Our (Experimental) Action Plan to Learn Arabic Fluently in 60 Days

Obviously Arabic is a tough language and can’t be mastered in its entirety in 60 days. People dedicate years of study to it.

So who the hell are we to think we can do it? Well, we’re just two fairly average people who think we can do it. We’re not going to throw a huge pile of money at a ‘full immersion’ school. Anyone can throw money at the problem. We’ll try to be smart about it, and learn from the successes and mistakes of others.

Here’s the core of what we’re going to do. To prevent this from blowing out into a huge article that never stops getting longer, we’ll keep the following sections brief and write more about them later.

Define ‘Arabic’ – Egyptian Colloquial Arabic

The first question people have to grapple with is: should I study Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is written in newspapers and used in the media, and is a universal language common everywhere over the Arab world, or should I study a dialect, like Egyptian, Levantine or Maghrebi (Northern African) Arabic?

We’re going to study a dialect, and focus on Egyptian. The reasons for this are

  • Dialects enable us to communicate with everyday people, whereas MSA is literary. It’s a common framework, but won’t be fun to use. Nobody speaks it on the streets, though they’ll understand you and if they force themselves, they can use it to speak.
  • The dialects, however, are not 100% mutually intelligible. Yes, people from one general region will understand others, but a foreigner learning e.g. Maghrebi will be pretty lost when they visit Iraq or Sudan.
  • Egyptian Arabic is the most commonly understood dialect, because Egypt has the biggest media engine, with lots of popular TV shows. 

More on this choice later, we can nerd out on the analysis.

Define ‘Fluently’ – good enough to continue learning in purely Arabic.

There are many benchmarks of fluent. Our goal is to be sustainably conversationally fluent, where we can learn IN the language.

My favorite one is one used in espionage, which is something like ‘good enough to understand a broken, colloquial communication over a crackling phone line’. It’s so hard to be there in our native language, that for someone to learn that in a foreign language would be an amazing feat (requiring years of training). We’re not doing that.

In learning any language or skill, you reach a certain event horizon where you’ve learned enough foundations and can talk about the language to the point where you can learn it while speaking it. Where you can have conversations like this:

  • “Hey, can you tell me what this thing is?”
  • “It’s a zarboplex.”
  • “What’s a zarboplex? I’ve never seen one.”
  • “Have you had a plexo before?”
  • “Yeah, this morning actually.
  • “Right, well a zarboplex is something for zarbing a plexo. Like a floobigoop.”
  • “Oh right!” 

Time commitment: Four hours per day (intense), but bracketed with immersion.

Our goal is to prototype and test a process that’s as fast as possible while being sustainable.

It’s easy to get lazy in any self-study process. We find things that are comforting rather than effective, like reading lists of words or watching YouTube videos rather than speaking to someone.

So the time we’ll commit is a sustainable 100% of the time we could commit over two months. We have other commitments too. Like writing here, making videos, working out, finding food, etc. Also, one’s brain tends to get totally exhausted. We’re budgeting around 4 hours of intense study per day, but it might go over if the intensity drops.

The way we allocate that four hours is open. We might do two morning hours of tuition and two afternoon hours of homework, for example, and do morning and evening flashcards to kickstart the brain into the language, and set it into that mode before sleep.

Main resources (Apps, Teachers, Textbooks)

Websites – definitely our main port of call is going to be an amazing-looking resource called Talk In Arabic. We’ll do a full review later, but this is a resource created by Donovan Nagel, who started Mezzofanti Guild. What makes it amazing looking is that it’s new, modern, and covers the major dialects of Arabic – including Egyptian (which is actually the most well-documented of all of them).

Teachers – a good teacher is priceless. Finding a good teacher is a whole science, but essentially the benchmark is Feng Laoshi, my Chinese teacher in 2012. This benchmark is

  • Gets me to speak, does not speak to me, or ask me to read or write texts during class. (Writing is in homework for after class, and corrections are done after class and explained to me during class.)
  • Understands my grammatical and expression level, doesn’t forget, even remembering most of the words I know and don’t know.
  • Gives me hard homework and content that pushes my envelope.
  • Understands the science of learning languages, and sets.
  • Develops content that’s specifically relevant to my uses and interests. I was interested in comedy and business, and so we studied comedy and business.

There’s a long slope down from there, all the way to the cute girl (usually a girl, sorry) who just wants a western boyfriend. Well, that is another useful way to learn…

Apps – these can be productivity traps, but they can also be super useful. It depends a bit on the science of them, and the proof of efficiency. Our favorite apps (see here for an in-depth analysis) are Memrise and iTakli. Memrise is a flashcard app with certain techniques to focus intensely on retention. iTalki is a platform for connecting with teachers in your target language at reasonable prices ($10-15/hour for a good teacher who focuses on your level).

We don’t really like Duolingo, because it feels more like a game than an effective teaching tool, and so much slips through the cracks. A few other apps we’ve tried and haven’t stuck with are Mondly (looks nice, but weird to use) and Anki (set up took forever).

The hacks to learn languages faster

It won’t take much to implement these hacks, but we are going to test them all for effectiveness.

Environment hacks: Living in a foreign country is a start. Living with a family is even better. This is loosely our plan in Egypt, though we aren’t really sure where to find one yet. We’re looking into Homestay. It looks promising!

We also plan to change the way we see our day through a few tricks.

  • Start the morning with a flashcard/study session to put us directly into the foreign language mindset.
  • Speak as early as possible. 
  • Study in the mornings when our mind is most awake.
  • Write every day, even if briefly.
  • Speaking to each other in Arabic even when we don’t want to.
  • End the day with something relaxing like music or TV shows in Arabic, maybe trying to listen to the words (maybe not).

Sleep hacks: There is a strong relationship between sleep quality and how quickly you learn a language (more on this later too). There are a few things we will do/experiment with to make sure we sleep and learn

  • Ensure sleep quality, especially deep sleep and ratio of deep:REM sleep. Just doing things like sleep hygiene (limited caffeine, keeping the bed tidy, keeping the room dark) will help.
  • Try learning as we sleep. There are things you can listen to that supposedly put language words into your subconscious as you sleep. I don’t know if they work, but I used to do them and they seemed to. We’ll do some experiments.
  • Napping. One thing we’ll experiment with is studying, then power napping, then studying again.

Nootropic drugs: Not sure. More on this later 🙂

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