How I learned to speak Arabic while living in Brazil

My three months are officially up!

In a few hours I’ll be getting a flight back to Ireland to spend Christmas with my family, then heading to Germany for a few days to celebrate the New Year in Esperanto with some good friends as always, and then a few days into January I fly into Egypt, where I’ll be spending at least two months next year.

As you’d imagine, with all the work I’ve put in, no matter where I am, my level is going to be very useful in giving me a much more wonderful experience while there. Hell, even the level I had after a few weeks would have been enough to function as an independent basic-questions-and-answers tourist. Now I can have real discussions with people.

Where are the videos?

I’m really sorry that there have been no relevant video uploads since my two month point. I was hoping to run into more Egyptians in person, but it was incredibly difficult in Brazil (I emailed loads of people, asked all my connections, and still no luck).

Note that this had no effect on my ability to find countless Skype conversation partners or teachers. It was only really an issue for project update video uploads.

I was focusing on getting another video of an in-person conversation as I had made enough Skype-based videos in the language for my liking. Slow connections (on both ends) disrupting calls are acceptable for my own learning sessions, but I prefer much better quality for my Youtube uploads. (All videos you saw in the second month required separate recording equipment on the other side, not their webcam, which was an added complication).

Of course, while I’m in Egypt I plan to record lots of videos! If you have any suggestions for fun things you’d like to see me do (like the train ride or Kungfu experience, I had while travelling China, or interview with interesting people that I did with my Mandarin), definitely let me know what you think I should do, or who you think I should talk to, in the comments!

Current level

But to give you an idea of my level, in the last two weeks I have discussed some pretty complex topics with people over Skype, such as about the delicate political situation in Egypt, and understanding the perspective of someone that is NOT from the side represented by international media. I also had a lively discussion about my views on American gun laws when I was discussing reactions to my previous post with a teacher.

And 2 weeks ago, I walked into the Egyptian embassy in Brasília and applied for my extended tourist visa entirely through Egyptian Arabic. They very much enjoyed the experience of a foreigner speaking it in such a distant part of Brazil, and at one point I had to haggle for the visa, since they were going to give me a shorter one at first. I also corrected them when two of them were talking amongst one another and thought Ireland was part of the UK. It was great to use my Arabic practically in real life. (These Egyptians weren’t interested in a video interview unfortunately.)

Now, I should point out that while I can certainly get into varied conversations, what I have is far from beautiful! I still slip up, have to work around lack of particular key words, need them to repeat on occasion, and am still hesitant as I speak.

While my teachers on Skype slow down for me, and are used to my mistakes, those in the embassy at least looked like they are simply not used to speaking their language with foreigners, or used to slowing down for them, so I had to keep up with normal speed there. Harder, but definitely possible.

So what I have is very useful, but still messy. Where I am in a practical scale is hard to judge (especially since I’d be doing it myself), but I feel like I’m definitely safely much better than the point I was when the school in Beijing evaluated me as B1. I will be much more confident in saying where I feel I am, once I have used my Egyptian Arabic in the country, as this is the first time I don’t have constant situations to use it in coming from all angles.

Hopefully finding out my level in January, and seeing me use the language for real will be a good continuation of this story! As well as videos that demonstrate my level (although keep in mind that the actual point of all my in-country videos will be cultural exploration as always), if I can, I’ll see if another language school is willing to evaluate me for an unbiased perspective.

Learning at a distance – is it possible?

No matter what, hopefully just from reading the situations I can participate in above, you can see that it is definitely possible to learn a language to intermediate level in the wrong country, and in a relatively short time. How intermediate is up for discussion (I understand “fluency” as upper-intermediate, or B2 and higher, and we’ll see if I got it in January), but you can hit the ground running and arrive in the country ready for action.

I expect to run into some situations that will be beyond me, but I also feel that I can definitely travel independently and chat with many people on various topics, which is important as I plan to meet many people, who may not speak any English at all. Not just about basic touristy stuff like buying things and directions, but to really understand what makes them tick.

I absolutely can’t wait for my experience in Egypt in January! All Egyptians I’ve met online, in person, and in person before this project, are so friendly and warm, and I can’t wait for the experience of arriving in a country for the first time in my life already knowing to speak its language to a useful degree. I’ll continue to do a little studying of course, but the whole point of this is that now I don’t have to bury my head in books and get lessons the majority of my time and can focus on experiencing the country as the priority. The full-time learning part of this project is over, although the learning in general and improving with time will never end.

