The most important skill a traditional learning approach will never teach you (+2 month Arabic video)

Here it is; my official two month point in Arabic! Subtitles in English, Arabic and Portuguese via Youtube.

I had initially planned to go to the Egyptian consulate in Rio, to finally speak the language for the first time in my life in person, but there were issues in setting up a meeting there. Luckily, I randomly ran into an Egyptian-American, Ahmed, at a Couchsurfing meeting!

I decided to only speak English with him then and ask him if he’d be up for recording a video with me. We still spoke English before recording the video, so he had no idea what my level would have been at. The reason I did this, was so you could literally see the very first time I genuinely spoke the language face-to-face with someone in my life, the moment after I pressed record.

Sharing this key moment is good for tracking my progress, since I know people are curious about such important milestones of the mission, (unlike some friends of mine, I don’t tend to have a camera on my head to catch such moments in cognito!) but obviously breaking into Arabic suddenly, after not speaking it for over a day since my previous Skype session, meant I didn’t have quite the ideal kind of flow I’d like. In future, I’ll speak in the relevant language for several minutes before recording, so I have this flow.

First ever in-person conversation in Arabic, recorded on video!

So, we got into the conversation and you can see we covered various topics, like what he’s doing in Brazil, some suggestions on where I could travel in Egypt, and even the revolution there at the start of the year!

Even forgetting the lack of flow, where I wouldn’t have hesitated so much if I had been speaking Arabic before pressing record, I can still say that I’m a bit behind schedule and the level I was hoping to be at my two month point, and will have to work super hard to push myself onward in this final month.

Having said that, there is one thing I am very proud to say (and it’s why, unlike in my month-one video, this time I let the other person do most of the talking), that I understood most of what he said to me, even though there were lots of words I didn’t understand.

Are you screwed if you come across vocabulary you don’t know?

Now, here is the thing; many traditional teachers and learners will find that last sentence above impossible to wrap their heads around.

I know this because I get a lot of nagging in comments on some of my progress videos (especially the Mandarin ones) that certain words are well beyond my likely scope of vocabulary and that I was just nodding politely and not really understanding, as if there isn’t an alternative explanation.

Today I want to give this alternative explanation, and I feel like it’s one of the most neglected aspects of language learning: EXTRAPOLATION and APPRECIATION OF CONTEXT.

You see, I don’t look at communication as a black-and-white affair that I either understand or I don’t, and consequently spit out an error message like a robot. Languages are an entirely HUMAN affair, and this human aspect to it is ignored so much in language learning circles that it constantly baffles me.

From a purely logical point of view “I don’t know word x, therefore, if it comes up in a sentence, I don’t understand the sentence” seems to make sense, and in a black box it would. But in the real world, (which is the only one I concern myself with, not the academic one) this is simply not true.

Examples of how I understood despite not knowing certain words

To demonstrate this, I want to go over certain parts of this dialogue and demonstrate what was going on in my mind, so you can see that I was actually indeed keeping up with most of the conversation:

Just after minute 8 into the video, Ahmed says:

انت عايز تروح تخش البلد تشرب قهوة وتلعب شطرنج  وطاولة

“When visiting Egypt, make sure to drink coffee, play chess and backgammon….” (Approximate translation)

Now, unfortunately, I didn’t know that chess was شطرنج or that backgammon (for lack of a good translation) was طاولة. I did understand the rest of the sentence though.

My reasoning, having already lived in a Muslim country, was that if the context involved drinking coffee and we could play something, then it’s unlikely to be football or Super Mario Kart, but it is likely to be sitting down somewhere playing board games of some sort. I can play a little chess, and know from its history that Europe inherited it via the Arab world, and I had always visualised Arabs playing chess a lot, so one of those games could likely be chess.

I was perhaps 80% confident of this, but since they are not absolutely key aspects of the dialogue, it would have slown us down a lot if I had stopped him to explain it so I could be 100% sure. In terms of relevance to the conversation, it’s good enough to know that he definitely means to play something, and he likely means to play board games like chess.

