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Week 2 video: Why learning off phrases is essential for beginners on the road to fluency, not just for tourists

| 9 comments | Category: learning languages, mission

Here’s the next update to this crazy project! Subtitles in English, Portuguese and Arabic as always!

Unlike in last week’s first video, where I was reading, this time I have no script to refer to and recite the entire seven minute script from memory. There are a LOT of mistakes, but I like to think I am at least coming across as a bit more confident than the previous week!

Of course, this is not in the least bit spontaneous (that will come later), but I’d like to greatly encourage other beginner learners of any language to focus on learning off PHRASES as soon as possible!

In my first month, I’ll be by myself and all videos will have scripts that are prepared in advance, and in my second month I’ll start having spontaneous conversations with native speakers about basic topics and in my third month about more complex topics.

You simply cannot just burst into fluency on some magic day when you’ve “learned enough”. You need to transition into it, and in the beginning stages, having a learned off a bunch of phrases can be an excellent way to get started speaking.

Learning phrases off is more than just for tourists

The problem is that we tend to go about language learning in this long-term must-know-all-the-grammar-and-all-the-words-to-be-able-to-converse approach.

Standing from fluency and looking back at a beginner, it seems like the thing separating you from them is the kind of things that are covered in course books about the structure of how the language works and building up vocabulary very gradually until you are ready.

I say hurry-the-hell-up. And this is not just because I’m impatient, or genuinely NEED to speak the language as soon as possible due to being in the country (or in this case, a looming arrival date in January), it’s because I see a speak from day 1 approach as vastly more efficient.

It’s easy to look down on someone producing phrases and dismiss them as “nothing but a tourist” or a “glorified parrot” other such drivel, that I have gotten when referring to my video uploads in my weaker stages of language learning. But this is a necessary stepping stone on the path to speaking the language as I see it. The input-only roadmap is greatly flawed and you need to start saying things if you want to get into conversations.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to what can you actually do? In this supposed “input only approach” you can effectively do NOTHING. You only have “potential”.

If you are following a more studious approach, then if a native comes up to you right now you simply can’t interact with them in ANY way, other than explain how their verb conjugations work to them in your language, not theirs. Open your damn mouth and say something!

Learn off some phrases and you can at least ask some basic questions, tell them a little about yourself, and find out some information if what they say was also covered by what you learned. No, you aren’t discussing the economic impacts of water tank production in Yemen, but you have something you can improve upon and expand communication through. When you say nothing, you can’t do this. Zero can’t be expanded.

I don’t see language learning as this all-or-nothing endeavor, and this project is NOT about leading up to one video at precisely the 90-day point. Every single point in the language learning process to me must have me genuinely doing something better than the previous point, and getting use out of my language in some way, such as attempting to make a somewhat interesting video today.

So grab a phrasebook, learn some conversational connectors, and then make sounds come out of that hole in your face! Eloquent? No. Replacing “potential” with actually doing something tangible in the real world? Yes.

Share your thoughts with me below!


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  • melski

    I totally agree with you Benny ! learning phrases is far more useful than learning grammar and conjugations, because you can start a little conversation, introduce yourself, etc – I am currently applying this method to the language I’m learning for which no grammar exists (it’s a minority language) and I only asked natives to give me some sentences to say. As a result, I am already able to hold small conversations – which for me is the most important thing. Bonne chance pour apprendre l’arabe !

  • Fabrice

    Your method of videos and scripts is interesting, even if you are alone, you can practice and correct your error with the video.
    The first month, how many scripts did you prepare? For each language, you take the same script that you translate in the new language, or you take a text depending on the humor of the moment?
    Good luck in your efforts of learning Arabic.

    • Benny Lewis

      Any script I prepare is just for one video.

  • Jacob B. Good

    Good job. I understood a lot of what you said. With بيت you mispronounce. It’s not “beet” like the vegetable but “Bayt” like the Bay of Bengal. Also, you need to work on ع that letter is essential for people to understand you. It’s not the same as a ا.

    “Arabic- A’yn (ع):” on Youtube will help.انشاء الله

    On another note, your intonation needs work. You said بقرأ and it’s intonation is very important”ب” is a suffix so you need to pause. bi-llah بالله is an example. You don’t say “billa” but “bi-llah” with a pause between the suffix and the subject.

    When or if you go to Egypt, it’s important to understand Islamic culture. Like the call to prayer, (اذان) prayer times, and Ramadan. During prayer people stop working to pray and there are even disruptions in Parliament because of this issue. Mamdouh Isma’il caused this disruption a year ago, “Egyptian Salafi MP Ismail Causes Stir by Calling to Prayer During Session”
    (Search Youtube)

    I noticed how you pronounce ث with an “s” sound, like an authentic Egyptian.

    You also do خ very well. The خ as in German (Sprach) and Scottish (and Irish?) (Loch).

    I just hope I don’t come off as too critical. I’m just saying the things you should improve on.

    Good job though. Can’t wait for week three.

  • Zach Webb

    Benny, strong work. Arabic is difficult, but not impossible, and you’re proving that with your 3 month challenge already. You’ve shown great strides in a very short period of time, and there is no doubt your skills will improve exponentially as your 3 month mission rolls on.

    Good luck my man.

  • NielDLR

    Good job Benny! Great to see that intense concentration :)

  • Andrew

    Absolutely, you’ll find that learning a languages “muletillas” as they’re called in Spanish is far more important than you would’ve thought, “muletillas” are those little filler phrases like “you know”, “you see what I mean?”, “it’s kind of like”, “no way”, etc. in English, for example, that you will find a very hard time communicating without.

    Additionally, I find that one of the most valuable aspects of learning phrases like this is that it teaches you, intuitively, how the language works. You sort of intuitively learn the grammar without really meaning to, if that makes sense.


  • Jimmy L. Mello

    Hi Benny, Welcome to Belo Horizonte! (my city) I Hope you enjoy yourself, the city and learn Arabic! There is a mosque here, maybe they can help you in your mission! If you need any tip about the city let me know. I have tried to learn Arabic before, I really think it is quite hard, but not imposible, with hard and right work.

  • Benny Lewis

    No, I won’t be getting any phrases from Assimil, as that course book I’m using is for standard Arabic. I’m only giving that 10-20% of my time, and focusing on the spoken Egyptian dialect the rest of the time.

    I have a my teacher or another native translate phrases from English for me, all tailored to what I genuinely need to say, rather than generic phrases.