Expect to hear more of this when I’m there, but I really hope that others are inspired to do their language learning work BEFORE going to the country, to enhance their experience there even more!

If an Irish guy can learn Egyptian Arabic deep inside Brazil, then what the hell is your excuse?? :)

Let me know what you’d like me to blog about, both when in Egypt, and any aspects of these three months I wasn’t clear about, and I’ll be sure to discuss them all in the new year!

On Monday I’ll send an email that outlines the biggest challenges I had by far in this mission, and a general overview and timeline of how the 3 months went, in the Language Hacking League. So sign up on the top-right of the site (or in the box under my TEDx talk) to get that email if you aren’t in that already!

Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait to share the BEST part of this project with you in 2013! Learning the language is one thing, but now it’s time to really use it! :)



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  • Janusz

    Hi Benny!
    I am really amazed by things you are doing! I can say easily that you have my ideal type of life! Learning languages and discovering other cultures! Keep up doing great stuff and I am waiting for your videos on Egyptian!

  • Brian

    Great stuff, Benny! Sure, full speed Arabic may knock you back a little bit but I’m sure very few of them will have a problem slowing down for you.
    You might go into this in your mailout, but one thing I noticed in your updates was that your plan to learn through French didn’t seem to work out. Was it just lack of materials, or what was the story there?

    • Benny Lewis

      No, I was learning a lot through French!

      I found that putting aside my MSA Assimil textbook and coming back to it nearer the end, it was much more useful when I was aware of what to discard. This in itself was a major issue: lack of material for Egyptian Arabic, and too much for MSA.

      To be totally honest, there is more material to learn IRISH (Gaeilge) than there is for Egyptian Arabic! There’s also probably more learning material for Esperanto! Amazing when you consider Egypt is a country of 80 million. This MSA vs dialect thing is something I’ll definitely come back to in January.

      So if you use MSA material, it *can* work, but you have to constantly remind yourself to ignore quite a lot of it, which is obviously an annoying distraction.

      The French phrasebook specific to Egyptian Arabic was fantastic help in my first weeks, ESPECIALLY in its few pages on grammar, but obviously that can only bring you so far.

      • Jacob B. Good

        MSA is more expected. Learning Egyptian Arabic for the Arab world is like learning Cantonese for China. In that, the “Standard Language” or the “Literary Language” (Mandarin in China, MSA in Arab world) is what is expected of people in those countries, while vernacular is less so because of the “lingua franca” aspect of those languages and the “educated” persona that comes with knowing the “Literary language” as opposed to just knowing your vernacular.

        That’s how I compare it anyhow.


          Eh, I disagree with this. Arabic and Chinese both have diglossia, but the situations are really different. The Chinese government has been much more “successful” in pushing Mandarin on other provinces in the last 50 years, and also Chinese “dialects” are really better described as different languages sometimes, as they can be totally mutually unintelligible.

          MSA is really and truly only a literary language in the Arab world. The Arab world hasn’t had a centralized pan-Arab government like China has, so MSA hasn’t pervaded quite so strongly into the lives of the average Arab. When an Egyptian speaks with a Lebanese, they both use modified versions of their home dialects, which are generally pretty intelligible to each other. They don’t use MSA, except to maybe fill gaps in common vocabulary.

          Ironically, an Iraqi and a Moroccan might actually use a mix of MSA and Egyptian, since Egyptian is the most widely understood dialect due to its movies and media. :)

          But that’s only code switching, whereas in China people speak Mandarin pretty much entirely with Chinese from other provinces. They’ll use their dialects with local communities, but anyone “outside” gets Mandarin. The Arab situation is quite different.

          The best analogy is southern Europe around 1300 AD. You had the developing “vulgar” languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian. None of these were written languages yet, though. All written communication was done through Latin, to maintain comprehensibility. So an Italian clergyman and a Spanish clergyman would communicate in written Latin. But if they were to meet on the street, they probably would use a mishmash of Italian, Spanish, and Latin to get their points across.

