Language Learner's Journal: Independent Study

[This is a continuation of Taylor's blog series where she details some of the week-in-week-out lessons that she learns through her Arabic studies and coaching work together with me. For other posts in the series, click here.]

For some Arabic students (myself, certainly), when we first start to learn about the diglossia in Arabic, we feel somewhat cheated, like, "I signed up to learn a language, and now you're telling me that I need to learn some second, shadow language if I'm actually to use it?" It's like the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet, like we'd be studying Shakespeare and are frustrated to find that real people actually speak Singlish. Colleagues who work in journalism/research repeatedly encouraged me to study dialect, which led me to leave my last fusha course for an ammiya one at Sijal. 

Happily, it doesn't feel nearly so intimidating as I once imagined when I turned on some ammiya YouTube videos and despaired that a year in MSA classes seemed to do me no good. Indeed, the listening comprehension and vocabulary I learned at Qasid feels like a swiss army knife I now use to pick a new lock. Also, another useful tool from my MSA classes – an extreme comfort with not understanding many of the words I'm hearing but still staying engaged and hanging on for the ones I do.

On a related note, Alex has encouraged me to keep up independent reading even as I'm in a course that largely focuses on speaking and listening. That's another skill that I appreciate from my time at Qasid – the willingness to dive into a text, even when many of the words are ones I don't recognize, and look for the keys that will give me some clue about it. I'm a pen-and-paper learner, so I've been printing out media articles and reading them through twice, no dictionary, then underlining words I don't know and making my best guess at what they mean. 

For example, this week I read one in the Huffington Post about scientists questioning whether we need to drink eight cups of water a day. The piece mentioned drinking a sufficient amount of water so that "البول" is "واضح اللون أو خفيف الصفرة." I didn't know that first word, but I was delighted to know exactly what it was as soon as I read the rest of the sentence. I'm convinced that process of discovery is a powerful learning tool, more so than having translations readily at hand to answer our doubts as soon as we have them. 

Also, having a bit more free time, I've been able to take advantage of events going on around me to get extra-classroom contact with the language. I sat in on a Sunday morning lecture from an Al Jazeera filmmaker who produced an extraordinary documentary, "The Boy Who Started the Syrian War." His discussion afterwards was well above my level, and I only got the outlines of what he was saying, which is still far more than I would have gotten just three months ago when I came to Amman. It was still, of course, a very useful experience. For example, he used the word نظام always when I was expecting him to say حكومة, which led me to ask and confirm with my teacher that it seems to be used like we say "regime" in English, or, a disdainful/pejorative word for a government. 

Being someone who spends plenty of time in the kitchen (because organic vegetarian food doesn't make itself, at least not anywhere walking distance from me =) I'm a big podcast fan. Alex's on Jordanian ammiya is great listening for me at my current level – when I tried this just a few months ago, it was beyond my grasp. I also like the BBC Arabic service and DW's current events discussion panel. 

And repeating what I wrote in my last post – an upcoming post will be some reflections on accents and errors and embarrassment and the ways we as language learners judge ourselves (and others? I hope not. I indeed only judge myself when it comes to foreign language ability, which may point to, as Alex says, how much language is a confidence game). I'm on a scale between sheepish and chatterbox depending on what situation I'm in, and I've been chewing over what it is about a given situation that makes me feel either of those ways.

[To learn more about coaching with Alex, click here. To learn more about 'Master Arabic', a guide for intermediate-level Arabic students, click here.]

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.