How Foreign Language Immersion Changes Your Perspective On The World

Coptic Egyptians

I’m deeply saddened by the horrific, senseless murder of 21 Coptic Egyptians in Libya this week.

The very first time I lived in Egypt over 12 years ago, I was welcomed by and stayed with a Coptic community in a small village in Upper Egypt (that’s me visiting their church above).

They’re some of the most hospitable and kind people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing and even though many of them are poor and uneducated, their faith amazes me. They’ve persevered through centuries of oppressive policies including the deliberate loss of their native language. Seeing those 21 heroes holding steadfast to their faith till the end in the face of disgusting evil was a truly inspiring and courageous thing to see.

Selfie sticks don’t beat swords.


I wasn’t born into opportunity.

I was never the lucky kid who got to go on vacation with the family to interesting and exotic places, and I certainly didn’t have the chance to experience other cultures or even cuisine growing up (apart from deep-fried dim sims at the local fish’n’chip shop).

I was the stereotypical, monolingual Aussie kid of a working class family that struggled at times to make ends meet. We resented yuppies (rich people) and I particularly disliked kids who spent their school holidays in places like Singapore, Japan and France on family holidays.

For me right up to my teens, traveling to the Gold Coast (less than an hour drive from Brisbane) was an adventure and the ultimate extent of my travel experience.

It was all I knew growing up.


A very ‘franc’ Couchsurfer

CouchsurfingI hosted my first Couchsurfer years ago from France and acted as her tour guide while she was here (taking every opportunity to practice my French at the time). I couldn’t wait to take her for a drive up to the Gold Coast Hinterland which in my opinion was the most beautiful place in the world (despite not having been anywhere else to compare it to).

I remember how upset and offended I was one day when we were driving through the bush and, after having said to her “Isn’t this the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?”, she responded “No. You haven’t been anywhere else so how could you know?”


She didn’t mean any harm by it but it was a profound criticism that pierced my heart.

It hurt because it felt like an assault on my home and an accusation of ignorance on my part, but she was absolutely right.

I knew nothing about the outside world – not because I chose to be ignorant but because fate determined that I should be born into a family more concerned with putting food on the table and paying overdue rent than our next holiday destination.


My life-changing first stay in Egypt

I went on my first ever overseas trip to Egypt just after I finished high school.

For a guy in his late teens with my kind of background you can probably imagine how intense my culture shock experience was.

Besides all of the vastly different cultural differences, the sounds, smells and new sights, it was the exposure to another level of poverty that hit me the most.

I thought I was poor and unfortunate.

One of the most life-changing foreign language encounters I’ve ever had happened in a village in Upper Egypt.

I lived in this small village that had muddy streets, dilapidated buildings and not a single English speaker anywhere in its vicinity.

Invitation brought me here – friends of a friend. I didn’t really know anybody and I can’t even begin to describe how intimidating it was for an Aussie teenager who had only just started Arabic living in a place where every single villager comes out to see you day and night and the only way to get some privacy is to go to the bathroom.

One day I was invited to the home of a newly-made friend to meet his family, the first of many such invitations but by far the most memorable.

It was memorable because I wasn’t greeted with the usual, “Ahlan, ahlan!” with food being shoved down me and a barrage of questions about where I’m from and how much I like Egypt.

This family was quiet and completely unexcited.

The youngest son lay in a small bed beside the kitchen table and his mother made some tea. All the father asked me, without even greeting me, was how much money I had. At first I thought he was being rude and invasive but it quickly occurred to me that this family had a reason to be unhappy.

My new friend used a basic level of Arabic to explain to me that the boy in the bed beside the kitchen table had “a sick heart and will die soon”. He was about 10 years old.

I later discovered through someone else that this boy could have been helped with proper medical care but it was beyond this family’s financial capacity to pay for it.

Looking back in retrospect, the t-shirt that I was wearing that day when I visited their home cost me the equivalent of at least a month’s rent to that family.

Despite my “poverty” in Australia, I probably could have saved or at least helped that kid’s chance of survival with the little I did have.

I learned a powerful lesson that day and was seriously humbled.


Why languages matter to me

This has been in many ways the driving force behind my desire to learn languages over the last decade.

Until you can truly connect with people from another culture, which involves knowing or partly knowing their language, you’ll never fully grasp the struggles that people all over the world go through.

The best tourist attraction for me is engagement and a relationship with a local person, conversing with them and learning more about their story.

In Nice, France it was the taxi driver having a whinge about Algerians in his city.

