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My One Year Update: Why I Broke Up With “Traditional” Ways of Studying Arabic and Why I’ll Never Look Back

First of all, can I say to whoever is reading this right now, THANK YOU.

Learning Arabic is a very solo process, and all of my wonderful friends think I’m a bit مجنونة for spending all my time watching “my programs” (as I like to call them), instead of watching the latest episode of Bridgerton. Because of you, the response to Marhabtain has been amazing. Some of these articles have gotten more than 500 views, which is wild for a gal like me who 1) started writing this in December 2019 with no idea if anyone would care 2) has no SM accounts for this blog and 3) still gets very nervous putting my ideas out into the cyber world like this. (What if I want to run for president one day, and someone pulls up an article of me talking sh*t about Arabic class! .ما بعرف)

But you all, you readers coming from 56 different countries around the world, you are the rockstars! I find solace knowing that we’re all a bit مجانين ع العربية and I hope that gives, you, reader, some inspiration too.

This will be a longer post, btw. But I hope that it inspires you to take your Arabic learning into your own hands instead of waiting for a teacher or guru or professor to teach you. In fact, this post goes out to a lovely reader named, Blake, who emailed me and said, “Personally speaking, I would love to see more autobiographical stuff about your personal experience as a learner of Arabic.”

So here goes. This one is for you Blake! Let me explain why after one full year of re-starting my Arabic journey, I’ve brokeen up with “traditional” ways of studying Arabic and why I’ll never look back. Basically, let me explain why I started this blog, Marhabtain, as a way to help you break conventions too in order to reach your true Arabic goals.

Part 1: How the Break Up Started

The number one reason why I gave up traditional ways of studying Arabic and why I’m never looking back is because I studied Arabic for 3 years at to the best college in America and still graduated basically illiterate.

Yep, this one is the absolute truth.

When I was attending Princeton for college, it was the number #1 university in the US, and top 10 in the world. I grew up in the rural Southeast of the US, with terrible schools, so this was a big deal to me. I was sure that I’d be getting the best education EVER.

For those of you thinking, “3 years and illiterate?! You must have been a lowkey terrible student.” No actually. I did well in school, getting As and Bs, although there was that one Psychology class Freshman year…

Maybe illiterate is an extreme word, so more descriptively: By the time I graduated I could kind of read and write and speak (ugh!) in Fusha, but not without looking up or stumbling over every dang word. I could kind of express myself in Levantine, but who was I kidding? Ordering groceries and introducing yourself will only get you so far. I could probably only recall 750 or less words from memory. (Furthermore, many of my classmates left Princeton in the same predicament.)

So how could this all happen? And all within the pearly gates of a shining star like Princeton?

I blame me 100%. Specifically, I think that I graduated in such bad shape because I was a great student of Arabic class, but not a great learner of the Arabic language.

I could study exactly what the teacher gave me, and do well on that test. I practice the exact drill and then present that conversation. I could write the essay using the exact vocabulary and grammar points being asked of me. I even once won an award and a free dinner at a fancy restaurant in Amman for writing the best essay in my Middlebury Study Abroad cohort. I could do what school is designed for students to do: learn specific material, review specific materials, and test well on specific material.

But if you’d have asked me to watch a movie, or a video, listen to a song, or read a blog article without assistance… WHY ARE TRYING TO START WITH ME?! I had the desire. I just didn’t have the skill to truly engage with anything that wasn’t in a textbook.

(Un)fortunately, language isn’t designed like a language class. Language is random, full of surprises. There are half sentences, there are trails of thought, there is laughter, and love, and sadness. There’s as much life in the pauses, as there is in the words. How do you teach that? I see why schools stick to this traditional structure. It’s easy to manage, test, and monitor the outcomes that way. And because I didn’t know any better than this traditional system, I remained a great student and terrible practitioner. And no one around me — myself, my peers, and my teachers — thought the wiser.

You know when you’ve been in a relationship and things have been off for a while, but you’re afraid to change something about it because that probably means you’re going to be single again and you really enjoy having someone to text during the day and lay next to at night? That was me and my relationship with studying Arabic in traditional ways. I thought, “This isn’t really working, but maybe if I just take one more class…”

To show you just how little going to class helped me, I made a chart below that approximates the amount of time I spent in Arabic class. In short, once I got real about all the time I’d wasted, I broke up with Arabic. I deleted Arabic’s number, unfollowed all of Arabic’s accounts, burned the t-shirts Arabic had left at my place. I needed to move on. More specifically, it was my senior year at Princeton and I was burnt out from college, still shell shocked from a terrible study abroad experience in Jordan from the previous year, and I was disappointed about my Arabic studies.

So what did I do? I moved to Beijing, China. And thank goodness I did. Or else I wouldn’t be here writing this today.

