Best Shows to Increase Your Egyptian Arabic Listening Comprehension
As a student of the Egyptian Arabic dialect, you’ve likely had a few problems in your journey to fluency.
- Why does this sound so different from my college course in Standard Arabic?
- Why aren’t there a million convenient online courses like French or Spanish?
- What’s the deal with this “koshary” thing?
All valid concerns.
But perhaps even more serious a problem is this: you just can’t understand Egyptians when they speak. You pump your head full of vocabulary, make a few Egyptian friends here and there, but you still feel like a complete beginner.
This slow-going with listening comprehension is something we have all faced as language learners, and it’s endlessly frustrating.
Take a language as difficult as Arabic (and a difference as stark as Standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic) and the frustrations only get worse. And then, just as you commit to training your ear, you run into the biggest problem of all: where are all the listening exercises? This isn’t like French or Spanish.
When it comes to Egyptian Arabic resources, you have to go digging.
Thankfully, there does exist a solution: Egyptian shows/series posted on YouTube. I didn’t know myself until five months after I arrived in Cairo in 2015. At this point, my vocabulary was high enough that I had started looking for ways to beef up my listening skills. But where to begin? Egyptian music was too unnatural for my untrained ear, the action scenes of movies weren’t very “dialogue focused,” and resources in general were all over the place in terms of what dialect they were actually catering to.
That’s when I stumbled upon CBC Egypt on Youtube. It’s an absolute treasure trove of listening resources. Of course, these resources varied greatly in quality, and the content was oftentimes not compelling enough to keep me interested.
Thank God for “Ramadan series.”
Why Arabic shows are the best listening resource out there
There are a few benefits to watching these.
First, they are great for building vocabulary.
As opposed to one-off movies, series seem to be much more natural to how people actually talk. Instead of action scenes with exploding helicopters, you have people speaking to their mother in kitchens. A bit more normal, to say the least.
Secondly, shows give you a chance to build a relationship with characters.
You start to see patterns in the choices they make. This allows you to do something EXTREMELY important: create context. After a few episodes of watching a series, you start to understand the storyline.
It’s much easier to figure out new Egyptian Arabic phrases or words when you have the general idea of what’s going on.
Shows are also a peek into Egyptian culture.
“Ramadan series” are often a good representation of how people actually live. True, some of them are quite extreme and might not exactly represent the most accurate snapshot of your “average” Egyptian’s life.
Still, certain themes hold true, and can teach you a ton about the country.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is this: shows are fun. Pure and simple, they’re entertaining to watch.
It’s been proven time and time again for just about everything you are trying to improve - the best strategy is the one you are consistent with.
And what better way to stay consistent than to enjoy what you are doing?
How to learn Arabic by watching TV
My secret weapon to this day is slowing down the speed.
If you click on the settings button at the bottom of the screen, you find a “speed” option.
Slow it down to 75 percent, or even 50 percent if you have to (be careful to go any slower than that; if you do, it starts to distort the voice so much that it doesn’t even sound like Arabic.)
Once you do that, get prepared to take notes.
Consumption of media only works if you’re learning from it, after all.
A pen and piece of paper (and a whole lot of focus) is really all you need. Write down what the words or phrases sound like (in either Arabic or phonetically in English) and look them up later. Lisaan Masry (online Egyptian Arabic dictionary) is a great resource for this.
So is a private Egyptian tutor.
This is an approach that has worked for me, and skyrocketed my usable (and relevant) supply of Egyptian vocabulary in a relatively quick period.
Granted, this is a system that is going to be better if you already have a certain amount of fluency to begin with. Watching series about romantic angst in Egypt isn’t the best idea if still don’t know the alphabet. And, of course, repetition.
If you watch one episode on 50 percent speed, you might learn 20 new phrases. Repeat this a few times, then bump it up to 75 percent speed. Before you know it, you are watching at 100 percent speed with a 50 percent comprehension rate. Not bad.
Of course, this method requires an organized and consistent approach. But it’s doable.
