Far From Fluency


root: ط-ل-ق / noun / definition: fluency

Having hiked over formidable dunes of vocabulary and marched on through harsh storms of grammatical rules, I think, finally—right there, in front of me—I see… fluency?

Oh, no. I must be mistaken.

Because turning the page of an Arabic novel and facing twenty-five dangerously unfamiliar words definitely doesn’t look like fluency. Nor does the fact that, in the middle of a conversation, an irrelevant Spanish phrase (“creo que…”) that I learnt over a decade ago is rudely blocking the thousands of Arabic words in my mental lexicon.

Thus, the mirage fades. And fluency still feels very, very distant.

But what actually is “fluency”? Because while it seems to be very much in demand, in all honesty, I’m not too sure what it looks like.

I mean, I certainly consider myself fluent in English despite not having memorised each entry in the Oxford dictionary; so I’m not convinced that I can judge my fluency in Arabic based solely on complete knowledge of the lexicon. And the speed of responses in conversation surely can’t be a foolproof measure of fluency either, considering how long it takes me to answer my parents’ “Why aren’t you asleep yet?” in my native English.

(The honest answer is that I got carried away with making vocabulary notes: suddenly it’s 3:52am and I’m writing down the Arabic term for something like “topography”*).

But, thankfully, Hans Wehr is always there to quell any Arabic student’s doubts. And all it takes is a simple search on the dictionary’s app to answer my question.

Look up طلاقة, and before you get to the mention of fluency, you’ll find that Wehr begins with two crucial definitions of the noun: “ease” and “relaxedness”.

And I think that’s exactly it. That’s what I’m envisioning when I think of being fluent in Arabic—simply being at ease using the language. (This includes comfortably answering “yes” when someone asks if I speak Arabic, without panicking that I won’t be able to keep up with the conversation that may or may not follow). And this, I think we should all understand, is definitely a process.

Unfortunately for my cosy position in my comfort zone (which is nestled deep in books, my room, and quiet), I am all too aware that the process of getting comfortable using the language requires me, first, to get OUT of my comfort zone.

Fortunately, when learning a language as vast and profound as Arabic, constantly coming across things that you never knew—and things you never knew that you didn’t know—is what makes the process a source of motivation in and of itself. It’s not knowing, after all, that ultimately drives us to want to know. (I mean, what is more exciting than coming across an unknown root, and then discovering its derivatives take up a whole page in Hans Wehr? My, my).

So while this notion of “fluency” may sometimes seem distant and daunting, and while I do, perhaps, have a few (or a lot) more vocabulary dunes to tackle and grammar storms to brave, and one very cosy comfort zone to venture outside of… a whole lot more immersion in this language doesn’t seem too bad at all, really.

And while us Arabic students ARE still wading through those massive amounts of vocabulary, here’s three super useful apps which I find great for learning and/or revising Arabic terms:

1 Hans Wehr (obviously)

This one’s just essential for anyone who’s serious about learning Arabic. Not to be dramatic but: this is THE dictionary. Just search the root letters of a word and it’ll take you straight to the right page. Hans Wehr does use roman numerals for the verb forms though, so if you don’t know the 10 basic forms, you’ll probably need a table of the verb forms at hand until you get used to them.

When you know how to use this dictionary right, it’s an absolute blessing. Keep an eye out because I’m planning to do a post on how exactly to use and understand (and love) the Hans Wehr. It’s an art, trust me.

2 Quizlet

Whatever your learning style, quizzes are a great way to revise vocabulary and make sure words don’t just get lost in the piles of paper on your desk. Not only does Quizlet give you loads of different options about how you want to revise vocabulary, the process of inputting the terms will actually help you to learn them. You also have the option of importing the vocabulary from a document which may save you a lot of time.

Organise the terms into different sets and folders, make your own quizzes or search for other people’s, and learn through the flashcards, tests, or games. I’d recommend just turning off written questions on the test settings though; if you input a term with short vowels on but leave them out when answering a question (or vice versa), it’ll annoyingly mark it as wrong.

3 Reverso Context

Reverso Context is great because you can search for a word or phrase in either Arabic or English (unlike Hans Wehr, where you can only search Arabic terms) and it gives you loads of examples of the term/s being used in context (with full translations in both languages).

But there are occasions on this app where, despite being in context, you’ll find a used-in-the-wrong-context term. So definitely use this in conjunction with Hans Wehr to check that you do have the right translation for what you need.

I hope this was somewhat useful! Feel free to share your thoughts below and let us know if you have any app recommendations.

See you soon! إلى اللقاء

*(It’s تضاريس if you were wondering!)

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