As an amateur linguist who often finds himself in linguistical situations, I often get asked the question “How? How do YOU (personally) learn language?” at which point I immediately avoid the pedantic temptation to point out the difference between learning a language, and acquiring one. But since it remains a popular topic with the kind of people I meet, I thought it might make for a good first post for this blog.

So, how did I get from knowing no Japanese at all, to being able to muddle my way through a relatively high-level conversation on history, politics, or religion in Japanese? For some strange reason, language learners tend to think that there’s one best way of learning a language. Or more specifically, that there’s one aspect of language from which all others would naturally follow. The top two naturally being Grammar, and Vocabulary. Unfortunately, you’ll actually need both. And what’s more, you also need a heavy dose of acculturation/pragmatics. So what follows is basically a broad introduction to linguistics, with a sharp focus on language acquisition (as an adult).

Proponents of grammar will often espouse the algorithmic simplicity of the system, and how applying such data structures will naturally (and often recursively) generate complex sentences. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that grammar fails to capture such natural phenomena as idioms, and the perpetual “exceptions to the rule”. Both have their merits. But it behooves both camps to realize that (at its best) grammar seeks to generalize observable trends in a given language. At its worst, of course, is prescriptivism, where an individual (or group of individuals) arbitrarily decide what should and shouldn’t be used. (One which we English speakers suffer from, is the elimination of the “double negative,” after some Latinist felt that English should be more like Latin. But note that 1. it was demonstrably a natural part of language, as documented in the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare; and 2. it is still a natural way of processing language, as demonstrated in its prevalence in the so-called Ebonics dialect of English (e.g. “I don’t have nothing”).

Having said so, it doesn’t hurt an adult who already speaks one language to learn about grammar, because it allows him to easily re-parse a sentence from his native language into his target language. And let’s be honest, most language learners’ first desire is to translate sentences that they already know from their own languages. Why not give them that tool? It’s already generalized, and formulaic. It’s the cognitive version of a plug-and-play device!

Proponents argue that with the right vocab, even if the syntax is wrong, the right idea will be successfully communicated. And after all, the general purpose of language is to communicate. There aren’t really anti-vocab groups among language learners, except, perhaps, in the case where the student blithely (and surreptitiously) decides that they already know which words they’ll need to know. If grammar is the generalized formula, then vocabulary is definitely the applied instance.

But certainly, vocabulary can be broken down beyond their Parts of Speech (ie, Noun, Adj, etc.). Broadly, there are three main groups of vocab. There’s working, writing, and reading vocab. Working Vocab is that which every native speaker would know. It is the most basic set of words that a language uses to communicate effectively. Writing Vocab is a little fancier. These are the words that one who’s had some formal education would possess, but not necessarily use in speech. Common examples I often find in essays are words like “thus”. Sure, a word everybody knows, but not really one that’s used in speech, even though it easily could be. And Reading Vocab is that special class of words that perhaps we’d understand if we saw it in a sentence, but would never be able to use ourselves in spontaneous conversation with full confidence. These include words like “surreptitious,” “tumultuous,” and “schadenfreude”.

And finally, pragmatics, which in a way, idioms and slang kinda fall under. This is the often ignored (or at least, not explicitly referenced) aspect of language which does a surprising amount of work. As soon as we step away from the literal meaning of words, we’ve entered the domain of intention and implication. A favourite example of mine is the line: “Nice shop you got here. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.” Every native speaker recognises this as a veiled threat. But there’s nothing on a vocabulary or grammatical level that conveys that sentiment. Yet somehow, we understand it to be there, even if we weren’t raised on mob shows like The Sopranos, or the Godfather trilogy. A lot of pragmatics is, in fact, embedded in historically functional exchanges. The fact that English’s response to “thank you” is “your welcome” is curious, because in Romantic languages, the literal translation would come closer to “it was nothing” (which, I suppose, works equally well in English). But language learners don’t generally care about that. We ask “what’s Spanish for ‘you’re welcome?’ and get “de nada” in response, and that’s good enough for most of us. It’s already in a foreign language, so why bother encoding extra useless information?

The bother, in fact, does help, because the further you mentally encode for something, the more easily you’ll be able to retrieve said information. Call it a mental cross-indexing, if you will. Moreover, not all languages come from similar culture groups. A stereotypically Japanese reaction to a compliment is to respond with an ostentatious display of self-effacement. To do otherwise would be boasting. On the other hand, most of us, raised in the western world, simply say “thank you.” As in, “I acknowledge your expression of your assessment of what I did, which you deem to be significantly above average, and I am grateful for that sentiment.”

But how does one acquire all these things? For the algorithmically minded, grammar is pretty easily acquired. And vocabulary and pragmatics are often jointly acquired through exposure. Of course, vocabulary can be gained through endless drilling. But it’s more naturally (and easily) acquired when it is used “in the wild” (ie, in its natural habitat, with other words, instead of disrobed, alone on a flashcard). To get a general cross-section of natural language in its natural habitat, I would recommend going to more than one media. Ideally, you’ll want at least one of each thing:
1. Something literary (the more famous it is, the more history it’ll have as well, which gives you an idea of the currency of words). In my case, this usually involves canonical classics. Goethe, Schiller, and Rilke for German; Lady Murasaki, Natsume Soseki, and Akinari Ueda for Japanese; the ‘four great classic novels’ of China for Mandarin; etc…
2. Something domestic (daytime dramas, or regular sitcoms will suffice). “everyday people in everyday situations” will give a huge boon in the common expressions that one would be more likely to encounter in everyday life. Knowing how to say “there’s a warp core breach in the engine room! All hands, abandon ship!” is all well and fine, but you’re far more likely to need to say “I’m sorry to hear that. Are you feeling better now?” Unless, of course, you’re working as an actor in a Star Trek series.
3. Something that conveys an equivalent mode of communication that you already exercise in your native tongue. In other words, finding that ‘equivalent register’. For me, it’s often in humour. Humour is an interesting one, because with it, you also get the cultural mentality of the people. For some people, they tend to swear a blue streak in their native tongue. It’d be wildly incongruous to have such a person trained to speak like a victorian gentleman. So find that equivalent niche in your own speech patterns, and go from there.

Over the next few posts, I’ll try to make my small contribution to explaining that lumpy field of “linguistics”, which is, contrary to popular ignorata, NOT just “learning languages”.