Arabic conversation: overcoming barriers to interact meaningfully

Read More
Arabic conversation: overcoming barriers to interact meaningfully

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner, including self-directed learningHave real Arabic conversation, whether spoken or written, with Arabic speakers. True conversations, where there is a give and take of information and interaction, will bring into play all of your receptive and productive skills in Arabic – the skills that are required to understand (receive) and produce language in a way that allows actual communication. The satisfaction of having understood someone and having been understood, even on a small level, will motivate you like very few other things. And the frustration of communication breakdown, where you are not able to communicate as you would like, will also sharpen your focus on areas in which you can improve.

“…Talk with Arabic speakers. It must be verbal communication to keep the Arabic at the desired level of proficiency. “ (Abbas Al- Tonsi)

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

Arabic conversation: overcoming barriers to interact meaningfully

Arabic conversation and interaction

All of the Arabic skills that you learn are for the purpose of interacting in Arabic. Listening, speaking, reading, and writing can be dealt with as isolated skills, but ultimately their purpose is to be used together to interact in real conversations with Arabic speakers.

Arabic conversation can take place through writing, but I have found spoken conversations to be the most valuable on an everyday basis. Writing as a medium for immediate conversation has increased due to the use of social media in the Arab world, but verbal conversations are, for most of us, the most satisfying and useful for learning (there are some people who are exceptions to this, and I value and honor their focus on written communication).

Part of our problem as Arabic learners is that getting into conversations can be difficult, even when there is opportunity to do so. Yesterday (August 28) marked 25 years to the day when I first arrived in Egypt. Looking back, great conversations have been one of the things that have made it fun to be here over that length of time. But as I look back, I also realize that I have gone through certain seasons in which engaging in Arabic conversation has been more difficult.

In this post I am going to highlight five things that can block us from participating in Arabic conversation, and offer five ways that I have found helpful to increase meaningful, conversational interaction. Continue reading “Arabic conversation: overcoming barriers to interact meaningfully”

Design your own self-directed learning experience for Arabic

Read More
Self directed learning for Arabic

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner, including self-directed learningTake charge of your own Arabic language acquisition by directing your own program of self-directed learning. Many times, you may not have access to classes or programs that provide you with the kind of instruction that you would like to have, and will need to customize your own approach. Even when you are actively engaged in class work, take control of your learning by building your own self-led framework of Arabic instruction that combines multiple learning strategies into an overall plan.

“…those learners that are self-directed and highly motivated will jump on these opportunities…”  (Aiyub Palmer)

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

Design your own self-directed learning experience


For most of us, when we set out to learn Arabic we don’t think of self-directed learning. Our first step is to research what programs and institutes are available to take us where we want to go. We look for the best instruction we can possibly find. We hope for a solution that includes all of the features we will need to be successful, including great materials, skilled teachers, opportunities for practice, and practical application of the skills we learn.

What we are looking for is a person or program that will lead us in our Arabic language learning. The problem is that it is hard to find people or programs like this. Which is why we need to be ready to engage in self-directed learning. Self-directed learners can design their own Arabic language learning experiences.

I distinctly remember when my first year and a half of “official” Arabic language learning at the American University in Cairo came to a close. I had reached a point where I did not have the time or focus needed to stay in the program. But I recall thinking something along the lines of “this should be easy – I live in an Arabic speaking city and I’ll just keep growing in my Arabic as I use it”. While living in an Arabic speaking environment has been helpful, I came to realize that there’s a lot more to successfully learning the language than just soaking it in. To be successful, you need to be a self-directed learner.

Self-directed learning, whether for a language or any other area, means that “the learner takes responsibility for their learning, choosing the content, resources, time, place, activities, and pace of their learning” ( . It doesn’t necessarily mean that you learn alone, but that you make the key decisions that organize and direct your learning experience. Continue reading “Design your own self-directed learning experience for Arabic”

Arabic classes – how to choose what works for you

Read More
Take Arabic classes

Arabic classes – how to choose what works for you

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic LearnerTake organized Arabic classes given by a skilled instructor, in order to be able to follow a learning curriculum that has been set by someone who has experience in facilitating Arabic language learning. Classes provide a framework that can dramatically accelerate your progress in all areas of Arabic. They also provide feedback and evaluation, which are essential to prevent the recurring mistakes we make from becoming a permanent part of our language (a process known as “fossilization”). These classes can be in person or online.

