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

Learning Arabic:
My Journey, Part 2

by Shira


This is Part 2 in a 3-part series on learning Egyptian Arabic via audio CD. 

  • Part 1 covered “Beginning the Process.” 
  • Part 3 covers what I experienced when I returned to Egypt after completing the full 30-lesson instruction by Pimsleur.

The true test of how successful foreign language lessons have been is to go to the actual country where the language is spoken and try using what was learned.  Only by doing this could I gauge whether the grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation I learned from the CD’s matches the way real Egyptian people communicate.  Would 2 ½ months of self-study at just a few hours of week actually provide me with enough skill to be useful?  I was looking forward to going to Egypt and testing the results.

Naturally, most Egyptians in tourist-related jobs speak English.  However, some service personnel such as housekeeping staff and bus drivers tend to have very limited English skills.  Also, I have come to know a couple of Egyptian families and while the husbands speak good English, their wives and daughters speak almost none.  My goal in my studies was to acquire sufficient skill to communicate better than last year with these people.  I didn't need to be fluent, just better than last year. I kept my objectives simple and attainable.

So, did it work? In short, yes, I considered my efforts successful, and I now feel motivated to continue with learning more.  I felt empowered by my increased ability to understand other people and make myself understood.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Shira.




Things My New Knowledge Helped Me Handle

Although my knowledge from completing the first 10 lessons of a 30-lesson program was very, very limited, I was able to combine what I learned from the Pimsleur CD’s with some other isolated Arabic words that I already knew.  Some examples of things I was able to handle:

  • A cab driver turned to me and said the name of the street we were heading for, and seemed to be seeking clarification on where to take us.  I understood when he said the street name, and told him the name of the hospital across the street from our destination, since it is a landmark that most cab drivers would recognize.  He then asked me in Arabic, “Hotel?” and I was able to say in Arabic, “Victoria Hotel.”  Although the street name and hospital name were things I knew from previous visits, the fact that I knew a bit of Arabic led me to really listen to what he said just in case it was something I could understand, whereas in the past I probably wouldn’t have realized he was saying something familiar to me.  It did prove useful to recognize the word “hotel” when he asked it and respond appropriately – something I couldn’t have done last year.
  • I was able to greet people such as flight attendants and airport staff with “Good morning” in Arabic, which always seemed to elicit reactions of surprised pleasure.  Egyptians don’t expect to hear a tall, blue-eyed blonde woman speaking their language. Of course, I could have greeted these people in English, which they spoke quite fluently, but where’s the fun in that?


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Shira.

  • When being taken around Cairo by my private guide, I really listened to what he said in Arabic to various people, and realized that some of the things he said were words I had picked up from learning song titles, and I could use.  For example, in the past I had learned the word “khalas,” which can mean, “let it go,” “liberated,” or “let it be.”  I noticed that my guide used it to dismiss aggressive vendors who were trying to sell me stuff.  I also noticed he tended to use a particular hand gesture when he said it.  So when I went on the Nile cruise, I had a new word in my arsenal for dealing with the aggressive vendors who mobbed us at every tourist stop along the way, and found it effective.  Before doing my studies, I probably wouldn’t have tried to listen to my guide when he was speaking Arabic to other Egyptians and therefore I wouldn’t have picked up new ways of expressing myself.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Shira

  • The housekeeping woman at my hotel came to clean my room when I was in it.  I wanted her to clean it right then, and I was happy to leave the room for a while to let her do it.  I was able to tell her “Now is good,” in Arabic when gesturing her in.  In the past, I still would have gestured, but I found it helpful to include words with the gesture. It helped remove ambiguity from the situation.
  • It was useful to have the Arabic vocabulary to deal with waiters.  I could call, “Sir!” if trying to get someone’s attention, and at breakfast it helped to be able to request coffee or tea. 
  • It’s always nice to be able to use courtesies such as “please”, “thank you,” and “excuse me,” in the local language when traveling. 
  • When I fell and injured my foot one day, I was immediately swarmed by helpful Egyptians who spoke almost no English.  It was useful to comprehend that they were asking me if I was okay, and to be able to answer them appropriately. 
  • When I visited the homes of local Egyptians, it was really nice to be able to exchange pleasantries such as “How are you?” “I’m very good,” directly with the women, without needing to ask their husbands to translate.  It was nice to be able to compliment the cooking.  Of course, my knowledge didn’t take me very far, and the husbands still did a lot of translating, but I had made a step in the right direction.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Shira

I was very pleased to discover that my studies had enabled me to put sentences together quite easily and comfortably in the above situations.  When I heard local Egyptians speak, I could tell that their sentence structure was the same as I had learned from the CD’s, so I felt I had received accurate information.  Due to my hours of rewinding and drilling over and over, I found myself able to recall the words and grammar I had learned without much difficulty.  At my request, my private guide corrected my pronunciation on things I was saying incorrectly, and I was glad to note that there weren’t many corrections.  (Every time he corrected me, I thanked him and asked him to continue doing so.  I do believe he was correcting every error.)

In the course of learning other languages over the years (French, German, Spanish), I have discovered that the more I know of a language, the easier it is to learn more.  It’s a snowball effect.  Thanks to the little bit of Arabic I now know, I was able to pick up some additional vocabulary while in Egypt, such as “I missed you,” “sugar cane juice”, “ice”, “never mind,” and a few other expressions. I am also finding it easier to integrate into conversations the words I learned from working with translations of Arabic song lyrics.



What Came Next?

So, where does that leave me?

I liked the Pimsleur methodology enough that I purchased the remaining 20 lessons.  I continued with those over the following months.  I set a goal of mastering 10 of the remaining 20 lessons over the course of the next 6 months.  I met that, then went on to work with the rest. I completed the remaining 20 lessons. In Part 3, I will talk about how far that took me, what happened when I went to Egypt after completing all 30 lessons, and what I plan to do next.




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