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Learn Arabic strategically

Language learners must always keep in mind that our strategy for learning must continually be adjusted for our new capabilities. As an intermediate learner, you’ve already put an average of 600 hours into your language development. Hopefully you’ve done that at a rapid pace so that you’ve arrived at this stage quickly. If you stretch out early learning over too long of a time, you’ll start to experience some fatigue. In language learning, fatigue is the enemy because it leads to burnout and what linguists sometimes call intermediate plateau.

If you don’t already, you’ll want to subscribe to the podcast because in the next two episodes we’ll talk about some strategies and techniques to avoid that fate. After all, if we keep it enjoyable so that the learning process remains compelling and exciting, and if we can see our progress, we will retain the enthusiasm and motivation that is needed to reach an advanced level.

To avoid both burnout and plateau, it’s essential that we continually make the necessary adjustments to both our learning mentality as well as the techniques we are using as a strategy in the next phase. That’s what a good coach can help you with. Sometimes we get off track and start thinking about our learning in a way that is defeating or we start behaviors that take a lot of our energy, but are not actually contributing to our ultimate goal of communicative competence.

Goals to focus on in the intermediate phase

That’s what we are here to talk about today. What Arabic learning goals should we have in the forefront of our mind? What should you believe yourself capable of at this level? After all, unrealistic expectations can be discouraging when we fall short.

It’s important to bear in mind that you are not yet an advanced learner. If you are not spending all of your evenings with Arab friends yet, that’s completely fine. You first need to focus on the skills needed to make the most of those opportunities. Aside from necessary job responsibilities, too many Arabic learners push themselves into volunteering or being with people for so much of their time that they end up pushing aside language and cultural learning. Sadly, by doing this, most people delay the day where those actual experiences will become rich and beneficial.

You are just now moving to the phase where conversational competency is your next milestone. Let’s keep things realistic. At the beginning of the intermediate phase, you can probably understand up to 80% of what someone is saying to you when they direct their speech to you, the non-native Arabic speaker. But you are still missing pieces. This is typical and to be expected. That’s why you are in this phase; this is the season where you will work to understand one individual at a time and come out the other side understanding one-on-one interactions with a variety of people more easily. 

It’s important to keep that in mind. At this point in time, most people we interact with are simplifying their communication to us. They are using simpler grammar and less complex vocabulary, assuming you will not understand them if they address you as they would another native-speaker. 

Know what you’re not yet ready for

Learn Levantine Arabic dialect in Jordan with an experiential approach to language learning.

It’s important to mention here what you are not yet able to do at your current phase. You should not be able to understand groups of Arab speakerswhen they interact with one another. That’s still a ways off. When you make it to the advanced level (in our program we call that phase 5), that’s the place where you’ll begin working on understanding natural speech as it is spoken amongst native Arabic speakers. At that point, language will go by at a speed of 130-150 words per minute. Many learners have the expectation that they should already be able to understand this “group-talk” when several of their local friends are speaking to each other. However, it’s not until you reach an advanced phase where you will begin to understand naturally occurring speech. Please do not have that expectation on yourself now. You are hundreds of hours away from that ability.

Stop expecting things of yourself that are not yet possible. Proper expectations will go a long way in relieving any stress you may have in the language learning process. You should not be able to interact yet in those spaces. Relax, expect of yourself what is appropriate to your current capacity. Each phase has its own unique goals and objectives. When we leave them in their place, we are free to focus on the main thing we should be acquiring now. 

What should my goals be in phase 4? 

There are three primary goals to keep in mind as an intermediate learner. If you measure these three things, you will not struggle as much to see the results of your efforts. However, keep in mind that in the early phases of learning, every 100 hours you spent learning new pieces of the language, you saw a radical change in who you were able to be in Arabic. As an intermediate learner, however, you need to put in close to 300 hours to see that jump in the way you can function and relate to others. That’s okay, just keep putting in the time quickly and you’ll be there soon. 

Here are the three primary goals to keep in the forefront of your mind in phase 4 (the intermediate phase):

  1. You want to move from kind of understanding someone when they discuss deeper topics with you, to fully understanding speech directed at you without missing any important pieces of what they said.

This takes time. In this way we can be fully present in the moment when our local friends share personal experiences with us. Remember, it’s from listening a lot to native speakers expressing themselves on many topics, that we learn to borrow from them. We will be able to use what they are saying in order to express our own thoughts and feelings.

2. Task yourself with understanding the culture and worldview to which this language belongs, deeply knowing and experiencing the people you wish to befriend and engage with.

    • How do people here think?
    • What was their childhood like, their family structures, their societal role and community expectations?
    • What do they believe and how do they see themselves and their place in the world?
    • What dominates their daily thought processes?
    • How do politics and history affect them and their inner thoughts?
    • What are their life dreams and motivations?

This is vital to your success. Understanding the people that speak Arabic is crucial to understanding Arabic. To measure this,  write down, after each session or minimally at the end of each week, all the cultural insights you gained over the course of the last several days that you did not know last week. I promise, if you commit to doing this, you will not feel like the aim of this phase is so abstract.

3. And the third goal (this one is something people neglect to factor into their objectives): it is essential that you work on becoming an interesting person.

Your goal is to be a member of the community. People generally do not want to befriend boring people. You need to have something to say! The key to belonging is to find shared interests with others. Whatever you are passionate about, be it your kids or your work or a podcast you are listening to or social justice issues, or shopping, whatever it is, work on learning to say what you want to say well.

What you practice is what you improve. That’s why we encourage recording yourself whenever you launch into a story or tell your nurturer about yourself. When someone who is not afraid to correct you listens back through your recording, they can help you, sentence by sentence, learn to express yourself more akin to the way an Arabic speaker would put together those thoughts. (If you are out with people a lot, you may start to notice that your friends do not correct you. This is something you generally need to pay someone to do.)

Not sure what to say about yourself? Read local news stories. Stay up on current events in order to talk about the topics that locals are discussing. Take notes of subjects or conversations that come up when you are with friends or questions that people ask you, even taxi drivers or neighbors. Could you work on expanding your answer, even to a “yes” or “no” question, so that you launch into a two minute monologue that you’ve worked on delivering confidently in your sessions?

You want to be able to say something that pulls people in so that when you finish, they think, “Wow, this person is more than meets the eye. I have follow up questions on things they said.” We need to earn the right to friendships by showing people we have something to contribute to that relationship.

Those are three goals to keep as your focus for the duration of this phase, and it is a long one. You need at least 500 hours to move to the next phase where your brain can process speech moving past you at a native discourse level. Make sure you are switching who you are working with often, every 80 hours or so, because you want to get a variety of perspectives on the world, fresh ears on your speech, and exposure to new voices and new ideas. 

Being an intermediate Arabic learner is incredibly exciting. After all, how many people in the world get to hear what you are hearing? How many people from your country can understand Arabs when they talk about deep and personal things? Language learning is a privilege. It’s a window into the world and hearts of fascinating people. If you are not enjoying it, you may have gotten off track a bit about the goal or the techniques that will keep you infused with wonder. If that describes you, set up a coaching session with me and I’d be happy to lend some fresh ideas to your experience. Don’t miss out on the adventure that language learning can be.

Shababeek Podcast

We cover frequently asked questions, important matters of language learning, and engage in vital Arabic acquisition and cross-cultural relational issues.