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 #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 #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!”






Language Learning Tip #15


“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”

We continue discussion of the 5th sign from the 5 signs that you may be working hard but not smart. Again, the 5 signs again are:

  1. Too much “brute force” in memorizing
  2. Very long study hours
  3. Lack of planning or system in study
  4. Low risk taking
  5. Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation


Take ownership of your personal language learning program.

Actually, this idea of taking ownership of your own program goes far beyond the 5th sign. What does “ownership” here mean? I won’t actually define it here. Instead, let’s compare two students, one who is taking ownership of the process and the other who is becoming a slave to it.

  • Student Atries to do everything that is expected of him.
    • He puts in long hours trying to learn all the vocabulary found in his lessons.
    • He puts a lot of emphasis on being correct and eliminating mistakes.
    • He believes that tests over the materials are important for evaluating his progress in the language so he works hard to do as well as he can on them.
    • He feels validated if he scores well and feels cheated if he gets a low score.
    • He gets frustrated with other students who are holding him back by not being as hard-working as he is.
    • He also gets frustrated because he feels he is putting a lot of work into learning aspects of the language that are not really very important to him.
    • The phrase “if only” is becoming common in his speech when he talks about how his studies are going.
    • All this is lowering his motivation to learn the language.


  • Student B picks and chooses from the book the things she wants to learn.
    • She limits how much time she spends doing homework. In fact, she sometimes does only half the assignment.
    • Other times she rushes through the homework (unless it is something that she really thinks is useful).
    • She considers the material secondary to the greater goal of improving her language skills.
    • Her attitude towards tests could be called ambivalent.
    • She sees that they may have value for reviewing material and they are sort of a fun challenge, but she feels it is a waste of her time to put in hours preparing to ‘ace’ them.
    • What she really likes to spend time on are her own language projects that she has designed for herself and practicing with native speakers.
    • She almost, but not quite, sees the formal class requirements as secondary to her language learning goals.
    • Another thing, she rarely even notices how the rest of the class is doing.
    • She tries to be helpful and she pays attention to them out of politeness, but her focus is to catch some information from them and from their interaction with the teacher.
    • If she can make use of what her classmates have learned – that’s a bonus prize.

Questions: Which student has taken ownership of the language learning process? Which one is closer to your own experience? If you find that you have a strong emotional reaction to this comparison, ask yourself ‘Why do I have this reaction to these descriptions?’ Then after you have answered, stop and ask yourself again because there may be a deeper answer that your initial answer overlooks.

I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic here. Do you have a definition of what ‘taking ownership’ of your personal language means, should mean, or could mean? Please reply if you have comments or questions.

Language Learning Tip #14

A quick review; the following are the 5 signs of working hard but not smart as found in the book “Language Learning Difficulties.” Today we look at #5.

  1. Too much “brute force” in memorizing
  2. Very long study hours
  3. Lack of planning or system in study
  4. Low risk taking
  5. Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation


“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”


You need to keep working hard but you can probably work more efficiently. The last of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart.

5) Mismatch between student’s preferred learning strategy and program expectation.

In some ways, this “mismatch” is unavoidable. Any time you are in a classroom with other people, your preferred learning style may be ignored or neglected. Any time you have a teacher or language helper, that person will not always do what you want to do. If you use a book, it may not match what you want. Even if you just work from a recording of normal Arabic speech, it probably won’t ‘scratch where you itch’. In fact, people regularly talk about things you are not interested in, or use words you don’t know, or speak too fast, or fail to read your mind, or …, or…

Whatever the nature of the mismatch, it can cause frustration for the learner. As I see it, there are only 3 possible remedies for this:

  1. Change the program to something that more closely matches your preferences, OR
  2. Be more flexible, OR
  3. Take ownership of your own learning.

First, I will briefly address the second remedy; be flexible. Many language learning studies have found a high correlation with good language learning and flexible personalities. If you have high walls of stubbornness, self-centeredness, or self-protection, you will limit what you can receive. If you tend to think ‘there is a right way and a wrong way for doing anything,’ you will be constantly frustrated. But we can easily excuse and rationalize our inflexibility.

  • “Well, I’m old and just a little set in my ways.”
  • “I know how I learn, and this just isn’t it.” (May also be a sign of a real learning disability)
  • “I just can’t … “
  • “I feel forced to ____ and I’d rather ____.”
  • “I can’t perform when …”
  • “I don’t see why I need to do this stuff.”

If you find yourself saying these things to yourself or to others, it may be a sign that flexibility is a problem and that you are working hard but not smart.

Language Learning Tip #13


“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”



You need to keep working hard but you can probably work more efficiently if you take more risks. Another one of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart is: Low Risk-Taking

You ask:

How can low risk-taking be not smart?!

Isn’t it unwise in life to take risks?

Why should language learning be different?

