Language Learning Tip #26


“There are so many vocabulary issues to think about. How can I have a balanced approach?”


Maybe this triangle image can help you to visualize and think about what vocabulary learning means.

Click on the image below to enlarge it.

       Triangle depicting balanced approach to language learning.
There really are a lot of vocabulary issues. For example, there are a ton of words that you need to understand. If you are not understanding 95% of the words you hear, comprehension is difficult. In addition, there is a large number of words that you want to be able to recall and use easily when you need them. Also, you need to be able to use the words in the same way Arabs use them, not in an awkward unnatural way. That is, there are issues of using the right form of the words and learning the expressions; and there is the whole area of collocations – which words usually go together and which do not.
Where are you? If you have exposed yourself to a lot of new vocabulary and gained a surface understanding of a large number of words, your profile is probably skewed towards the top of this triangle. If you have focused on learning and practicing only the most common and practical words that you often need to express yourself, your profile leans toward the bottom right corner. If you have deeply analyzed the words you know and focused on using the right forms of the word in the right places, you may have a profile that is rooted in the bottom left corner of the triangle. However, all these aspects of vocabulary learning are important and you should have strategies for making progress in each of these areas.

Targeted strategies are especially important for working on those areas that do not come easily to you. For example, if you need to add a large number of receptive vocabulary, you will need strategies like the vocabulary cards and 4 boxes as described in earlier tips. Or perhaps you need a lot of reading about a variety of things while writing down the new words you hear or read. If you need better vocabulary accuracy (bottom left) you need to ask for and write down lots of examples of different forms of a word, or maybe you need to experiment with words asking Arabs if that’s how people use the word. And lastly, if you have lots of words that you have learned but they don’t come out easily when you need them, you need strategies to build fluency and speed and easy recall of the most important and common words. These might include memorizing dialogues, or repeated listening of easy stories, and of course, lots of talking out loud to people about common topics. Everyone needs to form effective personal strategies that address their own vocabulary weaknesses.

Language Learning Tip #25

(Continued from Tip #24)


“I’m trying the boxes and vocab cards but I have a few questions.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What if I keep forgetting so many words each time that my first stack is more that 20 cards?

A: Do just 20 cards and do not add more words. Remember that these are words that you chose as words you want to put in your long-term memory; complete the task before trying to add new words.

Q: What if the cards in box #3 are more than 20?

A: Go through all of them. And all of box #2 as well. Each day you should drill more than 20 words eventually, but you should not add more than 20 words.

Q: What do I do with all the words I have retired into box #4?

A: You choose. If you want to add a box #5 for permanently retired words, you could drill words from box #4 after a week or a month or whatever. The system is expandable.

Q: I can imagine that I will forget so many words that I will not be adding many new words to the system. What should I do?

A: If this is the case, you need to work on mnemonic devices that will help you to really get the words stuck in your brain. Take a little more time over the words from your first stack imagining ways to remember that specific word, and of course, make sure you are saying the words out loud!

Q: Do I need to keep my word cards in some kind of order?

A: No. In fact, it is good if they are not in any kind of order other than being in the right box.

Q: Isn’t the memorizing work only half done? What about looking at definitions and trying to recall the Arabic? Don’t I need the words in my active memory?

A: I am not sure you should use this tool to try to do everything. Actually there is a lot more vocabulary work to be done. You need to practice using the words correctly to finish the job. However, if you wanted to add another box for words you can produce in Arabic, you could. But you wouldn’t want to send the forgotten words all the way back to your first stack! There is also the challenge of using the words in a grammatically correct way. In addition, there are many other related forms of words, and plurals, and collocations, and how the words are used in expressions. No, the vocabulary work has not finished once you send a word to box #4, but you have laid a foundation. Maybe that’s enough for one learning tool.


Language Learning Tip #24

(Continued from Tip #23))


“I learn the words, but I seem to forget after a few days.”


20 Flashcards, 4 boxes, and the principle of spaced retrieval.


In the last tip we talked about the principle of “spaced retrieval.” Now we will talk about the flashcards and boxes and how we can use them to put the vocabulary that you choose into your longer-term memory.

Here’s how it works. As you read about this process, imagine yourself doing it. If you merely read it, this explanation is going to get very tedious. Even go through the motions with your hands as you follow this step-by-step description of the technique.

