Self studying a foreign language: Can it be done?
Yes! I didn’t start learning French before I was 22, but after a few years of daily study, I finally became fluent. I am now well on my way to mastering the Arabic language. I’ve faced numerous problems and difficulties during my last eight years of language study, and I’ve figured out some of the things that work and many of those that don’t work! This post is intended to be a help, or a guide for someone who is just starting out, and who doesn’t want to repeat the errors I’ve made so far!
As you’ll find out, there’s a big difference between dialects of Arabic. Many focus on a spoken dialect in order to mainly communicate with Arabic speakers in everyday settings, but there is a general consensus that working on “standard” Arabic first, gives you a great foundation to better grasping Arabic dialects later on. This article will focus on Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or what is also called Literal Arabic or Fusha, which is the “official” Arabic across all of the Arabic world, and also the type used for writing, education, news and so on.
Learning the script, pronunciation and the first few words
The first thing you should do in buy Assimil’s Arabic with ease:
Assimil is a French publishing house specializing in language learning methods and guides. Their approach has been the same since the publication of their first volume “L’Anglais sans peine” – a book teaching English for French speakers. It is built up of simple bilingual dialogues that grow gradually more difficult from lesson to lesson. Assimil generally has a low focus on grammar – as the name suggests, you learn through “assimilation” rather than analysis. I think that this is important, especially in the beginning. I never spend too much time on grammar. It is complicated, and even if I do end up getting the idea, I still cannot apply the rules automatically like I do in my native language. I prefer to learn through exposure. Once I’ve seen a word or a grammatical concept being used many times, I start to get a feeling for what is right and what is wrong. This is what you should aim for – if you feel that you must, you can pick up a grammar book later on.
Although Assimil is a great series for beginning a new language, their Arabic edition is a little under par. Many have criticized that it actually does focus a little heavier on grammar than other books in the series, and the audio recordings are found by many to be rather exaggerated and to pronounce parts of words that are generally not pronounced. At this point in your studies, I don’t think that it’s important wether or not you completely “nail” everything. Just follow the pace of the book, one day at a time, and save things you don’t understand for later. Your brain will figure it out!
Attack on multiple fronts at the same time
I have found that the best way to learn, is to do more than one thing at a time. While learning French and Arabic, I’ve made the error of dedicating all my study time on just one thing. I thought that whatever I was doing was the “best” thing at that taking some of the precious time I had to dedicate, and then do something else with it, would be a waste. This is wrong for several reasons.
Most importantly, doing only one thing leads to burn-out! You may think that it’s going great, but at some point you’ll be fed up with what you’re doing. This has the danger of killing off your motivation – you might end up throwing in the towel rather than just changing your method.
The second reason is simply that you learn better when you combine methods.
Imagine that you’re working on a particularly difficult Assimil lesson that used a word that you simply keep forgetting. You can keep repeating the same lesson over and over, but at this point, even though you have the intention to really drill until it sticks, your brain blocks and decides not to learn. I have seen this many times.
Now imagine that same situation – you come across a difficult concept in your Assimil lesson: OK, I don’t understand that but it’s OK. Then you put down the book and start listening to Arabic radio, reading a newspaper or something else. There’s that same word again! This is how your brain gets interested! Seeing the same problem in two different contexts immediately convinces your brain that this is a problem worth fixing! Learning is basically making new connections in the brain, or synapses. Multiple synapses is what you should aim for, so while you’re working your way through Assimil, try to work at least passively with other beginner materials, and you’ll notice that this works wonders.
Listening and reading. The holy grail of language learning
When you’ve finished your Assimil book (or even before, if you want) I encourage you to start reading and listening to native material in Arabic. Now, this part is the hard one! In my opinion, the most significant obstacle in learning a new language, is bridging the gap between your beginner book and native material. There’s no denying, that the jump from Assimil’s gentle incremental advancement to real-life scary Arabic can be a little intimidating. But fear not! As it is the case with any difficulty in language learning, it doesn’t take talent, only patience.
