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 –


My ‘Bosch Stiftung Film Prize Nominee Forum’ Experience

I just came back from Berlin where I attended a film forum organized by the Robert Bosch Foundation. Organized for nominated projects competing for their 2013 Arab-German co-production film grants. 

I first found out about the Bosch Foundation and their generous funding opportunities this past summer in Amman where I attended a short-film project market hosted by the Royal Film Commission of Jordan meant to help Arab writer/directors partner up with German producers. After some pitch training and meetings, I decided to join forces with an ambitious producer, Jessica Landt from Beleza Film, and apply to the co-production grant together with our short fiction project The Stork.

We were shortlisted and invited to the Nominee Forum with nine other teams, each working on either short fiction or documentary projects, also made up of Arab and German filmmakers. It was an intense few days of training rounded out with good food and conversations. I think we all left more prepared to officially pitch our projects in February to the jury during the 2013 Berlinale.

Since I found it so useful, I thought I’d summarize my highlights:

Pitch training with Cathy de Haan: I first met Cathy in the Amman project market, where she introduced us to the art of pitching, but here she had more time to expand on her advice. She reminded us of the essentials: to keep things clear, consistent and concise – reflected in everything from how we use our voices, our bodies and the design of our visual material. We’ve got to relax, to enjoy the process, because we’ll never have this opportunity again to speak to this particular audience about this specific film. We tend to get so wound up with our presentations and ourselves that we forget about our audience; who we’re actually pitching to and who has ultimate power. What do they know about the project already?, what do they want to hear and how/why will they be moved by your project? Even if they’re critical of the pitch in the end, we should be appreciative and answer their concerns seriously, as their questions and feedback is proof they actually took the time to hear our pitch.

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This Week’s Gems – Sept 2nd 2012

So this is an inaugural series of posts I hope to do weekly. I’ve handpicked some useful stuff I came upon this week – links, articles, books, inspirational work –  and I thought it might interest you as well. Like most of my posts, these resources center around work, learning, artmaking and creativity. Enjoy this week’s potpourri:

1. The Little Book of Talent by Daniel CoyleThree years ago Daniel Coyle published the fantastic The Talent Code that debunked popular misconceptions on talent/genius and how to attain it. It shared some kinship with Gladwell’s Outliers, except Coyle gave us specific methods for getting better, for acquiring mastery, regardless of the pursuit. Here in this short volume he continues that discussion with more concrete tips. Each short chapter is supported by observations he made visiting masters and the schools/teachers that mentored them. Highly recommend it, to any ‘makers’ out there. I’ll leave you with a quote from the introduction:

Whatever talent you set out to build, from golfing to learning a new language to playing guitar to managing a startup, be assured of one thing: You are born with the machinery to transform beginners’ clumsiness into fast, fluent action. that machinery is not controlled by genes, it’s controlled by you. Each day, each practice session, is a step toward a different future. This is a hopeful idea, and the most hopeful thing about it is that it is a fact.

2. Working Out Doesn’t Just Make You Stronger, It Makes You Smarter [via FastCompany] Useful infographic that reminds you how important exercise is for your gray matter.

3. Scent of Revolution (Ra’ihat Al-Thawra) – A dear mentor of mine is seeking funds to finish off her most recent documentary. Viola Shafik is the author of the esteemed Arab Cinema and film maker/curator based between Berlin and Cairo. Based on the film’s trailer and description, it seems that this doc will be a multi-threaded, cross-sectional look at the complex relationship between Egypt’s past, present and future. She seems emotionally tied to finding some answers to where Egypt is going post-Mubarak. While there’s no shortage of films on the recent Egyptian revolution, I think few take such a nuanced look at the events as she has. With the film in the can, she’s seeking $18k for post – if you’re a fan of Arab cinema and want to be part of it, definitely pick up her book and try to support her film with whatever spare change you have.

