Let's say you're a newborn child. Every second you're awake, you're exposed to massive amounts of new linguistic information. This information is entirely without cognitive reference, i.e., it's brute data, uncoded, unconnected to anything you've learned before (which is nothing).

You've heard that kids learn languages fast. It's true; they're good at it. What's also true—and overlooked—is that kids are inundated with fresh information constantly. Every word out of an adult's mouth is vocabulary, stimulus, input that has never been heard before. When you're a child everything is new to you. You have no choice but to steal other people's words. You have no choice but to steal their words and make them your own.

We tend to learn languages like sissies learn to swim. We dip a toe in the water. Then the heel of our left foot. We walk to the other side of the pool, and do the same thing again. The water is too cold, we think. We summon up all our courage to get waist deep. We wade in the shallow end of the pool for an hour.

It should be obvious: This is not swimming. It is athletic cowardice. Learning language this way is dumb and slow. Don't be a language sissy. Here are three things you can do to start swimming today:

  • Start using software in your target language. I thought I was making progress in Chinese. That is, until I downloaded QQ, the popular chat client whose interface is entirely in Chinese. Instantly, I felt crippled. It was awful. I couldn't update my profile information, change my status, add new contacts. But the feeling didn't last long. Quickly, very quickly, I learned to adapt. I remembered my English copy of MSN Messenger. I started guessing what words meant what. I adapted. Necessity, it turns out, is the mother of all sorts of things, not just invention. Wanna learn French? Change your Gmail account to French. Learning Arabic? Change your Facebook to Arabic. Change your internet browser, while you're at it, and your OS if your ballsy enough—all to your target language. (Which reminds me. In putting this note together, I've learned how to say "bullet point list" in Mandarin: 项目符号列表. Thank you, Facebook.)

  • Start using a monolingual dictionary. Our bilingual dictionaries are crutches we don't need. Let's go back to the beginning. For the second time in this note you're a newborn child. When you learn new words, how do you do this? You have no second language on which to rely. "Chien" or "狗" or "perro" is not "dog," because there is no "dog." You have no frame of reference except for the bits of language you've already learned. Learning German? Stop using your German-English dictionary. Use a German dictionary (the one real Germans use) instead. Learn the way a German would, by accretion, and piggyback on the stuff you already know. If you only know a few words, well, obviously looking up new words is impractical for now. You can, however, look up the words you know already. This keeps you immersed in the language, and builds vocabulary too.

  • Code-switch all the time. People say the quickest way to learn a new language is to date someone who speaks that language. Take it from me—that's not necessarily true. Your girlfriend might seem interested in teaching you Spanish. Before long she'll be more interested in being your girlfriend. What can you do about this? If you cannot use your friends as teachers, use them as satellites. Bounce linguistic information off of them. Speak in English, sure, but sub in every word you're comfortable with from your target language. So: "I drove a car today" becomes "今天 I drove 一辆车。" And again: "New York is my 2nd favorite city in the world" becomes "New York 是我的 2nd 最喜欢的城市 in the world." WARNING: This is guaranteed to irritate your friends in the short term. THANKFULLY: They'll get used to it. My poor fiancée already has. 哈哈哈哈!

Swimming is the goal. Swimming, in this case, is also the method. Consider the three suggestions above. What they amount to is low-priced relocation, a way of living a foreign language without ever moving abroad. It's immersion on the cheap.

The proof is in the pudding, they say. I've been trying these ideas out for a week so far. Already my muscles hurt. I'm starting to swim. Try these ideas out yourself. You'll be surprised.

P.S. The language in this note is mine, but the ideas aren't. I read this stuff online and am simply paying it forward. My inspiration is the website "All Japanese All the Time." It's written by a guy from Kenya who quit his job and taught himself Japanese in 18 months. On his website he suggests even crazier ideas that I didn't have the balls to mention. Inspirational stuff, here.

P.P.S. Everything I said above should be taken as a supplement (not a substitute) to daily language learning.

-murrayjames 02/16/10

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