I often insist that I'm not any more gifted than anyone else. It's easy to excuse away my success by just saying I'm gifted, because it takes the responsibility off of yourself when you fail. But it's self-delusion.
The ease with which I learn a language is a direct result of my curiosity. I don't have a better memory than anyone else. But what I do have is a genuine curiosity about how language works — I am fascinated with how people communicate.
Rapid learning is a result of connected concepts
I recently read a guest post at Zen Habits called How I was able to ace exams without studying. In this post, the author describes how rapid learners do not use memorization, but instead create a web of knowledge:
I have already made the argument here that learning by memorization is bad (and I will continue to stress that point on this web site), but I haven't yet discussed how to create that web of knowledge.
Rote memorization is based on the theory that if you look at information enough times it will magically be stored inside your head.
This wouldn’t be a terrible theory if your brain were like a computer. Computers just need one attempt to store information perfectly. However, in practice rote memorization means reading information over and over again. If you had to save a file 10 times in a computer to ensure it was stored, you’d probably throw it in the garbage.
The strategy of rapid learners is different. Instead of memorizing by rote, rapid learners store information by linking ideas together. Instead of repetition, they find connections. These connections create a web of knowledge that can succeed even when you forget one part.
Learn the same way you learned in English
In learning English, we learn about prefixes and suffixes and various ways of modifying words to mean new things. If I want to describe doing something a second time, I will instinctively add a re- to the front. If I want to describe having done so, I can add -ment to the end. Or, if I want to describe it as a quality of someone or something, I'll probably add a -ness on the end.
Just as I can make a point in this way in English — whether or not it's always correct — I can also make a point in this way in any other language.
In Spanish, the -idad ending works just like the English -ity ending, and the -mente ending creates a new adverb just as -ly does in English. If I know rapido is "quick" and I want to say he did something "quickly", I can instinctively say rapidamente without having learned that word, and I can understand it when I hear it used for the first time.
In German, I can prepend the aus- prefix to indicate outward motion, and ein- to indicate inward motion. So if I know gehen is going and I want to describe "entering" and "exiting" I could instinctively choose eingehen and ausgehen even if I haven't learned those words. And likewise, if mit- means "with", then I can again instinctively mitgehen to describe "accompanying" (lit going with) someone. Even if these occasionally work out to be wrong, or if it turns out that there is a better, more commonly used word, I know I will be understood. And more importantly, I can understand words that I have yet to learn.
In slavic languages, this is especially useful, as the majority of the vocabulary is just new prefixes on the same stems. In Russian, for instance, писать is "to write" and the о- prefix means "about", so the word описать means "to describe" (lit. to write about). Then, the prefix пере- means "across", so переписать means "to rewrite" or "to copy" (lit. to transfer writing over). And for even more fun, the -ся suffix makes a verb reflexive, so переписаться means "to correspond" (lit. to write across to each other).
Start building your web
As you can probably already see, this makes learning a language much easier. No longer do you have to memorize long lists of words. Simply learn how words are constructed, and get those mechanics into your mind — just as you did in your native language.
We have a wonderful array of prefixes like pre-, post-, un-, non-, etc., and suffixes like -ness, -able, -ful, and so on. Knowing these allows you to just learn verb stems, and then create new verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, participles, etc., at will.
Think of how much work that saves you in learning a new language! If you can make, on average, perhaps 5-10 words from one stem, you can turn a list of 100 verb stems into a useful 1000-word vocabulary!
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