Language Learning Tip #27

One of the best general language learning sites on the internet is done by Steve Kaufman.

He also has a YouTube channel with lots of helpful advice.

When it comes to videos and sites that claim to help you learn a foreign language, there is a lot of junk and hype out there. The strength of Kaufman’s approach is that it is informed by linguistic study as well as practical experience. So many other web sites are done by language enthusiasts, but their views are often not backed up with a knowledge of Applied Linguistics. I (Tim Peverill – Curriculum Director at GAP) have watched and read enough of Steve Kaufman to heartily recommend his advice on language learning.

Here’s an example of sound advice on active and passive vocabulary from his video channel.

And a good video about corrections.

Finally, for additional language learning videos, please visit the Gulf Arabic Programme channel!

Language Learning Tip #07


“I find myself hesitating when I speak because I am second-guessing myself and correcting myself.”


You are most likely someone who uses their “monitor” too much.


The Monitor Hypothesis is the idea that many people who try to learn a second language as an adult have constructed a sort of mental computer monitor between their thought in their mother tongue and their speech. This monitor is where they try out their grammar and construction before they actually say it. They sort of put their sentence or phrase up on the monitor screen to check it over before they talk or even while they are talking. The assumption behind the hypothesis is that this monitor is a hinderence to fluency and is of little to no benefit for accuracy in the long run.

So what is the problem really? Some would say that the problem is that your whole approach to learning the language so far is at fault. You have been trying to learn language as a system of rules and tranformations and translating methods instead of acquiring it. Acquisition is supposedly the natural way that a child learns the language without conscious analysis of the rules (i.e left brain). Therefore, we should be as childlike as possible when we try to learn/acquire a language.

Others would say that an adult has advantages over a child when learning a language because he or she can learn shortcuts and rules and can analyze the language and learn from mistakes. We can use both sides of our brain. (Have you ever tried to correct a child’s grammar? “Jimmy, we don’t say ‘goed’ we say ‘went.’ I know Mommy. I goed and went with Tommy to the store.”) We are great suckers for anything that is touted as “natural.”

I think both sides have a point. Most people who have an active monitor are producing just as many mistakes as those with no monitor. However, given time to think about it, the active monitor user can sometimes produce more grammatical sentences. However, if you find that your fluency is suffering because of this kind of hesitation and you are already an adult in a language program, you do not have a hopeless condition. There are still some exercises you can do to improve your fluency.

1)    Practice speaking quickly and incorrectly. You don’t need to be constantly wondering if this is the correct way to say something. For most situations it is perfectly fine to make mistakes as you speak and most of your mistakes should disappear as you are exposed to more and more native speech.

2)    Try recording yourself for short talks. When you know your speech is recorded, you know you can listen to it later to analyze and correct your mistakes. It brings a kind of freedom from the tyranny of the monitor.

3)    Time yourself talking. How long can you go without hesitating or correcting yourself? If you have in front of you a picture story or written notes about what you want to talk about, you can practice talking about that topic going faster and faster each time. If you get stuck on a vocabulary word or a structure, just say it in your language and go on. Don’t get sloppy with your pronunciation, but you can be sloppy with your grammar.

4)    Familiar dialogues (for example, dialogues from your book) are good for fluency practice as well. You don’t have to wonder about what to say, just how fluently you can say it.

Language Learning Tip #06

Problem (continued, part 3)

I guess I’m not much of a visual learner, because I’m still having trouble remembering these words.



Remember, the principle is that every experience we have is accompanied with sensory stimuli.  And, we can retain a language experience, such as the experience of hearing a word, by associating it with sensory stimuli which we can more easily recall later.  For example, for the sense of sight we may recall what the written word looks like or what the picture/symbol or object looks like and this memory is associated with the sound of the word.  Ok, let’s look at some other tools we have for other learning styles and other senses.


You could use your sense of smell (and taste) because research shows that memories are often strongly linked with smells.  For instance, if you study your vocabulary while taking whiffs of coffee or perfume, you will find that you can more easily recall those words later if you smell those same things later.  Of course, the practical drawbacks are that you will need to bring your smells with you whenever you want to use Arabic – on visits, for tests, show and tell class, the phone company, etc. “One minute please.  I have to smell this before I can talk to you.”

Maybe that’s not very practical after all.


But, there’s another sensory tool – touch and movement.  Sometimes this is called kinesthetic input — what your body was doing when you heard and/or read the word.  This tool can be surprisingly powerful for some people.

