I’m going to warn you of something in advance.
The suggestions I’m about to mention will seem unrelated to Arabic altogether. But if you hang in tight with me, you’ll see why the most unlikely strategies can give you the most encouragement to keep on keeping on with Arabic.
I don’t know about y’all, but to study Arabic daily and become fluent, I have to stay encouraged.
I don’t buy into the idea that Arabic is one of the hardest languages in the world (I think that our approach to learning any language defines how easy that language is to learn), but I do accept that due to limited learning resources the odds are not in our favor.
Heck, if I’m really honest, I need encourgement in all parts of my life. Sometimes it seems like my brain is my own worst enemy. For example: I’ll sit at my breakfast table to write a blog post for Marhabtain, and just as I open a new document, I hear all the reasons why Marhabtain is stupid and purposeless and why every one of you readers will hate me and judge me and how I’m an imposter who will never reach her goals, and so, Uchechi, go back to sleep why don’t you.
If that’s me writing a blog post, you can only imagine what my brain says when I’m tackling a new text or TV show or radio program in Arabic. Simply put, it aint pretty.
I don’t know anyone who’s reading this blog right now, but I know that we’re coming from 80 – 90+ countries around the world, and that the simple fact that we’re humans on this planet, means that we’re overcoming something or need to overcome something. To reach any new height in our lives, we need some encouragement.
So here are the 3 unlikely strategies I use every day. Hopefully you’ll find at least one thing here that works for you. Don’t leave until you do.
1. I Start My Day with Sermons from Black American Preachers.
I’m not religious at all.
But I grew up in a Black American church. And if you know anything about Black American churches, you know that they are known for their high energy, dancing, singing, shouting, and their all-around carrying on.
This energy is mostly due to the church leader, the “preacher”, who — like any great inspirational speaker — uses the skills of storytelling, humor, and surprise to excite the crowd and keep them engaged.
The reason why Black American sermons are so great for us Arabic learners is because, Black churches tend to preach about the same thing: Overcoming Your Current Struggle. A good number of sermons could be entitled, “Don’t Give Up to Early”, “Don’t Be Discouraged”, “Don’t Get Distracted”, “Trust the Process”, and “You’re Just Around the Corner from Your Breakthrough”. This emphasis on encouragement that you’ll find in Black churches is due to the fact that Black people have suffered so much in America because of structural systems that are beyond our control. So preachers help you focus on what you can control: your faith in yourself, your faith in your dreams, (and of course your faith in Jesus).
In the end, what I really end up gaining through these sermons is a desire to live a life of love, energy, and integrity toward myself and others.
So why listen to a Black preacher rather than an inspirational speech on YouTube?
Well two reasons:
- Because of the high energy of Black churches, after I listen to a sermon, I feel the message of encouragement in my body. Not just in my mind. In my body. I feel it pumping through my veins. I don’t know about y’all, but when I feel something on a body-level, the memory truly lasts with me.
- A lot of what we call inspiration and self-help in America is really just trying to encourage us to ever-productive capitalist cogs. The internet is full of so many tips, tricks, and strategies from “inspirational people” who sell you a manta or morning ritual so that you can hack your life, start a business, and become a millionaire before 40. And if you don’t do it, then you wasted your potential. Ick. No.
If you need help finding a Black American pastor, look up T.D. Jakes. He has pretty wide appeal.
The Takeaway: I don’t know if listening to sermons sounds hokey and strange to you, but I’d rather be hokey and strange today, than wake in 5, 10, or 50 years, discouraged, resentful, and full of woulda-shoulda-couldas. And if I’m honest, Arabic would only be one of many woulda-shoulda-couldas on that list. Church may not be your thing, but don’t let your distaste for religion make you miss out on the universal messages that they offer. Black Preachers are O.G.s of inspirational speaking. (Obviously if you stumble across anything hateful though, you can tell them to send that back where it came from.)
2. I Take Meaningful Breaks from Arabic.
Ideally, we’d have 12+ hours a day to focus only on Arabic immersion.
Ideally, we’d never feel tired when we opened our Anki cards or turned on our favorite TV show. Ideally, we’d never have to choose between our personal goals and other life responsibilities.
But as we know, life is far from ideal.
In reality, our lives are full of tasks and jobs and people that demand many hours of our attention.
In reality, that’s really never going to change.
