I hope people keep learning languages.

One of the implications of advances in machine learning / deep learning is in language processing. Ten years ago I remember my friends and I used to have a laugh putting sentences into online translation tools and reading the hilarious outputs.

It’s gotten a lot better. Go to google translate now and see what I mean. It’s not perfect but it’s better. Microsoft have now released real-time language translation to Skype. This has some kinks but it is early days. And the nature of deep learning is that this technology will get better, pretty quickly, without a lot of human intervention. You get a couple of data scientists to tweak the models and training sets and watch this thing get better and better.

Some people are saying that this means that people soon won’t need to learn languages anymore. While this technology is great and will make a lot of people’s lives easier, I really hope that people continue to learn languages. I think that learning languages makes you a better person, in a number of ways.

I’ve been trying to learn German for a long time. It’s hard.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was doing an Arts degree, double major in Philosophy and History. I needed to pick up a few more units and I decided to have a crack at learning German.

The main reason I decided this was because a lot of the philosophy and history I was reading was German, and I thought being able to read texts in the original would be great. Over the next couple of years I learnt two things: yes it was great (even better than I thought), and learning a language is insanely hard.

I had never learnt a language before, other than a mediocre year of Japanese in early high school. I had a proper go at it and did well. It was multiple classes per week, lots of homework, some exams. I came top or close to the top of the class. And I got somewhere. But not as far as I thought.

I’ve learnt a bunch of things in my life. I’m 40 years old, pretty smart and pretty good at learning. And based on my performance in the subject, pretty good at languages too. But learning a language is really hard.

Here are some things I’ve learned in my life and how I would rate their difficulty.

Learning a musical instrument: Difficult. Years of hard work.

Learning a martial art: Difficult. Years of hard work.

Learning business: Medium. Sure it took me four years to do my MBA part-time, and there was a fair bit of outside work, but I think if you compressed the core concepts of the core subjects (Accounting, Finance, Economics, Marketing, Strategy, Organization Design) you could do it in a couple of years.

Learning cooking: Easy. I’ve been learning for a fair few years and am not a master but I’ve not been putting in much effort. If you compressed it ruthlessly ala Four Hour Chef, you could get good fast.

Learning programming: difficult. I’ve tried multiple times, most recently with Python, and while I’ve gotten comfortable with basic syntax, I’m by no means a programmer. Unless you’re especially gifted, it’s a lot of slog for a fair few years to become good.

Learning DJing: embarrassingly easy. I taught myself with basic equipment in a few months of not putting in much effort. If people knew how easy this was, the whole industry would collapse. The difference in ability between the “top” DJs and your average club DJ is tiny. Really.

Learning a language: way harder than anything on that list. I spent two years working hard and getting top marks and still couldn’t understand a kids TV show or newspaper. But I could hold basic conversations with people and, with careful study and a dictionary at hand, read some texts. Actual texts. Novels, plays, poetry. And reading literature in another language is an experience like no other.

And while I never became fluent in German, despite putting a lot of work into it, I don’t regret any of it for a second. I ended up leaving the humanities / academic world and moved into a career in Information Technology. But recently I’ve decided to go back and try and learn German properly. I don’t have much time. But I’m going to be smarter about learning it.

Why am I trying to learn German again?

This might sound crazy. I’m not in any danger of doing a masters or PhD in German philosophy (though if I had a spare few thousand days it would be cool). I don’t need it for my job. But I want to do it anyway. There are many reasons.

Languages are weird, complex, fascinating things. They teach you things about your own language. (I learnt WAY more about English grammar in German classes than I ever did in English classes. Go figure). They teach you things about yourself — what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, when you’re shy and when you’re not, when you’re confident and when you’re not.

Learning a language helps you learn critical thinking, memory skills, history, geography, and world culture. It broadens your mind and your personality.

How am I trying to learn it?

I have a busy full-time job and a family. I don’t have time or inclination for night classes. I don’t think textbooks by themselves do much good. So I’m trying a few different things.

I’m using Duolingo, a lot. It’s amazing. It’s seriously amazing. It’s one of the best apps I’ve ever used. I never thought you could really learn a language from an app. And while it’s not going to get you fluent (and is never going to, and they admit that), it can get you pretty good. It practices all the four key skills (writing, reading, listening, speaking). It has no grammar or linguistics but that’s not a major problem. I do a few Duolingo exercises every day on the way to work. People probably think I’m crazy as I’m walking down the street speaking German to my phone but I’m ok with that.

I’m listening to podcasts. SBS, Australia’s multicultural broadcasts, has news and current affairs podcasts in German. They put up new ones all the time. I listen to them and try and understand what’s going on.

When I get little snatches of free time (which is almost never), I take a peek at a German website or children’s book (I have a couple lying around) and have a read.

These don’t make a huge impact but considering how much time I put into them, it’s a pretty good return on investment. I would say my German is about as good as it was when it was at its best (end of second year at university). In fact my grammar would be not quite as good but my vocabulary is probably a bit better. Check out Duolingo, seriously. It rocks.

Anyway, this article was pretty different to the things I usually write. Let me know if you liked it or have any feedback or ideas about learning languages.

Leon / www.extremeuncertainty.com