January 9, 2008 4:12 PM   Subscribe

Help an Anglo guy get by in Hebrew and Arabic

Assuming I can find a way to New York, I'll be getting on a plane to Jordan at the end of February for one month.


Once I get there, I assume that my particular blend of bad english, worse french, and abysmal spanish won't put me in the good graces of the man in charge of the local falafel cart, nor will it help me hitch a ride to the red sea.

I plan on spending the bulk of my time in Israel, but Jordan and Egypt are so close, and the internet says that hitchhiking will be easy, so I imagine I will find myself unable to speak Arabic as well as Hebrew.

If you had about 1.5 months to learn enough of these two languages to get by, how would you proceed?

1- no money [going into debt for travel is a pastime of mine]
2- linux
posted by Acari to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Collection of podcasts for learning a foreign language. First link is actually about Arabic spoken in Jordan.
posted by Nelsormensch at 4:27 PM on January 9, 2008

Most people in Israel speak perfect English (and you risk offending them if you speak broken English like pointing to your watch for the time, for example). I have no knowledge of Hebrew and can't read it at all and I felt very comfortable. Just remember Shalom for hi/bye and todah rabah for thank you. Have fun!
posted by LiveToEat at 4:45 PM on January 9, 2008

Agreed that you'll be fine in Israel even if you don't know a word of Hebrew. Todah (thank you) and todah rabah (thank you very much) are good to know. (Accent on the last syllable: toe-DAH rah-BAH.) I speak decent Hebrew and it was still sometimes a struggle to get Israelis to speak Hebrew with me, rather than jumping into English as soon as they detected an accent.

Sorry I can't help with Arabic.
posted by bassjump at 4:48 PM on January 9, 2008

One thing that always gets recommended in "how do I learn a new language?" threads are the resources from the FSI.

You could try and get someone to teach you/converse with you over Skype.

Maybe there are some Flashcards out there which you could apply the Leitner System to.

This thread might come in handy, as might this one and this one.

I pulled all the links above from various language-learning threads - if you start by browsing through everything tagged "language", you'll soon have loads of advice whether general or language-specific.
posted by djgh at 4:53 PM on January 9, 2008

Oh, and I saw that Lonely Planet have started doing phrasebooks. Maybe they'd come in handy for the trip?
posted by djgh at 5:05 PM on January 9, 2008

As above folks noted, you will have no trouble getting around in Israel with absolutely no Hebrew. I also noticed when I was there that the Arabs in Israel also spoke quite a bit of English, especially in the high-tourist areas such as Jerusalem, etc.

In Jordan and Egypt, you would probably be able to get by with just English and gestures, especially if you stick to the usual tourist spots. But if saving money is important to you, and it sounds like it is, and you want to venture outside of the usual tourist trap, you should learn some basic phrases. The podcast sounds great, and start with the tourist book for the most basic phrases. Also, put up a notice for a language conversation exchange--meet twice a week for lunch, one hour speaking English, one in Arabic, etc. Craig's list or something similar, or if you have a university nearby you can tap into with a foreign student body, that should work too. I learned quite a bit of Arabic this way.

Also, Jordanian colloquial Arabic will be understood in Egypt, but Egyptian colloquial is the one that is most widely understood, mostly because of the Egyptian film industry. Also invest couple of hours on learning to sound out the written language (including the numbers--the so-called Arabic numerals aren't used in the Arab world). Of all the languages I've encountered, Arabic was the easiest to learn to read. No kidding.

Oh, one more thing. If you do learn a few phrases of Hebrew, do not use it when interacting with Israeli-Arabs. Will NOT win you brownie points.
posted by jujube at 5:34 PM on January 9, 2008

Speak English in Israel. The locals will be nicer to you. They may even hold the door for you.

Don't hitchhike in Israel. You'll end up on the 8 o'clock news. Take the bus, it's slow, but cheap. And prepare for cabbies to rip you off cos you're foreign. Sorry.
posted by bondgirl53001 at 7:06 PM on January 9, 2008

While everyone is correct in that you don't need to learn Hebrew to get around, you could spend a little time to learn the Hebrew alphabet. Most important signs that I saw in Israel were in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. I knew less than a hundred words of Hebrew (most of them religious and thus useless) and absolutely no Hebrew grammar before I went there, but I knew my alphabet, and so after about 5 days, I could figure out what was on the menu at restaurants without asking.
posted by ErWenn at 7:16 PM on January 9, 2008

thanks for the encouragement about not really needing to learn hebrew at all.
I'll check out those podcasts [holy crap! goldmine!], and work on learning how to sound things out and read road signs and such.

I know you have good intentions, bondgirl, but nobody has good things to say about hitchhiking *anywhere*. Except people who get out and actually do it, and they get to meet the nicest and most charitable people everywhere they go.

Good night, folks.
Thanks again.
posted by Acari at 10:50 PM on January 9, 2008

While wanting to learn the language before going someplace is laudable, don't worry too much about it. Can't comment for Israel, but I mostly managed to get by in Jordan with no Arabic beyond "hello", "thankyou", etc., even in areas slightly further off the tourist track (and it's not like I was making do with lots of French or Spanish or anything - beyond English I'm pretty linguistically... uh... challenged). English is pretty widely spoken there.

Incidentally, if the Wadi Rum isn't on your itinerary, re-plan your trip! I spent three days there, and the place never ceased to take my breath away.
posted by kxr at 12:16 AM on January 10, 2008

I've been to a few Arab countries, speaking almost zero Arabic. In my experience you will amost always find somebody close by who speaks enough English to get most things done in Jordan.

The very basics (yes, no, one, two, three, ten, please, thankyou) would be helpful - I've gotten by with them in pretty isolated parts of Yemen (where bin Laden is from in fact;-), and if they'll do there they'll certainly do in Amman or az Zarqa or wherever.

Also, note that if you're travelling cheaply, and not in farming or bedouin communities, the people you're taling to will more often than not be Palestinian (West Bankers rather than East Bankers), so no Hebrew...
posted by claudius at 12:24 AM on January 10, 2008

Yes but in Israel, hitchhiking brings to mind to more than just your stereotypical axe murder horror story -- terrorist groups target Israeli hitchhikers, specifically because most of the time, they are Israeli soldiers. (Even though military rules forbid it)
posted by bondgirl53001 at 1:01 AM on January 10, 2008

seconding bondgirl -- hitchhiking (it's called "tremping" in Israel) is different here than anywhere else. It's actually forbidden by the army for soldiers because of the dangers. I have only done it from inside closed communities -- and then, only when first asking *the driver* where he or she is going *first*. That last bit is accepted protocol for the h-hiker's safety.

My mom always used to tell me about the 'tourist tax' when traveling anywhere -- because you're not a native, you're going to get ripped off -- sometimes intentionally (the cab driver jacks the price) and sometimes not (you don't know where the cheaper lunch is). Just accept it from the beginning, and you'll be a lot less stressed about it.

Agreed also that English will get you by just fine in Israel. My Hebrew is excellent, but I'm often answered in English just because of my accent. I find they appreciate the practice. If you're interested in traveling to Egypt, there was a post here some weeks ago about creative methods for doing so. You should be fine with your passport getting stamped between the three countries, but if you intend to going elsewhere in the region -- Syria, Lebanon, etc., you'll want to research strategies.
posted by prophetsearcher at 4:47 AM on January 10, 2008

I travel in Jordan a fair bit and speak only basic Arabic. English is pretty widely spoken, though not universal. But the Jordanians are extremely friendly and do not react poorly at all to people who speak English. Especially if you are friendly yourself and behave as a grateful guest. Arab hospitality is a major point of pride in their culture, and your respect of that hospitality will take you a long way. The random falafel guy will LOVE having you in his shop, no matter how little Arabic you speak. As you know, most Americans spend a lot of time in western establishments overseas. Going to the streetside falafel/shawarma stand will be a great treat for you and at least mildly interesting for the falafel guy.

As people have noted, English is very widely spoken in Israel. It's less widely spoken in the West Bank, but not completely unknown. Knowing how to say hello and thank you is good practice in any country, though.

Egypt is another matter entirely. There is plenty of English, especially in touristy locations. But they try much harder there than any other place I've been to extract the foreigner tax. The Jordanians and Israelis will generally charge a fair price. The Egyptians will try to squeeze literally ten times the fair price out of you for things. One of the best pieces of advice I got in Egypt was from my lonely planet. Since the taxis have no meters there, you always have to negotiate the fare. Instead of arguing with the driver, you should never even ask how much the fare is. Instead, just get in the car, tell him where you want to go, and pay a fair price. The book lists a bunch of fair prices, all of which are extremely reasonable -- like $2-3 for a crosstown journey.

For Arabic especially, I would spend some time to learn the very basics (hello, thank you, the numbers, etc.). You're not going to get much further than that in a few months, so it's not worth stressing. The people will respect you for your effort. And despite what you see in the movies, people in that part of the world are extremely friendly to Americans. Especially in Jordan.

I'll be in Jordan next week and at the end of February. Feel free to send a note if you have questions.
posted by paschke at 8:55 AM on January 10, 2008

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