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Towards a better language learning approach

I have been thinking about language learning. I started out being really bad at language learning. I daydreamed about being able to speak other languages but learning them felt extremely intimidating. Later on I decided to start learning German (my dad’s first language) and I just dived in. I read magazine articles, watched TV shows and read comics. I didn’t understand everything but I just kept going.

Learning a language is a journey and it never really ends but my German is a lot better now than it was back in the day. Going about language learning in the right way will greatly improve your language learning. I was lucky that I had the determination and discipline to keep going in the beginning of my learning because it can be really frustrating in the beginning to read stuff and not understand much of it.

Having learned more about how languages work and having tried out lots of different methods I can definitely learn language more quickly now. I come from a programming background. There are lots of rules and structures. I am used to looking at long lists of commands. I didn’t realise how much linguistics has in common with programming. Both have some very complicated parts that rely on rules and structure.

I came across this idea called comprehensible input. It means to read material at your level. If you are just starting out then you will only understand very simple sentences or maybe just individual words. I am a tinkerer and an explorer. I am always looking at new ways to do things and to see what works and what doesn’t. So I asked a friend of mine to translate these following sentences into Portuguese.

Eu sou um homem. I am a man.
Eu sou uma pessoa. I am a person.
Eu sou um cachorro. I am a dog.
Eu sou uma mulher. I am a woman.
Eu sou um americano. I am an American.
Eu sou um brasilineiro. I am a Brazilian.

From these sentences can you work out what “eu”, “sou” and “um” mean?

If you can it’s because you are finding links between the portuguese and the english. This is actually how machine translation works. Vast amounts of texts is fed into the system and it does statistical analysis on the text. It asks the question: given “eu” on the portuguese side, what is the most likely word to appear on the English side.

After going through all the text, it will probably conclude that the answer is “I”. Machine translation actually works really well for domains that use a limited vocabulary such as weather reports because the answer to the question “What is the most likely English version of this word in another language” has a pretty simple answer.

But in a sentence like “Hey man, what’s it like to be a shithead?” trying to find a proper equivalent will be really difficult because this sentence is very idiomatic. It pretty much just a way of calling someone an idiot. Machine translation doesn’t translate word for word. It can work out how strings of words relate to each other and how those can be translated together but it is not as good at this.

Also, the more different the target language is to the source language the more difficulty the machine translator will have understanding the links between languages.

I want to find new ways of learning and also teaching languages. So I wanted to ask you all, what are a set of simple sentences that can show off all the different things a language can do in a small number of sentences?

For English it would probably be something like

I am a man
He is a man
They are men
I was a man
We were young
They were young
What is that?
Who are you?

Here we show off how the pronouns work in English, how verbs work, how adjectives work and how questions work.

What is a set of sentences we can use to show off how a language works? What do you think is the minimal set of sentences that we can get a translation of that can show us how all the different parts of a given language work?

It’s not an easy question to answer but it’s something I thought I would put out there. If we can work this out then we can use that to make powerful new language learning techniques and material.

Using the format “I am a man” I taught you the words “eu”, “sou” and “um” and how to use them to make identity statements (thos which tell someone something about ourselves, like that we are programmers or writers). We can use translations of “I am a man” to teach other languages.

What are some other sentences that we can use to teach people parts of other languages? What are some good sentences to show how accusative, dative and genitive work in Indo European languages?

Feel free to put your ideas and comments below. You are also welcome to send me an email at steve@sillylinguistics.com

Thanks for reading and keep studying languages!

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