Language Learner's Journal: Meaningful Leisure

[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.] 

If the first phase of my Arabic study in Jordan was intensive textbook fusha and the second was track-switching ammiya classes, this third and current could be called meaningful leisure, or, hanging out around town a lot and making friends. 

When I went to Bombay for an extended stay in 2010, a journalism colleague gave me a piece of advice: "Take everyone up on their offer to hang out with you." It may sound "duh," but over the years living abroad, I've seen how foreigners spend their free time in ways that often diverge from how residents in a given city do so. When we, as gringos in Rio, may have wanted to go to foreign film festivals or paragilding over the beach, many of our Brazilian peers would be going to baby showers, a classmate's thesis defense, or Outback Steakhouse. All of those activities are great ones, and I think the spirit of my colleague's advice was: If you want to get to know a culture, let your host take the lead and show you how they spend their free time.

That means over the past few weeks, I've sat on the sidewalk in front of a gift shop with a delightful young sculptor and a store clerk, my partners in very unstructured language exchanges that break when one of them needs to pop into the shop to attend a client. I went for a 6:30 a.m. workout with two of the fastest runners in Amman, a pair of brothers I met at a sunset race in Wadi Rum as we waited in the dunes watching for headlamps of other runners finishing. I went to a capoeira performance at Jadal cafe that was held in commemoration of the nakba; I was pleased with how accessible the discussion after the performance was for me, particularly when an older man in the audience vigorously questioned the capoeristas as to why they needed to do someone else's sport when they could do dabke.

Alex often talks about "islands" of vocabulary, and I thought about that as I spent more time with the same people and can make good guesses about the words they're using. (As I crossed the finished line at the race, other runners asked me ايش كان مركزك؟ though I certainly hadn't run fast enough to place. It was satisfying, though, to deduce what they were saying.) The store clerk and I talk often about money and salaries, since she hustles to work two jobs to help her family out.

I could be more purist; I speak plenty of English in these interactions. I'm still searching for the point of equilibrium between taking advantage of each opportunity I get to speak in Arabic while (of course!) having genuine friendships with peers with whom I share interests (running, yoga, current events, feminism, vegetarianism, pets). Plenty of the vocabulary and references regarding those topics are in English, not to mention the people who are interested in them often read and speak in English about them. I don't believe every friendship needs to be instrumentalized for one's language-learning goals (though I believe even more strongly that such an attitude should not be a lofty cover for native English speakers kicking back and relaxing). When I told Alex about my happy sidewalk sessions, which qualify more as bilingual shooting-the-shit than a proper language exchange, he said: You're doing the real thing, rather than practicing for it.

Some working notes, now, on practice:

I've been happy with my second time around testing out language exchanges; I've used the website Conversation Exchange, which I had suspected could be out of use by its retro web design but is actually popping. I'm pretty strict about where I meet the person, i.e., it needs to be as quiet as possible (a first exchange at Indoor cafe across from the University of Jordan was really hard to decipher and, from my point of view, turned into disjointed monologues rather than a conversation because I couldn't hear her well).

I think the exchanges, for my current level, are less experimental zones and more consolidation ones. That is to say, I don't risk and try to reach for vocabulary I'm shaky on but work with what I know decently. That's why I like coupling the exchanges with private classes, which I go to twice a week and are a better place for reaching and experimenting. I also think that in a language exchange it is useful to ask my partner "is the way I said that correct?" but not productive to ask "why?" I save those questions for my teacher.

Alex encouraged me to discover certain transition phrases (على فكرة... على كل حال... بالرغم من) and put them into practice in my speech, which give the impression of being more fluent and conversant than I am. This has been a fun exercise with my private teacher, since I take the English phrases I want and try to describe to her a situation that I might use them.

I'm on board with the many lines of criticism telling us that we need to make an active effort to start unplugging our lives before we turn into cyborgs; that said, having a round of friends here I chat with on Facebook or Whatsapp has indeed been great practice for seeing spelled out how people are saying what I hear each day. In conversations, I still feel like I rarely could repeat back word-for-word what someone has said to me, even if I usually get the message through key words and context.

