Scott Bridges

Vanity Online Brand Facilitation Node

Week 6 learning diary: fruit and veg and meat and tests

Sunday

As always after a weekend I was pretty rusty this morning and it took a while to warm up to the vocab quiz and get my brain back in the game. We took some detours throughout the quiz and our discussion about the weekend as new vocab popped up — for example, we explored the difference between the verb haawala (to try to do something) and jarraba (to try, for example, food).

We then revised near demonstrative pronouns. I already knew the singular and plural human versions but didn’t know the dual form versions. Unlike other grammar topics, these seem to stick in my memory quite easily. We spent a while practising them by taking turns to put them into sentences using words from recent study topics. After the break we kept working on the grocer topic and put together a long list of fruits and vegetables and their Arabic names. I love in particular qarnabit for cauliflower, sabaanikh for spinich, mishmish for apricot and foolfool for capsicum/chilli.

Monday

We kicked off the day with a fun version of our vocab quiz: we had to take turns making a story sentence by sentence that took place in a grocer, a bank, and an airport. Our story involved a man who went to the grocer to buy a kiwi but there were none so he flew to New Zealand, withdrew money from a bank, bought a kilo of kiwis, but was then caught at Amman customs upon his return because a Kiwi disease meant importation was temporarily forbidden.

We then followed up yesterday’s lesson on near demonstratives with far demonstratives and I’m feeling really good about it all except for the pronunciation of both plural pronouns which I can’t seem to nail for some reason. Their tangle of alifs, lams, wows, and hamzas just don’t trigger cleanly in my brain. The grammar theme continued after the break with some weak vowel conjugation revision. This is definitely a weak point for me but I feel like today’s revision helped force some progress in internalising the rules.

We rounded out the day with some fun shopping role plays. I’m really enjoying the working relationship I have with my two current classmates.

Tuesday

I dunno what it is with Tuesdays but these hump days are turning out to be when I become hyperaware of what I don’t know and can’t do, and I feel a bit overwhelmed with anxiety about the scale of this task. Today was no different, and it didn’t help that we learned the verb for failing in studies (rasaba). Having said that, and to focus on the positives, today I was aware of how my speaking is progressing, especially with respect to using object pronouns more subconsciously.

Today’s grammar was revision of negation. Like demonstratives the other day, I knew these words but didn’t know the associated grammar rules which govern changes you need to make when using lam (negating past with a present tense verb) and lan (negating future with a present tense verb). The rules seem simple enough and hopefully I can recall them easily when using them. We moved on from the topic of the grocer’s to the butcher’s today, working through vocab for all the carnivorous food and associated stuff like verbs and adjectives for chop, mince, bone etc.

I also enjoyed making connections between words today. I love that the word for “corrupt” (faasid), as in a corrupt person, is the same for “rotten”, as in food. And I suddenly realised that the word for “demonstrative” pronouns (isnaad) is used along with the word for “light” in “traffic light”.

Wednesday

Very little chalk and talk in the first half of today’s lesson, just lots of exercises to help cement this week’s content. Role plays, card-matching games, speaking exercises. Our teacher always picking up vocab and capitalising on teachable moments throughout.

After the break we worked through the process for extracting the root from any Arabic word. This is one of the aspects of the Arabic language that make it a bit impenetrable for learners because the root system means you can’t just look up a word in the dictionary like you can with practically any English word. As with so many other language rules, the rules for extracting the root start out nice and simple and then move into dealing with increasingly niche and edge cases until you get to a point where the rule is “check the dictionary”.

Thursday

Today was test and spoken presentation day and I was very anxious. It got to a point last night where my brain just couldn’t study anymore and I didn’t feel as prepared for the test as I wanted to be. In the end I did okay. 14/20. Again, I let myself down with weak vowel conjugations and a little bit with remembering irregular plurals. Mainly I lost points because I didn’t put enough effort into the writing section. I simply dumped a bunch of vaguely related sentences instead of thinking harder about a writing a more coherent story. But at least I know I’m on track and there are no major problems. I still need to make sure I don’t slacken off even for a day, though.

After a much-needed coffee and a debrief with my classmates, we each delivered our spoken presentations. I talked about our family visit to the Amman Children’s Museum last weekend and described some of the activities that our daughter enjoyed. There were lots of corrections, as usual, but I was pretty proud when I managed one particularly tricky passage (lots of conjugations and object pronouns going back and forth all over the place between clauses) and got a nod from the teacher.

Anyway, flashcard stats are looking good this week!

W6 stats

Week 5 learning diary: transition

Sunday

It was a slow start to this week. On the first Sunday of each four week learning cycle, classes are suspended until 11am while all new students take their placement tests and are given an orientation briefing. After that, all the new and existing students are re-streamed into groups based on their placement and end-of-month test results. While Penina did her placement test today I looked after our daughter, and my teacher was away sick so there wasn’t even a short 90 minute lesson for me after that. It was super, super lovely hanging out with my little girl, though, after a month apart.

