Trading Words for Dyslexics

As the world grows smaller and our learning tools improve, there hasn’t been a better time to learn a foreign language. I thought I’d share with you some experiences and mistakes from my own studies – or you can skip ahead to the bottom and see the six simple steps I highly recommend to someone wanting to fast-track the acquisition of a foreign language.

I’ve never really been talented with languages. Even my native tongue, English, gave me troubles as a kid. And while I could usually understand what my parents where saying to me when they were speaking in Arabic, my responses were limited to short phrases at best.

As I grew older, the weight of not knowing how to communicate in Arabic weighed on me. It created a gulf between myself and my cultural and religious roots.

Native speakers, aunts and uncles, were fond of pointing out my weakness and over the years I’d hide or laugh off my disability instead of addressing it.

But at some point our frustrations lead to action. In my twenties, I was on a bit of a autodidactic kick and I decided one day I would teach myself Arabic. I accumulated every language program I could find. I went to work, modeling my approach after my evil high school French teachers – memorizing vocab lists, conjugation tables, etc. I wasn’t going to simply learn Arabic, I was going to conquer that mutha, I was going to become a scholar in the language and show all those relatives what’s what.

I’d sit in my room for hours, with my language tapes and walkman, toiling away, repeating the same phrases back to Nancy, the female speaker on the other end. I got to know Nancy very well, as we’d move from chapter to chapter, from booking a hotel together to visiting the pyramids in our mock excursions. It was silly, yes, but like Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky I felt as if ‘a new form of me began to take shape. I planned my reemergence, like the Normandy invasion.’ I was training myself, my tongue, until I was ready to show the world. But that day never came. I never got ready enough.

I was waiting till perfection, instead of just accepting the messiness of trying. I was trying to leapfrog over the stage of being an amateur to being a professional. But I can see now it was exactly those mistakes I was so afraid of making that were going to teach me in the long-run, not Nancy.

This fear of making mistakes is natural I guess, but we don’t always appreciate how much it costs us. It can even cost us our goals. I realized at some point I had to stop preparing and simply do. I had to try again, with a method that was in line with my original goal (speaking to natives). A method that would offer me immediate, human feedback on my progress.

After some googling I found a website called My Language Exchange that allows language partners to essentially trade languages. I registered myself as a native English speaker in search of a native Arabic speaker who was also interested in improving their English – this way we could help one another with our language goals. Over Skype we set up hourly sessions were we’d split our conversations 50/50 between English and Arabic.

Since we started at the end of 2011, my guesstimation is that we’ve raked up about 350 hours chatting – half in English, half in Arabic – on everything from the consequences of the Egyptian revolution to inspiring TED videos. That’s pretty amazing, and I didn’t even feel the hours of practice accumulating. It’s also been wonderful witnessing first-hand someone else’s growth and helping them with their own goals.

Along the way my partner encouraged me to challenge myself and start using my new skills as a tool instead of just an accomplishment. We’ve translated an Egyptian graphic novel together and I’ve begun composing emails in Arabic.

I can’t say enough about this simple method of learning, it is a powerful accelerant. Not only does it get you to your goals in a less painful, fun way, but the very act of this form of study – chatting, writing, listening – means you’re actually achieving your goal in the moment, you’re actually doing the very thing you said you wanted to do with a native speaker instead of waiting for perfection.


If you’ve tried before and failed at learning a foreign language and if parts of my story resonates with your own then here’s what I recommend to give it another try:

