Sunday, May 3

5 Things to Remember About Egyptian Arabic: American University of Cairo

By Dr. David Wilmsen, Director of Arabic and Translation Studies at the Center for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) at the American University in Cairo.

1. It is not as difficult as people make it out to be. You CAN learn it!
“It is a language like any other, and you can learn to speak it and understand it by interacting with it.”

2. Anyone who is going to learn Arabic, unless driven by specific reasons to study Fus7a (Formal/Written) Arabic, should learn Colloquial Arabic first.
According to Dr. Wilmsen, many students approach learning Arabic in the opposite manner that a native speaker does. Typically, they begin with a concentration on Modern Standard Arabic first, then insert Modern Standard Arabic vocabulary into their Colloquial speech as they learn Colloquial. If you reverse that method, you are duplicating the native speaker experience. Native Egyptian speakers learn Colloquial until age 5 and then they begin Modern Standard when they enter school. In that case, when there is interference from their Modern Standard Arabic, it is native style interference.

3. Egyptian Colloquial Arabic is considered a “lingua franca” – a language that is understood and used across borders” – within the Arab world.
Regardless of which Arabic speaking destinations you may find yourself in, Egyptian Arabic is a good dialect to begin learning because Arabic speakers around the world will be able to understand you. You may have difficulty understanding their dialect at first, but they will at least be able to understand you. You can adjust your new colloquial Arabic accordingly from that point.

4. To do well with learning Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, you must be a good observer.
• You should live amidst the language as long as you can…a summer, a semester, a school year, etc. If you live in Cairo, or anywhere Arabic is spoken, and do not go out into the culture to speak with the people, you’re missing a GOLDEN opportunity.
• Adopt certain words and see their frequency and how to use them.
• Concentrate on set expressions people say all the time that will lend a great deal of fluency to your speech (expressions of surprise, dismay, politeness, etc.). Focus on how they are used and then exercise those phrases. Dr. Wilmsen describes these as “fluency markers” saying that “if you use them in native fashion, you’ll appear to be much more fluent than you actually are.” Egyptians find it amusing and impressive when foreigners use such fluency markers.
• Watch soap operas! Egyptian soap operas and plays are written and delivered in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. If seriously committed to learning the language, students can purchase a satellite which makes such programs easily available.
• Find Egyptian radio programs via radio or internet.
• CD software programs such as Egyptian Arabic Vocab Clinic are very useful language tools for functional practice.
• Find a university program where professors apply modern, communicative techniques of language teaching. Tip: People tend to get emotionally attached to their teachers. After you go through 2 sessions with the same teacher, change teachers to experience different dialects. It is always good to take a class, but a class by itself is never enough. It is only a start. You should take advantage of whatever else you can.

5. Learn the Arabic alphabet as soon as you can, and avoid transliteration if possible.
The actual Arabic alphabet can be learned very quickly, and it can benefit your Arabic learning in multiple ways. It will simplify accurate pronunciation of difficult words.

There are approximately 250 million native speakers of Arabic. Dr. Wilmsen says, “It’s often treated like a dead language and it’s nowhere near dying! You’re not just learning language, you are learning a whole new way of life and it’s enriching. That’s the way Arabic should be approached.”

Interview (abridged) from:

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