Arabic in a Week - Conclusion28 March 2017
[Update: if you want to try the same course that I did, and learn Arabic (or Spanish or Portuguese) in seven hours of lessons, see here for how GeorgeMillo.com readers can get a special discount]
Last week I undertook my most ambitious language-learning project to date. From Monday to Sunday, I had a one-hour Arabic lesson every morning with my teacher Tony Marsh, with the goal of learning conversational Arabic from scratch in just seven days.
How did it go?
Here’s a video I recorded on Sunday, the seventh and final day of the challenge, including a clip of that day’s lesson:
(See my YouTube channel for similar progress updates recorded every day of the project… except Saturday, when I didn’t bother to make one.)
In all honesty, my Arabic in this video probably sounds better than it actually is. While I’m not looking at any notes, I am discussing topics that I’d already practiced in previous lessons, and I’m on very comfortable ground. In a more spontaneous conversation I’d probably end up looking like a deer in the headlights. Hey, I had an entire hour’s lesson to make a video from - did you think I’d publish a clip that makes me look bad?
Still, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve done pretty well for seven days. Crucially, I feel like I ‘get’ Arabic; I more or less understand how the language works on a conceptual level and how the different pieces fit together. Being able to discuss a wider range of topics feels mostly like a matter of learning the required vocabulary, and not much else. I’ve also learned to read the Arabic alphabet, albeit very slowly.
(2019 update: I cringe when I read the above paragraph, because - as you might have guessed - it turns out I drastically overestimated my own Arabic abilities after one week. Still, I’m leaving this up as a reminder to my future self to have a little more epistemic humility.)
All in all, I’m declaring this mission a success. Like I said in the video, I’m not going to ask Tony for my money back.
How did I do it?
I really have to give credit to Tony, who’s an excellent tutor and whose teaching methods, put simply, just work. If you’re looking to learn Arabic, Portuguese, or Spanish, check him out, and mention my name if you do. However, I only think it’s worth paying big bucks for someone like Tony if you’re still in the early stages. Once you reach a certain level, further improvement becomes less about learning and more about practice, at which point you’re better off finding a native speaker (or several of them) to converse with.
It didn’t hurt either that Arabic is the eighth foreign language I’ve attempted to learn. The thing about language learning is that the more you do it, the better you get not just at the specific language(s) you’re targeting, but about language learning in general. After a few years of this, I’ve picked up more than a few strategies for how to learn languages fast. Listing them out is probably worthy of a separate post, but most of my advice is stolen from other people anyway, so for now I’ll just list some resources I recommend:
- I highly recommend the book Fluent Forever to anyone who’s interested in language learning. If you only read one thing on this list, make it this.
- FluentIn3Months.com is a great trove of language-learning advice; in fact it’s the site that got me so interested in languages in the first place. (They also have some very handsome guest writers)
- The Mimic Method is the best resource I’ve found for learning good pronuncation in any language. They have courses in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, and German. Your language of choice might not be on this list, but - and I realise this may sound weird - I think that taking a Mimic Method course can help you to speak well in any language, not just the specific one you’re learning. This is because they’ll give you a deeper understanding of phonetics, a topic that’s both essential to effective language learning and almost completely untaught in traditional language classes.
When it comes to learning vocabulary, I and thousands of others swear by the app Anki. Anki could be the poster child for everything that’s both wonderful and terrible about open-source software: it’s extremely powerful and flexible, while also clunky, ugly, and unintuitive as hell for anyone who’s not a techie. You have been warned.
As you get better at using Anki, you’ll discover what works for you and what doesn’t, and develop your own system that’s tailor-made to your learning style. My own system for Anki is mostly based on the one outlined in Fluent Forever.
- iTalki is a great site for finding language tutors in just about any language (or for finding students, if you’re a tutor yourself). If you sign up through that link I’ll receive some iTalki credits at no extra cost to you - thanks! I’ve used iTalki extensively in the past, but if your target language is Spanish then I recommend you check out Baselang.com instead, where you’ll get much better value for money.
(Disclosure: I’m friends with the founders of both Baselang and the Mimic Method, but in both cases I’m a genuine customer of their products and I have no hidden agenda when promoting them.)
Oh, and Duolingo sucks. I have no idea why it’s so popular.
To quote Guns ‘n’ Roses: “back off, bitch.” Er, I mean: “where do we go now?”
Well, this whole Arabic thing has been an interesting and fun challenge, but I’m not going to take it any further for now. I just don’t have the time, and I have other priorities (one of them being Portuguese. I don’t want to learn two languages at once!)
From experience I know this probably means I’ll forget most of what I’ve learned. I took a month of Indonesian lessons when I was in Bali in 2015, and these days I barely remember any of it (apart from the fascinating fact that the name orang utan is merely Indonesian for “forest people”). But I don’t mind. It doesn’t mean that learning Indonesian was a waste of time; forgotten or not, it massively increased my enjoyment of my time in Bali. It’s not truly “forgotten” anyway, just buried away in a dusty corner of my brain waiting to jump out again. I’m sure that Arabic will be the same.
Even if I forget most of the Arabic I’ve learned, I now have a window into the Arabic-speaking world that illuminates all kinds of fascinating culture and history that would be impossible to understand, or even perceive, if I’d never learned anything, and it only took me seven hours of lessons plus maybe another four or five extra hours of other study. Monoglots don’t know what they’re missing.
On a similar note, I was originally thinking about finding a native speaker to record a ‘real’ conversation with (over Skype, as I don’t know where I’d find a native Arabic speaker here in São Paulo) as a final measure of how much I’ve learned, but I failed in my (brief) attempts online to find a conversation partner, so unless the opportunity falls into my lap in the near future, I’ve decided not to bother with that one either. I just have too much other stuff on my plate.
What about Portuguese?
The nature of the Arabic challenge meant that I decided to do it at the very last minute, and it took me away from the other language-related task I meant to do last week: writing up and publishing a postmortem of my mission to learn Portuguese in 10 weeks. The final video is recorded, and the post will be up on this site shortly. Watch this space.