  1. Define your goal. What does fluency mean to you? Do you want to translate academic texts or have a simple conversation with a native speaker in that target language? Of course your goal will evolve with time as you continue to challenge yourself. But as a starting point: what is the bare minimum that you’d like to accomplish? How will you know you’ve reached that initial goal (e.g. being able to order dinner in that target language)?
  2. Get a simple reference guide for your target language. Key word is simple, I don’t want you going on a shopping spree like I did and stock up for the apocalypse. With time, as you become more confident in your language, this small guide will become invaluable until you’ll eventually need to trade it in for something more comprehensive. Please don’t try to memorize anything from this guide in the beginning – we want to learn a language, not memorize it.
  3. I strongly recommend you go through a Pimsleur course in your target language. No, it won’t make you fluent, but that’s not the point. It will get you up and running rather quickly with some of the most basic, frequent phrases of your target language. It’ll also give you a landscape of the language’s grammar without turning it into something tedious. You’re always speaking in these thirty-minute long lessons, never really studying or memorizing. They’re a bit pricey, check if your local library has them or if you can buy them second-hand on or eBay. You can also try out a lesson on iTunes first before committing to a whole set.
  4. Okay, let’s find a speaking partner for you. Register on something like My Language Exchange or a similar service. Mention your language goals and a bit on yourself. It may take a while to find that right partner. In fact you might want to have ‘interviews’ with a few to get a sense of their interests and commitment-level. Just remember that they have their own goals, so make sure you understand what they’d like to work on as well. Whatever time you can afford for chatting, make sure it’s consistent to maintain a sense of momentum and improvement. The point is to be comfortable to make mistakes with this other person, for the two of you to treat language-learning as game instead of something serious or academic.
  5. This is optional, but again something that I think will help you review all the great words and phrases you’ll be picking up from your language partner: flashcards. But instead of using handwritten index cards, I highly recommend a program for your computer or mobile phone that will allow you to add and review cards using the spaced repetition method. For Mac users you can try iFlash. The great thing about many of these programs is that you can add pictures and sounds to enrich your collection of cards. I could write a whole post about the benefits of the spaced-repetition method but since the good people over at Wikipedia have already done that for me you should head over there to read more and see why it’s so effective.
  6. Keep up the momentum, keep your chatting consistent. After a few weeks you’ll feel a sense of improvement but also recognize recurring mistakes. Find ways of dealing with them, of quizzing and challenging one another to make each other stronger. The more you invest in your language partner, in their goals and learning, the more you’re likely to get back.

If these steps inspire you to find a language partner, please drop me a line on your progress – I’d be interested to hear about your own language journey –


2012 in Review

Better late than never. It was therapeutic to do this last year, so I thought I’d continue the practice. Overall it was a good year of achievements but more importantly of realizations and growth:

A wonderful breakup: Last year ended on a terrible note when I had to finally break ties with my Shelter producers. It was inevitable, it was an unhealthy relationship from the start. My spidey-senses tingled from day one that something wasn’t right about us working together but I didn’t heed my gut’s warnings. How do you listen to your feelings in a brand new situation? I needed words, I need someone either to articulate what I was feeling or better yet to give me their own logic, based on their own decades of experience. So instead of relying on myself to make the decision to move forward with these strangers, I allowed wiser souls to make it for me. That probably should have been my first cue that shit was going to hit the fan in a terrible way.

When I finally got the advice I so desperately needed to hear, that I couldn’t ignore because it resonated with my entire being, I realized how much valuable time I had wasted by not paying more attention to my senses in the first place. But it’s not only lost time. Over the course of working with my ‘exes’, my confidence as a writer and director was stripped to bone, to the point I felt I knew nothing and was capable of nothing – not the best place to be in as a filmmaker. 

I’ve learned very late in life how impressionable I am, the drastic effect ‘enabling’ and ‘paralyzing’ partners can have on me – how I can scale mountains with one and feel like utter crap after talking to the other. So much rides on the people I stand next to. I wish I had thicker armor, but at this point I think I’m too old to change – and I think we’d all prefer to be with collaborators that inspire us rather than ones that makes us shrink. This has somehow been the theme of all of my successes: there was always someone there, a partner, a teacher, a coach next to me that helped me see what could be, what I could do, and that is why I ultimately grew.

But despite this nuclear implosion, I don’t regret it – in these past few months I’ve regained my mojo plus some extra. I have a newfound optimism in the project and in myself to rise to the occasion. I see more clearly the things and experiences I’ve forgotten to leverage. I’ve met new potential partners while reconnecting with old mentors from my past. I am ready to start again. 

Learned to juggle: Over the summer, as Shelter progress waned, I began to consider starting something new. Up until then, I had resisted the idea of working on multiple projects simultaneously. Part of my fears were physiologically based – could my tiny brain handle working on more than one story at a time. But I also had met way too many walking clichés during my internship in Los Angeles, to many writers/directors talking the talk, hustling, ‘working on several things’, and not really getting anywhere and I didn’t want to end up like that. I do believe there’s power in focusing instead of casting the net too wide.

So I’m not sure how it happened, maybe I had too much time on my hands, but I ended up starting three new projects last year: two shorts and a feature-length film. All three projects have met varying degrees of success in their early stages of development: one short was nominated for the Bosch Coproduction Prize while the other I’m currently prepping for in Cairo. The feature project was shortlisted for the Biennale College Cinema Fund (cosponsored by Gucci). The irony is that all three stories were old ideas I abandoned years ago and were simply collecting dust in my drawer. I’m still figuring out how to move forward on each, while acknowledging some might have more traction than others. But I’m sure each seedling will grow at its own pace.

What’s great about a young story is what it forces you to learn, forces you to become in order to author it – so far I’ve been photographing again, attended circus school to learn how to stiltwalk, translating Arabic materials, studying the intricacies of time travel . . . I’m excited to see where all this leads to.

