Egyptian Arabic: Five Important Things

Egyptian Arabic Teacher

At the request of one of my Arabic learning acquaintances on Twitter, أمريكية صعيدية @AmericanSaeedi, I am re-posting here the text of an interview made back in 2003.  The interview is with Dr. David Wilmsen, who was at that time living in Egypt and working at the American University.  Dr. Wilmsen is now, according to my quick google search, at AUB, the American University in Beirut.  You can check out his page, or his research publications.

Egyptian Arabic expert Dr. David Wilmsen

The article was originally posted on my old website,  That site was where we showcased our software Egyptian Arabic Vocab Clinic®, and Modern Standard Arabic Vocab Clinic® and Verb Clinic®.  They are now no longer being distributed, as AUC Press decided to not continue publishing them.

On a side note, AUC Press is a fantastic publisher and puts out some of the best Egyptian Arabic course books, as well as other publications about Egypt.  Check out their website.  I don’t blame them for not continuing with distributing the Vocab Clinic software, as it was on CD-ROM and that medium kind of is a dim memory for most of us now, sort of in the cassette tape zone.  If you used that software or are interested in an Arabic learning course, I am dropping a small hint here:  stay tuned here for some upcoming news about something we are putting together.  Or sign up for my newsletter over on the right sidebar.  That’s all I will say for now.

Here’s the interview:

Egyptian Arabic: The 5 most important things learners should remember

October 2003: An exclusive interview with Dr. David Wilmsen, Director of Arabic and Translation Studies at the Center for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) at the American University in Cairo .

Dr. David Wilmsen is the Director of Arabic and Translation Studies at the Center for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) at the American University in Cairo. Dr. Wilmsen, originally from the United States, moved to Cairo 14 years ago [written in 2003]. He is co-author of the well known Egyptian Colloquial Arabic text book “SabaaH il-xiir ya maSr” (“Good Morning Egypt”), holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Linguistics, and (of course!) is a fluent non-native speaker of Egyptian Arabic.

This article is a summary of an interview we had with Dr. Wilmsen in October 2003.

1. It is not as difficult as people make it out to be. You CAN learn it! 

Dr. Wilmsen says Arabic has received a reputation for being difficult because of the “medieval” conceptions of Arabic language learning/teaching that have not changed much over the 1400 years that Arabic has been an international language. With modern approaches to language learning, however, Wilmsen claims Arabic is not so difficult…“especially if students begin with the spoken [colloquial] language.”

When Arabic was originally taught to non-native Arabic speakers, it was for the primary purpose of new converts studying Islam. Therefore, there was a heavy emphasis on the written language in order to read the Quran, Islam’s holy book. During that time, people who studied the language did not give much attention to the spoken language. Purposes for learning Arabic have evolved drastically since those times. Language learners now prefer to interact more with the language as well as the native speakers. Dr. Wilmsen believes standard teaching techniques have not evolved as quickly in order to meet the new needs and goals of modern students.

For instance, teachers of Arabic often teach past tense verbs first only because it is the least complicated and the most straightforward for teaching. Dr. Wilmsen explains, “It is much simpler to conjugate verbs in past tense, and that is why it has been taught that way for 1400 years…but it’s not necessarily the most effective. It leaves the student only able to speak in past tense in their first weeks of conversation with people.” Places using modern teaching techniques (such as the Center for Adult and Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo) have begun to teach present tense verbs first to enable faster and more accurate interaction with the native-speaking community.

Aspects of the language are difficult, but they are no more difficult than aspects required when learning any other language. When Dr. Wilmsen began attending the American University in Cairo in the summer of 1990, he loved languages and refused to allow a so-called “difficult” language to defeat him. He adds, “I also had good teachers who convinced me that it wasn’t all that difficult and inspired me to keep going.” He now encourages others by declaring, “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 FusHa / فُصْحَى  (Formal/Written) Arabic, should learn Colloquial Egyptian Arabic first.

Usually when learning any language, students learn four skills: Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing. In Arabic, the written form is substantially different from the spoken…to the point that it justifies learning it on its own.

FusHa / فُسْحَى  is the formal/written medium of Arabic, rarely spoken but commonly used in literature, historical manuscripts, government documentation, and religious or ceremonial contexts. The two types of FusHa / فُسْحَى  are called Classical and Modern Standard. Modern Standard Arabic is the most commonly taught form of FusHa / فُسْحَى .

As the head of CACE, Dr. Wilmsen speaks with many students desiring to learn Arabic. Considering the distinctions between Egyptian Colloquial Arabic and Modern Standard, his first question for them is always determining what they want to do with their Arabic. What the student wants to do dictates the course of study he/she should take.

