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

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Jan 2018: Updated to reflect some tools we’ve dropped and others we’ve picked up!

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

We aren’t arrogant, nor dreamers. We are however going to take a bunch of shortcuts to learn how to do it as quickly as possible, on a budget, and have fun.

Here’s the core of what we’re going to do. To prevent this from blowing out into a huge article, 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. MSA is 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 about why we chose Egyptian Arabic here.

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

There are many definitions of fluent. Our goal is to be able to learn IN the language.

It’s way less than for example

  • Being able to read and discuss a newspaper. (We don’t do this in English anyway)
  • Writing professional emails
  • The espionage definition: being able to understand a slang-filled phone call over a crackling phone line. Sounds awesome. We’re not going to get there.

We’re strong believers in functional fluency. This means knowing enough to get by in most situations, without knowing every word. You can get fluent faster by using easier words. Then we can focus on speaking about what we don’t know, instead of just not knowing and not saying anything.

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

We’re budgeting around 4 hours of intense study per day, but it might go over if the intensity drops.

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.

Here’s what we do every day in those four hours

  • Learn 20-50 new words, writing them down in sentences
  • Study a book for an hour
  • Speak for an hour
  • Listen for an hour (TV shows)

That’s already four hours!

Other things we might do include listening to the radio, trying to get by in new situations (exchanging money, discussing things at the gym, buying food in markets) or listening to and studying music lyrics.

Important: We take one day off a week, usually a day that’s not a weekend day (not Friday or Saturday, in Egypt).

Main resources (Apps, Teachers, Textbooks) for learning Arabic

Websites – Jo has been using Rocket Languages and loves it. She experimented with Talk In Arabic but found that it had barely any content. Full reviews coming later.

Teachers – a good teacher is priceless. We prefer italki to get teachers online, because they’re well-reviewed, affordable and high quality.

Finding a good teacher is a whole science. Here’s what we demand of a good teacher

  • 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. It’s good for basic letters and vocab, but not much else — you can never learn to speak from it. 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).

Jo uses Anki for flashcards. So many people swear by them, but I hate flashcards. I’d rather just look over a list of words every now and then.

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). “Drops” is all the craze these days but I really don’t want yet another gamified app.

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. In Egypt, we’ll just do this through AirBnB.

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

  • Start the morning with a study session to put us directly into the foreign language mindset.
  • Speak every day.
  • Study in the mornings when our mind is most awake, starting with the hardest thing.
  • Write every day, even if briefly.
  • Speak 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 to REM sleep. Just doing things like sleep hygiene (limited caffeine, keeping the bed tidy, keeping the room dark) will help. U
  • 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.
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