Learning Arabic can take time

Learning Arabic at the Cairo Airport

Learning Arabic at 2:00 am

It’s 2:00 am and I am checking in at Cairo Airport Terminal 1.  Heading out of country for a short trip to the US and Canada.  Gearing myself up for some COLD weather in Canada!

Airports have a lot of verbal interaction, as you deal with porters, check in agents, drivers, security people, and other passengers.  Arabic definitely comes in handy.

Some people learning Arabic that I have come across here in Egypt seem to feel that the usefulness of Arabic is that it saves you from having to give tips, or lets you pay local prices.  Personally I don’t care as much about this one, although it is in fact helpful for living on a budget.  One trip’s worth of tips in a place like the airport can blow your whole monthly budget. But what I appreciate the most is the fun and sometimes humorous interactions it brings.  For me, humor is good.  And Egyptians love to joke and laugh.

Arabic conversation 1 – Porter

A porter lifts my carry-on bag onto the security belt.  I don’t actually need his help, and I don’t want to tip him because I’ve given out lots of tips already.  So instead I joke with him, and get him smiling.

Porter:  إنت بتكلم عربي كوايس.  بقالك كم سنة فى مصر؟

(You speak Arabic well.  How many years have you been in Egypt?”)

Me: تديني كام يسة فى مصر؟

(How many years do you think I’ve been here?)

Porter:  (Pause…) ١٠ سنين ؟

(10 years?)

Me:  ٢٤ سنة

(24 years)

Porter:  Surprised look on face…

Analysis:  Hmm.  He’s surprised I’ve been here that long.  I guess my Arabic in that situation was good enough to make him think I’d been here a decade, but not good enough to make him think a quarter century.  Must have been my ingrained Canadian accent coming through. Feeling like a bit of a beginner right now in learning Arabic.  Telling myself that at 2:00 am I don’t sound great in any language!

Arabic Conversation 2 – Police Officer

Police officer takes my Canadian passport, starts flipping through it to find my picture.  Keeps looking at the wrong end of the passport, as if it were an Egyptian passport (written in Arabic, and therefore written right to left).

Me: إقلبه… الاسم و الصورة هنا

(flip it… the name and picture are here)

Police officer: ما تديني الباسبور المصري و تريّحني

(why don’t you give me your Egyptian passport and make my life easier).

I guess I did a bit better that time, since he thought I had an Egyptian passport tucked away in my other bag. Ok feeling a bit better about my Arabic speaking now.

What’s my lesson here?  Probably that you shouldn’t get frustrated if you feel like learning Arabic is a slow process.  Contrary to what most people think, you can become functionally fluent pretty quickly.  Passing as a native speaker may take a bit longer!  Also your level of language ability may not be at it’s best level at 2:00 am. 🙂


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