Even Better Ways to Learn a Language

Lester Golden
Jan 22 · 15 min read
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Full immersion to learn like a baby https://www.berlitz.co.uk/cache/images/DetailHero_S_Corporations_TotalImmersion-354727e0.jpg

Some pointers for language learners I can add from experience. I'm currently wrestling with Latvian, my eighth foreign language. Surprising places they might take you follow below.

1. One-way ticket, One-way ticket to the…..

2. Read newspapers.

3. Meet the Right Dictionary

I've been married to my third dictionary for a dozen years. My third and final wife has the added benefit of being two dictionaries simultaneously, Russian and Latvian. This method can double your language acquisition efficiency when employed in borderlands, such as Catalonia, Corsica, South Tyrol, the Baltic States, parts of Slovenia, Croatia and Finland. Though sometimes costly in legal fees and divorce settlements, this language learning technique accelerates language learning while adding a thrilling frison of confusion if the two languages are related enough.

4. Don’t Stay Sober

A generation later my best full-immersion course in Russian was in Lod, Israel: a two week stay with my Russian Latvian wife’s longtime Riga Jewish friend and her gentile Latvian husband, neither of whom spoke English. Little Lyuba (5'1"), who had emigrated to Israel in 1992 with her entire extended family, and 6'2" Visvaldis, who followed his Jewish wife to the promised land were both fluent in Hebrew, which I knew only a few words of. So it was all Russian all the time. They fed us breakfast or brunch of Russian salad, herring, chalah and borscht accompanied by vodka, which loosened the tongue for language acquisition. More of me, and much more Russian, returned from Israel to Riga. My maternal grandmother, who sailed from Liepaja (Libau), Latvia to New York in 1906, might still be laughing.

5. Book Learning

6. The Dialect Minefield

Max Weinreich, an imitable historian of the Yiddish language, once said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that a dialect is a language without an army and navy. After laughing, take a good look at which dialects get admitted to the language club and which don't. There is no other explanation that's consistent on a planetary basis. There is a single exception: Switzerland, a nation-state in which 2/3 of the population speaks a non-written language, Swiss German. Every Swiss German reads the morning paper in a foreign language. Foreigners living in Switzerland study Hochdeutsch, High German, and still can't understand what their Swiss German friends no matter how well they learn Hochdeutsch. But Switzerland has no navy. So Herr Weinreich is still half right.

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This chart of “roofing” of dialects by state-empowered “standard” languages illustrates what a Dutch client once told me about why the Dutch had persisted for so many centuries in living below sea level: the only alternative was to learn German. Too difficult, let’s build dykes.

7. Some languages are harder than others

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But this chart doesn’t say it all since where you’re coming from matters as much as what language you’re learning. This asymmetry is sometimes a one-way street. Spaniards find Portuguese very difficult, while the Portuguese learn Spanish with ease. The same principle applies with Catalan. Conquest slows the brain. When Spaniards in Barcelona replied to my Catalan with "si no me hablas en Castellano, no te entiendo", I'd reply that I was an American from Los Angeles and they could choose between English and Catalan. English hadn't yet become Globish, so their Catalan improved instantaneously. Embarrassment had a surprisingly ability to dissolve the psychology of occupation and conquest.

In a restaurant in Barcelona in 1981 I heard a Spaniard tell his friends that he'd lived in Barcelona for 20 years and still hadn't learned Catalan. I interrupted him--as politely as possible--to say I'd lived in Barcelona for six months and had verified that I spoke Catalan in my sleep. When I translated the conversation to my parents he told me I spoke excellent English.

The bridges between Portuguese, Catalan and Spanish are much easier to cross than the bridge between all three and Basque, a language as difficult as Japanese, which Portuguese Jesuit priests in the 17th century said was so difficult that they called it "a tool of the devil". But the Basques would disagree since a Basque linguist friend of mine at UCLA had a Japanese colleague who easily learned Basque fluently. The tolls to cross linguistic bridges can vary enormously. Russians learn English easily, while the reverse trip is very, very costly in time and effort. Since 1967, when I took German in middle school, I've tried to learn it without having had the opportunity to live there, though travelling there many times. I'm living proof of a Berliner friend's aphorism that "life is too short to learn German".

As a speaker of four Latin languages, when I watched the opening scene of the movie Gladiator, I rooted for the Romans. If the Romanized Germanic rebel, Arminius, had never changed sides, I might speak better German. Arminius’ victory was my defeat. German preserved the rigors of its borrowed Latin grammar, but not its lexicon, while its Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan descendants dropped its cases.

Mine Fields for the Unmusical

The Language Difficulty Chart Points to….

Language is a tool of empire

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“What’s the sword for? We bring culture, education and progress!” http://samandrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Colonizacion-caricatura.jpg

Bismarck understood the soft power of English when he said that the decisive fact of modern life is that North America speaks English, a warning the second Kaiser Wilhelm ignored to his cost in 1914. Germany relearned the lesson in 1940 and 1944 when Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt deployed the English language as a weapon of war to mobilize the global anglosphere against fascism. FDR’s D-Day prayer, less well-known than Churchill’s iconic Battle of Britain broadcasts by an actor-impersonating him, is a rhetorical monument to English’s transition from soft power tool of empire-building to tool of empire demolition:

“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity….For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home….With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.” (to listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2IRcc-5RgA)

As with Lincoln’s second inaugural, “with malice toward none, with charity for all”, Roosevelt wrapped a postwar vision and legacy into a mere 7 minutes. The power of his prayer lies in its universality, its moral binary averse to any invocation of religious, racial or national superiority satirized in the cartoon above. Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s language drew a soft power picture of expanded inclusion.

