15 Things That Helped Me Learn Arabic In 15 Months

When I speak Arabic to someone new, I’m often met with a sort of wide-eyed, fascinated, look of shock…and sometimes I’ll get the “you’re half-Arab, aren’t you?!” (from native Arabic speakers).

Non-Arabic speakers? I’ll get off the phone after speaking in Arabic and they ask “were you speaking Russian?” or even “is that Hungarian?” (these languages sound nothing like Arabic, so I assume they are judging based on my looks…if I covered my hair, maybe the guesses would be a little closer).

I’ll admit that I enjoy the freedom of expression that speaking Arabic has given me over the years–especially since moving to Los Angeles a couple years ago. I’ve been able to speak aloud in public places and have total privacy. I also use my Arabic while pretending not to speak English (sorry to the D.A.R.E. fundraisers outside of Ralph’s). All the privacy perks aside, learning Arabic has undoubtedly been one of the best things I’ve pursued, because it opened up opportunities and fostered connections that having a top degree couldn’t begin to touch.

What opportunities? I’ve acted in primetime Arabic TV series, co-hosted an Arabic talk show, interpreted and translated for diplomats, trained managers at oil and petrochemical companies…just to name a few.

Me on the set of Washwasha Chat — Oct 2016

Being able to relate to someone in their native language is an inexplicably rapturous feeling, especially when the listener doesn’t expect it.

Here are 15 pieces of advice for anyone who wants to learn Arabic (or another language).

  1. Want it really badly. I had considered learning Arabic ever since I moved to Dubai.  I even tried (briefly) with a friend I had met through a Meetup. It wasn’t until one day, in August of 2011 (I had been in the UAE for exactly one year), something snapped in me and I realized that I needed to start learning the language. Not just for the sake of “being an Arabic speaker,” but for what it would make of me as a person – in terms of discipline, self-development, and values. Also, I worked in a Saudi media company and all of our productions were in Arabic. If I wanted to be able to contribute at the highest level, I’d have to learn Arabic. 

If it’s not something you have to be born with, why can’t I learn it?  If anyone can learn it, it’s me.

Tell yourself that until it sinks in and you believe it with conviction.

Interesting fact: our CEO at the time didn’t speak Arabic. He started taking lessons in early 2014, after hearing about my success in learning the language. Our chairman, however, was Saudi. At board meetings, he would turn to his colleagues and speak Arabic while the CEO of our company had no idea what they were saying. Funny, I don’t think this would fly anywhere in the US…having a CEO who didn’t speak the language of the company’s prime audience. But I digress…

2. It helps to have some adversity. People told me “it’s really hard, you know,” and “it will take you at least five years to be decent at Arabic.”  I remember going to HR to ask for support via company-sponsored or subsidized classes. They refused, saying that “foreigners learn a few words and then forget everything.” Register for the classes on your own if you have to.  I took side jobs to pay for it (I did promo work for a ton of brands…below is from a gig for Peroni).

I also did a bake sale once to raise money for my classes…I made cupcakes with Arabic letters and words on them. Below, from 2012:

A few months into my study, I remember colleagues and some managers making fun of me, saying I was hopeless, saying that I had a long way to go, and even one person told me “when you try to speak Arabic, it’s really not that coherent.”  Ouch!  Now, when someone tells you something like that, you choose how to react.  You can say “Oh, I better stop taking classes and studying, I’ll always be incoherent.” Or you can say “Maybe not yet.  But I will be.”  The funny thing is, the person who told me that I was “incoherent” didn’t speak Arabic himself, so how would he have known? Now my friends and I just laugh about it.

Just keep practicing and resolve to prove people wrong!  The adversity, if taken the right way, will make you better.

3. Practice with the natives. In my experience, people love to help teach those who genuinely want to learn.  Teaching makes you feel good (it’s why I started my education series “American slang with Shannon” on Youtube!) For the duration of my studies, I attended Arabic class before work (8-10am in the beginning, 8-9am when I was taking private lessons), so when I came in the office every day, I would always have new words and phrases to try out on my colleagues.  Almost immediate satisfaction for that day’s lesson!

4. Tweet/Snap/Post in the language you want to learn. I started my Twitter account in June 2012, about 9 months after I started learning Arabic.  It was perfect for learning because reading tweets in Arabic is not too daunting, given the character limits.  Read, reply, re-tweet, and ask questions on Twitter.  Share your life, share things you learn in class, practice the phrases, make mistakes…and help others who are learning English (give back!)

