Saturday, 4 June 2011

Learning gets easier..... leading to a misconception


I said I would post some thoughts about recently starting to learn Hindi, a process that has caused a massive self-reappraisal regarding language learning. First some context, these days I say that I speak English (my mother tongue) and Chinese (mandarin). I am not fluent in Chinese, I get better at it, one day I will be fluent in Chinese, this lady (assuming she comes across as well in speech and I have reason to assume she does) is fluent in English, I can see the difference.

My goal is to learn to speak a number of languages and become fluent in maybe two or three (I don't know how long I will live after all). It is a hobby, a very engaging hobby and great fun for me, at some point it may interweave with my career, but after all no-body thinks it strange for someone to learn to play the Saxaphone (for example) and have no desire to be a professional musician.

Aside from Mandarin I have studied and am studying some other languages to meet my goals (Thai included obviously) I don't speak these (in the sense of being able to say I speak X) although in a case or two I may be "fluent" according to the loose standards for fluency that some have, I am sure that now I can "get by" in several (whatever that means).

The more you do something...

The more you do something the better you get. The more things you learn the better you get at learning, The more you learn languages the better you get at learning languages.

I can't see anybody having a problem with the above statements, we can speculate edge cases, or stubborn people, or people with brain damage, or learning tasks that are so vastly different that none of your previous learning experience counts, but it is not mathematical proof I am looking for here just general agreement.

So while it is quite obvious that the more you learn a particular language the better you get (let us not argue about the speed). It should also be true that the more languages you learn, the better you get at learning languages.

Starting Hindi

Starting Hindi was a shock, a big shock I have experimented with a number of languages, that first stage and guess what? I found out that now I am good at it, much better than I was. This should not be a surprise, anybody who has practiced learning and practiced learning languages should be getting better at it (shame on them if they are not). Somebody pointed out that Hindi was not similar to other languages I have looked at however consider the following...

  • hei ("is" in many contexts) appears at the end of many phrases just like the Japanese desu) you can hear it often enough to start splitting what you hear into phrase chunks.

  • Honorific ji like Japanese san

  • Masculine and feminine, Oh well at least I am used to the concept from German (and most Europeans aren't going to have a problem with this concept).

  • By now word order changes are so familiar I don't resist them at all.

  • Kya moving to the beginning of a phrase to turn the whole phrase into a question, already used to ka and ma etc. in Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese turning the whole phrase into a question when added to the end.

  • Long vowel sounds (ala Thai), I could hear them and their importance, so fully expected to find them in the alphabet.

  • Used to duplication in Asian languages, and the quick win freebie words you get, delighted to find much duplication of words in Hind: cubi "one time", cubi cubi (sometimes) etc.
There is of course much more. The end result being that I know I can learn the first few hundred words of a language, with good pronunciation, basic grammar structures (implicit rather than explicit) and be able to hear the words pretty well in the wild far faster than I would have ever thought possible. Fast enough to impress most people. You could easily convince yourself that you will be speaking the language like a native really fast. I knew this would not be the case, (beyond the scope of this post).

The misrepresentation

If you could see the "language learning physique" of somebody who had practiced learning languages, they would look like an athlete. The trouble is that you cannot see that physique. You have no idea. For a thought experiment, imagine a normal guy is plucked off of the street and exposed to the Highland Games in Scotland. He quickly becomes pretty good at tossing the caber, he doesn't win a prize or anything but he doesn't embarrass himself either among all those experienced Scottish guys. Impressive right. Imagine instead that the guy isn't a regular guy but a rugby player, a big guy, good physique, explosive strength, big muscles. Are you impressed now? You can see why he took to it pretty fast right? He may have never trained for that sport but his body has already picked up a lot of attributes that can only be acquired over time and training.

So why should we be impressed or surprised if someone who has a good "language physique" makes a quick start? I think it is because in the case of my thought experiment it is staring you in the face, it is easy to see the difference in the two guys, but not so simple to look inside somebodies head.

Transferable skills and training

In my thought experiment would you start teaching or training the two guys the same way?. Would you train an experienced musician picking up a new instrument the same way as a complete musical newbie? You could say to the rugby player "hey look this first bit is pretty easy, just ...". would it be fair to say that to the regular guy?

I have never explicitly studied grammar in my language learning, I am sure I don't need to now , exposure has taken me beyond being locked in the grammar of my mother tongue. Can I say that grammar instruction wouldn't have help me the first time? No I can't say that, I don't know, it is too late for me to know. I can't even test it by studying grammar in another language because I am already changed by all the things I have done before.


I am suggesting that many of the apparently impressive language learning stunts are really not that impressive at all. The most impressive ones are based on abnormal minds are amazing but don't help those of us with normal minds. All the rest are just what you would expect but cannot see just by looking superficially.

I am suggesting that a lot of language learning advice from experienced language learners is inappropriate for beginners (or at least the suggested time scales are way off beam).

I would also like to suggest that it would be a massive disrespect for the rugby player in my example to turn around and say to the regular guy "hey this is easy". Hard is relative if the rugby player wants to experience hard then he should strive to win a prize, it may well be harder for the regular guy to get to the point where he can toss the first size caber in the competition.

And last I would suggest to some of the followers that don't see the reality, get some respect, believe that you can do hard things rather than being afraid to try something unless someone tells you is easy and massages your ego. Learn to understand learning, learn to look under stones and question things, learn to improve yourself.

It was easy for me to make a quick start in learning Hindi, not so easy to pick up the experience to let me do it.


  1. Hey, very good post and well-written too!
    How did you decide that you were ready to start learning another language?

  2. Hi Keith.
    Fate decided, I was having a very busy and stressful time at work and need to relax a little. For some reason the early stages of language learning relax me when I am also learning lots of new technology and programming things but the later stages clash.

    Besides Hindi is on my "list" and we too on a new member of staff who speaks Hindi so fate decided.

  3. Congratulations on starting with Hindi!

    Being a non-native speaker of Hindi myself, I am curious to know what got you motivated. Is there any other reason, other than the fact that your colleagues at work speak the language?

  4. Hi Chiro-kun,

    Reasons that Hindi has always been on my list to learn eventually are,
    1. It is widely spoken, specially when you factor in that it shares a lot of everyday language with Urdu.
    2. China and India are both countries where I may (eventually) have business relationships, and although English is a big language in India I would hope that if I show I have taken Hindi seriously that may help.
    3. I have a dark side, that usually leaves me listening to heavy metal/punk watching dark movies of dystopian societies etc. Sometimes when I feel like something more upbeat etc. I have a secret weakness for Bollywood movies.

  5. Chris,

    Indians will definitely appreciate it when you try to speak to them in Hindi. After all, it isn't very difficult to get by using English alone.

    On a sidenote, I remember listening to some spoken Urdu once, and it was only after the speaker introduced himself as a Pakistani that I realised he wasn't speaking Hindi.

    Good luck with your studies!