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adult learning2

Learning Arabic as an adult – difficulties and recommendations

Learning Arabic as an adult is a challenge. Understanding how our brain works can help to find the right method. Recommendations for adult improvers.

Last updated: February 22, 2022

As we get older, there is one thing we get worse at: being a beginner. Aging is a natural process that involves some physical, mental, psychological, and other types of changes that negatively affect adult learning. This is true for people who start learning Arabic relatively late in life or want to continue after a long break.

In this article, we will explore the difficulties adult learners face, how our brain works, what we can learn from chess and how adults should approach studying Arabic.

Five needs of adult learners

Adult learners are sometimes pretty demanding and arrogant. They may not respect what a teacher suggests or reject certain methods. They do not want to be treated like children. All this is understandable, but also complicates the process of learning. From my experience, I would say that many adult learners share the following points:

  • Adults need meaningful, relevant information (whatever this is).
  • Adults need feedback on their performance.
  • Adults need opportunities to apply new knowledge and skills immediately.
  • Adults need to be actively involved in the learning process.
  • Adults learn best when they are mentally and physically relaxed. They often hate being reminded of school exams.
  • Adults need to know what is expected of them.
  • Adults need to feel that their experiences are respected.

How our brain works

Neuroscientists say that the brain of a 7-year-old child is almost fully developed, but has a synaptic density 30 to 40 percent higher than the adult mean.

In our central nervous system, a synapse is a small gap at the end of a neuron that allows a signal to pass from one neuron to the next. Synapses are located where nerve cells connect with other nerve cells. Synapses are essential when it comes to memory. Once a child learns, these synapses are gradually closed.

So, when you are young, you can process information extremely fast which you can observe with children; it is like fireworks. However, on the other hand, children often don’t know what to do with that information.

When you get older, our brain degrades, the frontal cortex becomes visibly smaller, the hippocampus, where the memory is “stored”, shrinks.

Psychologist Timothy Salthouse [1]Verhaeghen, Paul & Salthouse, Timothy. (1997). Meta-analyses of age-cognition relations in adulthood: Estimates of linear and nonlinear age effects and structural models. Psychological bulletin. … Continue reading did some experiments around twenty years ago and found out that cognitive tests of speed, reasoning, and memory show age-related declines. The results are depressing if you are middle-aged: “the age-related decline accelerated significantly over the adult life span for variables assessing speed, reasoning, and episodic memory.”

That’s not good news for adult learners. But it is not the end of hope.

Types of intelligence

In general, there are two concepts of intelligence: liquid and crystallized. These two concepts were introduced in 1963 by the psychologist Raymond Cattell [2]Cattell, R. B. (1963). Theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence: A critical experiment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(1), 1–22.

  • Fluid denotes the ability to think spontaneously in order so solve new problems.
  • Crystallized intelligence is what a person already knows: memories, or, a bit more abstract, wisdom.

If we generalize, we can say that young people use fluid intelligence; crystallized intelligence is used when you grow older. The best chess players and mathematicians are often young. A judge of the supreme court or a good philosopher are often old.

The approach of adult learners

As an adult, you have more responsibilities, most importantly, work and family responsibilities. It is not so easy to find time to devote yourself to the Arabic language. If you are a kid or teenager, your mind is not occupied with the realities of life, you are fresh and hungry. If you are, let’s say, above 30, starting with a new language or complex hobby demands the forming of new automatic reactions which children can easily do.

When adults start with a new language, they learn the rules of grammar and pronunciation and some vocabulary and use all that to produce sentences. Children learn languages ​​by listening, speaking, and imitating. Adult learners have to explain to themselves why they are producing such a sentence. Children don’t even think about that.

But is that a disadvantage? It depends on how well aware you are about all this.

If your mother tongue is English and you start with Arabic, you will translate mentally from English into Arabic. You will produce sentences following the subject+predicate+object structure because this is what you know.

I met many students who, in Arabic, always put the personal pronoun before the verb because they were translating from English. For example: I want -> أنا أُريدُ

In my opinion, you should stop translating in your mind. I know that is easier said than done, but you have to try to understand the language from its own perspective. So, try to forget to apply the system you know.

What we can learn from chess

I played a lot of chess when I was a kid but quit more than twenty years ago. Recently, I started again playing and realized how much I have forgotten.

