I finally got a chance this week to meet and hang out with one of the fantastic Arabic teachers from italki here in Cairo.
I gave her a t-shirt (courtesy of italki) and she gave me some fresh dates from her farm near Assuit in Upper Egypt. This is why I love learning languages and travel – making new and interesting friends all around the world.
Most of us eventually hit learning plateaus.
These are times where we feel like we’re not learning much anymore. Learning stops feeling like a rapid ascent and no matter how much study we do it seems like we’re getting nowhere.
When you’ve finished a book or a course and hit a learning plateau it can leave you wondering, “Well, what do I do now?”
There’s a pretty straightforward enough explanation for why this happens too: we become proficient enough in the language and able to use it enough to achieve what we want or need that all the gaps in our proficiency level start to become less clear and definable (this is where fossilization becomes a risk).
Put simply, when I can’t talk about what I did yesterday, I know that I need to learn the past tense.
If I can’t talk about what I’m doing tomorrow then I need to learn the future tense.
It’s more obvious when you’re at a low level what needs to be learned and what doesn’t.
But when you’re at a higher level you know most of this stuff already. This doesn’t mean you know it perfectly by any means but you know enough language to handle most situations.
This is where we reach higher level plateaus.
So firstly let’s clear up one misconception:
Fluent DOES NOT mean you can talk about advanced topics
I think the word advanced is almost as poorly defined and confusing for people as the word fluency.
You can be very fluent in a language and still not be able to discuss loads of advanced topics.
My dad is totally computer illiterate. He’s the kind of guy who needs help finding the power button on a computer.
I on the other hand am a bit of a nerd. I like programming, I use an open source operating system, I do things like vector and web design, and so on.
If I talked to my dad about any of those things or on the same level that I would talk to another person with the same interests as mine, do you think he’d have a clue what I’m talking about?
It would basically be a foreign language to him.
So would it then be correct to say that I’m more fluent in English because I can talk about something that he can’t?
We’re both perfectly fluent English speakers.
So fluency has nothing to do with content and even if there are a bunch of topics that you can’t talk about in a foreign language, it’s not an indicator of your proficiency level.
You can be at near-native level fluency and still be unable to discuss a range a topics that you’re unfamiliar with or not knowledgeable in.
The key is in how you would respond to someone who was talking with you about an advanced topic that you don’t understand.
Are you any less fluent if you choose easier words over others? For example, using look at instead of examine, talk to instead of discuss, fight instead of dispute or argument, and so on.
Could you explain your political, religious or social views in a simpler way even if you didn’t know all the terms?
How about describing your feelings or emotions?
Think about people who live in lower socio-economic areas of your country who aren’t highly educated – how do they communicate with each other? Actually the term lower socio-economic is a good example – I know plenty of people back home who wouldn’t even know what that means.
They’d use a simple word like poor instead and they’re just as fluent as I am!
As a language learning exercise pick any advanced level conversation and see if you can re-word it using layman’s terms (first in your native language and then in your foreign language).
Knowledge of advanced content has nothing to do with your fluency level.
We become settled on comfortable ways of expressing things
Language learners develop habits over time.
These aren’t necessarily bad or wrong habits either.
We pick up certain ways of saying things that work well for us if they get whatever it is we want done. They achieve the goal we want so we no longer see a need to improve on them.
For example, in Arabic there are so many ways to go about haggling prices in street markets (you could write a book on haggle slang I’m sure :)).
Since there is a verb that literally means ‘to make something cheaper’ (rakhas (رخص)) should a person just use that every time?
If it makes sense and it works why not?
But what about the plethora of other ways you could get the same point across – (for example using the verb ‘to make something go down’ (nazzal(نزل)) for the price)?
It’s quite easy for a learner to develop a habit of using the same word or expression every time in the same situation.
When I first arrived here in Cairo 12 years ago one of the first phrases I learned was ‘can you take me to…’ for taking taxis. I used it every single time I got in a taxi as a new learner.
The problem is – native speakers rarely if ever do this. Even though it’s not incorrect and gets the job done, there are better ways to handle the situation. Cab drivers don’t have time to sit there and listen to you speak that long-winded shite on a busy street when they want to keep moving.
It requires a real conscience effort on our part as learners to stop and think about what we’re saying and whether or not there are other better ways to say it.
Be attentive to the way native speakers do it.
When we talk about improving at high levels what we actually want to do is to find better or more appropriate ways to say the things we already know.
So as a high level learner of Arabic how am I doing this?
In addition to taking private lessons a few times a week, there are two things I’m mainly doing now to improve at my level (one is a self-learning exercise and the other is social).
Dissecting video and audio content
Now this can be quite tedious if I spend too much time on it but it helps me immensely in small portions.