          • Edmund Yong

            Good point. I’m a Chinese and I understand (but never use) Cantonese. My brother however only understand Mandarin and he don’t understand a word so we have to switch on subtitle for him when we’re watching Hong Kong drama. You can guess the meaning of a few words but you won’t understand a thing if you don’t know Cantonese


        I totally agree that the Arabic materials world is a mess. Basically everyone pretends that the dialects are no big deal, because for Arabs they usually aren’t a big deal, and I think most people who study Arabic are rarely successful at it without some sort of long-term immersion experience.

        So good quality self-study materials that accurately reflect the dialect situation on the ground are a *huge* problem. I think some people could make a good amount of money putting their minds to figuring this out.

  • Brian Craig

    I came across a blog you wrote whilst I was looking into doing a bit more travelling and, when I shared it on facebook, it turned out that an old friend of mine back home (in Ireland) knows you! Your blogs and lifestyle are both pretty inspiring and I hope to improve my language-learning ways in the not-too-distant future. All the very best at home for Christmas and I’m sure Egypt will be an amazing experience when you get there.

  • Mohamed Salah

    Hi Benny, I am Egyptian and i live next to Cairo airport and i will be really happy if i can see you when you arrive, that’s will be Great.

    • Benny Lewis

      Cool! I get in kind of late my first day, but I’ll be staying near the airport just that night. We could see about a quick coffee or lunch before I head into town. Send me an email and we’ll talk about it!

      Otherwise, I’ll be writing updates on Facebook (that only those in Egypt will see, as I can set them to be location specific) to invite people to meet up, so if we don’t manage that first day you’ll see plenty of other chances!

      Looking forward to getting into Cairo!

      • polly steele

        Hi Benny!
        That is amazing that you have managed to learn so much Arabic outside the country in such a small amount of time.
        I have a suggestion for you… If you are still in Egypt why not come to Sudan as well? The Arabic is very close but with changes in the pronunciation. I have been living in Sudan for the past two months and it is such an amazing place. They have pyramids but no tourists… you can literally walk around them on your own. Also I think you will find the people to be the most friendly in the world. This is no exaggeration. You will find it difficult to pay for your tea and coffee as strangers will want to pay for it for you.
        Hope you have a nice time in Egypt and!

        • Benny Lewis

          Thanks for the suggestion, but for now I’m only planning to travel Egypt. I would like to visit other countries in this area later though!

  • Aluisio

    If an Irish guy can learn Egyptian Arabic deep inside Brazil, then what the hell is your excuse??

    você é o cara! Not just an Irish guy! But I agree!!!
    Congratulations! I hope to see you again here in Brazil!

  • Matt Bowlby

    Benny! Would be interested to know why you chose Egyptian Arabic over other dialects. Especially given that you went to Brazil. Brazil has the largest Syrian-Lebanese community anywhere outside the Middle East. There are literally millions and it’s a fascinating story of how they got there and how they have prospered. Not to mention there is a very strong argument that the Syrian/Lebanese dialect (Levantine Arabic) is the most widely understood and pleasant on the ears.

    Anyway, good luck in Masr! And be careful.

    • Jacob B. Good

      Meh, I have heard Levantine Arabic. It’s okay compared to Egyptian Arabic. But I like Gulf Arabic best. No Qaf in Gulf Arabic. Only a Gaf.

      • Matt Bowlby

        There is usually no qaf in Levantine Arabic either. In fact, it’s completely eliminated (i.e. turns into a glottal stop), making it in fact the easiest dialect for Westerners to pronounce. There are qafs in most Arabic countries – it just depends what area of the country you are in. Most Syrians don’t use qaf, but some do. More Guf Arabs turn qaf to gaf, but not all. But I digress. I still think with some more research, you’d come to the conclusion that Levantine is the way to go.

    • that one guy

      I’m pretty sure it’s because he wanted to go spend time in Egypt. Why learn Levantine if you’re going to be in Egypt?

      By the way, I have first-hand proof that Palestinian Arabs understand Egyptian Arabic no problem.

  • Etvar

    Can one get to an advanced level in a language in the wrong country?


      Probably. Especially if you find an immigrant community and make friends. The only real obstacles would be psychological and motivational I think.

    • Andreas Moser

      Of course. I became almost fluent in English while living in Germany. Many people around the world do the same, especially with English. Granted, it’s easier because half of the internet and a lot of TV is in English, but if you want, there is no reason not to do the same with another language.