Such a “triage” system of letting some uncertainties go by is essential to keep conversations flowing, and we do it in our native languages too, as I’ll explain below.

Here’s another example:

يعني انت عارف سيدنا في الاسلام سيدنا موسى طلع  فوق وكلم الله يعني ده في سيناء

“You know prophet Moses who went up the mountain and spoke to God? That happened in Sinai…”

What I actually got out of my segmented understanding of this sentence was “Musa… [gesturing up]… God… Sinai”, focusing just on the key words, and yet I was very confident of what he said.

Firstly, names of anyone ancient or biblical are different but very similar in various languages. So in French for instance, Moses is Moïse. I hadn’t heard this in Arabic before. The emphasis of this name in the sentence made it clear that this was a proper name, and I knew it was highly unlikely that such an important name was altered dramatically.

At first, I thought it might be a place, but when he gestured up implying that “he went up to God”, the penny dropped and I realized it was Moses going up the mountain, since the word sounds like Moses.

Now, remember something essential here: CONTEXT. Ahmed and I were not talking about religion. So thinking logically for a moment, I knew that he hadn’t suddenly drifted into a bible discussion – we were talking about places in Egypt, so this must logically be that place where Moses went up to get the 10 commandments. I didn’t know it was called Sinai, but the emphasis implied, once again, that this was the name of something or someone, so that had to be the mountain itself.

I was maybe 60% confident of this. Not enough to be absolutely sure, but enough to guess (correctly) at what he was saying and not stop him.

When guessing breaks down.. just ask!

You might think that this is a lot to process in just a few seconds – in fact most of my thinking when speaking with people is this kind of reasoning, rather than trying to remember words and conjugate verbs. I find it’s more important to tie myself into the context and make sure I’m keeping up.

I would analyse their body language to see if their gestures and facial expressions give cues that their words aren’t hinting to, I’d remember previous parts of the conversation and realize that this sentence has to be linked to them in some way, so I’m not translating in a black-box by any means, and within the sentence itself, I’ll make further approximations, based on words surrounding the one I don’t know.

One consequence of this is that eventually I will, of course, reach a point where my extrapolation and guess work leads me nowhere. On occasion it’s a single word in the sentence that doesn’t seem so relevant and it doesn’t seem so important to ask.

While the conversation is taking place, I try to make this decision of whether or not to stop for this word, and make sure I am keeping up sufficiently with the conversation, but letting a few things go. You’d be surprised at how much irrelevant information we sprinkle into our conversations if you truly analysed it.

You’d have to be insane to understand every single aspect of every conversation and the background of each word with 100% certainty. This is way too much information, so people generally go with “getting the gist” more often than they realize.

But at times, I do indeed have to ask for clarification. One example in this conversation is when he said

هي ام الدنيا

“Mother of the world”.

I understood mother, but the other word was simply too important and there was too little context for me to work with (it’s an unlikely phrase to expect out of nowhere), so I had to ask. I had learned the word “عا َلـَم” for world, but hadn’t come across د ُنيا yet. It’s an unexpected expression, so he had to say it to me in English.

It’s OK not to know everything!

The thing is, I don’t just do this when I’m learning a language – I do this in English and my best languages too. Just this morning, I got a phonecall from a friend here in Brazil. Her phone is a piece of crap from 8 years ago and the microphone needs to be replaced, because it sounds like she’s talking to me while holding a cloth over her mouth, or while I have earplugs in.

So I did my best to try and see what could she possibly be saying, given that I know her, and there are a small list of likely reasons she is calling and things she is probably saying. It turns out through the muffled noisy background she was trying to say that she had called me before but my number was not working (as I was using a different number while in Rio), and it was more likely that she was to say that rather than  that her hovercraft was full of eels.

If you are having a conversation in your native language with someone, they may mention a person’s name that you have never heard before. Sometimes, it’s pretty important and you might ask “Who’s Mary?”, but in many cases, it’s clear from the context that they must be talking about a friend of theirs. You guess based on the information provided, and don’t hold up the conversation with constant questions about information that is obvious if you think about it, and sometimes it’s quite alright to just know that Mary is a friend, rather than how they met and why and what her astrological sign is etc.