4. Kirby Ferguson: Embrace the Remix – If you’re not familiar with Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a Remix video series you should be. It debunks popular ideas on originality and ownership and is a great starting point for ‘makers’. In this short TED video he extends his ideas by using examples from Dylan and Steve Jobs to demonstrate how our most celebrated creators borrow, steal and transform to produce their greatest work. You can watch the full 10 minute video here:

5. I’ve spoken before about Skillshare, now they’re offering hybrid classes that allow students to take online classes and meet up in their respective cities for further discussion. Really interesting selection so far, I think I’m going to sign up for Build Your Creative Empire, and I just sent in a proposal to teach a Kickstarter Your Dreams class.

A Space of One’s Own, Part 1

After the Binger Lab, I felt drained. Tired of working on the same project, in the same way, with the incessant opinions of others. I needed a break and a chance to listen to my own wisdom. I needed not only private time, but more importantly private space.

So when I came back to the States I decided to rent a studio for a short creative sabbatical. I found an amazing space that used to be the basement of an old YMCA in downtown Lexington. Despite the cost, I decided to rent it, turning this obscenely large room into my own writer’s office and painting studio.

As a filmmaker, I was able to rationalize the expense and rekindled interest in art making as a skill that would prove useful in pre-visualization and preparing a lookbook for “Shelter“.

It was kind of like an office where I could pace, think, and stretch out my other projects. Where I could leave my tools out in the open, sprawled out all over the tables and floors for the next day’s work. And create an ‘assembly-line’ like atmosphere for the stuff I needed to get done and a laboratory for my curiosities.

It was a place where I could be reckless and fail.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of prototyping and quickly making our ideas into something physical, something we can touch and see. Because of this experience, I’m even more adamant that all creative types need such nooks to tinker in.

This nook is ideally a space of any size where you can turn your creative brain inside out and jot down your raw ideas and ambitions into something physical.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting you have to go rent out some grand space for your own creative endeavors. In fact, in Part 2 of this post I’ll propose how we can carve out our own creative nooks in our homes to fulfill a similar purpose. My point here is I believe we need something, anything, even a corner of a room, that takes a physical footprint in our lives if we’re serious about our ambitions.

A place that can evolve organically as a project grows and matures. Where you can plop your butt down for a little bit everyday, have your tools nearby and push your projects forward bit by bit.

If you haven’t already, I’d like you to give some serious thought about how to give your ambitions a physical space. It can be something as simple as a dedicated corkboard over your computer. Ask yourself how you can use atmospheric elements like playlists, framed art, lighting, to get yourself in the mood immediately when you sit down to work.

Ideally, this space will not only remind you of your ambitions, but also act as a ballast in those moments when you doubt yourself and your genius.

We’ll explore all of this further in Part 2. In the meantime, here are some examples of private spaces to inspire you writers and artists out there.

What One Hundred Poems Taught Me

This past April I participated in National Poetry Writing Month. After summarizing that experience, I decided to continue the challenge and go for hundred poems in a hundred days.

I’m unable to articulate my reasons clearly, it just felt right. Sometimes we chase strange goals because they resonate and it’s better to simply feed these odd cravings instead of rationalizing the dream away. As far the benefits and lessons of pursuing such creativity challenges, I think there are several:


Our capacity for work and potential output is significantly greater than we think. Right when you think the well of your imagination is dry you come up with something else. I had no idea of the number of verses and poems I had lying in wait in my brain prior to starting the challenge.

If you produce this quickly, with little time for reflection, your work will be of mixed quality. But it’s far easier to strengthen those raw ideas when you have them on paper as ‘prototypes’ of their future selves instead of waiting for something to be close to perfect in your tiny brain. Only when things are physical can you refine and curate the best of your ideas.

For more about the need to constantly create in the face our fears, you can read my previous post on this topic.


Prior to the challenge, I had wanted to take poetry seriously for some time – and the word ‘seriously’ for me usually translates to reading a book or taking a class on the subject before actually doing something. In the past it’s been easy for me to create prerequisites to physical action, a clever way of justifying procrastination.

But by bypassing any kind of ‘curriculum’, I accomplished significantly more on my own than I could have under someone else’s guidance. I was inspired by other poets, visitors to this blog and my own mistakes – these were my teachers.


