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

Learning Arabic:
My Journey, Part 3

by Shira


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

  • Part 1 covered “Beginning the Process.” 
  • Part 2 covered what I experienced when I actually used my new knowledge in Egypt.

In Part 3, I'll describe what happened after I bought and used lessons 20 through 30 in the Pimsleur audio CD set and went to Egypt again.

As with the original 10-lesson set, lessons 20 through 30 taught vocabulary that could be potentially useful to either a tourist or a business traveler visiting Egypt. I learned vocabulary for shopping, getting directions, using taxicabs, and more. I continued to use these lessons in the way that I had used the first ten — I worked with a 10-minute segment at a time, thoroughly mastering that before going on to the next. Since this approach had worked for me before, it seemed logical to continue doing it this way.

Eventually, I finished the 30 lessons, and found myself hungry for more. I certainly had learned a great deal, and wanted to continue learning. Unfortunately, although Pimsleur offers 90-lesson sets for other languages, it does not do so for Egyptian Arabic.

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




Returning to Egypt

On my next trip to Egypt after finishing the 30-lesson set, I found that I could understand a great deal more.

  • Riding in a car with one of my friends, her husband, and one of his friends, I realized that I was able to understand that the men were talking about how to get where we were going — turn left, turn right, etc.
  • When my friend and I arrived at a mall to attend a dance class at the health club there, I realized I could understand one of the mall workers telling my friend that the club was closed. (We later discovered it had been destroyed by a fire that had occurred earlier that morning.)
  • I was able to negotiate taxi fares without using English at all.
  • I was able to negotiate prices with shop owners without using English.
  • I was able to ask directions and, more importantly, understand the response!

Every time I began a conversation in Arabic with an Egyptian, he replied in Arabic. This made me believe that my skills were good enough for Egyptians to expect I would be capable of understanding their replies and continuing the conversation in Arabic. I believe that if I had sounded incompetent, they would have replied in English.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Shira.


I had been worried about my ability to understand Egyptians speaking Arabic to me. I was afraid they might talk faster than I could follow, or that the accent I had learned on the audio CD's might be different from the accent of the people I met. It was reassuring to discover that the instruction on the CD's was very consistent with how people there actually spoke. When locals spoke in Arabic to me, they pronounced the words the way I expected, and their sentence structure was what I expected.

Many Egyptians praised me for my ability to speak Arabic. Normally, I would be skeptical of such praise and assume they were just being polite. However, since I was able to put sentences together easily, my myself understood, and understand parts of conversations that I overheard between native speakers, I do think that this time it was honest praise.

This doesn't mean I think my Arabic skills are wonderful. I know I'm still very much a beginner. All I'm saying is that I think the tools I used for my study were good tools to help a beginner get started.

Once again, the process of using my language skills in Egypt helped me convert what I had learned via self-study from theory to true knowledge. I learned a few additional vocabulary words as well.

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




Reflecting On How Much I Know Now

My primary knowledge at this point is still focused on vocabulary that a tourist or business traveler would use. I don't know enough Arabic to carry on a social conversation. I don't yet have the vocabulary to tell people what I do in my job, nor would I be able to tell an amusing anecdote about something that happened the day before.

Now that I have completed the Pimsleur 30-lesson Egyptian Arabic course, I consider my knowledge to be at the level of “basic beginning tourist Arabic”.  I don’t know enough yet to follow the plot of a movie without subtitles to guide me, or to understand what the lyrics of a song are saying.  I expected that, and I'm comfortable with it.  I feel I've been realistic in my goals, and that's important because I don't want to get discouraged by the enormity of what I’m attempting to do.  I can pick up bits and pieces of songs and movie plots, which is more than I could before I started the journey. That pleases me.  Thanks to what I have learned so far, I feel capable of learning more.


I no longer think of Arabic as something that I don’t understand.  I now think of it as something I might understand, if only I pay attention and listen for familiar words.  I have several Egyptian movies with English subtitles on my shelf waiting for me to find time to watch them.  When I do watch them, I’ll make the attempt to understand as much as possible from listening to the dialogue in addition to reading the subtitles.  Bit by bit, this will improve my ability to recognize familiar words when they appear in conversation.  I’ll also try to do the same with paying attention to song lyrics.  The more I can recognize the words I already know, the faster I’ll build my skills in understanding spoken Arabic.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Marie Wilkes, Iowa City, Iowa.

After two full years of studying French in a college course, I was not able to put sentences together as easily as I now can in Arabic, and I struggled to understand people when they were talking. The university courses taught me a great deal of French vocabulary and could recite many grammatical rules, but it was extremely difficult to apply that to holding actual conversations. I'm glad that for Arabic I chose to do self-study with audio CD's instead of taking a university course.

I want to learn how to read the Arabic alphabet, so I can more easily make out the credits in Egyptian movies, song titles on CD’s I purchased in Egypt, street names when I visit Egypt, etc.  The full 30-lesson set from Pimsleur comes with a booklet that teaches the written alphabet, but I haven’t yet given it more than a cursory glance.




What Next?

Pimsleur's Egyptian Arabic course consists only of the 30 lessons I have already studied. Pimsleur offers 90-lesson options for other languages, but not for the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. I wrote to Pimsleur to ask about this, and the response was that the sales volume of lessons 1 through 30 in Egyptian dialect hasn't been high enough to justify the investment of creating follow-on lessons. I was disappointed, but at the same time I understood that companies do need to make sensible financial decisions.

I attempted to work with the TravelTalk Egyptian Arabic audio CD, and found it very poorly designed for self-study. I haven't given up on it yet, but for now I'm going to choose something else to work with.

Pimsleur offers the Eastern Arabic dialect, which teaches Lebanese Arabic, in the full 90-lesson series. Therefore, I think my next step will be to work with that. It will take me a while to complete a full 90-lesson course. I'm looking forward to seeing how Eastern Arabic differs from Egyptian Arabic.

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




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