Tips for learning spoken Arabic

After five years of living in a Muslim country, I still am not fluent in speaking Arabic. I don’t really interact with sisters too much and, my oldest son usually did most of the grocery shopping at the small nearby stores; until recently, I did not really get out too much until I discovered the big Western style grocery stores.

My oldest son was nine when we moved to Egypt. Within a year, I would say, he was fluent in the local lingo. Now my nine year old, though not fluent, is picking it up well masha Allah. And as I go out more, I am making some progress, insha Allah. My son hails down the taxi, but has trouble explaining where a store is located so I have to step in…

During my trips out, I have made some observations and come to a few conclusions that make communicating a little more easier. I thought they may be of some help to others who are planning to move to an Arabic country and Arabic is not their native language, again, these are just my thoughts……...

Fushah vs. Local dialect

The language spoken in the streets in most Arabic speaking countries is probably not the fushah that many of us learn say from the Madinah books, etc. You will find local dialects for different countries and even different dialects within a small country. Many times the vocabulary is very different from what you may learn. So be prepared to learn the local lingo, it’s a must….

Grammar/Rules

For out on the street communication, don’t get bogged down into using so much of that grammar you learn from books…Of course it is important to learn grammar to read the quraan and Arabic text, but it can be a time killer out on the streets when you need to communicate quickly.

Example: Conjugation. If you take the time to figure out how to correctly conjugate a word, well you may draw a blank stare from say an impatient taxi driver. I have found that you knowing the “you” form are the most important as you may most likely be addressing one person (say a taxi driver, cashier, etc) and of course learning “I” forms, I want, I need, etc. You may want to get a conjugation dictionary and practice conjugating for those forms of words that you might use often.

Endings (damma, kasrah, fathah).

Of course these are extremely helpful, as they can tell you who or what did something, for example, but when I try to figure out the correct ending, it just takes up a long time and anyway, I find that in spoken language, these are often left off anyway.

Sentence Structure.

Learn how the locals say key phrases and say what they say. It may not seem to make sense if you’ve studied fushah. Just learn it and use it if you want to communicate quickly. I pick up a lot of phrases in the taxi and just use them the next time and it really works. Sometimes you get helpful drivers who will tell you how to say something “better” or “correctly”. Take it and use it, trust me.

Pronunciation

Now I can really butcher a word. I may elongate when it’s a short sound or vice versa. When you hear someone pronounce something, remember it. It could mean a world of difference between how you pronounce something and how its locally pronounced. I’ve given names of streets and drawn blank faces and repeated it different ways until I got “m’aruf” (known, I know) picked that phrase up the other day in the taxi…….Its amazing, to me I would think if I mispronounce it you could still figure it out, but apparently not…….

Vocabulary

Again, sometimes if you use fushah for a work, it doesn’t go over well. Learn the local vocabulary. For instance, someone learning fushah might say “Matha tureed?” What do you want? Here its “Ish tureed?” “Ish” is used in many places (I think Egypt is one if I remember correctly). If you don’t understand something its “Ish?” Still funny using that one, though…….

Listening, Body Language, and Context Clues

Native speakers seem to speak fast if your ear is not trained. Get lots of practice listening to people. I have learned that sometimes you have to listen for key words instead of trying to take in the whole sentence. Just understanding one word of a string of uncomprehensible words can make the difference between understanding and being completely lost. And also helpful too is that you can sometimes easily pick up the gist of what someone is saying by their body language, whew. Sometimes a driver will rattle off a quick sentence and the only thing that saved me was that he pointed or made some gesture. At first, there will be a lot of trial and error. If you can go around with someone who is fluent and just listen, that really helps. My son is my translator and I often ask, what’d he say? What does that mean? You have to get in there and act like you know what is going on. I asked my son what the taxi driver said thinking he had understood and he said he didn’t know, but the guy pointed,lol.

I am always amazed though because my son will go into a store talk with the people and I sit back and watch them go back and forth, and everything sounded totally foreign to me. You have to get out there and use the language. Studying from a book is good, but to be able to communicate with people, you have to get out there and use it (the masjid, the store, go to a sister’s house, etc) that is how you are going to learn it.