Not only does working this way mean you increase your output, put you also become more fluid in your medium. After a while the daily work become a part of your daily rhythm and you start to feel wrong without it. It becomes a kind of meditation, a morning jog, a holistic force that sets the tone for the day, that reminds you that today matters, so use it.


Seeing and experiencing the world through the filter of the medium you’re working in is very exciting. My morning walks in Amsterdam became like scavenger hunts, where I’d search for an image, a detail that could inspire that day’s work. The city and my thoughts became a precious thing that I was constantly trying to put into words.

I am now more convinced that as creators we must consume the world around us and respond to it, in the voice and medium of our choosing, on a daily basis.

But it doesn’t have to be all serious work. Play with your process when your stuff gets stale and you get tired. You can change up things by experimenting with different tools. For example, I tried writing out poems on paper cups, with tape recorders and apps (like OmmWriter).

During the challenge, I obsessed on quantity – not quality. And ironically a side-effect of shutting off my internal editor is that I did produce some things I was proud of. The challenge combined with blogging created a kind of sandbox where I could mess around with no real intent or ‘master plan’ – yet I was extremely productive and surprised myself with the results. Odd.

I wonder if our insistence on making ‘one of a kind’ work right out of the gate prevents us from eventually making one of a kind work one day? Final outcomes we can be proud of are the result of constant experimentation and wrong turns as we find our way down a foreign road. And sometimes you have to lock your ego and editor in the trunk just to make some real progress down that foreign road.

I still need to give some more thought on how to apply this kind of experimentation on my career as a filmmaker. In the meantime, if you decide to pursue a similar challenge this year, please leave me a note in the comments or email me – I’d really like to follow along on your journey, regardless of your personal or professional goal.

Also, I encourage you to journal these daily artifacts you create – via twitter, tumblr, wordpress, etc. – opening yourself to the feedback and inspiration of others; allowing some transparency to your bungles and successes. I promise you that kind of transparency is not as embarrassing as it seems. It’ll give you some accountability to finish your challenge and be a great reminder not to take yourself too seriously.

P.S. You can view some of my favorite poems from the challenge here.

The Best of 2011 for 2012

I combed through my RSS feeds and bookmarks for what I felt where the most useful things I read or saw this year on the web. Because of their resonance, they’re resources I’ll probably refer to again and again in 2012. The themes center around hard work, success and living an artistic life. I’ve organized the articles into a narrative, but feel free to skip around and choose buffet-style. Hope you enjoy the curation:

Grit, perseverance, and how to get better:

1. The Future of Self-ImprovementGrit Is More Important Than Talent, Part I & Part 2:  (Jocelyn Glei via The 99 Percent)

If we want to cultivate expertise, or “genius,” or whatever you want to call it, we need to be able to step outside of ourselves, observe how we are operating, reflect on what could be better, theorize how we could change it, and then test out a solution. The problem is: This is very, very hard for most people.

2. ‘Hustle‘ (Matt Nowack via ihumanable)

The best way to learn anything is to do it, to struggle through, to forge on, to fight and gnash teeth and curse at. There is no knowledge as highly regarded as that which you have to work for.

3. ‘Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better?’ (Atul Gawande via The New Yorker)

You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches – showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.

Eliminate choices and make decisions:

4. ‘Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?’ (John Tierney via The New York Times):

Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options.

Good work is easier than you think:

5. ‘Everything Is a Remix‘ (Kirby Ferguson) Amazing to realize the patterns in art and film and begin thinking in terms of ‘recipes’ and how everything is a remix of something else.

Creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that’s… copying.

6. ‘How To Steal Like An Artist‘ (Austin Kleon) Down to earth guide on how to start ‘stealing’ or borrowing from others as a starting point for what you’re working on.

Art is all about the slow accumulation over time.

7. ‘The 50 Things Every Creative Should Know‘ (Jamie Wieck) Not applicable across all creative fields but there’s definitely some points you can save for reference. You can use this as a template to come up with your own ‘essential 50’.