You just have to ask yourself how important understanding spoken Egyptian Arabic really is to you. Priorities.
Arabic show recommendations for learning
I have watched more Egyptian media than I can possibly recount here, and I am fully convinced it was the best thing that ever happened for my command of the dialect.
However, three series stand out as the most remarkable.
While practice is practice (assuming it’s quality practice), these three suggestions will improve your Egyptian Arabic and fascinate you.
1) Bent Esmaha Zat (A Girl Named Zat)
This is essentially the modern history of Egypt, all rolled into a show.
It follows a girl named “Zat” (and all the problems she has with Egyptians that just can’t seem to understand her name) through her childhood all the way up to old age.
As a viewer, you are a fly on the wall as Zat (played by Egyptian actress Nelly Karim) grows up. You are witness to all the most important phases and events in her life, from her birth in 1952 and a (quite extreme) scene of female genital mutilation to marriage and dealing with the revolution of 2011 as an old woman. Taking place over 60 years, this series stretches far and wide, and is an excellent primer on various parts of Egyptian culture.
You are witness to how Egyptians react during the Six-Day War with Israel.
You observe how the traditional Egyptian wedding ceremony proceeds.
You see Egypt’s transformation from conservative to liberal and back again.
And all through the eyes of Zat.
Through the fictional account of one woman and the country she loves, you are given a very real understanding of Egypt and its culture.
2) Taht el Saytara (Under Control)
This one, to put it mildly, is intense. Let’s just say that the first word you should probably learn is mokhawduhrawt (drugs).
This show has drugs, and lots of them.
Kareem plays a woman that is recovering from a previous addiction, all while dealing with a fragile marriage. Another main character is played by actress Jamila Awad. She too begins to struggle with addiction….while still in high school.
Powerful performances all around, with a fascinating topic (drug addiction) as the main theme. This is a show that is a complete and total cluster-you-know-what to watch, in the best possible way.
Taht el Saytara is a series that all Egyptians seem to know and love.
If you thought Arab television was necessarily conservative, think again. Addiction, betrayal, relapse, drug wars…..you’re going to have to watch this one yourself.
3) SNL Bel Arabee (Saturday Night Live in Arabic…yes, it exists)
My personal favorite, SNL Bel Arabee is just like its American counterpart…. only in Arabic. Comprised of 5-10 minute skits, and hosted by guest actors/actresses, this is a show that will keep you laughing (provided you understand enough) all the way through.
While it’s true that this isn’t a Ramadan series, it might be one of the most purely enjoyable shows in Egyptian media today. Light-hearted, creative, and sporting a wonderful cast of actors, this is a show that can be a goldmine of actionable Egyptian slang and common expressions.
I even got to meet my favorite actress on the show in a Cairo restaurant!
Good old Yara Fahmy. Absolutely hilarious.
When she walked in, I instantly recognized her. I had watched hours and hours of her acting, laughing hysterically the entire time. SNL Bel Arabee is a must see, if only for Yara.
Learn to understand more Arabic when you hear it
It’s true that organized listening resources curated for learners of Egyptian Arabic are scarce.
That doesn’t mean, though, that they don’t exist.
The main stumbling block here is the lack of subtitles. There are numerous programs (Bassem Youssef’s El Bernamig comes to mind, but I always found that he spoke way too fast) that have them, but these are few and far between.
What this means is that you should prepare yourself for a little bit of frustration at the beginning.
It’s normal to understand hardly anything from these shows at first. I had been studying Egyptian Arabic intensively for five months before I started watching shows, and I was practically helpless at the beginning.
However, keep up your other methods of studying and (most importantly) continue to build your vocab. You will find that, given enough time, you will gradually start to understand more and more. And remember to use the setting that slows down the speed.
You’d be surprised just how helpful that is.
So give it a shot. You have a great chance to learn more about Egyptian history and culture, be entertained, and do it all while increasing your listening comprehension.
This post was contributed by Eric Schenck.