by Reid Wilson

Author's note: This was originally written in 1999-2000, and is part of the underlying inspriation for Language Corpus

This past week I began swapping thirty minutes of English for 30 minutes of colloquial Arabic four times a week with new friend. Until now I've actively focused on learning Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), although I have heard--and can already understand to some extent--a fair amount of colloquial. (MSA is the "formal" form of Arabic used in books, magazines, and newspapers and in news broadcasts and formal speech. Colloquial Arabic is the "informal" form of Arabic used in daily conversation. The two forms are quite different, perhaps as different as classical Latin and modern Romance languages like French, Spanish, and Italian. There are actually many varieties of colloquial Arabic, but that's a different subject...)

Because I'm switching the focus of my study, I couldn't just have thirty minutes of conversation with my friend--almost anything I would have said would have come out in MSA. I wanted some way to quickly build my colloquial vocabulary thirty minutes at a time.

I could have done TPR or worked with a picture book, and indeed these are things I plan to do soon. But for this past week I wanted to do something different, in part to evaluate the potential that my friend has to be a more formal tutor. I'm very pleased with the way the week went, and I think that the activity I did would be beneficial anyone beyond the initial beginner stage. (I'd be interested in a true beginner trying it and telling me how it went, but I think it's probably better suited for low-intermediates and above.) Keeping within the general framework of language learning consultant Greg Thomson's approach, I asked my friend speak for about two minutes (in colloquial Arabic) on what he had done the day before. I recorded this onto a cassette. As I listened to him

I could pretty much follow what he was saying, but there were words and phrases that I didn't catch. Once he finished, I rewound the tape and began to re-play it. I would pause it every couple of seconds and tell him what I thought he said and asked him about words I didn't understand. I also asked about a grammar point or two. When I got new words, I immediately rewound the tape back a couple of seconds and listened to the new words in their context, making sure I now understood the sentence. I made a list of these new words with their meanings.

We went through the whole recording that way, which took up most of the thirty minutes. Several times I asked him about a word and then, once he told me its meaning, realized I already knew it. I didn't need to write those words down--I simply rewound the tape, listened to the sentence again, and said, "Oh, yeah, I hear it now."

Later that night I listened to my cassette again and copied my list of new words and their meanings into a notebook, along with the tape count for the word's first occurrence. I reviewed the tape a couple more times (it was less than two minutes long) and focused on understanding everything my friend had said. I referred to my notebook a couple times, but after just a few times I could follow along and understand everything--new words and all. I could still understand everything the next morning. It really helped that I could mentally picture him doing the things he told me about: "I went to the university for my first lecture at 9:00. After that I meet some friends in a coffee shop. Then I went to the library.", etc.

Note that I didn't memorize anything. I spent a lot of time memorizing vocabulary lists when I studied French in high school and the university, but since then have found much more effective ways of learning vocabulary. And, even after I had memorized a list of French vocabulary words, I still wouldn't recognize them in normal French speech.

Two days later I met with my friend again, and got him to tell me what he had done the day before, once again recording it. Of course, some of the new words that I had learned from the first recording showed up on the second, and I understood them with no problem. I also got another good list of new words.

My ears were already getting tuned up both to him and to his dialect, and we finished going over the tape in the second session in about half the time that we did the first, even though the second "text" was a little longer. Because of this, I then had him tell me a short overview of his life, which we recorded and then went over. As I reviewed our new material that night, I also made sure that I could still understand the first session's material.

The next day we added a slightly more abstract topic--the general differences between the country he grew up in and the country he is living in now. That produced a longer recording with many more new words in it, with some whole phrases that I wasn't able to follow, but we still had time to complete going over it in thirty minutes, and with some review I was able to quickly learn to understand the whole text without having to refer to my notebook.

Encouraged by the rapid but easy progress with my new friend, I got another friend of mine to talk for a couple of minutes on a "guy's night out" that he and I and another friend recently had, once again in colloquial Arabic. I could totally follow what he said, especially because I had experienced the whole evening and could remember it well. And sure enough, he used words that I had already learned from my other recordings, colloquial words I'm sure I had never heard him use in previous hour-long conversations we had had in Modern Standard Arabic.

On a different evening I got that friend to record in detail what he had done that day, and got six or seven minutes of good text on tape, text that I could follow but which was still filled with good vocabulary to learn.

So, in a week, with little time commitment (maybe three and a half hours total for everything), I was able to get and learn to understand about 15 minutes of recorded text and learned to understand in context over 100 news words. I'm sure that the more I do in the future the faster I'll be able to acquire such texts.

And by thoughtfully selecting the topics that I ask my friends to talk about, gradually going from the more mundane but predictable (e.g., "yesterday") to more interesting but abstract (e.g., "Arab ideology"), I'll be able to obtain a lot of cultural knowledge as well.

And fairly soon I'll start trying to talk about my "yesterdays", hopefully with a developing feel for what is MSA and what is colloquial and when to use which without mixing them too much.

Two final notes, with the second one written for Arabic learners:

1) My wife has found that she greatly benefits from listening to recorded texts multiple times even if she has not yet gone over them with a tutor. With each repetition the text makes a little more sense to her, and to some extent the gradually increasing understood context helps her in guessing the meanings of the less understood parts. (She is an intermediate speaker of the language, though. I don't think this would help beginners that much.)

2) This activity specifically benefits me as I go from Modern Standard Arabic to Colloquial Arabic because I don't want to rely too heavily on written things in learning an oral form of the language. For example, I have a textbook on colloquial Arabic that includes colloquial texts written in the Arabic script. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist, but I was uncomfortable spending too much time reading those texts because I didn't want to "corrupt" my future MSA writing with mixing. (So far my writing is very basic but fairly "pure" because I haven't spent much time with colloquial. I'd like to keep it that way while adding colloquial conversation ability and MSA reading/writing ability.)

However, by learning colloquial through listening, with just a little initial reference to my data notebook, I should be able to avoid having to learn colloquial through writing/reading, even though I am a visual learner. Not only that, but when I write a new word into my notebook I am able to write it without having to worry about marking short vowels because I will learn the word's pronunciation through hearing it, not reading it. (But I still have the initial crutch of being able to see it enough to recognize the oral form of it--a crutch I'll only have to use a couple times for any given word or grammatical form.)