So what do you do when you’re getting worn down while studying Arabic?
Simple, take a break.
But not so simple — How do I take a break without losing my progress?
For me the answer is: Make your break meaningful.
Let’s talk about how this can be done.
When I need to take a break, I choose to only do the lowest hanging fruit to immerse in. This means I focus on Arabic activities that will help me maintain my current level, but are unlikely to help me grow. What is do is:
- I continue doing my Anki cards daily because I know that having them pile up is disastrous for my willpower and self-esteem. If I forget to do all of my cards for the day, I allow the cards to rollover into the next day. But I don’t make this a habit.
- I rewatch shows that make me laugh. Comedic shorts like ببساطة are a godsend when I need a break because when I’m laughing I can’t really think about any problems I’m facing or even feel frustration about not being able to understand every. single. word.
- I rewatch shows that I know that I fully understand. Over the course of the past year, there have been some shows, especially Lebanese ones like Beirut City and Khamsa Wa Nos, and some Syrian ones like Ahl-Al Garam or Shebabeek where I truly understand almost everything being said scene by scene. I don’t know about yall, but this is an incredible feeling for me. So even though I’m taking a break, I make sure to keep on boosting my confidence.
What I don’t do is:
- Read articles or novellas. As you may know, although my focus is Levantine, I do read in MSA, which is not as intuitive for me yet as dialect is. Because reading in MSA takes a lot more effort, when I need a break from Arabic, I don’t read.
- I don’t engage with content that is violent, graphic, or upsetting. For example, one of my favorite Syrian actors is named Bassam Khousa. A few weekends ago, I wanted to do nothing more than lay on the couch and binge his movies and TV shows. One site recommended one of his early movies, المتبقي. Little did I know that المتبقي is about a Palestinian child who is left behind in Haifa after his parents are killed in Israel’s military siege of the city. In the first scenes, trains were exploding and cars were being bombed, people were being kidnapped and men were being rounded up. I had to pull the plug almost immediately and find something new. Instead, I found a really dumb comedy film called Welcome to Beirut and I was perfectly happy. I’ll come back to المتبقي when my brain can better handle it.
The Takeaway: If you want to reach any working level of fluency with Arabic, then you can’t really avoid spending hours a day immersing. But pushing through your limits only breeds resentment. So when you need a break, take it. And try to focus on activities that will improve and not destroy your self-esteem.
3. I Dance Every Morning.
Let’s do an experiment. Get on your feet RIGHT NOW.
Turn on your favorite song and bounce around for 30 seconds.
How do you feel? Lighter? Happier? Sweatier?
That’s the power of dance. One second you can feel stagnant, empty, and unmotivated. And then suddenly you’re bending your knees and twisting your hips and swaying your body and in only 30 seconds you feel different. Dare I even say…. better.
When I dance in the mornings, I don’t just choose any old song or type of dance. I specifically focus on more “spiritual” dance like what Qoya or Creative Mind Industries offer because 1) the dancing is not meant to exhaust you 2) the instructors emphasize “getting into your body” or “connecting with your inner messages” and 3) the music the instructors use is meant to be soothing and inspiring.
Ultimately when I’m done dancing, what I experience is an energetic shift. In 10 – 15 minutes I go from: Ugh, I’m tired, I need a vacationnnnnn, can I even do this? to I can do this, I’m excited, I can’t wait to see how today unfolds!
The takeaway: I don’t know of many things that can shift my outlook on life as quickly as dancing can. Because of dance, especially spiritually-minded dance, my life always feels that much more open to possibilities. There must be some science to explain why this is true. But don’t wait to find out before trying dancing on your own.
The Final Takeaway:
What each of these suggestions describe is the energetic shift I try and undertake every day, so that I lead a life of courage and so that I follow through with my life’s work. I emphasize every day because I don’t know about yall, but I have to wrestle with my brain daily in order to not procrastinate on and run away from the simplest of tasks. Encouraging myself daily is what helps me believe that the impossible is possible. It helps me build my self-esteem brick by brick so that I am not so easily swayed by setbacks. It helps me understand that even when the journey ahead of me is long and there is no destination in sight, that my work is to take it step by step and master where I am.
And in the case of Arabic, it helps me understand, that if I don’t give up, I will reach my fluency goals as long as I keep moving. And so will you.