Language Learner's Journal: Introducing Taylor

[This is a guest blog, written by freelance journalist and (Arabic) language student, Taylor Barnes. I'm working with Taylor to get her up and running as quickly and effectively as possible, and I suggested she might want to write about her learning progress along the way. She'll be posting here every week or two.]

Rio de Janeiro is an unusual place for an American journalist to begin studying Arabic, but at least it made my beginning steps in this challenging language deeply associated with laughter and leisure. Brazilians of all ages have a habit I admire of seemingly always being in a continuing education cursinho, be it studying German twice a week or enrolling in online courses from the Justice Ministry about drug policy. (I did this once along with a colleague in the Brazilian media, though I can't say I finished it.)

I lived and worked in Brazil for six years. There, I watched in myself what it meant to become fluent in a new language as an adult – I could take phone calls from strangers, have a store sign come into my visual field and not be able to not read it, hear kids prattling and usually make sense of it. When I began to contemplate a move to a new region, I was delighted to find a very affordable new Arabic course offered at Rio's Lebanese Consulate. My Brazilian teacher there was enthusiastic about developing a communicative approach to teaching the language, so we studied songs, watched kids' TV programs, and wrote plays about animals and princesses while we glossed over things like case endings and conjugations for pronouns like antumaa and huna. We called ourselves the habibinhos, a word so adorable in Portuguese that it makes us sound like we're in diapers. After an enormously challenging day of doing addition and subtraction with Arabic numerals, one habibinho said that we may never learn this language, but at least we were delaying our onset of Alzheimer's.

When the stars aligned for me to move and be able to bump up my Arabic studies, I chose the Qasid Institute here in Amman for its intensity, immersion classes, and communicative approach to teaching. It's kicking my butt. Two weeks in, my head is not yet above water.

We have class for three hours a day and at least as many hours of homework, and I work a part-time job to pay for my studies. On top of that, I'm starting an Ammiya supplement at Qasid twice a week. While my classmates often have university studies of Arabic under their belt and are comfortable speaking about the Syrian war or identifying whether a verb in mansub or marfua, I'm struggling to speak about anything beyond my daily life (family, friends, food and animals!).

I thought a lot about my motivations before I left my comfortable and lovely life in Rio to chase a goal that may lead me down a rabbit hole. I've spoken with many friends and colleagues who studied Arabic at some point, and I hear repeated stories of dissatisfaction. It's important for me to define clear goals and make meaningful progress toward what fluency means for me – I've decided that means communicating with a variety of people in a new language and reading the kind of texts we see in daily life, like a newspaper article or a Facebook post.

This time in Amman is unlike any other in which I've been a student: I chose to leave better pay, professional reputation, and satisfying work in order to work toward a new goal. It makes the move more compelling since I feel a strong sense of ownership, but it also raises the stakes. If I took my time, money, and left my friends and family, this is no longer just a leisurely hobby.

Rather than just study Arabic, I've dedicated significant time to studying how to learn a challenging language. In my independent study, I use many methods that will be familiar to followers of Alex's blog and podcast, like Anki spaced repetition flashcards and learning new words in context or in stories. I also use many of the tools laid out in Gabriel Wyner's Fluent Forever, like using Google image searches to try to discover the meaning of unknown words without translation and finding native speaker pronunciations through sites like Forvo. I am also a very big fan of's videos and transcripts for Ammiya/colloquial practice.

I'll be working with Alex as a coach over my upcoming months as I study at Qasid and meet weekly with a conversation partner I've picked up here in Amman. You'll see my blogs on a weekly or biweekly basis, and I hope you see some forward movement in them. Expect upcoming posts to be shorter and more technical.

Even if I said this is no longer just a leisurely pursuit, I also don't want to lose that quality that I said I admire in Brazilians – taking small sips of a new subject just because it's interesting and novel, without having a deadline or an endgame. At our orientation at Qasid, one of our administrators said that Arabic learning is a marathon, not a sprint. I'm an athlete, and that comparison felt spot-on.

And in that spirit, I'm ending my introduction here with a selfie I took at the Rio Summer Olympics with my favourite athlete, American marathoner Meb Keflezighi. It wasn't an easy selfie to get: I was exhausted from work during the games (thank to Ryan Lochte), but gathered enough awakedness to get up early on the final Sunday of the event to watch the men's marathon. I used my press pass to sneak into the cool-down area after the finish line in Rio's samba stadium and approached the legend himself to ask for the picture. It was worth it. 

ClozeMaster: learn words in context

Clozemaster is a service I discovered recently while researching the resource guide for my new book, Master Arabic. Clozemaster is intended to be a next step for students who have mastered some of the basics of their language of study. It teaches the language through a game where you identify the missing word. Here's what one of their tests look like, for example:

You can see that it has a space where a word is blocked out. Four options are available below, from which you have to choose. Of course, number two is the correct option and by clicking it you move onto the next question.

The sentences are taken from a wonderful open-source project called Tatoeba. Tatoeba is a collection of sentences and translations which are curated and gathered through crowd-sourcing.

Clozemaster hooks into the corpus of sentences available in Tatoeba and serves up tests ordered by how commonly the word is found (i.e. its frequency ranking).

If you're wondering why this is useful, it helps to know a little about how we best learn vocabulary. The gold standard of vocabulary acquisition happens through context. You learn the word when it is used in a real sentence or scenario, and where you derive all sorts of clues from the words around it. This is how we learn words when we're growing up, and it's how we continue to learn words and concepts in adulthood.

Clozemaster, therefore, is a great tool for someone who has mastered the basics of grammar in their language of study but who wants to grow their vocabulary further. At that stage, it doesn't help to learn words in isolation like services like Memrise have you doing. Instead, learn through reading, or learn through services like Clozemaster. The service is free and would be ideal for someone who's just finished Duolingo in a particular language (for example).