Learn Words, Not Languages: Intro

Having spent a lot of time learning various languages, I’ve decided to write up my somewhat unorthodox thoughts on the best language learing strategy for someone who ultimately intends to learn more than one language. While I hope that what I say here will also be useful to people who only care about mastering their second language, and don’t expect to ever study another after that, do bear in mind that my target audience is aspiring polyglots.

At any rate, my advice is this: if you want to learn a large number of languages, you should stop thinking in terms of learning whole languages, and start thinking in terms of learning parts of languages (which first and foremost refers to words, but includes grammar as well). Instead of studying French or German, learn how a French or German person would express the concepts that are important to you, and whether they would use vocabularly and syntax that you already know, or that you still need to acquire.

The reasons for this are manifold: in the modern world, many languages — even those that are in no way genetically related — have a certain amount of similar vocabulary due to borrowing, and many unrelated languages share similar grammatical constructions regardless of their relatedness or level of contact with other languages. Additionally, learning a new language requires you to break down that language and learn its component pieces (to some extent) separately, and if you can apply a piece to a new language that you’ve already mastered when studying another, that’s all the more effort that you won’t have to put in. Languages aren’t monolithic entities that have to (or even can) be learned in isolation, and there’s very little to gain by treating them as if they were.

Obviously, there will always be something new that you have to learn when starting a new language — it wouldn’t be a different language if it were the same as one that you’d already studied — but over time, you will reach a point where you start off on a new language already knowing most of the material that you will have to apply to speak it, having to learn only a subset of the vocabularly and a smattering of novel constructions and grammatical features.

Over the next few posts (no promises about the schedule at this point, unfortunately), I’ll be delving into each aspect of this in detail. Stay tuned!

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