Oct 13

The Ultimate Barrier to Language Learning That No One Talks About


It always intrigues me to find out the reason why some people are just better at language learning and some aren’t.

We’ve all met those people before, those who seem to be able to get it (almost instantaneously and annoyingly at times), while others plod along, even though they spend hours and hours studying, memorising vocabulary words, learning the grammar rules and seemingly doing everything by the book.


My Rigorously Unscientific Study

So in order to examine this in further detail, I took out a clean sheet of paper and drew a line down the middle. On a second separate piece of paper, I made a list of all the people whom I had known during my time at the language institute I was studying at in Jordan.

Then I got to work categorizing the long list into two groups – those who got it, and those who had struggled with Arabic more than average. Now clearly this wasn’t the most scientific and meticulously researched of studies (I have the hugest aversion to anything math and science related, in fact I break out in hives the second I see a chemistry problem) but I just wanted to get a quick-and-dirty idea of why was it that some of my peers were able to make leaps and bounds in progress from class to class while others just barely scraped by from level to level.

This is what I’ve found.


It’s Got Nothing to Do With Intelligence

When I looked at the Struggle list, it was pretty clear that there was clearly nothing wrong with them academically or intellectually. Quite the opposite in fact.Some of them had graduated from Ivy League undegraduate programmes in the US and the UK, some were studying Arabic on full scholarships and still others were pursuing masters programmes in top universities.

Similarly, there were shining stars in the Got It list as well, some that had graduated from top universities in the UK and the US.

There were also a sprinkling of students who had gone to lesser known, smaller schools in both columns, but lest you think they’re not as smart, let me assure you that from my conversations with them, none of them were intellectually challenged – in fact they could probably kick my ass anytime in a discussion on the Middle East.

So clearly, academic and intellectual ability had nothing to do with it.


It’s Got Nothing To Do With Time

A quick mathematical calculation turned up that the average amount of time that each group had spent learning Arabic was around 3.4-4.5 years, which made sense since most of them had gone through academic instruction in Arabic during their college, which averaged out to be around 4 years long.
It’s Got Nothing to Do With Age

Most of the students averaged between 23 and 27 years in both groups. It wasn’t as if the Got It group happened to have incredibly young students and it wasn’t that the Struggle group had geriatrics in there.

Nope, barring for some outliers of people who were a little older (in their 30s) and those a little younger (younger than 20), on average the spread of ages in the two groups were more or less equal.


It’s Got Nothing to Do With Being Muslim

I’ve heard this argument before, that people who are Muslim tend to do better in Arabic because they’ve had increased exposure to the language since childhood.

To an extent, I can see how this would be true. I would be the first to admit that being Muslim myself, I certainly started out a step ahead of the others in the beginning because I was already familiar with the alphabet and the pronunciation of the letters.

But only in the beginning. That advantage is quickly levelled out when you realise that Classical Quranic texts are vastly different from Fus-ha, which is in turn vastly different from Levantine dialect. And to be honest, a vast majority of Muslims read the Qur’an without any sort of understanding as to what it means.

So sure, there is an edge but only marginally so.

Over and above that, there were Muslims in the Struggle group and non-Muslims in the Got It group. Like I said before, this is purely anecdotal evidence, but it proves that if it can be done, then it’s definitely possible.


What has it got to do with then?

If you were to ask my humble two cents worth, the one differentiating factor that set the Got It column from the Struggle column was one thing – fear.

More specifically, the lack of fear.

See in my opinion, the Got It group were willing to go outside of their comfort zone. They were willing to get their hands dirty in language learning. They were willing to succeed at all costs and put themselves out there.

Let me give you some examples.

One of them joined went for religious sessions every week to discuss deeply the teachings of the Qur’an. Another joined a rock climbing group to get the opportunity to meet and make friends with local Jordanians. Another volunteered every weekend at a centre that dealt with orphaned children, helping to create programs to entertain them and help them socialise. Another worked in an NGO that dealt with Syrian refugees and spent large amounts of time with his best friends who were mostly Arab.

The Struggle group, however was a little more content to stick around with people from the same countries they were from, people who spoke the same native language they did, not as eager to expand their circle of friends or zone of comfort and ultimately, ended up learning less about the culture, people and language than the Got Its.

Now you could sensibly argue that it was increased practice and exposure that allowed them to achieve kick-ass levels of fluency more than anything else, and that answer would be true.

Well, partly true.


My next question would then be – why?

Why was it that these people were more motivated than the others to achieve more practice and exposure? After all, the same resources and opportunities were available to everyone. Plenty of organisations were in dire need of more volunteers, plenty of conversation partners were available and seeking English speakers, churches and mosques abound with Arab families who would have been thrilled to have a native speaker teach their children English in exchange for Arabic.

I think the reason is much more deeply-rooted than that.

It goes back to this fearlessness that separated the Got Its from the Struggles.

If we were to drill down further, it’s that they were fearless in making mistakes. Unlike so many others, fear was not a barrier for them.

If you were to ask someone who Gets It in any language, Arabic or otherwise, if they felt self-conscious and afraid of failure at any point, chances are they’re going to say yes. Probably most times!

Is it scary to come up to a stranger and introduce yourself in a foreign language? Of course. Does it make your stomach flip to give a presentation in Arabic? Definitely! Does it make your hair stand to hold interviews with people who can’t speak a work of English! Hell yes!

But they’ll also tell you ‘if I never made a mistake, I’d never learn.’


It’s About Reframing Failure

See it all depends on how you view failure. If you (like many people) view making a mistake, and therefore failure as some sort of fundamental flaw of you as a person, then you’ll probably want to avoid putting yourself in that position and feeling that way at all costs.

What happens next? You’re likely to not try as often because:

Not trying = not failing = you’re not a failure = life is good. 

And as we can all agree, not trying in something as practice- oriented in language learning puts you squarely nowhere.

