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Speaking the LanguageBack to top Back to main Skip to menu
Egypt - Speaking the Language
The literary form of Arabic used today in Egypt is based on a 7th century language whose word sequence, style and phraseology have developed to become simpler and more flexible. Known as Modern Standard Arabic, or al-fuṣḥā, this language is used for formal teaching and learning, and is the sign of a well-educated person. Egypt has a proud history as a centre of Islamic learning and scholarship, and education remains highly prized.
Modern Standard Arabic is used across television, radio, the newspapers, by government departments and by politicians. It is the language all native residents of Egypt understand.
However, there a number of different vernacular dialects spoken across the nation. There are significant differences between the literary form of Arabic and the various Arabic dialects. Some of the dialects show similarity, whilst others are markedly different.
In addition, some communities speak other languages entirely. The Italian, Greek and Armenian populations have fallen, but people from these countries who live in Egypt still speak the languages of their ancestors amongst themselves. Meanwhile, several minority languages and dialects flourish in the eastern and western desert regions, and eastern Sudanic languages are used by the Nubian communities.
The Egyptian vernacular dialect used in Cairo is the most familiar across the Middle East because of the city’s business, political and economic status as well as the fact that it is the centre of the Arabic filmmaking industry.
Some Arabic words used today have been influenced by the English and French languages. These have been picked up from the migrants who have lived and worked in Egypt over the past 300 years, and have been imported from modern TV programmes and films.
Second Languages In Egypt
Since Egypt has a long association with western Europe, and given that globalisation means fluency in a foreign language can significantly enhance your job prospects, learning French or English has long been an important part of a quality education.
Unfortunately many Egyptian people, particularly those in poor, remote rural areas, do not receive much access to foreign language learning.
However, those who have received a private education, or who have grown up in the city or tourist hotspots, will usually be able to communicate at least in a basic fashion in English or French.
The older generation is most likely to have been taught French at school. English is now the dominant foreign language taught in Egyptian schools, and has been for at least three decades.
Television In Egypt
Sadly, women in Egypt are not encouraged to socialise outside the home unless they are visiting friends and relatives, or accompanying their family out. They usually perform all the household tasks of cooking, cleaning and childcare even if they also work. In addition, many Egyptian households live in poverty and there is little money to spare. As a result, television offers affordable entertainment, in a safe and culturally acceptable environment, and at a time to suit a busy family.
Terrestrial television broadcasts in Egypt are dominated by the state-run channels.
Whilst most television programmes in Egypt are broadcast in Arabic, Nile TV is a foreign language channel. It is state-owned and run both to support tourism and give visitors information about the Egyptian state’s view of the world. This system is common across the world; for example, the BBC World Service was financed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for many years.
Private satellite channels are regulated by the ministry of information. Viewers have a decent and increasing range of choice, albeit aimed at a native Egyptian population, which limits the choice for any expat who isn’t fluent in Arabic. However, watching programmes in Arabic can help you improve your language skills.
Subscription channels are watched by only a minority of households. Movies, sports and news channels are usually available in hotel rooms for tourists. However, imported programmes from places such as Turkey and India have been increasing the expectations of Egyptian viewers. Domestic production companies have taken on the challenge and it is generally perceived that the number of quality productions being made is increasing.
English Language Newspapers
It is possible to find a range of foreign language newspapers in Egypt, but imported publications are expensive to buy and slightly out of date when they arrive.
Online, the Egypt Independent , Ahram Online and Egypt Daily News all offer a wide range of articles published in English. National news, domestic news, entertainment and social commentary can be found there.
Whilst you may be able to survive in an expat bubble if you do not speak any Arabic, especially if you live in Cairo or a tourist hotspot, learning some Arabic will have a number of benefits. Being able to greet and thank your neighbours and vendors in the area will endear you to local people and help you feel more accepted. If you are working, your colleagues will appreciate your attempts to integrate, and you will be able to feel more settled in your new home if you understand some of what is being said around you. Loneliness and isolation are big problems for many expats; actively trying to learn the local language will help break down some of the barriers.
If you would like to start off learning Arabic in a classroom environment, or have reached the next level of learning and need some structured classes, then a language school may be a good option. Most of these schools are based in Cairo and other major cities. Whilst the courses can be expensive, you should see the cost as an investment. You will meet other migrants looking to integrate into Egyptian society. They will be going through some of the same challenges that you are experiencing. And with a teacher dedicated to your learning, you will hear how the local language sounds as well as picking up plenty of additional facts and points of interest about the society in which you now you live. This means you will have a good source of advice about social convention – what to do when a work colleague invites you to a wedding, for example.
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