Between March and April of this year, I attempted a project: 30 straight days of Egyptian Arabic.
My plan was to have a one hour conversation on italki with an Egyptian Arabic tutor, every day, for 30 straight days.
I had lived for three years in Cairo, and left with a high B2 in Egyptian Arabic.
The purpose of the project was preparation for an upcoming trip to Cairo.
I failed to reach my original goal (28 lessons of Arabic in 27 non-consecutive days), but still made noticeable improvement in my speaking skills.
Here are the ten main takeaways from my language project.
While all of these are specific to my own experience with learning Egyptian Arabic, lots of them could be applied to learning just about any language.
This of course comes with exceptions (if you want to read Arabic or understand news programs, for example).
But I’m just going to say it: if you actually want to speak with Egyptians (or any Arabic speakers, for that matter), learn their dialect.
My teacher told me numerous times that he was pleasantly surprised that I was learning the Egyptian dialect instead of “fus7a.” It was, in his words, “the only way to be understood in Egypt.”
It’s a sad truth.
Most foreigners spend a ton of time getting really good at Standard Arabic, and then are essentially hopeless on the streets of Cairo.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true nonetheless: you’re going to have a rough time speaking Standard Arabic in Egypt.
If you really want to chat with Egyptians, stick to the dialect.
I’m not the biggest seafood fan. Never have been, and probably never will be.
Because of that, even after three years of living in Cairo and learning Egyptian Arabic, I never bothered to learn the name of fish.
And why would I?
I never ate them, didn’t fish for fun, and wasn’t really an "animal person."
One day of my project, however, was devoted to talking about Egyptian food.
20 minutes of that lesson was exclusively about the differences between the food in Cairo and the food in Alexandria. And what do you think the biggest difference was?
You guessed it.
For 20 minutes, it was quite literally like I was a beginner.
Most of the words my teacher was saying I didn’t know, and I had to ask him for explanations countless times. This hardly ever happens when I am talking about the topics that interest me most: politics, cultural differences, learning foreign languages.
But because I’ve never needed seafood vocab, I didn’t know the words and everything was new.
This is quite alright, and you have no need to panic.
Unless you are planning on becoming a complete expert in your target language (practically impossible, even with your native tongue), you probably aren’t going to learn all the words in the dictionary. And that’s fine.
Ask your average English speaker to make sense of a legal document in their own language, and odds are they are going to struggle.
Relax, accept that you can’t possibly know it all, and get ready to learn something new.
Like I said in Part One, there were plenty of times where I just didn’t feel like speaking Arabic. I love the language, sure, and most of the time I quite enjoy using it.
Still, 30 days in-a-row is quite a lot.
And sometimes with a busy schedule and a tired brain, Arabic was the last thing I wanted to do.
But every time I laughed, or asked funny questions that opened the door to interesting conversations, that feeling went away.
Everything was so much easier when I was enjoying it.
It’s a lesson that every child is a pro in: fun = motivation = success.
You’re much more motivated to do things when they are at least a little enjoyable.
Keep that in mind during your language studies.
Whenever you feel like you’re in a rut, mix things up.
Watch a movie, go to a language exchange, read some comics in Arabic.
Anything to make sure you’re having a good time.
No surprise here, right?
What I actually mean isn’t so obvious to people learning Arabic.
If you are serious about getting better at a language, it’s not enough to learn what native speakers say. Instead, you should ideally also learn how they say it, and then attempt to mimic them.
Or at least talk like them.
When I am speaking Arabic, I become much more animated, talk with my hands a lot, and raise my voice.
All typical of Egyptians.
This allows me to sound more convincing, and usually gets a much better reaction from Egyptians themselves, as it sounds (to their ears) a bit more authentic.
This is not meant to stereotype people or put an entire nationality in a box, but rather to get you in the proper "mindset."
A language is so much more than a set of words that a group of people says.
It also includes the tone of your voice, your facial expressions, and even your body language.
Speaking like an Egyptian, and not just an American learning Egyptian Arabic, has always gotten me better results.
This might be one of those weird "advanced tips" that sounds like black magic, but it works.
Give it a try.
Maybe your friends think you are smart for speaking Arabic at a high level.
Maybe your parents praise you every time you mention how good you are getting. Maybe your girlfriend thinks you are super cool, and always asks you to say things to her in Arabic.
All of these things feel good.
And they’re all total crap.
The thing is, motivation in general is a fickle thing, and can come and go when you least expect it.
It’s great to be motivated, of course.
But having your motivation to improve your language skills be dependent on the words of others is a recipe for disaster.
