Learning Arabic has been a very interesting project!
I started back in September, with three months to intensively learn the language while in Brazil, and then spent January and February travelling through Egypt (ultimately not doing more than a couple of hours intentional work on my Arabic level, although getting lots of practice), and if you check out the above completely unedited, and unscripted conversation, you can hear what my Arabic sounds like!
Unlike in my other videos, where I was focusing much more on an interesting message that the native speaker could share with the world, this time I did most of the talking, but had a very special guest interview me – the first person I ever spoke Arabic with! It’s got an almost poetic conclusion to the mission that I should finally meet her just before I leave! I found Amera on italki in September, and she is one of the teachers I stuck consistently with all the way through to December.
Why my level is most likely a safe “conversational” B1
I would generally get a professional unbiased opinion on what my level is, as I did with Chinese, or in sitting the most officially recognized examinations as I did in German, French and Spanish (and almost did in Italian). Unfortunately, the nature of this particular mission and learning a language with no official recognition, even in the country it is spoken in, meant that getting a professional opinion would be very hard! You really have to be learning Modern Standard Arabic for academically recognized credentials, but if I had learned that, then I wouldn’t have had the wonderful experiences that I had as a traveller in the country, by focusing on “dialect”.
Hopefully this video and my follow-up thoughts will give you a good enough idea of where my level is at. Since this is my own biased/unprofessional/non-native opinion, feel free to discard it as worthless, but keep in mind that I have gotten my level evaluated quite a lot in many languages, so I like to think all of that experience gives me at least a pretty good idea about where my language level is at!
Since I like to use the European Framework of References for Languages to gauge my levels, have a look at description of B1 from that Wikipedia page:
- Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
- Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
- Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Since writing wasn’t my focus, and since it’s actually impossible to write Egyptian Arabic in any kind of standard way (the franco transcription process is used by many, but not by others), I’ve excluded one point there. If you wanted to write it, you’d really have to use MSA, which is in my mind as good as another language.
Otherwise, I feel this video demonstrates the other points. I understood most of Amera’s questions pretty well, I think it’s a bit of a no-brainer after two months of buying tickets, haggling prices, chatting to cab drivers, and chatting to random people on trains that I pass point 2 😛 and I think I described my experiences and such satisfactorily in the video. Keep in mind that you will certainly find mistakes in how I speak (incorrect conjugations, bad pronunciation etc.) but you are certainly allowed to make such mistakes at this level if they aren’t seriously hindering the conversation.
I really feel my level is safely beyond A2 because that implies “Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.” and I think a discussion like this is way beyond simple brief questions and answers.
My initial aim back in September was B2+, which is where I feel fluency begins because you can “interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party” and “can handle both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.”
I do think I have a certain degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes plenty of interaction possible, as you can see in the video, but it would be misleading to imply that no strain is involved. People still do have to slow down or adjust their speech for my benefit, and my small grammar mistakes don’t hinder communication, but would slow it down for the other person. (Amera didn’t have to strain to understand me, but she is used to speaking with language learners)
Also, the topics I could handle right now are more along the B1-lines of “familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.” than more varied or abstract topics, which I am not ready for yet.
A successful project that I’m proud of!
As I said, repeatedly (for the benefits of the many trolls out there!) at the start of the mission, I wasn’t promising anything, but simply aiming for fluency and seeing what happened, with the priority always being in having a worthwhile experience in Egypt itself, rather than it just being about learning the language. If you think this is a “failed” mission since I didn’t reach the specific B2 point I initially thought could have been possible within the timeframe, then I think you see failure everywhere in life, and need to ditch your perfectionism a little.
As always, aiming high was a great strategy for forcing me to push myself as hard as possible. I think an overly prudent approach in life is really sad, and people need to take risks and aim for things that are not 100% guaranteed more often. Having said that, I will continue to aim for Fluent in 3 months in other projects because I am always learning what is holding me back.
With Chinese it was the stress of learning it in an environment where it was really hard for me to make any friends (not the case in more familiar European cultures) sapping my spirits and energy, and this time with Arabic my biggest problem was the lack of formal materials, and I actually think my first two months went really well, but I didn’t progress very much further from my month two point because this is generally where I hit the books and tidy up what I have in my normal return to grammar that I intentionally ignore for the initial stages that I need to focus on communication.
I won’t be changing my strategy very much if I take on an “official” language in future, but I will definitely have to reconsider my plan of action if I learn a language without many learning materials, as these tend to be an important part of my learning process in the later stages to bring it up a notch, and my current learning approach is not ideal for that, because of its month-3 swing back to more academic resources.
Anyway, I’ve had an amazing experience in Egypt that English-only visitors to the country simply wouldn’t be able to relate to, so for me this mission has been a huge success! When you can use the language, it’s always a success, the question is simply what level of success you feel you have.
What’s next with my Arabic?
As you know, I’m now in Berlin and will be here for the next 3-4 months. I’ll tell you what my new language project will be in Monday’s email update (make sure you’re subscribed to the email list to see it!!) but I will also be taking the time to improve my current languages, by practising my Mandarin, Dutch, etc.
What to do with my Arabic is a tricky question though. I know that I definitely want to visit other “Arabic” countries at some time in the future, but if I continue to improve my Egyptian Arabic this won’t be so helpful, or will be somewhat helpful but is way too oblique for me to passionately put time into. Yes, they may understand me when I speak to them (Egyptian media is the most popular in the Arabic speaking world, so the most understood – arguably more than MSA…) but I wouldn’t understand them back.
Learning dialect first was an excellent idea, especially in my circumstances, but now I’m ready to put more focus on MSA, being able to read it for complex articles and understand it on TV. This aspect of MSA is indeed relevant everywhere in the Arabic speaking world, so it will indeed help me no matter where I would go there, as would certain vocabulary I would learn that is the same or somewhat similar in dialects.
I won’t be focusing as much on speaking though, so my spoken abilities are definitely going to slip with time. This aspect of forgetting languages is unfortunate, but unavoidable if you want to juggle a large number of languages with certain ones getting priorities. If I was actively maintaining all 20 or so languages that I’ve put time into at some stage, then I’d have way less time for a social life in the already very large and demanding 11 that I have decided to focus on and maintain in the long term 😉
I’m hoping the “passive” aspect of the work I do with Arabic (albeit way less intensive, and low priority for the time being) will make it easier to slip into a dialect through its similar words and such after a few weeks of study when the time comes, although I may indeed have to simply start from scratch (Moroccan Arabic is incomprehensible for other Arabic speakers for instance, whereas you can get the gist of many others, as a Spaniard would get the gist of an Italian speaking).
Of course, whenever I decide to go back to Egypt, I can always reactivate this dialect in my mind with a bit of work. The fact that I might not be able to slip into the dialect this time in a few months if I bump into an Egyptian in South America (which as I now know is really unlikely!) or Asia or whatever is fine, because I can get back into it when the time comes 😉
Thanks for following along with this project, and I hope you enjoyed the travel updates, as that was the best part of all for me. Learning a language is always a means to an end for me, and getting to experience many things and learn about new cultures was the point of this entire thing for me, even if some of you have been more interested in seeing the above video.
Many more adventures in language learning and travel coming soon! Share your thoughts on this project with me below!