What I’ve learned from learning a foreign language
I want to dedicate this article to the topic of language learning. My main goal is to share some of the insights I got from learning a new language from scratch, or, in my case, almost from scratch. Everything I share remains only an opinion, i.e. not based on any external studies. And I do want to keep it that way. Because at the end of the day, even the scientific data merely suggests and never proves.
But, I digress. To say that any language is a very complex system is to say nothing. We can’t go a day without using language in one way or another. It’s absolutely tied into the very reality we find ourselves in. Just like reality is complex, so is language.
Yet, despite its complexity, we all speak at least one language, and it’s quite natural. We certainly have this inherent capacity that allows us to learn at least one language. My experience suggests to me that it can be quite effortless to tap into this inner ability to learn new languages. To an extent, of course.
The idea is quite simple. It seems that our inherent capacity to learn languages isn’t very different from machine learning — you get data (sounds, visuals, words, sentences) as input, and get patterns as output. By patterns, I mean something that you get when you reduce concrete things to abstractions, such as syntax, orthography, and grammar in general. Grammar is a pure abstraction since you can’t sense it in any way in the real world. Word is partly material since it is a signal in the form of a sound.
What does this mean? This means that the grammatical patterns will emerge eventually as you get immersed in the language. Not only will they emerge as patterns, but will they also get internalized as such. Any skill or ability is really useful when it moves from the domain of our consciousness, into the domain of the body. When it is not you who thinks of what to say, but your body intuitively fetches this word for you. I deliberately use the word “body” here, and not “brain”, because I believe that body is a unit in some sense, and only makes a part of what you call “you.” But that would be a bit lengthy to explain why I think this being the case.
I hope the analogy with machine learning isn’t very confusing, but just as machine learning agents require a lot of data to learn, so do we. At this stage, it may seem that there are just too many words and structures to learn, with it all just being loads of rote memorization at the end of the day. But, here is where our ability to operate with abstractions comes in handy. Words can come in various flavors of abstraction. They range from denoting the fundamental categories (being, essence, subject, relation, and such), all the way to the most concrete thing in the world (hefe-weizen, mockingbird, rumpelstiltskin and so on).
And this is key. Just as looking at the map, you see the globe in its entirety, moving down to the parts of the world, then to the continents, then to the countries, then to the republics, states etc., and only then to cities, the same thing applies to languages. You would expect the most abstract vocabulary being not that many words, and the very specific vocabulary being lots upon lots of words.
This is the exact understanding that I use now learning German. My first step was to internalize the very basics of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar through Rosetta Stone, which I would highly recommend to nail the very basics with, to then start expanding my vocabulary and grammar, but on my own.
At this stage, I am using a simple app I built for “spaced repetition.” A simple app, that reminds me of certain words in a specific amount of time (exponentially increasing) based on how well I remember a certain word. This is just a matter of assisting me with the most boring part of language learning. Pretty useful eh?
To reiterate, the main point is to interact with as much concrete language material as you can, going through lots of confusion, and only then trying to identify patterns and clarify the confusion through consulting grammar of the language, and surely extracting “fundamental” and important words, while disregarding too specific ones.
In the end, it is important to mention that language skills are usually divided into the following sub-categories: speaking, reading, writing, and listening. My experience suggests that all of them are connected, all require practice, and all can be tackled with a similar approach.
I hope that you found this article useful. Please let me know what your thoughts on this subject matter are. Thanks!