I bought Diwan Baladna, an ammiya vocabulary book organized by subject matter. I really like it – my hope is that it will help me turn a lot of passive vocabulary into active vocabulary. I have a quibble with the audio component (read too fast in long audio files that make it tedious to isolate the word I want. And having sample sentences is far better than English translations!).

And finally, as per Alex's encouragement, I continue to avoid dictionaries and translation apps. I make ample use of Reverso Context, but only after I've read a message or passage several times through, and usually I'm using it to confirm my guess of a word's meaning is true. Especially when it comes to Whatsapp and chatting, the majority of messages I am receiving are ones that involve words I know well (Want to meet at this time? How far did you run today? I have foul and rice my mom made, want some? It's veg.)

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: Leaving Qasid

[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.]

After two-and-a-half intense months, I've finished my course at Qasid. Though this didn't always feel easy to see on a day-to-day basis, it's extraordinary how much students there learn over a short period of time. On my first day, I couldn't produce full sentences other than my go-to greetings and "I'm an American journalist in Brazil," and over the weeks there, comprehended and participated in discussions about women's rights, marriage customs in different cultures, literature, colonialism and occupation.

Even if it kicked my butt (or because it did), I leave with a great opinion of the school. Qasid's teachers are extremely well trained in how to instruct students in an immersive method – we only occasionally resorted to English words when, say, our teacher wanted to make sure we really understood a grammatical point at hand. My listening comprehension soared, as did my ability to read texts (each week's lesson in our textbook revolved around one or two native texts). Also, I had the great fortune of my class whittling down to only two students, which meant that for three hours each morning, my classmate and I were responsible for answering every question and participating fully in every discussion. So much opportunity to speak in a comfortable, mistakes-are-fine-and-expected environment turned me into something of a chatterbox, though my enthusiasm is several steps ahead of my accuracy.

Also, a delightful unexpected benefit about Qasid is that a group of students and teachers stay the afternoon there in their study halls. That meant that while I worked on my computer after class, I was often surrounded by chatter in Arabic, both teachers engaging their students in fusha and many students who were native dialect speakers chatting amongst themselves.

That said, after speaking with several other language students and journalist colleagues, consulting Alex, and thinking about my goals, I decided to switch tracks from my original plan to study two terms at Qasid and then move back to the U.S. for a summer language institute to instead focus on ammiya here in Amman. I work a part-time job to support my studies, while most Qasid students are full-time exchange students. If all students there were exhausted from their homework load, I was 150 percent so. Journalist after journalist tells me they wish they had better dialect skills and, not being someone who has a "good ear," i.e., I don't pick up much language without studying it in a methodical way, I think it will be important to focus on a dialect in a structured setting.

Still, I'd consider going to Qasid again in the future. In fact, I was part of a test group to try out a new study tool the are developing that would supply easy-to-access audio and videos to accompany texts and vocabulary we study in Qasid's textbooks. It looks like a promising way to bridge the gap between reading comprehension and pronunciation of the words in the text, i.e., I often recognize words in a text based on their consonants and long vowels but am mentally (and inappropriately) filling in a fatha each time I don't know the short vowels.

As for my next steps: I've enrolled in a twice-a-week ammiya course at Sijal and am already enamoured with the class. I tested into the advanced level, though the other students in the class are far ahead of me in dialect. That said, unlike with Qasid the first time around (when I asked to be placed down a level because I was having difficulty following the class), I felt comfortable sticking to this level since I indeed understand the majority of the lesson. I'll also be taking private lessons to complement the group course.

Another choice I've been happy with is that I've also moved to a far more happening place than my last home in Shmeisani, which has meant a world of difference in terms of just having daily interactions. I try to look up the words of things I'm looking for before I hit the streets (most recently, شمعة، سبانخ، و لوز بدون ملح). I find most people are very willing to speak with a foreigner in Arabic, though this sometimes involves my telling strangers who respond to me in English "بحكي الإنكليزية شيء، انا برازلية). I will reflect on the merits of this and some broader thoughts on expat language learning/daily usage in a future post.

