Introducing: Learn Egyptian Arabic Project

learn egyptian arabicA few months ago, I learnt that I would be moving to Cairo.

Although I was really keen to learn Arabic, I decided to wait a while before starting… I wanted to reach the 1-year mark in Cantonese first.

But now the time has come.

So I’m moving to Cairo, and I’m going to learn Egyptian Arabic.

But this time, it’s not about me. It’s about you.

My aim, my vision, for I Will Teach You A Language is to give you insanely practical ideas for learning foreign languages. I want it to be a blog where you can find clear, no-nonsense steps that you can take to learn a language.

Not the “right way” (we know that doesn’t exist), but at least “one way”.

So that’s what you’re going to get with this project.

Documenting the entire process

learn japanese vocabulary SRSI’m learning Egyptian Arabic from scratch, and I’m going to document the entire process, as best I can. I’m going to do it in a way that gives you total insight into everything that goes into the learning process.

You might find some of it to be too much detail for you. Apologies in advance if that’s the case! But don’t worry – I’ll keep writing about other topics too!

But on this project, here’s what I’ll give you:

  • My strategising and thinking (how I decide what to study, and how to study it, at different stages)
  • My goals (including the thinking behind them)
  • Materials I use (why I chose them, and what I think of them)
  • My study routine
  • The exact activities and exercises I do (including videos of me doing them)
  • How I go about learning vocabulary (techniques, strategies, choices)
  • How and when I start speaking (how I find people, how I prepare, how I manage the conversations)
  • How I learn Arabic script (or even IF I learn it – I understand there are some quite cool modern alternatives!)
  • Any apps and tech that I use
  • Rants, motivation, excitement, depression…

If you’re learning Arabic yourself, or if you’re just interested to follow along,  make sure you subscribe to my mailing list, to make sure you don’t miss anything:

Since I’ll be making a lot of videos, you should also subscribe to my YouTube channel: [do_widget “YouTube subscribe button”]

So yes – you’re going to get it all.

But here’s the thing.

I’m a busy guy, and maintaining the blog whilst holding down a full-time job and learning languages is difficult at the best of times.

So these updates aren’t going to be pretty. They’re not going to be beautifully crafted blog posts or polished videos.


It’s going to be raw, mostly unedited stuff straight from the heart. I’m going to write posts and make videos quite often, possibly multiple times a week.

I’m taking up a new job when I arrive in Cairo, which is going to be quite intense, involving long hours and a lot of travel (work – not pleasure!). To be honest, the “keep it raw” approach to these posts is the only way I’ll be able to keep it up on a regular basis, whilst also managing to give you an accurate and thorough account of the whole language learning process… without burning out!

How much Arabic do I already know?

I’m not starting entirely from scratch. Pretty close, but not entirely.

As you probably know, Doha (where I’m currently living) is an Arabic speaking country, but English is widely used by most people, including me. 🙂

I took a short course last year (which my work was kind enough to pay for), in which I learnt a few things:

  • how to read and write
  • some grammar
  • some vocabulary
  • some basic greetings

But, there are a few important things to say here.

Firstly, I haven’t done anything with Arabic for over a year, so I’ve pretty much forgotten everything. Secondly, what I learnt was Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Thirdly, I’ve never actually spoken Arabic outside class.

MSA, as I understand it, is “standard” only in the sense that it’s used in newspapers and spoken in formal occasions such as on the news. MSA is not spoken by any Arabic communities anywhere. Each Arabic-speaking country has its own dialect, which is entirely separate from MSA.

What I’ll be learning in Cairo is Egyptian Arabic.

I think it’s fair to say that having a basic knowledge of MSA will give me a small headstart. We’ll see. But, from what I understand from my research so far is that the Egyptian dialect is, to all intents and purposes, an entirely separate language.

There will be much more on this in my interview with an Arabic expert – look out for it tomorrow!

Outline of my plan

I’m moving to Cairo on 6th September, which gives me the whole month of August to do some preparation!

I have two goals for this project – one short-term and one medium-term. I don’t place too much stock in these (plans change), but this is my current thinking:

  1. Learn as much as possible in August, focusing on basic spoken ability, so that I can avoid “defaulting” to English when I arrive in Cairo in September.
  2. I will know I’m on track if I’m able to hold a basic conversation with a native speaker, entirely in Arabic, by the end of 2014.
  3. I aim to be conversationally fluent within 1 year – August 2015. My definition of conversational fluency is as follows:

To be able to hold an extended conversation with a native Arabic speaker on familiar topics, without the other person having to unduly slow down or paraphrase for my benefit to the point where the conversation is no longer natural or enjoyable.

That’s my definition of conversational fluency, and, based on previous experiences, when I reach that point in a language is when I would first have a real feeling of “success”.