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African-American troops march at Lincoln’s inaugural, March 4, 1865 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln%27s_second_inaugural_address#/media/File:Lincoln2ndInauguration.jpg

Some languages travel…

English lost its cases with Shakespeare simplifying it for popular entertainment it and became a global linguistic superpower:

“English words have been slowly simplified from the inflected variable forms found in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Russian, and German, toward invariable forms…English is the only European language to employ uninflected adjectives; e.g., the tall man, the tall woman, compared to Spanish el hombre alto and la mujer alta….Flexibility of function has grown over the last five centuries as a consequence of the loss of inflections. Words formerly distinguished as nouns or verbs by differences in their forms are now often used as both nouns and verbs. One can speak, for example, of planning a table or tabling a plan, booking a place or placing a book, lifting a thumb or thumbing a lift….Openness of vocabulary implies both free admission of words from other languages and the ready creation of compounds and derivatives. English adopts (without change) or adapts (with slight change) any word really needed to name some new object or to denote some new process. Words from more than 350 languages have entered English in this way. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/English-language).

Nebrija was right….but bet on the wrong horse. An extraterrestrial surveilling our planet in 1600 and asked to bet which language would dominate 400 years later, would never have bet on English. Maybe Spanish, French, Mandarin. Not English, which had only two million speakers when Elizabeth I ruled England. Picking future language winners is even more difficult than picking winning biotech stocks, but that’s a different article.

Languages with alphabets travel better

Mass Linguistic Extinction in Progress

“Vanuatu is the third most linguistically diverse country in the world, as measured by the Greenberg index. The index shows the likelihood that two randomly selected speakers in a country have different native languages. Vanuatu’s Greenberg index is a staggering 97.3%. Vanuatu has 110 indigenous languages spoken in an area of about 15,000 square kilometres (about 6,000 square miles) — that’s about one language for every 136 square kilometres. Half of the languages spoken on Vanuatu have 700 speakers or less.” (https://theconversation.com/when-languages-die-we-lose-a-part-of-who-we-are-51825)

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https://theconversation.com/when-languages-die-we-lose-a-part-of-who-we-are-51825 97.3% probability that a random meeting yields two different languages.

Linguists estimate that 50% of the 7000 languages spoken today may disappear within 100 years. Over 820 of these are spoken only in New Guinea. Most of these have fewer than 1000 speakers, a sample set of humanity’s pre-Neolithic history that may be lost forever.

It took modern nationalism, our species’ uniquely lethal form of group narcissicism, to align linguistic with political identity. At Versailles in 1919 French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau responded to the self-determination part of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points by asking, “so every little language group in Europe will get its own state?”. Clemenceau had a point, though for linguists, not the one he intended. We can’t have a planet with 7000 nation states. So, by linking linguistic viability and diversity with political borders, modern nationalism has turned on the motor of language extinction. India has 13 major languages and 447 indigenous languages. Indonesia has 706 indigenous languages, but after independence in 1949 the state used an invented and simplified version of Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, to cement national unity in a nation-state of multiple ethnic groups and religions scattered on thousands of islands. Political necessity exacerbates linguistic evolution’s winners take all tournament:

A Rare Language Almost Goes Up in Smoke

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No way out: The third person who could speak Dusner was unable to leave her village of Jogjakarta following the eruption. The trio of remaining fluent speakers are in their 60s and 70s and life expectancy in Indonesia is 71, so time of of the essence.”

Language Learning’s Song of the Dodo: We’re All Losers in a Winners Take All Language Tournament

But we humans are practical, which leads to a sort of linguistic tragedy of the commons. Each of us acting rationally in his self-interest leads to a collective failure similar to how overfishing leads to a less varied fish diet for all. When choosing between learning a tool useful in a small vs a large area, we will tend to choose the latter. That’s one of the reasons why I learned basic Russian before Latvian: as a tool of empire it is useful in several eastern European countries. Latvian is spoken only in Latvia. This is how human nature and our planet’s political organization into states conspire against linguistic diversity, depriving us all of the cognitive insights and knowledge inherent in each language, a linguistic Song of the Dodo:

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When I asked my Riga Business School students what was the official language of the United States of America, they all replied English. Never was unanimity so incredulously mistaken. They were dumbfounded when I replied, “it’s unanimous, you’re all wrong.” I explained that the world’s superpower exporter of soft power English language entertainment had no official language because language was not a federal question. They were dumbfounded because they lived in a newly independent nation-state in which defense of the state language and defensible borders were inextricably linked. Latvia is a corridor crossroads of empires that imposed their language on the conquered locals. German, Russian and Swedish conquest — with guns steel minus the germs exported to the Americas — turned enserfed Latvian peasants into Nordic Aztecs and Inca. French, American and 1848 “springtime of peoples” revolutionary nationalism made language preservation an integral part of national identity; with linguistic border defense viewed as important as physical border defense.

But state-enforced linguistic protectionism of unexportable languages never reckoned with a global free market in language learning in which the students gravitate naturally toward the winners in a winners take all tournament market: the most widely spoken alphabet-enabled economic powerhouse languages already exported by European empires: English Globish, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Italian (include Russian, already ceding ground to English, only in Central Asia and parts of eastern Europe). The only non-alphabet, non-European language that might join the winners club is Chinese if the Chinese communist mandarinate abandons state control of culture and lets its entrepreneurs figure out how to make their own version of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The silencing of Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong and Alibaba’s Jack Ma tells you how improbable this is.

I’ve learned one small country language — Catalan — and I’m working on my second — Latvian — with the tools introduced above. Though I may know intellectually that learning a new languages prevents the onset of Alzheimer’s, inflective Latvian’s six cases convince me otherwise. As my 66 year old brain wrestles with this small country beast of a language, the linguistic-evolutionary Song of the Dodo is part of the background music.

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