Learn (Improve) Egyptian Arabic In 30 Days: Part One

Asma Wahba

Author

Asma Wahba

I lived in Cairo, Egypt from August 2015 to July 2018.

For three years I learned Egyptian Arabic.

I sat at Egyptian cafes, watched Egyptian TV shows, chatted with Egyptian coworkers, and listened to Egyptian music.

By the end of my stay, I had a B2 (upper intermediate) in the dialect, and could get along fine in most situations.

But then I moved to Germany.

For the last nine months, I’ve tried to learn German as fast as I can, and have done practically nothing with my Egyptian Arabic.

Schnitzel and beer have taken the place of koshary and tea.

But after receiving an invitation to a wedding in Cairo and finally booking my ticket for the flight in April, I came to a conclusion: German could wait.

It was time to meet an old friend.


To get my brain back to “Egyptian Arabic mode” after almost a year of non-use, I decided to do a project.

30 straight days of Egyptian Arabic on italki.

A one-hour conversation each day about topics that I chose, exclusively in Arabic, with the intent of restoring my command of the dialect to its former level.

I am currently halfway through as of writing this (I just finished my 15th day yesterday), and even though I’m starting to feel the burn, I think I’ve learned a few things.

What follows are my five main takeaways so far.

I’m sure there will be more when I finish.

While these are specific to my past 15 days with Egyptian Arabic, they could likely be applied to any language learning journey.

1) Your listening comprehension sticks around longer than your speaking skills.

I was quite nervous before my first lesson.

I hadn’t spoken Egyptian Arabic for over nine months, and I assumed my ears were only going to understand a fraction of what they used to.

I’d be able to bust out my Egyptian slang, make my teacher laugh, and then be completely lost when he responded.

My speaking skills would be great. My listening comprehension would be horrible.

In fact, it was actually the opposite.

I understood (much to my surprise) the majority of what my teacher was saying.

Responding to him, though, was a completely different story.

He’d ask me a question that I comprehended quite well, and then I’d struggle to find the words.

Granted, nine months isn’t the longest time, but still long enough to put a dent in your capabilities.

This can be quite frustrating.

You feel like you’ve “earned” the right to call yourself a speaker of your target language, and indeed, at one point, you could do just that.

And quite confidently.

But then life and time happens, and for whatever reason, your speaking skills stagnate.

The good news is that if you’ve really learned a language to an adequate level (I’m guessing B2 or higher), the language doesn’t really go away. It’s just laying dormant in your brain, waiting to be activated.

This certainly happened with me.

On day one I was struggling to explain why I liked Egypt.

By day ten, I was comfortably talking about the revolution.

Don’t freak out when your speaking skills slightly fade after time away from your Arabic.

They’re still there, and will gradually make their reappearance.

2) Push through the inconvenience

I’m going to be honest.

There have been times the last 15 days where the last thing I wanted to do was spend an hour speaking Arabic. I was busy, had unfinished work, or was just plain unmotivated.

Sometimes, before I logged on to Skype, it felt more like a job than a hobby.

But that didn’t stop me from doing it.

Even when I had “better things” to do, I still opened my laptop, put on my headphones, and had a one-hour conversation in Egyptian Arabic.

For 15 straight days.

I didn’t always feel like doing it, but I did it anyway, and I’ve made noticeable progress as a result.

You’ve heard it a million times before, but dedication really is key here.

If you really want to do something, you just have to keep at it.

And a pro tip: if you can, schedule your class for the same time every day.

This allows your brain to adapt to the schedule, and establishes a beneficial routine to your language learning.

With italki, you can even buy packages and schedule classes in advance. This is easy, convenient, and great for incentivizing yourself to actually follow through with day-to-day lessons.

Spend the money ahead of time, and you have no choice but to show up every day.

3) Actually study the materials that your teacher sends you

This seems quite obvious.

Still, you’d be surprised how few people are “active” with their own Arabic goals.

It’s not really enough to see new vocabulary words once.

You have to hammer them down repeatedly before you can hope to naturally use them in conversation.

If you are getting your money’s worth on italki, your teacher will probably keep a running list of words and phrases (usually in the Skype chat box) that you should study.

