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.

Language Learning Tip #20


“My anxiety about my language performance is affecting my performance.”

Idea:  Attack your anxieties indirectly.

First of all, I think it is important to recognize language anxiety as a common problem.  Many people are in denial as they try to discount how anxious they actually are about their language performance.  We like to think of ourselves as being able to handle ourselves well and be cool under pressure, but learning a second language has a unique way of making us feel uncool.  This is threatening to us on a basic psychological level.

You are also recognizing that high anxiety hinders recall.  Your memory skills are hindered because your focus and attention is side-tracked.  You may have noticed that your motivation is weakened.  You used to feel confident and excited about learning the language, but now you are just trying to get through the days.  You may have even noticed that you are having more mood swings or struggle with low energy.  This is a result of culture stress, language anxiety, and self-shock (the unpleasant realization that you are not as ‘together’ as you thought)  All these things gang up on you with the result that you can not achieve as much, which causes more anxiety, which causes more debilitation, which causes more anxiety and so on.  Am I scaring you too much?

The Syndrome

Stressful situations feed both anxiety and/or action.  Your body experiences stress with rapid heartbeats, reddening ears, butterflies in the stomach, nervous laughter, etc.  This results in urges to ‘fight or flight’.  The stress is not a bad thing if it is not overwhelming, but for many it leads to avoidance behavior.  At first, we are energized to meet the challenges and overcome the threatening feelings (fight!), but before too long, we may find ourselves avoiding situations that cause us stress (flight!).


In order to avoid anxiety, we start to avoid things that are associated with the anxiety.  We withdraw.  Here are some signs that I may be avoiding some language difficulties.

  1. I avoid some language difficulties.  : )  I choose to do what I am good at.
  2.  I isolate myself from speakers of the language because I am not good enough to carry on adult-like conversations with them.
  3.  I find myself speaking softly.  Perhaps then others will not notice my mistakes or bad pronunciation.
  4.  Instead of using the language, I spend a lot of study time trying to figure it out.  I feel if I can grasp the rules, I won’t feel as if I am lost.
  5.  I compare myself to others trying to figure out just how clever I am.  If I withhold judgement, how can I validate myself?
  6.  I take little mental vacations in class wishing I were elsewhere.  It’s easier to withdraw than to stay fully engaged.
  7.  I focus on my performance in class; if it is not my turn to perform, I shift into neutral.
  8.  In order to avoid battering my own ego, I blame others (teachers, native speakers, classmates, etc) for my shortcomings.

Next time:  The indirect attack.



Language Learning Tip #19


“I am trying to change some of my language learning habits, and  I have ideas, but somehow I don’t put them into action.”

There are two big problems about setting goals.

  1. Figuring out the practical steps that will bring you to the goals.
  2. Taking the practical steps.


If it were not for these two small complications, we would reach all reach all of our goals. There would be no more war, poverty, or pollution. We would all be happy, fit, and have PhD’s.

But let’s not try to solve all those problems right not. Let’s just think about how to reach an easy goal – learning Arabic.

I have put together a tool for GAP students who need some help taking practical steps toward their Arabic LL goals. It’s called Twenty Points a Day.

TPD is a way for you to keep track of activities you can do outside of class to get you involved in the lives of Arabic speakers and to practice Arabic outside of class. You simply have a list of suggested activities that you can do each day. Each activity you do earns you points toward your goal of learning Arabic and helps you form good LL habits.

If you are interested in seeing more details of TPD ask me when you see me at GAP. I will be happy to get you started with the program.


Language Learning Tip #18



“I am trying to change some of my language learning habits, and  I have ideas, but somehow I don’t put them into action.”

Idea:  Address problems with strategies not with wishes.

Five steps for creating suitable strategies:

1) Identify areas you want to improve in.  Do this periodically as your needs and abilities change.  Write down things you want to be able to do at this point in your life and skills you want to practice.  Then prioritize them by giving them numbers.  Choose 2 or 3 of them and develop creative strategies to improve in these areas.

2) Identify your strengths and weaknesses as a learner.  What are you good at?  What is difficult for you?  Then focus on ways to strengthen your weak skills by using your strengths. 

For example, if you don’t spell well, identify the reasons.  Maybe two Arabic sounds seem the same to you so you get mixed up with words which have those sounds in them.  This would be a weakness in an aural (listening) skill.  But if you can see the word in your mind or you write the word a number of times, you can use your strength as a visual learner or as a kinesthetic learner to work on your spelling problem.  Or if your weakness is listening comprehension, you cannot improve in that area by making a grammar chart.  However, listening to recorded Arabic at slower speeds could be helpful. 

Look for a connection between the skill you need and the activity you want to spend time on.  If you can not explain the connection between the two, then maybe the connection is not really there.