Real-life situations usually provide the most powerful kinesthetic input, but acting comes close.  I can still remember when I learned how one says, “over there” in French.  I had studied French for two years at a university, but my knowledge of practical French was pretty low.  Later, when visiting some people in France,  I carried some dirty dishes into the kitchen and asked in French, “Where do you want these dishes?”  A boy said, “over there” and pointed.  For some reason, I couldn’t figure out what he was saying, so he raised his voice and gestured emphatically, “Over there!  Over there!”  I can still see him in my mind’s eye as I stood there holding those heavy dishes.  I set them down, and red-faced I left the room and asked someone, “What does ‘a la bas’ mean?”

I have never forgotten that experience.  I have other vivid memories of French language encounters; most of them are dramatic, embarrassing,  funny, or unusual.  And for most of those experiences I can recall where I was and what I was doing.*

Unfortunately, most of the kinesthetic input we experience in a classroom is unremarkable and thus forgettable.  We don’t say to ourselves, “O yes, I clearly remember when I first heard the Arabic word for “invention” because we saw it in our vocabulary list and I was sitting there in class with my legs crossed holding my pencil, and the teacher said the word in a normal tone of voice three times while we repeated it after her.”  Most of us need something more than that for a word to really stick in our memories.  My language experience with “a la bas” was accompanied not only by emotions of embarrassment but also by kinesthetic input of me standing, holding heavy dishes in a kitchen in France with a rather loud French boy.

In practical terms, we cannot always have unusual places and actions along with all of our language experiences.  And if you are only in the classroom and not out in the world with people, you will have very few of these memorable experiences.  However, many of us will remember words better if we put our bodies to work as we try to learn words.  In the classroom games, acting and actions are very valuable even if occasionally they are also embarrassing.**


At home, you can do some simple things to strengthen your language memories:

1)  The act of writing or drawing or even doodling is kinesthetic and strengthens your connection to the words.

2)  Stand up and walk as you study.  Simply pacing back and forth as you do your memory work really works for some people, myself included.  Movement does not necessarily need to be connected in a meaningful way to the language.  For some people, as long as they move, they benefit.

3)  Put down your book and use emphatic gestures and motions.  Make up your own sign language for each word.

4)  Make dramatic sentences with your words and act them out, or pretend that you are giving a speech.  It doesn’t really need to be correct or be a good speech as long as you pour body and soul into it.  ***

5)  Shut and lock the doors of your room as you do #3 and #4 so that no one sees you and thinks you’ve lost your marbles.  “Poor fellow, I guess Arabic was just too much for him.”


* However, we rarely if ever remember the actual events of our lives.  Rather, we remember our memories of them, or we remember our memories of our memories of them and so on.  Despite the fact that this is not a direct memory of the actual event, it is not less memorable for me.

** Or maybe because they are embarrassing!

*** Language learning is not the time for dignity.  It is the time for fun.  For example, if your word is “invention,”  you could bend over an imaginary object on your table, fiddle with your fingers,  then straighten up and shout,  “Aha!  A new invention!”  You could even do this with friends as you compete to come up with the most memorable dramatizations of your vocabulary words.


Language Learning Tip #05

Problem (continued, part 2)

I guess I’m not much of a visual learner, because I’m still having trouble remembering these words.

Continuing on the theme of using the visual sense to create stronger memory connections.

It is preferable to learn Arabic words without going through your native language, that is, without translating.  It is not a problem if your first exposure and understanding of a word comes to you as a translation; it is fast and convenient. But you need to move beyond the translation as soon as you can as you develop a deeper understanding of a word and how it is used. You’ve heard people say they “think in Arabic” or “think in English.”  Linguists will argue about whether anyone actually thinks in any language, but the point is that we want more direct access to our second language without having to continue to translate as we go.

Let’s say, for now, that thoughts can take the form of words or images in our minds.  Visually oriented people will benefit from using images to learn words.  And you don’t have to use your eyes to see.  Images can be actual pictures on paper or imaginary pictures in the mind.  Both are using the sense of sight.*  The trick is to connect the image with the sounds of a word.


First, you should connect the sound to an image, (word –> meaning) then you can take the next step to connect the image to a sound (meaning –> word).  Write down the Arabic words you want to learn.

Then, instead of writing a translation as the meaning, draw the meaning.  The drawing does not need to be good or detailed.  It is enough that it remind you of the word.**   (This is the way Chinese writing works.)  For example, if you want to learn the word for “round” you can draw a circle.  “Round” and “circle” are different words and different concepts, but the circle can remind you of the word /rawnd/ if you train your mind to do it.  Now look at your words again — not your drawings.  Can you remember what you drew to represent this word?  If not, you need to review it.  You test yourself by listening to a word list, (such as the ones you find on the Gulf Arabic CD or in your Al-Kitaab DVD) and try to visualize the symbol or picture you created for that word.  (Hit “pause” after each word and take time to visualize it.)  If you can imagine your drawing or symbol for each Arabic word, we can say that word has entered your “passive vocabulary.  This means you can recognize the meaning when you hear it or read it.  You are able to go from Arabic word to meaning.