Monday

Classes started again for me today. Two new students had been streamed into my class which I was very happy about after having been bumped down to two-hour solo lessons by the end of last week. The three of us have different strengths and weaknesses but we’re similar enough that our teacher is confident we can work together productively for maximum progress. I’m very glad for the opportunity to do longer four-hour lessons again with all the speaking that comes along with that. I missed it last week. We started nice and easy with on a unit from a textbook earlier in the series to let the teacher get a sense of the new students’ learning needs. Broadly speaking, I seem to be stronger on vocab and have the increased speaking confidence that comes from having just completed 80 hours of intensive study, while the other two are stronger then me on grammar.

Tuesday

Today we picked up in the textbook from where I finished up last week. Our new topic is the grocer and we got our first big dump of new vocab for the month. The dynamic between the two other students and I is fantastic — such a contrast to last month — and I’ll be quite sad when one of them leaves at the end of next week, and the other at the end of this month.

I’ve been very lucky for the past month to be able to devote 24 hours a day to language learning but having my family here in Amman means that I’ve had to adjust my study schedule. No more flashcards in the morning because I’m running around after my almost-three-year-old, and I can’t get stuck into homework as soon as class finishes because I take over the parenting while Penina is in her class. I do a few flashcards on my phone throughout the afternoon whenever I get five minutes but the only proper time I have for study now is in the evenings once our daughter is asleep. I’m glad that I had the time and space to establish learning routines and actually learn how to learn this stuff, but I’m more glad to be back together with my girls. It just means I need to be clever and disciplined about study from now on.

Wednesday

Big grammar day today. It was good to revisit irregular weak vowel conjugations as it was one of the areas I fell down on in last week’s test — all of my weak points were grammar related. I scored 39 out of 50, however, which is quite a bit better than I felt I’d performed on the day. A reminder that I need to focus on the progress I *am* making as well as the things I’m struggling with. Still, I need to work hard to finish internalising all these tables and put them into practice.

I made one of my regular amusing mistakes in class conversation today: confusing “party” (hafla) for “bus” (haafilah). I’ve tried in the past to remember the difference by thinking of “party bus” (haafilah hafla) but I still get them mixed up. Also, for some mysterious reason I always use wasala (“arrive”) as “return” — I’ve been making this mistake for literally years with Mohanned and it seems I’m going to get it wrong for the rest of my life.

Thursday

Fun but exhausting vocab quiz this morning. The three of us stood at the whiteboard and took turns writing airport-related verbs and nouns that our teacher gave to us in English. After there were about 30-40 up there we had to work together to put together a story. Then we kept working on the grocer topic and did some more work on irregular verbs. After a relatively easy start to the week it was nice to be back to feeling very challenged and as though I’m operating *just* at the edge of my capacity. I’m increasingly convinced that this is the only way to learn this stuff properly. If you’re feeling comfortable you’re not making progress.

We were given a heads-up for the weekly spoken presentation starting again from next Thursday. Next week will be five minutes, the week after ten, and the final week of the month 15. I’m going to have to start putting more thought into preparing these than just trying to write it the night before.

And since this blog is sort of my Garmin or Fitbit for language learning, here’s this week’s flashcard stats:

week 5 stats

Week 4 learning diary: one month down

Sunday

The weather over the weekend was atrocious with strong winds, freezing rain and snow smashing Amman non-stop for a few days. So apart from one mad dash to Weibdeh for dinner and a beer on Friday night with some of the other students, I tried to make all my enforced inside time productive with study. At this morning’s vocab quiz, like the previous Sundays’ quizzes, I was a bit rusty but at least I didn’t disgrace myself.

After 45 minutes of vocab we launched straight into a long grammar lesson about present tense cases. I’m struggling with this, to be honest. I understand each of the rules individually but I’m finding it so hard to apply them in practice. We worked through some exercises in class, and I had to write more sentences as homework, but this is going to be a battle for me to absorb and make functional.

I spent the evening revising grammar as my end of month test is coming up this Thursday. I made tables of all the conjugation rules, past and present, and all the different kinds of irregular. Something about the process of making my own — writing it out myself, making formatting decisions etc. — means it sticks a little bit better (also, I tried a colour trick recommended to me by a relative and it seems to work). I need to get past having to visualise grammar tables in my head, but.

Monday

It became clear this morning that my classmate wasn’t coming back so, as with yesterday, it was just me for four hours. However, I’ll be dropping back to two hour personal lessons for the next three days this week as per the policy at the language school when you aren’t in a group. There are about 20 new students starting next Sunday, though, so I’m hopeful there will be at least one other who is at my level so I go back to four hour lessons.

First up this morning my teacher quizzed me on verbs and I had to write each one on the board. Then, once again, I had to make a story out of them. This was *hard*. I ended up with over 30 verbs and the activity was much more difficult than it was with nouns last week. When I finally got to the end and sat down, spent after all the diversions and tangents to unpack grammar, I looked at my watch and saw that a whole hour had gone past! We then started a new topic — the family — and worked through the routine of new vocab, a dialogue, and then several exercises to cement it all. We finished up with a lesson on object pronouns which, like yesterday’s lesson on cases, I understood but found I had to really had to grind gears in my head to put it into practice.

My head was spinning by the end of this four hours. My teacher asked me to go to the board at the end of the lesson and teach her the rules for cases from yesterday but I was done. I couldn’t form a coherent thought and I couldn’t shift focus from thinking about object pronouns. She took pity on me and let me go to curl up in the foetal position in the cafeteria.

