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On learning (natural) languages

Published on 12 August 2020

Languages are a powerful tool. Nowadays you might think that with mastery of English you can conquer the world, but it is not so. There are many areas of the world where English is not widespread. In addition, knowing languages (especially classical languages, Latin and Ancient Greek) allows you to engage with literature in that language without putting yourself at the mercy of translators. We'll get back to literature later, though.
I assert, however, that "usefulness" is not a very good criterion for choosing to learn a language. There are many reasons to learn Chinese, or Japanese, or Arabic, or Spanish, but the honest truth is that the only good reason that there is to learn another language, as with everything, is motivation.
With that in mind, let me go over some observations I've had over the years of learning English (pretty much from birth) and Modern Greek (for about two years now). This post might be unlike some other things you read on this blog, it's just a few bits of advice on the subject rather than a coherent story.

Step zero: writing system

One of the reasons why I picked Greek as my third language was because I wanted to properly learn a language that did not use Latin alphabet. It seems rather petty when I think about it in hindsight, but I was young soul to whom everything seemed possible at the time...
Of course if you learn a language that uses an alphabet you already know, there's little point to this exercise. Similarly, if you learn a language such as Chinese in which the alphabet is too vast to reasonably memorise in a short time and too related to the structure of the language itself, you might want to give it up and just proceed with a normal path.
However, if you decide to learn a language with a fairly simple alphabet, such as Greek or Korean, it might be prudent to focus on memorising the script before you do anything else as it will simplify everything in the long term. The biggest advantage of this approach is the ability to use audio courses — which might not feature writing as part of their scope for obvious reasons, but also it gives you the ability to learn to read.
Do not overestimate your initial ability to read a foreign script: even if you memorised the alphabet, reading words and sentences might prove to be a bottleneck further down the line. It's better to remedy that issue as fast as possible.

Not a single source of truth

There's a big battle over which method of learning a language is the best. Some say that you should take the orthodox route, learn the rules of grammar, memorise vocabulary, do reading and listening comprehension exercises et caetera. Others will tell you that grammar is unimportant and you merely need to immerse yourself in the language, watch movies, read books, change user interfaces to your target language, listen to tapes in your car. Another will tell you to do Duolingo for twenty minutes every day. Someone else will suggest something else entirely.
Some will take the enlightened approach and claim that different methods work for different people. There is a kernel of truth in it, but the real kicker is this: no single methods works in the long term. Instead, you should vary up your learning techniques every time one becomes boring and the process starts to feel like going through the motions.
If you are just going through the motions, nothing you read or hear will be retained in your head. However, if you change up your methods and engage in everything bit by bit, the process will continue to feel fresh and you'll keep more of the information.

Practice makes permanent

There are many ways to learn and there are also many ways to practice. Practising, really, is just equivalent to testing yourself. So to think of a good way to practice, imagine what would you do to accurately assess someone else's knowledge of the subject?
In terms of languages the best way to do this kind of assessment in my opinion (and in the opinion of a number of respectable language teachers that I know) is sentence translation.
You might have probably encountered these "test your English level!" quizzes that are in fact just multiple choice questions for which the answer tends to be immediately obvious. Multiple choice tests are very easy to game and guess the right answers. For that reason, they might be a way to learn, but definitely not practice. They also tend to become more and more pointless the better you get.
The trick that works for me when I'm looking to practice Greek is to look for sentences in English or Polish which contain the concept that I learned most recently. These sentences come from a variety of places — books, blog posts, news articles or conversations. I gather them and then translate on a piece of paper. Then I send it off to a native speaker friend to get them checked.
This is a fantastic way to test yourself and to practice because it actually forces you to think all aspects through. With multiple choice questions, or even cloze tests, there is a certain level of direction — in translation there is none. You have to think of everything yourself, which is why they are so effective at making you remember things.
(This method can also be combined with flashcards.)

The instant culture

At the end of the day, learning anything requires endurance.
We live in a culture where we want everything instantly. Learn English now! University courses, online, without leaving the house! How to learn the piano in three days! Programming bootcamp, from zero to $100K/year in three months! I want to enjoy anime without subtitles, but I don't want to spend five years to learn Japanese! "I want, I want, I want, me, me, me, me, mine, mine, mine, mine, now, now, now!"
This condition is called various things in various writings. The Desert Fathers of the Church called it "acedia". Psychologists call it "destination addiction". Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance calls it "the funeral procession".
This acedia is why apps like Duolingo succeed in getting downloads, but hardly anyone learns anything from them. It seems like effort, to go to the app store, download Duolingo and do some of the few basic courses. The braver ones might endure for a week or two, to keep up the streak. But eventually you'll understand that this is hard, this is actual effort. It's something that requires perseverance. We are not taught that anymore. So we give up.
I trust that the three tips above will give you enough variety and motivation to reach your goal of learning a foreign language without giving up. And if you have any other tips, I'm eager to hear about them.