Activate your Arabic by Interaction
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.
I actually tried to interact once, but didn’t get far. The previous summer, I had spent some time in France and Germany with friends, and we decided to take a quick 3 week trip to Tunisia. There, I made a few Tunisian friends, and had a great time talking with them in French. Months later, back in Toronto, I received a postcard from one of them… written in Arabic. How exciting! A real-life opportunity to put my medieval-text-Arabic to work.
The only problem was that I couldn’t understand anything written on the postcard. Refusing to be discouraged, I took it with me to Arabic class at the university, and eagerly went to see my professor during his office hours. With a flourish, I pulled out the postcard and showed it to him, asking him if he could help me translate it (I may have also been thinking it might increase my participation points for the class).
At that moment, he looked slightly annoyed, slightly flustered, and slightly uncomfortable. He informed me that he wasn’t available to just help anyone who had a personal item in Arabic that needed translating, otherwise he would be constantly doing so and unable to focus on his teaching and research. I had a hard time imagining that the queue of people who had personal items of interest in Arabic was very long, back in Toronto in 1990. I left his office, somewhat disappointed. It wasn’t until the following year when I arrived in Cairo that I immediately began to find a way to interact as I learned.
Interaction helps you learn Arabic
What I quickly discovered was that interaction is not the end goal, it is what helps you learn Arabic. Long before you approach fluency, you can be learning by interacting.
This new level of using what I had was not just based on the fact that I was in an Arabic speaking city (although that did help). It was based on the approach to learning that I was introduced to by my Arabic teachers. On the first day, I had to have an entrance interview in Arabic, with the esteemed Abbas Al-Tonsi (co-author of the Al-Kitaab fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya textbook series). Suddenly I was speaking Arabic… very, very broken Arabic, but somehow I was understood by the very patient Abbas. The next day I began classes, taught by Arabic teaching legends such as El-Said Badawi (whose writing about sociolinguistic levels of spoken Arabic I have previously blogged about), Abbas Al-Tonsi, and others. The thing that stands out to me, looking back on all of these classes, is that we were constantly required to interact in spoken and written Arabic. And my level of Arabic advanced at a speed I had not imagined was possible.
I was also encouraged to use my Arabic outside of the classroom. So I befriended a fruit seller on my street named Ibrahim. Five days a week, after classes and homework, I would sit with Ibrahim for two hours and we would talk back and forth. Initially it was him doing most of the talking while I understood very little. By the end of the year, it was approaching equal, as I talked about anything and everything. There were even times where he would step away from the fruit stand to go do something, and I would handle a fruit transaction with a customer… all of which was very entertaining to my neighbours who lived in that upper class neighbourhood.
The important point here is that interaction is not just something you get to do once you have learned Arabic. It is what helps you actually learn the language.
Real life interaction, whether verbal or written, activates the Arabic that you are learning. Vocabulary, structures, and expressions that you have passively been exposed to suddenly become a part of your active language. It also has an immense impact on your motivation and enthusiasm, as you exchange meaning with people in Arabic.
Backed up by the experts
When I spoke with the six Arabic teaching thought-leaders who contributed to 15 Essential Skills of an Arabic Learner, the idea of activating your Arabic through interaction was strongly backed up.
According to Laila Al-Sawi, interaction with people reinforces what is taught in the formal classroom setting. An inability of students to interact with others and to love and respect their culture and ideas “will slow their learning and possibly derail their ability to learn”.
Abbas Al-Tonsi stressed to me that communication – and preferably verbal communication – increases your Arabic and then maintains it at the desired level of proficiency.
And Dr. David Wilmsen shared with me an example of a woman who came to his class to learn Arabic, and eventually reached a point where she had plateaued in her language learning. So she went on to write a journalistic article in Arabic about Lebanese artists, and became well known for her writing. That new challenge of interaction took her Arabic to the next level. From this, we can see that interaction is not only essential in the early stages, but well into the intermediate and advanced levels.
Creating opportunities to interact in the classroom
One of the challenges that Arabic learners face is figuring out how to create opportunities to interact in Arabic as they learn.