I did more grammar revision tonight, building tables like last night but with the cases and object pronouns. Laying it out in a way that seems logical to me really helps, and I felt confident by the time I went to bed that I had a handle on it.

Tuesday

Because we were only doing two hours today the vocab quiz was a lot shorter. My teacher asked me yesterday to revise plurals from the bank and post office scenarios and they were the subject of today’s quiz. I did okay, maybe 60-70%, but need to focus more on plurals in general. I was then reunited with the creepy doll and had to point out all the body parts. After that we launched into another new topic: the seasons and weather. Another new load of vocab and then conversation about weather patterns in Jordan and Australia. Finally, I had to go to the board and do the teaching I didn’t do yesterday. And I think I managed to explain the cases in a mostly correct and understandable way.

With only a couple of days until the test, and an extra two hours up my sleeve in the afternoon, I focused after class on revising vocab from everything we’ve done this month.

Wednesday

We didn’t muck around with a vocab quiz this morning, launching directly instead into a fluid discussion about the seasons and the weather, working on vocab as it cropped up throughout the conversation. The improvement in my speaking compared to a month ago is definitely noticeable now and it feels less tortured and stilted. However, I still find myself coming up against brick walls far too often when I can’t think of how to structure a sentence the way I’d like to say it in English. In particular, I simply don’t have the recall of verbal nouns or a good sense of how they work in a sentence. Related, I’m also finding that my writing is getting faster and more natural, although I still need to hit Google Translate far too often to check spelling. We then did some work on if/then conditional sentence grammar before a bit of a chat about what I might encounter on the end of month test tomorrow.

Thursday

I was really nervous about this test. I needed every minute of the two hours to work on it. My teacher is going to mark it over the weekend and let me know the results on Sunday. I’m confident I passed but think I could’ve done better. I fell apart on stupid weak vowel irregular conjugation — my brain was spinning around with rules and I just couldn’t get clarity. More revision needed on that.

This afternoon it was lovely to wind down with a bunch of other Arabic- and English-language students at the centre with a fun “pizza war” event. We formed mixed teams of Jordanians and foreigners and had to do battle with silly games like having to spell or do tongue twisters in the other language in order to win crucial ingredients for pizzas we were constructing at out tables. After they were cooked we relaxed and swapped exam war stories over plates of delicious pizza.

With Sunday marking the start of a new four week teaching period I’ll start later in the morning after all the new students have finished their placement tests and orientations. I’ll remain with my current teacher, which I’m happy about, and hopefully a couple of the new students will be streamed into my class. Oh, and my wife is one of the new students! She’s starting from scratch but it will be awesome to be able to discuss our shared experience learning the language and help each other out.

Week 3 learning diary: downs and ups

Sunday

By last night my flashcard deck was 351 cards thick and I had completely caught up with all the vocab from the first two weeks. I refuse to do the maths on what this means for 14 more weeks of lessons, though. I did several study sessions throughout the weekend and already I could see from the stats tracker that I was making progress.

First up this morning was my mid-month test. Even though it was completely formative and designed to help the teacher plan for the second half of the month, I was really anxious. All I knew to anticipate was that it would be two hours, fully written, and that anything we’d touched on over the past two weeks was fair game. In preparation I worked really hard on vocab memorisation and spent the weekend revising all the grammar we’ve done so far.

The test included sections such as:

  • read a text and answer questions (in Arabic)
  • vocab quiz (including opposites and plurals)
  • fill in the blanks with prepositions and adverbs
  • identify types of hamzas
  • identify types and components of sentences
  • conjugate regular and irregular verbs
  • write a text using provided words

Ultimately I scored 15/20 which is respectable but means there’s still work to be done. I did better than I expected on the vocab bits, fell apart completely on sentences (I didn’t even think to learn the names of components in Arabic), but went pretty well with the rest.

On the coffee break after the test I was chatting to the guy who runs the language school cafeteria (large Americano, please) and he asked how I was going with it all. He passed on a tip for speaking Arabic that one of his Quran tutors gave him: if you’re having trouble pronouncing something, try talking while smiling. Doing so forces you to use all of the muscles in your face instead of just those at the front and middle of your mouth. I tried it and it feels … weird.

After the test we launched straight into role play based on a visit to the doctor and rounded out the day with some grammar exercises. I felt relieved that the test was done but know I can’t slacken off to make sure I’m properly prepared for the summative exam in two weeks. Tonight I just smashed flashcards, trying desperately to offset my growing anxiety about the scale of the task. The only thing that gives me any hope is slowly, slowly watching the green on the stats bar charts grow taller. And this sounds strange, but there are a lot of words I keep getting wrong at the same time I am getting closer and closer to getting them correct — I have more of the letters correct but maybe in the wrong order, or I have an increasingly accurate notion of how the word sounds in my head.

Monday

We kept going with the medical theme this morning after the vocab quiz. First up were a bunch of vocab word/picture match games, and then, because we don’t yet have enough vocab to learn, we went through all the names for body parts using a creepy doll prop and terrible diagrams because none of us can draw properly. My classmate and I then took turns describing a body part in whatever Arabic we could muster and the other having to guess it.