But what if you were to reframe failure as a stepping stone to where you want to be?

What if failure were merely an experiment, merely a means to find out whether Method A leads to Results B? Take scientists for example – if they took every single scientific failure they did as a personal flaw, we’d never have the light bulb today. Or the ability to travel by air. Or the cure for cancer.

We need to look at language learning and speaking in the same paradigm. The Got Its did, which is probably why they were crushing it better, faster and harder than those who were content to sail through within their comfort zones, sipping coffee at Starbucks, eating at Macdonalds, and watching Breaking Bad with their English-speaking friends.


Why Am I Telling You All This?

Now I’m not saying all this to scare those of you are reading into thinking that you’re never going to get to where you want to go Arabic-wise, but to inspire you to be more aware that your psychology plays a bigger role in this than you think.

Once you’re more aware of it, chances are you’re more likely to change it.

Once you’re more aware of it, you’re more likely to spend more time identifying and facing this fear head on and getting out there speaking to people, rather than throwing more vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and listening exercises at it. Of course, the latter is much easier to do than the former, which is why so much time is spent talking about strategies and techniques and not enough time on what the underlying limitation is.

I have seen too many times students who are perfectly capable, second guess themselves in their ability and end up not trying as hard as they should. I’d like for you not to experience the same.

And before you think that I have no fear altogether, I’m writing this for you as much as I am for myself, for even after years and years of studying Arabic, I still have a twinge of self-doubt when I start a conversation with a native Arabic speaker, thinking that I won’t be able to express my ideas and will end up making a complete fool of myself.

The great thing is that it’s possible to overcome this. All it takes is a little tweaking in your belief system.


So how do you Slay the Self-Consciousness Dragon? Look out for it in our next post, when we talk about The Top Limiting Beliefs About Language Learning – Busted. In the meantime, do you agree that getting over your self-consciousness will help you to accelerate progress in language learning? Or do you think it’s a crock of s***? Let us know or if you prefer, rip us a new a**hole in the comments!


Oct 13

5 Reasons Why Every Al-Kitaab Needs to be Burned (and what you can do instead)


This is a rant a long time in the making.

As some of you might know by now, I started studying Arabic close to 5 years ago. And literally from the first day I turned up in class, I wasn’t able to escape the mind-numbing dreariness of the dreaded al-Kitaab li ta’allum al’arabiyyah.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot from al-Kitaab, though what I learnt probably had more to do with training my patience not to rip the ridiculously heavy, unwieldy tome into a million little pieces and set them on fire Carrie-style, than actual Arabic.

Now you may feel al-Kitaab is a godsend from the Arabic gods, and that you couldn’t possibly imagine life without discussing Maha and Khaled’s romantic life and you quivered with anticipation to understand how to say stuff like ‘my dad is an interpreter at the United Nations’ and ‘my mom is an admissions officer at a university’.

In which case, this post is probably not for you.

I mean it. Stop reading. You’ll only get your feelings hurt.

No, this post is for all those other Arabic students, who, like me, have needlessly suffered with the complicated, un-intuitive and most of all f***-ing brain-bashingly boring ish that is contained within its pages.

Now trust me, I could have ripped into al-Kitaab book by book, chapter by chapter, and page by page, but that would require an entirely new blog altogether. So for simplicity’s sake (and that of my mental health), I’m going to keep this simple.

So how much do I abhor thee, al-Kitaab? Let me count the ways.

1. Utterly Useless Vocabulary

Okay so perhaps I’ve got the vocabulary for complicated politico-socio-economic conversations, with words like nationalism, governmental, facade, movement and research paper. I assure you, writers of al-kitaab, if I ever found myself on prime time Arab news with the Foreign Minister of Egypt and we had to debate the merits of writing a research paper on the facade of nationalistic movements in post-Mubarak government, I assure you would be more than well-prepared for such a task.

But the reality is, I won’t be finding myself on prime time with the Foreign Minister of Egypt.

More likely, I will probably find myself somewhere on the streets, having drunk a tad too much water and wondering where the nearest public toilet is in case I absolutely piss my pants, at which point I would realise I don’t know how to say:

‘Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?’

Or now that we’re on it, how to order food in a restaurant.

Or how to negotiate for a bargain in the souk.

Or how to strike up a simple conversation.

To basically, live life in any competent way in the Middle East.

Now, how is it possible to not have these expressions in an Arabic textbook, when even the most fundamental, simple travel guides will contain them between their pages?

The irony, it boggles my mind.


2. Complicated Presentation of Grammar

I swear to you, I didn’t have anything close resembling a grasp on grammar until I went to Jordan. Why? Because I didn’t have the foggiest clue what al-Kitaab was talking about. It wasn’t clear in the book when to use concepts like marfou’, majruur and the other thing (still can’t remember what it’s called) and things like i’rab flew right over my head like homing missiles and multiple attempts to come to terms with the grammar yielded absolutely zero understanding.

On the other hand, it did yield increasing levels of high blood pressure, stress and confusion.

My understanding of grammar now is far better, (not that hard to do if you’re starting from rock bottom) but believe me, that had absolutely nothing to do with al-Kitaab and everything to do with finding alternative ways around having to refer to it.


3. Disorganized Chapter Content

I always think that one of the most crucial cornerstones of any resource or manual is how easily and quickly it is to find what you’re looking for. If you’re in a rush to refer to something, the last thing you want to do is ruffle through pages and books and sections and saying I swear that one time I saw it in here!

Unfortunately, al-kitaab fails epically at this.

Firstly, the chapters are not organised around any really strong theme or content. Concepts are sort of scattered throughout the book instead of being presented in any sort of focused way.

Secondly, the contents pages are all in Arabic. Now I understand that as a textbook of Arabic that you want to force students to be comfortable with the language, but if you’re a student rushing to refer to a specific grammar rule or linguistic technique, being faced with pages of unintelligible squibbles that you have to decode is an exercise in utter frustration.