“In class they are going to show you why it works this way, or why it shouldn’t work this way but perhaps does…” (David Wilmsen)

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

Experiencing Arabic classes

Over the past months I have been writing about mindsets and daily habits that can help you become a more effective Arabic learner. This week I will shift gears into the next section of the 15 Skills of an effective Arabic Learner, and begin to look at organized Systems that can help you learn more effectively.

Perhaps the most common system that we think of, when it comes to learning any language, is the classroom.

In a best-case scenario, a classroom provides:

  • a set of objectives and a framework for your learning that lets you make systematic progress toward your Arabic goals
  • a skilled teacher who knows the obstacles and hurdles that you will face at given points along the way
  • immediate feedback on your Arabic that is friendly and gentle, making you feel empowered to improve
  • ongoing evaluation of your overall progress that is clear and encouraging
  • an experience that is centered on you and your fellow students
  • all of this in an environment that is enjoyable, not stressful, and worth the financial investment you have made

If your Arabic class provides you with all of these things, please stop reading this blog post right now and take a minute to write a thank you note to your teacher. Then continue reading.

If your current experience does not match this, then you are in the same situation as many learners who take Arabic classes. Unfortunately, although we all hope to have good class experiences, it doesn’t always work out that way. Continue reading “Arabic classes – how to choose what works for you”

Read Arabic daily – 7 helpful sources

Read More
Read Arabic daily

Read Arabic to develop proficiency in the language

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic LearnerRead Arabic daily, and push yourself to complete reading something in Arabic every day. Reading is foundational to enriching your vocabulary and engraining Arabic structures and styles of discourse into your thinking. It is not difficult to find materials to read in Arabic, whether news, commentary, religious, social media, or many other forms. Try to read things through to their end even when you don’t understand every word. The discipline of reading to the end (whether a chapter, blog entry, tweet, or article) overcomes our tendency to drop focus when we don’t understand everything.

“… we help them to get really good at reading…the proficiency that they develop and the confidence that they develop doing that spills over…” (Kirk Belnap)

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

Reading Arabic as a life skill

I remember standing in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 1991 with a friend who was telling me where he lived, and he pointed in a certain direction and said “Do you see that billboard for Mustapha Ali?”. Mustapha Ali was a company that sold, if I recall correctly, lighting fixtures. My eyes scanned the multitude of billboards in the busy square, and suddenly found the Mustapha Ali one… written مصطفى علي. Suddenly, I felt this incredible feeling of accomplishment, that I had actually negotiated one very small aspect of life using my newly developed skill of reading in Arabic.

7 great sources for those who want to read Arabic

Let me start this post by getting straight to “the goods”. Many people who want to read Arabic just need someone to point them to useful places they can read things. Here’s my current list of 7 very useful places on which you can read Arabic in a way that contributes to your learning the language.

Al-Jazeera resources to read arabicAl-Jazeera Learning Arabic site – An absolutely great site with huge amounts of useful reading materials, fully vowelized, on a wide variety of topics from news and current events. Includes questions, vocabulary, and exercises. Highly useful for intermediate to advanced readers. My current top pick for Arabic learners who want to read.

Read Arabic siteRead Arabic! اقرأ العربية site. Funded by the US Department of Education, the materials of Read Arabic! were developed to provide online e-learning reading lessons aimed at beginning and intermediate students of the language. Good stuff here. Continue reading “Read Arabic daily – 7 helpful sources”

Arabic Vocabulary – build it daily

Read More
Arabic Vocabulary

Arabic Vocabulary – build it daily

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner

Build your vocabulary daily by adding at least one new word or expression to your repertoire each day. There will be days where you will learn much more than one item, but by setting a minimum of one term per day, you will ensure that your mind stays freshly focused on expanding your active vocabulary at all times. Over time, this will lead to a significant increase in your ability to understand and express yourself in Arabic.

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

Cairo hotels on the Nile
Photo: Vyacheslav Argenberg.

