How we confuse minor failure with genetic impossibility

2011-03-09

There’s a problem that many people have, where they think that the only learning that occurs is explicit learning, where they consciously add little bits of knowledge into their brain one by one in a deliberate order. This is commonly the idea transmitted by our school systems, where it’s required that the teachers test the students on the topic. It’s easiest to test the results when the students have to explicitly learn certain well-defined concepts, and then regurgitate them in an exam.

The big problem with this, however, is that many of the really interesting things that we can do with our minds can not be explicitly learned or assembled like an architect in this fashion. We have to absorb them through experience, and our mind automatically adapts itself in order to succeed at them. This sort of learning is not encouraged in schools, and many people are unaware of it. In fact, most people are so opposed to this idea that when they encounter a skill that must be “absorbed” in this way and can’t be explicitly learned, then they will start to claim that they’re actually completely unable to do that skill.

One example of this is juggling. I love juggling, but when I started I was completely horrible at it. I’d throw the balls up, miss them, and they’d all drop to the ground. Every time. It took me a lot of practice to actually just do the basic 3-ball pattern correctly for more than a couple of throws. Now I’m fully confident in my 3-ball juggling, and I enjoy learning new tricks. To other people, it appears that I just do it naturally.

When I’ve tried to teach other people, though, I’ve found that a lot of them are ready to give up really early. When they see me do it effortlessly, and then they totally fail, they somehow jump to the illogical conclusion that they’re actually genetically predisposed to not be able to juggle. Even if I tell them emphatically that I started at the exact same place as them, they tend not to believe me.

What I think is happening, is that they’re trying to follow my step-by-step instructions (which are very simple to understand), but they can’t successfully complete the task I’ve given them, they decide that they will never be able to. They say things like “I just don’t have the talent”, or “I’ve never been coordinated anyway”. They don’t seem to realize that even though the instructions are simple, it takes practice before your brain will adapt and be able to perform the skill accurately. You can’t just “decide” to juggle and then it suddenly happens. Your brain must actually reconfigure itself in some way in order to succeed.

Another interesting example is riding a bike. This is an interesting case, because many people can do it, and most of those people are actually convinced that they explicitly know how they’re doing it, but it can be conclusively proven that most of the time they don’t. Bike riding is an unconscious, adapted skill, not an explicitly learned step-by-step conscious calculation, but many people don’t think this is the case.

When you ask someone how they’re riding a bike, they’ll say something like “you steer with your hands on the handlebars, and you pedal with your feet”. Then if you ask them how the bike stays up instead of tipping over sideways, most people will mumble something they’ve heard about the spinning wheels acting like gyroscopes to keep the bike upright.

This is actually wrong, and it can be proven by fixing the front wheel so it can’t turn. Give somebody a bike that can’t be steered, and they’re guaranteed to fall over. It just can’t be ridden. The reason is that what keeps the bike up is not the spinning of the wheels, but the tiny unconscious steering motions that we make. When you learn to ride a bike, what you’re doing is training your brain to make those tiny corrections, which act to keep the bike underneath your body. If you can’t steer, you can’t make those tiny corrections, and the bike will tip, guaranteed.

Unicyclists tend to know this, because they’ve actually been explicitly taught that they must steer the unicycle back underneath them in order to stay up. It becomes much more clear somehow when you only have one wheel, perhaps because those tiny corrections have been magnified, and you have to learn how to do rather large corrections.

Either way, the lesson learned here is that there are many things we take for granted that are actually unconscious skills, and can’t be learned through consciously following a sequence of steps written down on paper. Our minds must adapt to them through experience, but some of us have been fooled into thinking that everything must be doable purely by following explicit steps, or it’s not doable at all.

Now, if we come back to the topic of languages, I think the same principles apply. There are many people who try to memorize some explicit rules in a classroom, but then they still can’t read or understand or speak the language. They have been trained to think that the memorization of explicit rules IS language learning, when in fact what they need to do is supply their brain with enough understandable experiences that it will adapt itself to the new language. Sometimes this can happen to a small degree by accident because they’ve spent so much time doing pointless grammar drills, but the real action happens when they get exposed to the language over and over again in comprehensible ways. This supplies the experiential material that the brain needs in order to get familiar with this new skill.

