5 Mindset Changes You Need to Learn Levantine Arabic in Quarantine in 2021

على فكرة: This is going to be a slightly longer post today.

This is because with us still being at the beginning of 2021, I realize that many of you reading this probably set New Year’s resolutions to get back on the Arabic train. And now that we’re firmly in the middle of February, life, politics, pandemic, family, work, school, Netflix, is probably also getting in the way of your progress.

While I haven’t mastered a level of Arabic fluency that I’m satisfied with yet, بصراحة مش مهم. Because what I have mastered are a few mindset principles that help me learn Arabic most effectively and efficiently now, and that keep me on a daily and steady journey that never burns me out.

When I really step back and take an honest look at these principles, I realize that they are quite honestly life principles as well. I see language learning (or acquisition if you roll deep in my circles) as a self-development process, rather than as a journey of tinkering with the intricacies of grammar, vocabulary, and intonation, so that we can finally have a conversation with a taxi driver, or watch a show without subtitles, or join a Discord server from a foreign country (yes, I know what’s hip with the youth these days!). If we’re not also learning about ourselves — our most prized gift — then what are we even learning at all?

So here are the 5 mindset changes that have completely transformed my journey with Arabic, and I hope that they’ll help you find the transformation you’re looking for too.

Old Mindset Myth 1: There are not enough learning resources out there for Levantine Arabic.

New Mindset Fact 1: Yes there are. I just haven’t found them yet. or I don’t understand them yet. or I just might need to create them.

This is the main mindset shift that helped me get my act together with Arabic. For so many years, I would gripe that there weren’t enough resources to learn Arabic. And that this lack of books, articles, music, translations, movies, etc., was the reason for my stalled progress. But that was a lie.

Eventually I realized that, objectively, yes, there are far less quality guidebooks and roadmaps on how to learn Arabic than say, French, Spanish, or Italian. But there are also far more high quality Arabic guidebooks than Igbo and Abiriba — two Nigerian languages that are my parents’ mother tongues.

So “enough” is truly a matter of perspective. And although the readers of this blog are now coming from 78+ countries around the world and counting (!), a large majority of us are coming from the U S of A. And in this country, we expect there to be an abundance of everything. We expect ease. We expect comfort. But when it comes to learning Arabic, these expectations are our greatest weaknesses. I’ve learned that there are “enough” Arabic resources to start becoming more fluent TODAY, if only we understand that:

  • The first reason I believe there aren’t enough Arabic resources is because I haven’t found them:
    • If you follow this blog, then you know that in my immersion, I prioritize content made for native speakers. With this is in mind, put yourself in the shoes of someone in the Arabic-speaking world. When they’re looking for something online, whether YouTube videos, dinner recipes, parenting tips, do you think they search in English or in Arabic? Most of the time, the answer is Arabic. That means that there’s another internet — the Arabic Internet. And the Arabic Internet is actually full of great native speaker content that you have just never found. Your favorite blog, YouTube channel, chat room, etc. exists, but you don’t know how to find it yet. One answer to this problem is algorithms. Once you start to find some YouTube videos in Arabic, all of your suggestions will change. Same as Instagram. From there you’ll start to organically follow your interests, and explore the vast terrain of the Arabic Internet. There is no roadmap for how to do this because if want to succeed it takes 1) persistence 2) high tolerance for frustration and 3) true curiosity. But if you want a head start go here and here. I’m happy to help.
  • The second reason I believe there aren’t enough Arabic resources is because I don’t understand what I have found:
    • The simple reality is language is made up of words and sounds, and so anything you don’t “know” is because you don’t recognize that word or sound. I used to be so frustrated looking at a blog or newspaper article, and thinking, “This is so hard! I can never understand this.” But I had to switch my thinking to: “Well, there are some words I do understand, and others I don’t. So what would happen if I understood every single word?” And now, when I encounter text, that’s what I do. I learn every word I don’t know. This takes time and masses of energy, and so every day, I remind myself to be realistic about the time it will to reach near-native fluency in Arabic. But because that is my goal, what other choice do I have but I understand every dang word? And you know what, it pays off. Because the other great thing about language, is that a lot of the same words show up everywhere. So what I learn from TV helps me in a podcast, and what I learn in a podcast helps me in a book. The more we accept and understand this process, the faster we’ll climb, and with far less stress.
  • The third reason I believe there aren’t enough Arabic resources is because I haven’t created the resources that I need:
    • So what if you can’t understand a TV show and the need subtitles? So what if you want to read a book, but need the translation to check your understanding? So what if you want to listen to music, but never understand what the artist is saying? Go on Upwork.com or Fiverr.com and get someone to transcribe and translate it for you. It will cost some money, but less than staying in language classes that don’t work for you. And it’ll cause you way less stress than worrying about how you’ll never reach your goals in Arabic. Take Lyn from Levantongue. She wanted to start reading in Levantine but couldn’t find any books, so she got some help, wrote a book, and now that book helps so many others. So create what you need. Take power and responsibility over your own journey. And then share your resources and learnings. Don’t be a hoarder. I can’t stress this enough. We’re all better off for it.