I've also become a social media and technology ascetic, logging out of my accounts and using them only when something necessary is at hand. In addition to being an old soul who believes that technology is eating away at humanity and rewiring our brains like substance addiction, seeing the Facebook I see every day anywhere else in the world is not one of the reasons I came to Amman. It's pleasant to let my eyes wander while I sit in a taxi or service and try to speed read the signs around me before they're out of sight. I don't think I risk جهالة anytime soon – I read plenty of news (it's part of my job), but it's confined to a couple of hours of work a day, and then I'm free.

And as for that free time, another upcoming blog will be about independent study methods post-Qasid that I will develop with Alex to make sure I keep up the reading skills I learned there even as I switch into a dialect course.

New Year, New Arabic-language Podcast

This year, in combination with my publishing a book about getting from intermediate-advanced level in Arabic, I wanted to find a way to stay committed to improving my own language. So I’ve started a mostly-Arabic-only podcast.

There are two episodes up already, both from the ‘Jordanian Dialect’ series. This series is recorded with co-host Lina Obeidat, my good friend and Arabic teacher of several years. (Book lessons with Lina on iTalki here. She’s also a regular contributor to’s Levantine materials).

During the first episode, we talked about the winter and the rain in Jordan (where we’re both based), and I learnt about the existence of a period of 40 days when the weather is much colder. In our second episode, we talked about taxis in Amman. We struggled to find many positive things to say about the system or the drivers of taxis, but tried to see things from their perspective. At the end, I learned a new proverb that was appropriate to our discussion.

In the coming weeks I’ll be adding more shows to the podcast. There will be a show focusing on Classical Arabic texts. There will be a show on Modern Literature. Potentially we’ll have a show for Egyptian Colloquial (sigh!) but that depends on my finding someone to host it (let me know if you’re interested).

I’m looking forward to recording more episodes. Please leave a comment over on Soundcloud with any feedback you might have. Also, subscribe on iTunes by clicking on this link or search my name and you should find it. The podcast is also available on Overcast. Just search the name and it’ll show up.

Climbing Fuheis: Two and a Half Ascents

This is a video from a recent climbing trip to Fuheis. (Filming courtesy of Felix Kuehn). The weather is starting to turn cold so I feel like maybe this is the last time I’ll get to go climbing outdoors in Jordan until spring comes.

I climbed three times yesterday. I don’t really have a strong sense of what the ratings were on the routes, but I think they were all in the 5s (i.e.5a–5c). You can see the ratings for the route at the wall here.

As I wrote a short while back, I’ve been dealing with things that I thought I’d sorted out weeks ago. My sense of trust of the rope and the comfort up at heights is still pretty good and I’m not too worried about how that is progressing, but yesterday I was unable to complete a route that I had ascended the last time I was there.

I had energy to spare, so it wasn’t a question of not being able to summon the strength to get up; it was more a mental block. I was unable to trust in my feet, in the grip of the shoes on the wall. As one more experienced climber said to me after I had descended, “you need to feel more stable and confident in how you place your feet on the wall”.

I can see the wisdom in what he’s saying, but I think it’s something that comes with time and experience rather than just a mental shift or a technical correction that you can make immediately.

I was also reminded yesterday of the non-linear path that learning often takes, where progression in one area can often be followed by regression a short while later. Over the long run, you’re getting better, but it’s hard to retain that sense of overall perspective.

Last time I went to Fuheis, I had a really good two or three weeks afterwards, spurred by my sense of regret and failure that I experienced while climbing outdoors. I’m more willing to seize the opportunity, to go the extra mile (or inch), so I’m looking forward to the coming few weeks to see what I get up to. I’m feeling confident in where I am and in my general strength and skill progression.

Existential Battles: Climbing in Amman

Me, climbing at Fuheis last week

Me, climbing at Fuheis last week


Over the past few months, since submitting my PhD (and then successfully defending it) I've been engaged in a number of activities that push me outside my comfort zone. From swing dancing to starting a new small business (the 99 Names Challenge) to learning how to code, I've tried to push the envelope of what I know. Like many of us, I'm a creature of habit and routine. I like my routine and my habits. But I also know that those habits and routines -- the same ones that delivered results and even a PhD in the past -- can grow stale. If I'm to grow -- professionally or personally -- I have to get more comfortable with change and with discomfort. The best way to start figuring this out, I have found, is to expose myself to newness and that discomfort as often as possible.