For Arabic teachers, this is an important question to ask yourself. How can you create classes that are interactive and require students to actually use their Arabic, rather than simply memorize vocabulary and work through grammar?
Some of the best and most well known Arabic teaching programs accomplish this by having a strong initial focus on a spoken Arabic dialect, and then later balancing that with reading/writing. This gives learners the ability to interact verbally early on, which accelerates their motivation and their progress. Dr. Kirk Belnap, Director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center at Brigham Young University, illustrated this when he said,
“[If your student wants] to interact with Arabs in the modern world—which is the typical scenario for most American Arabic programs—then we have found that it works really well to use an integrated approach. We actually start the very first day of class with spoken Arabic, and do a very heavy dose of spoken Arabic in the first three weeks, as they are learning the alphabet outside of class. And then we start to bring in more and more literacy over time.”
Creating opportunities to interact outside of the classroom
For Arabic learners, here’s a number of ideas you can use to increase your interaction in Arabic. Thanks to technology, you no longer need to live in the Arab world to make use of these ideas. I will talk here about 3 ways to increase interaction in Arabic when you don’t live in an Arabic-speaking setting. If you do live in a place where you are surrounded by Arabic, you can still use these.
Language exchanges such as italki. This allows you to meet up with a partner on Skype (or other video communication apps), and trade talking-time in Arabic for talking-time in another language that you speak.
According to Abbas Al-Tonsi, the best way to get value out of this is to come into the exchange with a plan set in place. Be sure to plan a variety of topics and conversations so that there is exposure to many different areas of content. Try to follow up each conversation by taking time on your own to read or listen to related topics in Arabic.
David Wilmsen cautions learners to remember that language exchanges can indeed help, but you need someone you know and trust, someone you like to talk to. Doing it with a stranger will be initially difficult, until you begin to know the person. So don’t given up if your first experience doesn’t go well. Stick with it for at least a few sessions, to determine if it can work for you.
Online teaching programs with a live conversation component
Increasingly, online Arabic teaching institutes offer live conversation time via Skype or other video apps to supplement the written learning activities.
The best of these that I have personally been exposed to so far is the Arab Academy. We used this as we homeschooled two of my teenage children through the last few years of instability following the Arab Spring, and it worked extremely well. Unlike language exchanges, this option usually comes only with paid programs. In the Arab Academy, we had scheduled times twice each week in which each of our children would have one-on-one conversations for 30 minutes with the teacher. We could choose times that suited us out of a wide range of options, with the teacher of our choice. It worked really well for us.
There are other schools out there that offer similar programs, and you may want to test them as well.
I believe that social media can be used to create interactive situations that help activate your Arabic. For those who question whether social media can be a legitimate medium of meaningful communication, bear in mind that it has been one of the primary channels for the exchange of ideas and communication between people in Arab countries over the past few years, when other means of communication have been limited or suppressed. Many Arabic speakers use social media to do much more than share cat videos (although I have nothing against cat videos)!
Not every social media interaction will necessarily be helpful. You may need to do some searching for good conversation threads. I find both Twitter and Facebook the most helpful. To help you find conversations you can engage with, try searching in Twitter or Facebook for a topic that you are interested in. For example, “Jordan”. Or “salsa dancing”. Before you search for these topics, find out how to write them in Arabic (Google translate can help you here), and enter your search term in Arabic. Then find a conversation and join in!
Whatever you do, be sure to commit to interacting as you learn Arabic. Activate what you learn by using it in real life.
Here’s some homework for you:
- Write any feedback or thoughts you have about what I have written in the comments section below. I would love to hear from you!
- Is your level of interaction in Arabic helping or holding back your learning? Take a minute to evaluate, and set any goals that you need to.
- Look through the list of ideas above and choose one to explore. Take time today to try out one of them.
 Personal interview with Laila Al-Sawi, May 14, 2015
 Personal interview with Abbas Al-Tonsi, May 1, 2015
 Personal interview with Dr. David Wilmsen, April 28, 2015
 Personal interview with Dr. Kirk Belnap, June 4, 2015
 Personal interview with Abbas Al-Tonsi, May 1, 2015.
 Personal interview with Dr. David Wilmsen, April 28, 2015