Saturday, September 08, 2007

Link up your learning

The other day, Tim Ferriss had a post on how to memorize lists and number sequences. A commenter passed along another site, Now, memorization and language learning have a somewhat uneasy coexistence: Language isn't a discrete information set that one knows, it's a highly complex and intricate habit that one develops. Discrete information is of use for filling in gaps where automaticity fails us, but the end-all be-all of successful interpersonal communication in a foreign tongue it ain't. As such, memorization is like carrying around an easy-to-use dictionary: it's handy to have when you get stuck, but memorizing word lists is not the same thing as learning a language.

While memorization can't replace language learning, can it help? Of course it can. Knowing a word list by heart can't get you talking, but it can help you with reading, where you can pause half a second to remember something you don't understand automatically. It's better than a dictionary, because a half-second pause will be less likely to derail your train of thought as you try to understand the whole sentence you're reading. And if you're reading passages where some of the words are unfamiliar, but known at some level, you can keep at it until understanding of the passages comes automatically, without the dictionary work getting so tedious that you give up on it. (This is the same reason people would want to use LingQ, by the way).

In recent times, I've been thumbing through Spanish and Italian translations of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This is good practice for me because the unusual nature of the writing and of the story line, plus the fact it's above my level, forces me to do my best just to go along for the ride. The one thing in my favor is my excessive familiarity with the book, which means even if I only understand every other word in some passages I still know what's going on. Memorization can play a similar role, if it's targeted to memorizing words that you will actually encounter and use within a short period of memorizing them.

In going the memorization route, targeting is all-important. If you have a bilingual book and memorize the difficult but critical words for a story, it can enhance your enjoyment of the story and keep your eyes on the foreign text and off the translation. But if you just memorize a list of words for the heck of it, you'll probably find that those you haven't actually used are gone within a relatively short period of time. (Whether you'll remember the words from your bilingual book when you go on to something else is another matter. I don't know that this approach would aid in the learning of a new language; what it would do is increase your enjoyment of something in the language and connected to the culture, which - as Steve discusses here - has a great deal of value on its own.)



Anonymous Edwin said...

Incidentally, Tim Ferriss claims to know 6 languages, and his philosophy on language learning is very different from Steve, if not exactly the opposite.

For example, he believes language classes are essential, and don't take a course in which the teacher cannot speak your language and explain the grammar.

6:46 PM  
Blogger gbarto said...

They say that nothing succeeds like success. In fact: Nothing succeeds for you like your success.

Steve and Tim succeed at language learning because they approach it the same way they approach other things they succeed at. But because their approaches to success are different, they achieve their language learning success in different ways.

Even if you could learn the system of Cardinal Mezzofanti, it might not do you any good. You don't have the same background, the same motivations, the same definition of the well-lived life. Yes, there would be secrets you could glean, tips and tricks that helped. But you would have to be Cardinal Mezzofanti to fully benefit from his system.

To the extent that you are like Steve or Tim in your approach to life and your goals for learning, by all means you should adopt and adapt their systems. But ultimately the system that will help you the most is the one that best puts you in a frame of mind for achieving personal excellence.

2:53 AM  

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