After the break we worked on another medical dialogue from the textbook — this one about someone visiting his friend in the hospital. Homework was relatively simple today: take the text we’d just studied and re-write it with women in the two roles instead of men, and with the necessary grammatical changes.

I met with my language partner for 90 minutes early this evening. We spent some time working on each other’s homework together (he’s currently studying the present perfect form, which meant I had to learn the rules, too!) and then we had a lovely casual chat for a while about various topics.

Tuesday

My classmate was on time this morning! And our teacher mixed up the standard vocab quiz which was a refreshing change. My classmate and I had to stand at the whiteboard and take turns filling it with words from our studies so far this month, and then after we’d put a few dozen on there we had to use every single one in a story that we built together out loud sentence by sentence. The whole thing took about 45 minutes and was exhausting. No matter how much of a grammatical tangle we got ourselves in we had to work it out, all while drawing on not just the vocab on the board but our whole repertoire, and without any books to refer to. This is exactly the sort of pressure environment that forces you to learn, however all I wanted afterwards was an enormous coffee and then maybe a nap.

But there was more learning to be done. We spent the next 90 minutes working on a text which was a noticeable step up for us — it contained a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary, and more complex sentences and grammar. After working through it and unpacking the language together, we each had to retell the story and then answer questions posed to us by the teacher who is deliberately starting to talk faster in the classroom as a subtle pressure tactic.

I think today’s lesson was the most taxing I’ve done so far — something about all the speaking and the sheer breadth of the vocab we’re starting to have to draw from — so it was a relief to do some chalk and talk grammar (revision of present tense irregular conjugation with weak vowels) to finish up the lesson. All I had to do was sit, listen, think and write.

Wednesday

One of the things I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this week is a peculiarity of the Arabic language from an English-speaking point of view: you’re not allowed to use certain sentence fragments the way we do in English. For example, before each lesson our teacher asks what we did the night before, and the other day I answered in Arabic but in fragments the way I would in English: “Homework. Dinner. Book.” But this won’t fly in Arabic because you need to use the verbs for each of those nouns even though they’re implied. So instead: “Did homework. Ate dinner. Read my book.” And then in a role play today I tried “I then went to the cafe for coffee” which won’t work unless I added the verb: “I went to the cafe to drink coffee.” I’ve also learned some cool words this week like spider (aankaboot) and nose (anf), and discovered weird trivia like the word ‘stop’, as in bus stop, is the exact same word as ‘situation’.

As part of the vocab quiz this morning I had to go to the whiteboard, draw a person, and label all the body parts. No notes. My heart (qalb) sank because I’d reviewed the body parts over coffee and flashcards this morning and performed miserably. But to my surprise I managed to correctly label maybe half of them, even if I needed some help with spelling. I guess this proves that stuff *is* sinking into my subconscious as a result of the relentless study focus, even if I am frustrated at not being able to cement things consciously as fast as I’d like. Next up we went through a bunch of adverbs of time and used them in speaking exercises, and then we started another scenario (transport) which meant another dump of vocab.

Thursday

In contrast to Tuesday’s morale slump, today felt really good. I enjoyed a tangible sense of progress and was filled with hope that I’ll be able to keep out in front of the relentless pace of learning.

It was just me today as my classmate didn’t show up. And just like Tuesday, my teacher wrote my vocab quiz answers on the white board as I gave them until it was full of maybe thirty words or so. The words were from across all the topics we’ve done so far this month: recreation, the beach, the bank, the post office, the doctor and transport. Then I had to stand up, tell a story using all of the words, and cross them off the board as I went. It was actually quite fun unlike Tuesday, and I was a bit proud of how much my speaking has improved in three weeks and how much smoother my sentence construction is on the fly. This was followed by the introduction of some more transport vocab and some picture-matching exercises.

Grammar today was present tense conjugation with irregular verbs that end with a weak vowel. The rule for words that end with ya (ي) is brutal, and even my teacher shrugged and said “at least there are not many of these words”. After the coffee break we just talked and it felt great. My teacher asked me question after question about Australia using all the vocab we’ve covered, and as we drew on new vocab I dutifully copied it down into my book. Along with this morning’s vocab quiz, this activity was a great confidence builder. We finished off with my weekly five minute spoken presentation — this week I re-told this story. I’d needed to hit Google Translate for quite a bit of vocab for this one so there were a lot of corrections as I spoke.

Before I let myself relax for the weekend I sat down at my computer and got up to date with my flashcards. At the end of week three my deck stands at 532. I’m still getting a lot wrong but I can also sense real progress, and the stats are promising, too.

Week 3 stats

A good, positive end to the week.

Week 2 learning diary: all about the cards

Sunday

I spent the weekend doing bits and pieces of other work but I made sure to open my books and check in with last week’s vocab from time to time, and then this morning I got up a bit earlier than usual so I could do a long session of revision over coffee. I thought that would be enough. But the vocab quiz at the start of today’s lesson was a bit of a train wreck, although I think the disaster was somewhat amplified by the absence of my classmate who was late. This left me sitting like a roo in the sights of a gun held by my teacher who shot word after word after word at me. By 9:15am I had resolved to start using flashcards and build them into my study routine. This morning’s quiz scared me with the sudden realisation that if I was already starting to fall behind on day 6, I’d be ruined by the end of four months.

