The Indiana Jones Method For Learning Foreign Languages


You have no doubt heard the story of the Trojan War. The Illiad and the Oddysey are two of the most enduring and influential works of literature in the Western world.

They were created by Homer, an ancient Greek poet, most likely based on accounts passed down orally for generations. Even 3 thousand years after the supposed events took place, they remain well-known to myriads of people from around the world.

For a long time, it was thought that these stories were works of pure fiction. Yet there were always people who thought that they were based on real events, real people and real places. One of these believers was Heinrich Schliemann.

The Life of Heinrich Schliemann

Heinrich Schliemann was a true rags to riches story, a man of German origin who grew wealthy by being a shrewd businessman. However today he is most remembered as an archaeologist.

He was a real-life Indiana Jones, travelling the world, living through many adventures and discovering great ancient treasures.

As a kid, he grew up on stories of the Illiad and the Oddysey and the great adventures that the heroes of these tales had to go through. Unlike most other people who listened to these stories, he took them at their word. To him, Troy was a real place which was now buried somewhere on the Aegean coast of Turkey. He decided that he was going to find it.

What is not so well-known is that he was also a great linguist who managed to master many languages. Wherever he travelled, he tried to learn the local language. He would often write in his diary in different languages, which resulted in him keeping his diary in at least 12 languages.

What is most remarkable is that he managed to do this in a world without quick travel, without the internet and starting off as a poor errand boy.

Schliemann’s Language Learning Method

He simplified the process by developing a method that he applied consistently. Supposedly the system that he developed allowed him to learn any language in around 6 weeks.

He applied this method every time he was about to learn a new language. When he couldn’t find one of the elements of this method, he always came up with a work-around.

The main elements of the method consisted of constant writing in the target language, reading out loud in it, and trying to get as much native input as possible.

He was a self-directed learner and one of the main elements of this learning were books in the target language. The key to this was one little book: “The Adventures of Telemachus”.

This book talked of the adventures of Telemachus, the son of Oddyseus and his quest to find his father. Since it was set in the times of the Trojan Wars, the subject matter was very interesting to Schliemann and never grew old. He ended up memorizing the story in the book by heart.

When he would start learning a new language, he would always try to track down a copy of that book (or some other book that he had read previously in another language and knew the story well) in his target language.

That way, he could compare the two texts and learn new words and grammar structures by reading along in a new language, as well as in a language he already knew.
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How To Stop Being An Eternal Beginner And Learn A Foreign Language To Fluency

How To Learn A Language By Doing Something Else

As an intermediate to lower advanced level learner, you face many challenges that can prevent you from rising to the next level. Many language learners reach a certain level, but then do not progress further. Once you can already have a conversation or better, how do you go from there?

Many times you lose the motivation to keep on going and your language learning dies as a result. You get stuck in the intermediate level purgatory. What you need to do is continue on learning the language by combining it with something else you love or want to know more about. That way you kill two birds with one stone and keep yourself motivated.

This is something that I have been applying to my own foreign language studies. Unfortunately, my motivation is not always that great, so I often skip doing those grammar exercises that I should be doing.

By using the technique described above, where I combine learning languages with doing something else that I am interested in, I do keep on progressing in my target languages. It sort of lets me bypass the problem of not having motivation and keeps me on the right path.

Learning Spanish by Reading About Gladiators

There are several examples of how I apply this strategy in practice. Last summer, I was in Spain for a few days and did what I always do, I found a local bookstore and went in to browse the books that they had available. I am really interested in ancient history and went over to the history section to check out the books. Since I was in Spain, all the books were in Spanish of course. 🙂

I was looking at the books, when I noticed one on gladiators. I was always interested in ancient sports and this topic caught my interest. Then it hit me, why not satisfy my curiosity by reading a book on gladiators, but do it in Spanish?

That way not only do I get to learn more about gladiators and how they lived, but I also get to practice my Spanish! I decided to buy the book.

When I returned from Spain, I opened up the book and started reading. My Spanish is at a B2 level and so I understand most of what I am reading, but I do come across some words or sentences that I don’t understand.