There aren’t really that many people who “just aren’t good at languages”, which I think should be obvious by the fact that everyone speaks one (certain extreme exceptions aside). The big problem is that people give up on learning a second one when they think that it must be done through explicit memorization of rules, which it just can’t. The real skill we need to learn is to let go of the feeling of control that those explicit rules give us. We need to trust our brain to do its job, which it does every day on many other things which sometimes escape our notice.

As I said in my previous article about breaking through plateaus, we need to find ways to expose ourselves to thing that are mostly comprehensible, but a little bit challenging…enough so that we’ll make some errors. With some correction or feedback, or just through experiencing the situation over and over, our brains will adapt to this new stimulus and we’ll get better.

Just like everyone sucks at juggling when they start, you have to realize that you’re going to suck at a new language when you start. In fact you might suck for a long time. You just need to keep exposing yourself to somewhat comprehensible bits of it that are a little bit challenging, and you’ll slowly adapt to it over time. It’ll become familiar.

The real process behind language learning is figuring out how to keep yourself exposed to it in various ways until it becomes familiar to you. You can’t know which parts will be familiar first. It’s an unconscious process, but you can consciously keep feeding yourself the material. That’s the job of the conscious mind in language learning…purely a logistical job. You arrange for various materials to be placed in front of your eyeballs and for sounds to enter your ears. You can choose what small distinctions to pay attention to, so that the unconscious can better train itself about those differences. Beyond this, most of the work is in reconfiguring neurons, and it’s not a conscious activity.

I’ll continue in a further article about those small things we can notice that will help us absorb the language and become familiar with it, but for now I’ll just leave you with a few thoughts. How many things did your brain unconsciously do for you today? Did you consciously walk to the kitchen by following an algorithm of “move left foot 45cm forward. Now move right foot 45cm forward”? No, you just walked. Did you talk to your friend by calculating the correct grammar order and conjugation of the words? No, you just talked.

Neither of these tasks were in-born…you had to learn them. But they still function unconsciously, similar to breathing or swallowing. And knowing this gives us a powerful understanding of how to teach ourselves a new language.

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My first experiences studying Polish with parallel texts

2011-03-07

Although my first brief foray into the Slavic languages was with Bulgarian, I basically only learned a few phrases to say to my friends, as it seemed too intimidating at the time to try and really learn it. Since then, I’ve become a lot more experienced at learning languages, but Bulgarian still suffers from a lack of decent materials; the opposite is true of Polish, though.

Polish draws me for several reasons. My father’s father spoke Polish as a boy, and his parents (my great-grandparents) immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1909. Although no living member of my family speaks Polish, it’s still part of the family history. Beyond that, I have several friends at home in Vancouver who are native Polish speakers, so I’ve thought about learning it several times.

So, here I am, starting something new. This month I’m planning to divide my time amongst several languages, and part of that will be a little bit of work on Polish. The internet is absolutely full of excellent Polish materials. There are dozens of interesting books that I want to read, some translated, and some native to Polish. A lot of them seem to have both audiobooks and ebooks available, which is perfect for me.

Today I’m starting with a translation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I’ve given myself a vocabulary “pre-test” using another book, and I’ve discovered that I understand about 1% of the words on an average page of Polish. This is much different than Dutch, where I could at least figure out a bunch of them. Polish is pretty much opaque to me at this point, and I only recognize the obvious “international” words, such as those related to science.

Despite this, I’m diving right into real texts. No stupid textbook dialogs for me, thanks. In the first few minutes of listening to the audiobook as I read the parallel text (English/Polish), I’ve learned several things right away. First, I synch myself according to the capitalized words, which are usually place names. From those, I can recognize the other words that occur near them. What follows here is a running description of what I’m seeing and learning as I read a book like this in Polish.

In the case of Earthsea, I see the proper noun “Gont”, which is the name of an island. Nothing really learned from this, since it’s a made-up name. But it always occurs with “the island of” in English, and wyspa in Polish, so I guess that that’s “island”, perhaps with a possessive case. Shortly after that, I got confirmation when I saw “from isle to isle” corresponding with od wyspy do wyspy.