And so what if you’re wrong? I tend to have a particular confidence threshold that means that if I feel I’m above it, there is no need to ask for clarification, if I’m just below it, I may quickly say “Is that…?” to confirm, and if I’m quite below it, then I’ll say “I don’t understand”.

There’s nothing wrong with not understanding, but there is this fear that if you dared try to speak with a native (and in this conversation, I had no plan whatsoever for where it would lead, and had no idea we’d end up discussing some particularly complex topics), then you would turn into a machine-gun of “Idon’tunderstandIdon’tunderstandIdon’tunderstandIdon’tunderstand”.

For me, the number of words you happen to know is NOT what decides how good you are in a conversation. As this was my first in person conversation, I had access to so many non-verbal visual cues that helped immensely. I’ve seen learners come up to a word they haven’t encountered before, and immediately wave a white flag and give up, and conclude that this and all similar conversations are beyond them.

On occasion you’ll make a mistake. It turns out the world won’t end, so go ahead and make them. They may not be as frequent as you fear, if you are thinking well enough contextually and not just about language workings.

You MUST step outside of your comfort zone, and you can’t expect that every conversation will have all the vocabulary you know. As adults, we have great advantages over children learning languages in that we can use logic to reason what the word could be, much better than they could.

So what do you think?

Should extrapolation and contextual appreciation be an essential aspect of improving language learners’ ability to communicate until they know much more words, so they can communicate smoother and more frequently? Or will such a world lead to pandemonium and the zombie apocalypse due to the potential misunderstandings that may arise? Let me know in the comments!



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  • Traci

    It occurred to me recently that when I was being taught German in school one of the things that was made very clear to us was that German speakers were basically stupid. It was impressed upon us, over and over again, that if we made any mistakes, got a word ending wrong, used the wrong form of der/die/das etc. then the other person just would not understand anything we were trying to say.

    My brain now knows this is nonsense – indeed we did occasionally ask why English speakers could understand when non-native speakers spoke less than perfect English to us, but if the native language was German then perfection was the minimum required – but the early ingrained habits are hard to break. No answer was ever given to our question by the way.

    That said, I spent a week in Italy a while ago and by the Thursday – from a base of no Italian at all – got through an evening in a restaurant on my own with no English spoken at all, I’ve no illusions that my accent was anything close to respectable, but the restaurant people didn’t use English at me at any point. My brain knows you’re right, just need to be brave and get stuck in.

    • Benny Lewis

      I know – this drives me insane. Some perfectionists are so quick to swipe out the few examples when using a wrong gender can indeed imply a different word, and make you feel like that would happen 99% of the time, when it’s more like 0.01% of the time.

      These language teachers are hindering use of the language much more than they realize, and should allow flexibility and possible mistakes to be made – it’s the best way to learn!

    • SamB_UK

      It took me a long time to realise this, and I wish I’d known it back at school – or rather that my teachers had known it!

  • WC

    I remember wondering about missing vocabulary and being scared of it.

    When I started reading Japanese, I would look up every word I didn’t know. I had heard that I should just skip them and worry later, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

    Eventually, after months of pain, I finally started skipping them. I told myself that I’d only look them up if I really didn’t understand… And that’s what I did. For a while.

    Now, I tend to just keep going anyhow. If it’s important, it’ll come up again and I can look it up at that point. If it’s not important, then why am I worrying?

    It’s worked out pretty well. I read a lot faster now, both because my speed has improved and because I’m not staring at a single word for a long time, or typing into a electronic dictionary. And losing my place in the book, *again*.

    • Benny Lewis

      Great to see you embrace a little imperfectionism ;) It opens up so many doors!

    • Edmund Yong

      When I first started reading English Book, I skipped a lot sometimes a whole paragraph or even page because the story is too interesting and I could wait to know what happen next. I realised how much I can understand the story even though I missed out a few paragraphs or pages.
      btw Harry Potter is the first English book that I read non stop and made me start reading English books. My friends think I must be really good in English to read Harry Potter but actually it isn’t true.