4. Dismal Audio-Visual Guide

I’m firm believer that if you want to add an additional product or service on top of a textbook, that additional item should add incredible value to the product you’re already selling.

Do you know how many times I’ve used the CD from al-Kitaab?

Precisely twice.

And that was only because the teacher assigned us homework from it. Would I have willingly listened to it on my own discretion?


And I’ll tell you why. The clips are confusing, incorrectly titled and above all, the material is not compelling. The videos look like they were taken in the 1970s, the cinematography is disappointing, and the topics do nothing to inspire feeling, thought or action. Which, in part, is a result of:


5. Disappointing Choice of Topics

Out of all, this is probably my biggest gripe with al-Kitaab.

When students show up for a class in Arabic, it’s true that some of them show up because they have to for the credit. But for the vast majority, they show up because they are genuinely interested in learning it and are passionate about it.

Why, then, does al-Kitaab try to flagellate the s*** out of that passion, by presenting the Most Boring Topics In the History of Mankind? Here is a sample of the topics al-Kitaab has chosen, (out of millions of possible unique topics).

1. From Islamic Social History

2. Who are the Pioneers of the Feminist Arab Movement?

3. The Mission of University

4. Personalities from Modern Arabic Literature

Now don’t get me wrong, each and every one of these topics belong somewhere in the academic realm and I’m not saying at all that no one has the right to teach them. But I beg you to step into any Arabic class while the poor teacher is dealing with them and I guarantee you that almost every student has the same expression of blank, bored apathy.

I know my class did. I especially remember a particularly dull reading exercise on Tawfeeq al-Hakeem and how painful it was to get through the text. There was nothing even remotely interesting or attractive about it at all.

Perhaps the one and only chapter that got us excited was the one on Alf Leila wa Leila (A Thousand and One Nights). The rest were just met with tired sighs of resignation.

What about producing content that is actually interesting? What about increasing rates of plastic surgery in the Middle East? What about travelling? What about celebrities? What about fashion, food and dating? Sure, they may not be strictly ‘academic’ topics, but realistically speaking, these are the things we humans talk about on a daily basis.


And the strange thing that I’ve found is that so many other students and teachers feel the same way about this wretched textbook (that it is a cleverly-disguised demon bent on sucking any remaining passion for Arabic from your soul), yet it still remains the most used reference in most Arabic classes today. The reviews pretty much say it all.

It just goes to prove that just because something is popular doesn’t make it good.


What can you do about it?

At this point you might ask me:

‘But my teacher/college/language institute uses al-Kitaab for instruction and I can’t possibly do anything about it!’

To which I would reply, my dear reader, with all due respect that is a crock of b***shit. Because:

You have total control over your Arabic education.

Sure, you can spend your six hours a week in academic instruction, but time outside of class is yours to do with it what you wish. So if you really want to be successful at this, you’re going to have to find other ways outside of al-Kitaab to complement your academic instruction. I’ve written about this before, in How Timothy Doner Became Fluent in Arabic (and 21 other languages) Without Leaving His Country but I’ve distilled the most important lessons here.

1. Don’t depend on al-kitaab alone.

If you do, you’re going to be in big trouble. There’s no harm using it, but I would strongly urge you to instead, find other textbooks that can do better to complement it. A quick search on Amazon for example, showed that people had good things to say about Ultimate Arabic.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because your teacher or institute is using this book, that it’s the Holy Grail of Arabic education, because it’s not. You wouldn’t go to a buffet and eat only from one dish, would you? You wouldn’t be doing your money or tastebuds justice. Use the same approach here – take the best out of a few books and work from there.


2. Find some people to talk to.

Most of your learning will happen when you’re interacting with people who are native speakers of the language, rather than from a textbook. If there’s an Arab coffee joint, restaurant or sheesha place, it’s more likely that’s where they’re hanging out. Your city is far more international than you think, if you just take the time to search.

But if you say that you can’t find any Arab people in your town or city, then I would urge you to go online.

Plenty of the Arab people that I’ve met are thirsty to practice their English skills with native speakers, so there’s something you can offer to them in exchange for their Arabic skills. In fact the less English they speak, the better, because you’ll have to understand the explanation in Arabic. Conversation Exchange, for example, is a website that I’ve tried with success. Which then leads me to..


3. Find other resources online.

It never fails to amaze me what the Internet has done for our education. Resources that were once impossible to get your hands on or chargeable, is now available to you 24/7 at your fingertips at no charge. Some days I still can’t believe that I get to hear experts from every field like Tony Robbins, Ken Robinson and Seth Godin for free, which would have been absolutely impossible even 15 years ago.

Use this to your advantage.

Before I left for Jordan I was frequenting websites like BBC Arabic, AlJazeera Arabic, Rusiya alYom, which helped me greatly in my Arabic education. A lot of these news websites have Youtube channels as well where you can check out past clips of news broadcasts and listen to how words are being pronounced to get you accustomed to hearing spoken Arabic.



What do you think of al-Kitaab? Does it rile you up as much as it does us? Or do you disagree with this article in its entirety? Let us know in comments, we’d love to hear from you. Or better yet, share this article if you agree that al-kitaab needs a revamp like, yesterday.

Oct 13

How Being in a Car Accident Helped Me to Learn Something New

It happened over the weekend.

For those of you who have been in that situation before, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s incredibly terrifying, tense and nerve-wrackingly stressful.

I had taken the car after dropping my mom off at her tajweed class and was on my way to a medical exam. I was driving down a side road that led to the main road, while at the same time watching out on my right side for oncoming traffic from the main road. What I failed to realize was that because the side road was curved, there was already a car at the end of the side road, waiting to enter the main road.

By the time I switched my attention from the main road on the right and looked up and straight ahead, it was too late.

