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How to start learning a language: Full account of day 1 of my #Fi3M mission


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As you all know, I'm attempting to get Fluent in Arabic in 3 months, in a city 500km deep inside Brazil. It's on!

A good start is essential if you want to get the momentum to learn as fast as possible, so this meant that I did as much as I could not related to learning Arabic, in advance, so that I wouldn't have as many distractions my first days.

So, for example, the video of me introducing the mission (almost 6,000 views in just 2 days – not bad!) was actually recorded on Sunday, rather than Tuesday – this way I could add the graphics to it and have someone help me translate the subtitles in time and write up the blog post. All I really had to do on Tuesday related to this was to press “publish” and reply to Facebook comments every few hours.

If you have a specific day in mind to begin learning your language, and you are serious about doing it intensively, take the time before this if possible specifically to clear your to-do list so you have way fewer distractions.

Straight into it: preparing for my first spoken session

Speak from day 1, speak from day 1, speak from day 1!! It's my mantra and what keeps me motivated to keep improving so intensively. I'm always working up towards speaking with a native – simply studying for 3 months with no use for applying it immediately would bore me, and that inefficient study-based approach for six months in Spain ultimately had me speaking no Spanish.

I likely could have found an Arabic speaker to meet up with in person using some social networking search tools, because I was still in the very international city of Brussels. However, I decided to keep things consistent and get on Skype sooner, since that's where most of my speaking is ultimately going to take place over the coming months.

I had one Skype lesson booked via italki for midday, and another one set up with an Egyptian acquaintance for 8pm. These spoken sessions are my centre of gravity for the entire project – they are what all my studying (and yes, I'll be doing lots of it but definitely not only that) will be orbiting around.

What's the first thing you should do? Take care of your body, so your mind can work better!

So what's the VERY first thing I did on day one? Study vocabulary? Listen to a podcast? Do some grammar?

No. I ate a banana and went for a jog.

There are a LOT of benefits of doing exercise in your life, but one that has been long proven by people is that it helps keep your mind sharp too.

Starting my day by getting some blood flowing, and waking myself up with some natural adrenaline and getting my heart pumping fast, rather than drugging myself up with coffee (the photo at the start of this post is just me posing with an empty cup – I actually only drink about one coffee a week, socially), has always meant that when I do sit down I can focus like an eagle. I find that when I don't go for a jog, or do some other form of exercise, I'm restless and can't sit still.

Just to use the jogging time a little more efficiently, I had downloaded streamed radio in advance onto my TuneIn Radio app (paid version lets you record it to listen to offline, free version lets you listen to almost any station live). I found a radio station in Egypt with upbeat music that I can jog to and put it on.

I have no delusions of learning anything real from this passive listening (it's not like I can focus my undivided attention on the audio when I'm doing real exercise), but the point is that if I listen to enough songs then I'll start to get familiar with the tunes and get to like particular ones. When I actually like a song, and am familiar with its tune it will make it a lot easier to try to learn it and sing along later.

And since I'm listening to an Egyptian station, if I can sing along to some songs on arrival, this will be a nice icebreaker to get to know people if used right. Singing some familiar music has helped me make friends quickly in the past.

Once again, I didn't “learn” anything in this listening (or more accurately “hearing”) session, but it's a long term investment. I did however get used to some sounds and tried to repeat random words to see if I can mimic the pronunciation a little.

Study time – a phrasebook's grammatical summary

OK, so having jogged and eaten a bigger breakfast, I sat down and began with the book I always begin with. A phrasebook. (I have the Lonely Planet one and the Assimil “de Poche” one, both in French)

I still had a good three hours before the first spoken session, and I only really planned to know just a few phrases by then, so with the extra time I actually went straight into the language summary part of these books.

This is a grammatical summary of the language, and brief enough to serve my purposes, where deep involved grammar would side-track me way too much. The reason I did this is so that when I do learn the sentences, they have some context and familiarity. There are so few pages about grammar, that you can finish it in no time, and still have a superficial overview of the biggest parts of the language that may distinguish it from what's familiar to you.

So, for example, thanks to this session I saw some strangely familiar features, like that “the” is ‘el' (phonetically from a French perspective, more like ‘al'), and that feminine words can be like masculine ones but with an -a at the end – both features familiar from Spanish.