5. Cheat minimally.  When you’re learning it’s tempting to use Google Translate for everything…unfortunately, it’s not very accurate.  At first I used to use it quite a bit, just to check that I was saying the right things, etc…but for a language like Arabic, even Google does have its limits…you cannot translate into the colloquial dialects (as of yet)–just Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is quite formal and used for things like presenting the news. We also use MSA to write news articles/any other formal writing. That said, if you copy and paste from Translator, it will be pretty obvious that either A) you are a total newbie to the language, or B) you are trying to sound overly-formal and it will come off sounding strange. Of course, there are times when it’s perfectly correct to sound eloquent, and there are times when I translate famous quotes from English to Arabic and I use translator to help refresh my “eloquent” vocabulary.  But be careful with it.  Try to get a second opinion first. And DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT get a tattoo in Arabic without watching this video first:

6. Ask questions. Especially the ones you don’t want to ask.  Don’t be afraid of sounding “dumb”!  If you see someone conjugating a certain verb a certain way, or you notice a word being used in a different way you thought it would be used, etc…ask! Sometimes it’s nothing more than the other person’s typo (bravo to you for spotting an error in a foreign language!) or other times it’s an irregular verb or perhaps a word that is being used to mean something else in colloquial talk.  

For example, there’s a word “raheeb” (رهيب) that people say to mean “awesome!” in Arabic.  But if you look it up in Google Translator it literally means “terrible!”  So don’t look up something in Translator and automatically get offended.  Ask, ask, ask…then react as you like, after you have the information.

7. Write, Read, AND Speak.  Set yourself up for success from the beginning.  How? Don’t be one of the folks who say“I don’t care to learn the writing or reading or the alphabet, just give me a class in conversation only…you know, just enough to get by.”

“Get by”?  I’ve found that if you use a method like Al-Kitaab, where you learn how to read and write concurrently with learning how to speak, the information tends to “stick” better. Also, starting with MSA is the best possible foundation you can get for learning any dialect. If you learn the basics well, speaking and understanding dialects will come easily, because you’ll understand word roots and sentence formations.

 8. Read Arabic magazines or newspaper articles. Just like creating a Twitter, Snapchat, FB, or Instagram in Arabic, it’s helpful to read up on what’s new and trending in the Arabic-speaking community…it’s important for your cultural development, which goes hand-in-hand with the language.  I remember when I first started learning Arabic, I picked up a copy of “Haya” magazine (a women’s fashion magazine that MBC used to sponsor) – I would sit at my desk and type the words into Google translator, one by one!  Then write the meanings in the margins of the article.  Extremely long and arduous process to read an article, though, if you’re a beginner.

9. Download podcasts, watch Youtube videos, TV shows, and movies. Again, important for learning and cultural development. In the mornings as I got ready for classes, I often listened to podcasts in Arabic, or podcasts in English that were about learning Arabic.  There was a podcast called “Saudi Geeks” that I really loved (yes, I am a nerd), and recordings of a Saudi radio show called “Al Thaneeya”/ الثانية مع داوود الشريان.

10. Change your phone settings to Arabic.  This ought to help jump-start your learning process. By changing your phone to Arabic, you’re forced to get familiar with Arabic writing. 

11. Translate your thoughts until you think in the language.  I remember hearing somewhere that humans think around 60,000 thoughts in a day.  If you can attempt to translate just a fraction of those, imagine how much you would learn and retain! Also it is a good way to come up with “thoughts” for your notes – how do I say “_x_” in Arabic?”  The person may ask “how did you think of that question?” you say “oh, was just translating a thought I had this morning.” Makes for interesting conversation, to say the least.

12. Try translating music lyrics as you hear them (which can be quite amusing).   But again, it’s good practice and easy to do.

13. Write, re-write, and re-read. Until it’s second nature to you.  I made it a habit to copy down all my new vocabulary words onto notebook paper, then re-write them in English and Arabic a couple times.  Then I typed them into an Excel document so I could search through and refer back to them later (make sure you add the keyboard shortcut for switching between English and Arabic!). 

14. Keep learning. I don’t think anyone can learn all the words or idioms in their mother tongue, let alone those of a foreign language. I recently hosted our second Arabic-English language exchange Meetup in LA. One of our members brought American slang flashcards–half of the phrases were things I had never heard in my life. Although I’m no longer taking Arabic classes, I often ask my friends for help finding a good translation for something, and in a specific dialect. I write the new words/phrases in my phone and add them to my Excel file later. 

15. Be grateful. Recognize the people who correct you when you’re wrong, cheer you on, and inspire you.  They’re the ones to keep around, because they care enough to help teach you! Knowledge is power.  Thank your critics and teachers, because they challenge and strengthen you.  I would definitely not be where I am today without my teachers! <3 شكراً لكم جميعاً

Good luck! You know you can do it!

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