Vincent A Saulys' Blog
On Language Learning
Tags: languages
March 30, 2021

Language seems to be a tough thing for engineers to grok.

It involves brute force memorization, getting a vague "feel" for pronounciation, and having to suffer through low vocabulary for an extended period of time that leaves you feeling stunted.

As a person attempting to learn a foreign language, I figure some advice is in order. Most videos and articles are aimed at a very different sort of person -- and generally one whose not STEM-focused. This post will give some pointed advice on what doesn't work, some reasons I think this is so, and pragmatic ideas on what to do. All with a focus on STEM types.

The Parts of Language Learning

Language learning is composed of three main parts:

Vocabulary are the words themselves -- dog, perro, собака. Grammar is how these words fit together. Pronunciation is how they're audibly spoken.

It needs to be stressed that these three parts can be learned completely independantly!

You can memorize phrases to learn vocabulary. This is what tourists do out of phrase books.

You can read sentences to learn grammar. This is what most academic language courses attempt to focus on.

You can mimic the sounds of a speaker to get the pronunciation. Many foreign actors do this in American films.

None of these are necesarily tied. Heck, native speakers can often struggle to convey how grammar works as they just intuitively grasp it.

When learning a language, you need to spend individual time on each part. This leads me to the my next point...

What American Schools & Most Textbooks get wrong

Everybody knows foreign language in high school doesn't work. But people don't really get into why.

One reason is that you learn a little bit of vocabulary, grammar, and maybe pronunciation. But you often don't learn enough of any one to comfortably make conversation.

In my elementary school, we focused on vocabulary and memorizing phrases. We rarely delved into constructing our own statements except in a "fill-in-the-blank" sort of way. This kept us stilted in our ability to actually communicate -- kind of the point of learning a language.

We also learned concepts out of context. This is hugely important! Learning a bunch of vocabulary about how to order at a restaurant and while learning present tense conjugations is neither interesting nor memorable (more on this part later in the article).

Why English is actually the easiest language to Learn

I want to get this myth out of the way because it drove me nuts in high school when the Spanish teacher would say "Spanish is so much easier than English, there's far fewer exceptions."

English is everywhere and has become the lingua franca of world commerce, engineering, and culture.

If you do business in the world, you're speaking English.

If you do engineering, you'll be reading English textbooks or typing in English commands (e.g. programming languages generally use english words and idioms).

If you watch film, you can watch them with subtitles but you're probably impatiently watching them in the native English language. If you want to watch them with subs, chances are they're at least in English.

This makes it much much easier to learn. You can passively absorb all the vocabulary you need. English speakers are, rather uniquely, okay with stilted speech which they'll regard as just an accent. The French, by contrast, are very formal and will, if you try to learn, spend the whole conversation asking you to repeat the words until you get their exact pronunciation right even if they know what you said. Take it from personal experience.

"Just jumping in" is unlikely to work

Sometimes this gets recommended. I think its shortsighted.

If you hear a language you don'r know, you're not likely to try and make it out. Rather, you'll rely on other cues. If the text is written, you'll probably force yourself to look for key words in a hunt-and-peck kind of mentality.

Or, if it uses highly uncommon grammatical constructs such as declensions, you may not correctly infer what's being said.

However, there is a huge advantage in this sink-or-swim learning method: you're figuring it out yourself. Much like how engineering classes rely on coursework to reinforce what you learn in class, effective language learning involves figuring it out with the scraps you know.

It's far more rewarding to figure something out for yourself than to have somebody relay phrases over and over until you "get it."

Why Apps & Flashcards don't work.

Apps & flashcards work on the principle of making you "memorize" the vocabulary in a drill.

These don't really work either.

Much like in other methods, you don't get the grammar. You also can't convey your pronunciation back correctly or hear it said back to you (mostly).

That all said, this also has an advantage: you do learn vocabulary. If you know your grammar well, it can help to just mass learn vocabulary to fill in your gaps. However, its often missing context that would help you. People are not very good at mass memorization, especially for long term memory, but instead use context (e.g. similar words grouped together).

Grammar as a Framework of thinking

Grammar is probably the most important thing to know when learning a language. It gives you the structure to know everything else.

I understand this is a controversial statement. Many will say "no, if you just know vocabulary you can shout words at people and they will get you via context."

This isn't true.

Grammar is how we get meaning. English has almost no grammar as word order determines most of the meaning. By contrast, Lithuanian, Russian, and other Balto-Slavic Languages use a declension system whereby the ending of a noun determines its meaning.

Sometimes this distinction is not very important. Lietuva means Lithuania the country while Lietuvos means of Lithuania (e.g. "Respublika Lietuvos"). If you said "Republika Lietuvas," you'd sound like a caveman but people would get what you mean.

