How Arabic Finally Stopped Going In One Ear and Out the Other

corner(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!


Get your free copy of 10 Things You Need to Know if You Want to Learn Arabic Fluently.


  1. Karen


    For me adding the Anki cards has made all the difference. I’ve always been into immersing myself in Arabic — Nancy Ajram is my *girl* and I learned a lot of my Egyptian Arabic by watching the (awesome!) Arabic version of Beauty and the Beast like a billion times. But I think I never got as much as I should’ve out of it, because (without really realizing it), I was never adding enough words to my long-term active vocabulary.

    Case in point: I’m currently in Tunisia — my husband is Tunisian, so we come here almost every year (or did before Global Pandemic put travel on hold for two years). I’m really advanced in Arabic, but Tunisian is a whole other thing, and there are almost no learning resources for it. The first time I came here (in 2009), I barely understood anything that was going on around me. I’ve improved ever since, but did not have nearly the fluency that I wanted.

    A couple of months ago I read Fluency Forever (which is a very good book based on a very good blog — the system is similar to yours), and using Anki every day has completely changed my Arabic life. I’ve been learning 20 new words a day this summer, adding cards as I come across new words in conversation or in reading Tunisian Arabic novels. It’s amazing how I can learn a random word in my flashcards, and then all of the sudden I hear it *everywhere*and I’m all نْوَشْحل-ing the word left and right. You might’ve guessed that one of these words is وشحل / يوشحل: it’s a portmanteau of شنوه احوالك ʃnwu aħwaːlik ‘how are you’, and it basically means ‘hows-ya-mama-ing’. Arabic is fucking awesome.

    Part of the magic of this summer is just that I’ve gotten to the point where I understand most of a random spoken sentence, and so can note down those one or two words that I didn’t recognize. Also, there’s finally a Tunisian dictionary I can look things up on ( But I probably wouldn’t have remembered even half of them without the flashcard system. And the cumulative expansion in vocabulary I’ve gotten from doing the Anki cards daily for the last month is just a game changer. The other day at the beach I told سلفتي (my sister-in-law), that there was a سِرب (flock) of little fish pecking (ينقروا في) my husband’s feet. !ثمه سرب من الحوت الصغار هذول وقاعدين ينقروا في ساقو
    Just like that. Because I know all those words.

    It’s amazing the confidence that you get from an expanded vocabulary. We need some stuff for the house, and when I get a chance I’m going to stop at a كونكوري (hardware store) to buy an extension cord (رولانج), some heavy-duty tape (سكوتش قْوي), and some oil for the door hinges (زيت لصفايح الباب). And I can go by myself, without my husband, because I know all those words now too.

    It’s actually a little sad, thinking about how much farther along I could be in all my various forms of Arabic if I had started doing this years ago … But, better late than never. 🙂

    Loving your blog, btw … I’ll be flitting around leaving some comments on posts that I’ve been thinking about. But is there a Part 3 to this article? I couldn’t find it …

    • Uchechi from Marhabtain

      Karen! I love love loved reading this comment. You are the living embodiment of how simple daily practices like Anki not only bring fluency and confidence, but connection. And connection is what it is really all about! For most of us, a few small tweaks in our method and viola! The language opens up to us. I’m so excited for you and you inspire me! I need to know the word for extension cord too!

      And here’s part 3:

      p.s Elissa is my girl!

      • Karen

        The Tunisian word for extension cord comes from French, so there’s a fairly good chance it’s رولانج rulɑ̃ːnʒ in Beirut too!

        P.S. Elissa is good too. But if you said that Haifa was your girl, I would be forced to unsubscribe.

  2. Rashidah Lovick

    Hi, Uchechi! Thank you for this blog! I found you at just the right time in my Levantine Arabic journey where I was hitting the wall and getting frustrated in the intermediate wilderness. 🙂 I agree with you that Anki really works! I mostly use it for memorizing things that I learned how to say in my iTalki lessons. Interestingly, I get some reinforcement of those new phrases/words from listening to the recording of my lessons each week, which is a tip that I learned from a polyglot a while ago. But I have a question for you about pulling new words/phrases from TV series. These shows don’t have subtitles or Arabic captions, right? Do you have to guess at the spelling of the words and then confirm with a dictionary? I’m really eager to understand how you use this content for native speakers to learn without captions or subtitles. TIA!

    • adminmarhabtain

      Hi Rashidah! I’m glad you’re loving the site and that you’re finding so much success with Anki! That’s fantastic to hear.
      As for the captions — yes these are shows that do not have captions. I do guess the spelling of words and confirm them in the dictionary. Arabic is very phonetic, so guessing isn’t too difficult for me except for letters that sound similar to me like: ص/س and ط/ت.
      ّIt’s a bit of a prolonged process that I hope to one day be able to better address.



  1. 5 Mindset Changes You Need to Learn Levantine Arabic in Quarantine in 2021 – Marhabtain - […] How Arabic Finally Stopped Going In One Ear and Out The Other […]

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