olly unstoppable languageRight now, I’m feeling unstoppable.

Right now, I feel like I can take over the world.

Right now, I’m riding on a wave of passion, drive and hunger to study that I feel like I can harness to achieve anything.

With your permission, I’d like to tell you why.

3 weeks of nothingness

Only last week I wrote a post saying how I’d all but stopped learning Arabic.

The pressure of moving country, starting a new job and flat-hunting was proving too much. Learning a new language on top of that was a step too far.

But things gradually settled down. I got into the rhythm of Cairo, eased into my new job, found a beautiful new flat to live in.

I had given it time, and it worked out well.

Time to get to work.


My lack of action in learning Arabic was starting to bother me.

I needed inspiration, and I needed it fast.

I took a look around me and thought: “What’s the most direct way to action…to inspiration…to the drive to learn?”

“How can I light the fire?”

As is often the case, the solution was staring me in the face.

I realised that my company employs a large number of part-time staff, who are mostly young, university students or recent graduates. They like working for us because we pay very well for Egypt.

The opportunity was clear.

Surely at least one of them would like to make a bit of extra cash by sitting down and helping me with Arabic a couple of times a week? It would be easy and (hopefully) enjoyable work for them, and super-convenient for me.

One morning, I emailed all of them to ask if anyone was interested. By lunchtime, I had a queue out of the door.

I found the two people whose schedules matched mine the best and arranged to meet them a few times over the next week for “Coffee & Arabic”. They were both very nice, and they even tried to refuse payment (Egyptians are very generous people).

I insisted.


I had my first session a couple of days later.

“What do you want to learn?” she asked.

“Well, here are a few things…” I pulled out a list of things I wanted to know how to say in Arabic. (I have a habit of keeping a document in Evernote that I maintain and add to over time with “burning questions”.)

It was a long list.

Over the course of the hour I learnt it all. Everything I wanted to know, actually.

I was hooked.

I had more questions, more things I wanted to be able to say. I just wanted to keep learning.

I had a few more sessions. I kept learning. My confidence grew. I started to genuinely be able to express myself in Arabic.

Unfortunately, the Eid holiday arrived, Cairo ground to a halt, everyone went home to their families, and as I sit writing this, it’s been about 5 days since I’ve been able to meet my tutors.

It’s difficult to describe what I’m feeling.

Right now I’m frustrated because my learning has been put on hold. But behind that is something else.

It’s best characterised as an insatiable desire to learn, a passion for knowledge in my new language, an urge to feed the brain.

I also have absolute confidence that I will be successful.

One of the benefits of having learnt other foreign languages, I think, is that you become aware of a kind of road-map of the learning process.

But my confidence doesn’t come from that.

You know what makes me so sure that, before too long, I will be fluent in Arabic?

It’s the passion and drive. The thirst for knowledge and the desire to communicate.



I’ve found a situation that I now realise I truly love, and it’s so simple: meeting and speaking regularly with people that I like and enjoy spending time with.

It makes me feel alive.

I realise now that that is what fires me up and that is why I learn languages.

The passion is such that I’m absolutely confident that I will succeed with Arabic, and nothing will get in my way.

I feel totally unstoppable.

“But it’s easy for you – you live in Egypt!”

No, it’s not.

I’ve done almost nothing since I arrived, and learnt nothing as a result.

It doesn’t matter where you live, without action you will learn nothing. Motivation is far easier to lose than it is to gain.

If you happen to live and work abroad, just cast a glance over your shoulder at your expat colleagues. I guarantee you 90% of them don’t speak the local language.

It’s never easy.

“But how will you learn Arabic grammar – it’s very hard!”

I don’t care.

I honestly don’t think about it.

I’ll learn to say what I want to say and the grammar will take care of itself.

“How quickly will you be fluent?”

Also not something I care about.

I’m not doing it to be fluent. Really, I’m not.

I’m doing it for the thrill of learning, for the pleasure of discovering a new culture, for everything I will learn about myself as a result.

In all honestly, one day I will leave Egypt, probably not keep up my Arabic, and let it slip.

I know it sounds trite, but it really is the journey, not the destination.