“The two after all are just aspects of the same language. Both can distract from or interfere with one another, but they also support each other. If your goal is to become a well-rounded Arabist, then you must learn both well. Once you know one, you can adopt the tendencies and exceptions of the other,” Dr. Wilmsen explains.

In the US and perhaps other Western nations where Arabic is studied, there is great emphasis on reading and writing first and then perhaps providing a bit of spoken Arabic. (Universities often offer 4 terms of Modern Standard to 1 term of Colloquial). Dr. Wilmsen illustrates, “It is like learning Latin and moving to Italy. You have the basis of the language, but obviously the language has evolved a lot since the days that Latin was spoken. It has similarities, but the language itself is just not spoken any more.”

Universities tend to have a bias toward the texts, and want to teach students to analyze texts. But in practical terms, language learners usually have different goals. They want to dive in and interact with the language. Therefore, Dr. Wilmsen feels “universities should teach learners a Colloquial variety of Arabic first” stating that “Egyptian Arabic is a good default language to start with. Then, if the student is dedicated to it or motivated enough, they can move on to Modern Standard Arabic from there.” Most universities do not follow this method, but some programs are adapting since the increased interest in Arabic programs starting in 2001.

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. 

Egypt’s capital, Cairo, has long been the center of Arab media, films and television programs watched by millions of people across the Arab world. In terms of the number of films produced, Cairo would fall third in line of production after Bollywood (India) and Hollywood (USA).

Regardless of the rather dramatic changes in dialect throughout the Arabic speaking countries, Egyptian media has made Egyptian Arabic familiar to nearly every household. And 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. 

The advantage of learning as an adult is the benefit of learning with an analytical mind. Dr. Wilmsen expounds, “An adult can hold the language out in front of him and turn it around and look at it, figure out what the rules are and why the rules exist, what the exceptions are, etc.” Dr. Wilmsen also adds, “Theory says it takes 15 years for a child to acquire full native speaker efficiency. An adult can easily learn a language in less than 15 years. As adults, you should be willing to step back and examine the language as if it were an artifact and notice the difference in the way things are expressed.”

One observation for instance, is that in any particular utterance, Colloquial Arabic seems to use fewer words than Western languages do. It tends to leave out ideas and constructs that Westerners would want to put in. Language learners need to be able to observe how people are doing that.

Exercises Dr. Wilmsen suggests to begin interacting with Egyptian Colloquial Arabic:

  • 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.
  • Apps 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 

(Transliteration means using characters from your native alphabetic script to represent the sounds made in another alphabet script).

The actual Arabic alphabet can be learned very quickly, and it can benefit your Arabic learning in multiple ways. First, it will simplify accurate pronunciation of difficult words. Egyptian Colloquial Arabic includes distinctive sounds such as the “voiced uvular fricative” and the “glottal stop” that are frequently used in daily conversation. Once learners adopt the unique sounds made for specific Arabic letters, their Colloquial Arabic accent will improve dramatically. When beginners try to reproduce what they hear into script using their own alphabet, the accuracy of the pronunciation is hindered.

Second, if you are planning to eventually study FusHa / فُسْحَى  (Modern Standard Arabic), learning the alphabet during Colloquial study is a good stepping stone. Making the tedious switch in writing systems would inevitably slow down the progress made. The differences in the two forms of the Arabic language will be enough to contend with.

Finally, it is fun and impressive to be able to write your name or your friends’ names in such a unique script…or read signs and menus that seem like nonsense to other foreigners.


English speakers could come to Egypt (or many Arabic speaking countries) and never need to speak a word of Arabic due to the widespread knowledge of English. However, it is a lot more fun to be able to communicate in the local language, even if just a small amount. The more you know of Arab culture by acquisition of the language, the more sophisticated understanding you have of “the Arab World.”

Study of Classical Arabic can be considered quite “stuffy.” Dr. Wilmsen compares it to learning German from formal German literature and conventional German texts…it is a much more painful process. “It is much more fun to learn the ‘living’ language from the larger ‘living’ community,” Dr. Wilmsen explains.

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.”



2 thoughts on “Egyptian Arabic: Five Important Things”

  1. This is so useful! Enjoyed the Wilmsen…he was a prof of mine in Beirut. I’ve moved on from learning Arabic to a tribal African language, but there are some practical tips in here for my current situation. Thanks!

    1. Very cool. What year did you have Dr. Wilmsen in Beirut? Good luck with the tribal African language! 🙂

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