By Dominika Maslikowski
The taxi meter is ticking, and I’m drenched in sweat with a backpack and purse stuffed full of books I picked up at a crazy sale where everything was 10 LE each. I also have a few albums in a plastic bag on ancient Egyptian art that I couldn’t fit anywhere else. I know that unless the taxi driver drops me off right in front of my flat, I won’t be able to walk far without risking heat stroke. Suddenly I find myself arguing with the driver about which segments of the street are really one-way, where the traffic jams are this time of day and how to fix a purse strap that tore under the weight of the novels packed inside.
I don’t know more than a few phrases of Arabic, but situations in which you really need to be understood have a strange way of bringing recently learned or long-forgotten vocabulary out of you. My exchange with the taxi driver might not have been fluent, and it did involve plenty of hand gestures, but I was understood and — what’s more surprising — I understood the driver, too.
The driver dropped me off at my front gate and helped me to re-attach my purse strap, and I got out of the taxi thinking that maybe Arabic wasn’t as hard as I’d thought. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten out of a taxi with that feeling of confidence and optimism. I’d had at least a half dozen Arabic tutors over the years in my attempts to learn the language, but none have pushed me down the road to fluency faster than Cairo’s taxi drivers.
I can get my shopping and errands done around town by speaking a bit of English here, a few Arabic phrases there, or by simply gesturing. But there’s no room in a taxi to carefully consider each phrase, or worry about your accent, because not speaking up means you’ll end up going the wrong way and wasting time and money. And that’s a big motivation.
It’s also a motivation for the taxi driver, and it makes many drivers likely to listen attentively and try to be more skilled at guessing at what you’re trying to communicate. Not all taxi drivers are patient, but they are far less likely to give you empty stares after a botched attempt at a phrase, and far more likely to nod in encouragement when you’re trying to make a point.
Many teachers say that immersion is the best way to learn a new language. My French teacher, for example, spoke only French to the class from our very first lesson. Students travel to study for a semester abroad to sharpen their English, or try to make friends with native speakers of the language they want to master. Families who immigrate sometimes make it a point to speak only the tongue of their new homeland to their children, knowing that a lot of vocabulary is picked up from everyday life quicker than from textbooks.
In Cairo, there’s a group that meets weekly at a cafe for a language exchange: only Arabic is spoken during the first hour, and then only English during the second hour. Not having any easier options than just trying and speaking the language you’re studying makes you pick up new expressions quicker and makes them easier to remember. Sitting down with a grammar book to repeat tenses after your teacher is passe.
The expats I know in Egypt range from those who’ve lived here for years and still only know a few phrases to those who’ve been here less than a decade and can chat with locals and read books and newspapers in Arabic. Some take regular lessons with tutors, while others hope that being around the language everyday will make it “sink in” until they can speak it.
When I went on a tour with a group of expats to St. Simon’s church, most of the group spoke Arabic well enough to exchange a few courtesies with the locals in Al Mokattam. One woman from the Balkans, however, not only said good afternoon to a woman but went on to chat with her about the problems of the neighborhood before cracking a joke that had the Egyptian woman throwing her head back in laughter. I asked her how she’d done it. Did she take years of lessons and listen to CDs, was she linguistically gifted or did she just pick up Arabic by being around it?
It turned out she hadn’t had any choice but to speak Arabic. The company she worked for had only Egyptians on staff who didn’t speak much English, and she struggled to communicate until, day by day, it got easier.
Not many of us expats are in her situation. Many of us get by with broken Arabic, a bit of English and a little help from our friends. But if we’re serious about becoming fluent, then the tutors who use the immersion techniques might be our best bet. And if we want to pick up a few new vocabulary words, we’re better off getting a taxi than a grammar book. et