I recently finished reading a book, which, despite its obnoxious title, was really very good.

In Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life by Donald Trump (yes!), he devoted an entire chapter to momentum – everything you can gain by building on it, and everything you stand to lose by resting back on it.

It was very timely, and helped me to recognise what’s happening to me right now.

At this moment, having come out of a lull, managed to recover, and found my pace, I feel the full force of momentum behind me.

Now is not the time to sit back and relax.

Now is the time to harness every last drop of the momentum that I’ve found – be grateful for having met some wonderful and generous people, apply myself totally to learn from what they can offer me, commit myself to the language and the culture, and always be looking for ways to do it better.

I’ve rediscovered my “why” for language learning. And I feel unstoppable.

What’s yours?

Leave me a comment below, then  please share this post on Facebook or click here to send a tweet. 

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  • Sebastian RC

    Hey Olly, it’s great to know you’re doing great righ there on and even more with your learning process. Man, i think i found two mistakes, well maybe they aren’t, but just in case these are the ones:
    In the tittle “passion”, this paragraph: I realise now that that is what fires me up and that is why I learn languages. the word THAT is repeated, right?

    And in the tittle “speaking”, this one: it’s been abount 5 days since I’ve been able to meet my tutors. Is it ABOUT the correct word?

    Well Olly, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  • Kj

    I love your enthusiasm! That is always the key to success in any language, and makes it something fun and easy – knowing you CAN and WILL do it means you’re halfway there. People who feel it’s too hard, or that they’ll never get it, are likely do just that – never get it, or talk themselves out of it. Or if they feel they ‘must’ learn x-language for y-reason, without wanting to for its own sake. For the joy of making your tongue, lips, throat, eyes, ears and hands work in a different way. To have that “a-ha” moment when you hit a deeper understanding! To feel your brain light up from the constant exercise that gives its own pleasure/reward feel-good hormones. Much more fun than running, in my book!

    I think people get so focused on the vague notion of being ‘fluent’ rather than realising that there are many steps going deeper into that previously ‘secret’ world of the language, rather than a non-existent ‘summit’ to attain. It also takes the willingness to make a fool out of yourself while you’re getting there (and many times after too 😉 )! Sometimes you won’t know a word or phrase, but that happens in english too, doesn’t it? And the world doesn’t end if you don’t understand a word or two, or forget a preposition; use a word out of context, misspell, or any number of errors that happen to the best of us! As time goes you you’ll figure it out and speak/write/read/understand better than you once did. The point is that you will. Done it before, will do it again! Each language gives you more than just a communication tool, it gives you a whole new ‘organisational system’.

    I’ve lived in a few different countries over the years, and definitely knew those expats who can barely construct a sentence in the language of the country they’ve lived in for years. I confess that I’m not completely immune either. During the times I worked in english-speaking jobs, my language skills were pretty poor, though I could get around alright in the local languages. Once I got out into the real world again, that’s when the true freedom came to really dig deeper than just the basics, and make those crucial errors so needed for the learning process and fix them up! Then you can enjoy idioms and other nuances that otherwise would forever be remote. I love to talk, and the more languages, the more people to talk to! It’s getting harder and harder for people to pretend to not to speak my language…!

    • Brad Stokes

      I have to admit, I like the words functional and communicative. Fluent (whatever it means) seems impossible at times, but able to say exactly what I want and have a decent conversation, well…. That! I can definitely achieve.

    • I love your description of what it feels like to learn a language! I’ve found it very interesting to compare Egypt to other places I’ve lived. People here talk. They talk to you, no matter who you are, and they love it. It’s so different from Japan where getting people to saying anything beyond a standard greeting can sometimes feel like getting blood out of a stone.

      The fact that normal, everyday communication is so forthcoming here has been a huge motivator. It increases the sense that you’re doing something worthwhile, that what you’re doing actually means something. This is a big benefit in the whole motivation equation, which, as you quite rightly said, is such a huge part of learning a language.

