(Warning: This is a long article, but it’s your foundation, so don’t skip!)
Table of Contents
- Step 1: Don’t learn a language, acquire a language.
- Step 2: Decide on your language goals.
- Step 3: Choose a Dialect.
- Step 4: Acquire Arabic through input (aka immersion), not output (aka speaking).
- Step 5: Develop a language persona.
- Step 6: Focus on fun. And more of it.
- Step 7: Use a spaced repetition system to review.
- Step 8: Memorize sentences, not words.
- Step 9: Keep on the hunt for more and more fun input.
- Step 10: Be the tortoise, not the hare.
- (Bonus) Step 11: Be skeptical of everything I’ve said
Before you Begin
Repeat this mantra: I am not the problem. My language learning techniques are the problem. I am not the problem. My language learning techniques are the problem. I am not the problem. My language learning techniques are the problem….
Okay, now that’s done, we’re ready to start.
Likely if you’re here, you’ve been discouraged about studying Arabic and you’re looking for how to begin again. If you’re serious about this journey, you have to change your thinking. Here are the 10 things you need to understand if you want to learn Arabic fluently.
(btw, everything I’ve written below is based on language learning theory pioneered primarily by linguist Steven Krashen, and also popularized and made accessible by Japanese speakers Matt vs. Japan of the Mass Immersion Approach and Khatzumoto of AJATT. I consider them all to be mentors, even though we’ve never met. The rest is my specific Arabic experience.)
Step 1: Don’t learn a language, acquire a language.
Think of the ways that we “learn” languages. Vocabulary lists. Having to act out scenarios where we go to the store and order oranges and grapes. Grammar rules and conjugations. Did you retain anything? Probably for a day or a week, maybe a few months, but then it all vanished, right?? Why? Because learning a language isn’t useful. “Learning” is why millions of American students take Spanish from middle to high school, and then can only count to cinco. (Was that you? It was me.)
Humans don’t learn language, we acquire language.
Wikipedia defines language acquisition as: Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive and comprehend language (in other words, gain the ability to be aware of language and to understand it), as well as to produce and use words and sentences to communicate.
If that’s a lot to digest, just think about it. When you were born, did you learn to speak English by studying English for Babies 101? Did you study baby grammar and baby vocabulary lists and baby practice scenarios, before saying “Mama” and “Dada”? It sounds ridiculous, right? Or did you “gain the ability to be aware of language and to understand it”?
It seems like magic, right? Well, it kind of is. And I wish we did “learn” more about this magical process in school.
This is may be a new thought, but it’s important to digest: We gain fluency in any language by gaining the ability to be aware of language and understand it.
Main Takeaway: Stop learning, start acquiring, let the magic begin.
Step 2: Decide on your language goals.
So far these are the only reasons I can think of to learn Fusha, primarily. You want to 1) ace Arabic class 2) want to work in the government or in media 3) write official documents 4) publish news stories in Arabic 5) perform religious ceremonies.
If you don’t fall in these categories, then your goal is likely to communicate, make friends, date and/or get married, work in company, etc. If this is the case, focus on learning a dialect first. (You’ll get to Fusha, trust me.)
This blog is really about dialect, so sorry Fusha students! But the principles I outline here will still apply.
Main Takeaway: Know which part of Arabic (Fusha vs. Dialect) you need to acquire.
Step 3: Choose a Dialect.
Every Arabic teacher I have in college, told me to learn Fusha first. As I write this, I work as a teacher. And I can promise you that teachers are not always the most practical people. We want our students to be just like us, just as curious, just as rigorous, just as interested in the most obscure subjects. We believe that you must understand a topic to its deepest degree to really reap the benefits of the subject. This isn’t practical for most people. In fact, our entire education system is set up this way that we de-emphasize and belittle the practical. This is why you never learned how to budget and pay taxes in school, but you had to write response papers to Shakespeare and Socrates. This is why we praise liberal arts universities, but turn our noses up to trade schools.
Be practical. If you want to communicate with people in the Middle East and Arabic-speaking world, you need to speak the language they speak. That language is not called Fusha. People do not sit for a cup of coffee and speak Fusha and read ancient poetry. It’s a romantic idea, but that’s Arabic class, not real life. People are people. They speak their dialect. So choose one. Choose one early and stick to it. Don’t switch. Please, don’t switch. If you jump back and forth, you’ll waste your time.
Here are your options:
- Levantine: Jordan and Palestine; Lebanon and Syria
- North African: Libya, Morocco, Algeria
- Gulf: Kuwait, Saudi, Qatar, UAE, Oman
- *Educated Spoken Arabic: This is exactly a dialect, but just a more educated way of speaking each dialect. You’ll encounter this the more you immerse.
Main Takeaway: Know the exact dialect you want to acquire and stick with it. In order to sharpen your accent, go deeper and get specific by country and by region within that country.
Step 4: Acquire Arabic through input (aka immersion), not output (aka speaking).