I also saw there is no verb for “to be”, but that you say something like “I Benny” or “I Irish” as a complete and correct sentence. I saw that the conjugation is pretty straightforward when there is a verb, and learned a few question words, and then I saw the personal pronouns and how “to have” is structured, and how possessions and verb object endings are used, and how you use an adjective in a sentence.

And that's it – only a few pages, and they didn't go into detail, but this superficial summary gave me the building blocks that will mean that I'll have some context in the vocabulary I learn to understand how it is being used and ultimately learn that vocabulary much quicker because of this.

This means that when I finally got to learning the phrases and saw one of the typical first sentences “My name is X” as “Ismi x“, I know that “ism” is ‘name' and the “-i” suffix means “my”, so “What's your name” is then way easier to learn because it's just attaching the noun to the suffix “-ak” for your (male).

Word of warning on learning grammar so early

Now, I've said this before and I'll say it again – starting to learn your language via grammar is usually a terrible idea. Without words to attach to that grammar, it may ultimately slow you down and all you have is a bunch of empty rules to attach to nothing.

If you are learning your first foreign language, then I would actually recommend you do NOT do what I described above. You should just go straight into learning the phrases.

The thing is, I will never describe one list of actions to perform to learn a language that applies to EVERYONE. There is no “one method” to learning a language. What you do has to rely on your strengths, interests and ultimate use of the language. If you do the opposite to what I recommend in some blog posts and it works for you, more power to you!

Some people will recommend starting with grammar, and I can only say that it depends on if you appreciate learning grammar or not. Nine years ago that would NOT have worked well for me at all. However, after learning languages for such a long time, I feel like I should almost add an “extra language” to the list of those I know; “grammarese”.

I'm fluent in terminology like “definite article”, “dative suffix” and so on, and this combined with my technical analytic background means that I can now learn a language faster when I understand somewhat how it works before learning its vocab. Traditional academics generally always start by teaching the grammar, and this can lead you down an endless path of perfectionism that you'll never get out of.

If you don't get intimidated by grammar, then by all means start by learning a little bit of it. But in my case “little bit” is really all I did. I spent two hours going through the tiny part of my phrasebooks devoted to grammar, and that's it. The rest of my work will be mostly vocab and phrase based, with some minor grammatical work at the end of the day, as that will be part of the course I'll be following.

Got my phrases – ready to speak! Lesson one

After the bit of grammar, I then learned some phrases, understood how some words are actually used, and was ready to actually use them! It was time for my first call with a native speaker!

I was hoping to at least rattle off a few pleasantries at the start of the call, and maybe have it last a few seconds just in Arabic, but the small amount of time I had devoted to learning the phrases meant that I wasn't so well prepared for this. In retrospect, I should have put even less time into the grammar and more into memorising the phrases.

We had to switch to English – which is a necessary evil that I'll accept as an absolute beginner. My goal is to reduce this English and transition my spoken lessons to be entirely in Arabic by the end of month one.

The teacher brought up a document with a pre-made lesson that he wanted to walk me through and I had to stop him there. When paying for a private lesson, the last thing I want to do is turn it into a traditional classroom environment, where I'm passively listening to the teacher explain everything.

He had planned to teach me the Arabic alphabet, which I can learn on my own or listen to a podcast to get the pronunciation. I don't consider this follow-a-generic-course style to be efficient if you have a teacher all to yourself. It's not money well spent in my opinion. If the teacher is doing most of the talking in the class, then why do I even need to have it live? I can attend such classes on Youtube for free, or follow them in books and other such courses.

If the teacher is EVER doing most of the work, then you will learn too slowly. The student must be incredibly active if he wants to get anywhere fast. I told the teacher straight off that I was going to learn the alphabet myself this afternoon and would prefer to do something else.

He was reluctant to break from his lesson plan, but I was insistent. As you can imagine, there would be many teachers that I would not be able to work with. I do like my teachers to take initiative and take the lesson in the right direction, but if it ever ends up on something that I can do on my own I'll always say so for the sake of taking advantage of my time one-on-one with a native speaker. There are things you can learn fine solo, and things that the help of a native will be more necessary.

I have to spend a few weeks testing out several teachers before I find some I can learn most effectively from because of this, but it's time well spent when we establish how the lessons should go.

