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.

Current level

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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