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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Map & Compass

She had a stroke of genius,
when she traced the collarbone to sternum,
that place of muscle and faith.

She kissed the scars I earned as a child –
playing victim in the backyard,
acting daredevil in the front –
and she said they taste just like Alexandria.

At God’s feet are all things,
like this girl embracing me,
this girl blowing into me,
playing her instrument,
and I make the sound of a child.

Back to Work

My bags are packed. I’m going back to the Middle East to continue research on Shelter.

I’ll be visiting Beirut to explore the Romani and Armenian communities more.

And to Halabja in Northern Iraq.

I’ve been messing around with different cameras & sound recorders the past few weeks to find a lean and dependable combo for taking photographs, videos and interviews – hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my findings with you on this blog.

Wish me luck –

‘New Technologies & Opportunities’ Presentation –

This is a presentation I recently did on ‘New Technologies and Opportunities for Filmmakers in the Middle East’.

It offered me an opportunity to explore some new possibilities of storytelling with tools like PC tablets and dSLR cameras that I’d like to use for my own filmmaking in the coming months. If you’re interested in things like crossmedia, the iPad, and independent distribution then I think you’ll enjoy this.

One of the themes of this presentation is the idea that we as filmmakers need to provide our stories or messages in various forms to our audience.

With that in mind, you have TWO WAYS of enjoying this presentation depending on your preference:

FIRST OPTION, you can download a PDF of the slides and written narration.

SECOND OPTION is to simply read the post below, where I’ve embed the slides and some delicious videos and useful hyperlinks.

Enjoy . . . and tell me what you think:


New Technologies & Opportunities
for Filmmakers in the Middle East

1. Introduction:

In order for us to use new technologies we have be ready to conquer a learning curve and the feeling of being disorientated.  Despite this, as filmmakers we must embrace the new opportunities these developments provide.

We will be talking specifically about the Middle Eastern region but much of what I’ll say is applicable to most of the world especially if you live in an underdeveloped region and you’re trying to communicate a story for your local and global audience.

This short presentation isn’t meant to be a sermon – rather the beginning of a conversation. I really want to hear your opinions about how we as filmmakers can leverage technology.

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