The first half of today’s lesson continued on with the topic of the bank from last week. We did some more exercises and then, when my classmate arrived, some role play. To get us out to the much needed coffee break we did a bit of casual past tense regular verb conjugation. After the break we started a new topic: the post office. Again, we began by listing some relevant vocab and then reading through some dialogues before doing a combination of exercises and role plays. I found the post office vocab a little easier than the bank for some reason, although moving on from the bank in class meant that it was completely up to me to keep using and embedding that bank vocab along with the beach vocab.

Homework was to write a post office-themed story using our new words and to complete a few conjugation exercises from the text book. Once I’d finished the homework this afternoon, I downloaded a flashcard app for my phone and computer and started building decks. Inputting the cards is pretty time and labour intensive but hopefully worth it.

Monday

The last thing I did last night in bed last night before I turned out my reading lamp was flashcards on my phone. And the first thing I did after I got out of bed this morning was flashcards at my computer while drinking coffee. But … I think it’s working. I noticed a definite improvement in this morning’s vocab quiz — I’m still drawing a blank on some words, and mixing up the order of letters in others, but I performed respectably compared to yesterday’s sad effort. If that’s after barely 12 hours of flashcard use hopefully the system will really pay off in the long term.

Today’s lesson started with irregular past tense verb conjugation which, like many grammar rules, is easy enough to understand but difficult to translate into practice. Ultimately, this stuff is only going to stick as I use it in conversation and learn the way words sound through repetition. We rounded out the four hours with more post office activities which work really nicely to reinforce the vocab at the same time as developing speaking skills and mucking around with grammar. Homework was a bunch of conjugation activities.

I spent a couple of hours this evening creating flashcards in my app trying to work my way through the backlog from last week. I gave up when I hit 100 cards and am already looking forward to the weekend so I can get up to date.

Tuesday

The flashcards are really working. My anxieties about learning vocab are slowly being overwhelmed by the sense of progress. It’s going to be a shitload of hard work but the task doesn’t feel hopeless anymore.

Today was another day with a heavy grammar focus. We started by revising the three forms of plural, including the first and most common form which is “broken” or “no form” as our teacher called it. Basically, there’s no point trying to learn rules for these, you’ve just got to remember or guess. We then revised the rules for the two forms of sentence, nominal and verbal. I have to admit that over the years I’ve gotten in the habit of using predominantly verbal sentences because of the much simpler verb conjugations you can use in them, but no more. I have to suck it up and start using nominal and practising my conjugations. We finished off the day with some fun speaking exercises about electronic communication, drawing on associated vocab. I really love the words for app (tatbeeq) and chat (dardasha).

Wednesday

My classmate is often late for class and today was no exception, which means the vocab quiz is much more intense for me than when she’s there. These quizzes often run for 15 minutes or more so by the end my head is spinning and I am really worked up which in a strange way is very similar to a good warm up session before physical activity. Thanks largely to the flashcards, I did well at the quiz.

Today we slammed grammar. More irregular verb conjugation and then a bunch of work on the forms of the hamza. I was really pleased with the hamza session especially because I *got it* even though I’ve obviously been reading, writing and saying the hamza for years. We rounded out the final hour with a bunch of spoken exercises based on last week’s topic of the beach and I was shocked to walk out of the classroom with *no new vocab* from the day. This was a great help for my campaign to work through my backlog and input everything into my flashcard tattbeeq.

After class I worked on my weekly five minute presentation for tomorrow’s class, and then met my new language partner who is studying English at the centre. He and I will meet weekly to have conversation in both languages and help each other with our homework.

Thursday

I arrived set for my presentation but didn’t feel as confident as last week because of all the new vocab it contained, even though it was exactly the vocab I’ve been learning intensely for the past week. I think I was also anxious because I felt a personal expectation to perform a lot better than last week even though it has been — exactly that — just one week.

After the morning vocab quiz we launched into a new topic based on hospital, the doctor and illness. I felt two conflicting emotions: excitement at a new topic, and anxiety about another dump of words to learn. We approached this topic in the same way as the others, starting with a vocab brainstorm and then straight into a dialogue in the text book which introduced even more vocabulary. We worked on the dialogue and did some role play to round out the first half of the lesson. After the break we started work on regular present tense verb conjugation which, I have to admit, I’ve always struggled with. I, we, he, she, they (plural masculine) and you (singular masculine) are fine, but I often draw a blank when trying to conjugate they (plural feminine; dual feminine and masculine) and you (singular feminine; dual feminine and masculine). So I know I have to really pull my finger out and internalise these tables once and for all. Finally, I gave my presentation and it went about the same as last week, although I attracted more corrections from the teacher because I was trying to be too tricky with grammar and failing.

After class my brain was ruined from the week. Four of the other students and I met when everyone’s lessons had finished to go downtown and do a bit of touristing, and I could see it in everyone’s faces that the week had taken its toll. We spent a lovely few hours wandering around the citadel and the old city before sitting down in a restaurant to a table full of delicious food. But by 6:30pm we were all ready to go home! This intensive learning business is exhausting.

We have our mid-month test on Sunday so this weekend is going to be all about study. But my first task: catching up on flashcards.

