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Languages Are Like Butter

You know something? I love butter. In fact, I love dairy products, period. Demonized as they often are today, I’m going dairy all the way. There’s nothing quite like the sight, sound and smell of butter on toast in the morning.

Yea verily, let it henceforth be known throughout the land that I’ve always loved butter. If by “always” you mean “for as long as I can remember eating”. But when I was a kid I had a lot of trouble spreading the cold stuff.
Until, that is, I starting spending holidays in France with my aunt, my mum’s little sister.

One day, seeing me struggling with a block of cold butter, trying to cut and spread it, she looked over at me, dropped her knife, picked up mine and went (and I paraphrase):

“Dude…not like that. Here: you shave, one thin layer at time [starts shaving off the butter], like this, see? That way it’s easy to spread AND…you don’t get all these stab wounds in the block of butter. Nice, huh? Yeah. You like that, don’tcha? Who’s your favorite aunt?! Who’s your favorite aunt?! You know I’m younger and better looking than your mother, right? That’s not sibling rivalry talking; them’s facts, son!”

Now, I don’t know why my aunt talks like a young male from North America, but you get the idea — she’s an enthusiastic teacher.

There is no “hardest” language, there’s just a dumbest method. Yes, a language can be hard to learn — in the same way that steak can be hard to cut…using a plastic spoon. Of course it’s hard to learn — that’s why you’re having trouble with it. But whose fault is that? The language, or the tools? Or you? Are you “genetically inferior”?

As you can no doubt surmise, I place the blame squarely on the tools. Everything is hard; everything is impossible — unless and until you use an effective set of physical and/or mental tools on it. Everything is hard until you figure out how to make it easy for yourself. 1

A language is like butter. A new language is like cold butter. Cold butter is not hard to cut or spread if you do it right. You can handle it in at least two general ways:

  • “Shaving”, rather than cutting: small chunks — SRS, MCD
  • Thawing: immersion — you make the difficulty and foreignness of the language melt away.
    • Thawing is perhaps the most powerful way, but it’s also quite slow (unless you’ve got a hot knife but…that breaks my metaphor, so I pretend hot knives don’t exist).
    • In fact, thawing can almost be too powerful in that it can make the butter not seem like butter any more, and more like just oil — I am so used to being immersed in Japanese that sometimes I’ll think I’m watching English (and start feeling guilty) when I’m actually watching Japanese. And I’m not alone is this, many SilverSpoon/Neutrino kids report similar effects.


  1. Powered flight is my favorite example. It was hard in that no one knew how to do it, but only 5 decades letter people flew faster than sound. Between 2009 and the first half of 2013, there were some 40 million commercial passenger flights in the United States alone; pilots and cabin crew have been reduced to glorified bus drivers and train conductors — overworked, underpaid and the butt of constant jokes. We fly so much we literally only complain about it; there is no sense of wonder, no sense of surprise, not even a sense of expense (Southwest airlines flights are routinely cheaper and always faster than bus rides across the same distance).

  4 comments for “Languages Are Like Butter

  1. November 26, 2013 at 02:38

    Nice post. I guess maybe to add a bit, perhaps learning how to use the tools (ie the method) could be equally important. Bookmarklets may be powerful tools, but if I don’t know how to use them, I’m still kind of stuck.

    PS The site is wider O.O Other than subtle changes to the nav, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a change to AJATT’s layout..

    • November 27, 2013 at 00:46

      It was once green? O.O Either AJATT has gone through some major renovations in the past, or you’re pulling my leg 😛

  2. Thomas Smith
    November 28, 2013 at 18:28

    If you ask the internet (especially the learning Chinese brigade) if ANYTHING will work, they tell you it won’t. So instead I just have articles of faith. I have zero evidence for them. One day, when they happen, and I have evidence, I’ll tell the internet.

    Here they are, for those interested.

    Articles of Faith

    1. Even if I can’t choose native pronunciation yet, I will be able to, eventually.
    2. Listening to music won’t ruin my tones.
    3. The tones will one day “split out”, just as the non-tonal sounds did.
    4. Language-feeling will come, eventually.
    5. Material relevant to the things I want to say will eventually show up in the immersion environment.
    6. You can trust and mimic FUNBUN that has been translated into Chinese from another language.
    7. Something valuable is happening when I read something I only partially follow.
    8. I can pick up a massive adult vocabulary without SRSing absolutely everything. It will go in somehow.

    (A few things used to be on the list, then they happened:

    * I will get native handwriting, eventually, somehow.
    * The character elements will “blend together”, eventually, somehow.
    * The sounds will “split out”.
    * The grammar will stop sounding weird.
    * I’ll start thinking in Mando.
    * I’ll read a comic with 100% one day.
    * I’ll follow the plot in a novel one day.

    and countless others)

    So yeah, next time you have a doubt, make it an Article, and promise to check if you still doubt it 365 days hence. You almost certainly won’t. If you still do, well, maybe you were right, or maybe you need more time.

    I know *exactly* what the internet would tell me if I asked about any of the above, so why bother asking?

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