Learning languages

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Tags: languages

During this year, I have learned two completely unrelated (human) languages to a semblance of A1. Many people claim that I have a talent for learning languages but I don't think it's the case. I just have more experience and tools for learning them. I decided to write down some notes that I hope can help other language learners, starting from pretty obvious facts that I didn't consciously realize until some point and ending with somewhat controversial opinions.

Learning minority languages is a great social experience

If you are learning a language that has a lot of speakers, then, paradoxically, it may be difficult to find speaking practice when you are a beginner. Let’s face it: speaking with beginners requires a lot of effort and patience from the fluent speaker. How many people are willing to make that effort depends on the language environment.

For many people, their first foreign language is one of those that have large communities of monolingual speakers and prominent international roles — usually, they are languages of former empires that retain their roles as global or regional lingua francas.

Those languages, unfortunately, tend to have the largest numbers of speakers who mock those who speak them poorly. But even normal, non-awful people may not be willing to spend time listening to broken language just because their language is as secure as it gets and they feel no need to help more people learn them. Your best bet is to practice with professional teachers, either privately or in a group.

With minority languages, the situation can be completely different. Native and fluent speakers may tolerate beginners and even actively help them learn.

The only issue is that speakers who aren’t professional teachers may not be able to explain why something is right or wrong. A lawyer or a construction worker probably doesn’t know what’s a genitive case or declension, so they will tell you if you are saying something wrong and tell you the correct version, but they may not be able to explain why. That’s still a very good feedback, though.

Speaking practice is hugely important

At least if you plan to speak a language.

It may be ok not to plan to speak a language, of course. Speaking in Latin, for example, isn’t a very useful skill unless you plan to become the Pope and write encyclicals. Most people who learn Latin today do it only to get access to the existing body of literature, so they learn by memorizing words, studying grammar, and reading the classics.

You can certainly learn a living language that way. You can also learn a language closely related to some language you already know by pure absorption — that’s how I became a pretty proficient passive speaker of Ukrainian. I can also make sense of many texts in Spanish thanks to some knowledge of Latin and exposure to Spanish through friends. But if you want me to beg for my life in Spanish, that’s a whole different story. I can still read some German because we were made to learn it in middle school but the only things I can say without searching for words are “Nicht schissen!” and “Hände hoch!”.1

Reading and listening will not make you good at speaking and writing unless you also practice speaking and writing.

Learning by absorption is problematic

If you don’t neglect practicing speaking, it’s also possible to learn to speak a closely related language without much formal study. If you build your own phrases from what you learn by absorption, it’s likely going to be fundamentally correct, and fluent speakers can help you master its subtleties. If you try to learn a more distant language that way and build new phrases by generalizing examples you already know, your generalizations may be faulty much more often.

For example, in many languages, once you know how to say “five dogs”, you also know how to say “six people”, “two books”, or “ninety nine bottles of beer”. It’s also usually safe to say that if languages A and B are closely related and you know how to say “five dogs” in A, then to learn how to say “nine people” in B you only need to learn the words for “nine” and “people”. But if you are learning a language from a completely different family and you learn how to say “five dogs” in that new language, it’s only safe to assume that you know how to say “five dogs”.

Japanese is an extreme example. If you know how to say “five dogs”, you cannot infer the correct grammar for either “five cows”, “five books”, or “five bottles of beer” from it even if you know the words for cows, books, and bottles. For starters, all those nouns require different “counter words”. to go with the numeral. As a less extreme example, in Ukrainian, numbers less than five take nominative plurals but five and above require genitive plurals instead: “one violin: is “odna skrypka” (nominative singular), “two violins” is “dvi skrypky” (nominative plural) but “seven violins” (or ten, or twenty five, but not twenty one) is “sim skrypok” (genitive plural).

Language immersion is hugely important but when the language you want to learn is distant enough from anything you know, it may be nearly impossible to learn through immersion alone because you don’t even know what you don’t know about that languaguage.

Children learn to speak purely by immersion, but that’s because there’s no other way to learn the first language and because their brains are uniquely suited to that kind of learning. How exactly children learn what’s ungrammatical and how they infer the rules of grammar from language input is an open question, for example.