Chess is a lot about pattern recognition. You can’t discover everything on the board but use patterns you know and learned as a heuristic approach. Some chess grandmasters even say that experience after a certain age hinders your progress because you may disregard new, groundbreaking ideas by using your acquired knowledge. Moreover, the older the players are, the slower they can recognize the threat of a move.

In chess, it is critical to learn certain skills in the correct way from the very beginning, although another approach will work too at lower levels and might be easier for beginners. However, it is extremely difficult to get rid of poisoned, corrupted routines – which is totally true for Arabic as well.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Every person has a ceiling in the sense that you can improve and then at some point you will either get old or for whatever reason, you will reach your peak, and then you will start to decline. This is typical for chess, but perhaps also true for many things such as arts.

Skills versus knowledge

In one episode of the fantastic chess podcast The Perpetual Chess Podcast, Dr. Luka Popov shared his experiences as an adult chess improver.

Luka is 39 years old and from Croatia. He holds a PhD in theoretical physics and currently works as a software engineer and content creator.

Luka talked about the difference between skills and knowledge. Translated to chess, knowing a certain opening like the King’s Indian defense is knowledge. Being able to mate with two bishops or solving mates in 2 or 3 moves are skills.

In Arabic, this is pretty much the same. People may know specific words related to family but can hardly conjugate a IV-verb in the plural with the correct vowels.

I personally think that especially as an adult, we should first focus on skills: conjugation of verbs; forming broken plurals; knowing how to say numbers, etc.

So, what does this practically mean?

Dr. Luka Popov indicates that an adult needs to do a training exercise ten (!) times more compared to a child.

In chess, he says, one needs to solve 300 patters with mate in one, then 300 with mate in two, 300 with mate in three, etc. That alone is a lot of work! As an adult, he says, you need to revise these mate pattern ten times! So, 3000 mate-in-one training exercises.

Neal Bruce, who is an adult chess learner, produced training cards and posted them on Twitter some time ago (but the result is still impressive). Even the pictures look intimidating.

In Arabic, I would suggest a similar approach.

Conjugate two verbs a day and after two months, start again with verb number one. If you do this for a year, you will be able to conjugate verbs without thinking. So two verbs a day sums up to almost 700 verbs a year! That’s pretty much enough for fluency!

The primary goal is to enable you to know instead to calculate/conjugate. The following books offer conjugated Arabic verbs and can be used a training books:

The most important Take-Aways

  1. Patience, commitment, dedication: One verb a day is enough if you are prepared to embark on a three-year’s journey.
  2. One book at a time is best. Don’t mix too many things and concentrate on only one book. 10 pages a day is enough. With 9 to 10 pages a day, most books take less than a month. So, after a month, you will have finished a 300-pages-book.
  3. Keep notes while reading. From my experience, it helps a lot if you write down notes while reading a book and go over that notes later. This will refresh your memory. Writing down notes yourself is itself is a memory and much better than using tailor-made learning tools.
  4. Stop translating. Stop simplifying the language. People on the street will understand your “pidgin” Arabic, but you won’t progress after a certain level because you will have stored poisoned, corrupted patterns in your memory.
  5. Set realistic and achievable goals. Being fluent in a year and understand Al-Arabiyya is an unrealistic goal. Being able to conjugate 200 Arabic verbs without effort is a clearly defined goal that you can achieve after a few months. When setting a goal, it is important to be able to measure or feel the success after reaching the goal. Of course, this does not mean that you only conjugate verbs during that time. It is besides your regular textbook studies or daily Arabic training routines.
  6. Try to understand what you are doing. To paraphrase a well-known proverb, many books give Arabic learners fish instead of teaching them how to fish. They rarely provide a systematic explanation of the presented material. This makes things harder to remember. Once you understand the mechanisms of Arabic, you will improve fast and dramatically.

Do you have any good advice for adult learners that worked for you? Please use the comment section to share your experience with other readers.

Picture credit: energepic.com by Pexels

References

References
1 Verhaeghen, Paul & Salthouse, Timothy. (1997). Meta-analyses of age-cognition relations in adulthood: Estimates of linear and nonlinear age effects and structural models. Psychological bulletin. 122. 231-49. 10.1037//0033-2909.122.3.231.
2 Cattell, R. B. (1963). Theory of fluid and crystallized intelligence: A critical experiment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 54(1), 1–22

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