the size of a language


i was just reading a post over at Global Maverick called the messy in-between, which i found quite enjoyable since it described one of my biggest problems with the process of learning a language.

When you start learning a language, you don’t know much about it, but you’ve probably heard native speakers chatting away easily, or maybe you’ve seen some books full of unknown words. In some sense, you can call that the “destination”, even though you don’t quite know where it is. I’m usually pretty sure that i’ll be able to identify when i’ve got there, because everything will magically be easy at that point (right?).

For me there’s also a tremendous thrill at the beginning because everything is so new, and because every time you sit down to study, you’re actually gaining a rather large percentage increase in your knowledge. After day 2, you know TWICE AS MUCH as after day 1.

Unfortunately, our perceptions of both of these time periods don’t actually help us much to comprehend the huge size of a language. the distance between “beginner” and “native” is huge and unknown, and it’s actually where you’re going to spend most of your time. As you progress, this is going to be a huge problem for your motivation unless you find ways to address it.

When you’re at the start and you can always see how much you’ve learned so far, then motivation usually isn’t much of a problem. With a little thought, you can comprehend exactly how much you’ve learned…you have a good sense for your “language-space”. It’s like being in a small room and easily being able to read the titles of the books on the shelf.

When you’re in the intermediate stage, as i am now with german, it can sometimes feel like a wide field at night, and you’ve only got a flashlight. you have no idea where you’re going or where you came from, and you can’t see the edges. How do you measure your progress when you can’t see the end? I think one of the best ways is to just keep counting up what you have in front of you. Count your footsteps, and pretty soon you’ll see them start to add up.

Personally, i use a spreadsheet to add up these “footsteps”, so i can easily look at it and go “holy shit, i’ve watched a lot of german TV already”. It helps when i make a game out of making those numbers go up, because then it takes my mind off the fact that i can’t just reach out and touch the other side. there’s no task i can do in a day that will make me fluent by the end of the day, so i can’t use fluency as my daily (or weekly or monthly) goal.

Another horrible side effect of this perceptual problem, is language wanderlust. I’ve personally studied probably 15 languages or so, and in most of them i’m still at a beginner stage. I think one of the reasons that i flip around so much is that when i’m starting to lose track of my progress in one language, and i’m unable to see the constant motion that’s happening, i start to itch for that thrill that comes with the seemingly rapid increase at the start of another language.

I glance over at another language, and i’m unable to comprehend the magnitude of the effort required to get good at that language, so i mistakenly perceive it as small. I’m doing this right now with Swedish, actually. It’s a classic scenario for me…i know someone who speaks swedish, so i start reading a little bit about the grammar of the language, listen to its sound, and i’m suddenly SUPER MOTIVATED to start learning it. I’m not thinking about the months and months that it will take to get good, i’m just overwhelmed by the thrill of it.

I’m doing a few things to try and avoid flipflopping. Firstly, i’m trying to channel that newfound swedish enthusiasm into my german studies. When i imagine myself sitting down and learning 100 swedish words in a day, i turn that around and remind myself that there are still at least 100 german words that i don’t know yet (haha). Then i remind myself that if i learn 100 german words per day for 10 days, I’d know 1000 more words and i would have made huge progress in german, but if i pissed away a bunch of time being a beginner at swedish then my german would stay the same. By switching to swedish, i’m throwing away that opportunity for progress in german.

Another new strategy that I’m trying, is imagining what it would be like to learn swedish in german: use only swedish-german dictionaries, use german textbooks about swedish, etc. I started thinking about this after i found out that the famous Assimil language learning series doesn’t have an edition about learning swedish based on english. You have to go through either french or german to get to swedish using Assimil.

This gives me renewed motivation for german, because i can then use it as a tool for something else; firstly, there are tons of common or related words in swedish and german, and secondly because of the available learning materials in german that don’t exist in english. What would happen if i looked up a swedish word, and i didn’t understand the german words used to explain it? well that just means i need to make sure i learn more german words right now. This also sorta fits with the stuff that i like to read, since i obviously like to read language-learning books. If I’m reading in german, then i want to read stuff that i like 🙂

Now, on the flipside of this, in some ways languages can be small. You just need to look at them in the right light. For instance, some people are remarkably effective at communicating when they have a vocabulary of only 1000-2000 words…they just really really know how to say all the everyday stuff, and have a highly active knowledge so that the words just flow out. Also, in some ways 10000 words also isn’t really that much in the grand scheme of things, but with 10000 words you can be highly fluent. For example, the number of unique words used in Harry Potter book 1 is about 10000, so with a vocab of that size you could probably understand almost every single word in an easy novel.

Having a number like 10000 somehow makes the language seem a little more feasible. I can then make an estimate based on how many words i learn per day, etc. It’s something that i can work towards, and judge how far away I am. It’s a little bit tricky to try to count how many words you know, but i just look at how many unique words i have in my Anki flashcard deck.

Having a number like that also lets you know approximately what your learning pace is, and what you can aim at. If you’re aiming for fluent reading in 6 months, then you need to have a schedule that involves about 1600 new words per month, or around 50 per day. This can be practical, with a lot of hard work, and if you’re in the right frame of mind then you can classify 6 months as a “short” period of time.

Ok, i think this post is rambling on a bit too long, so i’m going to go back to working on some actual german. Harry and Ron just found out about das Trimagische Turnier, and i want to see what happens next.