I also easily found the word for wizard, which seems to be czarnoksiężnik, and it looks like the plural of that might be czarnoksiężników, and from this I could conclude that czarami was probably “magic”. I sort of stumbled upon the word braci for “brothers”, since it sounds similar. Then another thing from capitalization: Doliny Północnej for “Northern Vale”, although I’m not really sure which of those corresponds to northern and which to vale.

I’m not only looking for vocabulary. I’m also trying to get used to the phonetic inventory of Polish. Before starting to read, I read the wikipedia page on Polish phonetics. I found out that there are several sounds that English speakers usually perceive as the same, but which Poles consider distinct sounds (specifically, cz and ć, sz and ś, etc). So I’m paying very close attention to which sounds are where, and how they are different from the sounds I’m familiar with.

This relates back to the idea of plateaus. As babies listen to the language around them, they slowly adapt to which sounds are present in their developing native language, and they lose the ability to distinguish those from other similar sounds that might be distinct in other languages. In a sense, as they adapt they also create a plateau beyond which they can no longer reach. Automaticity allows them to learn to understand and speak their first language, but becomes a hindrance later if they want to learn another one.

Overcoming this is just like busting through the plateau of typing speed or whatever else, as I mentioned in a previous article. You need to learn how to notice those differences, perhaps by reading a description of them and where to find them. Then you need some exposure to them that challenges you. You need to seek them out, sometimes making mistakes, by listening to something that is not easy. Push yourself a bit. And then you need a way to get some feedback. I usually use a text transcript for this. I listen to audio to try and find the different sounds that I’m not used to, and I use the text transcript to give the answers of where they were. This allows me to train my perception of those sounds.

This is something I can do immediately with Polish, despite knowing basically zero vocabulary. Working on my perception (and then production) of sounds is something that will help me throughout my learning process, and will later be a great help when I want to read some books that no longer have a corresponding audiobook, so that I have the right “voice” in my head as I read. This is not only a matter of knowing the sounds, but also the orthography, so that I know what sounds go with the letters in something like wykrzyknął (which at this point looks like total gibberish to me, honestly).

I’ll leave it at that for today, but I’ll make some more notes about my discovery process as it develops. Basically I’m just trying to follow my curiousity wherever it takes me, and learn any polish words I can through any method that’s interesting. I need to make sure that I have a variety of source materials, so that I can switch to another one if I get bored of one of them, and I’ve installed a firefox plugin called “BabelFish” that does popup translations of words that I hold my mouse over. Other than that, I’m just doing whatever feels fun 🙂


January 2011 – 191 language hours

2011-02-01

Well, the first month of the year is over already, and I’m pretty happy with my language-learning results. But first I want to briefly cover my sleep experiment.

This week, I’ve decided to drop off the Everyman schedule and go back to monophasic sleep. I’ve found that polyphasic sleep requires a lot of discipline during the adaptation phase, and that you can expect several weeks of being tired. At this point, I’m tired of being tired, and I don’t really like constantly constraining my sleep. I prefer to just wake up when it feels good to wake up.

I might try polyphasic again some time in the near future, now that I know what to expect. For now I just want to be well-rested for a little while. At the end of my experiment, I was mostly adapted, but there was still a lingering tiredness for 1 or two hours per day on average. If I made any mistakes in the schedule, then this would increase. Some days were better, some days were worse, but it seemed to only be slowly progressing.

When I try it again, I’m going to be much more exact with my sleeping times, and I’ll be sure not to switch programs in the middle. I’ll also make sure to be more vigilant about setting multiple alarms and getting up right away, to prevent oversleeps.

So, now on to language tasks. I’m rather happy with the amount of language work I accomplished this month, although I think it could be improved more. In total, I spent 191 hours on language activities, with 132.5 of that spent on Dutch. The remainder was mostly German reading and TV time. My personal best was January 19th where I reached 10 hours of Dutch time, and in that week I hit 49.5 worth of Dutch time altogether.

I’ve learned a couple important things. One is that the content of your learning material is really important; the more interest you have in the material, the easier it is to do it. Since Harry Potter was the only material I’ve had so far where the audiobook matches exactly with the Dutch ebook, and for which an English ebook was also present, then I felt constrained in my choices for beginner material. Sometimes it was a strain to get back to work. With German, on the other hand, I have DVDs of Star Trek: Voyager with German audio, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to just sit down and watch a couple hours of that with Chani (who’s spending her time learning German these days).