This is the most important part of gaining fluency that people never get to learn in school. Ask yourself this: If you were born the exact same person that you are today, but in the Middle East, would you speak Arabic already? If you were born the exact same person that you are today, but in the China, would you speak Chinese? If you were born the exact same person that you are today, but in the Mexico, would you speak Spanish?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Why? Because everything around you would be reinforcing that language. Every street sign, menu, conversation, worksheet at school, TV show, recipe, instruction label on the back of a pill bottle. EVERYTHING. I am English-speaker because English is reinforced all around me, every day of my life. No wonder I’m so good at this language…
You know what this means, right? To become fluent in Arabic, you need reinforcement. This reinforcement is called input (or immersion). You need listen, watch, and read Arabic for hours each day. Honestly as much as possible. In another post, I’ll talk about how much time you need to become native level-fluent. Until then, to make it simple, the reason that you have not reached fluency yet is because you have not immersed yourself in the language enough.
Let me say it for the people in the back: If you want to become fluent, you need more input. You will not become fluent without input.
Also, and very importantly, your input should be content that is made by native speakers, for native speakers. Why? Because language is often simplified and stupified for language learners. I once taught English in China for a major global language learning company. I spent the most of that year telling students, “I mean, you could say it like the PowerPoint describes, but really we’d say this…”
What about output (aka speaking) anyway? At that same job, I had so many students who had spent years “learning” English and were in advanced classes but couldn’t hold a conversation. Hell, I was in Advanced Arabic in university and couldn’t easily comprehend anything w/o looking up every word. My Chinese students and I weren’t terrible at our languages for lack of trying, coming to class, studying. We just didn’t have enough input.
You might not want to hear this: but don’t worry about speaking yet. You’re not there yet. The more you input, the more you will know what to say. Why? Because you would have heard other people saying it thousands and thousands of times. If you start speaking now, you’re going to pick up bad speaking habits and that’s a huge no-no.
Main takeaway: Fluency = thousands of hours of input. (Remember, that’s why you speak English so well.)
Step 5: Develop a language persona.
Because you’re going to be focusing on input, your lifestyle is likely going to change a bit. You’re going to be watching more TV and YouTube videos, listening to more music, reading more books and articles (in Arabic of course!) than you’re used to. This is going to get annoying and frustrating at first. It definitely was for me. Why? Because if I take myself for example, I don’t personally spend a lot of time watching TV. I don’t read a lot of online blogs. I like a lot good peace and quiet and soft breathing. That’s Uchechi. Uchechi who was born and raised in the United States and whose first language is English. Uchechi doesn’t speak Arabic.
But Lucy does.
Lucy is my language persona. She’s my avatar. She’s “Uchechi” in another multiverse. She’s a kid living in Beirut, Lebanon with her parents. She listens to radio a lot because her parents leave the radio running. She watches Syrian and Lebanese TV shows because they’re always on in her house. She sings Arabic songs because they’re the songs everyone is singing at school. She has a few YouTube/Instagram influencers who she looks up to, and her IG is full of Palestinian memes, and Syrian and Lebanese actors, and Lebanese comedians. She reads articles in Fusha, and while she finds it challenging, she understands she’s just like everyone else — we speak dialect at home and read Fusha in school.
If you’re reading closely, you’ll see that Lucy’s life describes all the different forms of input that I use to gain fluency in Arabic.
When I’m tired or “busy” or distracted, I think WWLD? What Would Lucy (be) Doing (right this instant)?
There is already a version of you that exists that speaks, reads, and writes Arabic to the degree that you desire. But have you given birth to that person yet? Has that person taken their first steps, gone off to kindergarten, middle, high school, beyond? You can track your fluency by creating a persona and watching that persona age with time. This will also help you get honest about where you are in your fluency journey.
Main Takeaway: Develop your persona. Choose where they live, and what dialect they speak. Input, input, input, and watch them grow up.
Step 6: Focus on fun. And more of it.
Because school is boring, we think that learning new things has to be boring too. But aren’t the things you know best, the things you actually love? Especially because you are self-studying, you have to stay motivated. And we are motivated by FUN. So think, what do you actually like to do? And then form your language acquisition around that. As for me, I like yoga, walking, music, meeting new people, laughter, etc. So some of the ways I stared immersing at first were:
- Yoga: Reading the Instagram post description wellness and yoga “gurus”; watching interviews
- Walking: Listening to podcasts while I waked
- Music: Always having Apple Music playing in the background
- Meeting New People: Watching lots of videos from friendly and enthuasistic YouTubers so that that it felt like we were friends
- Laughter: An IG account called Palestianmemes is literally the best
As I write these, I realize that I don’t spend most of my time on these forms of input anymore. These days, I’m watching a lot more TV and movies. But that’s because I understand more, and I can move on to new interests.
Main Takeaway: Marry your language learning interests with your life. If you’re a gamer, get on Arabic Twitch servers. If you love makeup, find tutorials online. If you love cooking, find a great cooking show. Your main objective is to find ways to keep your own attention. Don’t make this too hard for yourself. If your input is boring, let it go and find something interesting.
Step 7: Use a spaced repetition system to review.