Exhibit A: My class history with Arabic
(I have no idea how this chart will look on your phone, but I promise it looks good on your laptop.)

ClassFun HighlightsHours in Class (Weekly)Weeks in Class
Elementary Arabic 1Learned to write! Still hella useful.7.515
Elementary Arabic 2Started my years-long saga with the OG of horrible Arabic textbooks, الكتاب.7.515
Intermediate Arabic 2 during a 2 month intensive in MoroccoFell in love with a beautiful grad student in my program and then ghosted him after. Not my best moment! In my defense, he was going back to Kansas!208
Advanced Arabic 1Don’t remember this class at all, but it was taught by a white guy with a Mid-western accent. Nuff said.3.515
Middlebury College in AmmanWent to Palestine for the first time. Made friends with lots of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan. Fond fond times.2515
Summer research in PalestineFell in love with a beautiful Palestinian boy but had to leave (ugh the Occupation!). Summer lovin’./4
Advanced Arabic 3The teacher was a dope Moroccan dude with good vibes. He gave me book on African’s contribution to the Arab world. Still haven’t read it, but I appreciate the gesture!4515
Advanced Arabic 4Senioritis get me out of here! Like, NOW.4515
RESULTSTotal number of in-class hours: 2162.5 hours🙁!:-(
ugh, what a waste.

Part 2: How I Knew Being Single Was Worth It

After Senior year, I moved to Beijing and I didn’t speak, read, or even listen to Arabic for 4 years. The only time I spoke Arabic was when I was day drunk with an ex-boyfriend in a wine bar in Beijing. Our waiter was from Gaza and a wonderfully nice guy. Looking back, I can’t even imagine what I was saying or if it even made sense. Luckily, I was a bit drunk and couldn’t tell if my waiter was laughing with me or at me… I think there was just a bit of novelty to the moment: What was a Black American woman doing speaking Arabic in one of the least likely places to hear the language spoken?

In China, I decided to learn Chinese. Perhaps this an obvious choice, but I promise you there are thousands of foreigners around China, would only speak their native language. PROMISE. But this time would be different, and here’s why:

Before I left for China, I spoke with a very close friend who had taught himself Chinese using a method called AJATT. (This blog, Marhabtain, is actually inspired by AJATT. I think of AJATT as my cyber-mentor.) By “taught himself” I mean that: my friend is a white dude from Colorado, and he is also a native-level Chinese speaker. Chinese people are very confused by him. Is your great-grandmother Chinese or something?, they ask. Naw, he’s a white dude from Colorado. The facts are unchanged.

I have to say, I didn’t trust AJATT at first. My friend was evidence of the method’s success, but I was still reeling from my breakup with Arabic. Everything that AJATT said was counterintuitive to what I had ever practiced and heard.

AJATT says…Arabic Class says…
You are your own and best teacher.Sign up here for the next class!
You must create an immersion environment around you daily if you want to reach fluency.Pay thousands of dollars to study abroad!
Make sure to enjoy all of your immersion.Read this textbook in Fusha. Now read this other textbook in Fusha.
Immerse in content created for native speakers. Songs, movies, tv shows, memes!Don’t do anything outside of MSA. Dialect is informal and unrefined and not “real” Arabic.
Don’t worry about speaking yet. You’ll only engrain mistakes. Just immerse and do your Anki cards and immerse some more.Want to join a language corner? Talk to a native? Get a language partner? You know, you only become better at speaking by SPEAKING.
You don’t “learn” a language, you get used it.Sign up here for the next class!

As I devoured the website, I entered the world of counter-intuitive language learning. This was an exciting prospect: Learn while having fun!

Still I was bit suspicious. Can I even do this? Also, this method seemed a little intense. I was just coming out of an intense college experience, and wanted to be a bit more chill for a while. Still, being the ever-striver that I am, I decided to take bits of AJATT’s advice and use it as I learned Chinese. Ultimately, I realized I had nothing to lose. I’d studied Arabic by the book and not gotten very far. So why not try something that might even just possibly maybe work?

I took a few different steps. Firstly, I went the traditional route that I trusted. I enrolled in Chinese class and took a few hours of Chinese every morning before work for 4 – 6 months. While I truly did love my teacher 红老师, man was I tired at the end of that. And I never took a formal Chinese class again. I do think that those classes made a difference in giving me a solid foundation. On the other hand, as AJATT recommended, I didn’t speak at first unless I had to. Instead, I decided to live in a very traditional area of Beijing, where I was one of the few foreigners. I went around to stores, shops, and restaurants and listened to a lot of Chinese. In AJATT terms, I got “used” to it.