IF YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL, FAIL WELL: Being ambitious means you have to take on things you think you can’t do. Failures are unfortunate, but they are sometimes necessary.

8. ‘How underdogs can win‘ (Malcolm Gladwell via The New Yorker): Written a while back something I keep referring to and that’s fits nicely on this list. While grit is an essential part of success, so is street smarts; sizing up your reality and figuring out how to leverage what you have despite your weaknesses. What ‘rules’ or conventional wisdom in your field can you break to your advantage?

It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

Build yourself a garage & tinker:

9. ‘Lab Notes: My Closed-Loop Research System‘ (Cal Newport via Study Hacks): How to mix daily work, with ‘little bets‘, and make sure you’re working towards mastery and discovery.

10. ‘How Weekend Projects Can Free Your Inner Rock Star‘ (Kevin Purdy via Lifehacker): Pursue new projects with time constraints to achieve outside of your expertise and experience.

11. ‘Try something new for 30 days’ (Matt Cutts via Last spring I tried writing poetry for 100 days straight and had phenomenal results. Something I’ll probably repeat this year for a different activity. Here’s a short guide to devising your own month-long challenges for 2012.

2011 in Review

2012 getting closer. Before I make any resolutions, let me first reminisce on this year’s accomplishments and what I’m most proud of:

  • Completed my ‘100 poems in a 100 days‘ project. This was a great teacher of the value of ‘just doing it’ and how our potential creative output is actually a lot greater than we think. And of course there were other insights along the way.
  • Blogged about my Binger Lab experience with Shelter. Those posts became a separate kind of laboratory where I could tinker with ideas I had for the script and how to direct the film.
  • Helped out as a Kickstarter Consultant with funding campaigns for two short films (‘Lunch Date‘, ‘Plato’s Reality Machine‘).  This taught me a great deal about how one can raise funds and might be useful for 2012 if I decide to kickstarter a project of my own.
  • Got back into taking pictures and drawing on a more regular basis. Even rented a studio for a few weeks to paint.
  • Abandoned Facebook and shifted over to Tumblr as my main social media site. A few months ago I found Facebook to be a distracting burden instead of a creative tool, so now I’m using Tumblr as a scrapyard of ideas, both taken from others and original ones, to use later. This shift has forced me to stay in touch with friends more directly, by email and phone.
  • Used to start chatting with natives in Egyptian Arabic. This has been quite a workout, as we’re not speaking within the confines of a lesson or class, but rather talking freeform about anything and everything. But I’ve made more progress in the last three months than I have in the last five years; and I’ve reached a higher fluency than ever before. With all the recent events in Egypt we’ve had plenty to talk about.
  • Started treating regular fitness like an adventure, experimented with working outdoors and different tools like iPhone apps, running, kettlebells, etc. For the past few months I’ve been using a great little app called BodyFate. It lets you train with the equipment you have handy, and the workout comes at you in an unpredictable manner as if you’re working with a shuffled deck of exercises. My training now is goalless, it’s just about putting in the time on a regular basis and eating sensibly. Ironically, because I’ve ditched the ‘workout plans’ and fitness gurus, I’m in better shape now than ever before.
  • Bought a Kindle and started reading more often and everywhere. While a digital book can never replace a physical one, the pros do outweigh the cons. I’m able to travel with my entire library and revisit my books and highlights very quickly. It’s also easier for me to draw connections between the different books I’ve read on a particular subject or across disciplines.
  • Last but not least, I got to witness my younger brother get married. It was a beautiful, humbling experience and reminded me of what truly is important in this life.

The irony is that none of these accomplishments came out of a set of resolutions I wrote for myself at the beginning of 2011 – they were simply the result of me following my curiosity and needs as the year went by. Maybe ‘going with the flow’, and simply embracing your questions and interests, pursuing the things you want to be doing more of, is a more useful tool for realizing a resolution than the resolution itself?

I’m excited to see what I achieve with this same, goalless approach for 2012, as I get closer to my 35th birthday.