A spaced repetition system (aka SRS) is going to be what you need in order to review the new sentences you learn. (Sentences, you said? Huh? Yes, that’s Step 8.) The most famous SRS, and the one I use is called, Anki. If you’re a medical student or know medical students, you know that they’re obsessed with the app. The basics of Anki is this: Anki is a flashcard app. Instead of reviewing flashcards daily, Anki uses an algorithm to schedule your flashcards for the day that you’re most likely to forget that word. So instead of focusing on “remembering” words, you want to focus on not forgetting words. Anki helps you do that.
(If you search other places online, they may describe Anki differently. Do you own research to understand exactly how it works. But this is a great foundation to develop from.)
Main Takeaway: Using an SRS daily is a crucial part of your fluency journey.
Step 8: Memorize sentences, not words.
It’s easier to remember anything when there is context built in. Look at these two examples:
1: Imagine 11 flashcards for all of these words: The; can; of; soup; is; on; a; shelf; in; that; kitchen.
2. Imagine one flashcard for all of these words: The can of soup is on a shelf in that kitchen.
Moral of the story: Words are kind of useless on their own. They only make sense in connection to others. If you have that sentence in your Anki deck, and you review the sentence multiple times, you’re going to build an image of that sentence in your mind. Right now, mine is of Campbell’s Tomato Soup on brown shelf above a speckled white and brown 1970s countertop. Because of this vivid context, when I review this card in my SRS, the phrase “can of soup” will trigger the image of a “brown shelf above a speckled white and brown 1970s countertop” and I’ll be able to remember the sentence faster. This is a very simple idea, but rarely used. Instead, our classes ask us to learn words one by one. How would a flashcard that says “of” even conjure any image or context? How would you even know how to use it in a sentence, if you see the word on its own? (I’m convinced this is why I struggled with prepositions for so long in Arabic before switching to this method.)
When you learn sentences, words are easier to remember because they now have surrounding context. And the magic is, you also learn grammar and colloquialisms this way. This sentence alone shows that we say “in the kitchen” and not “at the kitchen”. We say “can of soup”. We say “soup is on a shelf” and not “soup be on a shelf”. We’ve learned soooo much without even knowing it. Amazing.
Where do you get your sentences from? Your native-speaker input of course! If you want to speak like a native, just memorize what native speakers say. Language in imitation. That’s exactly what babies do. They imitate. So take it from your nearest kid, and just copy everyone around you.
(On the other hand, if you want to speak like a language learner, just memorize sentences from books with names like “Arabic Made Easy” and “Arabic for English Speakers” or “Arabic Phrasebook”.)
It’s a very simple concept, but one of the most powerful ones. You will need to memorize about 10,000 sentences to reach native-level fluency.
Main Takeaway: Memorize sentences using your daily SRS reviews.
Step 9: Keep on the hunt for more and more fun input.
This is simple: You have to always be on the hunt for interesting content. You’re not going to gain fluency by memorizing the words from the same 10 videos you like. We use language in a myriad of ways in our life, because we meet a myriad of situations in life. The more you input from diverse content, the wider your range of fluency will grow.
Main Takeaway: Hunt for more and more fun pieces of input. Never stop.
Step 10: Be the tortoise, not the hare.
On this journey, you’re going to ask yourself, “When am I going to get there?” My first answer: When you input enough. My second answer: When you get there.
If you want to become a native-speaker overnight, then you shouldn’t begin this journey. Not because you can’t achieve that. (Though likely, you cannot if you’re starting from scratch or beginner-level.) This is because, you’re going to burn out by overdoing it. And when you burn out, you’ll 1) beat yourself up and 2) become one of those people who tells everyone else that Arabic is THE HARDEST LANGUAGE IN THE WHOLE WORLD, DON’T EVEN TRY. And you’re going to run good people off from learning the language.
When I say be the tortoise, I’m not saying immerse only 15 minutes a day and make no progress. I’m just saying recognize from the start that this is a journey.
Enjoy yourself, watch all of your fun YouTube videos, deepen your understanding of culture via fun movies and TV, and learn to loooooove Arabic through reading. Why? Because if it’s fun and at your pace, you’re more likely to continue. And if you continue, as the tortoise did, you will reach the finish line.
On another note, we don’t need more people in the world who want to conquer Arabic (and by extension, Arabic-speaking people). In another post, I’ll talk about how long it should take to gain fluency, based on how many hours you input each day. Until then, know, it’ll that take you 2 years, minimum, but for most people, it will absolutely take you more. Not forever, but more.
Main takeaway: Slow ya roll. Be patient. If you input, fluency will come when it comes.
*Step 11: Be skeptical of everything I’ve said
Everything I’ve written is my own experience. You are allowed to have different experiences. You are allowed to not believe me. You are allowed to adapt any of these things to fit you! All of these methods have given me strength and confidence and have helped me see more results in the past 9 months that I had in 3 years of college (including study abroad). I encourage you to test and iterate. I’m certain you’ll find that they work for you, but that’s just my deep dream that everyone who really wants to learn Arabic finally finds a method that helps them keep going.