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20 questions for: Uchechi Kalu (#28)

“From zero to fluent” is possible, says Uchechi Kalu. Learn more about Uchechi in Episode 28 of the “9273 roots”-interview series: The woman who developed a curriculum to reach conversational fluency in 1,5 years.

Last updated: June 14, 2022

Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493.934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…

Uchechi Kalu

The woman who developed a curriculum to reach conversational fluency in 1,5 years.

Uchechi Kalu3
Uchechi Kalu

Uchechu Kalu was raised in a Nigerian immigrant household where her parents told her to believe that she could do anything. “I think they had to believe the same thing in order to make it in America, and so naturally, they taught us the same thing,” she says.

She later learned Arabic and developed a method which helped her become fluent in Arabic in record time.

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?

I am Uchechi Kalu, writer and founder of marhabtain.


What was your first Arabic grammar book?

al-Kitaab. Still scarred from those days, but honestly, who isn’t?

Please note that we are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.


What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?

Returning to Haifa (عائد إلى حيفا) by Ghassan Kanafani. This is a deeply harrowing novella about what “identity” really means, how to forgive ourselves for our past mistakes, and how to move on even if we’re not healed.


How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?

I believe one can reach conversational fluency in a year and a half. This was my experience. Mainly I’ve used mass immersion and comprehensible input to get me where I am.

I don’t want to say that full mastery “takes a lifetime”” but who wants to spend their entire life mastering a single language? Not me! But it will no doubt take many years of consistent practice. Our speed to fluency will depend on how much consistent effort we put in overtime.

ZERO-TO-FLUENT: Uchechi’s method – how it all started

“My last year in college an American friend of mine who spoke fluent Mandarin, told me about a better method. He said something about “creating an immersion environment” to “learn the way to children learn”. As he described the method more, I thought — This makes perfect sense. Why don’t we learn this method in school? I also thought to myself, Can I really do this?

In a way, I think that seeing the truth so up close and personal was scary. A deep part of me had given up on myself when it came to Arabic. I wanted to believe that I would one day speak Arabic fluently, and at the same time, I was more comfortable being disillusioned by my experiences over my 3 years in college. Yet, my friend was obviously a living and breathing example of the success of this language acquisition approach. If he could do it, couldn’t I? He didn’t have two heads. Maybe I had a shot.

I didn’t take that shot immediately. I waited a few years, and by few, I mean 6 years. Over the next 6 years, my life took an entirely different direction than I expected. I moved to Beijing and lived there for 4 years. I studied Mandarin and gained conversational fluency in Mandarin using a mix of traditional learning methods and the “immersion” my friend told me about. I moved back to America eventually, and started working there.

None of my work or life had to do with Arabic directly or indirectly, but somehow the desire to learn the language started gnawing at me. To be honest, since college, the desire had never stopped. Finally, in March 2020, I made a decision, it’s now or never. I told myself, “I’m going to finally follow the immersion method my friend was talking about. And if it doesn’t work this time, I’ll put this whole Arabic thing to rest.” Also, at this time, I decided to only focus on Levantine Arabic, instead Fusha, as I had before. Either way, after 6 years out of college, I didn’t remember any Arabic at all anyway. I was starting from scratch.

The funny thing is that the method worked. In one year — March 2020 – March 2021 — I went from zero to fluent in Levantine Arabic. Truth be told, there is no one more surprised than me.”

You can read her full story here.

In this podcast (Real Arabic), Uchechi talks in Arabic about her journey:
From zero to fluent

What is your favorite Arabic word?

I don’t really know too much Fusha anymore, so this is hard to say.


Which Arabic word do you like least?

الأمم المتحدة – United Nations

Hands down. Anyone who has to study Al-Kitaab will know why this is funny. Everyone else, just know that I have nothing against the United Nations.

Remark: In chapter one of the Arabic textbook al-Kitaab, the Arabic word for “United Nations” is introduced.

al ktaab
Al-Kitaab, part 1

Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

Syrian.

Syria has made some incredible content, especially in terms of television shows. I’m never disappointed. I may also be biased because many of my good friends are Syrian. But I can understand the Lebanese accent the best.


What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

اجلادي

I am unsure if this spelling is accurate, but “ijledi” is a Lebanese word used to talk about how much energy to have to do or deal with something.

When you say you don’t have “ijledi”, you’re essentially saying you can’t be bothered. Such a useful little word!


What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

I was having dinner with a few friends the other night and he told me this saying that’s absolutely hilarious. We were eating foul.

I can’t remember the exact words, but the idea was that: “Kings eat foul for breakfast. The poor eat foul for lunch. The stupid eat fool for dinner.”

It’s a joke about farting.


What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?

I’m not sure, but I will say that I keep hearing rumors that Arabic is one of the most difficult languages in the world.

I think we – the Arabic learning community – have to continue pushing back against that idea. Just like any other language, Arabic has words, sounds, culture, and grammar. If we master those components, then actually, we master the language. It’s as simple as that.


Uchechi’s Arabic program:

On her website, Uchechi gives the following information. This is what you should expect when you’re finished with the full program:

  • The ability to understand 75% – 90% of television (without subtitles) and spoken everyday speech
  • A comfortable understanding of Lebanese and Syrian popular culture, including, songs, actors, tv shows, politics, and social issues
  • The ability for native Levantine speakers to fully understand your meaning and pronunciation when you speak
  • The ability to build genuine relationships and memories in the Middle East and with Middle Eastern people, due to your language skills
zero to fluent
You can buy the full package “Zero to fluent” for $79.

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Recently, after a very hard day, a dear friend of mine said, “You know, you can just ask me for help.”

This was so meaningful to me and reminded me of how important and simple finding a solution to problems can really be.


Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

My family is Nigerian and there’s not a lot of written family history available. So I would invite 3 ancestors I’ve never heard of.


What was the last great meal you had?

Very simple, but very lovely. Spinach with beef and rice made by a Syrian friend. It was absolutely delightful.


What is your favorite city?

Barcelona. Life keeps taking me back there.

barcelona
Barcelona in Spain.
Picture credit: Aleksandar Pasaric

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

All the Joy You Can Stand: 101 Sacred Power Principles for Making Joy Real in Your Life by Debrena Jackson Gandy

Please note that we are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.


What is your all-time favorite movie?

Remember the Titans.

Remark: Remember the Titans is a 2000 American biographical sports film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, starring Denzel Washington. It is the true story of a newly appointed African-American coach and his high school team on their first season as a racially integrated unit.


What music do you listen to?

Apple Music’s Lebanese Pop Essentials Playlist.


“In one year — March 2020 – March 2021 — I went from zero to fluent in Levantine Arabic. Truth be told, there is no one more surprised than me.”

Uchechi Kalu

When were you happiest?

When I’m with people I love, just sitting and talking and laughing about.


What is your greatest fear?

A life that I don’t make meaning of.


What is your life motto?

Believe in possibility.


Uchechi Kalu, thank you for your time.

People who were also interviewed:


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