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Casting a new light on clichés: Learning languages with the Othman method

Omar Othman taught me colloquial Arabic for two terms. This is by far the most memorable teacher I had and even though I wouldn’t say two terms were enough to learn to speak properly the ratio of what I learned to what I still remember is remarkable.

Having read a lot about language learning methods recently, I started distilling certain methods and strategies he used in his classes. Whether consciously employed or not they helped me not only to learn effortlessly, but also remember efficiently.

Omar was an elderly gentleman and didn’t use any revolutionary methods. No apps, no computers, not even recordings—it was all pretty old school. The key to his success I think was a combination of a few simple techniques and being consistent about them.

They may sound cliché, but as they say, “the best workout is the one you actually do”. So to paraphrase, the best language learning method is the one you actually follow through.

1. Practice with your peers

There weren’t many students in Omar’s classes, maybe eight or nine at most. Whenever we learned an important verb, he made sure each and every one of us said something using it, by assigning each of us a sentence to translate.

This was an excellent way to break the fear of speaking in our target language in front of others, and helped me immensely when I finally got an opportunity to use Arabic in the wild.

If you can say something in front of a group of English speakers, you sure can repeat it in a conversation with one native speaker.

2. Repetition is key

I remember the time when we learned to count to 10. It is a very simple skill if you look at the vastness of the language as a whole but we still had to hear them them from Omar 3 times at different speed and in different timbres, and then each of us had to count aloud in front of everybody else.

I remember I was last in the line of chairs and I thought to myself: “surely we don’t have to listen to this eight times?!” Yet, when it finally came to me, I stumbled. It is really something else to listen and to speak and the only way to acquire a skill is to drill it regularly.

The fact that each of us heard the numbers so many times and spoken with different voices increased the likelihood not only that we’d remember them, but also that we’d understand them on the street.

That evening, I counted aloud to myself while cooking.

Repeat words, repeat phrases, repeat verbs. Repeat.

3. Acting makes it easy to remember

I think Omar’s vocation was theatre and another title for this section could be “the teacher is the director of the show.” The way he would introduce a new verb or phrase for us was always accompanied with a one person scene, him being the centre of attention.

When we learned the phrase for “come in”, he suddenly knocked on the desk, then put his hand to his ear with a look of sheer surprise on his face. He then asked who it was, answered in a different voice, and finally responded nodding, with a sense of relief and recognition: “ah, come in, come in”. He did that three times to cover all 3 grammatical forms the phrase could take in Arabic.

Words will not describe the hilarity of these situations. I wish you were there to see it. The class might not have been large, but there have been enough of us to cause a ruckus if not kept interested. With Omar, there was no danger of this ever happening—we were all mesmerised and watched him with anticipation of another hilarious scene.

This was augmented with the fact that his English was not perfect and he happened to know bits and pieces of other languages that he used to throw out in most appropriate or, even better, inappropriate moments. One of his favourite phrases was to our German friend named Anke; whenever she answered correctly, he would say “Danke Anke”. These dad-jokes truly made our days.

When you’re learning a phrase, imagine a situation you’d use it in and act it out.

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Walk around the room pretending you’re on a busy platform and mumble “excuse me”, shout out “excuse me” at your table, pretending you’re at a busy bar. Next time it happens you’ll be ready, and you won’t be afraid to…

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4. Make a fool out of yourself!

During Omar’s classes we spoke a lot, both in front of the group as well as in pairs. We made mistakes and had them corrected on the class forum. As a perfectionist, I have initially found it hard to reveal my incompetence in front of a group, but I realised everyone was either equally stressed, or they simply didn’t care, and if a native speaker could understand what I meant, it wasn’t all that bad, right?

Omar also taught us sayings and phrases that he said people commonly used. However, because of his age, those seemed to be phrases used by either people over sixty or perhaps coming from his village. Us using those phrases in the presence of native speakers evoked a lot of laughter and broke the ice, making it much easier to practise the language.

What does it mean for you? Learn a few funny sayings or local expressions in your target language. Using them in the presence of native speakers will open the doors for further conversation and will remove the pressure of producing “perfect” language.

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5. Evoke creativity

We learned a lot of vocabulary and the two ways to practise it were to say it aloud, or to write it down. Omar encouraged us to use as much new vocabulary as we could to create stories that were fictional, improbable or made little sense just so that we could practise using the words. He also sometimes had us read our masterpieces in front of the class…

What did I learn from that?

a) It’s really hard to read your own handwriting in a foreign language fluently
b) You spot so many mistakes while you read that you come back to point 4 above.

The second way to be creative is in speech. Here Omar would sometimes ask us simple questions such as “why didn’t you do your homework?” or “what did you do yesterday?” People would produce answers like “I forgot” or “I ate dinner and went to sleep.”

After two such responses he would say laughing kindly: ”Listen, I’m not interested what you did, I just want you to speak!” From then on we came up with stories of ill family members in hospitals whom we had to bring cheese cake and flowers, or about being stopped by the police because of a broken car. Needless to add, none of us had any family or cars in the nearest 3000 km.

Your task now? Write a couple new sentences with the words you have learned (maybe start a blog on Lang-8?) and read them out aloud the next day. See if you understand what you meant, and if you can correct yourself.

6. Use what you learn immediately

Omar’s principle was not to teach us literary Arabic. He wanted us to be able to interact with people who studied or worked in the same building. To go and order a coffee in Arabic during the break. To haggle in Arabic on the market.

We were of course lucky to be learning the language in a place where it was spoken and from the first class we could go out and test the few words we have just learned with (or rather on) real people. We would throw out some mispronounced “good mornings” and “thank you”s and see they worked, that people understood them. We were able to communicate with the little resources we had.

This added motivation for further exploration and, of course, more testing. Neither of this felt like learning. Instead, we were acquiring a communication tool to help us create bonds, make friends and, well, get discounts on the market 😉

Take out from this?

Seek out opportunities to use every little bit of your language, from day one.
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Find a local shop with foreign products. Perhaps a receptionist in your building or someone at your gym is a native speaker: Say hi! Or find a partner for short exchanges on Hello Talk. Seeing your language working will really give you a boost of encouragement!

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7. Remember with mnemonics

Omar also used mnemonics to help us remember words. He would underline certain phonetic similarities between Arabic and English words and over-exaggerate their pronunciation with accompanying gestures, trying to make us see the connection. Whether the connection was clear or not, didn’t really matter.

If you combine this mnemonic performance with Omar’s theatrical skill you have a recipe for other hilarious scenes; I’m pretty sure everyone in that class can still remember the Arabic word for hospital and the image of Omar opening his eyes widely and pretending to draw long Dali-like moustache on his hair-free face. Moustache, mustashfa, hospital in Arabic. Because if you have a long moustache you’re in a hospital? I can’t remember what the link was, but I sure remember the word.

Use mnemonics. Make them funny, make them quirky, act them out, make them stand out from the information noise you absorb every day.

Apart from all these funny stories and the character of Omar after seven years I can still recall most of what I learned during those two terms. On top of that, the memory of speaking is not accompanied by a feeling of embarrassment or fear, but of fun and accomplishment.

This is of course not an official method. Yet, judging by the results and the both educational and entertaining qualities of the classes, I think it deserves to be named after him.

Have you had a teacher who inspired you? Share your story!

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