Ignorant Friends: the Secret to Your Success

Posted on 29. Jun, 2015 by in Uncategorized

Itchy Feet: Blissful Ignorance

Disclaimer: everything that follows is terrible advice.

If you’ve followed the Transparent Language blog for any good amount of time, you’ll know there are lots and lots and lots of articles on how to improve your language-learning, how to get over the fear of speaking new languages, and what it takes to get better. But actual self-improvement is only half the battle. As I’m sure some expert somewhere has said at some point, success is 1% work, 99% image.

That’s why whenever I want to get good at something, I do a little bit of work, and then surround myself with people who are terrible at it. If success is recognition from your peers, you just need peers who are dumb as bricks.

Take exercise. I’m no good at it. I get tired and hungry and can think of a hundred other things I’d prefer to be doing than running or jumping rope or doing push-ups. However, I like feeling healthy, so whenever I go for a jog or play some tennis or ride my bike, I pick as my partner someone more out of shape than I am. That way, even when running at a below-average pace, I can feel like a champion compared to my poor, wheezing mate.

Or how about chess? I’ve always wanted to be good at it, but I almost always lose, and losing is not very successful, is it? That’s why I usually play against small children, who are very easy to beat. Since they’re so new to the game, they also generally don’t notice if you cheat, which is an added bonus. Being a champion against those smaller than you is still being a champion.

And, of course, this applies to language learning. When my friends or family from out of town come to visit me in Berlin, I bask in their admiration when ordering “zwei Biere, bitte” or asking “wo sind die Toilette?” Nothing makes you feel like more of a success than winning the esteem of loved ones who don’t know any better. One problem is that I live in Germany, and am constantly surrounded by experts who remind me that I am not the five-star success champion I want to be. If you’re in a similar situation, I recommend you do what I do: only make friends with expats who refuse or are unable to learn the language. As an American this is surprisingly easy. And if you ever meet a local—do NOT engage them in their language. Instead, pull the emergency lever: start talking at them in your native language, in which you are an actual, bona fide expert, and which they are likely not. Once more, you’ll feel like a champion!

Disclaimer: all of the above is terrible advice. You shouldn’t compare yourself to those worse than you but rather those better. Strive to be the best you can be, shoot for the stars, etc, etc, etc…you know I’m right.

How I Became Trilingual in Three Years (and How You Can Too)

Posted on 24. Jun, 2015 by in Language Learning

In 2012 I was your typical monolingual English-speaking American. Now, almost exactly three years after picking up my first Teach Yourself Dutch book, I’m a functional trilingual backpacking my way through Latin America. I didn’t do it through expensive courses or an auspicious blow to the head, but instead by learning about how the brain naturally acquires languages and using it to my advantage.

Earlier this year I wrote the Trilingual in Three Years series on my blog Globalect, and now I’m sharing here the method that I elaborated there. The basic psycholinguistic formula for language learning can be broken up into two parts: statistical learning and social learning. Putting the cherry on top with witty sarcasm and slang and graceful communication is the third.

Statistical learning: it’s child’s play1

Everyone who knows a little bit about language learning knows that babies are little geniuses at it. They’re not really putting in that many focused study hours; they’re just born with a gift.

That gift is their sponge-like ultra-language-absorbant brains that soak up not only speech sounds but grammatical patterns, sentence structures, and associations between words and meanings at a rate that the most advanced adult language learner could never hope to compete with. Leave a baby in any random country for a year or two and, while you’d be a horribly neglectful parent and international criminal, that kid would learn the language.

It’s because the infant brain is hard-wired for statistical learning of patterns, especially linguistic patterns. Statistical learning means that you present the language learning centers of your brain with massive amounts of data – words, sounds, sentences, grammatical structures, social cues – until your brain has decided it has a large enough statistical sample to start making sense of it all and organizing it into rules.

The learner of English as a second language will — regardless of being taught or not — eventually realize (most likely subconsciously) that people just do not say she goed in the past tense in English. After weeks or months or years of exposure to sentences constructed in English, the learner will have thousands upon thousands of examples of she went stored up in their mental repository, but only maybe a couple erroneous instances of she goed. Eventually, the thousands of examples of she went become the clear winner over she goed. The speaker’s brain has used all this data to sort out a rule.

