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 theĀ 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 –