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How to Learn (Not Just) a Language Quickly

I was never good at languages. Although my first language was Punjabi, I grew up as a monolingual English speaker. In grade school, I took French for many years with grades of mostly Bs and a few Cs. However, I managed to learn fairly fluent German in just a few months. As I look back on it, I realize that I applied methods that help in learning any subject, which is my reason for telling you what I did.


(Polka Dot)

It was 20 years ago in the eight-week language course at the Goethe Institute in Prien am Chiemsee, a beautiful resort town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps (sadly, that school has since closed its doors). Upon arrival, we took placement tests to determine a suitable class. The instructors offered me the choice of starting in the highest of the three beginning levels or in the lowest of the three intermediate levels. (In college, I had studied a year of German, which I estimate to be comparable to four weeks of immersion in language school.)

I chose the intermediate class. For the first five weeks, I understood almost nothing that the teacher or the other students said. However, in the sixth week of the course, something amazing happened. Each day in that week, I understood more. By the end of the week, I understood all the class discussions. By the end of the course, I could hold decent conversations, understand movies and even argue in German.

The language stayed with me such that four years later, I was almost fined for carrying my camera on a visit to Germany. The customs officer thought that I lived in Germany and was trying to import it without paying the (at the time) high duty on electronic goods. Only a long discussion, and production of my British passport without a German residence stamp, convinced him that I was just a tourist with a camera who happened to speak German.

I had learned so much German by using one idea: errors. I was happy to make them. And I created useful ways to make still more.

No matter how many errors I made, I spoke only German for the duration of the course. I constantly read the newspaper and listened to the radio. In the first weeks, I hardly understood any news. Fortunately, my burden was lightened whenever George H.W. Bush (Bush the Elder) was on the news. And that happened often, for it was the summer of 1991 just before the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s dubbed German was, like his English, easy to understand (“We good, Saddam Hussein bad.”).

I also planned useful errors. I looked over the grammar tables, simplifying them so that I could speak quickly yet correctly enough, without much mental computation of endings. Here is an example: in German there are several forms of the, and the correct form depends on the function of the following noun in the sentence — as the subject, direct object, indirect object or genitive object. It also depends on the noun’s gender and number — whether masculine, neuter, feminine or plural (and gender is basically random: a table is masculine whereas a street is feminine).

The four case possibilities multiplied by the four gender/number possibilities make for 16 the possibilities. Several of the 16 possibilities are handled by the same form of the so there are only six different forms of the (der, die, das, dem, den, and des). But all of this figuring, even with only six different forms, is complicated and takes time. Thus, whenever I doubted the correct form, which was often, I would pick from the most common forms randomly.

Freed from long computations, I could speak quickly and have many conversations. They led to the strangest experience. In pubs, Germans would tell me that my grammar was perfect. At first I thought it was the strong German beer getting the better of their hearing, and I would explain some of my grammar crimes such as guessing the form of the or, in a related approximation, the ending on an adjective.

Eventually I realized what was happening. Like English, German usually places the syllable stress at the beginning of the word (HE-ro rather than he-RO). Talking quickly, the unstressed endings end up all sounding like a slurred -eh. But the native speaker, with the perfect language model in his or her head, hears the correct ending! He or she was then doubly willing to talk fast in return, and I got even more practice speaking and understanding German.

Back then, I did not realize the generality of this technique. Now I know, so I teach it in all my science and engineering courses as the method of lumping (for example, Chapter 3 of Street-Fighting Mathematics, which is a freely licensed book). This method is based on the idea that in order for our minds to manage the complexity of the world, we must throw away information skillfully — by discarding the least useful information first. The motto: “When the going gets tough, the tough… lower their standards.”

Twenty years later, it feels hard to imagine learning so efficiently again. First, having two small children, I don’t want to disappear for eight weeks. More fundamentally, I find it hard to imagine, now, letting go enough to err so happily. But I would like to find that courage again. And I offer this story to all my readers still bold and young at heart: May it help you learn what you have been dreaming to do!