Old Mindset Myth 2: I need a teacher. Where can I sign up for classes?

New Mindset Fact 2: I am my own best teacher… all I need is a great method.

As a current high school teacher, I can firmly say and believe: Don’t take your teachers at face value. R E S P E C T your teachers, but don’t take your teachers at face value. Teachers are just people, and so with that in mind, take into account that people are both:

  • competent and incompetent
  • knowledgable and ignorant
  • curious and complacent

Hopefully you get a teacher that represents only the positive attributes, but as with all people, your teacher is likely a mix of all of those things. Why would you blindly believe the opinion of someone like that? (If any of my students are reading this, this goes for y’all too. I’m not chocked up to what you think I am. But also, do ya dang homework.)

Most importantly, teachers will only teach you what they know that they can teach you. This is because 1) if you lose credibility with your students, you lose their respect and 2) teaching is the most nerve-wracking art ever created by (wo)man. Have you ever had to look out onto a sea of elementary, middle, high school, or college-aged faces, that stare emotionlessly back at you as you attempt to pour your life’s work into them? This gives me shivers just writing about it. In short, since teachers cannot control how students respond, we control what we do, by usually only presenting the things that we know we can teach successfully.

So what does this have to do with learning Levantine Arabic?

Your Arabic teacher is likely using a traditional teaching method that doesn’t work. In fact, some are catching on and changing their methods in order to start focusing on methods that actually work — like comprehensible input. Take this one Arabic teacher who responded enthusiastically to an article I posted on Reddit 2 weeks ago.

It honestly warmed my heart to hear another teacher say, you don’t need a teacher to learn Arabic. But why wait for your teacher to adapt their teaching practices to fit you? Perhaps in the next decade, all Arabic teachers will ditch traditional language learning methods, but are you going to wait a decade to start speaking Arabic?! Instead, become your own teacher, but to do so, you’ll need actual self-study methods that work. For that, you can read these blog articles to start:

Old Mindset Myth 3: I can’t get to the Middle East because of the Coronavirus, so I have to put Arabic on hold.

New Mindset Fact 3: I can study abroad from home. And actually, for the sake of improving quickly, I should.

I really wanted to go to Oman before the quarantine started. I already had a flight booked for March of 2020. I had dreams of renting a car and a tent, driving through the desert by day, camping in the desert by night. I’d stop in shops and small towns and speak Arabic with the locals. It was going to be heavenly. And then I found myself alone, on my couch, in March 2020, wondering if I had enough canned beans to ride out the apocalypse.

As a not-so-old lady, with a full-time job, Oman was supposed to be my version of study abroad. And then study abroad was cancelled. I admit I pouted for a while. And then I got tired of pouting, and I started traveling. Now, I spend almost every day studying abroad every day in Beirut. Some days I decide to spend my mornings in Jordan, then hop over to Syria for lunch, and finally make it back to Lebanon just after the sun sets. I spend time with friends in Egypt on special occasions. I party in the UAE when my schedule permits. And yet, I never leave my apartment…

This is because I stopped thinking: How can I get to the Middle East? And I started thinking: How can I bring the Middle East to me? And as I result, I made Arabic immersion a main part of my every day schedule and I’ve turned my apartment into the most epic study abroad experience I could have never had abroad.

How did I do that? We’ll get there in a second. But first: When you really think about it, what do we believe will happen on study abroad? Usually it goes something like:

  • 1: I will learn Arabic faster in the Middle East than at home because everyone will be speaking Arabic to me and I’ll be forced to respond.
  • 2: I will learn in the culture, which is way more interesting than a textbook, and so I’ll be more engaged and interested in Arabic class.
  • 3: I will get to travel the country and meet lots of people who will immerse me in the language and culture.

But what actually happens is:

  • 1: You spend 5+ hours in Arabic class daily and feel tired and overwhelmed. In the end, you resort to speaking your native language with your classmates, as a way to relax and connect with them.
  • 2: You realize that all you know is MSA, and you don’t know the dialect at all. Your program will probably offer a few hours a week learning dialect, but it won’t be enough to have meaningful conversations with locals.
  • 3: You spend so much time in class that you don’t have time to travel extensively unless you arrive earlier than your program starts, or if you’re able to stay behind after your program ends. After class, you spend much of your time studying for your MSA homework and classes.

Is this what you really want? Or did you want immersion?