I’ve also found that it can be very tempting to spend too much time on the English half of my parallel texts rather than focusing on the Dutch. There were many moments where I caught myself reading ahead in the English and ignoring the Dutch audio. For this and other reasons, my recognition of printed Dutch is much higher than my ability to listen to it. I’ve had some gains in the past week, but I still need to work on it more.

Another thing I noticed sharply was the Pareto principle, where 20% of my time got me 80% of my comprehension in reading. I was able to get to recognition of more than 80% of the words on each page after less than about 30 hours of work, and ever since then I’ve been trudging through the “long tail”, trying to acquire that very important last 20% of the words. This means that for the first little while, you feel a great sense of progress as you zoom through the most frequent vocabulary, but then it feels like your progress is slowing to a crawl as you struggle to add a few more percent here and there.

The struggle is worth it, though. You’ll get a magnificent feeling of accomplishment once you get up to the high 90s, where you’ll be able to just sit down with a novel in your new language and enjoy reading it for fun. This should happen by the time you’ve already read 1 million words in your target language, which is about 10 regular sized novels, but you might get there with only half of that, depending on what other language activities you’re doing, and how much the language differs from what you know already.

So, ahead of me is the month of February. This is where I’ll be starting the active phase of my Dutch project. I’ve got a lot more work to do in the first week and a half to prepare. Then I’ve invited a couple of Belgian Couchsurfers to come stay with me for a few days, so it’ll be “sink or swim” time. After that, I’ve booked a plane ticket to Belgium to go to Talenfestival Leuven, which is a “language festival” for one day which includes short seminars on many different languages (all conducted in Dutch). Interestingly, the talk on Irish will be given in Esperanto, with Dutch translation.

I’m still continuing my reading and listening, but I’ll be spending some time practicing output on my own before the couchsurfers get here to put me to the test. I’ve got a phrasebook that I can run through to practice a lot of common phrases, and then I’ll work on some writing exercises to help me with coming up with my own Dutch ideas from scratch.

Just one more month of concentrated Dutch studying, and then I’ll be switching my main project to something else. At that point I hope to have good understanding of spoken and written Dutch, so it should be easy to put it on the backburner and just read the occasional novel or watch the TV news in order to keep things fresh. I’m looking forward to it!


Dutch update: 85hrs

2011-01-21

So, at the end of 3 weeks of studying Dutch full-time, I’m at 85.5 hours total (split 9.5 / 33 / 43 by week), and I’ve read somewhere around 400000 words. Currently I’m in that nebulous “intermediate” area, where it’s hard to judge progress, so I just have to keep pushing. My sense is that my vocabulary is still increasing, but I’m not yet at that nice pleasant “easy reading” phase, which probably occurs when you know over 98% of the words on the page. Those last few percent take a lot longer to get, but they’re pretty important if you want to feel really comfortable when reading.

I’ve ramped up my study hours greatly over the past few days. Yesterday I put in 8 hours, and had 10 hours the day before, and I plan to do the same again today still. It’s definitely a new skill to learn, getting in that many hours in the day. I try to split them up throughout the day, aiming at 2hrs out of every block of 4 (since my day is divided into 4hr segments by my nap schedule). So far, though, I’ve had several small chunks and one or two much larger chunks of consecutive study time.

Currently, I still get somewhat lost when listening to something without reading along. Harry Potter is easier than other things, because I’m used to it and I know the story, but in other things I only get a rough impression of what’s going on if it’s something totally new.

Despite my complaints above, about not being totally perfect at reading yet, I’m actually pretty decent at reading Dutch now. The impatience is probably due to my extensive German reading skills that create a large contrast. When I honestly evaluate my Dutch skills though, I have to feel pretty good. For example, I can read Wikipedia pretty well in Dutch now. I just read the article on Paleontology without too many problems. Definitely enough to get informed about a topic, although like I said, still not with the ease that I can read German. There are still many words per page that I don’t know.

My goal for the coming week is to get 10 hours of study time every day, devoted to Listening-Reading. Currently I’m going over each chapter at least twice, trying to recognize as many new words as I can, and I’m trying hard to focus on the sounds of the words as I hear them, so that I don’t get too stuck on just reading off the page. I’m hoping to build more intuitive familiarity with the language, and get those last few stubborn percent of vocabulary words.