      • Paul Krol

        haha, yes, that’s how a lot of people did it!

  • Kyle

    Benny! Whenever I try to practice speaking a language that I’m learning (French and Chinese mostly) I get sooo nervous and terrified. I want to practice my speaking, but I find it difficult to talk to anyone who is a native speaker or can speak the language really well. I begin to shake and I stutter; it’s just terrible. I even shake when I try going on Verbling. I know that I shouldn’t be scared and everyone makes mistakes and all of that, I just can’t help it. I don’t know what to do!

    • Kellar Alsup

      I think we all come across this problem in our beginnings. You just have to not think about it so much, and try your best to relax.

    • Simon Ager

      You could try imagining that you are a confident person who can speak your languages without shaking and stuttering, and see if that helps. Another technique is to think of your nerves and terror as excitement – and that you’re excited about communicating with other people in their langauge.

      • Benny Lewis

        Excellent advice Simon, thanks for dropping in! :)

    • Adam Jones

      I listen to non-native English speakers. I learn a couple of things. They make a ton of mistakes, but a vast majority of the time, I understand everything they are trying to communicate. They also speak with pride (and mistakes together) because they are communicating to me in my language. They are proud that they are bridging this language gap for me. I use this as motivation to overcome my own anxiety and fears and people are so impressed that I take the time, even with bad grammar or accent, to learn their language.

      Also, I try to find people who know no English. They are thrilled to help me out and see me stumble through sentences. Given someone who feels they are uneducated (When in reality they are not) the gift of teaching me or helping me practice, empowers them and shakes the jitters off of me.

      I totally know the feeling of the yips, though!

  • Jimmy L. Mello

    Great article, it has a lot of great moments, the main idea for me is contextual appreciation, you said one sentence that should be all bolded “You’d have to be insane to understand every single aspect of every conversation” this is the real key to the listening skill, some language learner really believe and try this insanity, they expect to understand every singe word during the conversation, and this will for sure take them to nowhere, or better will take them to believe in the false idea that they are not “gifted” for languages, and we know that this has nothing to do with gift or talent, it is pure hard work and realist expectation. Some learners tend to not expose themselves until the moment they really feel that they understand everything, but what they do not understand is that they will never understand everything unless they expose themselves. By the way, by watching your video is quite obvious your improvement, you dealt quite well in your first face-to-face conversation in Arabic. Great work!

    • Benny Lewis

      Thanks for the compliment! I did bold that sentence though :D

  • Drp9341

    I completely agree about it being necessary to speak a language before you are technically “ready”

    This summer, I went to Peru and spent 2 months in an indigenous village. There, a lot of the people didn’t speak Spanish, only the indigenous language, Quechua. I knew nothing at first, but by the time I knew about 5 words I was already combining hand gestures and 1 word sentences to try and communicate.

    My first successful communication came when I knew about 30-40 words, (hardly ANYTHING by academic standards.) And I was able to talk about where I was from, how old I was, how many planes I had to take to arrive in Peru, and most importantly (and surprisingly) that I wouldn’t be able to make it back for lunch, but I would be coming for dinner at 5:30 :).

    Everyone else, was terrified to say as much as “sulpayki” (thank you) for fear that they would not understand something. I would personally just sit back and smile and say “ñoqa mana entendinichu” I don’t understand, and it would be fun trying to get the point back and forth.

    It’s literally incredible how little of a language one must “know” to communicate in it, and attempting to communicate is so important for learning the language. If people just got out there, laughed at themselves, and communicated in their TL everyone would really see the true fun and effectiveness of language learning

    • Kellar Alsup

      I agree totally. I feel like I don’t know a ton of Chinese, but I am surprised how well I can hold a conversation sometimes.

      • Edmund Yong

        Things can happen inversely. You can understand native speaker by context and guessing. In the same time, native speaker can also understand you even though your pronunciation/grammar isn’t very good.

