Here it is – my first ever video in Arabic, a week after starting to learn it! Subtitles are provided in original Arabic, English and Portuguese for all videos of this project.
In this video, I read a script written entirely in Arabic (no romanisation) about how I’m in Rio and just starting the mission. To make it more interesting, I’ve thrown in some nice views of the city at various points in the video, but there is no editing out of my pauses and hesitations.
As you’d expect after learning for just a week, as my first video it’s painfully slow, so patience is required if you’re actually going to watch more than a minute!
Today’s post explains the process that got me to making this video, and an essential aspect of the steps behind this 3-month project.
Doing something worthwhile, or busywork?
One reason why way too many people pour endless hours into learning a language and have nothing to show for it, is because their learning approach is flawed.
If you are not speaking the language after putting in considerable time into it, (and speaking is one of your goals for real) this is the only possible explanation in my mind. Not your age, destiny, genes, stars not aligning, having picked that “one” hardest language in the world, or other lazy-ass excuses. You’re doing it wrong.
A very popular way to kill time in language learning is to simply do “something” and feel that it’s at least dragging you in the general direction that you need to go.
No! Sometimes doing “something” is barely better than doing nothing. Do something worthwhile!
But what do you do? Do you go through another few pages in that vast course material? Have TV on in the background? Sit down and click a few buttons? Read? Sit in on a class? Meet up with someone? Follow the steps that the guru in that one best method told you to?
Some of these options are great, and some are just busy-work, to make you feel like you are doing something. But I have a different proposal.
Think about what your absolute biggest problem is right now, and try to solve it.
Getting to fluency by solving one problem at a time
As an engineer, I try to apply a very different mentality to language learning. I see it as a problem solving exercise. Now, I don’t mean the problems at the end of the chapter, I mean something at a bigger scale.
In engineering, programming etc., sometimes there is one block of code or one feedback loop that is slowing the entire process down. Rather than try to improve the entire system with minor attention to this, why not simply focus on that, and nip the problem in the bud so it’s gone for good?
Working on general improvements is wasteful when you can simply solve the thing slowing you down the most. Hurry up and do it!
After my first day learning Arabic, I was able to use a few basic pleasantries fine. My second day, I got into using my course material and got through several chapters. But it was really starting to feel like busywork that wasn’t helping me directly enough with my upcoming spoken session. Chapters in a huge course like that is an almost endless process, and in the early stages of learning a language, I need something solid to work with, rather than very gradual improvement of learning the language in general.
After the second day, I thought seriously for a bit. What was the ONE biggest thing holding me back from progressing in Arabic?
Having just started it, I didn’t have enough words, my pronunciation was terrible, my grammar non-existent, I couldn’t understand any radio I’d listen to, I can’t debate Kantian philosophy – you know, the usual ten million things that I can’t do as a beginner. But none of these were actually my BIGGEST problem.
I’ll never have enough words, as long as I can pronounce 80%+ of the language it’s OK for now, who cares about grammar – tidying up is for later and should be the lowest priority for a beginner, and radio is too advanced for me now.
Thinking hard about it, one thing kept coming back to me: Arabic script
Why I decided to focus on reading first
That first day, my teacher brought up a lesson for me of a basic dialogue, entirely in Arabic script. It was a little silly, but I was naively expecting not to see actual Arabic so soon and thought it would be romanised just at first. I’ve Skyped other teachers since and it turns out that none of them transliterate the words they write to you, unless specifically requested to, and nearly all their material doesn’t have any familiar Latin letters.
Since I’m learning the Egyptian dialect, it turns out that most useable material for learning this beyond the basics is written entirely in Arabic script, even the absolute beginners ones with a book introduction that implies that this is clearly for English speakers!
And on that second day, while going through a few chapters of my course book, the one thing that was taking me the most time was trying to figure out the new letters and how to read them. It was the majority of my time using the book, and was fragmented in itself, and if I solved this problem I’d go through the first entire section of the book MUCH quicker.
The problem kept coming up again and again, over those two days. Flashcards I’d look at online are not transliterated, transliterisation itself is really inconsistent and confusing (especially for me, as I’m using French material, with French pronunciation rules applied). It was pretty clear: I needed to prioritise being able to read Arabic right now.
This is NOT universal
Now, keep in mind that this is not a universal rule that I would generically apply to everyone and every language.
For example, reading Chinese is such a huge undertaking in itself, so unrelated to speaking since it’s a non-phonetic language, that focusing on it will kill your speaking progress entirely.
