Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Learning Languages

As you can see from this blog's title and from this post, I really like languages. A few pieces of advice for anyone considering learning a foreign tongue:

1. Do not, under any circumstances, spend any time learning a language's grammar. You either get grammar intuitively and subconsciously or you don't get it at all. When I was learning English as a kid in Russia I was told that it had 12 different tenses with names like future perfect continuous, past indefinite, etc. I read long, confusing descriptions of these tenses that I have now forgotten. I now use English tenses without ever thinking about them.

I know that the Russian word светленькому is a dative singular masculine diminutive adjective of "light", but that's only because the old Soviet educational system stressed such things and I'm a language nerd. I'm sure that in the 19th century illiterate Russian peasants used their language's 6 grammatical cases flawlessly without knowing what a grammatical case was, much less how many of them there were in Russian.

Trying to learn grammar consciously is like learning to ride a bike by memorizing which leg muscles have to be flexed at which exact points of the bike pedal's journey around its axis. Nature did not intend us to think about this kind of stuff consciously. Same thing with grammar.

If your goal is to learn to read a foreign language, get a book written in it (a children's book if you want to start slow), a dictionary and start reading. At first you'll be looking up almost every word (or half of them or less than that, depending on how close the language you're learning is to your own). If you don't give up early, you'll be using the dictionary less and less as you go along. The grammar will take care of itself.

Of course for learning to speak a language nothing beats talking to people.

2. Some langauges are objectively more complex and difficult to learn than others, even when you correct for the degree of relatedness to the learner's native tongue. There is a politically correct tendency to think otherwise because language is a good reflection of the mind and PC tells us that all of the world's nations are the same under their skins. This is BS. Here's a wiki about an Amerindian language spoken in the Amazon that lacks any terms for numbers (their closest things to them are words for "more" and "less"), for colors beyond "dark" and "light", lacks kinship terms for relations more distant than siblings (and doesn't even distinguish between "mother" and "father"), has no grammatical number even for pronouns (no difference between "I" and "we"), and only has 12 phonemes (if you've ever wondered, standard American English has about 45).

Obviously, there's nothing like that in Europe, but there are still genuine differences in language complexity there. French has been much closer to English historically than Spanish, lending it thousands more words than Spanish has, so you'd expect it to be easier to learn for English speakers than Spanish is. Yet everyone with a clue about this will tell you that the opposite is true. Even though French and Spanish are related to Russian to exactly the same (small) extent, I know from personal experience that it's easier for a Russian speaker to learn Spanish than French. French is simply more complex than its southern relative. For example, there are more than twice as many vowels in it that one needs to be able to tell apart. Many of them are hard to produce and therefore rarely occur in other languages. Spanish, on the other hand, gets by with the five basic, easy-to-pronounce vowels that almost every other language has.

Same thing with grammar - for example, all Slavic languages except for Bulgarian have grammars that are objectively more complex than the ones used in Western Europe.

3. It's possible to be able to read a language without being able to speak it or understand it when it's spoken. Understanding the spoken language and reading without speaking is possible too. These are really very different skills that you learn separately even when you learn them concurrently.

4. There are studies that show that it's impossible to learn to speak a foreign language without an accent after the age of 13. Being an immigrant who knows a lot of immigrants, I think I can confirm this. I've never known anyone who learned to speak a foreign language without an accent after that age. Learning to write in a foreign tongue flawlessly in adulthood is possible, though not terribly common.

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