If you really wanted to immersion — create it! Gather your Arabic tv shows, movies, books, graphic novels, podcasts, music and dive in! I promise you, you’ll learn more about history, politics, and culture by watching all 4 seasons of Al-Hayba, than sitting nervously in a cafe in Jordan wondering how to correctly order a coffee.

As I’ve written before, studying abroad is a valuable part of becoming a global citizen, but not a crucial part of learning a language. Immersion is what counts. When I realized this, I had to ask myself: If I’m not improving in Arabic now, and if I don’t practice every day, and if I’m not immersing already, why would any of this change simply by me up and leaving?

This is the same question you have to ask yourself. Because the reality is that if you don’t have or value good study or immersion habits now, those values will not magically appear by buying a plane ticket.

And the good news is that, if you bring the Arab world to you, and build the study skills and immersion environment that you need now, when you do want to study abroad, you would have mastered the “study” part of things. And all you have to figure out is what exactly how to craft a meaningful experience “abroad”.

For resources on how to immerse in Arabic at home, go here:

Old Mindset Myth 4: I failed before, I’m going to fail again.

New Mindset Fact 4: I may fail, but I may be 3 feet from gold.

I’ll make this one short because the answer is simple.

It took me 3 years of studying Arabic in a traditional way in college + 4 of not studying (and of being generally disillusioned by traditional ways of studying Arabic), to finally land on the enormous progress I made this past year. In another post, I wrote about how I felt pretty illiterate in Arabic after 3 years of college. Yet from 2020 – 2021: I can now confidently say that I can speak and read Arabic, and that with diligent persistence over the next few years, I will reach near-native fluency.

Did I fail a few times before getting here? Definitely. Will I fail a few more times before meeting my end-goal? Absolutely. Will I allow those failures to control my destiny? Heck naw.

When I think about where I’d be if I hadn’t started re-learning Arabic in 2020, I think of the Three Feet from Gold story by Napoleon Hill. Have you ever heard of it? Here’s a brief synopsis: A man starts digging for gold and finds some. He gets excited and buys fancy equipment and keeps digging. But something changes. The gold disappears. He thought there would be more, but now there was nothing. He becomes disillusioned and sells his equipment to a “junk man”. The “junk man” calls an engineer for advice who tells him that gold is usually found 3 feet away from where the first dig ended. The “junk man” takes the advice, takes the equipment, and starts digging 3 feet away. And there he found all the gold.

The moral of the story: We give up too early. We accept defeat without questioning our techniques. We rarely seek good counsel to help us reach our goals. We’re usually just 3 feet from gold.

I dig for gold every day in Arabic and I find it. If you’re coming up short, or not digging at all, a few simple changes + good counsel is likely all you need.

Old Mindset Myth 5: I don’t have enough time.

New Mindset Fact 5: I can make learning Arabic more relaxing.

I know conventional Western wisdom says go, go, go, fight your way to the top, don’t stop until you meet your goal blah blah blah. I actually think this is a part of the capitalist scheme to indoctrinate us to see ourselves and each other as units of labor (*cough* slavery *cough*) instead of whole bodied humans.

As humans, we need peace and relaxation. And not when we die. Now. So make Arabic as peaceful and relaxing as possible. I’ve found this to be crucial for maintaining long-term momentum.

How do we do this? In my experience, this is the most multi-layered mindset to understand, which is why I left it for last. So, I’ll start with a story that can help us.

As I mention a lot on this blog, many of the methods that I use here are inspired by linguist Dr. Steven KrashenKhatzumoto of AJATT, Matt vs Japan of MIA and Refold. Khatzumoto and Matt encourage language learners to spend as much time as possible learning their target language. And by as much time as possible, they’re not saying 30 minute Duolingo flashcards. No, this is 5+ hours of active immersion per day, minimum. This may sound extreme, but it also empirically works. The caveat is that when Matt and Khatzumoto started learning Japanese, they were in high school and college, respectively. And honestly, if you’re a student, you tend to also have unlimited time which means that you can spare 5+ hours daily to actively focus on your target language.

Funnily enough, just a few months ago in November 2020, Matt vs. Japan interviewed Dr. Steven Krashen — the very old man linguist who’s research is essentially the foundation of AJATT and Refold. When Matt described the many-hours-a-day method, Krashen looked confused and essentially responded, Who has time for that? I have a life.

I laughed when I saw him say that because I’ve felt the same way.

Now, back to the original question: How can Arabic become more relaxing, so that I spend more time studying?

The way I approach this is by taking AJATT and Refold’s dedication to daily study with the energy of Krashen’s ultra realism.

Like you, reader, I have a life. But like you, I also want Arabic to play a big role in my life. And so this is what I do to reconcile those 2 goals and make Arabic more relaxing.

