10 Tips To Practice Speaking Arabic While Living in Egypt
I got back from a trip to Cairo a couple weeks ago.
I lived there from 2015 until 2018, and this was my first trip back after leaving.
What I noticed was this: there’s quite a bit of opportunities to speak Arabic, if you’re open to them.
And not just your typical “take a course in Cairo” path.
But legitimate, genuine ways to actually use your language in real life.
If you are living in Cairo and think you have “nobody to practice with”, think again.
Opportunities are everywhere.
You just have to keep your eyes open, and be smart about it.
Here are ten ways to get your Arabic speaking practice in.
- Go to ahuwas
This is one of those things you see everywhere in Egypt.
Outdoor cafes where people (usually men, but sometimes women) sit and drink coffee, as well as smoke shisha.
While drinking something here is not only a nice cultural insight, it’s also speaking practice waiting to happen.
Strike up a conversation with your server and you’ll really feel like you are blending in.
Plus, ahuwas can really “prime your brain,” or even just give you a quick confidence boost.
Haven’t actually spoken in a while?
Ahuwas are low-hanging fruit.
Go and order something, and maybe try to ask for something that you haven’t drunk before.
And if you have social anxiety and don’t really feel like speaking in front of a bunch of Egyptians?
Go early in the morning.
This is before the country wakes up.
Much less pressure to say things correct.
- Go to couchsurfing meetups
During my time in Cairo, this was probably my biggest asset in improving my spoken Arabic.
A group of native speakers, a cup of tea, and you as (probably) the only non-Egyptian.
That’s really all you need.
While most of these are in a stationary place, there are also quite a few events that “move around.”
This usually means a walking tour of a specific place/tourist attraction of Egypt.
You get to see something cool and practice your Egyptian Arabic at the same time.
What more could you want?
We all know a social life is the best thing you can do for your target language.
You are using Arabic in a natural setting, switching between talking to various people, and almost constantly engaged.
Your brain might get tired, but your confidence will, eventually, skyrocket.
- Meet with teachers
This is one of the most common methods for getting in speaking practice.
That’s because it works.
Meet with someone whose mission is to get you better at Arabic, keep it consistent, and you can’t help but get better.
This is, of course, applicable in any situation. In-person meetups with a person you are paying to
improve your language skills are (almost) fail-proof.
Find a good Arabic teacher, agree on a price, and then speak away.
You might even get lucky and get them for free if they want to practice a language you know (usually English).
Language exchanges are gold for increasing your speaking skills.
If you have a good one going you might be surprised just how quickly this improvement happens, too.
You are also likely going to make a new friend.
The trade off is that you are probably speaking with a non-teacher.
Depending on your goals and budget, it might be worth the money to actually pay somebody who knows what they are doing.
Paid or unpaid, this can be one of the biggest catalysts to improved speaking.
- Go to cultural events
Cairo has a ton of these things.
This might surprise you if you have never been there before, but it’s quite the “cultural hub.”
This means movies, plays, music concerts, art galleries, or most anything else you can imagine.
But where do you find these events?
An excellent resource is Cairo 360.
Use this website to search by date for the things that you are especially interested in.
You can also, as mentioned before, use the Couchsurfing website.
Meetup.com is also a solid choice, but seems to be a little bit more geared towards Westerners who likely don’t speak Arabic.
Getting out into the real world really reminds you why you are learning a language in the first place: going places, meeting people and connecting with their culture.
And even if you are feeling a bit lazy, these events (especially movies) can be a great way to practice your listening skills.
Both fun and effective.
As an extra tip, there is a place called Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek.
They usually have things going on multiple days a week.
- Chat up your bowab
Bowabs are essentially the “doormen” of most Egyptian apartments.
They are one of the “cultural staples” of Egyptian culture, and you can see them pretty much everywhere.
This of course only applies if you have one. If you are staying in an upper class flat in Zamalek, you might not.
Still, most apartments in Egypt have a bowab.
And if yours does, you might have just found a conversation buddy.
Sure, they might be old, speak a different language, and have different political opinions than you.
But who cares?
That’s part of cultural exchange, right?
In any case, you’d be surprised just how useful this sort of thing can be.
Bowabs are people, as well.
And if your Arabic is good enough, you might be in for one of those “eye-opening” experiences.
Chatting up your bowab (if he’s up to it) isn’t the most orthodox way to practice your Egyptian.
But hey, if you can understand a conservative old doorman who speaks with a raspy voice, who CAN’T you understand?
- Restaurants and rooftop bars
This is pretty obvious, but quite useful nonetheless.
You have to practice that “ordering dinner to impress your parents” vocab eventually.
Why not make it now?
Most restaurants in Cairo will be flabbergasted that a foreigner is making an effort to practice their language; roll with it.
Plus, food is probably one of the first topics you learned.
None of that complicated “tell me the meaning of life” vocab.
As for rooftops, the open air can do wonders for your language.