In Aswan, Egypt it was the Nubian man complaining about his disrespectful nephew.

In Witternberg, Germany it was the girl on the train telling me about her up-coming exams.

In Chiavenna, Italy it was an Italian couple talking about renovating their holiday house in the alps.

In Rustavi, Georgia it was the Ukrainian hairdresser telling me about her dead-beat, Russian ex-husband.

In Kazan, Russia it was the Russian maid working like a slave for a billionaire family and the one thing keeping her spirits up – looking forward to seeing her grand daughter.

In Gumi, Korea it was the ajumma who ran the local bulgogi shop who told me about her favorite soapies.

This is why I love languages and why I’ve devoted the rest of my life to learning how to communicate with people from all over the world.

Learning languages just for the sake of convenient travel or to produce yet another ‘watch me speaking!’ video for YouTube gets old really quickly (believe me!) but connecting with and learning about people is something that’s always exciting and purposeful.


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Brutally Honest Review of ArabicPod101


I always say that one of the biggest problems that Arabic learners face is the serious lack of decent material and online tools to learn from.

As one of the most widely spoken and important languages on earth it shouldn’t be an issue but it is.

It’s such an issue in fact that I’ve spent a good part of the last year working on my own project dedicated to helping Arabic learners who are in this boat (right here).

One much more established website which has grown quite a lot in popularity is ArabicPod101, one of many 101 language editions produced by Innovative Language. It’s a company that started out as JapanesePod101 about a decade ago and now has about 35 language editions including Arabic (suffixed with either Pod101 or Class101).

They recently sent me access to the Premium member content to try out and review which I was more than happy to do.

I’ve gone through the site’s content with a fine-tooth comb and fired off a few questions to Innovative Language so I can provide you with more information to make an informed decision about whether or not it’s for you.


ArabicPod101 dashboard at first glance

ArabicPod101The ArabicPod101 content is divided between audio and video lessons.

When you first land on the member’s dashboard, you have a sidebar menu which you can switch between Audio and Video, and then select the level of difficulty.

The lesson content is categorized by difficulty ranging from ‘Absolute Beginner’ through to ‘Advanced’, with the addition of ‘Introduction’ content which is a basically a podcast series introducing the language, its history, culture and various other interesting (albeit not entirely necessary) information.

The categorization is a little sketchy though because it’s not entirely clear what the difference is between ‘Absolute Beginner’ and ‘Beginner’ here. There’s currently hardly any content in the ‘Beginner’ level at all so it would have made more sense to condense it all into one category.

The same is true for the ‘Intermediate’ level which contains a sub-heading for ‘Lower Intermediate’ but currently no ‘Higher Intermediate’.

Clicking on a category opens up a list of ‘courses’ which link to a list of topical lessons that correspond to a provided ‘curriculum’.

The first thing I noticed when browsing the available lessons is that the majority of the ArabicPod101 content is in the ‘Absolute Beginner’ category. There are quite a lot of entries for ‘Advanced’ level but a huge gap in content leading up to it (making it almost entirely unsuitable for anyone who’s not a complete beginner and not yet advanced either).

ArabicPod101Every lesson on the site also comes with a detailed PDF of the lesson notes, downloadable MP3 of the dialogues, and a tool to listen to the vocabulary and audio line-by-line.

You’re able to add new vocabulary to your ‘word bank’ or to the inbuilt flashcard app.


There’s then a final review section with some multiple choice and written quizzes to test your knowledge of the lesson content.

Below you’ll find the responses I received from Innovative Language to a few questions I put to them as well as my own feedback/critique of the ArabicPod101 content as a follow-up.


1. Which dialect or dialects does ArabicPod101 use (or primarily use)? lessons teach Egyptian and Moroccan Arabic, as well as Modern Standard Arabic. Our lessons aim to teach useful, spoken forms of expression, so we teach dialect from an early stage.

– Innovative Language


Teaching spoken dialects first: good.

Offering both Egyptian and Moroccan Arabic as well as MSA: great.

Not making this clear to the customer: very very bad.

When I started using ArabicPod101, the first thing I noticed and got incredibly frustrated with was that there’s no clear indication of which dialect or dialects the website actually focuses on.

It’s just ‘Arabic’.

Even after you get started with the lessons you’re often clicking on a lesson without knowing which dialect the lesson covers.

This is going to cause serious confusion for a new learner of Arabic signing up for the first time.

Once you get into the dashboard and start going through the content, you’re bouncing between Modern Standard, Moroccan and Egyptian – all of which are thoroughly different to each other (in fact it’s better to think of them as 3 separate languages rather than dialects).

