Solving specific problems rather than trying to learn everything: My first ever video in Arabic (reading)

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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  • WC

    With Japanese, it’s been hard to find beginner sites that don’t have romanization. This leads a lot of people to skip reading for a long time, and I’ve always felt that was a mistake. The phonetic alphabets (syllabaries, actually) of Japanese are really easy to learn, and you can actually start reading real books (with a dictionary) if you learn the alphabets.

    But then, for me, reading was one of the goals. So it’s going to be a priority for me from the start.

    I’m definitely guilty of taking long breaks and not working on my issues. But to me, it’s about priorities. Japanese brings a lot of entertainment to my life, but it’s not something I’ve got a practical use for. It doesn’t earn me money or advance my career. And so I treat it like the hobby that it is.

    • Benny Lewis

      Yes, as I said it’s about the end goal. I know a LOT of people learning Japanese love manga, so it would be simply wrong to tell them to not learn to read as a priority, especially if they have no pressure to speak.

      I consider this Arabic project the highest priority because in January I have to function as an independent adult, not reliant on the tourist industry, and ideally produce very interesting video interviews with locals.

      Speaking is my priority, and not being able to read Arabic script was directly affecting my ability to progress with my speaking sessions.

      With different goals, different priorities!

      • Jacob B. Good

        Depending on the setting the Arabic you’ll be using will matter. Usually they use Modern Standard in interviews. There is only one time I have seen an interview that wasn’t in MSA and that was in Algeria.

  • Baron Jon

    Hey Benny, this is such great and timely advice for me. I have an issue with my mandarin mission that’s been slowing me down. I was going to prioritize it for a week but wasn’t really sure if it was a good idea. I’m going to try it. Great video!! Keep it up! Thanks.

    • Benny Lewis

      Yes, prioritise!! During my own Mandarin mission the wisest decisions I made by far was to focus on particular problems over several days whenever it came up.

      Best of luck!

  • Erin

    Funny, the view from your hammock doesn’t *look* like Belo Horizonte . . . (; Congrats on the progress!

  • Jakub Sypiański

    Benny, mabruk! But I have a suggestion for you. Actually, frenquently if one sticks to Arabic script , it slowers their progress, especially in the beginning. You’ll have constant issues with vocalisation, which is very unintuitive at the beginning. Moreover, you learn a dialect and it’s a serious an argument for learning with romanization because 1) dialects are extremely rarely written down in Arabic script (not only on FB, but often also in dictionaries and manuals!) and 2) dialects have more vowels than standard Arabic “a”, “i” and “u”, so they cannot be properly rendered with Arabic script and sometimes even the pronunciation of consonants varies from the classical Arabic (like “g” and “qaf” in Egypt). Therefore, I’d suggest to learn mostly with romanization and simultaneously practising the script.

    The funny thing about this writing system is that in Arabic, if you don’t know already the word or if you don’t recognise the grammatical pattern it follows, you won’t know how to vocalise it. ;) And it’s even more true in the case of dialects! Good luck, nevertheless. Muwaffaq! ;)

    • Benny Lewis

      A lot of my learning material in Arabic includes vowel markings, so I don’t see it being a HUGE problem, and I’m hoping this will ease me in, so I’d be ready for more native style material in a couple of months.

      When I add vocabulary to my flashcards I’ll be using diacritics. In this sense there’s no advantage to using romanisation.

      • Jakub Sypiański

        Remember though that the Arabic script cannot render dialect properly. Diacritics can only represent three vowels (a, u, i – which is fine for fusha), whereas dialects have other vowels such as “o” and “e”. So if you write “بيت” or “صوت” you can find it difficult remembering that is pronounced as “bet” and “sot”. This is just an, I’m not trying to prove you wrong. The best way of learning depends on the learner, as your own blog taught me. ;) Myself, I learn much faster with romanization.

        Good luck with Arabic, you’ve just embarked on a beautiful and long journey! It’ll be difficult though, not because of the language itself, but rather because of other factors – differences between fusha and amiyya, a relatice scarcity of learning materials for the latter (luckily for you, this is less true for the Egyptian dialect) and often the unwillingness of the Arabs to speak Arabic with you, as they (sadly) somehow consider it inferior to European languages. Good luck nevertheless! I hope to read soon that you want to put arabic on your “permanent” list. :)

        • Benny Lewis

          Thanks for the follow up. Yes, it looks like I’ll still be using romanisation in the end, specifically for a lot of my work on Egyptian Arabic. I’ve decided to go with romanisation in my flashcards since it’s entirely dialect.

