Traveler Shannon’s Journal on Learning Arabic in Egypt

Learning اللغة العربية  (al-lugha al-arabiya), the Arabic Language!

Learning a new language can be intimidating and tricky. It can also be a lot of fun and really rewarding. That is what makes learning a new language a great adventure!

In Egypt the most widely spoken language is Arabic.  I am currently in my second year of studying Arabic, and the past three months of that time I have been studying it in Cairo, Egypt at the American University in Cairo.

Learning Arabic has presented many unique challenges that I have not experienced when I have learned other languages.  For example, when I studied Spanish in high school and Italian in Italy last semester, I did not have to learn a new alphabet for those languages.  For Arabic however, it is necessary to learn a completely new alphabet.  It is very difficult to learn this new alphabet because it contains some sounds that we do not have in English at all.  It also does not have some of the letters we have in English, such as the letter “P”.

Another aspect of the language that made it very difficult at the beginning was when I had to learn how to write Arabic  It was particularly difficult  because not only are there different characters, but you also write from right to left in Arabic instead of left to right like English!

There are also a lot of funny moments that happen when you are trying to learn a new language and practice it with locals.  Arabic works on a root system, which means that all words come from a “root” that typically consists of three letters.  Because all words come from a set of roots, sometimes there are only slight differences between two completely different words.  This means that one could end up accidentally saying a completely different word by pronouncing it just a little differently.

There is also a lot of confusion with some of the letters in the alphabet.  For example, there are two different letters for our letter “H”.  These letters (ه  and ح) can sound almost the same to a native English speaker, but have completely different sounds that a native or fluent Arabic speaker will notice.

Not only is Arabic a hard language to learn in general, but it was kind of intimidating to come to a country where most of the people do not speak any English.  Although I go to the American University in Cairo (where everyone speaks English) and I live in a part of town where there are many English speakers, it is sometimes hard to travel outside of these areas and communicate effectively.  This experience has helped me understand how one may feel if they just arrived to the United States and did not speak any English at all!

It can be scary and frustrating to not be able to communicate with others in your community.  It can also make it very intimidating to venture outside of a “safe zone” of people that speak your language and understand your culture.  I understand this because I know it is sometimes difficult to leave the AUC campus and student community to try to speak Arabic with non-English speaking locals, but I have learned that it is necessary in order to gain more language skills.  The only way to ever become fluent in a language is if you start practicing it with a native speaker!  While you may be scared that they will make fun of you for messing up, I have found that people are generally very supportive and helpful when it comes to practicing whatever language you are learning!  People in the community love to hear me try to speak Arabic and will sometimes correct me in a very polite way if I mess up.  People want to help and it can be a great experience to practice your developing language skills!

I feel that it is very important to learn other languages because they not only enable you to communicate with more people all over the world, but these skills also introduce you to other cultures.  I have learned so much about Middle Eastern culture from studying Arabic, and now that I live and study in Cairo I am learning a great deal more about Egyptian culture.  Not only is learning another language very important and beneficial, but it can also be a lot of fun!  It is so rewarding when you are finally able to have a conversation with someone no matter how basic it is.  Learning languages is one of my favorite things to do because I can immediately take what I learn and start to use it, especially since I am studying in a country where everyone speaks the language.  Whenever I learn new vocabulary in class, it helps me communicate with others in my community.  The more I can communicate, the more I learn about people and their culture.  It is a wonderful, fun, rewarding experience to learn a new language and I highly recommend it to everyone.  Do you know any other languages?  What language would you learn if you could learn any language in the world?


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