Week 1 learning diary

Monday

My first full day of class this week was Monday since Sunday was devoted to admin and an entrance exam. Overnight, one student who felt the level of the class was too high for her had dropped down to a class below, so we were now only two students. A nice small group.

After exchanging pleasantries our teacher launched straight in and asked in Arabic what we had done the previous evening. As we stumbled through our answers, she compiled a list of vocabulary on the white board that we then copied down and discussed. This would be a constant feature throughout the week as she kept the pressure on us to build our vocabulary.

While my classmate and I are relatively close in ability, we obviously have different learning histories, strengths and weaknesses. So, the planned component of the lesson began with some simple revision of prepositions and adverbs of place to warm us up and help the teacher determine what the focus of our learning for the month should be. While I was already pretty solid on this stuff it was good to go over it again to refresh and cement.

We then moved onto talking about the theme of recreation. We started by reviewing a list of relevant vocab and then using it in various situations. The pace was good — challenging but not overwhelming — and our teacher employed a variety of methods including chalk and talk, role play, quizzes and individual work. She also made us stand up and move around the room at regular intervals which worked really well to kickstart our brains.

Suddenly, it was 1pm and the lesson was finished. Four hours had flown by and my head was spinning. But I was also buzzing with optimism and eagerly sat down for the afternoon in the language centre’s study area to review the day’s material and do my homework (write passages of text using the prepositions and adverbs we’d revised, and also using the recreation vocab). I also started thinking about the five minute presentation we’d learned that we would have to give on Thursday. I was a little bit anxious about it, to be honest.

Tuesday

I tried to start building good study habits into my routine today by making Arabic the first thing I did upon waking … after making a coffee, that is. I sat down with my brew and revised all of yesterday’s vocab and practised putting it into sentences. It felt good getting into the right headspace even before I started getting ready for the day — I was thinking about Arabic in the shower and didn’t need any warming up by the time I was sat in my chair at school at 8:59am.

After a round of good mornings and some small talk (in Arabic), our teacher launched straight into a vocab quiz, asking us to give her the Arabic for a bunch of words we’d learned yesterday. I felt a bit smug about having done some early morning revision! We then did a few activities related to yesterday’s topic of recreation before moving on to revision of question words, just like yesterday’s work with prepositions and adverbs.

By the halftime 20 minute break I really needed a coffee. My head was filling up with new vocab and I found myself extrapolating the learning pace out to the end of each 20 hour week, and indeed, to the end of the 16 week course. The maths just reinforces that I will have to work extremely hard to keep up.

In the second half of the lesson we moved onto the topic of the beach and the seaside, and spent two hours learning vocab and doing a range of spoken and written exercises. It was pretty funny talking about umbrellas and sandcastles and sunscreen in Amman in the middle of winter.

For homework we had to write a story about a trip to the beach using today’s vocab.

Wednesday

Last night I found myself thinking about Arabic words — how they are spelled and pronounced — as I fell asleep. And then I dreamt about them! Even after just a few days it’s being hammered into my subconscious which is great.

Today’s class started again with a fast-paced vocab quiz, but this time drawing on two days’ worth of words. There seems to be no real pattern governing which words stick in my mind and which don’t, and as usual some words just refuse to stick for whatever reason. Having said that, my revision routine does seem to be bearing fruit as I did better at the quiz than I thought I would.

We’d been instructed to buy a text book yesterday and today we started working from it. First up was a unit based on visits to the bank. We started with some vocab and then read through a few dialogues, picking up unfamiliar words on the way. Again, our teacher used a good variety of activities including role plays, games and worksheets.

When you’re so engrossed in the work it’s amazing how fast four hours can whiz past, and today I was again shocked when it hit 1pm. As is becoming habit, I bunkered down in the study area for the afternoon to do homework and prepare for my five minute presentation tomorrow.

Thursday

I feel really happy with my little study routine (afternoon of homework and revision, revision first thing in the morning over coffee) after this week and I can tell it’s paying off, even though I felt a little overwhelmed by this morning’s vocab quiz which drew on a week’s worth of new words.

We spent the first half of today’s lesson continuing with the topic of the bank, and then we did some quick revision of possessive pronouns. These topics (recreation, the beach, the bank) are pretty random but they’ve been great vehicles for learning. Alongside building vocab, and throughout everything we’ve done this week, our teacher has addressed grammar both by design and by taking advantage of teachable moments. I feel like my general Arabic skills have been enhanced at the same time as I’ve mastered how to tell my friends what to bring to the beach and go into a bank and open an account.

Finally, I had to give my five minute presentation. We were allowed to refer to notes but I tried really hard not to read from them. I’d written about my first week in Jordan: nice and easy due to basic vocab and simple first-person past tense verb conjugations. I think I did pretty good considering it’s only week one — I only triggered half a dozen grammar corrections. I recorded audio on my phone so I can compare it to the presentation I give in 15 weeks. I hope I have cause to cringe really hard when I listen back to this one.

Back to school

I arrived in chilly Amman three days ago after a 30-hour, three-plane journey from warm Canberra, dressed in a t-shirt which attracted many curious looks at the airport. As I bought a bottle of water from Starbucks in the arrivals hall, the guy who took my money asked me where my jacket was in exactly the same voice my mum would use.