I actually specifically recommend people with a speaking focus to not learn to read Chinese at all for the first months, especially if they aren’t in China yet. After you can speak a little by learning from pinyin (romanisation), reading Chinese characters gets way easier when you do get around to it, and I’m really glad I focused on that in my final months instead of the first ones (still have to write a post about this later). In the triage of priorities, reading should be LOW in this case if speaking is a major concern to you.
And when I was learning Thai, I found that romanisation in learning material was sufficient enough at the very start to allow me to work with it, although a little later it was important to prioritise reading Thai, especially since it wasn’t that hard to learn.
When I started to learn both Thai and Chinese, a LOT of people told me to focus on reading right from the very start, and in retrospect I think this is bad advice. (In Chinese it’s terrible advice; and keep in mind that no Chinese person has ever learned to read before he learned to speak).
But you see, when you are dealing with a phonetic language it’s way easier than people think to learn to read it. It doesn’t take months or years, just a few hours.
So very specifically in this situation based on my challenges and problems, I saw that I had to prioritise reading Arabic. Not being able to read Arabic was my one manageable biggest problem.
If you can solve your biggest problem within a week, then do almost nothing BUT that
The reason I picked this wasn’t just because it was a big problem, but because it was a problem that I could solve in less than a week to the level of usefulness that I require. I still have to improve my reading speed (obviously, since the video is REALLY slow), accuracy of certain letters, etc. but what I have right now is useful and that was the point of it all.
Today I had a class and (while I still did it slowly), I could go through the basic dialogue that the teacher sent me, which was entirely in Arabic script. I went back to my course book and flew through the most recent chapter because the grammar point it was discussing was easy, and it was mostly the new letter that would have slowed me down.
So my recent days have been focused entirely on being able to read any Arabic (aloud).
Day 3, 4 and 5 were unfortunately not great days for the mission because I had a 30 hour travel time (consequence of cheap flights) and jetlag to boot. I knew this was coming though, and took it into account when drawing up a plan of action. (Never presume your circumstances will be ideal).
In those three days whenever I wasn’t tired or moving between airports, I was going through material for nothing but the Arabic alphabet, how to remember it, how the letters work within sentences, and practising reading individual words and then sentences. I used the same technique as with Thai to memorise this alphabet and the letters when within a word (which is different) and it was much easier because there are only 28 letters, and they aren’t that complex when you really look at them.
My focus was on nothing but this for the last couple of days, because it was a problem I needed to solve asap.
I got at least one Skype lesson every day, even at the airport, but I told the teacher in advance that I wasn’t going to work on my basic pleasantries beyond what I already knew, only reading. At first they’d write short words and test me on them, then it got harder. Having a native helped a lot because it was immediate feedback.
Week 1 video
Finally, day 5 and 6, I got a native to translate a script I wanted to read out and I practised that script over two Skype sessions, and then recorded this video.
It’s definitely not great. I read really slowly, and I know I make a lot of mistakes. But as long as 90%+ of what I say is understandable, and I can sound out words as I see them pretty well, I have succeeded in solving this first major problem to a useful level (reaching “perfection” should never ever be a short-term goal).
Now I can get back to going through the course as before – the default situation will have me study vocabulary for a few hours, go through my course for a few hours, have a couple of spoken sessions on Skype and so on each day, but if I come across a particular solvable issue, then once again I will prioritise it so that it doesn’t slow me down for the rest of the project.
I’m VERY glad I solved this issue because it’s now behind me. Arabic script doesn’t look like incomprehensible squiggles any more, and I can get back into keeping the flow up as best as I can. I will continue to look for my biggest problem of the week to solve, based on what can give me the greatest benefits the quickest. When you combine this with general busywork and longer term studying then you can ensure efficient progress.
Note that recording videos is a great way to motivate you to produce something and work towards that. I’m really glad I’ll be doing that throughout this project as it gives me points of reference each week.
Of course, I’m already getting trolls hating on me for daring to upload a video that doesn’t sound eloquent (as if impressing people is the reason to learn a language), but it’s so much easier to ignore them this time when I close my computer, take out my study materials and have this view!
The video is awkward and a cringeworthy 16 minutes to read a 1.5 minute script, but hopefully this first one can be used in retrospect later to see the progress. My next video and the ones after that won’t sound eloquent either, but the point is that I don’t care about perfection.
Perfection is impossible, so by default perfection is for losers.
If I speak a little faster and more confidently each time and transition into saying things from memory, then speaking basically with a native spontaneously, then speaking about more complex things with a native, then I’ll be doing it right. The only way to do this is to solve my biggest problems, even if doing so will require me to go through plenty of discomfort.
So, what’s your biggest problem in the language that you can solve within a week? Stop the busywork and solve it!
Your thoughts welcome below as always!
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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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