Once my recognition is higher, I’m going to move on to the activating stage of L-R, where I listen and try to repeat any recognized phrases. In this stage, you don’t want to read those phrases out of the book; the goal is to repeat the ones that you heard, and fully understood.

Before I attempt this, I’ll spend some time working on specific aspects of pronunciation. To do this, I’ll cut out single sentences from some recordings, and then listen to them about 50 times until they’re stuck in my head like a Michael Jackson song. Then I’ll start repeating along with the recording, repeating up to 50 times each in order to really cement the sounds in my mind.

Anyway, that’s still another week away at least, so I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. The next week is still strongly devoted to listening and reading recognition skills, hopefully getting my reading skills up near C1 if I can.

Next update at 120 hours 🙂


Curiosity, complexity, and appreciation

2010-12-15

A big part of what makes me me, is curiosity. Following my sense of curiosity has led me down many new paths, and each of those paths has changed who I am. When you’re curious, you learn to see that each thing has its own uniqueness, and its own complexities. You learn to appreciate more things, because you know that beneath the surface, there’s something complex waiting to be discovered. Curiosity, for me, is about wanting to dive into that complexity and see all of it.

If you want to complete some big project, perhaps because of some end goal like a job, money, etc, then it can be hard to find the continuing motivation to complete the whole thing just by thinking about that end result. When you do this, it’s really just the end thing that you want, not the long process of getting there. Accomplishing great things is much easier when you cultivate a sense of wonder. Learn to see your chosen subject as an intricate and complex thing that is worthy of study just by itself.

By choosing to see all the internal and external connections and structures, you start to see the beauty of your topic. Something that may have previously seemed like a chaotic mess starts to become beautiful as you discover the patterns in it. Even as you see more and more patterns, there will still be areas that seem too complicated or too difficult, but this just means that there’s more left to discover.

In the case of languages, each language is its own landscape. There are historical relationships with other languages (as hinted in my previous post showing the similarities between English, German, and Dutch). There are many levels of structure in languages, and each of them can be interesting…from pronunciation to spelling to word morphology, sentence structure, sentence meaning, discourse, etc. Some people write their whole PhD thesis on tiny subsets of these things, so there’s a lot in there to investigate. There are also the many past accomplishments and creations by users of the language. There are many levels of meaning behind the great poets and novelists in each language. There’s no reason to ever get bored while learning a language, because there’s just so much to see.

When you view it this way, the end goal becomes somewhat secondary. You don’t see it every day because it’s in the far future. What you encounter every day is the neat little patterns that form the bits of the language. As you read a book, you might notice words that are related to some other word in another language…like Swedish “nog” that roughly corresponds to German “genug” and English “enough”. Finding little things like that is what interests me about a language, and it keeps me going.

Another example of interesting complexity is the world of birds. When I tell people that I like to go bird-watching, sometimes they ask something like “oh, so you like to count how many crows and pigeons you see?” What’s happening is that they’re failing to see the complexity of life, which allows it to be interesting. If all there was to birds was just crows and pigeons, then it’d obviously be boring. With only two things to see, you’d exhaust the space of possibilities pretty fast.

In fact, at most times of the year in my home town of Vancouver, there are over 150 types of birds that you can find in the surrounding area. In both Winter and Summer, I can take you to some of the parks within the city and show you 30 different types of birds within a half hour. Each one has its own preferred habitat and food, and its own unique behaviours. I can tell them apart sometimes just by seeing their silhouette or the way they fly and the shape of their wings, or just a short sound that they make. Each bird has its own story to tell, and the more you learn about them, the more interesting the whole topic becomes. You can continue studying them your entire life and always learn new things. Who needs to go to a zoo, when you can see more variety out in the world just by keeping your eyes and ears open!

When I meet a new person, I ask them what they’re passionate about. This usually leads me to a complex topic that they have learned to appreciate the details of. Instead of dismissing it based on what I’ve heard previously, I ask them to elaborate and tell me about their favourite parts of that topic. I want to discover what makes them love it so much, and the reasons why they can spend so much time doing it. Almost always, their motivation stems from an appreciation for the complex patterns they find in it…they ways that the complexity is made simple by seeing the patterns. As they continue learning about it, chaos turns to order, strangeness becomes familiarity, and complexity has its base in simple patterns.