        For example
        me is from Malaysia one Chinese. me this year 16 years old.

        Can you understand that?

    • Benny Lewis

      Incredible story, thanks for sharing!! You are so right that people are so afraid to use a language that they think they aren’t ready for, when others like you are doing so much more than they are with much fewer words.

  • Saunatina Sanchez

    In my current Mexican travels I spent a great weekend being shown around the area around Urupan near Morelia. I’m still at Basic-Intermediate level and didn’t understand close to everything. Suerte, ella fue muy amable anfitriona.

    My favorite moment came when we were driving around a lake and she was telling me a legend about the indigenous people, Purepechas, and their revenge against the Conquistadores.

    I’m not sure all the details are correct, but here is what I understood.

    “This land belonged to the Princess of the Purepechas and was coveted by the Conquistadores. When the Spanish attacked, the warriors of the tribe hid in the marshes and became ‘alge’ or ‘reeds’ and sucked the Spanish into the water to drown.”

    I had never encountered ‘marshes’ or ‘alge’ or ‘drown’ or many other words she used. But I understood she was talking about a battle and she used the universal gesture for watery plant and pointed to the water. Then she made a gesture like someone being pulled under the water as she said Conquistadores. Hard to misinterpret, no?

    • Benny Lewis

      Well said ;) Communication is SO MUCH more than just the words we do or don’t know!

  • Barbara Cornelius

    My language brick wall lately has been the native speakers of the language I’m trying to learn. Has anyone else experienced the following? You start to speak with them, and any hesitation or pause on your part causes them to jump in and immediately complete your sentences or translate into English for you. It’s highly, highly frustrating – and these are friends, not people I’m meeting on the street! No amount of my begging will make them stop doing this. I ask them to please give me a chance; pauses don’t mean I don’t understand. So, I’ve stopped speaking with them at all in their language – it’s impossible for me to learn or practice with them. I’m in their country for 4 more months, so I’ve hired a teacher and I’m visiting markets and restaurants. Taxi drivers are especially eager help, too.

    Anyone have tips on how to handle these friends of mine? I’m becoming angry just thinking about it! :-D

    • Benny Lewis

      I understand the frustration. Other than making sure they are aware that you need a moment to think, and that they aren’t actually helping you by interrupting, I’ve found that changing your body language and the WAY you pause can actually make them feel more comfortable and less likely to interrupt you. I do this all the time and described it more here:

      • Barbara Cornelius

        Thanks, Benny. I’ll try again with my pals. It may be simply a very basic cultural difference – the learning/teaching style in my temporarily-adopted country is extremely hierarchical. In classrooms, learning is mainly by rote with little discussion. The emphasis is on speedy responses and the first person to respond in the class is the best student. That’s the style my friends grew up with, and there’s not a lot (if anything) I can do to get them to change. I’ll just have to deal with it if I want to learn. One thing – I’ve tried injecting some drama and personality into the conversations. This does work fairly well, but it’s tiring to convince very literal people that yes, I really DID mean to describe someone as having ‘tall hair’ (not big hair).

        • Brian

          Barbara, what country is this? There may be others here with experience of it.

          • Barbara Cornelius

            Nepal. Thanks Brian :)

        • SamB_UK

          I know how you feel – it can be very frustrating. The key really is to try and involve your friends in your learning. Make them feel that they’re part of what you’re doing, and that they are teaching you something.

          Obviously, that is difficult in the scenario they’re used to, as you describe. Just keep at it, replying in Nepali – if possible with different words to the ones they prompt you with!

          • Barbara Cornelius

            I love that idea! Good incentive for building vocabulary, plus the chance to be snarky, too. Bwah! Thanks, Sam.

    • David Sweetnam

      Hi Barbara I’m pleased at least to know it’s not just me, and I’d like to write about it too on my blog. I’m in Prague, and I find that almost every interaction the same thing happens to me.

      Yes, it’s annoying (and then some)!

      I’m now a strong intermediate – B1, very communicative but make mistakes of course, but the Czechs won’t have a bar of it, especially Czech guys.