While it comes naturally for babies, your adult brain will need some more structure and encouragement. But fear not: there are plenty of ways to soak your head in statistical language data via listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Watching television and joining conversation clubs are just some of the more obvious ones, but you probably haven’t thought of things like eavesdropping on conversations or reading Wikitravel pages in other languages. For actionable strategies like these, check out the full article on Globalect on Learning Language Like a Baby.

Social learning: it takes a village

The second foundation of language learning is using language for its intended purpose: interacting with other humans. It’s the more important and more enjoyable half of the language learning equation, and ideally you should do it from the beginning, even while you’re busy running all those statistics.

If statistical learning is about compiling and organizing language data, social learning is about putting it to use and learning through doing. Even despite their linguistic genius, babies will never become proficient in a language without social interaction, which means you won’t either. In other words: use it or lose it!

Once a baby has spent around a year devouring linguistic data from their environment, they start to associate mama with the woman who miraculously disappears and reappears during suspenseful rounds of peek-a-boo. Likewise, milk isn’t just a meaningless noise: it’s somehow tied to making that gnawing hungry feeling go away. These realizations are significant because the child can then use it to say milk to mama and accomplish a social task. This is what language is all about.

In the hostel in Mexico City where I'm currently living, having dinner at a table with seven nationalities and as many languages. Most of us are practicing Spanish, and many of us have improved our language abilities by making Spanish-speaking friends here in the hostel.

In the hostel in Mexico City where I’m currently living, having dinner at a table with seven nationalities and as many languages. Most of us are practicing Spanish, and many of us have improved our language abilities by making Spanish-speaking friends here in the hostel.

What this all means is that you need to form meaningful social relationships in your target language, just like babies do, to truly master it and assign useable meaning to your masses of linguistic data.

In the 21st century with its World Wide Web and cheap travel opportunities, there is no shortage of opportunities to socialize in a new language. Check out websites like conversationexchange.com, go to a Couchsurfing or expat meetup, or spend a summer backpacking or volunteering on a farm in a country where your target language is spoken.

Just be sure that you’re going beyond ritual practice and forming real social bonds, making new friends and learning about cultures as you go. I’ve shared plenty about how you can do all this, along with a whole list of other practical tips, in Globalect’s original post on Social Language Learning.

Bonus round: talking like a native

If you’re a vane language learner like most of us, you probably live for those “oh I didn’t realize you were foreign” moments. While the language professional in me wants to caution you that it’s silly to focus on superfluous things like accent or passing for native, the language learner in me knows it’s just really really cool when you can.

If you want to take the more scientific route to superficial perfection, you should follow the earlier series I wrote here on Transparent Language on ‘Hacking Pronunciation in any Language with the IPA’ (Parts 1, 2, and 3.) The International Phonetic Alphabet is the systematic transcription of every speech sound in human language, and learning it empowers you to recognize new sounds in other languages, measure the difference between your target sound and the one that’s currently giving you that accent, and with enough practice, close that gap.

I’m a big fan of the IPA for learning pronunciation, but I’m an even bigger fan of the social approach, in which immitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Keep soaking your statistics-hungry brain in social data: engage in conversations with people. When you can’t find someone to chat with, watch television. And imitate. Try to sound how the native speaker sounds. Listen actively, closely – they sound different than you, but why? Strive to put your finger on it and use the IPA to help you.


For the IPA method, check out my earlier series on Transparent Language linked above. For more practicable tips on how to get the ultimate compliment, being mistaken for native, take a look at my original post on Globalect: Talking Like a Native.

In just three years’ time I’ve gone from monolingual to polyglot-in-progress. I didn’t dump out thousands of dollars or get bitten by a radioactive spider, but instead I just learned how to learn. Now, three years later, I’m a totally confident and expressive speaker of English and Dutch, and my fluent Spanish is inching closer and closer to social grace and (hopefully) being mistaken for native every day.

To read my followup on three years of language learning using this method and how I’ve used it to learn Spanish while backpacking in Latin America, check out my latest post on Globalect: Trilingual in Three Years: Three Years Later.

A Brief History of Language

Posted on 22. Jun, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet - Le Hïstorié by Malachi Ray Rempen

Sometimes it’s hard for us humans to keep time in perspective. I suppose it’s a good thing—after all, if we were constantly thinking about the fact that we’ve been around for about 200,000 years and for 98.5% of that time we never wrote anything down, we probably wouldn’t be able to function in our day-to-day lives. As a side effect, however, we have trouble putting things into historical context or take account of relativity (see: the comic above). Also, if you’re like me, everything you learn slowly drips out of your ears at night, and you occasionally have to replenish the stocks.

