I’m a firm believer in learning at least the basics of a foreign language when you’re going to travel. Americans are pretty spoiled, obviously, since so many people in the world speak English, but I think it’s tremendously arrogant to assume that everyone will speak English wherever you go.
Then again, I suppose that people who learn four or five words and carefully pronounce them whenever possible come off as dilettantes. At the very least it is polite to learn “please” and ‘thank you” in the language of wherever you are going — and it’s just self-preservation to learn to read the word for MEN and WOMEN on the bathroom door!
Egypt is very cosmopolitan, and nearly everyone we met spoke English (at some level) enough to get by. We had an English-speaking guide, and for the most part we could have managed without a speck of Arabic. Still, everyone seemed really pleased that we had made the effort — and I got a number of impromptu lessons on pronunciations from helpful vendors and tourist police.
Our few days in Tell el Amarna found us with the constant attentions of two bodyguards, both name Mohammed. “Front seat Mohammed” wanted to practice his English, and taught me to count properly — but demurred when we asked for some good curse words, with the careful explanation “It would not polite to teach a married woman those words.”
In an attempt to learn the basics, I picked up a few books and book/tape combinations. I’d definitely recommend In-Flight Arabic as a great start, but the other kits here are worth the effort: