Below is my story of how the language flow quadrant guided me to fluency in Arabic.
I called my friend Muhammed Ameen and invited him for tea. He had studied Arabic abroad in Egypt and was fluent.We met in a café next to the local library at 8 in the evening. The wind kept whistling in the background even after I closed the door to the café. Muhammed was waiting for me at our table. I greeted him, shook his hand, and sat watching the tree’s branches sway from left to right in the wind. The waitress came and placed our tea on the table. “I hope you don’t mind that I ordered for you.”
His words took me out of my trance. “Hm? No, not at all.” I took a sip. The hot tea warmed my stomach in a very welcome way
“Let’s get started then, shall we?”
I nodded and began to relate the happenings that took place with my friend Omar.
Muhammed didn’t say much. He simply kept nodding his head and interjecting with an “aha” every now and then while sipping his tea. After hearing my story he remarked “so did you learn the lesson then?”
“Well if you compare your situation to your friend’s, there clearly is a startling difference between your progress and his, despite the fact you had more schooling.”
“Can you elaborate on that?” I asked, curiously.
“Let’s look at the facts. When did you commence your studies?”
“So it is now 2008, and here we are. So three years have passed since you started your studies right?”
“Right, but I have not been studying continuously for three years.”
“Let’s begin,” he said, ignoring what I said about not studying continuously.
“Begin going through some very important concepts about learning Arabic.”
“You mean you’re going to give me some academic lecture on how to learn Arabic?”
“It depends on how you look at it. I look at it as naseeha [Arabic word for “advice”] to a fellow Muslim and human being.”
He took a sip of his tea and asked, “Do you know anyone that watches Bollywood movies?”
“Astaghfirallah! [An Arabic word which translates to “I see refuge in God.” It is often used as a reprimand.] First you talk about naseeha for learning Arabic, and now you are talking about Bollywood movies? Have you seen how family-unfriendly the movies have become? I hope you don’t let your children watch them!”
By no means am I a self-righteous person. I used to enjoy watching Bollywood movies as a kid. I loved the fight scenes, even though I didn’t understand the language completely. I especially loved Mithun Chakraborty and Amitabh Bachchan. My dad used to borrow the videotapes from a local store.
Muhammed grinned, and waving his hands up and down as though he was putting out a fire with them said, “Calm down holy man. Just answer the question.”
“Yes, I know many people who watch that stuff, mainly from the Indian subcontinent.”
“Ah, so not everyone then. Who constitutes the rest of the audience?”
“Well non-South-Asian people, of course”
“You mean in terms of nationalities?”
“Well I know some Somali people who watch that stuff, and umm… Arabs, for sure. Oh, and Afghanis and English people too.”
“Now do any of those people understand Hindi?”
I scratched my chin. “Come to think of it, one Somali boy I from my days in school used to speak Hindi.”
“Right, but what about when they started watching these movies for the first time? Did they understand the language?”
“Well of course. Man has gone beyond discovering fire to inventing subtitles,” I said laughing.
“Good, so the question is, how did they get from a situation of not understanding the language to understanding the language?”
I just wished he would tell me the answer straight without asking me this barrage of questions. It was a cold evening, and even though we were inside a café, my hands were really starting to feel the cold. The tea had lost its warmth.
“Hmm, not sure,” I muttered, pouring myself a second cup of tea, hoping he would notice and cut to the chase, as he knew that I normally do not drink tea.
“Let me put it like this. Have you watched a foreign movie before?”
“Yes, a Chinese one.”
“So how did you follow what was going on?”
“Well, to state the obvious, by reading the subtitles.”
“Yes, then as time went on the same words started to pop up again and again, right?”
“Yes I see what you mean,” I nodded at him.
“So you see, the audience starts to associate the words they see in the subtitles with the words of the spoken language along with the facial expressions and hand gestures. So by repeatedly hearing the same words again and again, they start picking up the language.”
“So are you saying that Omar knows more Arabic than me because he watches Arabic movies?”
“We’ll get to that. Remember there are certain fundamental words in any language that will pop up again and again. So the more a person watches movies with subtitles, the better they will be able to understand and pick up these ‘fundamental’ words. Until eventually, they no longer require subtitles. In fact they become…”
“A nuisance!” I interrupted him loudly, excited by this realisation.
“Exactly. It’s just like learning to ride a bike. First, you ride using both training wheels. Then, you take them off and your dad holds you, helping you ride. And with time, you learn to ride the bike without the assistance of your father or the training wheels. First you need a lot of help, like when you watch a movie reading subtitles, and then you need none at all.”
I pondered his words. Looking out the window into the darkness, Muhammed sipped more tea. “Think back to your childhood, when you first started learning to speak. What was the first skill that you learned?”
“Speaking?” I answered.
He shook his head.
“Learning to say mama?”
“No, before that.”
“Before that? Learning to cry?”
“Ok you’re way off now. I’ll give you a clue. If you can’t speak, read, or write a language, what are you left with doing?”
“Oh yeah, listening,” I said feeling a little embarrassed that I did not notice something so obvious.
“Exactly,” smiled Muhammed.” You learned to listen. Like the Greek philosopher Diogenes said, ‘The reason why God gave us two ears and one mouth is that so we may listen more and talk less.’ This is how children learn to swear and how they pick things up. A language is picked up through listening, and whatever is picked up can be spoken. We first learned to listen as children. We listened for a whole year before we started babbling one word at a time like ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ ‘car,’ ‘house,’and ‘Mommy.’ Then we started moving on to simple two-word sentences. If you observe children, you will see this. With the passing of time, the sentences become longer and more sophisticated structurally as the child’s language abilities develop.
He popped a question out of nowhere. “What was the first word that came out of your mouth when you were a little baby?”
“I don’t know, really. I never asked my parents, but I’m assuming ‘Mommy,’ like a lot of kids.”
“Yes, Shajahan, you’re absolutely correct. For many of us it is ‘Mommy.’ It’s hardly surprising since many of us had our mothers eliciting the word out of us. After changing your nappy, your mom may have said, ‘Darling can you say mommy? Say mommy, moooommyyyy.’ So you see, your mother was training you. She would say the word she wanted you to learn, then repeat it and break the word into elongated syllables and pronounce it slowly for you. I mean, all you were doing apart from lying on your bed on your back was probably looking at her and watching her sound the word slowly. Most importantly, you were listening to her, right?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“In fact, even before we start getting trained by our mums to speak, our first language experiences start in a place where we haven’t even started taking our own breaths, a temporary home for all of us, a place where our journey in life begins. That place is…”
“Our womb,” I said, finishing his sentence.
“Yes, exactly. Babies start using their ears to listen to their mothers well before they are born. It is a known medical fact that a foetus can hear when it is only 16 weeks old. They can even recognize certain music, songs, and lullabies that they heard in the womb well after they are born. This is why many Muslim mothers recite the Qur’an to their babies before they are born. You may be thinking, well a baby’s brain develops much faster, and they’re able to learn a lot more than adults are, and you’re right, to a point. Even as adults, we learn languages best by listening to words first. It’s the way we are built. Speaking from an evolutionary perspective, humans developed words and gestures to communicate. Think about it. If you’re in a non-English speaking environment and you can’t speak, read, or write the language what’s the one thing you can do?”
“Listen,” I responded.
“Exactly. If you spent a good month anywhere abroad where very little English is spoken, then I am certain you picked up a few words and phrases. How? Just like when you were a child, you start to associate words with things and situations. When dealing with people in a foreign country, you listened to them and tried to decipher what they were saying through their facial expressions, hand gestures, demeanour, tone of voice, and body language. By repeatedly listening to people, you started to associate words with meanings and context. It’s a slow process at first, but it becomes much, much faster as your experiences build up. Note that no English was required for you to start learning the foreign language. In fact, had the people been English speakers, it would have greatly inhibited your learning because your exposure to the language would not have been so great.”
His words amazed me. How could I not see it before? I needed to listen before I could do anything else.
The waitress handed Mohammed the bill. He took it from her and started doodling on the opposite side. First, he drew two lines. One went down and the other went horizontally. On the top left, he wrote an L. Under that, he scribbled a big, sloppy R. Next to the L, he squiggled an S, and a W went in the last corner. He kept doodling. Turning the paper towards me, he asked, “So what do you see?”
“Umm, it’s a quadrant.”
“Good. And what does each letter represent?”He asked. His facial expression told me he was expecting me to know the answer.
“Umm, well, I guess L stands for language.” I scratched my chin. “S definitely stands for skills. R is… repetition, and umm W… words?”
“Mmm not quite. Good try, though. Think about where each letter stands with relation to the others.”
“I have absolutely no idea,” I said, totally baffled. I could feel he really wanted me to understand something important, but I could not figure out what it was.
“What were we just talking about?”
“Listening…” I replied. Then suddenly the answer dawned on me. “I get it! L stands for listening, S for speaking, R for reading, and W for writing. Right?”
“That’s exactly right,” said Muhammed, breaking into a smile. “These are the skills used to develop any language, including Arabic. There are four sections and a line separates each because each language skill is separate and independent of the other. Have you noticed that a person can speak, listen, and read their mother tongue, but not be able to write? You were able to only read at one point, and then you learned to write Arabic later on, by yourself, didn’t you Shajahan?”
I nodded in agreement. “Or a person may be able to listen and understand a language, like Hindi, in my case, but not be able to speak it.”
“You got it now, Shajahan!” he clapped me on the back. “So if you want to be a good speaker, you need to exercise your tongue and get it used to speaking Arabic. If it’s writing you want to improve, you need to train your hand to write. If you find the language too fast to follow, then it’s your ears that need exercising. So the reason Omar was so much better than you in understanding those videos was because he had spent so much time listening to Arabic being spoken casually. You, on the other hand, are a much better reader because your eyes are used to picking up written patterns in Arabic. Am I right when I say that?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
“Another thing, have you noticed that the quadrant can be subdivided into two sections: a left and a right side?”
“Yeah I can see that.”
He drew an arrow that flowed from the L box to the S box, and another from the R to the W box.
“The left side of this quadrant consists of your listening and reading skills. These are receptacle skills because you receive information through your eyes and ears. In fact, you learn almost everything by listening and seeing. The right side, as you can probably guess, is the output, or productive skills. They consists of speaking and writing, which you use when you want to give out information, whether you are writing an email to a friend, writing a message on Facebook, or when you are calling your wife to convey to her that you’ve been promoted at work. So why do you think I have the two arrows flowing from the left to right?”
His question caught me off guard.
Seeing that I did not know the answer he said, “Do you know the verse in the Qur’an which states that everything in creation has an opposite?”
‘And of everything we have created opposites, that you may remember.’ (Surah 51:49 Adh-Dhaiyat)
“I certainly do,” I replied, now wondering where he was going with this.
“And have you thought about the significance of the reality that everything is designed in opposites?”
“Well, a bit,” I said. “I know that there are females, and there are males…” I stopped, worried I might say something stupid. “I haven’t really thought about the verse deeply, to be honest.”
“Well if you look at the world, you’ll notice that there are opposites to almost everything, and these opposite parts balance one another to complete something.”
“I’m not too sure what you mean by that.”
“Okay, well let’s look at your example of female and male. There would be no people on this without opposites, right? For the human race to exist, opposites need to exist. The sperm needs an egg to penetrate, but at same time, the egg needs sperm to penetrate it in order for conception to occur, right?
I nodded my head in agreement. “One cannot do without the other.”
“That’s just one example. The same applies to empires. When one goes into decline, another one rises. Let’s take a look at the temperature of the planet. The earth’s temperature is, on average, about 16 degrees Celsius. Imagine what the temperature would be without the presence of cold temperatures and if there was only hot weather. Would life exist on the planet?”
“Probably not,” I responded.
He went on, “You cannot have expenses without an income, or something old without there being something new. You can’t have a sense of direction without opposites either. There can be no up without down or left without right. Similarly, if there were only rich people on the planet, they would no longer be ‘rich.’ They’d all be just average. So you can’t have the rich without the poor.” He continued to pound me with more examples. He really wanted to nail this lesson into my head. “A bird has two wings, a right and a left. The bird won’t fly without both its wings, just like a dolphin can’t swim without both of its flippers. Now,” he said adjusting his glasses, “the two skills, listening and speaking are like the two wings of a bird. You need both to communicate effectively” Pointing to the quadrant again, he said, “The left side of the quadrant consists of receptive skills, which, are…?”