The key here is to do what I call active reading. While reading the book, I have Google Translate open (or a dictionary) and consult it whenever I don’t understand a word or phrase. I keep the words and their translations listed on screen and when I am finished with the chapter, I transfer them to Anki in order to review them later. That way any new words you learn will stick in your head better.

Watch Cartoons!
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Learn A Language In A Day

learning foreign languages, good mind in a healthy body

learning foreign languages, good mind in a healthy body

So can you learn to speak a foreign language in a day? Of course not, but I did run into an interesting article by Joshua Foer on how he “learned to speak a language in a day”. Of course the words “speak” and “day” are very relative as will be explained later. Joshua Foer is the author of a book called: “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything”. In the book he describes his journey of learning how to remember things. He describes mnemonics, or a series of special techniques that can be used to remember various things (such as strings of numbers, poems, or other things). I will go into mnemonics in a later post, as it is an interesting subject and some aspects can be even applied to language learning, but also to remembering almost anything.

The particular article I ran across a while back, describes how Foer started learning a language called Lingala, which is an African trade language spoken in the Congo area. It is often used as a lingua franca in that part of the world. Foer started a new project which will have him spend a significant amount of time in that area and so thought that learning the local lingua franca could be useful. He decided to use Memrise, which is a website founded by British memory champion Ed Cooke and Princeton neuroscience PhD Greg Detre. It uses a combination of the principles of mnemonics and social gaming in order to help people remember various things, including words in different languages. So it can be used to enhance a person’s language learning.

Foer decided to use Memrise in order to help him learn Lingala. He found an old FSI Lingala course, as well as a small dictionary of the language, and used those as inputs for his learning. He would go into the site and try to learn new words every time he was logged on. These are learned based on the concept of creating “mnemonics” or “mems”. The article explains the principles in this way: “Memrise encourages you to create a mnemonic, which it calls a “mem”, for every word you want to learn. A mem could be a rhyme, an image, a video or just a note about the word’s etymology, or something striking about its pronunciation”.

Foer goes onto explain the concept of spaced repetition, or repeating concepts in repeated sessions, that are phased across time. This actually goes together with my theory of learning (at least based on how I learn) and that is repeating the same materials at different points in time. For example going through some chapters of a grammar book one month and returning to those same chapters two or three months later. It is amazing how much better you understand the chapters and how much more material you can retain! To get back to Foer and why he said that he learned Lingala in a day. He ended up memorizing over a thousand words of the language and when he looked at the statistics of how much time he spent on the site, it came up to less than 24 hours in total. That’s where the “day” comes from. It’s not a literal day, but instead all the amount of time added up together. This allowed him to have a very limited conversation with a Pygmy from the Congo jungle. Of course he notes, that he did not actually completely learn the language, but instead just formed a significant basis in the language, which can be expanded upon in further learning.
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How To Learn A Foreign Language

learning foreign languages, good mind in a healthy body

learning foreign languages, good mind in a healthy body
There is an old Czech saying: “the more languages you know, the more times you are human.” It’s true, learning foreign languages lets you expand your horizons and see things from different perspectives. More importantly, it lets you connect to people you would not be able to connect to before.

I have written about traveling being a way to see new things and expanding your horizons, however this effect is multiplied exponentially if you speak the languages of the countries you are traveling in and can thereby reach the people in their own native language and find out what they are thinking in their own words.

I can speak 6 languages fluently (level B2 and up) and am in the process of learning three more. I might be a bit special, since I come from a multicultural family and have moved around all my life, so I got some languages for “free”, however other ones I have had to learn from scratch. My only regrets are that I have always been shy and also that I tend to never finish up learning one language properly before starting a new one (classic “toward” behavior).

Learning languages is sometimes a very grueling process, however it all becomes worth it, once you start applying what you learn in practice. The best experiences traveling are usually associated with using a foreign language to communicate. Nothing beats the feeling you get after managing to get your point across to a native speaker in their country without having to resort to speaking English. The feeling of satisfaction and a job well done is the reward for all those countless hours of frustration and all those myriads of exercises you did.

Of course language learning is not all about frustration, but for many people it is an enjoyable activity. It becomes even more enjoyable when it opens up doors for you, doors that would otherwise have been shut, had you not learned that language.

So how do you learn a language?
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