A Language Is Like A City

Learning a new language is like moving to a new city. This analogy isn't originally mine — I got it from the Word Collector blog — but I really love the idea, and I want to expand on it.

Learning a city

The average person grows up living in one city. You start out learning the basics: where's your house, then what's on your street, then what's in your neighborhood, and so on. Eventually as you get older you know all the locations of all the hot spots; you can point someone to the nearest gas station from anywhere in town. You know the best restaurants and the cheapest stores.

But maybe you get a big job offer one day, and move to a new city. When you first move to the new city, you're right back to basics again. You learn how to get to work and how to get home. There's often a sense of frustration because "back home" you know where everything is, but in this new place you can't seem to get anywhere or find anything!

Some people start by learning where the highways are. Some people try to learn what the major roads are, or where the well-known landmarks sit. Some people start by trying to learn the names of particular neighborhoods. But even with a good map in your hands, you don't know which neighborhoods are safe after dark, or what part of town has the best Chinese food.

You figure out how to get to the grocery store, even as you wear out the path between work and home. You try a few restaurants, a few bars, a theater, you start to build up the confidence to get around, but it takes a very long time, and it all radiates out in a slow, ever-growing relationship to that well-worn road between work and home. But eventually you're spending a lot of time in new places, and one day you find yourself giving directions to someone from out of town.

Learning a language

And this is how it goes with a language! You start with the well-worn road of basic phrases. Saying hello and goodbye in a half dozen ways until you want to choke on it.

Then you learn phonics and start sounding out words. This is like getting a map of the city — it has all the information you need to get around, but it still doesn't tell you where anything is, or whether you're going to like this restaurant or that club.

Sooner or later, we all have to go through the long, hard journey of learning grammar and building vocabulary: learning nouns, verbs, conjugations, declensions, and so on. It takes a lot of time, but eventually, we can reach a point where we can give directions without looking at a map.

And eventually, you pick up the slang and the idioms and the expressions that show you you understand the language. Finally, your new language city becomes your second home.

Nothing is free

The important thing that this analogy really brings to light is the fact that it takes time, effort, work, and repetition to learn. That doesn't mean it's hard — easy and hard are nothing more than words to describe how much you resist doing the work. Nothing is impossible.

The knowledge only comes with experience, but the experience can be quite an adventure. If you only explore once a week, you'll be learning the city for a long time... but if you spend a few hours every night driving around in new neighborhoods, it won't be very long until you know where everything is.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your map and go explore your language!


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  • I think this is an awesome analogy, it works in so many ways. Something that neither you nor the word collector mentioned, however, is the idea that the more you do it, the easier it gets. It's easier because you lose a lot of the fear that can come with learning a language, you've done it once you can do it again, and you know what works for you so you can avoid wasted time trying to figure out the best way to learn the city/language.Still, the title keeps reminding me of the Simpson's. "Son, a woman is like a refridgerator. They're about six feet tall, weigh 300 lbs, they make ice... um... oh, wait, a woman is like a beer."

  • Very cool... Reading your expansion has sort of opened up more thoughts on language learning being like moving to a new city. Great post... Thanks for the link...Love your idea btw of studying one language a year intently, I may have to copy that once I'm ready to settle down with just one! :)

  • Hahahaha

  • If you decide to do it, let me know. Maybe we could both land on the same language one year and collaborate! :)

  • Nice analogy :) ... but what about someone who doesn't start out with learning major roads or lists of galleries and cafés and what-have-you, someone who makes friends and then has them take him with them. Someone who observes where the natives go, what they do there, someone who listens to what they say about places. Someone who doesn't plan too much himself but allows himself to drift with the flow, joining the residents in going about their ways? Someone who discovers bars, restaurants, theaters etc. as they come, as they are presented to him, as they are liked and used by native residents?I don't think that everybody has to 'go through the long, hard journey of learning grammar and building vocabulary: learning nouns, verbs, conjugations, declensions, and so on'... there are approaches to language learning that are completely grammar-free (and free of vocabulary study), and everybody has learned at least one language using this method to perfection!Anyway, I'm very impressed by your blog. You post very often, very regularly, and about a wide variety of topics. Great job & keep it up!

  • Anyone who claims they don't learn grammar is fooling himself. You may not call it grammar, and you may not do painful, boring exercises, but if you use the right gender or the right conjugation, you've just used grammar. And you have to learn that somewhere.Thanks for the kind words. It's always nice to know that my hard work here is appreciated!

  • Yeah, I'm with you on this one. Almost any language learner/polyglot on the web shows a certain disdain for rote grammar learning and I don't think either one of our descriptions imply that you have to be sitting with a grammar book in your hand, just that learning something that's different grammatically, like a particle in Japanese, is like discovering a new part of city... whether or not you know you're learning 'grammar'.

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