Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A hacker's guide to second language acquisition

I recently came across a blog post about learning languages that's been making the rounds (which I now cannot find for the life of me), and it inspired me to venture my own theoretically expert opinion about second language acquisition.

The author's primary insight was dead right: to learn a language, you should care about the language and its speakers. A xenophobe who wants to pick up Spanish to qualify for an automatic pay raise probably won't fare magnificently. An Islamophile who dreams awake of pyramids and prophets will shock you with his progress in Arabic. “Care” is probably the best piece of advice for language learners.

But as a seasoned practitioner, tantalized with the prospect of an audience that might care, I'm now all too eager to proffer my additional wisdom. Namely:

Ignore the hard rules. Ever wonder why we don't use the article with words like “air” and “concrete” in English? We say “a book”, or “a chair”, but not “an air” or “a concrete.” It's because nouns of the latter class represent things that are infinitely divisible without losing their essence. That's right. Generally speaking, if I cut a chair in half, what remains isn't a chair. The same does not apply for concrete. Now if you're a native speaker of English, I imagine you manage articles pretty well, but I also bet you didn't consciously know the rule. In fact, English learners who try to consciously apply the rule universally suck at it. There's just not enough time to pause before every noun and contemplate infinite divisibility. Linguists call conscious rule-application “learning”, and unconscious neural net programming “acquisition.” With really easy rules, conscious learning can work. With difficult ones, you'll just have to wait for the nets to kick in. Don't waste your time trying to “learn” anything hard. One day you'll just wake up to find that you somehow say things correctly.

Use chunks. Your brain doesn't process “I am going to go” (amanago) as five words. It's a single lexical item under the hood. Spoken discourse is dominated by these chunks (although language teachers and textbook writers seem not to have noticed). Learn them. Learn a hundred of them, and people will be spooked. It will appear to some that you've mastered Italian in two days. I'm serious.

Fantasize. This is my secret weapon. Mutter to yourself like a madman. Play out scenes where you impress the boss, win the girl, and kill the bad guy. Learn the appropriate phrases. “Fluent? Oh, of course not. I started studying yesterday—my God, what is that? Fetch my sword!” Affect an expression of courageous concern and play your part, whispering through your plots while the cab driver nervously tracks you through the rear-view mirror. Between my first Esperanto meet-up and my second one, I went from being a complete neophyte to something bordering fluent. “Wow Ken, how did you do it?!” they asked. I told them it was because I was a linguist. Really it's because I'm fucking crazy, and I talk to myself.

Use flashcards. Find a corpus of the most common words in spoken discourse in your target language, and make decks for the top one thousand words. Pull out groups of five or ten words and drill them till you've got them down, and then put them in your “know” pile. Repeat. Periodically quiz yourself on your “know” pile. Did you miss any words? Put them in a new “whoops” pile, and drill those until they're ready to rejoin the party. Drill the cards both ways, translating to and from your target language. Say every word out loud. Visualize yourself at a bar, and use them in appropriate sentences. Do the muttering madman thing while you whittle through your decks.

Recast. When someone asks you a question and you get “blah blah blah you blah blah restaurant?” Come back with “You mean, Do I want to go to a restaurant?” If you're right, they'll say “Yes”, and you can keep rolling. Otherwise, they'll try their question again, probably more simply. Recasting is a dynamite alternative to saying “what” a thousand times, and keeps the conversation going naturally.

Be shameless. If you worry too much about looking like an idiot, learning anything will be an uphill battle. Could you feasibly expect to learn to paint without first pouring hours into “What is that supposed to be?”-type paintings? Yes, you will talk like a caveman. People may laugh. You will be confused, and misunderstood. Resign yourself to it. Accept your stammering and stumbling as the part of your new foreign persona's charm. Go boldly.

. . . and unless you're bold enough, you should probably ignore my final piece of advice:

Learn Esperanto.

Studies have shown that people who study Esperanto can tackle their next language especially fast. In fact one year of Esperanto study followed by one year of French has been shown to produce better results than two years of French. In a way, Esperanto is Language Herself, abstracted, and free of the centuries of accumulation of contradictions piled upon exceptions that natural languages exhibit. Learning Esperanto will acquaint your mind more clearly with the true meanings of grammatical tenses, giving you an elegant, almost perfect blueprint of Deep Structure as a foundation upon which you may build your future edifices.

You may even find that you fall in love with its Vulcan-like logic, its extensibility, its multi-paradigm architecture, and its rich history replete with anarchist martyrs and true believers crushed by the rising tide of nationalism in a world that was not yet ready for so noble an idea.

Or maybe not. As they say, it helps to be passionate about the language's speakers.

  Buy me a coffee to support posts like this.

  (Or, you know, a house. If you're just like a bored billionaire or something.)


  1. Great post! (Came here from Reddit). I've been learning Mandarin for about 3 years and some of my methods have been really similar to yours, especially powering through thousands of flash cards and looking like an idiot!
    I really liked the concept of chunks and I will definitely apply that when I start my 3rd language. I'd be interested in seeing / working on a list of crucial chunks for any language. Imagine what an awesome foundation you would have in a language if your first move to was to plow through a stack of 1000 chunk-flash-cards!

  2. Awesome post... now just to pour more time into my spanish :)

  3. Could you provide more information about the studies you mention in the last paragraph?

  4. Absolutely, pty0,

    Here's a good place to start:

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Really interesting post!

    Something occured to me about the link between learning Esperanto and learning other languages better. It probably does help you build your language-learning muscles, so to speak, but there's also the fact that the people who learn Esperanto tend to be highly intellectual people anyways. So that could really help them learn other languages.

  7. I've been fascinated by the concept of Esperanto since I was a kid. Do you know of any online forums for aspiring Esperanto speakers?

  8. Hi Maris! is a hell of a resource.

  9. Just to let you know, I am learning Esperanto because I was influenced by this post. Day 3. I am using SuperMemo. We will see how I go.

  10. Jones,

    YES! Tell me how it goes. Let's be friends!

  11. Great post! I found it really funny *and* I agree with most of what you say, especially the parts about caring about the culture, being shameless and using flashcards. A lot of that is what I tell my students.
    I've never muttered to myself before, but as I've just started learning Spanish I'll also experiment with talking to myself. Should make it all even easier ^_^

  12. Parts of this hurt my head. Like when you mentioned about how we only use some articles for specific types of nouns (like "a book") but not others ("air"). Because I really only speak English, these are just such unconscious differences, I don't really notice them. Your post really made me appreciate people who work in two languages for a living, like in document translation, for how they have to know and understand all those subtle things the rest of us take for granted.