Because their kind words won’t always be there.
You are doing this for you.
As long as you are pushing yourself in the way that you want to and progressing at the pace you want to, other peoples’ opinions should be secondary.
Frustration, while a completely normal feeling when learning Arabic, is also destructive.
It makes you less motivated to put the work in.
It makes the process appear not worth your time.
And perhaps worst of all, it convinces you that you aren’t making any progress, when the opposite is true.
This most certainly happened to me during this project.
Even though the majority of my Arabic lessons were positive, and left me feeling motivated after each class, there were certainly times where I felt frustrated.
Sessions where I felt that I didn’t perform as I should have, or classes where I made more mistakes than usual.
These times usually resulted in me feeling unmotivated, sad, or even angry at myself for not advancing as fast as I wanted to.
We all know it: learning Arabic can be a frustrating experience. You can’t express yourself the way you want to, you feel like a child in a group of native speakers, and you make the same mistakes over and over again.
But it’s normal. Take solace in that.
If you are a complete beginner (and even if you’ve been studying the language for years like myself), it’s virtually guaranteed that you are going to mess up somewhere along the way.
But instead of getting frustrated, embrace it.
Mistakes are simply proof that you are pushing your brain into unfamiliar territory and improving because of it.
The entire time that I was doing my project we didn’t cover grammar a single time. Instead, we focused on conversation topics and used grammar points in examples when needed.
This allowed me to really use and grammar concepts that I didn’t have a great command of, all while continually improving at my main skill: speaking.
It’s been my experience that formal Arabic language classes focus way too much on grammar.
This leaves you in a weird predicament: you get better and better at understanding the inner workings of a language (a good thing), all the while failing to improve at speaking (a major problem).
Don’t let this happen to you.
Is grammar important?
Of course it is.
But should you really focus the majority of your time on it?
Not a chance.
If you are serious about getting good at a new language, there is simply no way around discipline.
Discipline for studying new words, discipline for listening to TV shows in your target language, and discipline for getting your talking time in.
Simply put, if you are serious about Arabic, you need to be disciplined.
And that requires a bit of time management.
I learned this early on into my project. I’m not a super organized person by nature, and the first week I scheduled italki classes one-by-one.
By day five, I felt like I was running out of steam.
I didn’t have consistent times, always had to push things aside to make room for my class, and didn’t have nearly as much focus during class as I should have.
Getting serious about scheduling changed that.
Planning classes way ahead of time allowed me to build my calendar around my Arabic sessions, and this in turn created a much more relaxed mindset ideal for improvement.
You should do the same.
This sounds quite cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason.
95 percent of the time, comparison can only lead to bad things.
During my project, I studied a lot of materials outside of my normal “hour a day” conversation. This led me numerous times to videos on YouTube of foreigners speaking Egyptian Arabic way better than I can.
They were good.
Like, "close your eyes and they sound like an Egyptian" good.
This made me a bit depressed at first, but I had to stop myself. Good for them.
I don’t know anything about them, and our lives are completely different.
Who cares if they speak Arabic better than I can?
There will always be somebody better than you. No matter what your efforts, and regardless of your plans, somebody out there is much better than you.
Doesn’t matter if it’s learning Arabic or playing a sport.
It doesn’t matter that there are people out there who speak Arabic better than you. That will always be true, and it’s something you just can’t change.
What does matter is that you are better today than you were today.
Improvement over time is how professionals do it.
Leave comparison to the amateurs.
When I moved to Cairo in August of 2015, my goal was to be perfectly fluent in Egyptian Arabic by the end of 2016.
Even halfway through 2018, when I left Cairo, I still hadn’t achieved my goal.
Did my project go according to plan? Am I fluent after these 30 days?
The answer to all of these is, of course, no.
But my project did what I wanted it to. It got me back into "Arabic speaking mode," and excited for a two-week-trip to Egypt.
In other words, while my project wasn’t perfect, it was good enough.
And that’s awesome.
We get so caught-up in achieving our goals 100 percent that we don’t realize that 90 percent is probably just fine (and much less stressful).
By all means, set ambitious goals.
But realize that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t achieve them exactly as planned.
And more importantly, that partly achieving them is fantastic in itself.
This way, you’ll be much less hard on yourself.
Learning Arabic is a great investment, and achieving your goals with it is always something to strive for.
But don’t take yourself too seriously.
I’ve made exactly that mistake before, and I was much less effective in my studies than I could have been.
You’ll thank me later.
This post was contributed by Eric Schenck.