To answer that, let me give you some examples of low-risk behavior in language learning:

  • I study silently because I feel silly talking to myself.
  • I study alone because I don’t like others to hear my mistakes.
  • I stay home because I don’t want to feel awkward knocking on a neighbor’s door.
  • I don’t bring any Arabic materials with me on a visit because no one asked me to.
  • I look up words in my dictionary even after a native speaker has explained the meaning to me because I don’t trust that I really understood the word unless I see a translation.
  • I don’t record my local friends because I feel it is intrusive.
  • I don’t do my own language projects because I am afraid I will not have time to study for tests.
  • I don’t imitate the methods that more successful students use because those methods seem strange to me.
  • I avoid speaking in Arabic in some settings because I feel anxious and nervous.
  • I often find myself pretending that I understand something because I am too embarrassed to ask them to repeat it again.
  • I let other things crowd out my study and practice time because I feel those things give me more psychological satisfaction. (I feel more competent when I do those other things.)
  • I study calmly.
  • I reassure myself by asserting that most of my language-learning problems are because of factors outside of my control.

Each one of these behaviors is motivated by a desire to lower risk – psychological risk. There is a lot of research that shows that language learning is very threatening psychologically. My experience in the field confirms this to me over and over. However, language learners consistently discount this “threat.” It seems too silly that we as mature adults would feel threatened by trying to learn another language. Some in the language teaching profession go to great lengths to try to minimize the feelings of threat that students are exposed to. They seek to provide “a secure nest” for learners. They teach instructors to speak “in soothing tones.” They paint the walls in relaxing shades and play soft music in the background. They assign each student an alter ego, a fake name and personality, so that every silly mistake is made by that “personality” and not by the learner himself. The list goes on and on.

My view is that while those things can be helpful, it is more strategic to encourage the students to take risks and to challenge them. This approach has some negative consequences, but it is more realistic. However, ultimately, it is you – the learner – who must take the risks that will enable you to move forward at a maximum pace.

One practical thing. The first low-risk behavior I mentioned above is studying silently. Change this one thing over the course of the next month and see what happens. If you are learning to play the keyboard, do you unplug it and practice silently? Do you remove the strings from your child’s violin before he practices? Do you learn a sport by merely visualizing yourself doing it? Do you learn to paint portraits by waving your brushes in the air? Then how in the world do you think you can improve speaking by studying silently?

Language Learning Tip #12

Problem #6

“I am working hard, but I don’t seem to be making the progress that some others are making.”


You need to keep working hard but you can probably work more efficiently. The first of the 5 signs that students are working hard but not smart.

1) Too much “brute force” in memorizing

We know “brute force” in moving a heavy object is sometimes the quickest way. If you have a heavy box, you bend down, grab it and lift with your legs, right? But what if you have a thousand heavy boxes to move up 5 flights of stairs? What do you do then? It might help to stop and think a bit before you tackle the problem. (Hey! I don’t have time to think! Can’t you see I have a thousand boxes to move up these stairs!)

Usually, your most creative ideas will come to you after you have lugged a few of those boxes up 5 flights of stairs. You soon realize your limitations. But you have resources to draw on. Take inventory of your resources and your strategies. Seriously, sit down with a piece of paper and make notes on what you do to learn Arabic and why you do these things. Then, once you have outlined what you actually do, try to take a brand new look at what you are doing.

  1. Be Creative — You break down the memory problem into pieces and think about the most efficient ways to do learn what you want to learn. You take an inventory of your resources, you experiment, you approach your tasks from new angles. What kinds of things do you remember easily? Bring that type of memory work into play with Arabic.
  2. Research — If you have never done this job before, find out from people who have. Ask successful learners what their days look like. Don’t be afraid to ask them about details like why, how long, what steps, what works for them in specific areas. Also, ask about their weaknesses in memory and learning. This will help you to get a better understanding of their whole approach.
  3. Observe — Especially observe yourself. What are you wasting time with? When does your mind wander? Ask yourself what have you learned quickly and easily and how did that actually happen?
  4. Enjoy — Find something in your work to enjoy. Fatigue and discouragement are kept away by fun activities. Look at your study habits now and ask, “What is one thing I can do to make this more fun?”
  5. Specify — Use the right tools for the specific job. For example, if you want to put something in your long term memory, you cannot use the tool of cramming.

Finally, I would bet that many of you have had or have heard some ideas about language learning and memory that you thought you might try out, but now as you think about it, you realize you have never actually tried them. You have actually kept your old familiar habits because they sort of work for you. They are giving you a measure of success so you are not ready to give them up just yet. This reminds me of the next sign I want to address, which is #4, “Low risk taking.”

(By the way, I know that sign #2 is supposed to come after sign #1. So why am I skipping #’s 2 and 3 and doing sign #4 next? Well, why not? Does doing things out of order bother you? Does it upset your balance? This may be a sign that you are in fact a LOW RISK TAKER!)