Finding this inner beauty and simplicity is something that spans all disciplines. Our mind seeks out these patterns automatically, and as we grow accustomed to them, our mind adapts itself to recognize the patterns at a glance. This process is what takes us from confused to fluent, whether the topic is birds, languages, or physics. If you want to get good at something, then don’t focus on the end goal, but just keep looking for the patterns that make it interesting, and find ways to grow accustomed to it through massive exposure. Exposure is easy to get when you’re an explorer looking into each nook and cranny, trying to figure out what makes everything tick.

As you explore, learn to enjoy the pleasure of discovering some new pattern or detail. This feeling of satisfaction will be repeated over and over as you learn, and it will become your internal motivation to keep going. Internal motivation (that feeling of incremental satisfaction as you proceed) is always far more important than any external motivators that may be present (such as money, parental pressure, grades, goals and deadlines). Your internal satisfaction will lead you to become an expert by squeezing out that last little bit of efficiency, by repeating a difficult phrase or practicing your basketball jump-shot to perfection.

Feeding your sense of appreciation of beauty and complexity will mean that you no longer need the external motivators. You’ll be able to continue your project in the long term, and one day you’ll have become an expert without noticing.


methods vs. activities

2010-12-13

I find that people are quick to describe things as “methods” these days, as if the only way to learn a language is to follow a fully detailed algorithmic description of what to do. I just wanted to mention that my previous post about parallel texts does not describe such a “method”.

I prefer to have many different language activities that I can do. What you really need, when pursuing a language, is lots of different ways to gain exposure. You need them to be fun and interesting, so that you’ll pay attention while doing them and so that you’ll keep coming back for more. You probably also need multiple resources so that if you eventually get tired of one, then you can just switch to another one without hesitating.

If you like textbooks, then find more than one textbook…preferably at least 3. If you like watching TV in another language, then find more than one show. Same with novels. The idea here is that it’s usually unreasonable to expect that you’ll do the exact same thing over and over again until you’re fluent. You need something else beside you that you can pick up when you put the first one down, in order to continue your exposure.

This applies across activities too. You might have 1 TV show, 1 audio book, and 1 more difficult novel, or some other arrangement. You might also have more than one activity that you can do with the same resource, such as Intensive and Extensive reading. Having more activities is beneficial because each can seem like a break from the others. For instance, right now I have two easy Swedish audiobooks, several harder books with audiobooks, and some TV shows to watch. I try to use the harder books to figure out some vocabulary, but when I get tired then I just watch some TV to relax.

Be cautious of setting up anything too rigid, because then it might start to seem like “work”, and you may be demotivated because you feel like you have to do some boring activity over and over and over. Remember that different things can be “interesting” to different people at different times. Sometimes I really like to do some “dictionary surfing” where I look up successive words in the dictionary and write down a whole bunch of example phrases, but I wouldn’t want to make that my complete “method” for learning. It’s just one activity that I occasionally enjoy.

My hope here on this blog is to illustrate many different possible activities to people who might not have heard of them or thought them possible. Try them out, if you like, but they’re not the only way to do things.


The magic of words

2010-12-08

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series of novels, magic power can be gained over something by discovering it’s true name in the ancient language of the dragons. Young wizards who are training in the magical arts have to spend significant time memorizing many of these ancient words, and it can be hard to keep going. To help them along, their teacher gives a little speech about the ancient language.

In his speech, he explains to them that because their language is related to the ancient language, they can find clues within their words. Some of their words are made of bits of the older words. By investigating the older language, they can learn new things about their own. Also, the more words they learn, the more things they can precisely describe and thus have power over. This motivates them to keep going in their long task.

So, as an illustration of how to learn from parallel texts, I’d like you to take a look at the parallels between the different language versions of some of this speech. I’ll lay out 3 sentences along with their corresponding sentences in the other languages. First is English, then German, then Dutch, and finally Polish to give some contrast. These are from the official translations, not google translate.