Next we will look at a way to go from meaning to Arabic word.  This is the more difficult of the two sides to learning vocabulary.  This will address the problem of, “I know I once learned an Arabic word for this, but I can’t remember what it is.”  For this, we simply reverse the process.

Look at your drawings now one after the other and try to remember what word they represent.  Can you hear it in your mind?  Can you say it?  Can you use it in a sentence?  If you can do this, you are moving the words from your short-term memory into your long-term memory by means of your visual cortex.***


*My daughter’s eye doctor recently commented he was trying to correct my daughter’s sight, not her eyes.  He stated, quite correctly, that we see with our brain, not with our eyes.


** Actually, written words are also only for reminding you of an idea.  Picture-based writing systems, like Chinese, have no direct link to the sounds of a word.  Alphabetic writing systems like Arabic and Korean are indirect links to the sounds of words.  In these systems, as we begin to read each letter and each vowel mark we are reminded of sounds which we then string together in an approximation of the sound of a word.  A beginning reader then tries to leap from that approximation of sound combinations and land at a word sound that he remembers as a word.  (K – Ah – T –> Cat! )  More advanced readers see the whole word and make that leap to the sound of the word without sounding out the letters.  Even more advanced readers see groups of words and phrases together which more closely approximate speech (but they may move their lips or “subvocalize” as they read.)  And finally, speed readers learn to skip processing the sounds of the words and phrases and go directly to the meaning.  That is, fast readers can read a text much faster than they could ever speak or even hear.  Incidently, Arabic especially was designed as a “shorthand” way of reminding the reader of something that was usually already known.  Arabic was first written not only without vowels markings, but without dots as well!


*** I am defining short-term memory as from 20 seconds to less than a minute.  I am defining long-term memory here as from a few hours to a few days.  Anything you can recall beyond that is in your semi-permanent memory.  I don’t think there are  memories that are actually permanent.


Next, we will look at how we might use physical movement to create stronger memory connections.

Language Learning Tip #04


I STILL can’t remember my vocabulary words.



Different strategies and tricks work for different people, and not everyone has a great memory for everything.  But the good news is that memory skills can be improved with practice. The important thing is to keep working at it.


Memory is about making connections.  Everything you want to remember must be connected to something.  That’s what the brain does.  The more connections you have to some bit of information, the more likely you are to remember it.  Also, the “depth” of the connection is important.  We sometimes say that something is “etched into my mind.”  That means that the impression is strong and will not be forgotten.  This is a useful analogy.  If you think of memory as engraving on wood or metal, we can imagine how deeper carving or etching on something is like making memories in the brain.  As I mentioned in idea #2, one way an etching (i.e. memory) is made deeper is by having it done with the power of emotion or drama behind it.

Another way to make strong connections to a memory is to use the different senses.  First, we will examine using the sense of sight.

Visual Connections:  (Written Arabic to meaning)

Some people remember better if they have something visual to recall.  However, language is not visual (seen); it is aural (heard) and oral (spoken).  The shape of the written word is only a visual symbol of that word.   It is not the word itself.  A word is particular combination of sounds which together represent a meaning.  Written words are only the symbolic representations of those sounds.  I have been amused at times when somebody has said they know a word and then write it out in the air instead of saying the word!  Something is wrong.  This person has not made the extra step to connect the sound of the word with the symbol of the word.  Nevertheless, it is a good step towards learning the word.

Some visually-oriented people find it useful to write the word out in BIG LETTERS on a whiteboard.  The visual symbol of the word is more strongly imprinted on them.  You might try using different colors or writing the words in unusual ways (curved, slanted, upside-down, etc.)  Or, perhaps incorporate drawings into the written word.  For example, دجاجة could be written with a beak and little chicken legs to remind you it means chicken.  (Warning, this approach takes more imagination than some language learners are prepared for!)


Note:  The ideas above are for putting words into your “recognition” vocabulary.  That is, for seeing a word written in Arabic and recognizing what it means (going from word symbol to meaning). The next step is harder (going from meaning to word sound).  More about that in the next message.

Language Learning Tip #03

Problem  (and it’s a big one!)

“I can’t remember my vocabulary words.”



There is more and more study being done in cognitive science and memory these days.  One of the things that is being learned about is the role of emotions and chemicals like adrenaline to deeply etch memories into the brain.  Scientists are even developing drugs to enhance memory and, more controversially, drugs to help one forget.  One thing that is becoming more clear is that when language utterances are attached to emotion, they can become so deeply etched into the memory as to become almost unforgettable.