The next day I was wide awake at 4:30am and it was the first time in as long as I can remember that I had nothing to do, nowhere to be, and no two-and-a-half-year-old alarm clock about to run into my bedroom as the sun came up. So I lay in bed for a few hours and read a book, only getting up every now and again to make another coffee or tea. It was bliss. After doing a few hours of work in the late morning (okay, I lied about having nothing to do), I caught an Uber out to a shopping mall for a few supplies, and on the Uber ride home I had my first real attempt at a conversation in Arabic. The Palestinian driver was a good sport, speaking slowly and choosing simple language I would more likely understand. It was quite liberating to force myself to say things out loud I knew were grammatically incorrect, or that drew on clumsy vocab, as long as I was able to communicate my meaning.

I spent the past couple of days mostly taking it easy, working to tame the jetlag, exploring the streets, finalising a bit of other work, and settling into the little apartment I will call home for the next four months. Starbucks guy will be relieved to know I’ve been sleeping under three blankets. It has been nice just pottering around but as day one of school approached I was definitely getting restless and anxious to start what I came here to do.

I arrived at the language centre at 9am this morning for my placement test along with five other new students. We were a mixed crew: I was joined by students from Britain, America, the Netherlands, South Korea and Italy. The test took over an hour and included a reading and writing component which got progressively harder as you moved through the paper, and an oral test at the end. Even though I knew it wasn’t a test test — that it was formative rather than summative — I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I managed okay, though, and I don’t think Mohanned would be too disappointed in me.

While the test papers were analysed, the director of the Arabic course gave an orientation presentation, and then we were split off into four different ability streams based on our results. I went with the Italian student to join a Swedish student in another classroom where we met our teacher for the next month. In four weeks we will be assessed again and re-streamed as necessary.

My teacher walked into the classroom and started speaking Arabic with no pleasantries or warning in English, but she got it perfectly right: her vocab choice was just challenging enough without being overwhelming, as was the speed she talked. And I had to talk back. No mucking around, no time to overthink it — just talk and make mistakes and learn from them. It was great.

It was only a quick lesson today because the placement test and orientation had taken up three of the four hours so we stuck to getting-to-know-you topics, but even in just 60 minutes I felt challenged and motivated, and I left the room filled with anticipation and the good, productive kind of nervousness.

The language school offers all of its new students a tour of the city on their first day so five of us enthusiastically signed up. Our first stop was the famous Hashem Restaurant where we recharged our brains with falafel, hummus, mutabal, chips, bread and hot tea.

Hashem

I remember eating here nearly seven (!) years ago when I backpacked through Jordan for a week or so.

And of course we checked out the Roman theatre which was teeming with visitors despite the frosty wind.

Theatre

Tonight, back at the apartment, I’ve done my homework and am hoping I can smash out a proper night of non-jetlagged sleep in preparation for tomorrow when it’s game on proper for learning.

Pause and reflect

Having now completed my final lesson with Mohanned, I thought it might be good to pause and reflect on the progress I’ve made before I start the next phase of my learning in Jordan next week. Even though I know that reflection is a useful learning tool which helps to bed down knowledge etc. etc. I’m not very good at doing it — indeed, part of the reason I decided to start this blog series was to force myself to do it. Because language learning is so slow and incremental it’s really easy to lose sight of your wins and triumphs, which then leaves more space for self-doubt and defeatism. I mean, my Arabic is obviously heaps better now than it was before I started with Mohanned but all I seem to be able to think about most of the time is what I don’t know and can’t do instead of celebrating what I’ve mastered.

I started off by doing the sums and was a bit shocked: turns out I’ve done no more than 250 hours of lessons with Mohanned which, while spread over a long three-and-a-half years, is pretty much bugger all. By way of comparison, my four month course in Jordan will involve 320 hours of instruction, plus homework. Strangely, this realisation makes me feel a bit better about not making as much progress as I feel like I should have in several years, and excited for what I can potentially achieve in Jordan if I put the work in.

Over the past few years there are several areas of progress that stand out to me:

  • Speaking. In last week’s lesson I didn’t write a single word for 90 minutes. Instead, Mohanned and I spent the whole time speaking (mostly) in Arabic. He threw a bunch of scenarios at me that I would face in Jordan such as catching a taxi, arriving at accommodation etc. And while I’m still slow, stumbling and massively error prone, I was speaking Arabic and making myself understood. And yet I clearly remember lessons as recently as a year or eighteen months ago when I would panic if Mohanned tried to make me speak without reference to vocab or a chance to script or rehearse. The crucial thing here is not so much the acquisition of vocab, grammar etc., it’s that my speaking confidence is light years ahead of where it used to be. And just in time, too.
  • Reading speed. I’m now much, much better at spotting phonemes and being able to construct words out of chunks and letter patterns instead of having to sound them out letter by letter. Related, I’m getting better at being able to guess or deduce the short vowels of unfamiliar words without diacritics.
  • Thinking. For a long time I would “see” words in my head not in Arabic script but instead transliterated into Latin script. Now, though, I “see” the words in Arabic. However, I still haven’t dreamt in Arabic which apparently is a key milestone in language acquisition, I’ve only dreamt about Arabic.

