Learning a foreign language? Keep it simple

Languages are complex. They have all kinds of confusing rules to remember. You may not notice this in your daily life when you speak your own native language, but I can assure you it becomes apparent when you try to learn a foreign one.

I have been interested in foreign languages for a number of years. I spent my senior year of college studying Spanish in Mexico. I had ample opportunity to use the Spanish I learned in class at the dinner table with my Mexican host family. I was learning new words everyday, and it was exciting to test out the vocabulary I acquired in the morning with my Mexican parents at night. That was when I began to question the usefulness of the Spanish I was learning.

One of the ways we Spanish students expanded our vocabulary was to read a few pages of an old literary text and then look up all the words we didn’t know. It turns out that may not be the best way to learn a language. I remember coming home for dinner one night and my parents asked me what I had learned in class that day. I said that I learned a few new words, including the word “omniscient,” which in Spanish is “omnisciente.” My host parents looked at each other in bewilderment because they had never heard the word before (the word means “all-knowing”). We were learning words the natives didn’t understand! I found that strange considering there were plenty of common words in Spanish that we didn’t know, and yet we skipped those words and began learning the ones no one had heard of.

When you’re learning a foreign language, you want to learn words in their order of importance. I’ll bet that you’ll need to use the word for “bathroom” a whole lot more than you will the word for “omniscient,” and not knowing “bathroom” can put you in a really uncomfortable spot.

I think most people understand this concept of a “lexical hierarchy,” where some words are more important for communication than other words. What interests me is that this hierarchy exists not just for common versus uncommon words, but for every aspect of language, including its grammar.

Take the sentence, “I am going to the store.” Ask yourself this question: What element of the sentence can I remove that least alters the sentence’s comprehensibility? In this instance, the direct article “the” can be eliminated, and while it renders an ungrammatical sentence, “I am going to store,” the meaning can still be inferred.

This exercise need not be limited to reducing the number of words. You will notice that English verbs change their form depending on who is doing them and when they are done. For example, “I go” but “he goes.” We are using the verb “to go” in both instances, but when I am the one doing it, it is conjugated as “go” and when he is doing it, it is conjugated as “goes.” Ask yourself: Is this conjugation necessary for comprehension? If I refrained from conjugating verbs and just said “he go to the store,” you would still be able to understand the message I wanted to convey. In fact, we could simplify the sentence even further to “he go store” and that construction is still intelligible, if perhaps a little more ambiguous.

The reason I bring all this up is because knowing the essential elements of a language is extremely valuable. An American who visits Paris for a few days is merely interested in getting her point across, not in speaking flawless French. To make herself understood, she does not need to know every word in the dictionary, nor does she need to follow every grammatical rule. She needs to know the basic elements of French.

To date, I have never come across a foreign language guide that discusses this issue. I would like to see a self-help book that teaches a simplified form of a language for people who only need it for traveling and sight-seeing. The book wouldn’t bother with things like verb conjugations or indefinite articles or any of the non-essential parts of a language, yet it would give people just enough tools so that they could navigate their way around a foreign land. Hmm. I see a marketing opportunity…


One Response to “Learning a foreign language? Keep it simple”

  1. David Says:

    I think you could automatically generate a good portion of this. Get a large chunk of text you care about along with a dictionary. Scan it for common words and (harder to get right) common grammatical patterns and sort these to put the most common ones first.

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