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The Dumbest Idea Ever

Learning certain languages as “prerequisites” for learning other languages.


FFS, this isn’t school. No one not high on laudanum would suggest you learn Latin and Greek (or even Italian and French) and Frisian before learning English so that learning English would be easier and your English “purer”.  But somehow there’s an idea in the stupid section of language-learning circles that one “should” learn language X before learning language Y.

Languages aren’t lubricant for each other. One doesn’t make it so that the other slides in easier. Not in the way you’re thinking. The second language helps you learn the third language not for linguistic reasons but for psychological ones: you’re full of confidence 1 from the knowledge that you’ve handled another language before; you not only know that it’s doable but that you can do it. 2

If anything, linguistically, languages interfere with each other. If they’re too far apart, there’s no reinforcement. If they’re too close together, there’s confusion, false friends and the pernicious, unconscious tendency to mix and overlap (in fact, even if they’re far apart, there’s still that tendency). Either way, you need to train yourself to keep them separate while also keeping each one healthy — logistically, there are time, media and other resource allocation issues to resolve.

So, yeah, don’t learn one language so you can learn another. That’s like forcing yourself to eat crap food so you can better “appreciate” good food: you just end up developing a taste for crap food. Again, no one not high on anachronistic narcotics would suggest you listen to all jazz and only jazz before you listen to any hip hop, so that you’ll “get it”. It may be an interesting academic exercise, but so is electrocuting gay people in the bollocks to de-gay them. In practical terms, it’s the dumbest idea ever. Not good dumb. Dumb dumb. Remarkably dumb. 1980s fashion dumb. The dumbest idea ever, dumb.


  1. (well, memory, but we won’t argue it)
  2. You probably also have a lot of “stored capital” in the form of personal learning techniques you’ve developed, many of which will always be useful, some of which will have to be adjusted or abandoned.

  18 comments for “The Dumbest Idea Ever

  1. Thomas Smith
    March 16, 2013 at 01:53

    Haven’t you heard, Khatz? Learning Esperanto physically transforms your brain and turns you into one of those epic polyglots who can learn 10 languages to fluency in 3 months!!!

    • Romuś
      March 16, 2013 at 03:23

      Thats the confidence matter Khatz wrote about. Benny Lewis mentioned it in his original post about Esperanto, that learning it in short time helps overcome the ‘oh this is too hard, you gotta be born in that country to speak their language’ mindset and fix it.

      • Livonor
        March 18, 2013 at 09:08

        well, learning any other language give the same confidence so I don’t know why to bother learning some esperanto just to learn other stuff

        • Romuś
          March 18, 2013 at 14:08

          Because esperanto is extremely easy to learn. Go to to read Benny’s entire argument about this.

  2. ライトニング
    March 16, 2013 at 03:33

    Reminds me of my German Teacher in school.

    She was like “You don’t really know how a language works on the inside until you learn another one. Basically, you don’t know how English works with all the patterns and such until you learn another language.”

    I felt so many WTFs at that moment.

    I swear, my German teacher spews some of the most hilarious garbage sometimes, and I feel bad for the people in my class falling for the trap that they think they will get good in 4 years of public education language learning.

    • grant
      March 16, 2013 at 03:58

      I’d say that’s actually true, I’m learning a lot of things about the structure of English that I never would have otherwise learned from learning other languages. However, there’s a reason we don’t know them and can still use the language perfectly; that knowledge’s completely superfluous unless you’re planning on majoring in linguistics 😛

  3. Dmitry
    March 16, 2013 at 08:23

    I think it’s just a plausible excuse to learn another language, or at least to take a look at it. It seems that you can’t just start learning another language because you want to and it’s fun and also an easy thing to do with proper technique, no, fun is bad, first you have to justify it somehow — so people make up all sorts of excuses; ‘I need X for Y’ rather than ‘I need X for fun’. On the other hand it’s also an excuse _not_ to learn language Y for those who don’t really want to learn Y.

    My personal favorite so far is to try out a new technique. For example, I’ve been itching to try out MCDs for a long time but no projects seemed appropriate since it’s easier for me to learn everything (with a few exceptions such as RTK) through media alone, so I finally took up Ancient Greek (where media is nonexistent — unfortunately, people just weren’t making any podcasts or movies 2500 years ago), which is too fun to learn by itself, and made some MCDs fromエクスプレス-古典ギリシア語-荒木-英世/dp/4560005907/ for a start. It’s really nice to see how MCDs tremendously help to learn things in context where there’s virtually no context :3

  4. Erik
    March 16, 2013 at 11:03

    Yeah this type of thinking made me give up on Japanese before I even started going into highschool. My friends told me that Spanish was closer to English and that I’d probably end up failing Japanese class. So I took Spanish and man…if there’s anything worse than a boring language class it’s a boring language class about a language you don’t care about. While I’m sure I didn’t miss much I might’ve started learning Japanese earlier.

  5. Rou
    March 16, 2013 at 21:32

    Check this out – if you decide to study Japanese at the university I wanna go to, you also have Latin classes during the first year (and PE. but let’s stick to languages). I could kinda understand their reasoning if it was one of the European languages, but what in the name of crap does LATIN have to do with Japanese?