I’ve been using talk shows on CBC (a popular station here in Egypt).
Talk/interview shows are the best source to use because they’re natural and mostly unscripted. I don’t like to use films for this reason.
Listening to real people interact on a talk show or in an interview allows you to hear how language is naturally used between two or more people and it generally stays on topic.
I save the YouTube file to my computer (so I can easily rewind, pause and cut the file if I need to) using any one of the many browser add-ons to do this and I choose an interesting but brief one minute segment of the interview.
I listen to that segment dozens or even hundreds of times over.
I then take whatever new words and expressions I can get out of it and store them on Anki which is one of several great flashcard programs (once I’m done with Anki I can export the Anki file to Dropbox and then import it to my Android).
There are two difficulties I face doing this however:
1. It’s not always possible to find colloquial expressions or vocab definitions online (this is an even bigger problem for languages like Arabic where dialect material is scarce).
2. A lot of the new expressions I hear are unable to be translated literally and make no sense to outsiders. This is one of the biggest challenges for higher level learners in that there are lots of idiomatic expressions which can’t be literally translated or understood without an explanation.
So because of this it’s essential that I take notes on the segment and then show them to my private tutor the next time I see him (who often says things to me like, “Oh man, this is a very slang expression. Where did you hear it?”)
In the screenshot above is an interview I watched recently where the woman uses an array of descriptive language taken from a classic novel and a lot of it just stumped the hell out of me. I couldn’t find an answer for much of it anywhere online so having a teacher was vital to get explanations.
This is something you can find a tool like italki very useful for if you don’t have access to local teachers or practice partners.
The most important thing is that whatever I learn on my own by watching or listening to something, I put it into practice as soon as possible.
Memorizing flashcards is an utterly pointless exercise if you don’t use what you’re learning.
I like to think of my goal as being 10% study time – the other 90% of the time should be using/practicing what I covered in that 10% of the time.
Prepare for real situations and take advantage of them
I have a huge tear on a pair of my good shorts right now.
I was going to throw them out but I see it as a great opportunity for me to improve my Arabic and learn a few new things because there happens to be a tailor on my street here.
So I’ve actually been learning new words and expressions to do with mending clothes and will go down to one of the local places here to get my shorts mended next week.
Of course I could easily get this done without any problems already.
I could speak fluently with the guy and get the job done without having to learn anything new but that would be a wasted opportunity to improve. Wouldn’t it be better to use moments like these as opportunities to pick up a few new profession-specific terms and find out exactly how native speakers deal with clothing repair/alterations?
Sometimes you don’t even need to learn new vocab or expressions – you might just have to discover exactly how a native speaker would ask for it (with words you already know).
The lessons I have with my private tutor are all highly practical, situational lessons like this. We pick a real situation, he teaches me a bunch of local expressions and terms I can use (a lot of which aren’t covered by any textbook because they’re very colloquial/slang) and then we role-play them.
After the lesson I head off and use it all as soon as possible.
This doesn’t just have to be situations that are unfamiliar.
Think about all the things you can already talk about in a foreign language and consider how you can improve on them.
I spent a 2 hour lesson last Thursday on how to improve my conversation with the butcher and all the different meat cuts, how to request lean meat, minced meat, breast, chops, portions and so on. It was a super specific lesson and it amazed me just how many local expressions there are for that one situation alone.
If you’re stuck on a learning plateau just open your mind to the almost infinite amount of different situational expressions you could work on improving.
Should I use higher level textbooks?
Just one final note on textbooks for higher level learners.
I’m reviewing a few incredibly outstanding books for colloquial Arabic from AUC at the moment (see here, here and here) and one thing they have in common is that they teach by addressing real world issues through the target language.
This means that they focus on getting you to think about serious topics that will require you to use new terms and expressions.
They equip you with the expressions and terms you need and then through both reading and video content you’re able to see/hear and apply them through interaction.
Language learning in a sense then becomes incidental to serious, interesting discussion (rather than the other way round).
The thing I like about these kinds of books is that you can use them on your own or use them as points of discussion with language exchange partners or in a classroom.
The point is they’re not just teaching you language in isolation (a lot of textbooks will run through chapter-by-chapter analysis of advanced grammar, isolated word lists and so on). These kinds of books might interest some people but there’s little value in them for improving your conversational skills overall.
It’s of course not possible for me to address individual languages and what books are available here but it’s something for you to keep in mind when looking for a text to work with (be sure to make recommendations of your own in the comment section below to help others if you use any!).
Are there any issues you’ve faced as a high level learner trying to improve (comment below)?
What have you found helpful?
This was written by Donovan Nagel.
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