How Couchsurfing Can Take Your Arabic To A New Level

Asma Wahba


Asma Wahba

How Couchsurfing Can Take Your Arabic To A New Level

I didn’t have a whole lot of friends when I first arrived in Cairo.

It was a new country, a new culture, and an entirely new way of life.

In fact, I hardly knew anybody.

My new boss at the place I was teaching English at, some guy I had met on Facebook that was also moving to Cairo, and a few Egyptians that I had been practicing “Standard Arabic” with before my move.

That was about it.

With the exception of a handful of people, Egypt was full of new faces… and I had no social life to speak of.

Three years later, I left Cairo with a phone full of new numbers, some of the best friends I have, and better command of Egyptian Arabic than I had ever hoped for.

Thank God for Couchsurfing

If you don’t know what Couchsurfing is, go give it a look.

The website is mostly used as a forum where travelers looking for free places can stay with hosts looking for cool guests.

Think Airbnb but much more personal.

And much, much cheaper.

If it sounds too good to be true… I completely agree. Some of the best travel memories I have came from couch surfing with strangers around the world.

Whether it was learning the Ethiopian coffee tradition in Yared’s Addis Ababa apartment, hiking through the Albanian mountains with Ani, or late night talks about historical linguistics with Milos in Montenegro, Couchsurfing has connected me with people in ways I will always remember.

It truly is an open-minded traveler’s dream.

But using it specifically for language practice had never occurred to me before moving to Cairo.

I remember my first time going to a CS meet-up in Cairo. I had no idea what to expect.

I had been in Cairo for three weeks, and still had no social life to speak of. I had stumbled across the Cairo “events” page on the website, and on an impulse clicked “Attending.”

The meet-up was planned for the next night at a rooftop bar located downtown. I spent all next day thinking about it.

When I arrived to my first Cairo rooftop bar, I was a bundle of nerves.

What if nobody liked me? What if they thought I was weird?

What if they made fun of my Egyptian Arabic, and kicked me out of the place for butchering their language?

I left three hours later with five new phone numbers, a handful of new acquaintances, and the conviction that maybe I could find a social life in Cairo, after all.

I had spent the night struggling through my limited supply of Egyptian phrases, and had come away with a crazy, bold new strategy for learning the language: socializing.

Who would have thought?

That night of my first Egyptian CS meet-up, I discovered the best strategy for accelerating my Egyptian Arabic.

Simply surrounding myself with a bunch of Egyptians was better than vocabulary lists and grammar rules could ever be.

CS meet-ups simply made this process easier.

Over the span of three years in Cairo, I went to ~50 meetups, and each one was a new charge to my language acquisition. I spoke Egyptian Arabic, was corrected when needed, and went home better at the dialect than I had been when I arrived.

In three years in Cairo, I never found a better learning strategy.

Five reasons why CS meet-ups will supercharge your speaking skills

1) You are quite often the only foreigner there.

This can be a little intimidating at first, as you quite quickly become “the non-Egyptian.”

But what better way to throw yourself into a situation where language is immediately useful? This isn’t sitting at home, studying vocabulary you might never use.

Actually, quite the opposite.

You’re surrounded by people who speak your target language, and who are usually more than willing to help.

Take advantage of that.

Exchange pleasantries if you like, and then insist on Arabic.

You’d be surprised how positive fellow couchsurfers can be.

2) It’s much more relaxed than a class.

If you are one of those people that has trouble learning in a formal environment, CS meetups are about as informal as you can get.

No stuffy teacher with grammar explanations on a blackboard, but real life Egyptians talking like… well, Egyptians.

Once you get past the scary introductions, language practice becomes quite smooth.

Some of the best practice (and greatest times) I ever had in Cairo came from a “shisha session” with a fellow Egyptian couch surfer.

3) Get to use the language in “real life”

A lot of the meet-ups you go to are actually “special events.”

It’s not just people meeting in person… but much more interesting. Sometimes it’s game night; other times there is a tour of a special part of Cairo.

Whatever the event is, things often quickly move around the city. Sometimes the group will head to a café with great shisha just around the corner. Other times a midnight stop at a koshary restaurant is agreed on.

This in turn is great for your language, because you are forced to use it in everyday situations.

Egyptian Arabic becomes much more of a living, breathing language, and the world becomes your classroom.

How cool is that?

4) You’ll learn Arabic that most teachers would never teach you

You know that older sibling/cousin who was always teaching you bad words? Who always had something new to tell you whenever your parents were out of the room?

Couchsurfing is full of them, in the best way possible.

Because Couchsurfing events are attended by normal people, there’s not that much of a stigma attached to “impolite language.” If you want to learn something, they will teach you.

This isn’t like a private class, where you love your teacher, but are still afraid (or embarrassed) to ask them how to say certain things.

Egyptians are known for their sense of humor, and with some of the things I have learned at Couchsurfing meet ups, it certainly shows.

Want to learn how to insult your best Egyptian friends?

Want to say something that will make your Egyptian girlfriend blush? Feel like being equipped with slang most textbooks wouldn’t dare cover?

Couchsurfing meetups won’t let you down.

5) You’ll make friends for life

This last point isn’t strictly language-related… but it doesn’t have to be.

I met some of the best friends I had in Cairo at Couchsurfing meetups. They started as strangers, and ended up being much more.

Mohammed, who always gave me a bear hug every time he saw me.

Amr, who took me shopping with his family right after he took me out for koshary.

Heba, who loved to play the board game “towla”, but would only do it if we got to smoke shisha first.

These are all real, living people to me, and they all made my three years in Egypt something to remember.

I arrived in Cairo with no social life, but Couchsurfing quickly changed that.

Suggestions for how to do this correctly

1) Don’t treat Egyptians like free Arabic teachers.

Nobody ever wants to feel like they are being used.

Instead, approach it within the lens of cultural exchange.

So many Egyptians want to learn different languages, that if you are a foreigner (especially an English-speaking foreigner), they will be more than happy to do a language exchange with you.

Speak a bit of Arabic to get your practice in, and then return the favor.

2) Don’t be afraid to meet with these people outside of Couchsurfing events.

As great as these events are, you don’t always get to see the same people.

Stay in contact, and see if they have time to meet up during the week.

This will deepen your friendship, and provide ample opportunities to speak the language.

Also, if you're hesitant to do this as a foreign female, pay attention to Cochsurfers’ profiles. The “review system” on the website is quite good for vetting people.

3) Bring the right attitude.

It’s okay to suck at Egyptian Arabic at the beginning. Most people do.

But if you really want to improve, you need to embrace your mistakes.

This applies pretty much everywhere when learning a new language, but especially at Couchsurfing meetups.

Maybe your Arabic isn’t good enough yet to have an hour-long discussion about the revolution.

No matter. I can guarantee you’re going to come away with at least a few new words.

I am forever indebted to the Egyptians I met at Couchsurfing meetups for their help in learning their language.

I made a million mistakes, and asked a million and one questions, and I only ever experienced the utmost kindness.

Language learning, like so many other things, is what you make of it.

At the risk of sounding cliché, you get what you give.

If you are serious about learning Egyptian Arabic, and you live in Egypt, Couchsurfing meet-ups might be your silver-bullet to accelerated fluency.

They offer a very “low stakes” (and fun) method for improving your language skills, and you meet great people as a bonus.

You could continue doing what you are doing, and hope that one day you get good enough to really speak to Egyptians... or you could take matters into your own hands, and surround yourself with them.

Fortune favors the bold, after all.

This post was contributed by Eric Schenck.

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