It’s a cool place to be, and the guys that work there are more than receptive to your efforts.
You also (often) have alcohol.
This might loosen up your tongue a bit.
Mistakes are much less of a worry when you have a beer to sip on.
Who knew how useful Stella could be to your Arabic?
This is definitely not for everybody, and even a bit difficult to do.
Depending on how long you’ve been / will be in Cairo, you might not know the right people to “hit the party scene.”
But once you do, it can open up an entire world of social opportunity.
You can have fun, make new friends, and improve your Arabic in the process.
This comes with an interesting caveat: most Egyptians that go to these kinds of parties are highly-educated and therefore speak better English than your average citizen.
This is a double-edged sword.
They might be more similar to your Western friends back home, but it’s almost guaranteed that you will speak less Arabic with them.
Depending on your priorities, that can be a bit troublesome.
You also risk falling into the “Western expat circle.”
Good luck speaking Arabic when you are around a bunch of English speakers.
- Ask for directions to places that you already know the location of
This might seem a little ridiculous, but it’s good practice for actually opening your mouth.
A lot of people studying a language get into their routine of “reading + listening + vocab.”
They might not say a word for weeks.
Asking for directions forces you to start a conversation.
It’s also a very low pressure situation, as there’s not much on the line.
You can also hear a lot of essential vocab repeated.
Repetition is key, and this kind of “street practice” will quickly adapt you to how Egyptians actually sound when using specific words.
This kind of goes with everything.
Practice something (and repeat it) as many times as you need before it’s stuck in your brain.
You might think it’s boring going through the same “conversation scripts,” but it’s gradually building a base that you can expand upon later.
Plus, random people in the streets will give you the feeling that you are speaking to “real Egyptians.”
Not just overly-kind teachers that are already accustomed to your accent.
Definitely a bonus.
- Taxi drivers
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous one, but it’s a different kind of conversation.
You are both stuck there with nowhere to go, he’s probably glad for the conversation (Egyptian taxi drivers are usually men), and it’s likely easier to hear (and understand) him.
Also, you are probably together much longer than the random encounter on the streets.
This is quite important.
Taxi drivers, of course, shouldn’t be used as “tools” for your own language ambitions.
If they don’t want to talk, they don’t want to talk.
Simple as that.
Also, certain conversations topics should definitely stay off limits.
The Egyptian government and God are alive and well in Egypt.
Practice your language, by all means.
Just do it with a little bit of forward thinking.
- Talk to the workers at koshks
If you’ve been to Egypt before, you know exactly what I mean.
If not, you’re in for a treat.
Koshks are basically little snack stalls where you can buy chocolate, chips, and just about anything else that might satisfy your sweet tooth.
And in Cairo, they’re everywhere.
It’s what foreigners call “koshk culture.”
Why is this important for your speaking skills?
Because there’s always a koshk worker, that’s why.
He or she also usually looks like they’re bored out of their mind.
Grab your chips and Pepsi, and then ask him how his day is going.
You’ll be glad you did.
Bonus tip: Pretend you don’t speak English/Spanish/whatever language.
This is my secret weapon that a lot of people seem to disagree with.
The fact is, if you aren’t yet advanced in Egyptian Arabic, it’s going to be pretty obvious.
You will struggle through sentences, make mistakes with simple questions, and put words in the wrong places.
Because of that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you when Egyptians switch to English.
You can’t really do anything about it.
But guess what you can do?
Just pretend that you don’t understand.
And if you are serious about learning Arabic, this can be a great tool in your arsenal.
It keeps the conversation in your target language, and forces you to stick with the flow of the words once the speaker realizes he can’t just speak English to you.
Don’t take this too far, of course.
Situations where a misunderstanding could have real consequences (speaking to a desk worker at the airport) and social settings where real bonds might be formed might be lest left to English.
You also shouldn’t walk all over people in your “quest” to learn Arabic.
They might want to practice your language, too.
But forcing yourself (and, in effect, them) to speak Arabic can only do one thing: improve your Arabic.
Something to keep in mind.
There are endless options for practising Arabic in Egypt
A lot of people living in the country of their target language complain that they “don’t have anyone to talk with.”
This is crazy.
Life is full of options if you are creative enough.
You just need to keep your eyes open.
Opening your mouth is scary, most definitely.
Especially for a language that has the “difficulty stigma” attached to it like Arabic does.
These things all require a fair amount of courage.
But the more you do it, the easier it gets each.
This all comes with the caveat of “street smarts”, of course.
Talking to random strangers in certain situations (in any country) can be a bit sketchy.
That’s especially true if you are a woman.
Practice your language when you can, but be smart about it.
Still, if there’s one takeaway from this article, it’s this: your progress is largely a result of how creative you are willing to get.
In languages, as other pursuits, there is an abundance of opportunity.
You just need an open mind.
Now good luck… and get out there and speak!
This post was contributed by Eric Schenck.