Unslump Your Arabic! 5 Ways to Improve from a Learning Plateau

A language learning plateau is the worst!

Hard work seems to get you nowhere.

You were making progress, but now your Arabic skills seem stuck.

However, a plateau can actually be a great opportunity to restart your progress from a different vantage point and sail to victory.

But how do you do that?

Try putting a twist on conventional study advice you’ve received.

You may just need to approach Arabic learning a little differently.

Looking at your learning in a different light can help you take new strides.

It can lift you up from that plateau and into a mindset where the sky’s the limit!

So if you’re putting in the effort, but not getting the results you expected, try these tricks.


Unslump Your Arabic! 5 Ways to Improve from a Learning Plateau

There are no shortcuts for learning Arabic, but there are certain approaches that are far more effective than others. Let’s look at five different ways you may be able to change your Arabic learning techniques for the better.

1. Ditch the curriculum

If “ditch” sounds extreme, think of it as “playing hooky” once in a while. The trick is to do two contradictory things at once: learn what’s in your textbooks, but prioritize what’s outside of them.

What I’m saying is only worry about what you need to understand the writing and speech of native speakers. In contrast to textbooks, “authentic materials” are media that were created by Arabic-speakers, for Arabic-speakers. There are many reasons to be studying Arab cultural output, but for right now, let’s limit our discussion *sniffle* to just one reason.

The magic word is frequency. When you’re engaging with authentic Arabic media or having conversations with native speakers, you’ll notice what’s repeated and therefore what’s important.

So listen to what’s repeated and downgrade everything else you’ve been asked to learn.

Setting your sights on a few topics and expressions will let you actually get started learning. You’ll recognize common phrases and actually be engaging in cultural exchange instead of just a grammar circus.

For example, if you listen to this cooking show, you’ll hear the presenter address you using common phrases to greet you at the start and close the show at the end. You’ll also hear the word فلفل (pepper) repeated for chili pepper, bell pepper, hot pepper and black pepper. (Now you just need to track down the adjectives that follow, and you’ve got four new vocab words for the price of one.)

Don’t feel like you have to start with the greats. Accessing authentic materials doesn’t mean that you dive headfirst into Al Jazeera Arabic, or Nizar Qabbani, or the Qur’an. For example, I know of some great popular Arabic songs, award-winning movies, captivating audiobooks, eye-opening podcasts, heart-warming TV shows and expressive blogs that beginning/intermediate students can handle.

Want to know about another source of Arabic that’s written by native speakers but accessible to students?

While you’re on Wikipedia, try this. You may not have known that Wikipedia articles on the same topic are linked between different languages. Try first searching for a word or topic in English on Wikipedia. From that entry, select العربية (Arabic) from the Languages list at the bottom of the left navigation on a computer, or click the languages icon on mobile and scroll to find Arabic. This will take you to the page for that entry on Arabic Wikipedia.

This is also a great way to find technical terms (e.g., pangram) or the official spelling of a non-Arabic word, like geographical locations (e.g., Pittsburgh).

2. Keep a backlog of resources to try

Once you venture beyond the confines of curriculum, you lose the advantage of “graded” material tailored to your knowledge level. So you’ll want to ABT: Always Be Trying things out to discover your next favorite.

Here are a few ways to ensure you keep doing that.

  • Experiment with method and level of difficulty to personalize your resources. Your aptitude level is individual to you, because of the gaps in your knowledge and the specialties where you’re advanced beyond your level (e.g., if you love Arab food, your restaurant vocabulary might be extensive). So to meet your needs, personalize what you’re reading and hearing in Arabic.
  • Keep a list of resources on hand. If you’re reading sites like this, you’ve seen an enormous number of resources (mostly free) you could be using.

Don’t let that overwhelm you; just start a list. Anything that’s interesting goes in the list: whether you keep the list in a paper journal, a social media account (“Posting now to read later”) or your bookmarks folder. Then, whenever you have a minute, start at the top and give everything a try. You’ll love some resources and be bored by others (and become a regular contributor on others… or is that just me?).

  • Don’t forget to include resources that improve your speaking. Sure, reading is easiest—you don’t need a partner, you don’t need headphones. But don’t neglect listening and speaking. Reduce as many barriers as you can to work on these language skills.

3. Make travel plans part of your language study plan

The immersive effect of videos is great, because they’re as close as you can get to the Arab world without traveling. But did you know that taking the plunge and buying that plane ticket is also a superior motivation?