It seemed like the car ahead was coming at me at breakneck speed.

By some miracle, I managed to react and slammed on the brakes, but it was too late.

I crashed right into the back of the car with a sickening bang.

It’s pretty safe to say at this point that my heart stopped for a good three seconds.

I couldn’t believe it.

In all my ten years of driving, this was the first time that anything like that had ever happened to me.

Still in utter shock, I put the car in reverse to put some space between us and then put it in park to deal with the aftermath. My hands were shaking as I got out of the car. Needless to say, the driver ahead was yelling, disgruntled  and frankly pissed off.

Probably with good reason.

Alhamdulillah, no one was hurt, though everyone was shaken and rattled, and the damage both cars suffered was just superficial, contained to the back and front bumpers. I shudder to think what would have happened if I didn’t even get the chance to slam on the brakes and ended up crashing into the car at full speed.

نَعوذَ بالله. We seek refuge from God.

Later that evening when I narrated the accident to my good Palestinian friend ‘ameed he said:

‘ في المال ولا في عيال ‘. Fil maal walaa fi ‘iyaal.

‘But what does that mean?’ I begged for him to tell me.

I knew المال / almaal meant the money, and I knew عيال / ‘ayaal meant family.

So in my head I was translating it as:

There is money or there is family.

Which didn’t quite bring me any enlightenment of understanding.

‘It means that it’s better that the damage happened to the car rather than anyone like yourself or anyone else in the family getting hurt.’ he explained.

‘المال can refer to a car, money, a house, a phone, a laptop or basically any material possession,’ he continued.

‘But عيال refers to the things you cannot replace, like your family, children and friends.’

So it means to be grateful that the only thing that suffered damage were physical things and that the life and limbs of you and your loves ones are still intact.

It was a valuable lesson to learn.

Especially since it came at a time while I was filling out multiple insurance forms, constantly dealing with an irate driver and discussing hella expensive repairs with the car mechanic and spending money I don’t have. It helped me to look for the silver lining instead of allowing my heart to sink into despair at the situation I’ve gotten myself into.

في المال ولا في عيال .

At the very least I didn’t suffer any injuries and neither did the other party.

I’ve learnt to pay more attention while I’m on the road.

I’ve learnt what’s best to do in the event of an accident, be grateful for what didn’t happen and hey, I’ve even learnt a new expression in Arabic that I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.

في المال ولا في عيال .

And so I’m writing about this because I’m certain there will be some of you reading who might be going through equally or more challenging situations like this. I mean, I’m currently unemployed and looking for a job, running out of money, living with my parents and stuck with a 1600 bill for car repairs. But I’m determined to focus on the positives in the situation, however small, and to be grateful for them.

And I’m certain if I can, then you can as well.


Have you had similar traumatic or scary experiences like that? What did you learn out of it, language-wise, life-wise or otherwise? Share with us in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you.

Sep 13

The 5 + 1 Most Embarrassing Mistakes I Made while Learning Arabic

We all make mistakes when it comes to learning languages.

We all make mistakes, period.

I don’t care which language you’re talking about, whether Arabic, English, Spanish, French or Hebrew – no matter what anyone tells you or how proficient they seem now, there was a point in time when they were blubbering and stuttering along like the rest of us plebians.

I’ll freely admit that I did (and to be perfectly honest still do some days, depending on how much my tongue decides to cooperate with me.)

The difference is a matter of perspective – do you see these mistakes as a learning opportunity, or do you focus on them so much that they become barriers to your progress?

The ones that succeed not only do the former, but they look forward to making as many mistakes as they possibly can! They embrace it because they know it’s more often than not, the fastest way to achieve progress.

Think about it- would you learn more if you just kept sticking to the same limited set of sentences that you have in a foreign langauge? Or would you learn more having gone through a trial and error process of trying to convey many different thoughts in a bunch of different ways and having someone point out gently how you could have phrased this better, used a more concise word, amended the syntax and so on and so forth?

Luca Lampariello of The Polyglot Dream wrote a great guest post on the importance of making mistakes on Benny’s blog Fluent in 3 Months. He puts forward that ‘making mistakes is a fundamental part of every cognitive process, whether solving a math problem, making important decisions, or trying to convey meaning in a foreign language.’

Perhaps the problem is that we see those who have achieved a high level of fluency and we admire them, but we don’t see the blood, sweat and tears that go into it. We see the shiny, finished product, all wrapped up in a big red bow. But we don’t share our failures as much as we should.

And so in the spirit of full disclosure, for your benefit, I’m going to share my 5 most embarrassing mistakes I’ve made in my time learning Arabic.

#6. Giving the wrong response to a greeting

I remember this distinctly because it was right around the time the holy month of Ramadhan had ended and the festival of ‘ed in the Islamic month of Syawal had begun. It’s a celebratory time for families to spend time together, eat good food, enjoy each others company and wish each other كل عام و انتو بخير / Kol ‘am wa intu bi kheir (every year you are well).

Except when one of my good friends Amr wished me Kol ‘am wa intu bi kheir, I responded with و انت من اهل خير / wa inta min ahl kheir (and you are of the ones who are well).

Which is absolutely the right response, if someone had wished you good night (تصبح على خير /toSbeH ‘ala kheir).

But! That wasn’t too bad. Amr was kind enough to gently correct me that the right response was just a simple ‘wa inta bi kheir.’

Was that it? you might ask. Don’t worry. It gets worse as we go on.

#5. Something about a truck?

When my parents were in Amman to visit me for a couple of weeks, I brought them to a telephone shop to get them a local calling card so they could get in touch with me anytime for cheap. The shop was managed by a lovely old man, who puttered about dismantling my dad’s phone, asking questions Which service provider would you like? We have Zain, Orange, Umniah etc.

I replied him quickly, feeling pretty confident and good about myself that I was able to get stuff sorted out, in a foreign language no less. I spoke too soon. He said (or so I thought)


Excuse me?