One of the things I've chosen to pursue is climbing. I'd done some bouldering in Holland (at the Delftsebleu centre) a few months back, and a good friend of mine here in Amman mentioned that she does top-rope climbing. The centre here happens to be the biggest climbing facility in the whole Middle East (take that, Dubai!) and there are knowledgeable staff and challenging walls etc so I started going twice a week.

I used to be a runner, but some bone/muscle issues in my foot meant that I haven't actually been running for a year or so. I know and have a strong appreciation for the way exercise and moving my body in general makes me feel better and work better, so I've been looking for a sport or activity to replace running in the meanwhile. (The running was probably a reason why I've neglected any kind of muscular strength training of my upper body. Runners like to be as lean as possible.)

Now is probably also a good time to mention that I have a fairly intense fear of heights. I'm not exactly sure when or where it started, but some key experiences in my mid-childhood certainly contributed to it becoming what it is now. I went to a boarding school in the north of England, near York, so there were lots of outside activities. During the summer, and at 'holiday camp'-type experiences, we were taken to do various adventure challenges on the weekends.

My 'adventures' included abseiling off high bridges, potholing in claustrophobia-inducing narrow passageways (and having my foot get stuck half-way), as well as various obstacle courses positioned in trees and so on. I resented the fact that we had no choice in the matter and I resented the fact that it was less about training or learning a skill than simply having an experience. I remember being pushed off the bridge by the instructor, clipped into a harness but unsure whether I'd survive the descent.

Since that time, I've avoided activities or experiences that necessitated me visiting high-up places. Confession: I even never made it all the way up Kandahar's Forty Steps (chilzina) for this reason. Halfway was my limit.

Amman's ClimbAt centre

Amman's ClimbAt centre

Cut to the present day: I'm 10 or 15 metres up a wall at Amman's Climbat centre. This seems to be the point where things shift. My existential battle begins. I use those words only partially in jest.

The first time I tried rope climbing, I only made it to that half-way point, not knowing to trust the rope, not knowing to trust the knot I'd tied or the harness or a million other things.

Now, I can make it half-way up without too much angst, but then it begins. Rivers of sweat open up all over my body. The most distracting ones are the unceasing flow on my hands. Climbers use magnesium chalk to deal with this problem, though mostly it's just everyday sweaty palms. I dip my hands into the bag, holding on to the wall with my other hand, feeling my grip slip as the waterworks go to town. I see that my palm is sufficiently white with chalk. I swap hands, repeating the process with the other, only to find that in the meanwhile my first hand has sweated through the first application of chalk.

My inner dialogue kicks up. I wonder why I'm here, on the wall, trying to climb up. I look at the rope and the knot, wondering if I would even be able to tell if there was something wrong with it, I look around me at the other climbers, each breezing up their respective paths on the wall with seeming ease. Sometimes I look below me.

I try to talk myself down. It's a different kind of anxiety from that I've experienced before public speaking, that social anxiety that makes your heart race, your stomach churn and the adrenaline pump. Up on the wall, it isn't that adrenaline rush I feel. In fact, aside from the sweating, it's more symptomatically benign, expressing itself in the form of a puzzle or a predicament that I can sometimes remain detached from.

Usually the thing that works best is to try to focus on the physical experience of the moment, on my breath and what that feels like in my body, on the sensations of my fingers on the wall, on the feeling of gravity pulling me back down towards the earth. That sometimes manages to carve enough space that I can then try to think about the problem more analytically -- the problem of which step to take next. If I'm stuck in my existential loop it's hard to make those decisions and I end up wasting energy trying and retrying the same holds and foot movements, to no avail. This tires me out on a muscular level and the problem is compounded.