This process was fascinating for me, because it made me realize that no matter how long I’d studied Arabic, Arabic had always sounded like a foreign language, like something strange and slightly incomprehensible. But in China, although Mandarin was truly strange and incomprehensible, I spent enough time listening that it doesn’t sound foreign anymore. That shift alone, made the language feel very accessible to me, and without ever taking a class after that first year in China, my Chinese continued to improve.

When I did start speaking, it didn’t feel like much of a challenge. I could converse and meet new people. I could travel far off the beaten path to places foreigners didn’t go. I could use apps and websites that were fully in Chinese. I could read and write in characters instead of pinyin (the Romanized version of Chinese characters). And this was all truly without maximum effort. To be honest, I was so burnt out from my breakup with Arabic that I didn’t invest half as much time in Mandarin. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you a great Chinese TV Show or my favorite Chinese artist to tune into. I also can’t tell you the difference between the Qing and the Ming Dynasties. If I were to do it all again, going deeper into history and pop culture is probably the only thing I’d do differently.

And yet, with minimal effort compared to Arabic, I got even greater results. And I’m not calculating “results” by the number of words I knew (although I knew far more in Mandarin). Rather, I’m calculating results by how I felt. I felt competent and capable and calm, always. And I realized in those years of living in China that those feelings would take me further on my language journey than a list of “101 Frequently Used Verbs” ever could.

So when I left China in 2018, I left thinking, Hmmm, there’s something to this AJATT method. I should give it a real shot.

Part 3: Why I’m Happy Being a Spinster Forevermore

So how did I get from failed Arabic classes, to China and Mandarin successes, to Marhabtain?

Well, to be honest, even though I broke up with Arabic, Arabic never really broke up with me. Over the years in China, I’d get these late night texts from Arabic saying, “Hey baby, remember the good times we had? Remember all your dreams of me and you and sweet sweet kunefa? This could all be yours if you gave me another chance…”

At first, these texts were easy to ignore. I was busy living my best little Asia life and I was dating Chinese anyway. Then, Arabic started to take a darker tone. The texts started to say, “See! I told you you’d never amount to anything anyway. Why do you think you can achieve any goals if you gave up on the one you wanted the most? You should be ashamed of yourself…”

Arabic started to haunt me. Or so it seemed. I could feel the shadow of my thoughts growing, growling, screaming, “You’ll never achieve anything! You’ll never achieve anything!”

Eventually, I realized that these thoughts had nothing to do with Arabic. They only had to do with me and my own insecurities. Arabic wasn’t the only place where I was beating myself up for no good reason. I looked around at my life and the half-finished projects and unmet goals all around me, and realized I was the problem. Yes, I’d had a few shitty Arabic classes and a few shitty experiences abroad, but so what? Who hasn’t? And who says it won’t happen again? Was I going to wallow in self-loathing and couldawouldashouldas for the rest of my 20s?

I had to decide. And although it took some time, and talking to my therapist about 1) past traumas connected to Arabic that I needed to release and 2) my tendency in all parts of my life toward perfection, hyper-achievement, and fear of failure, I decided: No. I am not going to wallow. I am going to be an adult and move the heck on.

I remembered the AJATT method and how using it even sparingly had helped with Chinese, so I decided to try it wholeheartedly with Arabic.

Fast forward to late 2019, early 2020. As a New Year’s Resolution, I decided to get back on the Arabic train. I read the AJATT website through and through and then jumped in with immersing. I had no idea what I was doing. No method or strategy other than, I need to start training my ear to understand Arabic.

The very first thing I did was go back to the basics of what I knew I loved: Palestinian Hip Hop. Thank god for Apple Music’s suggestions because that led me to Bu Kulthoum, then more and more artists. I spent a lot of time with music at first, just humming songs and then memorizing lyrics. Then I realized I wasn’t watching shows because I was still afraid of listening to conversations, not understanding anything, and feeling like a failure. Luckily, I found the TV show Al-Hayba on Netflix and was hooked. I was so hooked, I forgot about the fears. I watched with English subtitles, so when I would hear a new word, I’d pause, bring out a dictionary, find a word, replay to make sure it was that word, add it to Anki, and move on. This was a very long and unsexy process, but it’s how I built a foundation in Levantine grammar.

I did that a few times with other shows like The Writer and Tango, and then found the process too inefficient and time consuming, so I moved on to watching shows for fun, specifically those that had no subtitles. Then podcasts. At first, I didn’t understand much being said, but as time went on, I just understood more and more. It sounds like magic and felt like magic. This is the power of getting your mind used to a language. I realized that I actually knew a good percentage of what was being said, but I my brain just wasn’t recognizing the word or phrase when I heard it. The more I listened, the more I recognized what I heard. Equally, I noticed that if I went a few days without listening to much content, I saw my ability to recognize words quickly decrease as well.