How much of a truck?

I didn’t understand. Why was he asking me about a truck? I looked around to see if anyone else was in the shop who could help me. Nope, no such luck. After a few more rounds of repetition, my dad was looking at me expectantly and quizzically, wondering what the hold up was.

Uh. Could you repeat that one more time?‘ I asked nervously.

He sighed and asked – charge. What charge do you want on the card? 5 dinar, 12 dinar, 20 dinar, we have all sorts..

It finally dawned on me that he had said شحن  / shaHn (load) of the card and not شاحن / shaaHin (truck).

#4. Wrongly thinking someone was harassing me

One of two embarrassing mistakes that happened in a taxi, I was on a trip to the mall and happened to strike up a conversation with the taxi driver. The conversation started well enough, with the usual niceties and he asked me why I was going to the mall. I said I was going there to meet a few of my Arab girlfriends for coffee.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Min ‘uyuuni.’, pointing to one cheek with one forefinger and then the other cheek with the same forefinger.

Now this was literally in the first three months of landing in Amman and people kept telling me stories about how flirtatious and daring a lot of drivers could be, especially when encountering a young lady on her own in Amman. On top of that I was still unfamiliar with any expressions or sayings of Levantine dialect in general. All I knew was he said من عيوني which I literally translated as from my eyes. Couple that with the cheek pointing and I somehow concluded that he wanted a kiss? On both cheeks?

Naw mate, never gonna happen.

Not quite sure how to respond, I sat stiff as a board in the backseat, suddenly finding the window pane the most interesting thing in the world that I had encountered in my life ever, puzzling about how the perfectly civil and polite conversation had devolved into a smooching agreement. What in the world did I say?! I wondered. I knew I shouldn’t have worn mascara, they always get the wrong idea then.

The driver must have wondered what had happened, because we pretty much sat in awkward silence throughout the rest of the ride. When my stop arrived, I hurriedly handed him the money and fled to my friends. When I squeaked breathlessly to them  about how the driver wanted a kiss and how dare he he’s 50 years old!, they laughed for a good 30 seconds before explaining that من عيوني was a local expression for ‘it’s my pleasure,’ usually said as a response to a request from someone.

Oh. I squeaked. Of course.

#3. Accidentally agreeing to be set up with someone’s son

I hate to say this, but this pretty much happened close to the end of my year’s stay in Jordan. What had happened was that I was in a taxi back to my apartment and as usual, was conversing with the driver. Anyone who has had this experience of being in a taxi in Jordan will understand when I say that the driver feels it his God-given obligation to interrogate you with the following checklist of questions.

Where are you from?


Where is that? In India?

Uhhh nope. Not really. It’s a country south of Malaysia.

Ahh Maleeziyya! Yes yes. So you work here?

Nope. I study Arabic here.

Ah wonderful! Are you married?

At which point I usually go by a demure Inshallah (If God wills it so) or otherwise I have a special male friend or my priority is my study. But for some insane reason, by a slip of the tongue, instead I said Ya reit (I wish).

Call it a Freudian slip or whatever term you like, but I basically had to endure the rest of the ride explaining awkwardly why no, I would not like to marry your son, whom I’m sure has the IQ of Einstein and is as handsome as Amr Diab and is as religious as Al-ghazzali, God bless him.

#2. Calling someone gay by accident

I’m pretty sure I can’t have been the only one to have made this mistake, and I’ll tell you why. The word for gay in Arabic is مِثْلَيّ / mithlayy, with a shaddah on the ي while the phrase ‘like me’ is مِثْلِي / mithli.

I can’t remember the actual context of the conversation, but I must have been drawing a comparison or similarity of some sort between the person I was talking to and myself, as I was wont to do, and concluded my sentence with a confident انت مِثْلَيّ! inta mithlayy (you’re gay!) instead of انت مِثْلِي / inta mithlii (you’re like me!).

Needless to say, that got a really confused look from the other party.

#1. Introducing myself as a pe***

This one definitely takes the cake. I’m not sure if you know this, but my actual name is Zubaidah. It’s an Arabic name and it’s a beautiful name, but it’s a bit of a mouthful for a lot of people back home in Singapore. So to make things easier for everyone, most people went by the abbreviated name Zubby.

It seemed pretty harmless at the time, but little did I know that in Levantine Arabic, زوب / zoob is basically a naughty word for what is pretty much the male appendage. Tack on the ‘y’ at the end, (which is the Arabic equivalent of a possessive pronoun of saying that something belongs to you) and it became زوبي / zoobi (my pe***) Needless to say, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

So I kid you not, the first time I met an Arab person, in my first few days in Jordan, I literally introduced myself as

‘Hi! My name is My Penis.’

Could it be any worse that that? Probably not.

Needless to say, I learnt real quick to switch back to using my original name. No chance of calling myself a sexual organ by mistake any longer.

So in Conclusion

So next time you beat yourself up about making some silly mistake, don’t.

We’ve all been there, multiple times even. I definitely have. And I’ve yet to meet someone who has been genuinely offended by a mistake that I made and our relationship ended up irreparably damaged forever – in fact, the responses I’ve had have been the exact opposite. Native speakers are more than accommodating and far more forgiving when they see that you’re trying your hardest to communicate in their tongue, even if it means butchering and stumbling and stuttering your way through it. They might chuckle at a mistake, but they really appreciate the genuine effort. So stop kicking yourself, enjoy the learning process and embrace the knowledge that every mistake you made brings you one step closer to where you want to go.

What were some of the most embarrassing mistakes you’ve made while learning a language? Don’t be shy or feel afraid – in fact the more embarrassing the better! I’d love to read them. It’s my hope to create a community where we can each share our mistakes and challenges in learning Arabic without feeling judged, criticised or embarrassed. Share them in the comments if you feel the same way!