      The first thing I’ve done is simply decide not to speak English. I go to a Latin dance class twice a week and while they speak to me in English, I reply in Czech. Always. Don’t give in is my advice, as we English speakers are afraid of being ‘impolite’ when in fact we’re in their country and their language is or should be the main one.

      The other thing I did, a bit like yourself, is hire some students and we speak together in Czech more than 10 hours a week. This helps with confidence, but the main problem is still there for me: most other Czechs reply to me in English.

      I am however more assertive and now don’t back down. At least a few of the girls I’ve met lately appreciate that an English speaker is speaking their language, and a few guys too who are proud to be Czech.

      I’ll be keen to know how you move forward, good luck


      • Barbara Cornelius

        I have that happening, too, but for the most part the problem is that they don’t allow me time to reply at all. They speak in Nepali, and if I don’t immediately respond or if I hesitate during my reply, they translate into English or supply the Nepali words for me. These are friends who know I’m trying to learn. Each and every sentence with them is like that. It’s not that the try to continue in English – they just don’t seem to be willing to allow me to hesitate or pause. :(

        • David Sweetnam

          I can totally sympathise.

          What I’m doing is continuing with speaking Czech with university students (who are basically tutors), and hope I get to a point where the English ‘interference’ happens less and less when I’m out and about.

          I have noticed this week, for example, that everyone in the shops has spoken to me in Czech. I think it’s partly because I try to communicate a Czech demeanour. But other times, I can go a whole week with very few people responding to me in Czech.

          It sucks but at least it’s nice to know we share the same problem :)

      • Barbara Cornelius

        I think you’re right, David – assertiveness is the key. I should ignore my frustration, let it go (I’m sure this is due in large part to ego), and just keep learning. Sounds like you’re progressing quickly – thanks for the words of encouragement!

  • Andrew

    Great video, you’re making great progress, and I love that you started the video right when he heard you speak Arabic for the very first time–like you said, that was very useful to see how he reacted and dealt with it.

    Completely agreed about context, I still feel like an incompetent fraud or something every time I hear something in Spanish and don’t understand every single word and the precise meaning of what was said (god almighty those BBC Mundo reporters talk fast)–I have to remember that hell, sometimes that happens to me even in English, my native language!

    I’ve been made even more aware of that recently while I’ve been doing language exchanges: right now, what I do with my partner is watch a video with her, either in English or Spanish depending on which one we’re working on at that point, and then the student will try to determine what was said with the native speaker transcribing the video at the other end and only sending that transcription (via Skype’s chat function) once the student has either correctly determined what was said or has given up. While doing the English ones I actually realized that I will occasionally not be able to understand every single word that was spoken (in English!) either because the audio was garbled, too much background noise, or they were talking too fast and their voice was too low, or some combination of those. However, I still understood what was said, I understood the meaning and that’s all that mattered. I realized that I actually do this with English and don’t even realize it as it’s subconscious, so that makes me feel a lot better about doing it with Spanish!

    No, you don’t need to understand every word, not even native speakers do all the time! And no, occasionally missing a word isn’t an indicator that you’re incompetent in the language in question.

    Great article, the bit on context need to be said and emphasized, and you seem to be making excellent progress, keep us posted (I can’t wait to see how you do in Egypt).


  • Michael

    Great work Benny – I’m about to undertake learning Arabic from England, so your updates have been very motivating for me! Quick question – do you have any beginner books/self-study courses that you would recommend? I am starting from the very bottom and while I plan to use a tutor occasionally the majority of the work I do will be self-study.

    Many thanks

    • Benny Lewis

      “Learn Arabic” is such a messy topic, that is so hard to pinpoint. Most courses focus on Modern Standard Arabic, which absolutely nobody speaks in the street, but which you will find on TV and formal conversations.

      I’m focusing on Egyptian Arabic, and learning resources specifically for this “dialect” are hard to come by, and pretty bad when you do. The French books I decided to go with aren’t that great, except for the phrasebook.

