(This post is Part 2 of a 3-part series on how to break out of your Arabic learning plateau. This post focuses on Variable Y: the number of words your long-term memory can recognize and retain. Click here to read Part 1. I'll complete Part 3 in the coming week.)

! اهلا وسهلا بكم مرة تانية ! اليوم رح نحكي عن ليش ننسى كتير من المعلومات الي نتعلمها في صف العربي و خارج الصف. يلا منبلش !

Your brain is built to forget. And mine is too.

For the people in the back: OUR BRAINS ARE BUILT TO FORGET.

When I understood and accepted this truth about the human brain, my Arabic began to improve dramatically. For example — and this is absolutely true — A year ago, I was sitting at a local cafe with a dear Syrian friend who patiently listened to me struggle through Arabic. I understood almost nothing of what she said and I could hardly make a sentence without breaking into English or saying: How do you say….? Fast forward almost one year. Yesterday, I was sitting in that same cafe with my friend (who’s now pregnant! Time flies!) and her mom who was visiting from Syria. As I ordered and they chatted, I understood everything they were saying.

What changed?

What changed is that in the past year of much failure and much trial and error I discovered this. The key to not forgetting everything I learned in Arabic was:

  1. reviewing my Anki notecards daily
  2. immersing in content daily that uses language similar to what’s found on my Anki notecards

(*If you haven’t heard of Anki before, here is a post I made about the benefits of Anki notecards for Arabic learners vs. other notecard apps: Top 6 steps to Making the Best Arabic Flashcards)

Furthermore, the best combination of language learning activities that helped me forget the least was:

  1. Reading blog articles (yes in MSA most of the time!) to see the words →
  2. Watching Levantine TV to hear the words →
  3. Using Anki notecards to review the words

These days, this 3-part trifecta is basically all I do. And when I slip up on one, I immediately see my progress fumble. (More on that later.)

So for those of you readers who want to know why humans are so shi**y at remembering, this is it the basic science.

Nerd break!

As humans, we encounter so much stimuli daily that our brains consistently dump what’s not important, so that we can focus on what’s essential. This could explain why I can’t remember what I ate last night, or what happened on my 7th birthday, or how to actually say the laptop in Arabic vs. Arabizi (in case you care: it’s كُمْبْيُوتَرِي المَحْمُول and not اللّاب تُوْب). My brain decided it didn’t want to or it didn’t need to keep those memories.

Some even believe that our innate forgetfulness is also a survival mechanism. This is because people who can remember their lives in extreme detail, like those who suffer from Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), tend toward obsessive thoughts, depression, and have trouble succeeding in life. As one science journalist, Lauren Gravitz wrote, “Forgetting enables us as individuals, and as a species, to move forwards.”

So you see, as humans we need to forget in order to survive. You were never meant to remember everything you learned in Arabic class, and neither was I. But if we want to speak fluently, we have to retain what’s we’re learning, and there’s a lot to retain for that matter — from MSA to dialect to unwritten vowels (I’m still mad about that one) to so much more.

So what does science say about forgetting less, so that we can speak more?

When we review Anki cards daily + immerse in similar content we’re activating a long-term memory technique called associative learning, which is the “learning process by which ideas or responses become linked through reinforcement”. And good news! According to two British Psychology professors, Gary Jones and Bill Macken, who wrote a paper on associative learning and speaking performance, “Long-term associative learning predicts verbal short-term memory performance.”

In layman’s terms, all of this research, theorizing, and good ‘ole science told me something I figured out this year via trial-and-error: My daily commitment to Anki + immersion = the largest predictor of how well I can speak Arabic, read Arabic, and understand what others are saying in Arabic.

Below, I’ve created what I’d like to call my “Trial-and-Error Timeline”. The timeline explains the 2 stages of failure I experienced, before landing on a system that worked. Hopefully it can help you figure out how to make your current strategies more effective.