My wife and I walked into the five star hotel, surrounded by people dressed in all kinds of chic, formal, and dazzling attire. My wife looked incredible. I was feeling pretty good. The wedding reception we were attending was fun. The music was loud. The moon was reflecting off of the pyramids nearby. Cairo nightlife at its best. Arabic vocabulary was not on my mind.

Needing to make those final last minute adjustments in front of a mirror before stepping into the ballroom, we made our way to the front desk to ask about the whereabouts of the washrooms.

Andrew: mesaa’ il-kheer / مساء الخير  (Good evening)

Receptionist: mesaa’ in-nour / مساء النور (Good evening)

Andrew: feen il-________ / فين ـــــــــ  (Where is the ___________?)

Substitute in the blank space above a crass, inappropriate word for “restroom facilities”. Use your imagination. Or don’t!

Wife: <facepalm>

Receptionist: (awkwardly) hinaak / هناك  (Over there…)

You may be wondering why this was so awkward for my wife and the receptionist. It was my choice of vocabulary for the washroom. I had learned the word on the street, and didn’t realize that it was not considered “polite language” for the setting that we were in (for those with any background in linguistics, you will recognize this as a sociolinguistic plot twist).

This is what I call a ‘Vocabulary Incident’. That is not a scientific term, or a term based on research. It is just my term that I use for situations involving Arabic vocabulary when something doesn’t work. I use it to refer to times when:

  • I don’t know a word in Arabic that I need to know
  • I know a form of a word that is not appropriate to the context I am in (such as the situation above)
  • I think I know a word or expression in Arabic, but the word/expression that I know is not the correct one

Continue reading “Arabic Vocabulary – build it daily”

Make Mistakes when learning Arabic

Read More
Make mistakes

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner

In order to grow as an Arabic learner, you need to make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. The more that you experiment and get things wrong as you use Arabic, the more feedback and growth you will experience. The fear of failure can prevent you from attempting to speak or listen in Arabic (or write and read), and can set up anxiety filters that make it difficult to process and learn. Usually, our fear of failure is based on a false feel that we are incapable of learning, or on a false perception of what others will think of us as we begin to use our imperfect Arabic. Overcoming your fear of failure in Arabic means believing in yourself, laughing at your own mistakes (knowing they are helping you in your journey, not hindering you), and choosing to show off your growing skills to the world rather than hiding “imperfect” skills.

“… students notice errors, their own and other students’, and learn from them.” (Laila Al-Sawi)

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

My report card

1.  Instead of calling my friend Hala by her proper name in Arabic, “haala” / هالة (meaning: halo, aura… a common Arabic name for women), I called her “Haala” / حالة with the ح or aspirated H, which means a “case”, as in a hospital case or a person who is a complicated case of something. The way I pronounced it can be used as slang to tell someone that she is complicated. Oops. A pronunciation mistake.

2. At the hospital a few days ago, following my mother-in-law’s hip replacement surgery, I told the (male) assistant doctor to come see my mother-in-law the next day. But I used the female form of “come” ( ta3aalii / تعالي) instead of the male form. An awkward morphology mistake.

3. While providing feedback to (shouting at) the watchman of our apartment building for having acted obnoxiously/inappropriately, I declared he was “rudeness” (‘illit adab / قلة أدب) instead of “rude” (‘aliil al-adab / قليل الأدب). This caused my wife to snicker from behind the door, which did not strengthen my sense of righteous indignation. A vocabulary mistake at the wrong time.

4. Last month, my car broke down – the alternator belt broke. While talking with the mechanic, I didn’t know the word for alternator, couldn’t remember the word for belt, and found myself stumbling over all the Arabic I was trying to produce. The mechanic looked at me blankly. Complete communication breakdown. Continue reading “Make Mistakes when learning Arabic”

Ambiguity: Four ways you can learn from not fully understanding Arabic

Read More
Accept ambiguity

Accept Ambiguity.

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner

Accept ambiguity in your conversations and interactions in Arabic. Being able to accept and be comfortable with situations in which you do not understand everything that is being said to you (or written) is essential to learning Arabic. Having the flexibility to be able to adapt to input that is slightly beyond your ability to fully grasp will stretch you and cause you to apply internal learning strategies that advance your language skills.

