Adham is a software engineer from the UK who has studied languages extensively throughout his life. Inspired by the haunting beauty of Tolkien's Elvish as a child, Adham tried to create his own language. Later in life, learning languages became a hobby that helped him through difficult times. He started with Spanish and then moved on to Chinese. Now, with more than 10 years of language learning experience, he is learning Arabic to join the conversation at his wife's family gatherings. We spoke to Adham about his goals and challenges, and how Glossika fits into his language-learning routine.
I think it pretty much started during secondary school when my Spanish teacher told me in front of the whole class that I'd never learn Spanish. So I was like, you know what, I'm going to prove you wrong and I kept trying to learn. Fast forward a few years later to my first year at uni, I found myself exploring Madrid for two weeks, making friends and enjoying Gran Via, Plaza de España and El Retiro with functional Spanish. After this trip, I was really hooked with learning languages and went to a store and bought myself a few teach-yourself-books and that's where I started.
Trying new language learning approaches
That was the traditional route: go through the grammar book and try to practice it, right? I don't think this method works for everyone. For me that came with a lot of pain. In some cases, I'd want to express myself and I just couldn't. I have found though, over the years, there are a few things that you can do in regards to that.
First, you need to change your mentality.
I think the more natural way to learn is to do a lot of listening. When children learn how to speak, they don't understand everything. But they keep hearing on a day-to-day basis. They start picking up, experimenting and learning how to construct sentences. Eventually, it becomes second nature for them. I think, traditionally, adults are not geared towards that.
So after going through the painful route of trying to cram as much grammar, I started looking at other approaches. And Glossika was probably one of the first ones I came across. At the time, I didn't think much of it. I just adopted it slowly as I was using the product. And I started realizing that I preferred this method over a lot of other things that I had seen people doing. Your brain just kind of absorbs these things and it's able to help piece together patterns easier. I never used to do so much audio practice. I used to do more reading and writing, but for me, listening is probably the hardest skill. And it's definitely the most important one because if you are unable to understand what somebody is saying to you, you're not going to be able to answer. And you may be able to structure sentences really well or say a lot of things in your target language. If your listening skills are bad, then it's for nought.
Get comfortable feeling silly
For me, Glossika has become a product that helps me to get a large amount of listening practice. At the time I came across it, I was already in university. I had a few Chinese friends there who would encourage me to learn their language. So I was using the Chinese course and I was really enjoying it. When I started taking Chinese classes at the university, even the teacher was quite surprised at how quickly I was picking up things. I'd come into the class and start saying sentences in Chinese that they weren’t even teaching us yet. Everybody was really impressed. And that was a big motivation for me.
When you see you're making progress, naturally you just want to continue working on these things. It helped me to start expressing myself in the language much better. I still studied grammar, of course, but now I would supplement it with Glossika, where I'll be picking apart the sentence and learning vocabulary from it. And then I'll go to my friends and try it on them with great delight in them being able to understand me.
I think for most language learners the biggest challenge is to get out of their comfort zone. I recall at uni classes some older students felt silly about pronouncing Chinese the way it should be pronounced. Maybe they felt like they might be laughed at. So they would always use an English accent when they were saying words in Chinese and it just sounded horrible. And in a lot of cases, they weren't even doing the tones right, and you couldn’t know what they were saying. They didn't want to feel uncomfortable. But they were actually just harming themselves because it made it harder for people to understand them. You need to be comfortable feeling silly, saying things incorrectly, and being wrong. I promise you're not going to stay terrible forever. Whilst you may feel like that, people around you will notice that you're getting better. So I think being motivated to continue is probably one of the most important things when it comes to learning.
My language learning started as a hobby but with time turned into a life skill as well. There was one time I was coming back from a holiday, I was passing through an airport and there was an elderly Italian lady who didn't know any English. At that time, I didn't know any Italian, but I was able to understand her to some extent because of my Spanish. We, of course, broke down the language, made it very simple and used words rather than sentences, and I was able to help her get to her destination. I would never have been able to do that if I didn't know any Spanish. I was very happy with and proud of it.
With languages, you can be accommodating and you can actually help people. Very recently I went to I think a Lebanese restaurant. And the waiter’s English wasn't that strong. I asked him, like, where do you have a bathroom? And he didn't understand me. And I said the word hamaam which means bathroom in Arabic. And then he understood. I spoke to him in broken English with some Arabic words to help him understand me better. It was a decent experience because he wasn't confident in his English and I wasn't confident with my Arabic, but we still were able to communicate with each other. You know, it was like small, small wins.
How to keep up with a language when you become a dad
After uni, language learning has become more of a practical thing. At this point, it’s been almost ten years since I first started using Glossika. Now I work as a software engineer, mostly from home, I also have a family and a little kid. I decided to focus more on Arabic because my wife is Arab, and I need to learn Arabic to understand the family and be able to enjoy the conversations.
I would say my biggest challenge now is to find time for learning, when I’m a parent. For now, I use mostly Glossika. On a regular day, I might try and squeeze in some sentences in the morning. When I work from home, most learning happens after work. If I am going to the office, that's a great opportunity to be learning something while commuting. I try to make it consistent because I find that when you put it down, it's harder to pick it up. After many years I've realized that you need to just stick at it, even if you don't feel like it, even if you can get in just two minutes. It is better than nothing at all. Because you'll still be creating that habit.
Another cool learning experience is watching a child learn how to speak. Honestly, they can say some pretty funny things but keep at it and eventually get better and better until they speak really well. As my child grows and learns more and more, I’ve taken inspiration keep trying too, making mistakes, seeking correction and continue learning!
I think with Arabic, I mostly use just listening-only mode in Glossika. Sometimes I even put my phone to one side, and I refuse to look at the screen, just to see if I can remember. And sometimes I don't remember the sentence exactly but I know that what I've said is actually correct, because you'll see a pattern, you'll see a pattern of things. I would also go and check with my wife because she’s a native speaker. I say like I learned this word, and I think it means the same as this one, right? And if I say in this sentence, like this, does it mean the same thing? And she agrees. So then I know that the pattern that I've learned, I can actually substitute it with different words. And to make things worse, you can imagine, that nobody speaks standard Arabic on a day to day. And there's such a vast difference between the dialects sometimes, that it feels like you're learning another language when you're listening to dialect. My wife tells me if the sentence sounds a bit weird and she'll tell me what they say in dialect. I should say I get a lot of exposure when my wife speaks to relatives, or when I read Quran. I would hear it quite a lot, stretched over the years now.
When I was doing Chinese, I would use the full-practice mode too. I found that it was very helpful with Chinese because you're getting more familiar with visualizing the characters. And the listening mode will only get you so far. I think you should be repeating the sentences out loud. But with the full-practice mode, you can actually get a bit more practice with reading and writing at the same time.
I think Glossika is a more superior product for experienced language learners. Once you get comfortable with making very simple sentences, you can start using Glossika. Over the years I noticed that once I got to a certain point, I would actually find I'll be leaning more on Glossika. Because the other products are like, it's either too easy or it's just not as in-depth. It's not enough for me. I feel like the progress you’re making depends a lot on the amount of exposure. With Arabic, it's been about a month in, when it started kind of falling into place for me. I find it very useful and I think I'd be very keen to get through all the sentences that are there.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.