          This decision was reached after a lengthy discussion with a young
          native speaker. I have no doubt that older ones and more academic ones
          would disapprove.

          I’ll still need Arabic script for standard Arabic studies (which I’ll give about 10-20% of my time to), and to function well by being able to read once I’m in Egypt, so I’m glad I solved that issue, but having spoken with some Egyptians and finding out that they actually write in romanisation themselves a LOT, I would rather emulate them.

          If natives themselves send text messages, and write notes to prepare speeches etc. in romanisation (which some have already confirmed is the case for the less academic among them) then I should be doing it too if I plan to attempt to integrate with them. If young people did genuinely use Arabic, then I would have found ways to work with it (other accents for missing vowels etc.)

  • Erin Roca

    Thank you again for a great post! For me, it did exactly what you intended – inspired and motivated me! I am currently learning Russian and learning the alphabet was a great big help in the initial stages (in addition to all the other things you mentioned). Thanks and good luck!!!

  • Jacob B. Good

    Not bad for your first week. The main problem that you had was pronunciation as you rightly noted. However, another thing that will throw you off is the ROMANIZATION of the Arabic script when reading your course books. As an example, in the video you pronounced “من” as “meen” as opposed to “min” (as in minute) probably because the Latin letters used an “i” using one script to interpret another can be really deceptive.

    Finally, you need to work on ع because that’s the letter any Indo-European language doesn’t have. It’s a Semitic-only pronunciation that is in Hebrew also, albeit a bit watered down compared to Arabic. It’s pronounced in the deepest crevices of your throat. There’s plenty of Arabic audio out there so if you need to refine your pronunciation. The difference between an Ayn and an Alif is very significant.

    Keep going, I wasn’t this far in my first week. It took me a few weeks to start reading at least.

    • Jacob B. Good

      سؤال عليك يا بيني : هل يمكن تتكلم جيداً بعد هذا شهر؟
      Not sure about my writing because I don’t write very often but, if you can read that comprehend and understand it, I would say that is a good level for a beginner. These are all “beginners words” for the most part.

  • Brandon Ellis

    Having lived in Cairo for one year (2010) and learned Egyptian Arabic fluently, I can tell you have the right philosophy for learning 3ammaya! Just dive right into it and don’t listen at all to the language prescriptionists and grammarians who try to force Fos7a on you (they are either motivated by religion or false academic zeal). For me, I started my study of Arabic as a university student at the American University of Cairo, but soon realized that the grammar-focused study at the University wouldn’t help me learn to communicate and learn from real Egyptians, which was my only goal going into the language. I started talking to the poor janitors who worked at the school, and they invited me to their neighborhoods, where I at first stumbled to understand and speak their very rough, urban dialect, but these early experiences helped me tremendously. I just watched your video that promotes your 3 month program, and I can attest that your ideas are spot-on, because I did something very similar to learn maSree, and plan to do something very similar for other languages. I would buy your product, but I think I already know what’s in it!

    Now, a couple words of advice about Egyptian Arabic specifically. I think it’s extremely important to learn the structure of words in the Arabic language, because word structure and verb conjugation is actually quite simple in Arabic, and once you realize this simplicity, learning how to speak becomes much easier. So, starting off with reading is a good idea, but don’t dwell on it too long, because the 3ammaya you just read in this video is rarely ever written at all. In fact, I lived in Egypt for one year, and I don’t even think I saw 3ammaya written (even in pen) more than 10 times, and most of these times were silly scribbles or notes in jest. Just know the letters, their sounds, and generally how they form words (almost all Arabic words are elegantly constructed around 3 consonants that form a generic root meaning), then stop reading and start speaking to Egyptians! Because Arabic pronounciation is difficult, at least a degree more difficult than all the other languages you’ve learned so far (including Chinese). You must learn how to correctly say 3ayn and 7a and Kha, because these letters are quite common and a failure to pronounce them will totally prevent communication with a native speaker. You didn’t really pronounce these letters at all in the video, so your next step is to get better with them, or your base won’t be good enough. But you’re doing a great job so far, and your method for language learning is so well thought out, articulated, and true. rabina ma3ak ya ustaz. el logha el 3arabiya hiya logha gameela gidaan, zayy kull el loghaat fi el dunya!

    • Andreas Moser

      As long as there are still students who don’t feel too posh to talk to janitors, the world is not yet lost.