Sep 13

Why Levantine Arabic Matters (and why no one tells you that it does) – Part II

So what seems to be the problem? (Continued from part I)

The problem that I find with this approach is that often times when a student gets off the plane at an Arab country, feeling ever so slightly confident in their grasp of Fus-ha after three or four years of college instruction, they will very quickly find that the usefulness of their knowledge of MSA has been vastly overrated. I know this because I found myself in that exact same position arriving weary, wrinkled and dusty in Amman in the fall of 2012, and quickly realising with a sinking heart and impending sense of doom that not only did I not understand a single word of anything that was happening around me, but that even when I did speak the few words of Fus-ha that I knew, not everyone could understand what I was talking about.

Not surprisingly, this came as a rude shock to me. I realised that after all those years of conjugating verbs for 14 different pronouns over and over again that not only were those words not used to begin with, but when I did in fact use them, I actually received some very strange looks (not to mention amused chuckles) that placed me squarely and immediately in the foreigner camp. Which is absolutely fine if you’re comfortable with that, but sometimes speaking Amiyyah and Fus-ha could be the difference between getting ripped off in a cab or not or getting a bargain at the سوق  / souq (market) or being charged the أجنبي / ajnabiyy (foreigner) price.

So here’s what my two ‘irsh of advice is.

Learn Ammiyah. Why? Because

1. It will help you to survive on the streets.

As I’ve mentioned before, Amiyyah is THE language of communication on the streets of any Arab country. Hardly anyone speaks Fus-ha to one other, unless you’re an Arabic student or someone is reciting words of poetry. Amiyyah is used in taxis, in shops, in offices (even government ones), police stations, in restaurants, the list goes on. Even if you spoke perfect Fus-ha which everyone understood, there is no guarantee that they will respond to you in it, and you will still be left struggling to understand where you are supposed to go or what you are supposed to do or where the conversation is going.

Fus-ha is still largely regarded to be a language of those who have been privileged enough to learn it, but don’t assume that everyone is able to engage in it. I’ve personally met youths, taxi drivers and children who can’t speak it because they’re never had exposure to it and there was never a need for them to learn it. So if for no other reason than out of practicality, Amiyyah will go a long way towards ensuring your survival on the streets.

2. It breaks down barriers.

I am well aware that the reasons for the study of Arabic vary widely from person to person. Some want to undertake it to study the language of the Holy Qur’an, some want to be able to read historical Arabic texts from the Byzantine empire, some just want to appreciate Arabic music and poetry better and for many of us, the goal is to be able to communicate with Arabs themselves and to get a better, nuanced understanding of culture, history and environment.

Although speaking in Fus-ha will already take you light years ahead in being able to communicate the people in the Middle East, I’ve found that speaking Amiyyah is truly when you start to break down barriers. The best comparison I can draw would be between speaking the Queen’s English to a group of youth and speaking street slang. Which do you reckon would allow you to connect with them better?

Most Arabs that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting who find out that I can speak some Amiyyah react with delight and wonder, even more so than when they discover that I speak Fus-ha. The fact that you’re willing to put in that extra mile to learn and practice in a language that is uniquely locally theirs is a sign of genuine determination that you are interested in talking to and connecting with them.

3. It’s fun.

It might be hard to imagine that learning another language over and above Fus-ha could actually be enjoyable, but it is. People may say that Amiyyah is a derivative of Fus-ha, which is true in the sense that there are many words in common, but for all intents and purposes I consider Fus-ha and Amiyyah to be two separate languages altogether. Even though there shared words between them are plentiful, words are pronounced differently, sentences are constructed differently, even prepositions are used differently. Grammar is hardly existent. Where the fun comes in is that Amiyyah, once you get the hang of it, is far easier and laid back and you won’t have to focus and think so hard about the right order for khabar and mubtada’ or the conjugation for huma and antunna and you’ll get the pleasure of using words that are so synonymous with Arabic like heik, bas, and shwai.

One of the things that delighted me personally about using Amiyyah was being able to use common expressions that the guy on the street would use. One I used all the time was:

هيك الحياة و هيك أحوالها / heik al7aya wa heik a7walha. (That’s life, and that is it’s condition).

I would use this all the time, especially when talking about something that was sobering or sad, like discussing a friend migrating for a job abroad or corruption in the government or people who were self-seeking. Each new expression I learnt would give me more insight into the people that I was communicating with.

4. It helps you to pass off as Arab.

Because of the simple fact that no Arab person would actually speak Fus-ha, speaking Amiyyah might be that crucial difference between getting the bargain on that gorgeous scarf down at the souq or not getting fleeced by taxi drivers. I remember in my first couple of months in Jordan and speaking in Fus-ha in public, I might as well have stamped the word Foreigner on my forehead. Drivers kept trying to make me pay more than necessary, even though the meter was clearly on, and after two months of that happening, it started to chafe on me a little. Just learning a few simple yet crucial words of Amiyyah signals that you’ve been here a while and you know how things work (even if that’s not necessarily true) and could mean the difference between a pleasant ride and a stressful negotiation at the end.

In conclusion, I admit that learning Amiyyah first and foremost depends on what your objectives are for learning Arabic. If all you need it for is to understand classical and religious texts, there is no need for you to expend your time,energy and efforts on Amiyyah. However if, like me, you were curious about this mysterious language and were both eager and desperate to be able to communicate, survive and thrive in the environment, then I would strongly, highly suggest putting in some work and effort to learn it before departing.

Even though at this point it might seem unimportant and useless, you will get on your knees and thank Allah/Jesus/Buddha when you are lost on the streets of Cairo and desperate for directions and there are no street signs and Google maps is refusing to load and you can’t understand anyone dammit and you’re praying please God just let me get home.


Sep 13

Why Levantine Arabic Matters (And why no one tells you that it does) – Part I

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time now, firstly because I think it’s important enough to deserve a mention and secondly it bugs me slightly when the issue gets slipped under the proverbial (flying) carpet.