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

An unfortunate scenario of not understanding everything


“Thank you very much for your offer, but for this daughter of yours, a thousand pounds would never be enough!” Setting aside the thorny issues of arranged marriages, finances, and power relationships in families in a conservative society, this sentence probably signifies the high water mark of my Arabic language blunders. It shows how awkward it can be to not understand everything being communicated around you in Arabic.

I was visiting a village in southern Egypt. I was young and thought I knew a lot of Arabic. While being introduced to the extended family of my friend I was staying with, they told me with a smile that they wanted me to marry into the family so I could stay with them forever. Arranged marriages are common in village life. I knew enough to realize that they weren’t serious, but rather were just paying a compliment to me. That compliment being, if I would pay 1000 Egyptian Pounds, I could marry their daughter Fatma. She was sitting in the room with us at the time, looking as awkward as I felt.

 ممكن تدفع ألف جنيه

Mumkin tidfa3 alf guineeh…

(you can pay 1000 pounds…)

Unfortunately, rather than do the safe thing and just laugh and not really respond, I decided to be clever with my Arabic. Continue reading “Ambiguity: Four ways you can learn from not fully understanding Arabic”

Be enthusiastic when learning Arabic

Read More
Be enthusiastic

Enthusiasm and the emotion of learning Arabic

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner

Be enthusiastic. Choose a positive, energetic approach to learning Arabic. This will bring about a genuine change in how you experience the process of acquiring the language. It will heighten your ability to receive and process Arabic input, it will accelerate your ability to grasp and learn new things, and it will give you resilience and persistence when the journey seems long. It will also make the process much more enjoyable and fascinating.

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

Enthusiasm is more than commitment

Several years into my Arabic learning experience I found myself committed to learning Arabic, but not very enthusiastic about it.

I lived in one of Cairo’s poor areas. I enjoyed the excitement, the constant activity, the closeness of people, and the endless variety of experiences. I was (and perhaps still am) an experience junkie. I love being exposed to life in all of its different modes.

To experience my life in the slums to its fullest, I needed Arabic. I knew that. But having already spent several years studying the language, I was running out of enthusiasm. I was still going up to the American University in Cairo on the metro (subway) every day for Arabic classes (at that time it was located in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo), but learning the language had become a necessity, not a pleasure.

At that point, I began to notice that my progress became noticeably slower. Having lost my enthusiasm, I became less effective in learning Arabic. Continue reading “Be enthusiastic when learning Arabic”

Commit to Interact in Arabic

Read More
Commit to Interact

Activate your Arabic by Interaction

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner

Communication is your primary means of learning Arabic. It is not a mystical goal that is only achieved at the end of the journey. You will learn Arabic as you use it to interact in real life situations, and so at every step along the way, be sure to use each new thing you learn in a conversation with someone. Using your imperfect Arabic for partial interaction will activate and solidify what you have learned, and position you to learn even more.

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

Learning without interaction – my early days

I clearly remember when I began to interact in Arabic, instead of just academically studying the language. The contrast could not have been more pronounced.

I had put in many hours in Arabic language lectures, and in the underground library at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, using my Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary to help me decipher medieval texts. I am thankful for those days because they gave me some foundations in reading and writing. But I didn’t actually interact in any meaningful way in Arabic, and that made it hard, dry work, with little appreciable outcome. Continue reading “Commit to Interact in Arabic”

Set fluency as your aim

Read More
Set Fluency as Your Aim

Set a clear goal of becoming fluent in Arabic

What are your goals?

15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner

This article is based on the 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner.

What is your goal in wanting to learn Arabic? As you begin your journey, where do you picture yourself when you finish? If you are already on that journey – at any level – where do you see yourself finishing? Have you ever thought about what finishing would look like?

Setting a clear goal in your mind that you CAN and WILL become fluent in Arabic. This is one of the most important foundational beliefs that you need as you approach learning the language.

By setting the goal of being fluent, all of your activities that follow will have purpose and focus. And yet it is amazing to me how many people approach learning Arabic without having a clear vision of themselves becoming fluent. Continue reading “Set fluency as your aim”