When you start learning Arabic, there’s a question you will likely ask yourself: “How long does it take to learn Arabic?”
I’ll try to give you an answer here. But with a post like this, I need to get something out of the way first. There’s really only one honest answer to this question: it depends.
The fact is, everybody’s language learning journey is different. It might sound cliche but it’s true.
- Are you a hard-core, single 20-something that can afford to drop everything and go live in a cheap neighborhood in Cairo?
- Or are you a 70-year-old grandma who would like to learn a bit of Arabic for your trip to Aswan?
These situations are vastly different, and will dictate how long learning Arabic will actually take. Keep that in mind as you read this post.
In this post, I'll focus on Egyptian Arabic since that's the most widely spoken and popular dialect to learn. But don't worry – the main points we cover here are relevant no matter which Arabic dialect you are learning.
What’s An Overall Estimate?
Let’s start with a general estimate of how long it takes you to learn Standard Arabic. While this is essentially a different language than Egyptian Arabic (which we will come to), it is a nice little baseline to have.
According to the Foreign Service Institute (where U.S. diplomats go to get language training), your average English native speaker needs approximately 2,200 hours to get to an advanced level in Arabic. 2,200 hours!
The FSI claims that that’s something like 1.5 years of full-time language courses, or somewhere around seven years if you you can only do it part-time. That’s a really long time.
Plus, we’re not even talking about “native level,” but “advanced.” To get to native-like fluency would take even longer. Luckily, learners of Egyptian Arabic often find it easier to learn than Standard.
That doesn’t mean “easy,” of course. Just less difficult. Let’s dive into some other factors that might influence your overall learning time for Egyptian Arabic specifically
What Other Languages Do You Speak?
This question can be split between your native language and other languages you have learned as a non-native. This is one of the most important factors to think about.
The first thing to consider is your native language. Because Arabic is a Semitic language, it shares a lot of similarities to languages like Hebrew and Aramaic. Native speakers of Farsi and Kurdish would also have an easier time straight from the beginning, as these languages share the same alphabet.
No such luck if you are a native speaker of English, though. Same thing with any of the Romance languages. If you are a native speaker of any of these languages, you are going to have a hard time with Egyptian Arabic. That’s because Egyptian Arabic will likely be full of a lot of “firsts” for you as a learner.
The pronunciation, certain grammar components, and reading from right to left are all a little difficult to get used to. That said, languages you have learned as a non-native can certainly be helpful.
If you have previously learned Farsi, for example, that would be really useful. And of course, a background in Standard Arabic (fus7a) would help a bit, as well. You don’t strictly need to be a native speaker of other languages to ease the transition to Arabic.
Still, when starting with Egyptian Arabic, some experience with learning Standard Arabic helps less than you would expect. The dialect is just too different. In general, though, your linguistic background will have a big impact on how quickly you are able to learn Egyptian Arabic. No surprise here.
Different Features Of The Language That Make Arabic Uniquely Difficult
Arabic in general isn’t easy. If you are interested in learning it, this is probably something you already know. Let’s talk about a few factors that make Egyptian Arabic uniquely difficult.
As I already mentioned, these include (but aren’t limited to) pronunciation, grammar, and reading. First, Arabic pronunciation is notoriously difficult.
Depending on which languages you already speak, there are sounds in Arabic that you have probably never made in your entire life. Just a few of these include the ayn ع , the ‘ayn غ , and the 7aw ح. Learning how to say these letters (and pronouncing them correctly in more complicated words) takes a while.
Arabic grammar can also be a bit difficult. For example, plural Arabic nouns are often spelled much differently than singular nouns, and negating verbs with مش is sometimes a guessing game.
These are problems pretty much every learner of Egyptian Arabic will at some point come across.
And as for reading Arabic? Because Arabic is right to left, even just the act of reading words is going to be different. And if this is your first language that is right to left, that can be intimidating.
These are all features of Egyptian Arabic that make it more difficult than, say, Spanish. That said, they are also features of the language that can be learned. And if you learn them right, it doesn’t have to take too long. Especially reading!
Why Do You Want To Learn Egyptian Arabic?
What is your goal? This is a huge question, and if are thinking of learning Egyptian Arabic, it helps to spend some time with it. Because odds are your goal is something like “learn Egyptian Arabic.” But that’s not specific enough. In fact, it’s so vague that it’s practically useless.
You’ve probably heard it before, but setting a “SMART” goal (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) is helpful here. Don’t just say that you want to “learn Egyptian Arabic,” but make it SMART. An example might be: I want to have a 15 minute iTalki conversation in Egyptian Arabic in the next six months.
Now that’s a SMART goal!
Obviously, the goal you set at this beginning stage is going to have big implications for how long it takes to “learn” Egyptian Arabic.
A 15 minute conversation about a relatively easy topic could definitely happen in six months, if you had the time to study. Reading a book of Egyptian poetry with 100 percent comprehension? That will likely take (at least) a few years.
Goal setting is always important. And doing it with Egyptian Arabic is essential.
How Motivated Are You To Learn Egyptian Arabic?
Your motivation is the most important factor when learning a new language. Because nothing else you do really matters if you aren’t staying motivated. This goes back to my previous question: why do you want to learn Egyptian Arabic?
Trust me. At some point with a language like Egyptian Arabic (which we’ve seen is usually more difficult for natives of English and Romance languages), you’re going to get frustrated.
And if you aren’t willing to work through that frustration and keep your eye on your main (and hopefully SMART) goal? You’re going to give up. That’s why consistent motivation is key.
Of course, this motivation can look different for everybody, and some people will naturally be able (and willing) to spend multiple hours a day learning Egyptian Arabic. Some people, meanwhile, are perfectly content with 15 minutes a few times per week. And that’s ok!
Just keep in mind that this, like anything else, will limit how fast you’re able to reach your goal in Egyptian Arabic. Because, let’s face it: the amount of time you can dedicate to learning Egyptian Arabic is a huge indicator of how fast you will learn it.
So be realistic about how motivated you are.
- Is learning Egyptian Arabic as fast as possible your life goal?
- Do you intend to learn it as a non-serious hobby whenever you can find the time?
- Or are you (like most learners) somewhere in the middle?
Being honest with yourself about how motivated you actually are to learn Egyptian Arabic can avoid that difficult frustration. And let’s not forget – everybody has a life outside of language learning!
So….How Long Does It Take to Learn Egyptian Arabic?
To come back to my answer at the very beginning, it depends. No surprise here. If there’s one thing you’ve learned from this post, that should be it.
To recap, here are the main influencing factors: your native language, languages you have studied in the past, difficult factors unique to Arabic, your SMART goal, and your individual motivation.
The answer to how long learning Egyptian Arabic takes, like most languages, will be different for everybody. But that’s not to say that we can’t have a rough idea. Let’s assume you want to learn Egyptian Arabic so you can comfortably speak with native speakers about everyday topics.
And let’s assume you are a native English speaker and have never studied Arabic or similar languages. Let’s also assume that you are able to set aside roughly an hour a day. Based off of that, I would estimate that learning Egyptian Arabic will take about three years.
This time frame will obviously be different for everyone. You can definitely learn it faster if you want! That said, I think that three years is a rough, yet reasonable, goal to aim for.
Learning Egyptian Arabic might be hard, and it might require consistent effort and good study habits, but it’s definitely within your reach.
And no matter what your reason is for learning Egyptian Arabic, it will be well worth the effort!