So for a new learner to go through a series of lessons in say, Moroccan Arabic and then suddenly have the next series switch over to Egyptian Arabic or Modern Standard, it’s going to be confusing and make all of the content that they learned up to that point quite meaningless.

Since ArabicPod101 goes from Absolute Beginner through to Advanced, you would expect a progression that builds on earlier lessons in the same dialect but since the dialects are so different this is impossible.

My advice to Innovative Language would be to create 3 separate products – EgyptianPod101, MoroccanPod101 and perhaps leave ArabicPod101 just for MSA.

Eliminate the confusion and stop teaching three individual languages as one.

At the very least, be very clear about it before people sign up.


2. Does the content/each lesson align across all language editions? In other words would I find the exact same corresponding lessons in Russian, Japanese and so on at each level or are they each unique? If not, do the native speakers who are producing the content have freedom to choose what they’re doing?

The native speakers who create the content have a lot of freedom to choose what they teach, though we have a few standard series, such as Survival Phrases, that teach roughly the same kinds of expressions across all of our languages.

Innovative Language lessons are aligned to CEFR levels, and we typically ask that teachers try to teach to a standardized set of internal Can Do statements when preparing the dialogues and the grammar and vocabulary information.

At Absolute Beginner levels, we feel that these Can Do statements tend to be more universal (ordering food at a restaurant, buying train tickets, and so forth), so having a more standardized approach at the more beginning stages makes sense. The native speakers’ freedom to choose the most useful and relevant language skills, then, naturally increases as the proficiency level rises.

– Innovative Language


Now, I can’t comment on the correlation between ArabicPod101 and the other Pod101 and Class101 products since I’ve never used them but the response here from Innovative Language confirms what I thought was the case.

ArabicPod101 shows that sub-contracting content creation out to numerous native speakers without stricter oversight and a more rigid structure in place can lead to haphazard course content with no clear aims or objectives.

As a language educator I know that any kind of curriculum development begins with identifying the ultimate learning outcome/aim/objective, then establishing smaller aims/objectives that lead the learner up to that final desired outcome.

A lot of the content in ArabicPod101 is fantastic and very well done, and they do provide a ‘curriculum’ which is a table outlining what each ‘course’ contains but the impression I got was that the courses are haphazard and don’t seem to follow a clear objective or learning outcome at all.

The biggest problem this leads to and the most obvious one in the case of ArabicPod101 is the variation in quality between each lesson.

Some of the audio and video lessons are excellent and well done, whereas others are quite bad and not fit for sale.

You’ll notice that some of the video is quite high quality whereas a lot of it looks like it was produced in the 1980’s for VHS with an elevator music backing track that plays louder than the voices so you can barely make out what the native speakers are saying.


The video series with Chaima, a Moroccan woman, has loads of potential and is packed full of interesting and useful stuff for Moroccan dialect learners (I actually found these quite useful myself) but it’s hard to keep up with her as she’s racing through her own notes.

If she slowed down, spoke clearly and stayed more on topic then her videos would be the best feature of ArabicPod101 without doubt.


It seems to me that the primary concern of ArabicPod101 is the number of lessons over the quality of lessons.

There are so many different hosts for the podcasts in the audio lessons too and I find this lack of continuity distracting as well as making it unclear again which dialect is being taught and by who.

Again, because of the huge difference between Moroccan, Egyptian and MSA, the content in its entirety is unusable by a lot of learners not to mention really confusing.

There are a bunch of different lessons at various levels that talk about Egypt and Egyptian culture for example which include dialogues but they’re spoken in Modern Standard Arabic (why on earth I don’t know) rather than Egyptian as you’d expect.


3. Does ArabicPod101 (and all of the Pod101 editions) ascribe to a particular methodology?

Innovative Language believes in practical expressions, aligned to CEFR proficiency levels, in the natural context of native speech. Most lessons, then, begin with a dialogue in which a language skill is introduced in context. The rest of the lessons then go on to talk more about the cultural context in which the dialogue takes place, and the key vocabulary, phrases, morphology, and syntax that allow the learner to carry out the particular language task.

That said, one strength of is that it can be used with any number of methodologies. We’ve seen high-performance language learners use the site with a variety of approaches, including the listening-reading method and Alexander Argüelles’ shadowing and scriptorium methods (usually in some kind of adapted form). We believe that this is a particular strength of in that it can meet so many different needs.

– Innovative Language


This is where Innovative Languages gets it right.