3) Identify things in your personality that make it hard for you to do what other successful learners do.  Then find a way to compensate.  For example, if you are a shy person who finds it difficult to knock on your neighbor’s door, go visiting with someone else.  Or, if you never know what to talk about with people, before you visit, write a list of topics and questions that you can ask people.


4) Reevaluate your strategies from time to time.  If your strategies are all the same now as they were 3 months ago, you probably are not giving enough attention to this area.  Use your creativity and feed off of the creativity of your classmates and other learners.


5)  Find someone to be accountable to.  You might talk with that person about what you are writing in your language learning journal.  You should discuss what your current strategies are, why you have chosen them, and how you might improve them.  Sometimes another person might just have an idea that will turn a good strategy into a great strategy. 

Language Learning Tip #17


“I am trying to change some of my language learning habits, and  I have ideas, but somehow I don’t put them into action.”

Idea:  Address problems with strategies not with wishes.

The bottom line is that people who are successful at learning a language can easily explain the strategies they use and why they employ them. (O’Malley & Chamot, 1990; et al)  Everyone employs strategies to learn a language, but some strategies will be more effective for you than other strategies.  Do you know what your strategies are?  If someone asked you — “What is your strategy for putting vocabulary into your long-term memory?”  or “How are you going to work on your pronunciation?” or “What can you do to improve your reading speed?” — would you have a clear answer?

What do I mean by “strategies”? “Language learning strategies are the often-conscious steps or behaviors used by learners to enhance acquisition, storage, retention, recall, and use of new information.” (Oxford, 1990)  This is strategizing in the key area of memory and integration of knowledge.  But strategies also include things such as time-management, handling emotions and attitudes, social and relational strategies, compensating for weaknesses and gaps, maintaining motivation, self-evaluation,  etc.

Remember that your strategies will be individualized to fit your goals, personality, and resources.  But most of the best strategies have already been invented and used by others before.  Find out how successful learners strategize and steal the best ideas from them.  You might even organize a party where people share their strategies in different areas.  You may be surprised that even less talented learners have developed some good strategies for learning certain aspects of the language.  Often the ideas you hear may not be a perfect fit for you, but with a few alterations they might do nicely!

Most jobs demand a specialized knowledge or an expertise in how to do it.  For example, if you were to train to be an apiarist, you would study everything about bees and how they produce honey.  If you were to become a gourmet cook, you would need to do more than learn how to flip burgers.  And if language learning is your full-time job, you should aim to become an expert in it during these two years.  Not an expert in Arabic, rather an expert in how to learn Arabic.

Next we will look at how to create strategies that are suitable for you.  But you can begin with starting a journal, which we discussed in the last message.

Language Learning Tip #16


“I am trying to change some of my language learning habits, and  I have ideas, but somehow I don’t put them into action.”


Have a weekly planning time.  I recommend that you follow these 3 principles:

  • Keep it very simple.  Don’t try to do too much at first.
  • Keep it regular. It should be at the same time each week.
  • Keep it together.  Have a special notebook for this purpose.

Think of a day each week when you have 30 minutes that you can sit without distractions.  In fact, sometimes you may only need 20 minutes to do these 4 steps.

Step 1)  Write 1-3 goals for the week. There is nothing wrong with only writing one explicit goal.

Step 2)  Make a basic written schedule outlining when you will work on those goals.  Break down the task into manageable steps. Be as specific as you can. Here are some examples of goals for the purpose of activating words you’ve learned before.

  • Review chapters 7-9 and write down 10 words I want to put in my active vocabulary
  • Speak out loud by myself using each word in two sentences (20 sentences total).
  • Use at least five of these words this week in conversation with others.

Here are some other types of goals you can set.

  • I will talk to three people for 5 minutes about __my home town   .
  • I will write down a list of 10 words that are related to __my home town   .
  •  I will practice  speaking with a tape recorder on __my home town    for 15 minutes.
  • I will try to visit (name) on (day) for (20-30 minutes) and will talk about __my home town   .

Step 3)  Evaluate your past week. Did you meet your goals?  Were your goals too big or unrealistic?  If you did this again, what would you change?  Etc.

Step 4)  Write something in your language journal.

A language journal is an activity that can be unrelated to the goal-setting outlined above, or it can be part of the whole process.  That is, whether you set goals or not, a language learning journal can be very valuable.  In fact, I would guess that journaling would be the most important part of your weekly planning and reflection.  You may even want to write in your journal more often than once a week.

Your journal should include your personal feelings about your language learning.  Write about what you liked and disliked about your language adventures this week.  When did you feel frustrated?  Did you have any breakthroughs?  What are you learning about yourself?  Your learning preferences?  Your language learning strategies?  Is there anything new you might want to try some day?

For example, “I met only half of my goals. Maybe I need to spend less time on Youtube. Am I being lazy or do I just love Youtube too much? Maybe I can try to take my iPad on my next visit and show Ahmad my favorite Youtube videos. That puppy on the skateboard just cracks me up!”