  • Shollum

    My excuses were just excuses, so I’ll refrain from mentioning them. They are no more though, so I’ll complete my goal by April.

    I’m looking forward to hearing about things in Egypt.

  • Edmund Yong

    Benny, good job :) you can discus those thing in Egyptian already only after 3 months.
    a question
    do you think it’s possible to archive your current level in 3 months without skyping?
    because I couldn’t skype here :(
    thank you

  • Ben M

    Really jealous of you getting to go stay in Egypt for a couple months. I spent a summer there and loved it, even though I only spoke enough Arabic to direct cab drivers where to go. I’d go back in a heartbeat if I could.

    If you’re going to spend much time in Cairo, stop by any of the AUC (American University Cairo) bookstores and pickup their Cairo map book. It’s the most complete map of Cairo I’ve found and will help you a lot, since most cab drivers only know how to get to the major regions of the city, not every nook and cranny.


    I’m gonna post a mission request so I can live vicariously through you since I ‘ll be locked in with Chinese for the next long while.

    A 10 day crash course in Russian. . . cooped up in the general compartment of the Trans-Siberian railway from Vladivostok to Moscow. Just you, a camera, a phrasebook, and a whole bunch of Russian people surrounding you 24/7.

    You know it would be epic! And I bet you’d get really really far really really fast with your methods.

  • Andrew

    Awesome and congratulations, I can’t wait for you to go to Egypt. For what it’s worth, what I’d like to see videos of are some in-depth intelligent discussions there with people about the political situation, and I’d especially like to see some such discussions with Egyptian women–this is where it’s going to get tough, because from what I understand you may have a hard time finding one who is capable of and willing to sit down with you alone without a male relative present to “supervise”, and you may very well have to conceal their identity so they don’t get in trouble later when the video goes public. I think this could be very interesting and educational.


    • Nasreen Hosein

      Might be easier than you think to get a woman to speak to you. Egyptians are fairly liberal compared to other places in the Middle East. It’s not Saudi Arabia, after all. :) And there are a ton of female protestors facing dangerous situations… talking to an American tourist about what’s generally going on has to be pretty low on the hazards list!

      • Andrew

        Thank you, that’s fantastic to hear! I really wish you people the best and hope you make more progress.


  • disqus_ZAu22smeon

    Will this be your first time in an African country? Sorry if I don’t know, I just found this blog and am enjoying it greatly!

  • Andrew Moorehead

    I was so looking forward to a final video. Hopefully, there will be plenty of Arabic speakers in Egypt. Who knows?

  • Selena

    Thanks, Benny – brilliant work – have a great Xmas holiday :-)

  • Will

    Learning with Texts is down! Is there updating going on or something?

  • Jim Tompkins

    Love what you do ,always very impressed with your focus and dedication and I like many of the tool tips you use for language and life hacking … well done and thanks …

  • Matthew Newton

    Sweet as Benny. Loved this post. Am 95% sure i will be doing 6 months+ in Alexandria, hope you’re still in Egypt when I arrive for a mini DC meet up :)


  • Sally

    In regards to food in Egypt, you absolutely must try koshary from Koshary Al-Tahrir. It is one of the national dishes of the country and super delicious. You can find a branch near Tahrir square or in Nasr City.
    Chicken Tikka is also delicious! And of course from the street/small stands fool (fava beans) and falafel and shawerma. Enjoy and be safe!

  • tianakai

    Very cool, I’ve always wanted to learn Arabic. I started travelling to Egypt back in ’91 and the last time was three years ago… hoping to go back in a few months again. Yes, they ARE very nice and I’ve always had a wonderful time there, especially when you know locals and how to handle situations such as haggling, as you mentioned.

    Have a wonderful time! It is great to see people travelling there with so much excitement, proving that it are just another country with lots of political issues. Just don’t drink Egyptian wine. ;)

  • TheUSEmpire

    I live an Arabic country I’m working here and I know people like to communicate with me using their native language, Arabic, so I decided to study it and here people helped me a lot! I’m sure you know that they’re very helpful. Now I’m an Advanced level student I speak formal Arabic and I passed ASL (Arabic as second language) tests besides I studied three dialects … frankly speaking Egyptian dialect isn’t really good for many reasons I choose Asian-Arabic dialects!

    Good luck with you studies!