Acquiring Arabic (Part 1): Getting Language Right

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." African proverb.

Alongside studying a PhD, I’ve been learning Arabic. My goal is to master Arabic in 15 years. Does that sound like a crazy long time frame? It surely doesn’t sound as appealing as “LEARN ARABIC IN 3 MONTHS!” like many coaches advertise. But it forces you to reconsider a most important thing for mastery: sustainable lifestyle habits. A slow learner strategy of manipulating your environment instead of your brain might produce significantly better results than a quick learner one, because it corresponds better with new insights from language science.

Problem: I Could Never Learn New Languages

I have studied several languages, but I never really could learn a second language  well. Except English that I speak fluently. So, what was the exception with english? Counting words, English is by far the most expansive languages on earth, and it's not an easy language. The key to learning English for me was that I played computer games as a child, and they required English to know what was going on. So, I just learned. And I still play video games, so the effort was worthwhile — a bonus is the ability to write my scientific articles in English.

Learning a language by wanting something from the world is, however, an insight that has escaped both language science and language schooling for ever. Most language in schools are still taught in the old way: sitting down, repeating exercises. The idea behind old language learning is that language should be stored in the brain. Where-else should language be stored, you might ask? The answer is between you and your immediate environment: people, things, places that you surround yourself with. The idea is setting yourself up in an environment where you can’t help learning the desired language.

Rejecting the Get-Good-Quick Scheme

Many language learning websites share a remarkable similarity with “get-rich-quick” spam emails. Language websites boasts "Boost your income/learning", "Start earning/learning right away", "Earn/learn from your couch". I’m not saying that language coaches, apps and websites cannot produce results. They surely can under extreme conditions (such as intense training). However, the assumption of the "get-good-quick" discourse is that learning should be ideally quick and easy. I think this caters to a young generation passing SAT or Gaokao college tests. Such a throw-away approach of language learning is sometimes called language hacking, which is a telling concept, and it is part of a phenomenon known as education signalling. In the "get-good-quick" scheme, it's not really about mastery. Rather, it’s about shortcuts. Now, there’s nothing wrong with learning a language for a short-term purpose like a school test. But school tests are too short term for mastery - and that is my goal.

BUT, you might say, I REALLY MET SOMEONE WHO LEARNED IN 3 MONTHS. Sure, this can happen. When I studied abroad in Istanbul, I did meet a Turk who lived in Denmark for 3 months, and we spoke fluently for some time. Three factors can explain such a fast learner:

  1. Extreme exposure: This person has learned the language in an extreme way, e.g. travelled to a country only for intense language learning, lived with natives who could not communicate in other languages, or shipwrecked and stranded on a remote island.
  2. Empty language: This person has "hacked" the language by memorising and repeating basic phrases. Their pronunciation might be impressive because of the repetition.
  3. Outlier talent: You’ve met the Albert Einstein of language learning.

These three strategies are viable only for the short-term goal or for people who are willing to radically change their lives. Here, we are instead looking for a sustainable strategy, though. So, for us 99% boring normal people who don’t often shipwreck, these are not viable strategies for pursuing language learning. We want to avoid extreme conditions and build real skill. How?

Now, I'm on a 119-day Arabic Practice Streak 🔥

We have now theorised that learning a language does not happen primarily in your brain, but between you and your environment. How do we then set up a specific environment to remind us to learn a language? Here's what I did:

First I tried setting up reminders on the post-it notes at home. It didn’t work — too local, and sometimes I’m out. So, I didn’t practice enough. Also, who wants post-it notes everywhere in their home? It’s not compatible with our ambition of a sustainable learning strategy to have post-it notes in your homes for years and year.

Next, I tried iPhone reminders. It didn’t work either. Sometimes I don’t look at my phone in the evening, and it’s in silent mode at my work. So, I just didn’t practice.

Finally, I found the right solution: Context-specific reminders. I bought an Apple Watch that I wear every day, and now it reminds me every evening that my language streak is in danger. So now I practice Arabic every evening. The wrist is a better context for this sort of information because it is always with you.

The point: I needed to find the correct way of letting my environment support language learning. When the environment was set up the correct way for me, receiving notifications on the wrist, remembering to practice Arabic turned (mostly) effortless.

What is a Language Really?

Recent science has shown three things about language:

If these ideas hold true, it should predict how we can learn new languages. So, instead of trying to memorice and “build” a language in our head, this theory tells us that languages are interactional- they are something you do out there in the world with other people. So, any language learning strategy should be focused on manipulating the environment around us and not accumulating knowledge in the brain. In part 2 of this guide, i'll build a concrete strategy based on these ideas. Before that, you might want to think about why you want to learn a second language. This motivation needs to be strong enough for long term learning.

Action step: Find Your Long-Term Motivation

Why do you really want to learn a new language? Is it a sustainable goal that you will have for a long time? For me, the motivation is having a wife of Iraqi Descent. She is fluent in Danish, but I want to understand her culture from within and communicate with my family in both danish and arabic.

Me and my wife, Tahrir

So, when I say long term, I don’t mean traveling in half a year. I mean mastery motivation long term. Why do you want to build a life skill of a second language? Perhaps you're moving to another country or preparing for another career path.

In Part 2, I’ll apply the theory of slow learning in concrete strategy steps for learning Arabic.

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi

Malte Lebahn-Hadidi