Motivation affects your effectiveness. In a paid study of the effectiveness of one online language learning tool, the only major difference seen between students was in their motivation. They all studied the same language, but some of them got twice as much out of every hour they put in. What was those students’ motivation? Travel.

So plan travel for work, school or vacation. Planning a trip when you’ll use your language skills has a strong effect; it focuses you on what you’ll want to say while you’re there, and the clock is ticking to be prepared. Working towards a goal like this will dramatically improve your skills. When you’re there, it will be simple to measure whether you succeeded—can you communicate?

Can’t travel? Set goals. Of course, not everyone can afford to travel abroad, but everyone can set a concrete goal—with a defined timeframe, a predictable vocabulary and which will involve others. For example:

  • Be ready to introduce myself to an internet language partner in a month.
  • Learn the imperative by the time this library book I put on hold arrives.
  • Understand all the words in this song in time to sing it at the end-of-semester department talent show.

4. Ask yourself: Could you enter an Arabic-language spelling bee?

Surprisingly, knowing how to spell can provide you a big leg up when interacting with native speakers of Arabic in your home country or in the Middle East. Learning the alphabet can help you on-the-fly with pronunciation.

Arabic words are made of some sounds not found in English, and vice versa. It can be tough to distinguish between long and short vowels, as well as Arabic’s two “S” letters (س/ص), two D’s (د/ض), two T’s (ت/ط), three Th’s (ث/ظ/ذ), three H’s (ه/ح/خ) and two or arguably four A’s (ا/أ/ع/ة). Learning to pronounce the differences takes lots of practice.

Listening to any new language can be made tricky by minimal pairs, words that only differ by a single sound—like crime and grime. Take the words فهم (he understood) and فحم (which means “coal,” important for building your hookah vocabulary). Hearing the subtle difference between the middle letters would be key to keeping up in a conversation about traditional tobacco smoking. What if you heard the word and couldn’t tell which letter it was?

Learn the names of the letters, not just their sounds. Arabic letters have names, just like S (“ess”) and B (“bee”) are the English letter names of their sounds (which we usually pronounce as “sss” and “buh”). So learn both. If you can spell a word out loud, you can quickly gain clarity about the letters composing it. The person you’re speaking with can affirm or correct what you heard.

Since you’re not illiterate, write! Your ability to pronounce words correctly will improve with your ability to spell them—for example, words with a ton of vowel sounds in a row, like ساعة (hour) or طبيعية (natural).

5. Create your own personal dictionary as you go

Despite all your innovative study tactics, your brain is like a sieve—it’s always looking for things to let go of. The longer ago you studied something, the more details you’ll lose.

Improve your vocabulary. Take control of your ability to recall important expressions with spaced repetition. This is a straightforward concept, formalized in the 20th century, based on quizzing yourself more often on newer or harder vocabulary, then less and less often as you can confidently recall it.

Keep a log to trap your learning. Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) are like your paper notebook on steroids. By inputting information, styled as digital flashcards, you’re compiling customized study materials. Anki is a great example of a fully customizable SRS that lets you control how information is served up to you—a simple example is whether you see a flashcard in Arabic first or in English first.

Shuffle your study materials to stay on your toes. An SRS doesn’t care what chapter in the curriculum a word comes from (though you can tag it that way if you want); it mixes together concepts you don’t associate with each other. Free yourself of the crutch of only practicing unified lessons! You’ll build mental connections to weave a net that keeps your new knowledge from slipping away.

Admittedly, making flashcards is standard advice. Why is this a trick? Because you can approach it as a whole dictionary of individualized learning that you’re storing. A personal dictionary is bigger and more versatile than a single study tool—you can sort, filter or export these notes and plug them into other programs. While notes you took by hand are stuck on the page, you can play with digital content.

Do what works

Now are you energized to hack your studies, leave the beaten path and set yourself up for success?

Supposedly Thomas Edison was the first person to say, “There’s no substitute for hard work.”

Some wisdom I like even more is this: “The reward for hard work is more work.”

You can’t cut corners to get good at Arabic, but you can use better tools as you forge ahead.

The more you put into it, the more you’ll learn about new skills you’ll want to add—to speak with new people, go deeper in your conversations, be able to read more beautiful literature or understand more corny jokes.

So find out what lifts you off your plateau and on to new heights.

Laura loves hearing about people’s life stories and day-to-day lives in both English and Arabic. She maintains a research blog on the creative efforts by Americans to turn the tide against Islamophobia.

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