Start listening to podcasts, news and audio books in Arabic. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand – in fact, you surely won’t. The idea is that you get used to the sound of the spoken language and perhaps start to recognize a word here and there. When you listen to something you don’t understand, it’s impossible to not zone out now and again. Don’t worry about it. Keep the sound in the background and try to focus as often as you can. Listening to Arabic news with your earphones on, is great as a passive exercise while working or doing the dishes.
LingQ is a great tool for reading in a foreign language. The system also has some other features like flashcards and a funny little avatar that you can buy clothes for with points that you earn through using the system. Go ahead and ignore all of this – the main strength of LingQ is its reader. You import a text into your account, and start “LingQing”. In the beginning all the words will be blue. Blue words are unknown. When you click them, you’re shown suggestions as to what the word might mean (or you might look the word up in a dictionary). You save the suggestion that you think fits the best, and the word is turned yellow. Yellow words (or simply: LingQs) are words that you are in the process of learning. Each time you study a new text and come upon this particular word, it will show up yellow with the suggested translation and notes that you picked, reminding you of its translation. Gradually as you see this word again and again, you start to recognize it, and you can change its status to “known” which turns it into normal text. LingQ keeps track of how many words you know, how many you’re learning and how many you’ve read. I use it all the time!
LingQ isn’t free, but I think it’s worth the money – Especially since they released their new app for the Ipad. Alternatively, there’s a free alternative called “Learning with Texts”, but I haven’t tried it.
Extensive reading and shadowing
Once you begin to have a more solid grasp of the language through using LingQ and listening to radio and podcasts, it may be the right time to start reading more independently. “Extensive reading” is a subject discussed broadly by language learners. Sometimes people make it seem rather complicated, but in reality, extensive reading is just about reading for pleasure – enjoy yourself without worrying too much about whether or not you understand everything. The linguist Steven Krashen speaks about his “formula” “n+1” or in other words: Your present level (“n”), but just a tiny bit more difficult (“+1”). The idea is, that if only you’re relatively at ease with the majority of the material you’re reading, you’ll figure out the parts that you don’t understand from the context without much of an effort. People usually say that 98% of known words in a text is the ideal. That’s about 2-3 fuzzy words on a normal book page. For me, learning this way is too slow! When I read, I know around 80% of the words, but I learn much quicker this way, although one could argue that understanding the text demands a little more effort, and that my reading is more “intensive” than “extensive”. Ultimately it is up to you how you chose to proceed. (Read more about reading in language learning)
After having spent a long time listening to recordings of spoken Arabic, you should begin to feel more familiar with its melodies, sounds and rhythm. But don’t worry if you can’t speak yet! Speaking is the last thing to worry about in language learning, and there is no need to push it (Many language teachers will disagree, but most successful polyglots stress the importance of listening and reading first). If you find it hard to understand spoken Arabic, try reading along while you listen. This has tremendous effects, and is a useful exercise that you should start doing daily every morning. Once you feel more at ease with reading and listening, it is a good time to start working on output: Speaking.
To begin with, I recommend that you start “shadowing” audio recordings. Imagine a child repeating everything that you say word after word. Pretty irritating! It is, however, pretty much what shadowing is all about, only, you don’t wait for a pause in the stream of words, but rather, you try to speak almost instantly as you hear the word pronounced. This exercise seems impossible when you hear about it, but it is, in fact, quite possible. Try doing it in your native language to prove it to yourself. Then go ahead and try it with Arabic. It gets easier quickly, and it is an extremely effective way to get used to speaking with the right intonation, melody, rhythm and pronunciation. Do this for half and hour every morning for a few months without worrying about how it sounds, and you’ll see amazing results.
Now: if you haven’t already started communicating in speech and writing, it is time. Making friends with Arabs is infinitely easy. I’ve never met more social and friendly people. And chances are that there are tons of them in your home town struggling to learn English (or whatever your mother tongue is). Check this article I wrote about exchanging languages with refugees.
If you feel more at ease writing, start by exchanging letters. Ask your new friend to go light on the corrections – they don’t help as much as reading and listening does, unless you’re very consistently making the same mistakes. Express yourself and when you feel like it, meet up in person and speak!
Congratulations, you now speak Arabic!