  • But magic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew.
  • Aber Magie, wahre Magie, wird nur von denen ausgeübt, die das Hardisch der Erdsee sprechen oder die Ursprache, aus der es stammt.
  • En magie, ware magie wordt alleen gewrocht door hen die de Hardische taal van Aardzee spreken, of de Oude Spraak waaruit deze is voortgekomen.
  • Ale magia, prawdziwa magia, jest dziełem tylko tych istot, które mówią hardyckim narzeczem Światomorza albo też Dawną Mową, z której to narzecze wyrosło.

  • That is the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world, and the language of our lays and songs, spells, enchantments, and invocations.
  • Das sind die Sprache der Drachen und die Sprache Segoys, der die Inseln dieser Welt schuf, und es ist auch die Sprache unserer Lieder und Epen und unserer Zauber- und Bannsprüche.
  • Dat is de taaldie de draken spreken, en de taal die Segoy sprak toen hij de eilanden van de wereld schiep, en de taal van onzwijzen en zangen, onze spreuken, oproepingen en bezweringen.
  • Dawna Mowa to język, którym mówią smoki, język, którym mówił Segoy, ten, co stworzył wyspy świata, język naszych ballad i pieśni, zaklęć, czarów i wezwań.

  • Its words lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words.
  • Die Worte dieser Sprache sind versteckt in unserem Hardisch.
  • Haar woorden liggen nauwelijks herkenbaar verscholen tussen de woorden van ons Hardisch.
  • Jego słowa spoczywają, ukryte i zmienione, pomiędzy naszymi hardyckimi słowami.

For those of you who already speak some German or Dutch, you’ll notice right away that the translations are not exactly literal. There are some words that have been removed or added. Also, even for those who don’t know any of these languages, you might have noticed that there are some changes in word order.

If I were starting these languages completely from scratch (which I sort of am with Dutch and Polish, although I have a background in germanic languages to help me with Dutch), then the first thing I’d look for is some “anchor” words. Typically these are proper nouns for people and places, and they tend to stay roughly the same between translations. This will help you even with unrelated languages like Chinese, where the foreign names are usually spelled out somewhat, using rarer characters as phonetic approximations.

In this case, the words that are going to transfer across all translations are “Hardic” and “Segoy”. Due to their connections as indo-european languages, you’ll also see Magic / Magie / magie / magia corresponding. And then among the germanic ones you’ll see more words corresponding like dragon / Drachen / draken (which amusingly seems to be “smoki” in Polish, as far as I can tell). I also guess “ballad” as the Polish word for song. If words were chosen differently by the translators, the different versions could be made to correspond even more closely.

The next thing you can try, is finding a passage that repeats itself with only a slight change, and then see what changed. A good candidate for this is “the language dragons speak, and the language Segoy spoke”. Looking at the polish, you’ll see “język, którym mówią smoki” and “język, którym mówił Segoy”. Without looking at any dictionaries, I would guess that mówi- is a stem for “to speak”, with -ą added for present and -ł added for past. I would also guess that język is the word for language, which is somewhat confirmed by looking at the sentence after that too. I could be wrong, but I would be aided by reading along further in the story.

This is basically the first time I’ve ever looked at Polish in this detail, yet I can still find patterns and start working things out. This is only with 3 sentences. By finding slight hints at patterns, and then seeing those patterns represented in hundreds or thousands of different sentences, you can learn a lot of the language without ever looking at a dictionary. It would take ridiculously long to look up every single unknown word in the unknown sentences.

So, this is why I suggest that learning with books can be really productive, even from the very start. It’s made much easier by having a translated version of the text to make it comprehensible, and you should probably limit your dictionary lookups to those words that you’ve already seen many times (the “high frequency” words). By seeing many many somewhat-comprehensible examples, you can learn a lot very quickly.

Another thing that might help make things more comprehensible, is to do a quick browse through a bunch of grammar examples, just to see what’s possible. No need to try and memorize any tables or do any “exercises” from textbooks, because you’ll pick up their workings naturally as you read through your novel. Looking at a bunch of clear examples is helpful though, because it lets you see what’s possible in the language…to see what’s out there for you to discover. This helps you notice it when it comes up for real in your novel.

Just remember that Exposure comes before Knowledge, not the other way around. Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to expose yourself to the language, because then you never will be. Also, go out and buy some real books. As Khatsumoto has said, you have to own before you pwn. If you have no books on your shelf, you will have limited access to the language.

Have fun reading!