Learning Arabic – Milestone 1

Learning Arabic with Egyptian Tea

Learning Arabic in the everyday things

Learning Arabic has been a long journey for me.  As I share resources, tips, and insights on this blog to help people in their own journey to speak, understand, read, and write Arabic, I thought I would share some of my milestones that I passed.

If you are getting to know me, I arrived in Egypt in 1991, on a year abroad from the University of Toronto in Canada.  I was studying in a linguistics program (which later shifted into the Department of Near and Eastern Civilizations, since I overloaded my credits with Arabic courses!) and wanted to learn a “different” language.  My friends were taking years in places like France, Spain, or Germany.  I though through the places in the world that interested me, and decided to study in Egypt.  I’ve been here since.

Thinking back over how I started learning Arabic, I can think of a few milestones in my progress.

New in Egypt

On my first day in Egypt, I went from my apartment to the place I would study:  the American University in Cairo.  I was signed up for a year of learning Arabic in their Arabic Language Institute (now the Department of Arabic Language Instruction).  I walked through some crazy traffic, found my way to Tahrir Square, and eventually discovered the old campus of AUC.

Tahrir Square

As I was sitting waiting for my turn for something (can’t remember what), I saw an American woman who was a grad student order tea from the farrash (فَرَّاش) – the guy who makes tea and coffee for people – IN ARABIC!  It blew me away.  Up until then, coming from my own little corner of the world, learning Arabic to the point of being able to do something practical with it was a theory that I had not seen tested!  And here this woman was, ordering tea in Arabic, and the farrash understood her and joked with her!

In my heart of hearts I said to myself “I will learn how to do that, even if it takes me forever”.  I think I prayed “dear God please let me learn how to do that sometime before this year is over”.

Easier than I thought

Of course, the funny part is that within a few weeks, I was ordering tea to my heart’s delight.  I had not yet discovered coffee… more on that in future posts.  Equally funny was how simple that task was.  I don’t have the conversation fully memorized, but it was in the middle of a conversation like this that I suddenly realized a few weeks later how fast that milestone had been passed:

Andrew:  3aayz shaay min fadlak / عايز شاي من فضلك (I want tea please)

Farrash:  kaam sukkar? / كام سكر؟ (how many sugars?)

Andrew: min gheir sukkar / من غير سكر (no sugar)

Farrash: Haadir / حاضر (OK)

And that was it.  Milestone 1, crossed.

Lessons learned

1.  Most of our language learning challenges are not as hard as we think!

2. Inspiration is a huge motivator for learning Arabic.  We need to be able to see models of people successfully doing what we want to be doing, and that goes a long way toward making the mental leap that we can do the same thing

3.  Practical is good.  Start by learning practical tasks.  I had studied Medieval Islamic texts at the University of Toronto for 2 years before this milestone was passed, but didn’t know how to tell someone I wanted a cup of tea.  Go for the practical.

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