To that end, let’s visit—briefly, entertainingly and quite incompletely—the history of languages on this planet.

Birth of Language (60,000 – 200,000 years ago)
That number is a total shot in the dark. We have no idea when language as we know it was created, how it was created, why it was created or even really what language is. Do the grunts of apes count as language? Was language developed in one place and spread with mankind across the globe, or is it innate within us, and rose across the world at various points simultaneously? Did other Homo sapiens relatives speak language as well, or is it unique to us? We just don’t know. You’re welcome.

Age of the Proto-Language (4,000 – 10,000 years ago)
A “proto-language” is a hypothetical “root” language, from which, theoretically, several language families bloomed and branched into sub-groups, languages and dialects. If a language family is a tree, the proto-language is the base of the trunk. Again, we don’t know a whole lot about them, as most are purely speculative. But scholars place their use, if they did exist, somewhere around this time. The big, important proto-language you might want to know about is Proto-Indo-European, the great-granddaddy of every European and Near Eastern language from Albanian to Latvian to Urdu to Yiddish. Other language families like Sino-Tibetan may have had a proto-language, but…we just don’t know, get it?!

The First Written Word (1,000 BCE – 2nd century BCE-ish)
When people got the bright idea to start putting quill to parchment, or chisel to stone, or blood to tanned leather, languages stopped wandering about quite as aimlessly and began settling down and starting families and sprouting more dedicated groups. Around here you’ll find the “birth” of such noble old languages as Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek and Old Chinese, as well as “newer” languages later on, like Hebrew, Latin, Old Persian and Aramaic. They weren’t, of course, actually born by dint of them being written down, but otherwise – say it with me – we just don’t knooooooow!

The Old Timers (First millennium CE)
The Middle Ages was good for a lot more than just mead and catapults. Thanks to the explosion in writing, we’re able to get more precise with our dating (we know a little moooooore!) and salute venerable languages such as Old English (Anglo-Saxon—think Beowulf rather than Shakespeare), Old High German, Old French, Classical Arabic and so on. Rather than just fumbling about in the dark as before, we can trace our contemporary languages to these fellows with confidence. They’ll be followed by Middle and Middle High versions, each at varying stages at various times, which may look the same to you as the Old ones but are not, so don’t even think about it.

Standardization (1500 – 1900 CE)
World conquerors have always known that the best way to assimilate a people into your empire is to squash their local religions, customs and languages and force them to speak what you speak. Alexander the Great knew it, Julius Caesar knew it, and Genghis Khan knew it but couldn’t be bothered, and so just killed everyone he met. However, it wasn’t until about this time that world-conquering became a less successful pursuit and the standardizing of languages actually stuck, mostly because bureaucracy is irritating enough without competing languages on all the forms. Some, like the Italians and Spanish, created a standard based on literary classics, while most others, such as the French, English, Tibetans, and Chinese just used the dialect from their capital city, or whatever dialect they considered to be “polite.” This period includes the standardization of Sign Language, which had existed in myriad forms throughout history, but only now became normalized, by the French.

The Age of the Artificial (1900 – present)
As if in response to the rapid extinction of languages and dialects after standardization, people have recently started making up their own languages. An intrepid young man named L. L. Zamenhof developed Esperanto as an idealized lingua franca for the world; J. R. R. Tolkien created Quenya, a fully-realized invented Elvish tongue around which he built his Middle-Earth of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; and Marc Okrand’s Klingon language, created for the fictional Star Trek alien race of the same name, is actually spoken fluently by many people. I suppose I could include computer programming languages such as C++ or Java here, but I’m not sure they count—they’re more mathematical than linguistic. In any case, the most recently created language is Na’vi, created for James Cameron’s film Avatar in 2009 by linguistic professor Paul Frommer.

So there you have it, an extremely broad and generalized overview of the history of languages. Who knows where the future will lead? Resurrection of extinct languages due to time travel? A return to regional dialects thanks to advanced translation technology? Or perhaps we’ll all use Esperanto? Let’s speculate and argue about it in the comments below!