Became more physically aware: I started taking yoga last spring at Lexington’s HealthWorx with a great teacher, Rosemary Pearson-Rosenthal. I remember coming in on the first day, after a heavy session of kettlebell swings and macho-man deadlifts, wanting to ‘cooldown’. But it was only after a few sessions that I could see yoga could offer me something more than a new way to stretch. It wasn’t a series of mumbo-jumbo chants or impossible poses like I had thought – it was a retreat, a chance to move the body without ‘working’ or trying to prove something. And so I became addicted and I’m still a fiend.

It was these retreats from the real-world that taught me how to better handle the real-world – that taught me how to juggle multiple things and decisions without allowing them to overwhelm me. It’s hard to put into words what yoga does, as it depends so much on the teacher and the student – all I can say is give it a try for a bit and see for yourself its side-effects. 

Figure drawing: As I became more aware of my body and mind through yoga, I simultaneously began studying the external human form more closely. I finally confronted one of my major weaknesses as an artist by taking a short figure drawing class that I wrote about previously and following up with weekly open sessions at the nearby University of Kentucky Art Institute.

Experiments in home improvement: That need to observe and work with my hands oddly enough led to a series of home improvement projects. Odd because I’m not really a ‘DIY’ kind of person; I used to be one of those guys you see in the lumbar department searching for a lightbulb. Well, no more.

It all began when my mom bought an old army radio desk to repurpose into a TV stand. Despite its sad condition, it was clear there was a thing of beauty underneath all those gobs of army-grade paint and battle rust.  So I decided I would take it apart, bolt by bolt, strip it, buff it, sand it and repaint it with a little Moroccan flair.

Surprised by the results, I began to see the world around me as a series of potential DIY projects. The local Home Depot became my mecca. I got on a first name basis with some of the employees. Even started helping other customers with their own projects, including that poor shmuck in the lumbar department searching for a lightbulb. I finished some simple jobs around the house, caulking this, painting that. I became confident in my own two hands. There is something oddly empowering and addictive about physical work, fixing something, making it right again.

So . . . despite how eclectic last year’s activities were, there are thin threads connecting them, and lessons I’d like to hold on to this year: the importance of listening to one’s own gut and body despite inexperience, embracing challenges, investing time in the strange pursuits that makes us happy and of course continuing to learn.


Today I went for a run, the first in about a year. Only for twenty minutes, but enough to feel my time away from the road hasn’t been kind.

As I ran I felt each weak link in the chain and there were many. The muscles that keep me upright and that propel me forward are soft. At ten minutes the clamor of excuses grows louder: ‘running in chinese-made new balances isn’t safe’, ‘Cairo’s urban design kills pedestrians’, ‘that gang of wild dogs I keep lapping look very hungry’. All these things are logical, sound, reasonable – and that is why I must ignore them.

I raise the volume on Jay-Z self-congratulating himself until I go deaf, until I drone out that part of me that wants to surrender.

At fifteen minutes I’ve accepted I’m slower, not as fast as before when I sprinted up hills with the enthusiasm of a child. I pace myself. I take solace that this is the beginning of great things, a refinement of the body I can’t get by thinking about it. I play back sound-bites, words of encouragement from heroes like Murakami, that treat this primal movement as religion.

And by twenty minutes I think I’m born-again.

A New Addiction

Too many ideas and intentions have been percolating for some time in my head. It’s been almost two years since my last writing challenge when I forced myself to write a poem every day for thirty days straight with no clear goal. Surprisingly that challenge kept going longer than planned and turned into a monster collection of one hundred poems.

Clearly the habit tapped into a deep, rich well in my imagination I didn’t know existed. I remembered things I had forgotten. I sewed together symbols from my fragmented childhood into some kind of narrative. And some of these mysterious verses have even cross-polinated into my ‘real work’, into the writing of my screenplays.

Occasionally I continue the practice, writing scraps of poems on napkins until they make a complete thought. But nowadays I rely more on the crutch of inspiration than on habit. And so I’ve decided to give myself a similar challenge, but in a different medium – the Essay.

I’ll be writing a blog post everyday, without worrying about the results or the overall theme of the short pieces. There’s no community that I can rely upon, as I did with NaPoWriMo, except for the small, patient audience of this blog. I predict it will be an eclectic collection of thoughts and musings. Some of the posts will be housekeeping in nature, posts I had meant to write or complete but never got around to. But once I exhaust those old ideas, will I be able to continue creating something new every morning?

There is something ‘professional’ about showing up daily to work, even if the results are amateurish at first. There is something therapeutic in creating a quiet space where you can make sense of your own observations and distill them on paper instead of always being bombarded with the voices of others. There is something exciting about a new challenge.