(All uploaded videos over the next 3 months related to this project will be subtitled in English, Arabic and Portuguese. Just click the captions button to activate! Want to see the regular videos of this project as soon as they are uploaded, rather than days or weeks later when mentioned on the blog? Subscribe to my Youtube channel)
It’s finally time to announce my next major language project. This may be one of the craziest ones I’ve ever undertaken! Watch the video for the proper introduction, and to see the fancy new intro (and outro) too!
As you’ll see, I have three months, starting today, to reach fluency (more specifically, high level B2/low C1 on this scale) in (Egyptian) Arabic and I plan to do it… in Brazil!
In case that wasn’t confusing enough, this project has yet another twist to it, mentioned in the video or below.
But first, I should explain why I think I’ve got a better chance of learning Arabic faster in Brazil, than I do in Egypt!!
Going to Egypt in January
Learning Arabic will give me a chance to finally go to Africa for the first time, and start my first step to discovering many other places on this vast continent. While I won’t be going there this year, the whole point of this mission will be to prepare to allow me to take full advantage of my time in Egypt, which will come in January, after my 3 month period specifically for learning the language.
While in Egypt, I don’t want to be studying, doing language exercises, memorizing flashcards or taking spoken lessons where the goal is to improve my level. I just want to be absorbing the culture, making friends, and having deep conversations with locals who don’t speak any English. I look forward to sharing cultural insights and interviews on the blog by recording videos when it happens, as I did in China this year, but with a higher level in the language ultimately.
All of my work intensively learning Arabic will be up to December 18th, and I want to arrive in Egypt speaking it; simple as that. So, three months is my deadline!
I’ll be focusing on the Egyptian dialect as much as possible, but learning what I can of classical Arabic too, to allow me to adapt to other dialects later easier, and cover more ground since most study/learning material is based on classical Arabic.
But… why go to Brazil??
To get fluent, why go to Brazil of all places to learn it? Why not just go straight to Egypt already now?
Well, one of the issues I absolutely need to fix, was that I found it quite stressful in Taiwan to learn Mandarin for my first months because my level in the language made it hard to make friends when combined with being in such a different culture.
I didn’t have this issue with, say, Hungarian, even though it’s linguistically unrelated to anything else I had studied, and I also started from scratch. But because it was in a European country I could immerse myself socially as well as linguistically, as European culture is familiar territory for me.
Even with basics in a language, I can go to a bar, nightclub and other familiar social events and use what I know while keeping people’s attention, socialise basically and improve this with time, right from the start. This lets me get to know a few people even in my first weeks of learning languages, when in the west. However, the social-scene is VERY different in Asia (and I imagine it is in Africa too!), and as such, this plan broke down for me this year with Mandarin.
I’m very proud of the level I ultimately achieved with my Mandarin (scroll down on this page to watch my last Mandarin video, interviewing Yang Yang if you missed it), and my level was independently evaluated as B1 (lower intermediate), but I was still short of that fluent-in-3-months goal! I plan on fixing that this time
Difficulties in making friends due to a very different social dynamic, and not having people to confide in until my last month in Taipei, when my level was enough to get around cultural issues, slowed me down immensely as I was stressed out, overworked, and a little lonely to be honest, for those first two months. The best place in the world to solve this problem, is my favourite country in the world of course!
On the three visits to Brazil I’ve had in the past, I’ve eaten well, socialized well, worked out well and felt absolutely fantastic because of this. Brazilians are affectionate and welcoming people, always eager to cheer you up, and it’s a culture I understand pretty well and have no issues socializing in. Brazil is the country that can definitely ensure I’m under as little stress as possible, and with people I feel I can confide the most in, thanks to this.
But… they don’t speak Arabic!
Well, my plan is very simply to spend the vast majority of the week immersed in Arabic. I’ll have spoken sessions on Skype every day (including today, day one, of course), or even in person if I can find people where I’m going: Belo Horizonte. It will be hard, as this city is far from the much more international São Paulo or Rio, but all I need is one or two people to meet up with regularly, or (just as well) plenty of spoken practice online.
You can learn any language anywhere
Ultimately, in Taipei in my last month there were three or four people I met up with socially for drinks or lunch, to finally start getting good consistent in-person practice in Mandarin.
But you know what? I didn’t need to be in a place with millions of speakers. Why would you? All I needed were those specific few people who I met up with for practice. You can find three or four people who speak Mandarin, or Arabic, or Spanish or whatever language you are learning, no matter where you are if it’s a decently sized city.
This is why I fundamentally believe that travelling to the country that speaks it, is NOT necessary to learn to speak a language fluently. In the end, even though I was in the country itself, I didn’t even get my spoken lessons in person any more. It was more convenient and cheaper to do it via Skype!
To date I’ve usually gone directly to the country that speaks the language and started learning it that day. This hasn’t been because I think it’s the best way to learn the language, but because I’m a traveller. Going to new countries is what I do – learning the language is just a consequence of this.
But many years ago, while living in France, I began to learn Portuguese in advance of my trip to Brazil. I met up with speakers that I found online, and studied around those spoken sessions. This meant that I arrived in Brazil already speaking Portuguese.
This certainly contributed to the experience of me being able to immerse quicker and better and ultimately turn Brazil into my favourite country. While I’ve had lots of fun over the last decade with the adventure of arriving somewhere without a word of its language, and figuring my way through the country while simultaneously starting off and working up to conversational level and beyond, from now on I’ll spend my three months to learn the language elsewhere in advance if it’s not in a Latin or European culture. Then I can hopefully arrive in the country speaking fluently, not worry about the language and focus entirely on the culture
This will ultimately lead to me learning it faster, as long as I create that same immersion environment virtually, wherever I may be. As you follow my updates, you’ll see how successful I am in attempting this!
Another twist to the story! Learning Arabic… through French!
As if an Irish guy… going to a Portuguese speaking country… to learn Arabic, wasn’t confusing enough, I’ll be doing it… through French!
As you can see in the video, I found that learning languages through another language (usually French, as I happen to like the French version of the Assimil courses) has helped me to think in that language, rather than force me to translate through English in my head.
Because of this I’ll be focusing on using French phrasebooks (both the Lonely Planet one and Assimil’s one) to start off with, and then the B2 tailored Assimil course book for my classical Arabic studying of how the language works, and then hopefully I’ll be ready to hit the C1 book in my final weeks.
I’ll be using some other material too, but the majority of my studying will likely be using these French materials.
Your tips and encouragement appreciated!
I’m sure many readers here have tips specific to Arabic about the approach I could take, Internet resources I can use, how I can find Skype teachers and so on. Please let me know in the comments below! And general encouragement is also appreciated!
You can expect about 3 video updates per month (starting next week) just in Arabic. Subscribe to my Youtube channel to see those, as I may wait a few days or a week before mentioning them on the blog after uploading!
Thanks for reading, and here’s hoping that this time in three months I’ll be speaking fluent Arabic, even though at the time of writing I don’t even know how to say hello in the language yet! This is going to be fun!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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