Reader Mail: 5 questions from an Arabic student in Cairo – how to transition from Amiya to Fusha


Hi Nathan,

I have been studying Egyptian Ammeya for 6 months now, through 14 hours/week 1-1 classes. I’ve gotten to the level that I can have a conversation with a patient interlocutor about any subject. I watch Egyptian soap operas and while I miss a lot I can follow the story lines. My reading is pretty basic – I have been reading the dialogues in Taxi (as you recommended, thanks!). I read them with the help of my teachers, and we can now get through a page an hour. But I learn the words I know in terms of their Arabic spelling. I haven’t tried much writing.

My goals going forward are to get more conversational and also to learn to read. My priority for reading is around professional issues – I work on social issues for UN/NGOs. I would like to be able to follow the news and read newspaper articles and op-eds. While many papers/reports on my topics will be in English, I will need to be able to read, or get the gist of, official communications (like government notices, or inter-office communication). It would also be good to follow social media in Arabic. Later in life it would be good to read poetry or literature but this is not my priority.

So my question is on how to approach the study of Fusha. My teachers are saying that it will involve starting again from the beginning, and quite a bit of textbook work. They would also teach in a style where we would speak Fusha in classes. Given that I really dislike textbook work (preferring real material and dialogue), and am wondering whether I need to speak Fusha, my questions for you below.

Thanks for providing such a valuable resource for learners of Arabic, and helping to foster a community around it!

Best wishes,



Dear Peter,

I am very happy to help and glad to hear you are taking advantage of what Cairo has to offer. All things considered I still consider Egypt the #1 place overall to study Arabic in the Middle East. Here are my answers to your questions, one by one:

(1) Do you recommend that I start “learning Fusha” now, or after strengthening my Ammeya further?

Given your professional goals, I see no reason for you to wait any further to being studying Fusha. After six months on the ground in Cairo, taking classes in Egyptian colloquial, you are ready to work on building up a foundation in MSA.

Furthermore, the differences between the Two are not as big and dramatic as they are often made out to be. To quote Professor Wilmsen: “Fusha is Amiya.”  The notion that they are two  completely separate and distinct languages is making the study of Arabic more intimidating for students than it needs to be.

Let me give you just one example. Take a look at my analysis of interviews with construction workers from Southern Egypt. Sure, they are speaking Amiya, theoretically, but if you have studied Fusha, you’ll have built up a stronger base of vocabulary, and would immediately recognize much of their terminology, patterns etc, even if it’s not in the precise form that it would be in Fusha. Not to mention that with a Fusha base, you’d be able to communicate with these guys to a degree that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Furthermore, given your plans to possibly work in Jordan studying Fusha sooner rather than later will help you develop the ability to move to another Arab country and tweak your approach accordingly, without having to learn new dialect.

(2)  Are there non-textbook materials could I use as a bridge from Egyptian to Fusha?

Yes. Any opportunity to see spoken Arabic in print would serve as that bridge. As you mentioned, the book Taxi is one excellent source.  There are certainly others. If you go to any of the bookstores in Cairo and ask for similar books, I am sure they will have additional suggestions. 

Second, Movies are another bridge opportunity as they usually have the Arabic in closed captioning. So if you find a good Egyptian movie you like, go to any of the video stores in downtown Cairo, but the CD, it will probably cost about $2. Watch it on your computer where you can see the words written out. You will notice the similarities between Fusha and Amiya. Once you get better and better at recognizing those patterns, you make more and more advances in both Fusha and Amiya.

Finally, as I mentioned in my 20 strategies for becoming a high-level Arabic speaker, the classic Egyptian drama “Rafet Al-Hagen” would be a very good bridge because the actors employ for the most part High Amiya that often verges into “Fusha.”

(3)  Should I learn to speak Fusha, or just writing/reading/listening? Next year or two I imagine I will be in either Egypt or Jordan, and in some formal environments. An Egyptian colleague in my sector says that most things here are spoken in Ammeya.

I think you are doing more thinking about this than is necessary. Whether you should focus on speaking vs just writing/reading/listening, at this point for you it doesn’t matter.

At the very early stages of studying Fusha you have to do a little bit of everything. So start studying Fusha, then once you get several months under your belt, then think more about whether you should be spending more time on reading vs listening vs writing. The answer will come then, but not now.

(4)  You’ve written here about how things are “mixed” between Fusha/Ammeya, and that’s what I should aim for. But is it mixed in terms of grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation, or all three? When trying to replicate this, should I try to learn Fusha separately, and then merge them, or learn to increasingly drop-in Fusha into my Ammeya?

Again don’t overthink this. Whether you learn Fusha separately and then merge into Colloquial or not, I don’t think you should spend any time thinking about this at this point.

What you should do is build up more of a Fusha base, and then just go out and explore and go with the flow.  There is no fixed way to go about doing it. Once you build up more of a grasp of Formal Arabic, the answers to your questions will come to you naturally.

(5)  Any advice for my teachers?

Your teachers are going to have an approach and opinions on what you should do. But what is right for them, isn’t necessarily right for your goals.

Think about why you are studying Arabic and what you would like to be doing with it, one year from now, two years from now. Then work backward and design your curriculum around those future objectives. from that.

With private tutors you can have more control over your curriculum, than versus what you can expect in a classroom.  Tell them what you want them to teach you – and sometimes you have to be very clear about what you think you need to be taught versus what they think you need to be taught. But you are in Cairo – a city of 20 million people, there is no shortage of creative ways to design a learning approach that suits all of your needs.

Good luck and keep me posted on your progress. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can be of further assistance.



Do you know Arabic students who might benefit from this post? If so please don’t hesitate to share on relevant social media feeds.  

2 thoughts on “Reader Mail: 5 questions from an Arabic student in Cairo – how to transition from Amiya to Fusha

  1. Nice piece, and I agree- fusha and amiya are much closer than is often thought.

    My learning experience has been almost 100% fusha, but the interesting thing I’ve found is that amiya/lahja becomes more and more comprehensible even without studying it. I can’t speak in lahja but my comprehension is high- 90-95% or so in conversation, 70-80% when it’s on tv….

    I’ve studied exclusively fusha because that is what my teacher prefers, I have been learning in Maine, and I don’t really like watching tv. Most of the Arabic speakers in Maine are from Iraq, and they seemingly prefer to speak to me in fusha- it’s as though it is expected because I’m a foreigner. (So this might be an expectation specific to Iraqi Arabic speakers, I’m not sure…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nathan

      Thanks Brook for sharing your insights from the perspective of someone studying from outside of the region.

      – Fusha and Amiya are part and parcel of each other and especially in the 2016 world. I think much of the Arabic teaching paradigms were formed based on the norms of say the 1970s world..,.


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