So this time we focused on basic phrases, that I wouldn't find in my phrasebook but be personally just as essential, such as “I'm a writer”, “I'm Irish”, “I live in Brazil”, “I will go to Egypt in January” etc., and he helped me to make sure I was pronouncing them correctly.

It wasn't a wonderful first session since I used way too much English (my fault, not the teacher's), but I actually considered this a warm up for the “real” session at the end of the day, as well as a chance to try out one teacher to see if we'd work well together. I'm quite the “student slut”, having one-night classes going from teacher to teacher, unforgivingly dumping them when there's no chemistry, but then when you find the right one you are sure it was meant to be! 😉

Post class analysis

Now, the most essential thing is that you see where your weaknesses lie and work on them immediately. The first teacher had convinced me of the importance of reading Arabic as soon as possible, and I know from experience that any phonetic script can be learned in a few hours, so I got right on it!

After lunch and a siesta, I looked at the alphabet and tried to create a mnemonic for each one of the letters. There are only 28 of them, so this is hardly a huge undertaking after coming from Chinese, especially when they are not THAT complex looking. I also did a little searching around to see if others had come up with their own mnemonics that could partially inspire me and help me come up with mine faster.

So for example the ‘t' sound is the letter ‘ت'. It has TWO dots above it, and ‘two' starts with a ‘t'. Done. And the ‘th' sound is ‘ث', THREE (number of dots) starts with a th. Hardly the most eloquent of mnemonics, but it works for me.

Since I didn't have much time left in Brussels, I took my study materials outside with me, sat down in a nice café with a view and continued, with some pre-recorded Arabic radio in the background for some mild entertainment.

It took me most of the day, but I got through the alphabet and how each letter is pronounced. Then I looked at the first couple of pages of phrases that I wanted to have learned that day and tried to read them from the actual Arabic… from right to left. It was hard, but definitely doable!

Back to the phrases themselves – I used the music memory trick I've talked about before (sign up to the Language Hacking League email list to get the free chapter of my book discussing this), and learned them off as best as I could. These phrases were what I needed more than anything at this stage. After a quick dinner, I went back home to log on to Skype!

Second Skype call

This friend of mine could only Skype me once, so it wouldn't necessarily be a teaching session I could continue, but I definitely got good use out of the call! I managed to keep the first 30 or so seconds just in Arabic (Hello, how are you? I'm good, what's your name? My name is Benny, I live in Brazil and I'm going to Egypt in January, etc.) – success!

We switched to English, but I could still attempt to do some stuff in Arabic – he asked me a few questions and I had an online dictionary handy, and looked up the answer if it was one word (such as “How old are you?”) and read that, at least attempting to keep my side of the conversation in Arabic, even if none of the words were coming from memory yet.

Next, I had something specific in mind for the lesson. I told him to write me some simple words in Arabic (meaning irrelevant) and I would try to speak them back to him. This was exhausting!! I was reading words of just 3 or 4 letters (with short vowel indications, usually only written for learners/children and something I'll need for a while), but I felt like my brain was melting – which is an excellent indication that I'm actually working hard and using my time efficiently! As uncomfortable as that feeling is, I was really hoping to have it on my first day to start off.

He corrected me plenty, and the letters I hadn't learned well enough before, quickly became burnt into me. I didn't learn how to speak from reading perfectly, but I made a major stride, which I can build upon so that I have this aspect more or less sorted for the rest of the project.

This ultimately meant that I was speaking in Arabic for most of the session. It wasn't speaking in the sense of conversing, but when you combine the reading aloud mostly by me and not my friend, with the good 30 seconds of basic initial pleasantries, and me answering his questions in English with some Arabic as I could from a dictionary, it wasn't perfect, but I considered it an excellent start to day 1!

Onward to days 2-90!

I compiled all the essential words and phrases of the day and added them, with native audio, to be studied in my flashcard app and was done for the day!

Based on how the day went, I now know what my first video entirely in Arabic will be about, which you'll see next week!

This is not exactly a huge stride into me speaking Arabic naturally on day one, but it certainly is speaking from day 1 as a baby step up from absolutely nothing. I'll be taking a lot of baby steps over the next three months, but when you take them intensively, you can start taking running strides before you know it 😉

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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