All the while, I did my Anki cards daily. I forgot that Arabic was supposed to be some ancient scary language where dialects and MSA duked it out daily and I could only learn one. No, I realized none of it mattered. I’d learn Arabic just like any other native-speaker. Because I don’t have parents who speak the Levantine dialect, I made the tv shows, movies, songs, and podcasts into my parents. Like a doting child, I listen silently and attentively, and add their sentences to my Anki deck so that I mimic their every word. And like ever other native speaker, when I read, I read in MSA. Simple. My Anki deck is full of sentences from dialect and sentences from MSA, and I don’t stress. Because at the end of the day, either I know a word or I don’t. And I want to know all the damn words, so I learn them.

February 5, 2021 will mark a year of me using this method. I know because I made a calendar alert on February 5, 2020. I knew this would mark a milestone for me and it has. And I can proudly say that I kept building momentum throughout the entire year. As I look at my Anki Review calendar, I missed a 2 1/2 weeks of reviews in March, although I cannot remember why. And then I missed about 2 1/2 weeks in June/July during the BLM protests. Other than that, my Arabic game has been strong, if I may say so myself.

If you stopped by my apartment today, you’d see you me glued to a screen, laughing, screaming, dancing, or almost in tears. Because I spent all my time at home due to the Coronavirus lockdown, I built my own study abroad at home. And it’s been far more effective than any actual program I’ve attended. As I like to say, I spend every day in Syria and Lebanon. And what beautiful days these are. To my surprise, it’s gotten to a point that I remember texting a friend and telling him, “Something weird is happening. When I hear Arabic now, it doesn’t sound foreign at all. I don’t even notice that it’s not English.”

It seems like things have come full circle.

In closing…

With all the crazy things happening in the world and my life right now, I’m… happy. Arabic is one of the deepest joys in my life. Who would’ve ever thunk it?

In all of this journey the two things I’ve centered in on is: loving every part of this journey and iterating on my learning process to become more effective. I’m no longer a passive student. And I no longer believe that I will magically improve in Arabic simply by opening a book or watching a show or attending a class. Instead, every day I feel like I’m actually learning — both about myself and about Arabic. I live in a state of deep observation — like a chemist tinkering with formula of her latest drug, I am consistently adapting my learning methods to fit my desired outcomes. Additionally, I’m constantly adapting my perspective and belief systems to help get myself unstuck as soon as I started to feel frustrated or complacent.

This blog, Marhabtain, is essentially my exercise of logging down the thoughts I’ve had over the past year during this deep state of observation, as well as the thoughts I’ll have in the years to come.

A new Egyptian friend recently asked me what I wanted to do with Arabic. She has a linguistics background and was very skeptical of my non-traditional methods. How can you study a language when you’re focused on rules and structure?, she wondered. I get her skepticism. From a traditionally academic language learning perspective, what I’m doing doesn’t have much precedence.

But the numbers don’t lie — 2162.5 hours of rules and structure made me a half-baked student. My current methods make me a fun, excited, dancing, laughing, every-day-growing learner.

I replied to my Egyptian friend, “I just want to make deep connections. Go to dance clubs and scream the lyrics. Go on trips with friends and have deep political, pop culture, and entertainment knowledge for us to laugh and debate about. I just want to live my life, but in another language.”

So there you have it.

I’m not dating Arabic anymore. But I am dating my life. And I have to say, it feels a little something like love.

‏سلام يا مجانين

3 thoughts on “My One Year Update: Why I Broke Up With “Traditional” Ways of Studying Arabic and Why I’ll Never Look Back”

  1. I stumbled upon your blog from a link in a “learning Arabic” subreddit and let me just say: you just changed my entire perspective on reaching fluency in Arabic. I see myself in so many of the situations you have described. Even after three years of intense academic study in college and a very expensive study abroad trip to Morocco, I still feel like I know nothing! I am still too scared to say شكرا to the cashier at the halal market because I am scared they will start a conversation and I won’t be able to figure out what they are saying. In short, because of you, I am rededicating myself to being my own Arabic teacher and letting go of all the pressure and guilt I have felt throughout my language learning journey. And for that, شكرا جزيلا لك

    1. Ayyyyyyyyyyyyy. !!!مبروك يا كلسي. This is really so amazing to read. I seriously laughed when I read the part about being too scared to say shukran because they might start a conversation! Omg I’ve been there too! Yes, let go of that guilt. It only gets in the way. Please keep me updated about your journey. I soooooo believe in you!!! Let me know if you ever need anything.

  2. Pingback: 5 Mindset Changes You Need to Learn Levantine Arabic in Quarantine in 2021 – Marhabtain

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