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.
Here’s the article:
Joshua Foer Article
Here’s my strategy on learning foreign languages (I speak 6 fluently and am currently learning more):
How to learn a foreign language