Teachers have long known that drama which connects with people emotionally is an effective way to promote rapid second language acquisition.  Mothers know this almost instinctively as they exaggerate their intonation in their baby talk.  Dramatic language teachers are more effective, and phrases said in humorous, exaggerated, or unusual ways stick in the mind easily.  One GAP MSA teacher observed that with the old Al-Kitaab videos of Maha’s family all the students knew a particular word because it was once said by a character in an exaggerated way.  In contrast, the new generation of students using the new edition and new actors struggles to remember that very same word because it is not delivered dramatically.

OK, Tim, so this is sort of interesting, but what can I do with this information?

1) Memorizing a vocabulary list has very little emotion attached to it, but you can add emotion by imagining a dramatic situation in which you could use the word.

2) Put the word in a meaningful sentence, but not in a boring sentence.  Strange sentences usually stick in the mind better.

3) Say difficult words aloud in various ways — angry, romantically, fearfully, etc.  It’s probably best to do this alone so no one will hear you and think you’ve lost your mind.


A cute and clever video that illustrates Tips #3 – #6


Note:  Drama and emotion are just one way to help your memory.  In future messages, I will address other ideas for solving the same problem.

Language Learning Tip #02


I like to do things on the internet. Is there anything useful out there?



Nothing you can find on the internet is as good as face to face interaction with native speakers, so don’t neglect getting out. However, you can supplement your program with some useful internet tools if you have time. If you want to balance out your Arabic diet, each of these web sites brings different tastes and nutrients to your meal.


Check out these sites sometime: — A basic alphabet course with free app available — Lots of helpful lessons for beginners presented in a Khan Academy style — great resource for input and practice; leveled audio and reading practice as well as some dialect recordings — vocabulary with sound — university site with quizes, drills, etc, (Al Kitaab mostly) Click on Students in the left sidebar — the Arabic news in simplified form; good for listening and vocabulary acquisition  — vocabulary drilling program (free version and deluxe version) — another free vocabulary program based on the graduated time recall principle — Anki is yet another free vocabulary program. This is a user wiki-type program with advanced features and many of the GAP School’s materials have been added by students. You can download the program or use it online. — pricey, but a good investment; try it out for free — a page with lots of useful links and some not so useful  — online community with Arabic courses and resources — another online community with free lessons — excellent online course from the EU, standard Arabic — Standard Arabic. You can listen to many of their lessons for free, but the premium package costs from about $4.00 – $10.00 a month — ArabicPod101 on YouTube. — a helpful blog that has been discontinued but still fun to read — Hundreds of popular free video lessons from a lively lady teacher in Italy — Not sure how much Arabic you can actually learn here but it’s one of the few sites with Gulf dialect — Arabian Sindbad is a package for teaching children Arabic featuring cartoon videos and songs. You can get the deluxe package for about $130 but just the DVDs for less. Beginner adults who watch with their children will also learn quite a bit — Arabian Sindbad YouTube channel with free videos — Another way to watch Arabian Sindbad with English and Arabic subtitles — Very good site for Arabic reading practice for all levels (after alphabet is learned). Includes exercises & quizzes. Works best with Firefox 3 or higher or Explorer 6 or higher (Windows). — Access to the old (1969) FSI (Foreign Service Institute) materials and some of the associated audio

Language Learning Tip #01


 “I bought Rosetta Stone, this great program for learning Arabic on my computer, but now I realize that it is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and It can’t help me with the Gulf dialect.”


For those who don’t know.  Rosetta Stone is a very good program which helps you to learn Arabic vocabulary and practice some skills without using English translation.  It uses pictures and the user responds to what he or she sees in the picture.  For example, you can use it in listening mode and you will hear a word, a phrase, or a sentence.  At the same time you will see 4 pictures.  You simply click on the picture that matches the meaning of what you hear.  The program tells you if you were correct or not.  This is the most simple mode, but there are many other skills and ways to practice with it.

But, as mentioned above, unfortunately, it is only MSA.  However, there is a simple way that you can make it an effective dialect tool as well.

For this you need a local friend or language helper to help you.  Your helper puts on the headphones and listens to what the computer says.  He then changes it to how he would normally communicate the same idea and says this out loud.  You listen to him and click on the picture that matches.

For example, through the headphones he hears “qiTTa”  (MSA) and says “gaTwa” (Gulf dialect) and you click on the picture of a cat.  Ta Daa!  You have a Gulf dialect computer game that your helper can easily manage (usually) and will enjoy with you.

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.