Speak in a week

As I just mentioned, I feel like I have a golden opportunity to start speaking Arabic this month, so that I’m able to arrive in Cairo and avoid English from the start.

There’s a big expat bubble in Cairo, just like everywhere else in the Middle East, and, to be honest, I’m scared of falling into it. For this reason, I’m placing a lot of importance on speaking from the start.

Coincidentally, just at the time I was starting to think about the best way to approach speaking right from the start, Benny Lewis from told me about his new video course – Speak in a Week – which is designed to do just that!

So, my mission for the first week of learning Arabic (starting 1st August), is to take Benny’s 5-day course, and get speaking!

In fact, day 1 of the course has you prepare a short speech using only “phrasebook language”, and record a video of yourself! Here, then, is my very first Egyptian Arabic video…on day 1!

Coming up!

As I mentioned earlier, my entire aim for this project is to bring you along with me for the whole learning process, to show you not only how I study, but how I make my planning and study decisions.

So, over the next few days I will be releasing a new blog post every day covering different aspects of the project and about Egyptian Arabic.

We have some great things coming up:

  • An in-depth interview with an Arabic expert where I ask all the burning questions I have about Egyptian Arabic
  • An article covering the specific details of my mindset when I start to learn a new language – things I think about and how those influence my plans
  • A plan for my first month – how I’ll study, when I’ll start speaking, how I’ll find and select materials

Update – Interview with me in Cairo

A few months after writing this post I moved to Cairo, and was interviewed about how I learn languages.

Here’s the video…

If you’d like to share this post on Facebook, that would also help me to reach more people and help motivate them to take up a new language!

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  • Shawn

    Really looking forward to this series of articles on your learning process!

  • Good luck! It’s going to be great to read about the whole process, especially how you tackle the written language.

    I’ve been wanting to visit Egypt for years, I hope you have an incredible time there. 🙂

    • The written language is looking interesting. I’ve learnt about a special form of writing that young people use that uses Roman numbers and letters instead of Arabic script (easier to type on their smartphones, apparently!). I’m curious about that!

  • Anca

    This “A plan for my first month – how I’ll study, when I’ll start speaking, how I’ll find and select materials” sounds most interesting, I’ll be very much looking forward to it.

  • Brad Stokes

    Loving it Olly, Suerte with your latest language journey.

  • Harold

    Bon chance, Olly. I’ll be interested to see how this “speak in a week” thing works out for you. Maybe it’ll get me back in the saddle too… 🙂

    • Thanks Harold. I’ll be having my first “conversation” with a native speaker this week, so let’s see how it goes!

  • I look forward to hearing about your progress and getting an inside look at how you choose materials and how they’re working for you. I’m not learning Arabic, but I’m sure your tactics work for other languages. Best of luck.

    • Hi Shannon. Absolutely, I always find that language learning is more of a mindset than anything else! 🙂

  • Toan Vo

    Always enjoy reading about your techniques on language learning. Will definitely be great to see you learn a new language, observing each step.

  • Tika

    Binnajaah, Akh (I don’t know if it’s polite to call you “Akh” but I call you that anyway).

    • No problem, I won’t take offence! 🙂

      • Tika

        Ya’atik el ‘afi 🙂 (it’s Shami Arabic phrase, I don’t know how you say it in Egyptian Arabic)

        • Mohammad Alquza’

          they use the same phrase Ya’tik el a’fya but

  • Tanner Callison

    Man, this is great! I’ve been taking Arabic classes for about 2 years. I love MSA because it is so beautiful, but wish to speak as well. My biggest problem: I cannot decide which region’s dialect to dive into!

    • Hi Tanner. That’s also the reason that I never really pursued Arabic after taking a few MSA classes last year. Looking back, I realise it would have made sense to just “pick one” and get on with it! 🙂

    • Mohammad Alquza’

      Great job Tanner if you want to enjoy the beauty of Arabic language definitely you have to learn MSA
      I suggest to learn the shami dialect it’s so pretty and it is the closet one to the MSA in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary
      I can help you in this journey

  • VRon

    How different are the dialects in any given region for Arabic? Is there a corollary in other languages? (I.E. Chinese dialects are literally different languages, while Portugal Portuguese is totally different from Brazilian Portuguese so much so that you wouldn’t be able to understand one another without being well-adjusted, but American English and English-English are pretty easily understood by speakers of the other)

    • Hi VRon, certainly here, in Doha, there are people from all around the Arab world and they speak to each other in their own respective dialects without any trouble. American English and British English, for example, are fairly close, but to be honest I have a lot of trouble when I go to Northern Ireland!

      • VRon

        Omg me too. I was traveling in South America this summer and ran into a bunch of Kiwis from New Zealand… Forget about it. Couldn’t understand them at all, their vowel sounds and slang are so different!

  • Jasmin Essam

    wow you are really good ! egyptian arabic is the best but the hardest
    good luck

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