However, adult brains have their own advantages. Grown-up people can learn how languages work and apply that knowledge to new languages. I believe that not using that cognitive capacity and trying to learn solely by inference from language inputs is wasteful and that the fundamentals of lingustic terminology and concepts should be taught widely. Every adult language learner has to reason about languages because, unlike children, they are no longer capable of learning them without reasoning; and they should reason about languages to learn better. But to reason about languages they need tools, and mainstream education tends to hide those tools from people.

Everyone should learn some linguistics

My friend once told me how during a winery tour, a Georgian sommelier tried to show them the difference between the two T sounds in Georgian and everyone (most of them speakers of Slavic languages) just laughed at the situation because they couldn’t hear any difference at all. I don’t think it’s because any of them were stupid or hard of hearing — they just didn’t know what to listen for. The Georgian language treats the aspirated and unaspirated T sounds as two different consonants. If they knew what’s aspiration and how it sounds, I’m sure they would notice the contrast.

Here’s another example, In Turkish, there are two suffixes for plurals: -lar and -ler. The plural for elma (apple) is elmalar; for sucuk2 (sausage) it’s sucuklar; but the plurals for kedi (cat) and sürücü (driver) are kediler and sürücüler. It certainly takes some practice to form Turkish plurals correctly, but the idea is pretty simple to explain to a person who knows a bit of phonology. The concept is knowns as vowel harmony: words tend to have either only front vowels (where the tongue moves forward toward the teeth) or back vowels (where the tongue is retracted). If the last vowel of the root is a back vowel, then the plural suffix will be -lar (because a is a back vowel), otherwise it’s -ler. If someone is not yet familiar with the classification of vowels, there are only two ways to explain it: a crash course in phonology or a table for rote learning. I firmly believe the first way is better. Knowing how different kinds of vowel articulation sound and what they are called is useful for understanding that specific rule but will help the learner understand other phenomena in different languages in the future.

Knowing names for language phenomena is not only important for building a consistent mental picture of language rules, it’s also useful in practice. Continuing that example with counting violins in Ukrainian: if you know that numbers from five to twenty always require a genitive plural, then to say “fifteen flutes” you can open a dictionary and look up the genitive plural for “flute”. If you don’t even know that it’s named genitive case, then you are completely at the mercy of fluent speakers.

When someone teaches Spanish to English speakers, they need to tell the students that adjectives come after nouns, but don’t need to explicitly mention the word order because both languages are SVO (Subject-Object-Verb). Speakers of a Romance or Germanic language may not even give any thought to the issue of word order until they start learning a language where the standard order is different. For example, in Turkish, the order is SOV, so “I(S) am going (V) to Istanbul (O)” is “Ben İstanbul’a gidiyorum”3 (“I Istanbul-to am-going”). To make things more fun, the first-person present progressive form of the verb “to go” (git) — gidiyorum — expresses both the person and the progressive aspect; and the direction to Istanbul is expressed with the allative case4 instead of a preposition. For a person of an Indo-European background it’s certainly takes practice to stop putting the verb in the middle, but knowing that different word orders exist does prepare one for such linguistic experience, I believe.

Well, I say Indo-European even though that family isn’t homogenous and there are examples of the most unusual morphologies and syntaxes there. Gaelic languages like Irish are VSO, so “I am cold” is “Tá mé fuar” (“Am I cold”) — the order that English uses for questions is used for statements there.

Even just getting used to the idea that different languages work in different ways probably prepares one for the unknown. Knowing the names for language concepts also enables you to ask more specific questions to qualified people and drive everyone else mad — just in case you set out to become a well-known smartass like me. ;)


1That was before Internet access became widely available, so it was nearly impossible to find any German speaking practice far from German-speaking countries, and even reading and listening material was hard to find, so very few of us were enthusiastic about learning the language of Goethe — we saw it as largely useless, and at that time and in that place that view was merely short-sighted, not untrue.

2In Turkish, C is counter-intuitively pronounced like J in English.

3Turkish speakers would normally omit the pronoun because the verb already implies the grammatical person.

4I had to look that one up.