5 study hacks that are working for me right now

olly pyramids full low resI’m 3 months into my Egyptian Arabic project right now, so it’s high time to write a bit about what I’ve been doing, how I’ve been learning and what’s been working for me.

Just to recap, my first month learning Arabic, before I left for Egypt, was spent with a variety of beginner resources.

I arrived in Egypt at the beginning of my second month, and went through a jam-packed few weeks where I let my studying slip and did very little.

This slip turned out to be useful.

It re-galvanised me as I took massive action, finding people locally to tutor me, meeting with them as often as possible and starting an intense period of speaking.

That brings me to today.

After one month of a lot of speaking practice, here I am. And here are 5 things that have been working really well for me at this stage of my learning.

5 study hacks that are working for me right now

What I noticed most about the list that you’re about to see, was that each activity has been helping to really push myself forward and avoid any risk of “plateauing”, as I like to call it.

Reaching a plateau in your learning (AKA hitting a brick wall) is a real danger after the 3-month period of learning a new language, as the novelty wears off and the reality of “hard work” starts to set in.

These activities help combat that by pushing you beyond what you’re comfortable with. No more working steadily through the textbook!

They’re also mostly designed to foreground speaking above all else, and take maximum advantage of time spent with a tutor, as this is my main engine for learning.

Writing mini-speeches and rehearsing them

The process is simple and is the similar to that described in this post:

  • Write out a short monologue on a personal topic that you’d like to be able to talk about (you daily life, work, friends)
  • With the help of your tutor, translate it into your target language
  • Have your tutor read it aloud and make a recording on your phone (I use Evernote to store it)
  • Learn from memory and rehearse it…well!

This helps with a huge number of things, but mainly:

  • confidence, as you practise speaking in longer, more flowing sentences
  • vocabulary, as you learn words related to your interests and are likely to want to say regularly
  • pronunciation, as you have to get individual words right
  • prosody, as you have to learn to say it with natural intonation

The trick with this is to work with your tutor at every stage to get it sounding as natural as possible.

Here’s the mini-speech that I’m learning right now (for those of you who can read Arabic):

arabic speech


“No-English” rule for 1 hour

This refers to the time I spend with my Arabic tutors, and is self-explanatory, but quite difficult to do!

I don’t do this all the time – sometimes it’s useful to use English to discuss the meaning of words or to explore some area of language – but I’m at the stage right now where I’m on the brink of being able to talk fairly freely.

All I need to do to get there is to spend time pushing through the “pain barrier” – spending the entire hour with my tutor speaking only in Arabic, no matter how hard, no matter how frustrating.

It sounds simple, but it takes a concerted effort on both parts to stick to this “No English” rule. I find that it’s essential to discuss why you’re doing this with your tutor beforehand or else they won’t understand what you’re trying to do and will keep reverting to English when things get tough.

But it’s precisely when the conversation gets tough that you most need to keep it in the target language.

Only that way does your comfort zone expand and you area forced to find new ways of expressing yourself.

Note: I have one caveat with this rule. Asking for single words in English is allowed. So, for example, if I’m in the middle of a long explanation and there’s just one word that’s getting in the way, I can ask for that word.

This is because it’s not so much vocabulary that you’re trying to learn by doing this, but the ability to express yourself and get meaning across in the target language.

Keeping a list of things I want to be able to say

2014-11-09 12.41.12During the course of the week, I find myself thinking: “How would I say that in Arabic?”

Immediately, I add it (in English) to a “wish list” that I keep in an Evernote file. The next time I see my tutor, I go through and ask how to say everything on the list in Arabic.

Vocabulary learning needs to be personalised as much as possible, because it’s much more memorable when it’s something you care about.

It’s great to learn new words from books, movies or things that you just “pick up”, but basing your learning around things that you actually want to be able to say is a smarter approach, because it forces you to take responsibility for your learning, and the proactive approach helps you to understand your own limits and what you most need to learn next.

Having 3 speaking sessions a week

I’ve found that having three 1-hour speaking sessions per week is the ideal amount for me.

Any more and I can’t keep up with reviewing everything I learn in the sessions. Vocabulary to learn starts stacking up, I get a big backlog, and I feel a little overwhelmed.

Any less and I feel my brain muscles aren’t getting enough of a workout to keep making progress.

Studying flashcards by the Nile

Studying flashcards by the Nile


Being ultra-selective about what makes it on to my flashcards

I use a notebook to jot down new words and phrases during my speaking sessions, but immediately afterwards I transfer it all into my flashcards app (I use Flashcards Deluxe), store it on there, and study it every day.

Now, what I’m doing differently these days, is I’m being much more selective about what actually makes it on to my flashcards in the first place.

If I finish a speaking session with 40-50 new items of vocabulary, only half of them may end up on my flashcards. The others… well, I’m just learning to let them go!

Fact: you can’t learn everything.