    • Jacob B. Good

      Yes. The خ is hard but it’s in German and Spanish to. (as in Sprach). ح is harder because of the emphasis but it’s not that hard in my opinion. What is hardest for English speakers is ع and غ. The Ghayn sounds like Chewbacca if you continuously do it… at least it does when I do it.

  • Shollum

    This is very timely advice! I’ve been learning Japanese with emphasis on reading, so I prioritized learning to distinguish the different kanji first. I was hoping to get into contextual learning soon after, but I don’t have enough words to read for contextual learning to work.

    I have been continuing to prioritize my kanji reviews since starting my next effort, but it isn’t allowing me to study vocabulary as much. With this advice (prioritizing the biggest issue that can be solved quickly), I’ll prioritize my vocabulary studies over kanji reviews (which I get anyway by studying vocabulary). If I stick to it well enough, I should have enough vocabulary to start learning from books and such in two weeks.

    Anyway, thanks for all the advice and good luck on your Egyptian Arabic challenge!

  • Giulia

    Great job for being your first week! :)
    I also live in Cairo and my advice for you is: if you’re going to Egypt you should definitely study 3ammeya instead of fos7a. If you speak fos7a to people they will probably think you’re funny, you won’t understand what they say, and some people like taxi drivers etc often won’t understand.
    Believe me they don’t speak fos7a in the streets. They do on newspapers, books and tv, so you have to make a choice…
    Good luck!

  • Tommy

    Hey Benny – job well done on entering the deep end of your latest mission with zero reservation! A question for you on technology; as you are always moving around from country to country and always using the web, I’m curious what type of data plan/service provider/technology do you use for both your smartphone and laptop to avoid high monthly costs?

    What are your typical costs per month for these services? I’m sure others like myself would be interested as well as it’s so important these days for travelers to keep costs at a minimum.

    Thanks and good luck with your latest mission!!

    • Benny Lewis

      Buy prepaid SIM cards and put them into an unlocked phone. Problem solved. America is the only country in the world where this has been unreasonably expensive for me.

  • Eynar Oxartum

    Mi vere ŝatis tiun ĉi artikolon. Ĝi ja estas bona energio por lerni, ne nur lingvojn, sed io ajn. Mi ankaŭ tre ŝatis vidi vin post la unua semajno lernante la egiptaraban. Dankon :)

  • Sheridan

    In studying Japanese I found a Japanese church (I am in Dallas, not Japan BTW) and found that, surprisingly, church was a great place to practice my reading. Every time a song was sung the words were projected up on the screen. 95% of the words were either in kana (phonetic writing) or had kana written above the kanji. The few exceptions I learned since they were often repeated kanji.

    Doing this, however, meant that I had to pick up my reading dramatically. I had to keep up with the song. I started out singing rather softly, and I got INSTANT feedback on any mistakes I made. There is nothing like singing the wrong word or syllable in church to give you immediate feedback.

  • Mayer Felipe


  • Anna

    Just was linked to this post (missed it when it first came around) and it’s great! As part of my journey learning Irish, I participated in an immersion weekend with Language Hunters in Portland and it changed my perspective on learning a lot.

    Many of their learning philosophies are exactly what you’re talking about here: there’s a clear difference between learning a language and learning *about* a language. Most activities that we’re used to is just learning about a language rather than getting into the real meat of it and doing the real practice.

    Focus on what you can *do* in the language rather than what you know. Here they follow the ACTFL guidelines, which are very task-based and I think they’re a good alternative to the CEFR scale.

    Take on single, bite-sized pieces one at a time. Also, expand upwards before expanding outwards. Take a limited number of bite-sized pieces and take them as far as they will go before adding piles of vocabulary (their system is based on a conversation about tea that can go on for days).

    It’s still tempting to just flip pages in my book and consider the material to be “learned” but now I know that I’m only fooling myself. I’m now trying to practice a lot to attain fluency with even a meager amount of vocabulary rather than move on and tackle new material when I still have all kinds of fundamental problems.

  • Ambaa

    With Hindi, I highly recommend learning the script right away.

    Unfortunately, people seem to default the other way from Arabic and a lot of times will write to you in transliterated roman characters. I find it very difficult to tell what the words are when this is done! Even some of the software for Hindi learning teaches you to read Hindi in Roman characters, which is very short-sighted.

    On top of which, since the language was never meant to use roman characters, it looks awful that way.

  • Niki Torres

    Great advice! I can say the same thing for Korean too. Learn the alphabet and don’t rely on romanization. :)

  • Jack

    Is there any chance you can post the script (in Arabic) of what you’re reading?