miss.
  • Good morning.  Good-bye.
  • Where?  When?  What?  At what time?  Now.  Not now.  Later.  O’clock.
  • One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.  Eight.  Nine.  (I find it odd that it did not teach six, seven, ten, eleven, or twelve as part of the first ten lessons, considering that it was teaching how to talk about what time it is.)
  • Here.  Over there.  Hotel.  Street.  Restaurant.  Station.  Pyramid.  It/He/She.  At the (hotel, restaurant, etc.)
  • I want to…  I don’t want to…
  • Eat.  Drink.  Buy.  Would like to.  Something.  Some.  Coffee.  Tea.  Or.  And.
  • With whom?  With me.  With you.

I completed the tenth lesson just a couple of days before it was time for me to leave on my trip to Egypt. In Part 2 of this article, “Actually Using It in Egypt and Looking Forward”, I’ll describe what happened when I tested my new knowledge with real-life Egyptians.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.




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