That issue, my friends, is the issue of Amiyyah in Arabic learning. For those who are unfamiliar, عامية / Amiyyah refers to the colloquial language or dialect that is spoken on the streets of most Arab countries. While Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or fus-ha, as it is also known) is the language that is widely used in newspapers, news television channels and official documents. Amiyyah is the language of everyday life, used on the streets, in marketplaces and in taxis and is the main mode of communication between Arabs themselves.

One of the main struggles with Amiyyah, however, is that like with most dialects, it changes depending on which part of the Arab world you’re in. The Amiyyah in Jordan is described as being similar to other countries around the Levant, like the Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian dialects, Moroccan and Algerian dialects are known to have strong French influences and the Egyptian dialect, made popular through Egyptian music and movies, is uniquely distinct.

I can say with 100% certainty that in the 3 years that I studied Arabic in Singapore, that no attention at all was paid to عامية / amiyyah (colloquial) learning. I do remember that in the Al-Kitaab series, for example, a page or two in each chapter dedicated to Egyptian Amiyyah, but there wasn’t much to focus on it in any productive or meaningful way.

In some respects, I am able to see why this has become a challenge for many institutions of Arabic learning, for the following reasons.

1. Which Amiyyah wins?

First and foremost, out of the multiple Amiyyah languages available, how would one choose which dialect to teach? Even if, supposing that Egyptian Amiyyah was considered the most widespread and understood of dialects, what use would a student have for it if he was never going to be in Egypt? And even if he or she were to be able to speak Egyptian Amiyyah, how would they be able to understand the Amiyyah in a place like Oman or Lebanon?

2. Avoiding Potential Confusion 

Another reason born of practicality is because Ammiyah is generally known to be a more flexible, free-flowing and easy (some would say watered-down) version of MSA, instructors fear that teaching students Amiyyah will detract from the structure, rigidity and meticulous grammar of Fus-ha, and therefore prefer not to teach it to avoid potential confusion. In fact, Fus-ha is a much easier language to teach, because there is an actual system and order behind it that is sometimes lacking in Amiyyah. So not only does teaching Fus-ha make it easier on the students, it makes it easier on instructors as well.

3. What’s the point?

I personally think that in many institutions of Arabic, instructors don’t really see much value behind spending the time, effort and resources into teaching Amiyyah. I’m not at all saying that institutes are ill-intentioned in making this decision – the reason for this is simple – thanks to the standardised and formalised Arabic in Fus-ha, they think that as long as a student understands and is able to speak it, he or she should not have a problem getting around in the Arab world. Not to mention most media resources and official personal and government documents are in MSA, which makes for a compelling case why more effort and energy should be poured into it.


Sep 13

Arabic and I – A Torrid Love Affair (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

And so it continued, my torrid love affair with Arabic. I came breathlessly to class each week, to be enthralled with verb conjugations, different tenses, grammatical morphology and vocabulary. For those sacred two hours a week, I was in my element, coasting by and feeling confident, encouraged by the instructor’s proudly approving nods and smiles whenever I produced something the rest couldn’t. Each time the lesson ended, I craved more, waiting impatiently for the next seven days to pass before the next class came again.

Yet Arabic is considered one of the hardest languages in the world, and with good reason. The relationship that I had with it could be described as love-hate and on-again-off-again. Like listening to honeyed words from a lover, I lapped the information upped eagerly, savouring the feel and taste of words on my tongue and delighting in the fact that no one else understood this private conversation that we shared. Something as simple as getting a sentence right was enough to make me feel like I was on cloud nine.

I couldn’t get enough of him – I knew that if I wanted to get to know him better, two hours a week wouldn’t cut it. I tried to find every excuse to spend more time around him – I scoured the Net for Arabic resources, found BBC Arabic Online and Aljazeera, listened to streaming news stations and (attempted) to read the news in Arabic. I discovered Google Translate, searched for blogs that could help me in any way, bought children’s books from the meagre Arabic section at the local mosques.

But like any other relationship, there were moments where I thought I’d throw in the towel. Not being to understand a piece of text would throw me into tears of despair, and after a year I still couldn’t remember not only how to conjugate the present and past tenses for أنتما /antuma (two of you) and هما / huma (two of them) but could barely remember what the pronouns were in the first place. Grammar rules were completely alien to me and could not for the life of me differentiate between مرفوع  /  marfou’, منصوب / manSoob and مجرور / majroor and when to use which. Putting even a slightly complicated sentence together was a struggle in frustration and doubt. Like an emotionally unavailable lover, it seemed no matter how much of myself I committed and gave, I would never get through.

And so students would start off promisingly enough, coming faithfully each time like on a first date, enthused and excited at the promise of picking up an exotic, foreign language that they had heard so much about. But right around the intermediate level, the battle of wills became ever more clear, as evidenced by the number of students who fell by the wayside with each hurdle. Some moaned the lack of time, some said it was too hard, some didn’t even bother showing up. Beginner levels that used to be 30-strong would be whittled down to 15 by the next level, and 8 by the next.  Week-long breaks that used to separate two consequent semesters began to stretch to a months, three months, sometimes six.

I didn’t let that deter me. After all, I was in love.

Finally, as I progressed to the highest level at the institute, we had dwindled to a grand total of 3. We chugged on, trying to ignore the deafening silence of the classroom and rows of empty chairs around us. If even one of us couldn’t make it, the class would be cancelled and despite my best efforts to keep pushing on, the train finally ground to a halt. The unthinkable happened – the centre said it couldn’t afford to continue opening classes for the highest level.

‘We don’t have enough students,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to wait until we have enough students to form a class.’

‘Well how long do you think that will take?’ I asked.

‘We don’t know, it could be three months, maybe six, maybe more. It really depends. In the meantime you’ll have to find another way.’