  • room rentals

    Interesting article, and I’d like to second your findings about making a list of questions and plowing through them with an appropriate native speaker (one who can explain things well and actually understands language learning problems). I had a similar experience in Spanish when I enrolled in a class and we ended up being only three students. The other two students were often absent so I just used the class as my personal Q&A session with the teacher and got through a lot of items on my list. It was fantastic.

    But mainly I want to second what you said about talking to people in their language–by far the best feeling in language learning and often that’s all it takes to keep me motivated for weeks at a time. Good conversations with interesting people are priceless.

    Good luck with your time in Cairo. I’ve been to several parts of the city, including Zamalek, and it’s crazy. If you’re into candid camera shows you should watch them on youtube, there’s a program that gets played during Ramadan and the whole country has seen it. Egyptians are always excited when foreigners bust out quotes from Zakiyah Zakariyah (no idea how to transcribe his name but he’s an obese guy who dresses as a woman and messes with people… lots of dialogue and authentic maSri).

    • Hi, thanks for the tip, I’ll definitely check it out! Cairo is crazy, for sure, but is also a place with a lot of warmth or “calor humano” as they say in Spanish. As I was told many times before I arrived, I can’t imagine a better environment anywhere in the world to be learning and practising a language – people love to talk and especially to foreigners. I’ve found that a few words in Arabic make all the difference, as otherwise they will often assume you can’t speak anything and be unsure about talking to you.

  • Brad Stokes

    Wow, Olly! Awesome post. It really is about the mentality not the locality. I live in Australia, so day to day Spanish speakers aren’t in super abundance. It is the motivation to communicate with my fiance’s parientes that keeps me moving.

    I think the tip on the question list is pretty gold. I’m going to have to do that. I have my iPad with me wherever I go, so that’s a very easy thing to do.

    I’m stoked that you’ve started the snowball rolling down the hill. Really looking forward to see what happens next. Suerte!

    • Gracias por tu comentario colega, como siempre. Suerte pa tí también!

  • Hannah ハナ

    Wow! Great article! Really encouraging and reassuring. 😀
    Like you, my main drive is meeting and speaking with people. (But in my case, with Japanese people) I want to know more about my Japanese friends, about their experiences, likes, dislikes, thoughts, opinions…Everything. But I want to learn it from their own language. I want to see the world through their eyes and expand my own world. I also want to be able to share my own opinions and feelings with them too. To hopefully expand their world as well!

    It was something I first discovered when I got a tutor on italki. She was absolutely wonderful, and there were so many questions I wanted to ask about her, and Japan! But I felt I could only ask in Japanese. And that was when I really found my true drive. Something that was much stronger then just wanting to play video games or read manga in Japanese.

    I’ve also joined a language exchange group, and that was like adding booster packs to my motivation. (笑)Even though I still only speak very broken Japanese… Those small moments when I speak good Japanese, understand whats being said to me, and can laugh along with them are absolutely wonderful, priceless moments. That make everything so rewarding.

    • Hi Hannah, I think you’ve perfectly described what it’s possible to feel when you’re just setting out. That feeling of discovery and raw motivation is something you only really get in the early stages, like a baby who’s learning to take his first steps and realising there’s a big world out there to discover.

      Enjoy every minute of it and just keep going!

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  • Pham Xuan Hieu

    I love your article. It is really helpful for everyone who want to learn langue. I always look for the right way that help me easier to speak English influence as native speaker and now i found out it. Thank so much for creative this blog to share your experience to everyone. I look forward to hear from you how we start to learn the English in the future. Thanks.

  • Nina

    Currently, in learning French, my ultimate reason is to live in France for a month. I haven’t traveled really much before, and that was when I was little with my parents.I now have that chance because my cousin told me, when I was a complete beginner (I guess he found me interesting and was glad that I was enthusiastic when it comes to learning the language) that I can come to the country and stay at my “aunt’s” (sister of my grandmother and his mother) for 2 weeks, and then, in the next 2 weeks at his. (sorry, my brain is foggy, I can’t translate “chez” to English properly 😀 ) when I learn the language. My shorter-term goal is to be as better as I can in the language in a year because his family is coming to my country. My even very short-term goal currently is to speak just a little with his mother because she comes here in 20 days.