Day 1-session 1: You choose 20 words you want to learn – to put into your receptive/passive vocabulary. On one side of each card you write the Arabic word and on the other side, a simple translation, symbol, or picture that gives you the general meaning. You then drill by looking at the Arabic side, saying the word ALOUD and thinking of the meaning. Once you can recall each meaning twice, you put the cards into box #1.

Day 1-session 2: Then, later on the same day – at least an hour later, you return, take the words from box #1, look at the Arabic, say it aloud, and see if you remember the meaning. If you get it right, it goes into box #2. If you cannot recall the meaning, it goes back into the first stack, not box #1.  You now have some words in the stack – the ones you forgot. Your box #1 is empty, and box #2 has the words you remembered.

Day 2-session 1: You start at box #2. Take the cards from the box, say the Arabic, and see if you can recall the meaning. If you can recall the meaning of the word, the card goes right into box #3. If you cannot remember the meaning, the card goes all the way back to the beginning to the first stack, not box #1. At the end of this step, both box #1 and box #2 are empty, but hopefully box #3 has some cards in it. Next, you return to the first stack and count the cards. If you have 10 cards in the stack, you should add 10 new cards. That is, you always start with 20 cards. Drill these 20 words in the same way you did on day 1-session 1. At the end of this session you will have no cards left in your stack, 20 cards in box #1, nothing in box #2, and hopefully some cards in box #3.

Day 2-session 2: After at least an hour, you return to box #1. (Leave box #3 for tomorrow.) Drill the Arabic words aloud as always. The words you remember will go into box #2 and the ones you cannot remember will go into the stack again where they will await your return tomorrow. So now, at the end of the session, you have possible some cards in your stack, nothing in box #1, hopefully some cards in boxes #2 and #3.

Before we move to day #3, let me summarize:

— Your stack of words is made up of either new words or words you forgot.

— Box #1 is your “same day box.”

Box #2 is your “next day box.”

Box #3 is your “after at least 2 days box” (It could even be a week).

— And finally, box #4 is reserved for “retired” words that you have successfully remembered even after a two-day (or a week?) period.

It would be a good idea to label these boxes accordingly – hours box, one day box, long-term memory box, retired word box.

Day 3-session 1: Start with box #3. If you remember the meaning, you retire the word into box #4. If you don’t … yes, that’s right, you return it all the way to the first stack. Then you move to box #2 (your remembered words from yesterday). Drill. All the words you now remember go into box #3, but the words you forget go all the way back to the first stack. You look in box #1 … “Oh yes, that’s right, it’s empty because this is only session 1 today. Then you start with the stack. How many are there? 18? OK add 2 new words today. As before, work with these 20 words until you remember each one twice and put them into box #1.

Day 3-session 2: You return to your boxes later on day 3, you notice you have cards in boxes #1, #2, and #3. Where to start? Start with #3 and work your way down. Remember, if you fail to recall a word, the card goes all the way back to the beginning stack. After you have done all three boxes, leave the stack of forgotten words for the next day.

Day 4 and beyond:  Each day session one is when you add your new words and try to fill up box # 1. Session two is when you are only testing yourself on all the words.


Language Learning Tip #23


“I learn the words, but I seem to forget after a few days.”


20 Flashcards, 4 boxes, and the principle of spaced retrieval.

There is no way to learn words without doing some memorization. However, there are inefficient and boring ways to do it, and there are more efficient and less boring ways to do it. Unfortunately, I have not discovered a way that is quick, effective, and exciting. For years one of the boring ways is to drill with flashcards, but with a little tweaking, we can add some turbo power to your work with flashcards. But first, let’s examine the issue a bit more. The following quotes are from an article by I.P. Nation, a leader in the field of vocabulary acquisition.  (Research into practice: Vocabulary 
I. S. P. Nation LALS, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Section from Lang. Teach. (2011), 44.4, 529–539. Cambridge University Press 2011)

A large amount of vocabulary can be very quickly learnt and retained for a long period of time by using spaced retrieval and, where necessary, mnemonic techniques such as the keyword technique (McDaniel, Pressley & Dunay 1987). Vocabulary which is quickly learnt in this way is not quickly forgotten. The use of the L1 and pictures to provide the meaning for words is generally more effective than the use of L2 definitions. …

…The deliberate learning of vocabulary using word cards is one way of speeding up learners’ progress towards an effective vocabulary size. This deliberate learning, however, must be seen as only one part of a well-balanced learning program. …

… Learning using word cards can be done efficiently or inefficiently, and learners need guidance on the principles behind efficient learning. These principles are strongly research-based and include the use of spaced retrieval (Pyc & Rawson 2007), mnemonic techniques where necessary (Pressley 1977), reordering of the word cards to avoid serial learning, the L1 and pictures to represent the meaning of the words (Laufer & Shmueli 1997), repetition, and the avoidance of interfering items (Tinkham 1997; Waring 1997).

