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

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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?

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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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