Foreign language classes in NYC?
December 31, 2007 8:46 AM   Subscribe

Hebrew and Arabic lessons in New York? Recommendations/best bang for buck?

I'm planning to visit Israel and Egypt in late 2008. Before I leave, I'd like to learn at least some basic Hebrew and Arabic to make travel easier. Nothing crazy, just want to be able to understand basic words/read the respective alphabets.

Me = Anglophone American with no experience in either language.

Any recommendations for classes or teachers in New York? Midtown or downtown setting is a big plus.
posted by huskerdont to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't say enough about ABC Language Exchange. I have been taking Japanese lessons there since last January. I was going to Japan that May and I ended up continuing because I enjoyed them so much.
posted by spec80 at 8:49 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is important: you should plan to learn the language spoken in the areas you are going to.

This means obviously Modern Hebrew, not Biblical, but it also means that you should study Egyptian Arabic, not "Arabic" which usually means Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). The grammatical structures, and therefore what you will say and hear, are completely different.

Compare: Kayfa Halooka Izzayyak How are you?
Mabatkellim 'arabee La attakellim arabee I don't speak Arabic
Ana ureed khubz Ana ayyiz 'aish I want bread
So many fellow classmates, who are here studying MSA are practically incapable of communicating outside of the classroom.

I can definitely recommend the Lonely Planet Phrasebook for Egyptian Arabic, although like all LP phrasebooks it is of much greater use to drug addicts than normal people (nearly every word I've wanted to look up is absent from their dictionary, but cocaine is always there. Guess how you say "Cocaine" in every language I've encountered so far. If you guessed, "Cocaine" you're right. Also, I just feel like in a context in which you want cocaine, or someone thinks you have it, or it is discovered on your person, knowing the right word for it in a foreign language is pretty unnecessary.)

posted by Deathalicious at 9:33 PM on December 31, 2007

Bear with me here, but for the past few years I've been trying to learn Arabic for travel purposes so I have some insights that might help you. Take them for what they're worth. But I figure you can learn from my pain. Because what I've learned is that the most important thing is not so much getting a bang for your buck with paying for classes as much as it's setting up goals and preparing your own brain to soak up the language and figuring out what you want from it. Because it's not an easy language to tackle, it can be intimidating. If only there was a pill or something that you could take and instantly be fluent, I'd be the happiest girl alive.

A lot of what you'll learn in Arabic classes will be a foundation in the formal Quranic structure of a complex language, a far more formal and very different version of Arabic than what the people actually speak. You'll learn a lot of really important stuff, but with your travel needs in mind I'd recommend being proactive about setting up basic goals for what will serve you best when traveling on top of learning those fundamental things. One thing I found in Egypt, if you know even a few Arabic words or Egyptian slang phrases, people will be insanely impressed (few visitors make the effort) and it will make a huge difference in how you will be treated. People will really appreciate your attitude and that you have shown them respect. It means a lot to them. So at the very least, just learn a few handy phrases like these and that will help you.

Here's what I'd recommend to do first, before you even THINK about taking classes: ASAP, start familiarizing yourself with the Arabic alphabet and the Arabic numbers. That's something you're going to have to work on yourself and it's going to take a lot of time to get the new alphabet soaked into your brain, trust me. There is no question that whether you take a class or not, the better you can teach yourself to read the Arabic alphabet, the better off you'll be. And even if you can't speak a lick of Egyptian, when you're traveling and someone tells you to look for a street and you can actually read the street sign, that's MAJOR. Most Arabic classes recommend this book to learn the alphabet and the sounds. I actually really found this one to be my favorite and the one that helped me the most, although it doesn't have any CDs to help with pronunciation.

Also, the numbers are very different... the zero looks like a dot, four looks like a backwards three, five looks like a zero, six looks like a 7. Westerners rarely know the numbers, so it's very common that you'll be in a store and someone will tell you a higher price for something. But if you know the numbers, you can say, "Well, you say this is 20 Egyptian pounds, but THE SIGN SAYS IT'S ONLY FIVE." And I don't have to tell you... that skill alone will massively improve your travel experience. And your travel budget.

To see what I mean, here are the numbers:

Another huge tip with the numbers... although Arabic is written from right to left, numbers are written in left to right order just like in English. It seems weird but it makes sense when you realize that while we will will read 1,224 as "one thousand, two hundred and twenty four," in arabic it's basically read as "four and twenty, two hundred and one thousand." They read the numbers in different order than we do, although it's written in the same way. I know that seems confusing. Just trust me on this. In Arabic, 1,224 is written as ١٢٢٤ and that does not mean "four thousand two hundred and twenty one," it's the same as how we would read it.

Okay, now so here's how it works when you start Arabic classes... generally, the beginning classes offered in Arabic are for Modern Standard Arabic (also called fusHa). Most people learn that before learning Egyptian. MSA is formal Arabic, and in order to really learn the language, it's the foundation that's needed... but the fact is nobody speaks Modern Standard Arabic on any street corner in any country. So Arabic students all start out learning MSA and then switch to a dialect after a while. The MSA book you'll be given will no doubt be Al Kitaab, which is not the best language textbook I've ever seen but this language isn't the easiest to teach so it's the best out there, really.

Dialects all feature different words and pronounciations than MSA (much like the Queen's English vs. what's heard on the streets of London), so a lot of what you learn at first you have to put aside although it's still good to know. For example though, in Egyptian, the letter ج is always pronounced as a "G" sound instead of the standard "J" sound in MSA. So what a non-Egyptian may call "jamiila" [pretty] an Egyptian would call "gamiila." Likewise, Egyptian Arabic has a "p" sound that other dialects don't. Egypt is the Hollywood of the Middle East so of all Arabic dialects, it's the most widely understood by all Arabic speakers, though. On the flip side, if an Egyptian tries to understand MSA or the Arabic of Morocco or Syria, they might not get it though. The many dialects of Arabic are more different depending on how far away the countries are from eachother.

Anyhow, moral of this too long story... best advice I can give you is to start out familiarizing yourself with the alphabets and numbers even before you take a class. And be patient and easy on yourself. Just learning any of it will get you major points with the Egyptian people.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:33 PM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Damn. Pre tag rendered in insta preview, but flew away on post. Here's the language table again:

MSA = Egyptian = English
Kayfa Halooka = Izzayyak = How are you?
La attakellim arabee = Mabatkellim 'arabee = I don't speak Arabic (sorry, also transposed this line)
Ana ureed khubz = Ana ayyiz 'aish = I want bread
posted by Deathalicious at 9:34 PM on December 31, 2007

Also, Egyptians love to eat so if you can learn the names of the foods served in Egypt that will work wonders for you. Going to bed right now and the list of foods I know is a bit exhaustive, so send me a mail listing the kinds of foods you like and I will let you know all the ones I know of (as well as some of the ones that will win you major extra points).
posted by Deathalicious at 9:38 PM on December 31, 2007

Good article about Egyptian Arabic

Egyptian flash cards

And I like this book for Cairene Arabic words. If you're traveling outside of Cairo, the dialect will differ a bit though. Depending on where you are, there will be more Berber, Bedouin or Nubian influences.

Okay, now someone needs to speak up about Hebrew... the one thing I can tell you is that both Hebrew & Arabic are semitic languages based on a three letter root system. So in both Hebrew and Arabic, any word built around the sounds K, T & B will have something to do with writing. The verb writing, a desk where you write, a writer, all of those words have a KTB root stem. It's actually really interesting.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:27 PM on January 1, 2008

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