When I hear people ask, Why can’t I speak Arabic yet? what you’re really saying is: I’m stuck in a language plateau and I’m not sure what to do about it.
Here’s what you need to understand: I’ve found that if Arabic fluency boiled down to one equation, this would be it:
x (the number of hours you’ve spent immersing) +
y (the number of words your long-term memory can recognize and retain) +
z (the number of words you can use in speech and writing)
= your fluency in Arabic
As long as you constantly improve upon these variables, you should never see your language skills plateau. In fact, your current level of fluency is only reflection of how well you’ve mastered x, y, and z. So if you’re not satisfied with your current Arabic level, all you have to do is start working on these variables and you will immediately become more fluent.
This article is about understanding X — the number of hours you’ve spent immersing. Let’s dive in!
X: How to Master Immersion
Immersion is one of the most important, yet most misunderstood topics in the language learning community. Your lack of immersion is the main reason you’re hitting language plateaus.
What immersion isn’t:
– moving to an Arabic-speaking country
– spending a ton of money on study abroad or a summer intensive
– getting an Arabic-speaking girl/boyfriend/partner
– reading your Arabic textbook
– speaking Arabic with a tutor/friend
What immersion is:
– the act of embedding Arabic into your everyday life
– non-native speakers’ main tool to simulate growing up in an Arabic speaking environment
– first step to improving your long term memory in Arabic
– the main place you should be finding new vocabulary”
– listening and reading to content created for native-speakers
Here’s a real-life story to help you understand why these points are true:
I just made a new friend. He’s half-Kuwaiti and half-American. He grew up in Kuwait. He went to American schools in Kuwait his whole life and is now living in the U.S. How well do you think he speaks Arabic?
From his words to me, “I’m only conversational.”
How can this be? According to conventional language learning wisdom, he was fully immersed in Arabic. He should be a native speaker! Right? Wrong?
You are only able to best speak languages that have been embedded into your life the most. Yes, he grew up in Kuwait. Yes, he spoke Arabic sometimes. But he spent the majority of his time seeing, reading, and hearing English. In short, English, not Arabic was embedded into his life, and that is why he’s an English speaker. (Does this sound like you?)
The key word here is EMBED. So many language influencers and apps sell products by saying “Just 15 minutes a day!” or “Fluent in 3 months!”. This is sexy marketing but inaccurate, and its holding many people back. The unsexy truth is this: As non-natives, our main objective every day should be to spend as many hours as possible immersing as a way to simulate growing up in an Arabic-speaking environment.
Immersion is also the place where we’ll learn more vocabulary and phrases to eventually use. The only reason why my Kuwaiti friend is conversational in Arabic is because he’s stopped learning new words. This is also why your Arabic language level has plateaued. You may find that you’ve been studying, but not retaining much information. I’ll talk about this in the next post on variable Y (long term memory), but as a preamble, understand this: You will NOT break through your plateau without immersing more because immersion is linked to improving your long-term memory in Arabic.
Lastly, immersion isn’t reading your Arabic textbook. The best immersion is content that was created for native-speakers because it’s the most linguistically accurate and rarely dumbed down. Immersion also isn’t speaking practice. Speaking without proper immersion is the sure-fire way to solidify grammatical and punctuation mistakes. (Just ask my immigrant parents who definitely taught me the incorrect pronunciations to many words in English!) Start with the hard stuff first: listening and reading. After all, that’s how you learned your native language.
I’ll leave you with these questions: Are you embedding Arabic into your life? Are you listening to music, watching tv shows, movies, and the radio at every turn? Are you on Arabic gaming channels? Do you follow Arab influencers online? Do you read Arabic memes? If you don’t already do these things, then start today. Start now. If my Kuwaiti friend is only conversational in Arabic having grown up in the Middle East, why would you or I have even the slightest chance at improving our Arabic skills without embedding Arabic into our non-native lives?
For advice on how to embed Arabic into your life in practical and fun ways — check out these 2 posts:
- Best Levantine Arabic Immersion Resources of 2020
- 5 Steps to Learning Arabic In Quarantine Without Studying Abroad
For those who want to know how many hours you need to immerse daily to become fluent, here’s a word from one of my favorite blogs, The Mass Immersion Approach. I give all the credit to them for truly helping me understand the importance of immersion. They write mostly about Japanese, but the crossover is useful.
DISCLAIMER: The following should be considered extremely rough estimates at best. At the present moment, we do not have any reliable data on exactly how many hours of immersion it takes to reach fluency in Japanese. Also, one’s speed of progress is determined by many factors in addition to the total number of hours of active and passive immersion.
If you don’t already speak an Asian language and are learning Japanese, with around 5 hours per day of active and 5 hours per day of passive immersion, it should take around 2 years to reach fluency. With around 3 hours per day of active and 3 hours per day of passive immersion, it should take around 4 years to reach fluency.
We would estimate that around 2 hours a day of active immersion is necessary to make real progress towards fluency. Because there aren’t any known examples of people reaching fluency in Japanese with around 1 hour of immersion a day, it’s hard to say whether it’s possible or how long it would take. At the very least, with 1 hour of immersion a day, over time it should be possible to build up a basic foundation of comprehension ability in the language.)