      Time with natives is all I can truly recommend… hop on verbling and see if they can teach you the basics on a daily basis for free :)

      If you don’t mind that you aren’t learning a language spoken on the street, you can focus on Modern Standard, and you’ll get HEAPS of resources all over the place, although I can’t recommend any in particular as I am not learning that. Check out book reviews on Amazon for instance.

      You’ll be able to follow many TV shows, and when you speak it really well, it won’t be TOO hard to learn a dialect depending on where you go. It’s not ideal, but unless you have a specific dialect in mind because you definitely plan to live in that country, starting with Modern Standard seems like the most obvious direction to go in.

  • Randybvain Torques

    Yesterday I was in the local shop when I heard something about “maison”. I went there and there were three French children arguing loudly about something and their mother who was looking for some food. I passed by her and I remarked simply “les enfants…” She raised her eyes and made a little puff, so I thought that I said something wrong and went away. I think I mispronounced “enfants” and upset her. But I am not sure. What would you think? What were the children talking about? Where one could learn the extrapolation and the body language you wrote about?

    • Benny Lewis

      I think her reaction is totally understandable, and it has nothing to do with languages. If a complete stranger said “Kids!” to many mothers, they’d feel a little insulted.

      Trust me, mispronouncing “enfants” wasn’t the upsetting part.

      My extrapolation is that you need to be a bit more selective in the very first thing you say to complete strangers, regardless of which language it’s in :) Same rules apply to foreign languages and native ones in this case :P

  • Jean Halverson

    Extrapolation is imperative! Communication just cannot occur if one is trying to figure out what every single word that is spoken to you means.

  • Guest

    I’m a native Arabic speaker (Jordanian) and I can definitely tell you that you’re doing more than great compared to the time you’ve been learning!..very impressive!

    I met many Americans who came here to learn Arabic for a one year exchange program and by the end of the program they could barely communicate in Arabic.

    I’m currently learning Esperanto, your post about Esperanto was very encouraging!

    I’m going to start learning German after Esperanto, I want to see for myself if Esperanto does really help in learning other languages, specially that I don’t speak any European language.

    your blog was very inspiring and encouraging!…keep up the good work! :D

  • naz89

    I’m a native Arabic speaker (Jordanian) and I can definitely tell you that you’re doing more than great compared to the time you’ve been learning!..very impressive!

    I met many Americans who came here to learn Arabic for a one year exchange program and by the end of the program they could barely communicate in Arabic.

    I’m currently learning Esperanto, your post about Esperanto was very encouraging!

    I’m going to start learning German after Esperanto, I want to see for myself if Esperanto does really help in learning other languages, specially that I don’t speak any European language.
    since you’re coming to Egypt soon, you’re welcome to pass by to Jordan anytime, would be great meeting you for a chat in Arabic and Esperanto!

    your blog was very inspiring and encouraging!…keep up the good work! :D

  • naz89

    I’m a native Arabic speaker (Jordanian) and I can definitely tell you that you’re doing more than great compared to the time you’ve been learning!..very impressive!

    I met many Americans who came here to learn Arabic for a one year exchange program and by the end of the program they could barely communicate in Arabic.

    I’m currently learning Esperanto, your post about Esperanto was very encouraging!

    I’m going to start learning German after Esperanto, I want to see for myself if Esperanto does really help in learning other languages, specially that I don’t speak any European language.
    Since you’re coming to Egypt soon, you’re welcome to pass by Jordan anytime, would be great meeting you for a chat in Arabic and in Esperanto!

    your blog was very inspiring and encouraging!…keep up the good work! :D

  • Leszek Cyfer

    I learned english to read, and the first breaktrough was when I stopped obsessing about every single word in a sentence and started to guess the meaning from the context. Admitedly it is easier to do on the paper than in a middle of the conversation, but when I started to talk to english speakers I found that the same mechanism applies. Actually the bigger problem was with my pronounciation as people often didn’t understood what I was saying, but fortunately I learned to spell words letter by letter so they could put them together and then they would say the correct pronounciation, And I’d repeat the sentence saying the word properly.
    Also I found that if I don’t know the exact word I can often say it in a descriptive manner – not knowing word “jar” I instead said “transparent container with a lid that you can twist on and off” then the other person said “aha, a jar!” :)

    To sum things up – one needs to start speaking and not worry, instead smile and stay calm, because when you get nervous it gets harder to remember words.

