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Learning Languages - How I do

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Written by   437
9 months ago

Sometimes people ask me how many languages I know. I always answer that it depends on what they mean by knowing a language. There are many levels of knowing - from having only a brief functional knowledge of spoken language, to be able to manage in a society for limited purposes, and further through all stages up to total knowledge, being able not only to speak, read and write, but also to think in the language. I would not claim to really know a language as long as I cannot think directly in it, without translating in my mind.

Then we must never forget that knowing a language is so much more than knowing the words and grammar. It is also to know the meaning behind the meaning, and to understand what is said without being clearly stated - a whole cultural pattern. You say a word or phrase, but you mean something else than what you literally say. Within one and the same culture everyone understands everyone else anyway, but for a foreigner it is very difficult.

Say that you ask a man for his daughter's hand. Do you mean that you want her hand chopped off and given to you? That is what you say, but not what you mean. That can be incomprehensible for a foreigner, even one knowing the words and grammar perfectly.

Admittedly I know many languages, but my way to learn is different from that of most others. I am learning in what many people would consider to be the wrong direction, by reading before speaking, which means I learn speech mainly from reading. This goes even for my native language, which I learned in the same way as others only until I started to read. Then everything changed.

I was 3 years old and told my mother “Now I can read.”

“Who did teach you that?”, she asked.

“No one, I did it myself.”

She didn't believe me at first, I had to show her I could read by randomly taking a book from a bookshelf, open it in the middle and read. I remember it well, it was a translation of The Demons by Dostoyevsky, and she had to admit that I could indeed read, although how I had been able to do that remains a mystery. I had just taken books and tried until I could. I cannot explain it.

From that point, reading was my source of speech and growing vocabulary. Thus it has been since. Traditional classes are time wasted on me, that's a slow and cumbersome way to learn something; give me some good books and a comprehensive grammar, and then I learn by myself. If a language doesn't have phonetic script, that is no problem. If I desire to learn speech as well, a good and consistent transcription system is all that is required. The only languages that caused me serious trouble were those lacking a consistent standard for transcription.

This way of learning is not limited to language. Once I mastered reading, my world grew very quickly; I am sure that the ability to learn from reading is the most valuable ability I ever have, because sensibly used it paves the way for so much.

While some people understand a written text immediately, others require someone reading it to them before they absorb the contents. I'm not talking about illiterate people, but individuals of the same literate ability. There is a difference though: some people remember better what they have seen, while others remember better what they have heard. Since sight is the dominating sense, using approximately 90% of the bandwidth reserved for transmission of sensory signals within the nervous system, it is hardly surprising that those for which the visual memory dominates the process of learning, are learning more efficiently and much faster. It is more common though, that the aural memory dominates an individual's process of learning. Indeed, it is so common that it must be considered the statistically normal, while the other is the exceptional. This normalcy is not biologically justified, however, but might be a result of the common domination of spoken language during childhood.

There is no reason to believe that one is born in this or that way and that it cannot be affected. I think there is a choice, and the ability to learn can be trained and the process of learning can be deliberately shaped. No doubt, your earliest years are important, and parents have an important task in guiding their children in this respect. It is important, however, to understand that the ability to learn from reading doesn't come automatically by a developed visual memory. Merely remembering a text is not sufficient, that is just like remembering a picture. There is also the process of understanding, and that is not a matter of memory at all - but it goes for spoken language as well.

Related articles:

Acquiring Knowledge: Experience and Reading

Mindfood & Drugs, Creative Genius & Insanity

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Written by   437
9 months ago
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I see you're an input learner! I'm usually an input learner, too. I'm currently working on Norwegian through reading, although I have mp3s of the text so I can get used the accent and pronunciation.

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8 months ago

Oh, we have the same learning process- I learned conversational hangeul and nihongo just through reading. Songs and audios just helped me with diction. It seems better to learn this way since a class won't always teach you things you wany to know

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9 months ago

Right. It is much a much faster way of learning as well.

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9 months ago

Though i get stuck with the deeper terms, the ones close to mandarin with those 2 languages but i don't want to learn mandarin yet just to understand

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9 months ago