Set against the progress, though, are a lot of ongoing weaknesses, such as:

  • Vocabulary. I don’t know why I find learning vocab so difficult but it’s probably something to do with how much hard work is required to memorise long lists of words that you aren’t using regularly. Having said that, I often surprise myself when I remember the meaning of a word I have no real reason to have remembered, so some data at least is being written to archives somewhere in my brain.
  • Grammar rules, such as verb conjugation, gender, numbers etc. At this stage I still have to think too hard about tables when I do anything much more complicated than put together a basic sentence. I know this will come together quite quickly once I am speaking a lot in Jordan, and that learning tables by rote is an inefficient method of learning this stuff.

So, I still have metric shitloads of work to do. But when I stop and think about it it’s clear that I’ve built a solid foundation over the past few years (thanks to Mohanned) and I’m about to spend a large chunk of time focused for most of my time on nothing by learning Arabic. I’ll also try to build reflection into my daily study schedule.

Four months in Jordan

Today is World Arabic Language Day, commemorating the date in 1973 that the United Nations approved Arabic as one of its official languages. As such, it seems like an appropriate time to post my big news here at The Arabic Diaries™: I’m moving to Jordan in a couple of weeks to do a four-month intensive language course. 20 hours of instruction per week for 16 weeks, plus homework. And, most crucially, 24/7 immersion in the Arabic language. I can’t wait.

I’ve reached a point in my studies where the limits of doing just a few hours of lessons a week in a non-Arabic-speaking country have become painfully obvious, and I’ve had to confront the hard truth that if I keep learning at my current pace I’ll never approach fluency. Which, in turn, raises the question: why bother? So, it’s off to Amman I go in early January, to be followed shortly afterwards by my wife and daughter who will live with me for the final three of the four months.

I’m looking forward to being able to devote most of my time and brainspace to study and learning, rather than the day-to-day reality of my life where Arabic is just one of the many things that demand my attention. I’m also really excited about the experience of living overseas with my little family: learning Arabic from Sunday to Thursday (my wife is taking lessons, too!), and going on adventures on the weekend.

Upon returning to Australia in May, the biggest challenge will be maintaining my proficiency when suddenly removed from daily, intense and immersive contact with the language. This whole project represents a significant investment of our family’s time and money, and I am all too conscious of the need to ensure that none of it is wasted. I’ll certainly be knocking on Mohanned’s door as soon as we’re back to show off my words before humbly requesting his ongoing help.

To forget is to human

I met with Mohanned last night after taking a few weeks off for holidays and other life things that get in the way of lessons. It’s quite sobering after each of these breaks to be reminded of how damaging it is to your learning progress to go so long without engaging with the language. As I opened my books with trembling hands and prepared to respond to Mohanned’s basic questions in Arabic of “how was your day?” and “what did you do on your holiday?”, I felt really anxious and a bit guilty for letting things go for so long.

Anyway.

Mohanned had prepared an activity which involved watching an Al Jazeera Arabic1 news clip and responding to a sheet of questions. One section of the report contained the words nasiya (forget) and insaan (human) which prompted Mohanned to point out that there is one school of thought about the relationship between the two: that the word for human is derived from the root for forget. The argument being that humans were designed to be both forgetful and capable of remembering, and that each trait has a purpose:

Man is undeniably a very forgetful creature! This trait of forgetfulness has two sides to it; there’s a good side and a bad side.

The good side of this attribute has been well-explained to us by Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him), who is narrated to have said: “Even a greater boon than memory is forgetfulness, without which man would not found solace in any affliction, nor would have ever gotten clear of frustration, nor could have gotten rid of malice. He would have failed to relish anything of the world’s goods because of insistent memories of affliction, nor could he ever have entertained any hope of weakening of his sovereign’s attention or the envy of the envious. Don’t you see how the contrary faculties of memory and forgetfulness have been created in man, each ordained with a definite purpose?”

Hence we can see how forgetfulness can be a blessing for us.

The bad side to being forgetful is quite self-explanatory. When was the last time you could not recall an important mathematical or scientific formula for your exam, or when you kept a very precious item of yours in such a safe spot that you yourself could not remember where it was? There are several examples of how our forgetfulness can mess up our day-to-day lives.

However, a higher degree of forgetfulness is the one that can ruin one’s life as well as afterlife (the permanent abode). This is definitely the kind of forgetfulness that one should try to keep away from by all means. It distances one from Allah and His special servants and leaves one in the state of absolute desolation!

But that is just one theory about the etymology of insaan; there is at least one other that I’ve come across:

… religious reformers who see God’s Law as the ultimate path to salvation take as their motto the phrase, “We hear and obey.” It is sometimes said by such reformers in Islam that the root of insan, the Arabic word for “human being,” is nasiya, “to forget.” Because human beings are forgetful, they need to be reminded of God through revelation and redirected toward salvation by Law (Shari’a) that God has mandated.

However, there is another possible root for insan, which is anisa, “to come close.” According to this understanding, human beings are close to God by nature because they are created in God’s image.

Regardless of the true backstory, discovering language stories like these is a fascinating insight into history, people, a region and a religion. I love how they add so much human(!) texture to the task of trying to not forget vocabulary.


1. Mohanned likes to use AJA clips for teaching because of the quality of the fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) its presenters and journalists use, not necessarily because of the content.

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