general interest

Want to improve your Arabic on location in Cairo?

I am sometimes contacted by former students who decide they would like to take a trip to Egypt to improve their Arabic. What they need is suggestions for courses and the like. This article provides some suggestions.

Language Schools and Other Institutions

Kalimāt. The first place I will mention is Kalimāt, an Arabic language school in the Mohandeseen district of Cairo. I first learned about this school from an article in the New Yorker, about an American journalist learning Arabic in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. I have written a separate post about this article. The article gave an excellent impression about a (now deceased) teacher there, and hence also about the school itself. The school seems to still be going strong, with new courses scheduled for each month. There are courses in both Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, and even combo courses. There are many different levels, and each level follows a clearly defined program. An intensive course costs just US$330 for 48 hours of instruction. (By the way, كلمات kalimaat means ‘words’ in Arabic.)

International House. I don’t have any experience with International House, but it was recommended on an old list of reputable Arabic schools I found. My impression from their website is that it’s very professional and active.

Fajr Centre. I found a very old recommendation for Fajr Centre. It is affiliated with the Egyptian Ministry of Education. In addition to vanilla courses in Modern Standard Arabic, Classical Arabic, and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, they offer a lot of more specialized courses, such as rhetoric, public speaking, and calligraphy. They also offer courses over VOIP, so you potentially take some of their courses right from the comfort of your home.

American University in Cairo. Not long ago, the first place I would have recommended for Arabic courses is AUC, but it’s not clear whether they still offer continuing education courses. They do allow non-students to enroll in their regular academic courses and also offer an Arabic program for businesspeople and diplomats. Here is the full range of Arabic programs.

Others. There is a handy aggregator site called Language International for finding language schools for various languages all over the world. Here is their page for Arabic courses in Cairo.

Learning Arabic Informally

Of course, taking a formal course isn’t the only way you can improve your Arabic in Cairo. It’s almost impossible not to make friends in Cairo. Go sit in a café, and more likely than not you will be approached by young men curious to talk with a foreigner. That won’t be the most obvious place to make friends if you’re a woman, but if you’re an open enough person to start a conversation with shop owners, other customers, or fellow passengers, you are likely to meet people who’d be delighted to spend some time with someone curious enough to be studying their language. There are also a lot of people who would just love to swap some English conversation for some help with your Arabic. A few tips in this regard:

  • Realize that a non-teacher probably won’t be able to explain grammar to you (even if they think they can!). So, focus on what things your friend can help you with: conversation and pronunciation.
  • Make it clear what kind of Arabic you’re interested in. Many people assume that anyone learning Arabic wants to learn Classical or Koranic Arabic, because that’s what people consider to be “correct” Arabic.
  • If you want some structure, take a textbook with you. Figure out ahead of time what activities will be appropriate for working with someone who isn’t an Arabic teacher: exercises entirely in Arabic script (not in transliteration), short texts, conversation exercises.
  • If you want to take a “field work” approach, take a couple of simple children’s picture books with you and try to talk about them in Arabic with your friend. This approach works best if there isn’t much writing in the book in a language that your friend knows (e.g., English), as that can distract or even derail them.
  • You may be able to find a language partner using the Amikumu app on your smartphone.
  • If your main interest is Standard Arabic, you still shouldn’t shy away from learning some Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. Remember that real Arabic-speakers use their own dialect to communicate orally, reserving Standard Arabic largely for written contexts. As you continue to learn both a dialect and Standard Arabic, they will begin to inform, enrich, and reinforce each other.

Do you have any helpful experiences that would enhance this article? Mention them in a comment below.


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