Millo's Musings

Speaking Arabic with a Native Speaker

07 April 2017

[Update: if you want to try the same course that I did, and learn Arabic (or Spanish or Portuguese) in seven hours of lessons, see here for how readers can get a special discount]

Last month, I attempted to learn conversational Arabic in a week. You can see my summary post to see how well I did.

As I wrote then, I don’t plan on continuing my Arabic study in the near future. However, I did want to find a native speaker to record a conversation with, since all my lessons had been with a teacher whose native language is English.

Here’s what I wrote eleven days ago:

I don’t know where I’d find a native Arabic speaker here in São Paulo… I failed in my (brief) attempts online to find a conversation partner, so unless the opportunity falls into my lap in the near future, I’ve decided not to bother [recording a video with a native].

Well, apparently the universe was listening, because less than two weeks later, the opportunity fell in my lap.

A few days ago I came to Rio de Janeiro to visit some friends who live here, and also to attend an event called Focus 55. While at that event, I met Radwa, who lives in Rio but is originally from Egypt. I found a native Arabic speaker in Brazil! Who’d have thought?

Radwa graciously agreed to record a short conversation with me in Arabic, so here it is. (No subtitles I’m afraid.) Allow me to present my first ever conversation in Arabic with a native speaker:

(If you’re wondering, the Arabic script written on the whiteboard in the background says “I love Brazil.”)

When we recorded the video (I’m writing this post immediately after), I hadn’t spoken or studied Arabic in nearly two weeks, apart from an hour or two of cramming this morning. Sadly, I’ve faced an inescapable truth of language learning (and of learning in general): the faster you learn something, the faster you will forget it. If we’d filmed this video a couple of weeks ago, immediately after I’d concluded the one-week challenge, I’d probably have done much better.

(A confession: the recorded conversation isn’t totally spontaneous. We filmed multiple takes, and at a couple of points I’m looking off-camera at my notes. Also, the reason that the video doesn’t have subtitles is partly because I can’t be bothered to add them, but also because when I watch it back there are several points where I can’t write English subtitles for Radwa because I don’t understand what she’s saying. I tried.)

Still, I think I held my ground pretty well. I still don’t plan on continuing to make active effort with Arabic, but I’m glad I found a native speaker in the end to tie a bow on this interesting little challenge.

As we discuss towards the end of the video, the language we’re speaking is Modern Standard Arabic, an academic dialect that’s based on the 1400 year-old Arabic of the Quran. As I understand it, MSA is essentially just classical (Quranic) Arabic, with some new words added for all the things that didn’t exist yet when the Quran was written. MSA is used today for religious and some official purposes, and sometimes as a lingua franca between Arabic speakers from different countries.

(See this post from Benny Lewis for more info on MSA vs. dialect. Please note that my own understanding of Arabic and how it’s spoken is still very limited - those more knowledgeable than me, please correct my mistakes if you see any.)

Being 1400 years old, MSA is markedly different from the way Arabic is actually spoken on the street today. The Arabic world is huge, and some of its dialects are so different from each other that it’s argued they should be considered separate languages entirely, in the same way that Spanish and French are no longer considered to be merely dialects of Latin.

If you take a generic ‘Arabic’ course in an academic setting, you’ll almost certainly learn MSA. And yet if you want to travel in the Middle East and North Africa, learning MSA to do so is arguably like learning Latin to travel in Southern Europe.

(Another confession: I actually studied Latin for five or six years in primary and secondary school. I even got an A* in Latin GCSE, not that I remember any of it now. Yes, I’m posh.)

That doesn’t mean MSA is useless - unlike Latin, it’s still widely used in academic, governmental, and religious settings. Most educated Arabs (like Radwa!) should be able to communicate with you in it.

Latin, on the other hand, is only really useful these days for understanding the pretentious mottos of various academic institutions, and for finding deeper meaning in the graffiti scene in Life of Brian. Although it can lead to some fascinating insights: for example, the words television and heterosexual are etymologically dubious, because vision and sexual are Latin-derived words, but the prefixes tele- and hetero- are Greek. Also, the correct plural of “octopus” is not the Latinate “octopi” but the Greek “octopodes”. Such nuggets of wisdom are sure to make you the life of any party.

If I ever travel to another Arabic-speaking country (I’ve been to Morocco and Tunisia, but that was long before I ever learned any Arabic), I’ll be sure to brush up on the local dialect before I get there. I think MSA is a good starting point if you don’t have a specific country in mind and you just want to learn some Arabic for its own sake.

Then again, learning Latin turned out to be practically useless when I later learned Spanish and Portuguese, so who knows.

Anyway, the above is my first conversation with a native speaker, but I hope it’s not the last. I have no current plans to visit the Arab world, but you never know.

I might not even need to - next month I’m flying home to the U.K., a country that has a whopping 160,000 native Arabic speakers, so maybe I’ll get to speak Arabic again soon.

It’ll probably be at 2am while I’m drunk and getting a takeaway, but hey, it’s a start.

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