One of the keys to keeping things in your long-term memory is repetition at graduated intervals (increasing time between retrieval). The popular Pimsleur method makes this a central part of its approach. That is, the idea that recalling items to memory should happen at gradually increasing intervals. Pimsleur said it should happen at 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years! That seems rather extreme and impractical, but it gives you an idea of the increasing intervals designed to help you add vocabulary into your longer-term memory. Some language learning materials make efforts to recycle vocabulary too, but it is usually spotty and incomplete for various reasons. Also, Byki is a helpful computer program that uses this principle ( But you may benefit by creating materials you can touch, manipulate, and customize. That’s where the 20 cards and the 4 boxes come in.

(To be continued…)


Language Learning Tip #22


“I don’t have much to talk about with local Arabs.”

First let me say, I certainly understand this problem.  I once sat in a conversation with some men who talked for 45 minutes straight about cell phones. And this was in the era before smart phones – all these phones could do was place calls! Cell phones are a very normal conversation topic for men in the Gulf, but it may not interest you or me.  Sticking to familiar and unthreatening topics of conversation is normal human behavior in every society.  Fortunately, you, as a foreigner, are not a normal human.  Therefore, you may be expected to behave somewhat abnormally and to introduce strange topics of conversation.  This is the value of a foreigner in any society.

Here is what I suggest.  Before you go visiting, make a list of topics you want to talk about.  I suggest that you usually focus on things that every local person would know something about, but that you as a foreigner do not.  You don’t want to embarrass people by asking about current events, geography, or anything that will show that you are the educated one!

These include:

Personal stories of the people.  (Here are a few examples about schooling.  I’m sure that If you sit and write, you can think of many more questions.)

  • What was school like for you as a child?
  • What games did you play?
  • What was your favorite teacher like?
  • What about the worst teacher?
  • How did you prepare for tests?
  • What was the most difficult subject?  Why?

Local history

  • How has life here changed in your lifetime?
  • How has this area developed in the last 5 (10, 20, 50) years?
  • What are some positive things that have changed?
  • What negative changes have come?
  • What were some of the most exciting events that have happened in this town? 
  • Is your family originally from here?  What was your home village known for?  
  • Why are there so many people here from ___?  What do people think of them? 

 – Local culture

  • How do young men here find a wife?
  • How would an older man find one?
  • How did your father and mother meet?
  • What is important to teach children?  Why?
  • How many children do you want to have?
  • How do you think boys and girls should be raised differently?

– Local stories

  • Who are some of the local leaders that people here have looked up to?  Why?
  • Are there any sad stories that you have heard lately?  Any happy local news?
  • Have you heard of any crimes that have happened here recently?  Long ago?
  • Do you know your neighbors?
  • What were some stories your father/grandfather told you?
  • Are there any stories you have heard recently that you just can’t believe?
  • Are there any stories that you heard and then found out later that it wasn’t true?

– Local wisdom

  • What’s the best place to buy ___?
  • How can I prevent being cheated?  Being robbed?  Being exploited?
  • Are there some kinds of favors that people usually ask for that I should do?  That I shouldn’t do?
  • What do people here usually think about people from my country?
  • When should I be generous or not generous?
  • What are some polite ways to refuse someone?
  • What should I do about people who come to my door asking for money?

These are only a few examples.  You should be able to think of many more.  To use questions effectively, you will need to:

  1. Write down the ones you want to use.
  2. Figure out how to ask them in Arabic.
  3. Take the questions with you when you visit.

I also recommend that you:

  1. Exchange your best questions with other learners who are doing the same thing.
  2. Ask the same questions repeatedly with different people of different ages, situations, etc.
  3. Keep your question notebook with you so that when good questions occur to you, you can write them down.
  4. When you listen to the answers, get in the habit of repeating the answers back to the speaker.  Summarize and check your comprehension.  This “active listening” is very fruitful for learning how to express things and getting them to restate things in ways you can understand.
  5. Keep most of your visits to under half an hour. You, as an “abnormal” visitor can bring interest into their lives, but talking to foreigners can also be tiresome if it goes on too long.

For your convenience, I have compiled a booklet of these types of questions that you can ask almost anyone. Inquire at GAP to get your copy.