It places an emphasis on functional, useful speech rather than heavy grammar explanations that confuse and bore the heck out of most people.

Learning to speak a language by studying grammar rules is an outdated, totally inefficient and poor way to learn any language and unfortunately most Arabic educators are still figuring this out which is why Arabic learning material is years behind other mainstream languages.

In the ArabicPod101 dashboard, you can listen to the podcast for the audio lessons (two native speakers having some banter about the topic). I personally don’t prefer to sit and listen to it because it takes too long to get to the point (I made the same criticism of TTMIK when I was learning Korean) but many people would find it helpful hearing the topic discussed casually.

You can click and listen to the Arabic dialogue directly as well which is nice.

The coolest feature in ArabicPod101 is being able to listen to the line-by-line audio and vocabulary under the Lesson Materials section which enables you to hear the new terms in isolation and then learn them in context straight away (with help from the lesson notes and transcripts).



4. What’s the one thing that sets ArabicPod101 apart from everything else on the market currently?

A lot of language learning tools seek to teach ‘real language,’ but everything in the products developed by Innovative Language are designed to get you speaking and using the language in an appropriate context right away. The site also offers a large and varied library of content, in both audio and video formats, which in itself offers students significant opportunities to interact with natural, native Arabic speech. Finally, a number of supporting features, such as the Core 2000 Word list, line-by-line audio tools, and even a guided learning experience under the Premium Plus subscription level, support a variety of study methodologies and styles.

– Innovative Language


I want to make an important point on the core word list and dictionary in ArabicPod101.

They would be excellent tools if they were clear on the dialect that’s being spoken.

Again we’re getting back to the main problem with ArabicPod101 which is that it’s all over the place as far as the dialects are concerned and seriously lacking clarification.

The core word list contains MSA vocabulary but this isn’t stated at all.

I searched for a few Arabic terms that I know are quite different across dialects using the dictionary and it mostly returned results that didn’t always indicate what was being spoken. For example, words I searched for returned the translations in Standard Arabic and then provided me with sample sentences which were in Egyptian and Moroccan Arabic (they sound very different especially to a new learner and in some cases use completely different vocabulary).

This is like looking up a word in a Spanish dictionary, finding the translation in Italian and then sample sentences in Portuguese (and not telling you which one is which). Not very helpful.

The built-in flash card app with SRS is excellent. I love the way it’s been designed and integrated into the site so that new words can be automatically added.


The “large and varied library of content” mentioned here in the response by Innovative Language unfortunately neglects the fact that the majority of the content on ArabicPod101 is in the ‘Absolute Beginner’ category and therefore not varied at all.

This is fine for completely new learners of Arabic but if you’re someone with a bit of background in Arabic or above the complete newbie level then you might be disappointed to discover that the ‘Intermediate’ content contains only 6 lessons (at the time of this writing), and the ‘Advanced’ content is all spoken in MSA (with an Egyptian accent).


And a few final points on ArabicPod101:

I have mixed feelings about ArabicPod101 as a resource for Arabic learners.

In some ways it’s great and in other ways it’s way too shoddy, incomplete and lacking clarity for new learners.

Here are a few final points:

There are incessant annoying advertising both on site and through email spam.

Premium members still have to put up with this too which makes it even more irritating. If I’m a paying premium member to a site, I don’t want to be bombarded with ads and sales pitches, constant annoying emails and ads on top of videos that I’ve already paid for (many of the members videos have calls to ‘become a member’ – why???).

The resources page is incomplete and contains scant grammar explanations. I’m not really sure why the resource section is there in its current state.

The lesson notes, line-by-line audio and flashcard tool are the features I think are excellent and the videos by Chaima would be brilliant if she worked on her lesson delivery.

Because the language series started out as the highly successful JapanesePod101, I get the feeling that Innovative Language has taken a good idea that worked well and attempted to ‘cookie cutter’ it for many other languages. As I said above, sub-contracting this out to other people means that it’s very hard for them to keep an eye on the quality of content being produced and to maintain consistency across all languages and levels.

I would highly recommend ArabicPod101 to anyone interested in learning Moroccan Arabic since there isn’t much out there for the Moroccan dialect at present.

There’s enough material on the site for the Moroccan dialect that it is actually quite a useful and unique resource.

For MSA, Egyptian or any other dialect I would be a little more reluctant to recommend ArabicPod101 however.

If you’d like to check the material out for yourself, then you can make a trial 7 day account by clicking here.


Have you used ArabicPod101 or any of the other Pod101/Class101 products? 

Share your thoughts on them below.


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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