Learning Languages

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Over on Colins Blog I mention that I've found a way of learning the basics of a language, a way that really suits the way I think and the way I learn. No doubt it won't suit everyone, but if it helps someone, anyone, remember that you heard it here first ...

The method in outline

The idea is to treat the language as a puzzle to be solved, as a cryptogram to crack.

Hints to get you started

One hint is to largely ignore word endings. They change according to the grammar, and while they will be important later for tense and agreement, you can ignore them when first learning to recognise words.

Another hint is to have a completely unknown piece of text with you and insert words into that as you find them. If there's a word you don't recognise, try to find it in your book, then work out what it might mean.

I start by buying a book in the desired language, but a book that I already know in the English version. Anything by Terry Pratchett is a good choice for me, but other people will have choices that suit them better.

So, find a book that you know well, and then buy a copy of the translation. For example, I purchased "Ritos Eguales" when I wanted to pick up some Spanish. That's "Equal Rites". It may not have been the best choice, but my options were limited.

Next, I scour through the new book to find some dialogue. Names are easy to find, so with some dialogue I can usually work out who's talking. Since I know the English version, I know more-or-less what they're saying, and now I can start to identify some of the words.

This lets me start a mini-vocabulary list. I'll get things wrong, of course, but that just serves to focus the mind.

Once I start to recognise some of the words, I can fill in other passages, tentatively translating them by inserting the words I know, and having educated guesses at the others. It's not long before a few paragraphs start to emerge, and we're on our way.


Allegedly Ptolemy Soter, the first King of Egypt and the founder of the Alexandrian Museum, patronised the Museum by studying geometry there under Euclid. He found the subject difficult and one day asked if there weren't some easier way to learn the material. Euclid replied, "Oh King, in the real world there are two kinds of roads, roads for the common people, and roads reserved for the King to travel upon. In geometry there is no royal road."
This may all sound like a lot of hard work. It is. The thing is that there is no easy way to acquire large amounts of vocabulary and grammar. You have to put in the effort. Just like learning to juggle, or learning arithmetic, if you don't put in the effort, you won't gain the skill.

Someone once told me:

Juggling is cool
because you can't buy it.


So why does this work so well? (for me)

There are a few possible reasons. Firstly, if you're a native English speaker, many longer words can simply be guessed at. That means that your reading vocabulary has a head start and is larger than you might expect. You do need to be aware of the occasional "False Friend".

Secondly, the really hard words to learn are the small words. But Zipf's Law tells us that the small words are the ones that turn up most often! By analysing and "decrypting" a novel, the words you see most often are exactly the hardest words to learn. The very act of using a novel filters the words for you so you drill the ones you most need.

Finally, by focusing on a puzzle to solve you are using lots of different skills and lots of different parts of your brain, all on the single task of learning the language.


One problem I've found is that some languages actually have a completely different tense/grammar construction for stories! As a result, if you learn how to speak as they do in the books, you will sound seriously strange. <shrug> The method isn't perfect, some external and additional research will be required.

OK, so what if it's in Cyrillic, or Arabic? Yes, you do need to learn the script. And I haven't tried learning Chinese, Thai, or Japanese like this. Clearly the method has its shortcomings, and I'm sure you can find lots of them. If this doesn't work for you then perhaps the traditional method(s) of language acquisition will work better. If so, then you are one of the lucky ones, and I wish you well.

You do actually need to find a suitable text to de-crypt. This is one of the main stumbling blocks in trying to apply this technique to learn the Lojban Language. The writing needs to be simple and direct, without too many complex tenses, but at the same time it needs to be a real page-turner. Not easy.


So there it is. This probably isn't completely new, but I've never seen it used or described before. It's been a tremendous help to me, and I offer it here in the hope that some who might otherwise be turned off by languages may instead be turned on to them.

If it helps you, please, let me know. I only wish I'd known it in school when my mind was faster. And emptier.

Thanks to Josh and Mimi for suggested amendments.



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