Learning language

7 billion people in the world, uncounted words to read and listen to. Lots of the words are English – far more than I could hope to slurp up in eighty or ninety years. Far more are in other languages. I’ll return in later posts [EDIT: Hold me to that, please] to the question of which words to pay attention to. The Big Selection Problem, content overload, is one of the more compelling questions for curious minds, ever more so with our increasing access to stories and studies and blogs like mine.

Today is about learning languages. Speaking multiple languages is one way to be smarter – this NYT article says it fights Alzheimer’s and improves children’s ability to sort colored shapes. Cool.

Even if you aren’t a professional block sorter, the research seems to show your brain grows more robust when you learn to switch between different languages. On top of that, multiple language proficiency has become a big ol’ status indicator with real career implications. Plus it is fun and cool. Travel and stuff. Seems like the reasons in favor are overwhelming. 

But it’s hard! It takes time you don’t have, energy you can’t afford, and who’s to say if you could even do it, even if you decided that you wanted to? And don’t you lose the ability to learn language once you get old and start reading blogs?

I took Spanish in high school and did okay. I wanted to keep going with it, but didn’t have people to practice with or any particular goal in mind in terms of fluency. When I went to Norway last year (spring semester ’13), I picked up enough to follow a few conversations, but not hold one myself. I felt bad, but everyone spoke much better English than I spoke Norwegian, and it seemed much more important at the time that we communicate than that I painfully practice my pitiful language skills. In retrospect, it was a huge missed opportunity! Although, if I had my choice, maybe I would pick a language with more than 5 million speakers…

Thankfully, technology.

I started with Duolingo about a month ago, and I’m at level 6 in German. Where that actually places me in my learning, I don’t know – I know a couple hundred words, probably. Still, it’s free and fun and simple and it only takes ten minutes a day, and I have learned words that I certainly did not know before. Learning a whole language will still require tons of time and effort, but it somehow feels manageable – it’s just a quick lesson. Just a bite-sized chunk of time. I can handle that. I can make that a habit. It helps that I have friends registered too, so I can compete with them and reinforce my learning socially.

This will be a recurring theme. Technology makes it easier to put massive hours into learning. Whether it is e-readers or apps or that thing that blocks facebook for you, it’s all getting easier and closer. It’s okay to feel intimidated, right?

I can’t tell yet if I will learn a whole language for free online, but I feel more excited than scared about it.  Language learning seems like a thing that the internet should be able to do. Das Internet ist gut. Lernen ist gut. Zusammen sind sie wunderbar!

Auf Wiedersehen!

P.S. Let me know how you like your posts – quick and topical, like this one was (sort of), or meandering and journally? I am definitely planning on including  tools like Duolingo that you might not have known, which are making the world a more fun place to learn. Let me know what you think! It’s your blog too!

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5 thoughts on “Learning language

  1. I like the quick and topical approach! I get bored reading lengthy analyses (does that make sense?). But, that’s a personal preference since I get bored quickly.
    I had to comment because you introduced me to something new. I had no idea what Duolingo was, and I just downloaded it to find out. It’s pretty cool! I would love to be bilingual. I’m sad they don’t have Japanese (I would love to eventually become fluent. I’ve been studying for a few years but am nowhere near where I would like to be). Technology really is a wonderful tool.

    • Don’t worry about being good enough; just practice! Then again I don’t follow my own advice… But the offer stands. Maybe you could learn how to overcome the fear of practicing a foreign language?

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