This is a summary of the 3rd week of my project to learn Egyptian Arabic.
Until this point in the project I've avoided any study of grammar, choosing to focus on vocabulary instead.
I have quite a laissez-faire approach to studying grammar, but curiosity finally got the better of me this week and I started to delve into Egyptian Arabic grammar a bit.
And…it's kinda complicated!
My approach to complicated things like this is to simplify as far as possible.
I always take a reactive approach to grammar, meaning:
- I don't look up rules and try to understand them for their own sake
- Instead, I take language that I've been studying and want to understand, and look up the grammar I need to understand them
So, for example, here are some of the very simple phrases I've been learning in Arabic:
- I like American coffee
- Do you like American coffee?
- Would you like a coffee?
- Would you like to drink something?
I liked these sentences (taken partly from Pimsleur) because I can see myself actually using them quite a lot.
There are quite a few verb forms in there:
- I like American coffee – present simple
- Do you like American coffee? – 2nd person, question form
- Would you like a coffee? – 2nd person, modal, question form
- Would you like to drink something? – 2nd person, modal + infinitive, question form
It gets tricky in Arabic, as I'm finding out. Arabic tenses function differently to English, and you have this basic dichotomy between the imperfect and perfect tense.
In theory, the perfect tense describes completed actions, while the imperfect describes incomplete actions. In other words, the perfect is used to describe the past, and the imperfect is used to describe the present and future.
However, the more you dig into this, the more hideously complicated it gets, as this discussion shows.
At this stage, my eyes start to glaze over!
I just want to be able to say stuff! 🙂
Here's how I deal with it.
If you were to go out and study all the grammar rules for these structures, you'd very quickly burn out.
There's years' worth of study right there.
Instead, I take the sentences I want to learn as a starting point, and then aim to understand why the Arabic verbs behave the way they do.
I don't need to be able to make other grammatically correct sentences at this stage, I'm still focusing on learning highly useful, actionable words and phrases, but what I am doing is noticing the grammar of the language and how it works.
This primes my brain – raises awareness of what's going on in the language.
Again, it's not my priority to learn to speak with correct grammar, but that's not to say I can't start to notice and understand it.
As time goes on, I will start to notice this grammar being used in other situations. I will start to notice variations in the grammar in different contexts.
And it will slowly start to become familiar.
What's the key thing right now?
However good or bad my current knowledge of Arabic grammar, the phrases that I've learnt are correct. I know they're correct, and so I can have confidence using them.
This is the approach to grammar that I advocate.
Learn what you need, when you need it. Don't worry about it, and get on with other, more useful things.
Preparing to speak
I mentioned in my week 1 update that the tutor I had arranged a speaking session with didn't turn up.
I went on to book sessions with two more people, and they also failed to show! I was starting to think that the project was cursed, until I found out that the Cairo is currently suffering from periodic blackouts which shut down not only the power, but the internet as well.
That explains it a bit!
Anyway I finally made contact with one of the tutors from last week, and have arranged a session for the end of this week. We've been chatting a bit by message over iTalki and she seems really cool. I just hope there's no blackout on Friday! [Note: she did turn up, and we had our first session! More on that soon!]
One of the most common questions I get is:
What can you talk about when you have such a small vocabulary?
My reply is that I do what I can, try to say some of the things I've been learning, but if you run out of things to say…don't worry!
One of the benefits of a language exchange parter or informal tutor is that they're there to help you. If you run out of things to say, just use English to ask them how to say what you want. Think of them as like a real-life textbook or dictionary. 🙂
Of course they're a thousand times better than a textbook or dictionary, because you can have absolute confidence that the things they tell you to say are things that people actually say. I've already discovered, through trying out a few phrases on colleagues in the office, that some of the things they teach you on Pimsleur Egyptian Arabic, are actually rather formal and not likely to be said by many people in Egypt.
But if you learn new words and phrases directly from a native speaker, you can be more confident that they're appropriate!
So I have no problem using English in language exchanges or lessons. Although some people may like to impose a total ban on using English whilst they speak, it's a much less stressful and direct approach to just use a bit of English here and there.
Having said that, you should try to keep conversation in the target language wherever possible.
So in order to help me do that, I started preparing for Friday's speaking session by learning a few key phrases from the Lonely Planet phrasebook that are perfect for keeping the conversation going: asking for how to say things, and for repetition whenever you don't understand.
I checked them all with a colleague to make sure they're actually OK to use in casual conversation, then I made a little cheat sheet that I plan to keep by my computer whilst I'm talking:
So, things are ticking along nicely. Aside from everything I mentioned in the post, I've just been continuing with:
- Listening to lessons on Rocket Arabic, which I'm really enjoying
- Putting key words and phrases from these lessons into my flashcard app
- Revising my flashcards throughout the day
I've got my first speaking session on Friday, and I plan to just carry on with more of the same, with a focus on building my vocabulary.
Right now, I'm at the start of a very long road, and I'm sitting back, settling in, and enjoying the ride.
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