    Still gonna go there. But not for the classes to be the (only) way through which I learn Japanese but more so my school activities will be relevant to Japanese so I won’t have to feel bad for spending time learning that instead of .

    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      March 17, 2013 at 08:36

      It’s a university. They make you do odd crap to meet their idea of “well rounded” or something of the sort.

  6. Patrick
    March 17, 2013 at 02:31

    For once, I don’t agree.
    I learned old Latin and Greek during my secondary school and it really helped me big time in learning other European languages.
    Most of those languages (including English), I learned mostly by watching television and reading books.
    My knowledge of those two old languages speeded up the learning experience tremendously, since a lot of the words and grammar in European languages are derived from those two.

    To give a simple example :
    Latin : fenestra
    French : fenêtre
    Dutch : venster
    Spanish : ventana
    German : fenster
    Though the English word is “window” (derived from Old-Norse), the English word “defenestration” (to throw someone out of the window), contains the Latin words “de” (out of, away from) and “fenestra”.

    Another example :
    Old Greek : thura
    English : door
    Dutch : deur
    German : Tür
    Latin : postis
    French : porte
    Spanish : puerta
    Dutch : portaal
    English : portal

    I compare it somewhat to learning Kanjis. Once you know their basic meaning, it’s much easier to learn actual words and you start to understand how Japanese words are formed with those Kanjis.
    The same with Latin and Old Greek. Once I knew the basics, I started to see them popup in all European languages and a lot of times, I could derive the meaning of those foreign words, though I never learned them.
    And since Japanese consists of about 11% loanwords, even there, knowledge of Latin and Old Greek can help.

    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      March 17, 2013 at 16:22

      Hold right there a second! The key word is “helps”. Not “necessary”.

      Knowing English is actually very useful for learning Japanese. It’s also possible to learn Japanese without knowing any English at all.

      • Patrick
        March 17, 2013 at 18:39

        Read the original article : it is not speaking about a “necessity”, nor am I.
        I state that it is NOT dumb to learn first Latin and Old Greek before tackling other European languages.
        Yes, you first loose a lot of time, but afterwards you race through the other languages like a bullet train and moreover, you do it with insight, because you have a much clearer look on how those other languages are build up.
        See the example I give with the Kanjis. It is not necessary to learn first the Kanjis when learning Japanese, in fact you first lose a lot of time, but afterwards, it pays back big time.

        And besides the language part, you learn a lot about the origins of our western culture.
        How is that for a nice bonus …

        • Saram96
          March 18, 2013 at 03:48

          Of course it is useful for another European languages if you speak Latin and Old Greek, but why should a person learn Latin, if he could learn directly French? It is important, that you like the language and don’t learn it, because you have to. How 魔法少女 already said, it’s useful but not necessary.

          • Patrick
            March 18, 2013 at 04:54

            Guys (or girls), have you actually read the OP ?
            The word “necessity” is not even there.
            And nor am I speaking anywhere about a necessity.

            I’m stating that first learning another language, in this case Latin and Old Greek, as a step-up for other languages is not dumb by definition, as suggested in the OP.

            If you don’t like learning those languages, please don’t.
            If you do like them, please do … and hope for good teachers.
            I did have really great teachers for both those languages. They were continuously crossreferencing the Latin and Old Greek words to other European languages and we learned a lot about the origin of our Western civilization in a very pleasant way.

            By the way, one of the other things we learned during the reading of “the classics”, is to analyze the texts and try to find out what type of “tricks” the author was using to convey his or her message.
            I find that one of the most usefull and important skills I ever learned in school.
            It’s the best antidote against deceptive one-liners, like the one on top of this article 🙂

            • 小さい
              March 20, 2013 at 02:52

              I’m going to be ‘that’ person. The one with the dictionary definitions. I apologize in advance.

              required beforehand: a prerequisite fund of knowledge.
              something prerequisite: A visa is still a prerequisite for travel in many countries.

              verb (used with object)
              to have need of; need: He requires medical care.
              to call on authoritatively; order or enjoin to do something: to require an agent to account for money spent.
              to ask for authoritatively or imperatively; demand.
              to impose need or occasion for; make necessary or indispensable: The work required infinite patience.
              to call for or exact as obligatory; ordain: The law requires annual income-tax returns.

              Khatz mentioned prerequisites. Prerequisite = required = necessary.

              I apologize once again to anyone reading the comments and to Patrick. I simply Had to dictionary. I know have a problem and am seeking help. o3o

              • Patrick
                March 20, 2013 at 22:07

                LOL !
                It seems I’m the one who should have read the text better !

                The “Latin version” :
                Pre : before
                Requirere : to require

                Great reaction !
                Thanks (while I’m trying to hide somewhere under a stone) 🙂

  7. March 17, 2013 at 03:36

    I agree that a large part of the reason that it helps is that it results in you knowing (not “thinking”, knowing for certain) that you can learn another language, however…

    You neglected to mention the second part of that: it also greatly assists you in learning another language because it teaches you how to learn a language, that is by learning your first foreign language you learn how to learn a foreign language, you learn all your own personal little quirks, you learn how you need to be taught in order to learn. That’s a big one right there.


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