But Lithuania has free word order meaning that you can put the words in whichever order you want (mostly). You can just as easily say "Lietuvos Respublika." If you said "Lietuvas Respublika," the literal translation would be "Lithuania [the country] Republic [the form of government]." This grammatical concept is incredibly foreign for English speakers in particular.

Learning the grammar of a language gives you the keys to knowing which parts of a sentence are the ones to which to pay attention.

How do you learn this? You have to put in the work. It's really hard in some languages, especially the Balto-Slavic ones. It's just about impossible for others like Hungarian & Tibetan. This is usually what people mean when they say one language is harder than another.

But if you want to actually learn a language and understand what's being said, you need to learn the grammar above all else. You can get by with a comparatively small vocabulary and good grammar as your brain will quickly adapt to "thinking" in that language.

And you need to learn this reflexively -- what you don't want to do is to hunt-and-peck every word. This is akin to solving a crossword puzzle and will be madding as you translate everything back to your native tongue. You won't really be "knowing it" so much as "looking for it." That's not knowing a language, that's being able to memorize a dictionary.

There is a caviat here: not all grammar is equal. Lithuanian has a unique dual form in addition to singular and plural forms. In practice, you will only see these on legal documents (e.g. marriage certificates). It's not very important to know. Every language has some aspect like this.

With a little bit of vocabulary and a lot of grammar, you can start to construct sentences in actually participate in conversation. This is hugely motivating! It's also actually useful and forces you to use what you learn for the reason you learned it.

What courses work?

Let me state the problems with some courses I've tried.

As with everything, your mileage may vary.

Pimsleur focuses just on speaking and memorizing phrases. That's no good, there's no grammar being taught. The pronunciation, slow and by native speakers, is solid though.

Rosetta Stone focuses on memorizing flashcards in different forms. That's not gonna help you actually converse with people beyond pointing at objects.

Duolingo & Memrise are similar to Rosetta Stone. They focus on memorizing words. I have heard people have success with them once they know the grammar well but wouldn't recommend for learning a language at a beginner level.

Rocket Language is better. It uses memorized phrases but then has you deconstructing them after the fact. It also has pronunciation practice through the app, though this is not a substitute for active feedback from another speaker. By not having you construct your own statements though, you're limiting how much you learn. It also has a glacial pace that is quite boring.

Michel Thomas is the only one I'd recommend. This guy gets it. He has you starting with a very small vocabulary and then building up the statements yourself. He never actually gives a phrase for you to learn. Rather, he gives you a few words and a few examples and then asks you to reply. For instance, he'll say "'Lo Tengo' means 'I have it' and '¿Tu puedes hacerlo?' means 'Can you do it?' -- then he'll ask you to say 'I have to do it'." You'll pause the tape, formulate a reply in your head, and press play and listen to the correct reply.

This gets you actively thinking through grammar and gives you enough vocabulary to get started. You will have to supplement after taking the course and he doesn't get into writing all that much. But these courses are great and I highly recommend them.

There are some bad reviews of the ones not by Michel Thomas but under his brand name. I cannot personally comment but wanted to let readers know. Other people dislike the use of two students who make audible mistakes but I thought they gave it a good pacing.

On a side note: Glossika looks interesting. It uses sentences to learn vocabulary. That gives you context to make the words actually stick. I do not have personal experience with it.

How to Best Approach Language Learning

First is to get just a bit of vocabulary in. Think of the ten most common verbs, twenty most common nouns, five most common adjectives. You can get surprisingly far with just this.

Then, start constructing sentences. Look at grammar tables and start thinking of a sentence you would say and its equivalent in the foreign language. This will get you actively working with grammar and feeling for the structure of the language.

For pronunciation, you'll need another speaker. Some recommend listening to the radio though I find the specific speaker can make this a hit or miss. Just about every language has people on YouTube working through slow conversations or even just spitting back words in their native tongue. I recommend going here.

It's not about trying to sound like a native -- you'll sound like a foreigner for years to come no matter how hard you try -- as much as it is knowing the stresses that native speakers expect. Spanish, for instance, likes to emphasize the penultimate syllable and almost swallow single syllable words (to my Anglo ear anyway). If you don't speak like this, people will have a hard time understanding you even if the word is technically correct.

As for vocabulary, read books. Kato Lomb, who worked for the UN as a translator, learned a little bit of vocab and grammar and then took a deep dive into a novel. She would reread the novel a few times: first time straining to understand and then using a dictionaries on repeat reads. This gives you the context to make that vocabulary stick.

Last Thoughts

STEM learning is very different from non-STEM learning and, I think, people are tuned differently in each group. I consider myself in the former group. As most language learning seems geared towards non-STEM types, I wanted to build my own curriculum that was more geared toward my STEM brain and "plug a hole in the internet" with my experience.

As with everything in life, language learning is very particular to the person. Keep this in mind when following any advice!

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