Don’t Try to Learn A “Language”

That’s right. Don’t learn a language. Any language. It can’t be done (except by John Travolta in that movie where he plays the angel — that’s Hollywood for you). So don’t try. Instead, do this:

1. Learn a letter/character
2. Repeat (1) until all basic characters are learnt. That’s 2000 in Japanese; 3000-4000 in Chinese.
3. Learn the meaning of a new word, (or, if necessary, learn a new character)
4. Learn the meaning of a phrase containing words from (3)
5. Repeat from (3)

It’s that simple. Everything else is decoration. Notice how “language” doesn’t crop up anywhere in there. This also hints at why you can become fluent in any language in such an apparently short time: because you can repeat steps (3) to (5) at a much higher speed than people who learn the same language as native speakers. I don’t know about you, but I never learned 50 new English words a day as a kid.


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  4 comments for “Don’t Try to Learn A “Language”

  1. April 26, 2007 at 10:40

    Totally agree. If I were starting Chinese over again from scratch I would have invested the six months of effort that it would have taken to learn the first 3000 or so characters and then started the task of proper learning. It would have saved me so much time compared to the piecemeal way I actually went about it.

    I wonder about how fast we learned words as children. I think the key was that, except for spelling tests and the like, we didn’t learn words explicitly like we are when studying a foreign language. At first we probably encountered hundreds or even thousands of unknown words per day and through that exposure slowly caught on. It was probably slower than 50 per day (after all, as adults we have the benefit of having already worked out all the concepts behind the words we’re learning, whereas when we were children we had to do that, too), but I suspect it was pretty fast.

  2. Peter Parisi
    July 22, 2007 at 04:44

    Great site, and mucho hilarioso! Thanks!

  3. January 19, 2008 at 00:03

    Learning the letters/characters first…wow, I never thought of that. I thought it was “learn the words first, and after 40 of so start learning sentences at the same time…and maybe, just maybe start learning the characters if you really really really really…..really want to.”

    why learn the characters first?

  4. khatzumoto
    January 20, 2008 at 12:53

    Read the intro to RTK, here

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