Before you leave for Egypt, consider trying to learn a few phrases by completing an audio course like those offered by Pimsleur. You can purchase and download the lessons online, and they are an excellent introduction to basic phrases and numbers. Numbers are particularly helpful to know from the outset, as many of your first interactions with Egyptians will involve buying things and paying for them.
Learning the Arabic Alphabet
If you are serious about learning the Arabic alphabet, a good place to start is Alif Baa, a book/DVD combination that will walk you through the alphabet one letter at a time, teaching you to write and speak each character properly. The book also teaches some vocabulary, though it focuses on Modern Standard Arabic words. Still, the dialogues on the DVD are all conducted in Egyptian Arabic.
Once you learn to recognize the alphabet, you can practice reading simple words and phrases by reading signs and ads (if you are living in Cairo, you will find no shortage of opportunities as you make your way around the city!). In restaurants, try reading the Arabic side of the menu and consult the English version only when you’re stuck. The best way to learn a language is by immersing yourself in it whenever you have the opportunity. You may be surprised at how fast you learn!
You will probably not be able to learn Egyptian Arabic without enrolling in at least one language course. Fortunately, there are plenty of options. Cairo in particular offers a variety of language schools: Kali Mat in Mohandissin is a popular choice, as are courses offered by the American University in Cairo.
Language classes are excellent for gaining a solid foundation in the language, and they are the perfect place to meet fellow expats and start building friendships. Most language courses require a minimum commitment of several hours a week.
Once you feel you have a solid grounding in the language, you may prefer to move on to work with a private tutor. You may be able to arrange private lessons with an instructor from a language school, but if you prefer to branch out you shouldn’t hesitate to ask other expats for a private tutor’s number.
Most Egyptians love to speak Arabic with foreigners, and since Egyptians are also quite fond coffee and tea, meeting up for a language exchange a day or two a week is an excellent way to polish your language abilities and learn some slang. Young people are especially happy to meet up to practice their English while helping you with your Arabic.
You can arrange a language exchange informally with an Egyptian friend or co-worker. Because of the conversational nature of a language exchange, however, it is best to develop some familiarity with Egyptian Arabic before arranging one.
Phrase books and dictionaries
Books won’t necessarily help you learn the language, but they are invaluable resources (particularly when it comes to shopping). Make sure to carry a pocket dictionary or phrasebook with you whenever you head to the supermarket. Lonely Planet publishes an excellent Egyptian Arabic pocket phrase book that doubles as a cultural guide book.