“Listening and reading,” I said.
“Yes, and the right side consists of productive skills which are…?
“Speaking and writing,” I answered.
“Now consider this. In order for a person to learn to speak Arabic well, what do they need to do?”
“They need to listen to Arabic well right?”
“And in order to write Arabic well they need to…?”
“Read Arabic with comprehension. Wow backtrack a bit,” I said trying hard to let this all sink in. “So a child cannot learn to speak their native tongue without mastering the ability to listen to it and to understand it first.”
“That’s exactly right,” said Muhammed.
“Ok I got you now. That makes a lot of sense, actually. I mean, I had this friend who took me to a French restaurant once and started ordering in French! I had no idea he could speak French and thought that he must have been watching some French cooking shows or something.”
“Yeah, he learned to speak by listening first, because you can’t speak a language until you’ve spent a fair bit of time just listening to it. Similarly, a person cannot learn to write well without reading well and reading enough. And since most Arabic classes don’t involve much listening, you have to develop your receptacle skills ability on your own.”
I was shocked. It all made sense now. The reason I had been doing so well in my classes but not in the real world was because my classes did not prepare me adequately. I wasn’t listening enough.
Muhammed continued, “A person that exercises their receptive skills is likely to develop good productive skills. You must have heard of the saying, ‘people who read a lot tend to write well.’ And people who speak English with an American accent do so because they listened to people with American accents. You speak English with a British accent because you grew up hearing the British accent. Had you grown up in the US, you’d have spoken with an American accent.”
Hmm, very interesting, I thought to myself.
“It is through the receptive left half that we ‘pick up,’ or expose ourselves to a language,” he added. “We produce language based on what we have been exposed to, and the only way we are exposed to a language is by listening to it and reading it. Notice that each quadrant is equal in size. Why do you think that is?”
I had absolutely no response.
“Each section is equal in size because the skills are equally important. So don’t believe anyone if they tell you that reading is more important than speaking, or vice versa. No skill is more important than the other. Each has its own role and function. Now why do you think each box is separated from the other by a line?”
“Because each skill is different?” I said, now beginning to understand Muhammed more and more.
“In what way?” asked Mohammed, sipping a fresh cup of tea.
“Well isn’t that obvious?”
“If it is, please enlighten me. If it is sooo obvious, please do share,” he said mockingly in a posh English accent.
My mind went blank as I realised my statement put me under the spotlight, and I hated being under the spotlight. Despite Muhammed explaining it to me once, I’d forgotten what he said at the beginning of the conversation. The longer the silence went on, the worse I felt. Seeing that I was tongue-tied, Muhammed asked another question.
“What do we use to speak?” he asked now making it easier for me to answer
“Pfft obviously the tongue!”
“Obvious? So why could you not tell me that before hand?”
“Apologies. It was a slip of the tongue.”
“Really? So when we start talking about the hand are you going to have a slip of the hand and punch me?” he chuckled.
“What about when we listen?”
Without a moment’s hesitation I replied, “Ears. And hands for writing, and eyes for reading.”
“Good! Each skill is different. Each requires a different part of the body. Therefore, each requires separate training. And separate boxes.” He pointed to the quadrant again. “Don’t ever forget this quadrant,” he said in a serious tone. “A lot of people get confused when learning Arabic because they fail to make these distinctions.” He gulped down the last bit of cold tea. “I’ve got to go.” Muhammed stood up hurriedly.
“But wait! I want to learn from you more! I’ve learned a heck of a lot from you already. Is there any way we could meet up while I’m in Egypt?”
Muhammed taught both English and Arabic in Egypt.
“We can meet, but it will mainly have to be through Skype. You’ll be in Cairo and I’ll be in Alexandria.”
“Great! So you’re going to be my coach then?” I said grinning.
“Don’t call me that!”
“It makes me feel old. Secondly, we’ll see just how long you last away from home, rookie.”
“Oh I can last all right. That’s a given.”
“We’ll see rookie. We’ll see.”
He kindly paid the bill and we agreed to meet again next week, just a week before I flew out to Egypt to begin my journey to learn Arabic.
pg 24 – 37 Get Fluent In Arabic! for more feel free to check out my book Get Fluent In Arabic