Wanting to learn Arabic, way back in the 80s and 90s
Learning Arabic is something I get a lot of questions about. I started to learn Arabic in 1989. That was when I took my first course in Modern Standard Arabic. I have spent many years since then studying, learning, and using the language. I have helped people who want to learn Arabic by creating and publishing Arabic language learning apps.
Learning Arabic in Toronto (where I grew up) back then was not very easy. But it wasn’t really until I arrived in Cairo, Egypt, that I began to really move forward in being able to function in the language. I had come to Egypt with one purpose – to learn Arabic. It was August 27, 1991, and I was a brand new arrival in Cairo, on a year abroad at the American University in Cairo during my third year of a degree at the University of Toronto.
Why did I choose Arabic? And why Egypt? I chose Arabic because I was in a linguistics undergraduate program at the University of Toronto, and wanted to study a language other than the usual French, Spanish, and German that my fellow students were studying at the time. I chose Egypt because it was the only place I knew of that would allow me to transfer credits back to my university in Canada. Amazing how seemingly small decisions can change the rest of your life. I’ve been here ever since.
Things that have changed in learning Arabic since 1991
Many things have changed since I arrived in Cairo that day almost 25 years ago. Here’s some of the big ones:
1. No internet
Not having Internet in the early 90s made a huge difference in how I had to learn Arabic. It affected how I lived my everyday life in a way that allowed me to accelerate my learning. The negative part of it was that there were less resources available – less movies, media, writing, and good source material. The positive part of it was that it meant that in order to learn, I had to spend time interacting with people and society. Sounds basic – but it’s amazing how many people try to learn without actually spending time with people. Both quality of time and quantity of time.
2. No Social Media
Back then if someone had said “social media” I would have thought of going to listen to a singer or watch TV with friends. The positive part of not having social media was that it meant less distraction from being able to learn Arabic. I am pretty sure that the overall impact of social media on our learning processes is often negative, unless we really work to tame it and harness it into something positive. No social media also meant that I was living more in the present. Living in the Arabic speaking environment I was in, not stuck with one foot there and one foot in far away Canada. The challenge, of course, was that it took a long time (1-2 weeks) for mail to arrive and send, and phone calls were crazy expensive. So it was harder to feel in touch with family and friends in Canada.
3. Easier to explore and mingle
Although Egypt did have insurgency and terrorism going on in the early 90s, it was very little compared to what the region is experiencing today. This made it very easy to explore places, meet people, and spend time using Arabic face to face in places where nobody spoke any other language. I was able to travel and hang out in remote corners of the country. I lived in a “sha3bi” (شعبي) area (more on that in future posts). I could cheaply on third class trains. Most of that has now changed, sadly.
Things that are always the same in learning Arabic
Although much has changed, there are things that are always the same if you want to learn Arabic. Here’s an initial list. I will write more about some or all of these in the coming months.
1. You must spend time with people
Whether your focus is speaking or reading and writing, you need to mingle with people who use Arabic. I remember the first time a friend was giving me directions to a place, and he pointed to a billboard that had the name of a company written on it in Arabic (I think it was مصطفى علي / mustafa ali). The fact that I could actually read the billboard to know where he was talking about was a big milestone. Spending time with people who speak Arabic is not always as easy as it may sound to you. But there is no replacement for face to face time with people using the language to help you learn Arabic. Online exposure can help to a large degree, but it’s still no replacement for the real thing. I’ll share in future posts some ideas for how to get that exposure if you can’t pack up your life and move to a place where everyone speaks Arabic.
2. You must invest small amounts of daily time
To learn Arabic takes time. Period. And the best way to do that is to invest daily time in your learning process. I am a huge believer in the power of small daily habits. Apart from listening and speaking with people, you will want to (here it comes… the part everyone hates!) MEMORIZE vocabulary, review things you have learned, and track new things you pick up. Want to learn Arabic? Small amounts of time on a daily basis may not seem to have a huge return in your first few months, but they make a HUGE difference over time. Like compound interest.
3. You don’t learn Arabic by accident
No one can learn Arabic by accident. It takes focusing your intentions, overcoming your emotions at times when you feel embarrassment or shyness. It means being patient and steadily working at it.
That’s probably enough for a first round of writing. If you are interested in following my Arabic learning experiences, feel free to subscribe to this blog.