The first thing I do is: I understand that my language study in general is broken into three parts: Active immersion (where I’m 100% focused and looking up words along the way to add to my Anki deck), Free-flow immersion (I’m actively focused, but not actively trying to understand everything, the words and ideas just flow all around me) and Review (Anki deck).

The second thing I do is: I understand that I can’t change anything about active immersion. I will not improve without active immersion. So for me, these days, I spend Monday – Thursday actively reading in Arabic for two hours daily. After this, I am tiredddd, but very satisfied.

The third thing I do is: I understand that I can’t do anything about review either. If I don’t review my Anki cards, I will forget everything. So, I do my cards every day whether I like it or not.

The fourth thing I do is: I understand that because I need free flow and I need rest, I make to make my free flow as relaxing as possible. In practical terms, I buy sh** that help me learn Arabic. Some of those things are:

  • I bought a 55′ inch Samsung TV and paid Best Buy all the monies to mount it on my wall. I’d never bought a TV in my whole life before this, but I wanted the easiest, most relaxing, most beautiful immersion experience. Mostly I wanted to lie on my couch like a potato and be happy.
  • I bought a subscription to Shahid (Arabic Netflix), because I was tired of searching for shows on my own on YouTube and tired of dealing with ads. Now I have hundreds of shows and movies just there for the taking. What a sigh of relief.
  • I bought speakers for every room of my apartment, but most importantly my bathroom. I’ve turned my bathroom into a wonderful Arabic concert hall, so when I want to take a long bath, I have some music or radio program playing while I relax, or something to jam to in the shower when I want to feel like I’m in a dance club.
  • I bought a Lenovo smart clock (1/2 off from Best Buy!) which automatically wakes me up to my favorite Arabic songs.

I’m not saying to go break the bank. I’m saying figure out what you need to relax, and bring Arabic there.

And this also means for me that I’ve stopped bringing Arabic places I didn’t actually want it to be. For example, I walk a lot. Daily. And so in the past, I always had Arabic songs or podcasts playing. And although I loved the content, I really just wanted to walk and appreciate silence and watch squirrels scamper and families of deer bounce around. So I stopped bringing Arabic on my walks, and I’m much happier for it.

Overall, these days, I’m very satisfied with the time I spend with Arabic because its all very intentional. This is my life. This is your life. Go live it. But find Arabic’s rightful and relaxing place.

What do you think of these 5 mindset changes? Are there any that have any benefited you or that you want to start using? Comment below!

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1 Comment

  1. Karen McNeil

    Ah, this is part three of that series (it’s not labeled). I had read this before. Even though I’ve been doing this Arabic thing for a long time, I’m very into finding ways to do it better (and better ways to teach it), so I binge-read just about everything on your blog. 🙂

    Shout out for creating your own materials. When I first started learning Tunisian Arabic, I was so frustrated. I had learned Egyptian on my own (plus a couple other vernaculars through classes), and those all had coursebooks and grammars and dictionaries. (Plus Disney movies and pop songs, yay!) Tunisian Arabic had zilch in English. I found a bad scan of a 1970s Peace Corps dictionary, and a couple volumes of very rudimentary lessons (Peace Corps again, plus US military), and that was it.

    I was so frustrated, in fact, that I decided that I was going to create these materials. I started collecting anything I could find that was written in Tunisian Arabic (plays, folktales, blogs), and putting it together for a corpus. Then, because it seemed silly to be hoarding all this stuff myself, I learned to program so I could put the corpus online and make it open for everyone: http://www.tunisiya.org/.

    I still haven’t created the pedagogical materials yet (God give me life to finish all the projects I have planned!). This fall I’ll be finishing my PhD inshallah and all three of my little ones will be in elementary school, so maybe I can start working on one of them, lol. But a bunch of other people have done academic research on Tunisian using my corpus; even though it’s pretty rudimentary (I really need to put some time into updating it), it’s been very useful.

    Of course, the situation with written vernacular has totally changed since I first started collecting materials for the corpus around 2011 or so. Now there’s a ton of Tunisian writing online, and a growing movement of entire novels and translations written in derja (like over a dozen now).

    I’m surprised that you weren’t able to find more in Levantine — Lebanese has always been much more advanced than Tunisian in this area (though not comparable to Egypt, which has had ammiyya novels since the ’90s). I’ll look around and see if I can find some stuff to direct you to. Vernacular literature is part of my PhD topic, so I have access to some resources that might be helpful.

    By the way, have you read Imra’atan 3ala Shata’ al-Bahr, by Hanan al-Sheikh? It’s awesome. It’s in fousha, but the dialogue is in Lebanese vernacular, and it’s written by one of the major female contemporary Arab authors. You can get it on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/مرأتان-شاطئ-البحر-حنان-الشيخ/dp/9953893802 .



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