  • Alexander Corey

    I love how precise you are Benny. You da man!

  • Robert Francis Taylor

    Thank you so much for this video. I’m studying French in Québec right now (a place I know you’re fond of) and it’s so good to see the same conversation struggles that you’re having that I’ve had (and am still having).

    I think I need to be more open to talk with strangers as I seem to put it in my head that having to ask a stranger a question is a huge problem and that I need to get everything 100% correct. This is not the case and people are incredibly forgiving when you make the effort to speak their language when you could just resort to using English (a big hot potato in Québec as it is).

  • that one guy

    Hi Benny,

    I really enjoy all of your posts. Thanks for the hard work.

    You previously mentioned that you speak in Arabic on Skype twice per day for one hour per session (two hours total per day).

    My question: What do you talk about for all this time?

    was thinking about doing the same thing, but then I thought about it
    and realized that I have no idea what I’d talk about for all that time,
    day in and day out.

    Do you create lists of different topics that
    you’d like to talk about and then direct the conversation towards those
    topics? What is your strategy?


    • Benny Lewis

      It took me a while, but I found a great teacher who can take over making sure the conversation moves in a useful direction and let me focus on my language skills, rather than forcing interesting topics.

      Good teachers should always be excellent facilitators of such conversations.

  • William Peregoy

    Thanks for posting the videos of your progress, Benny.

    I really don’t get a chance to watch the videos much as I do most of my blog reading from cellphones and iPads and such, and don’t watch the videos often – so eventhough I read this post a long time ago, I’m just now watching the video.

    But, I came back to watch it now, just to get a sense for what your progress was like around the 2-month mark. I’m currently in Tokyo – I arrived here 4 weeks ago and am trying to learn Japanese in 3 months. If definitely gets frustrating at times. I’ve never tried this with a foreign language before so I’m giving it a shot.

    I’m living with a couple of friends of mine who are fluent in Japanese, so I’m trying to speak it as much as I can with them – of course very grammatically incorrect and sometimes saying things that don’t make sense (the other day I was trying to tell my friend I saw some type of food at the grocery store earlier, and I wound up saying I saw some fruit walking down the street – we had a good laugh about it).

    The toughest part is not speaking with my friends, they generally speak slow and try to make sure I understand, but it’s speaking with other people – native Japanese speak really fast and run words together and gets hard to pick up even on words I know at times.

    I found this video encouraging though – because I know you do it a lot – and you’re still “umming” and “awwing” quite a bit in order to think about the words you want to say in Arabic and your friend does seem to be speaking a bit slowly and using hand gestures and trying to make sure you understand – and I honestly think I may be able to hold a similar conversation in Japanese in 3 weeks (which will be my 2 month point). We’ll see. I’m considering calling up a friend I haven’t spoke to yet and trying to record a video to at least post to Facebook. (I’ve been documenting my progress there for now – as it at keeps me focus, because now that friends know I’m trying to learn Japanese I have to actually do it and follow through).

    My personal past experiences with foreign languages include:
    – Very basic level Spanish, having taken Spanish all of my life in school (15+ years of Spanish in the American public school system – the kids act bad, run the teacher off, new teacher next year, she doesn’t know where to start, etc – we never learn Spanish).
    – VERY basic level Mandarin – from spending 6 weeks in China last year and studying a bit and talking to taxi drivers every day (and usually making them laugh at my pronunciation).

  • Samantha

    I love how this guy you were speaking with was so patient. In America, people are so impatient with non-native speakers of English. They try to rush them and/or immediately turn off their brains and don’t want to talk. It’s another sign of ignorance. In other countries, people are so much more patient when trying to communicate with people from other countries.