  • Stage 1: I was fully energized to start re-learning Arabic! I started actively immersing more than 2 hours daily, by watching all the Levantine shows Netflix had to offer. But, I still forgot to do my Anki cards regularly or to add new notecard entries regularly. This is what happened:

    I’d hear or read a word during immersion. → In that moment, I’d recognize the word in full or just the gist. → Emotionally, either I’d start to feel excited because Hallelujah, I’m actually getting better! or I’d be so tuned in to immersion that I wouldn’t notice until later all that I’d understood.→ I’d finish immersion and go back to my life without adding any cards to Anki. → I felt good about myself. Another day done! → My brain though, oh so prone to forget, would forgot the words completely. → I’d return to immersion the next day so confused, I thought I went over this yesterday, why can’t I remember it? Goddddangit → The cycle continued until I wised up and began to do Anki every day.

  • Stage 2: I started to run out of content that I loved on Netflix, and so I slacked on immersion, exhausted from constantly searching for new shows. Instead, I figured that I would focus on what I could control, like all the self-help books say. I committed to doing my Anki cards religiously, and added cards regularly, but spent no more than 30 – 45 minutes of active immersion daily. This is what happened:

    I’d create a new notecard entry. → For the first Anki review, I’d have a 40-50% chance of remembering the term. This was likely due to the fact I’d recently made the card. Thank you short-term memory! → For the second review, I’d remember the term, but with the same level of difficulty or little less. → The Anki algorithm would kick into gear and assume, You’re getting this card right a lot, so you must know the word then… As a result, the algorithm spaced the card out more, and I’d no longer see the card regularly. → My brain, oh so prone to forget, forgot the word. → Anki returned the word about 15 – 20 days later. → My brain confused, says to the card: New phone, who dis? → I rinse and repeat this cycle until I realize I’m just not going to remember this word in the near future. → I delete or suspend the card.

  • Stage 3: I was plateauing. I could feel it. But I also knew that my Arabic progress was my responsibility and no one else’s. So I did some soul-searching. What was working and what wasn’t? I realized that immersion and Anki were powerful tools, but not so powerful on their own. I needed to tie them together and have them reinforce each other. I began actively immersing for a minimum of 2 hours daily + doing my Anki cards every day + adding new cards regularly or daily. As a result, something magical started happening:

    Now during immersion, I hear/read a word worth remembering. → I pause what I’m watching/reading and save the word (in a sentence) as an entry into Anki. → I go on with immersing. → My brain, oh so prone to forget, forgets that word. → I review the notecard soon after and in the days following. → I keep immersing. Unaware, the word passes by during immersion. → Back in Anki, my brain now perks up when she sees the card, and says, Sis, I keep seeing you around. And you new to this neighborhood?… → At some point during immersion, the word passes by and my brain says, Oh heyyy, sis. Is that you? I thought that was you! How’s mom? How are the kids? How’s work? → In that moment, I notice and understand the word on my own for the first time. I realize the word has been around me all along. FINALLY I recognize it. → Over a long period of immersing and reviewing, my brain and the word become Oprah and Gayle level BFFs — inseparable. They braid each other’s hair and do each other’s nails at night. → As a result, I now hear and see the word everywhere. I can recall the word from memory. I’ve acquired it.

*This friendship between my brain and Arabic words (and therefore yours too!) is why you want to immerse in language similar to that of what’s on your notecards. If you’re watching soap operas, but the text on your notecards is political vocab from newspapers, your brain will likely end up saying, New phone, who dis?, a lot more than necessary.

Ultimately, I’ve come to think of building my vocabulary in Arabic as if I’m building a group of tight-knit friends. It takes time for a person to go from stranger, to acquaintance, to friend, to best friend, to godmother to my first born child. To do that, you have to spend time with them. A lot of time. (And when it comes to remembering a new word, it technically takes about 10 – 15 reviews over time to acquire that word.) And usually, a lot of ups and downs. But by the time you’ve hit godmother status, you’re in my circle for life.

That’s really all fluency is in a sense: a tight knit group of words in language you can’t forget.

So take stock of your Arabic friend group today. Do you have mostly strangers and acquaintances (aka words you don’t really know and can’t recall) or do you have mostly friends, best friends, and godmothers (aka words you’re actively learning or have already acquired)?

No matter what your answer, the answer is clear: Go immerse and do your notecards and help your brain help you!


I’d love to hear from you! What do you think about the science behind language acquisition? Are you going through any stages similar to what I experienced? Comment below!