A week ago, I set my mental discomfort to one side and went outdoor climbing with some friends to a wall or crag near the city of Fuheis (see the photo at the top of this post). Climbing outside felt like even more of a proposition than the indoor wall. More possibility of failure, perhaps. I'm not precisely sure. It's sometimes hard to put my finger on the precise configuration of my fear. But it ended up going well. I ascended the wall, nothing went wrong and I even enjoyed the experience. It took me an age and a half to get up, but the getting up there was all me. I'm less likely to do regular outdoor climbing, since it's more of a hassle to arrange, but it's not going to be something I say no to in the future.

Needless to say, my ongoing climbing practice is exactly that: a work in progress. I'm working on both the physical and the mental blocks simultaneously and while I'm fairly confident that I'll be in a more confident and stronger place in a month or two from now, I'm also frustrated by the slow pace of progress.

To cherry-pick signs of improvement, I'm no longer quitting half-way up the wall. Most times -- as long as the route isn't too difficult -- I generally reach the top, even if it sometimes means multiple iterations of sweaty-hand-mind and multiple recommitments to completing the route. Even though climbing isn't necessarily a sport where you use your arms much -- it's much more about your legs and how you balance and position your body -- you do need at least *some* upper body strength and this is starting to come. I get a pleasurable sense of satisfaction when I return home after half a day spent at the climbing wall, and I'm wearing my muscle soreness as a badge of achievement.

I'm pretty sure that the solution to my mid-wall fears rests in being more conscious of what's going on and what I'm feeling earlier in the climb, and there are a bunch of mental exercises and training that seem to work for many climbers. I'm keen to put some of those into practice.

When it comes down to it, everything is in your mind, especially with rope climbing where the dangers associated with falling or losing your grip on the wall are pretty minimal. Worst case, you bash up against the wall and get a bruise or two. (I have a bunch of those on my knees already.) But the rest, that's all something I can work on and improve at (I hope). Watch this space for an update in a few weeks once I've been doing battle for a bit longer.

Walking Amman


I’ve been walking around Amman a little in the past couple of days. My poor sense of direction with the city’s somewhat haphazard street layout mean I make use of digital GPS maps on a regular basis. In Europe or North America, Google Maps is my service of choice, with due acknowledgement of their general creepiness.

But I discovered yesterday that Google Maps is pretty atrocious when walking around Amman. Either their data is old and of poor quality, or the algorithm for calculating time/distance between two points is not properly calibrated for a city with many hills. If you look on Google Maps’ display, you’ll see what looks like a flat terrain. Everything can seem very close. If you look out of the window, or walk on the streets, you’ll see that hills and a highly variable topography are very much a part of the experience of the city. (This gives some idea of it).

Google Maps knows how to deal with hills or variable terrain. After all, San Francisco, close to their centre of operations, is a pretty hilly city and I found the maps and the estimated timings worked pretty well when I was there last year. Which suggests to me that the problem isn’t that Google forgot to take into account topography but rather that the data is poor.

I’m studying data science-y things these days, so I thought a bit about how they might improve this data. Some possible solutions:

  1. They’re already monitoring all the data coming from app usage etc, so why not track whether its estimations match up with how long people actually take to walk certain streets/routes. Mix that in with the topography data, and average it all out.
  2. They could send out more cars. I don’t know how accurate the map data for driving in Amman is, but some anecdotal accounts suggest that it suffers from similar problems. This is probably too expensive, and I’m assuming it’d be preferable to find a solution that doesn’t require custom data collecting of this kind. Maybe something for when the world has millions of driverless cars all powered by Google’s software, but for now it’s impractical as a solution.
  3. Find some abstract solution based on satellite-acquired topographic data which takes better account of gradients of roads etc.

For the moment, Google Maps is pretty poor user experience as a pedestrian. Yesterday evening I was walking back home from the centre of town. The walk would, Google told me, take only 12 minutes. 40+ minutes later I arrived home.

Others have noted this same problem and suggested an alternative: OpenStreetMap data. The data is unattached to a particular app, but I downloaded one alongside the offline mapping data for Jordan/Amman. It seems pretty good at first glance, and I’ll be testing it out in the coming days. I’m interested o learn why it seems to perform better. My initial hypothesis is that its data is just better than that which Google Maps is using.