I’m taking the 80/20 principle approach to vocabulary learning by thinking the following:

“Which of these words and phrases would make the biggest difference in my ability to speak Arabic on a daily basis?”

I then limit myself to those and aim to learn them thoroughly during the week. Just to clarify, there’s still a lot of vocabulary going onto my flashcards, just not as much as with the “kitchen sink” approach.

It’s a question of the great not getting in the way of the good.

So there you have it!

That’s what has been working for me recently. Doubtless it will be very different in a couple of months’ time, but for now this is it.

I hope it’s given you a few ideas for your own learning!

What’s working for you at the moment? Leave me a comment below!

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  • Josh Moore

    Very informative! Thank you for this and all you do to help us 🙂 I also find a number of resources you provide, including a couple ideas on this list, to be very helpful with teaching my students on italki. Excellent stuff 🙂

    • Hi Josh, I appreciate you taking the time to let me know – thanks! I’m really enjoying learning a new language from scratch and (re)discovering all the seemingly simple things that can make a big impact on the learning process.

  • I would keep that list of vocab that doesn’t make it onto the flashcards. Learning priorities change.

  • Brad Stokes

    I have to say, I love the no english rule. I’ve been employing it for a while and it is amazing how much you learn by not resorting to English. Though the odd, “Como se llama xyz” can occasionally save a long annoying pause in the conversation. Generally I try to explain what I mean first though, most of the time I find I can get around the vocab gap. And definitely 3 times a week is about perfect. I find more can be too much, but that 3 dedicated hours is perfect. Great post.

    When do you add back in the vocab, or it’s a wait and see game?

    I’ve hit the point where I’m actively trying to develop the ability to listen to a specific accent. Funnily enough I followed the common sense rule. So now I’m looking for transcribed programs from the South of Chile. Slowly Slowly 😀

    • Brad, why not make your own? Find a lengthy text you like and get a native speaker to record it for you: https://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/foreign-language-materials/

      • Brad Stokes

        I forgot about that post. Good idea. What sites do you use these days for the recordings side of things?

        • I use Elance. But Odesk can be good as well. In fact, something else I’ve done is pay an iTalki tutor the price of a lesson and just ask them to do a recording and send it to me.

  • This is really a great post, I feel like you wrote what I always wanted to be able to say without finding the right word to write it down. Guess happened to any of us at least once.
    Thank you very much your blog is always very inspirative.
    Greeting from Munich

  • moneygraffiti.com

    This just-released compendium of idioms, clichés, proverbs, Americanisms and other popular phrases (in English) may help learners of English better understand the vernacular: https://www.createspace.com/4383934

  • Sebastian RC

    I really like your posts Olly, I think you give honest advice and it helps people to keep showing up. Thanks.

  • rayu

    Amazing Olly! Great tips here! What a steal! Keep it coming.

  • Mike Hall

    Great post. I really need to work on understanding Koreans when they speak normally and most of these tips can help. Thanks for tips and keep them coming.

  • Andy R

    I’ve been thinking lately about the 80/20 approach in regards to language studying, but in a different way. If I’m memorizing a list of sentences, and half of them come quickly (requiring only 20% of my effort) but the other half are hard to learn (taking the other 80% of my effort), I might make faster progress in the language if I abandon the difficult half and continue to the next group of sentences. (I can always make exceptions, of course.) If a word or grammatical form is important or high-frequency, I’m going to encounter it again in future sentences–maybe even soon–and then I can take another crack at it. I think Mike Campbell of Glossika is who originally got me thinking this way. Now my approach is to aim for more for repetitions over a few days. What I remember, I remember, and what I forget, I forget. What will its impact be on my speaking ability? I don’t know; I’ll wait and see, and then change my approach again if appropriate.

    • That makes a lot of sense, but I think you’ll quickly enter the territory of diminishing returns. Have you seen the Goldlist Method? You might like it.

      • Andy R

        Thanks for your suggestion, Olly. I am aware of Goldlist, thanks to a very useful blog entry on Lingholic from May 2013, which talks about the importance of context in vocabulary learning, Anki, Goldlist, Luca Lampariello’s approach to vocabulary, and the GoBillyKorean method. Thanks for reminding me. I think Goldlist would be an excellent tool for me to use with kanji I have trouble learning (since I don’t personally like Anki). As for diminishing returns: Mike Campbell, after observing many students over the years, has concluded the opposite: The gains from this approach (lots of repetition but not necessarily until complete memorization) are insignificant until tens of thousands of repetitions of thousands of sentences have been completed. They don’t even have to be Glossika sentences. I want to see if this is true; fortunately, I’m a methodical person by nature, and very patient when it comes to learning languages. Again, I’m willing to change if I fail. But one good thing I notice off the bat is that my pronunciation (prosody) improves immediately. And I’m looking forward to your upcoming video/podcast/article (whichever it will be) about the A.R.T. approach.