My heart sank to my shoes. It was like being told you weren’t allowed to see the person you loved anymore. I couldn’t imagine a life without Arabic, without that sense of satisfaction from recognizing a new word or having those precious two hours where I could just forget about everything else and just sink and immerse myself in this linguistic world. Crestfallen, I tried feebly to recreate the relationship I once had with it. Akin to looking at old photos after a break-up, I tried half-heartedly to listen to news broadcasts and read articles on BBC Arabic.

But my heart wasn’t in it. Life and work took over, and with most other things, it fell lower down on my priority list. But deep down I always knew I wasn’t satisfied with my ability in it – I needed something more than just 15 minutes harriedly stashed at the end of the work lunch break. I needed, I desired, more time, more practice, more interaction, just more. We could resurrect this relationship, I promised, if only we had more time to spend together.

The only way to do that, I decided, would be to spend a year in the Middle East.

Sep 13

Arabic and I – A Torrid Love Affair (Part 1)

Arabic and I – we go back a long way.

Growing up Muslim, I had always been exposed to the language of the Qur’an, and so the alphabet with its squiggly letters and foreign sounds had been drilled into me from a young age. Oddly enough, though much emphasis was placed on the right pronunciation, hardly any attention was paid to teaching what it actually meant. And so much of my Quranic recitation left me feeling slightly parrot-like, completing line after line after line but with little comprehension of what I was reading.

And so when I completed reading all thirty juz’ (parts) of the Qur’an at age 12, Arabic and I bid farewell to each other. I didn’t see the point of delving any further into it and felt there were more fruitful pursuits to engage in with my time. I thought of it as a language with little relevance to my immediate practical life – a language of the Qur’an, which was and still is one of the most beautiful miracles of Islam, yet a language which had little bearing on me.

Turn the clock 7 years later where at 19 years old I was a sophomore in college and had just completed an internship at the Middle East desk at a government statutory board. With still a couple months to go in the summer break, I moaned to my dad that I was bored and didn’t have anything interesting to do. ‘Why don’t you pick up Arabic?’ he suggested. ‘Learn a foreign language, it might come in useful some day.’

I distinctly remember that when he said that, a light bulb turned on in my head. At that point the language, for me, conjured up images of exoticism and mysticism, and with recent initiatives spearheaded by the government to engage economically with the Gulf states, it married two things – practicality and intrigue in the region. After all, I was already familiar with the script and its pronunciation – already a step ahead of the competition! I smugly thought to myself.

And so after two minutes of Googling, I found an Arabic language centre (conveniently located in Arab street) in Singapore, duly went down to register for classes, filled in a placement questionnaire and waited for classes to start. I remember the first lesson was taught by a young, cheerful guy with intelligent eyes and a flashing smile. From the first moment when he greeted us with marhaba / مرحبا (hello) and started writing the pronouns down on the board huwa / هو (he), hiya / هي (she) and nahnu / نحن (us), I knew I was in love.  Hearing the teachers speak among themselves with such tongue-twisting dexterity that was absolute beauty to my ears, I was in awe. I want to, I have to be like them, I said to myself.

And so, my torrid love affair with the Arabic language began. There are few times in life when one feels so intuitively good at something, like a fish swimming with the current instead of against it. So many times in life, we are confronted by challenges that only serve to drain us emotionally, psychologically and physically and leave us feeling insecure, inadequate and incompetent. And then we beat ourselves up about it afterwards. Arabic was the complete opposite for me – sure, it presented me with challenges each time, but challenges that I could easily overcome, challenges that gave me strength, confidence and certainty. Something as simple as knowing how to tell time or constructing a simple sentence imbued me with a sense of power and surety, that told me I was smart, competent and above all, good at what I did.

Sep 13

Feeling out of place, lost and confused – I can’t be the only one, can I?

As I sit here in front of my computer, the dreaded all-too-familiar feelings wash over me again.

It’s that time of my life once more, having to search for the next job opportunity. One would think that it should get easier the older you get and the more times you do it, but personally it seems like a steeper uphill struggle each time.

Having spent the last year learning Arabic in Jordan, I can say with absolute certainty that those months were hands-down the best 12 months of my life. I had quit my job with a reputable Fortune 500 company in the Fall of ’12 after 2 years and 6 months of mind-numbing drudgery in order to pursue one of my burning passions – the Arabic language.

I had thought at the time that after spending a year doing the one thing that I loved the most, a career path would open up in front of me invitingly, with flashing neon-lit arrows around it directing me towards the one true calling that I was ordained to do. I mean, wasn’t that what everyone said? From Oprah Winfrey’s ‘You’ve got to follow your passion. You’ve got to figure out what it is you love–who you really are’ to Steven Job’s ‘You’ve got to find what you love’, the path seemed simple and straightforward enough – focus on what you love doing, and the rest will work itself out.

As amazing and life-altering as my time abroad was, here I am yet again, at the end of those 12 months, wondering where and how to take the next step. I’m sure you know what I mean when I talk about looking through the job websites and openings, flipping through page after page after page with a sinking feeling that you are still A. under-qualified for the role and B. not really excited about the nature of the job to begin with. That nagging feeling that you will have to start out, yet again at the bottom of the ladder, while others around you are fast-tracking their careers and well on their way to the top of the corporate (or academic) ladder. What is it about the job search that makes you feel awfully pigeonholed, yet like a square peg in a round hole, all at the same time?

So here I am, trying everything I can get my hands on, from Scott Dinsmore’s Live Off Your Passion Course to Richard Bolle’s What Colour is Your Parachute in order to find some, ANY, sort of clarity from the situation. Maybe I’m foolish for thinking this, but I firmly believe I don’t have to feel this way about finding gainful employment, that there has to, must be a way for me to find something that excites, challenges (and pays) me that I know I would be intuitively good at. I’m going to find out how.

My life depends on it.