These are either words you have said incorrectly, or new Egyptian Arabic phrases entirely.

Some teachers even go a step above that.

My italki teacher, for example, has consistently sent me videos that are relevant to the topics we are discussing.

Whether interviews with members of Egyptian football clubs or comedy sketches about Egyptian weddings, they have all been a wealth of information outside our normal class time.

But if you’re serious about getting better, it’s not enough just to get this stuff.

No surprise here: you actually have to study it.

To sit down, take notes, and become an active learner in your own education.

Not that I’ve done this without fail.

An hour of talking every day? That’s a lot of vocabulary constantly being thrown at me, and sometimes, extensive study sessions just aren’t realistic.

Still, try as hard as you can to keep up with the things that your teacher is sending you.

They know what they’re doing.

Plus, if you format your lessons like I have (two days for each topic), you get the chance to use your newly learned words immediately.

This is great for getting them stuck, and highly usable, in your brain.

4) How you feel is super important

People should talk about this more.

Nobody expects you to be perfect when studying Arabic. You’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to be frustrating.

There’s simply no avoiding it.

But one awesome way of minimizing this frustration is making sure you are healthy.

This is really just a combination of diet, sleep, exercise, and happiness.

Feel great, you’ll perform great. Feel like crap, your lesson isn’t going to be nearly as effective as it could be.

The worst Arabic classes the last 15 days have usually been the ones where I didn’t feel very good going in.

I was tired or stressed out, and it really showed in my italki conversations.

I became much more apathetic, allowed any misunderstandings to go unaddressed, and asked fewer questions overall.

Simply put, if you are serious about learning Arabic, you need to be taking care of the rest of your life.

This is not to say that you are a “failure” if you aren’t at your peak all the time.

That’s impossible. Life happens.

Sometimes, try as you might, you have no other choice but to push through bad moods and inconvenience (see point two).

But do yourself a favor and at least try to be on top of your game.

Get your sleep, eat right, go to the gym, and do whatever you normally do when you are happy and motivated.

Your Arabic will thank you later.

5) Get uncomfortable

A private italki lesson is the perfect situation to invite “discomfort” into your language learning.

If you have the right Arabic teacher, he or she will correct you where you are wrong and actively try to fix your mistakes.

This correction is absolutely vital if you are serious about improving fast, and you won’t get it just anywhere.

While meeting up with friends that speak Arabic or practicing with natives is amazing, sometimes it’s just not the best approach. There is less focus on correcting your mistakes and you therefore get much less immediate feedback on what you are doing wrong.

On the other hand, immediate feedback is the name of the game with italki.

The teacher is getting paid to make you a better speaker. His corrections aren’t a personal insult, but the necessary ingredient to polish up your conversational competency.

This is a truly wonderful thing, and a process that will make you a wonderful speaker.

So push your boundaries.

When you want to say something, try saying it exactly as you want it. Not the “easier way” that uses less words.

Not the “working around it” way that uses phrases you already know.

Don’t try to hide behind the mask of “good enough.”

Instead, take a pause, think about it, and say exactly what you want to say.

Who cares if you butcher the sentence?

A one-on-one speaking conversation with a teacher is a unique situation that has the potential to improve your spoken Arabic ability quite fast without the social fright of “looking stupid.”

Take full advantage of it.

Conclusion

My 30 Days of Egyptian Arabic project has been a valuable experience so far.

I have learned a few valuable lessons the first 15 days, and am excited what else I will realize in the last 15.

Truth be told, this month of Arabic that I’m doing sounded extreme at first.

I thought I was stretching myself too thin, and that I’d last all of four days before I gave up entirely.

But the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve really gotten into it.

Every day has been a chance to learn something new, and every conversation has reminded me of how cool this dialect really is.

If you are serious about learning Arabic, I suggest you do something similar.

It doesn’t have to be 30 days of italki, but it should challenge you.

Try to push your boundaries.

Try to smash that comfort zone.

Whether it’s going to that language club you’ve always wanted to or attending a Couchsurfing meeting with only Arabic speakers, a bit of creativity can take you quite far in your target language.

Hard work and dedication.

Combine these two, and you can only get better.


This post was contributed by Eric Schenck.

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