Should You 'Fake It Till You Make It' Learning A Language?

It's a fairly well-known saying, though honestly, I hate it. The idea of faking anything just doesn't sit well with me. However I really couldn't think of a more fitting title for the advice I want to share today.

This weekend I began testing out a new theory about learning. It's not extremely new, of course — I've used variations of this in the past, with every language I've learned — but this is the first time I made an attempt to learn from scratch using just this method.

What I'm talking about is chatting with someone completely in their language, using Google Translate — just talking through the translator until you can talk without it.

The proposition

This weekend I made a new Facebook friend in Macedonia who is kind enough to help me learn the language. My proposal went like this: I will write to you using Google Translate, and I will learn by watching how you write to me, or from any corrections you feel like giving.

That's it. Pretty simple. The only additional step I've taken was simply to read the Wikipedia page on Macedonian grammar... and to be honest, I didn't even read the entire page.

There is a well-known concept in language learning that suggests the size of vocabulary required for typical day-to-day conversation is quite small. Whether you believe it's 100 words or 1000 words, there is very little argument that you don't need an enormous vocabulary for standard language use. So it stands to reason, then, that getting straight to the conversation will get you repeated exposure to that basic vocabulary much sooner, and you will therefore learn those words much faster.

So that's what I'm doing. My new friend and I are just having a real conversation! No lessons, no instruction, no study. Just fun! I tell about myself and where I live, and I get to learn about my new friend, and life in Skopja, Macedonia.

How it's working out

After just one day, I have already found myself understanding a lot of what I read without the need to run it through a translator, and even understanding a few puns. I've also found a lot of situations in which I've been able to write portions of my responses without the translator.

It's not quite the same level I reached with Polish in 8 days, but it's close. The biggest difference is that Macedonian does not have the complicated noun cases that Polish has, so grammar is much more similar to English.

I already know the words I, you, me, him, her, he, she, it, us, is, are, yes, no, like, have, want, tell, see, read, write, work, good, thing, many, who, how, where, what, my, your, our, to, for, and, and much more, and can use them correctly, after just one day of exposure to the language by way of an email conversation. There are some nuances to verb conjugation that are still unclear, but I've already got the endings under control.

The best way to learn a language is by using it

There couldn't be a better endorsement of my language advice than these results! I continue to say, over and over, that the best way to learn a language is simply to use it, and here I've done exactly that: I began using a language I had never previously studied, and in just one day of use I acquired an an exciting level of knowledge in it!

Yes, I am already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, so I didn't have to learn that. Sure, I recognize a lot of vocabulary by virtue of the fact that I already have a lot of experience with Slavic languages. But actually, in many ways, my experience with Russian and Polish was an obstacle, because I had to get past the fact that Macedonian is not declined!

I'm doing a lot of experiementation this year. My 8-day Polish experiment was quite eye opening. This weekend experiment with Macedonian is incredibly exciting. And of course my year-long Turkish project is certainly revealing a lot about language and learning.

There are still 8 months ahead, so there is still time for plenty of other experiments. By the time this year is over, I expect that I'll have a really solid learning strategy worked out, which will be important when I tackle the exciting idea I have planned for next year!

Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Nicely done! I do like this saying myself for this very reason - confidence leads to competence if implemented properly. Very interesting on how you learned Polish so quickly; it is on my list of languages to tackle in the next 18 months. I just recently wrote a post about creating a language bubble, and one of the things I do is to chat using the Google Translate Bot so I don't even have to switch tabs. I also use Chrome to read all my websites in my current language.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think one of the keys here was that it isn't chat, but email, so there is no pressure to rush out a response. I have time to look at what was said and how, and I have time to think about my own responses, so with each new message sent or received, I am learning, rather than cutting and pasting. But I do agree with all the things you're doing in your language bubble... and your results show how effective it is.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    How do you pronounce the j in the alphabet? Is it as a y?I might try this out soon as well. You don't mind if I comment on your blog in the same way, do you? I'll try and improve google's version as much as I can.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    ah-hah! I must have missed the fact it was an email conversation. That's what I get for reading in French ;)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Yeah, the Macedonian j equates to the Russian й, or the English y.Если тебе захочется комментировать по-русски, то комментируй! Мне бы рад! Здесь много людей, которые тебе поможят!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    If you will permit me to correct you: I believe "Я был бы рад" would be grammatically correct. :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Doh! Thanks.But the nice thing about such mistakes is that they make it clear that I'm not doing this through a translator. :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Отлично, спасибо! Мне нужно немного больше практики использования русского языка. Это было написано с Google Translate, так что мне жаль, если это не так.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Good idea. I've used this in the past, although sometimes what comes out of Google Translate gets a laught or 2 :-). Especially idiomatic expressions and slang terms.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    You're absolutely right — much of what comes out of Google Translate is comical, and even more of it is embarrassing with regard to gender! (The moment you realize you've been referring to yourself as a female is, let's say, humbling.)That's why I started right off by admitting that this is what I'm doing, and inviting corrections. And what's really exciting is that in just a few hours, I'd already figured out the genders and started correcting for myself.Remember, the point is not to convince someone that the Google Translation is yours... the point is to use Google just enough to be understood, and to learn from what the other person writes!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Ok, now it seems that you subconsciously doing everything you can to avoid your main goal of learning Turkish this year :)
    Turkish is not a language you can learn in a month (or week/weekend) unless you already know a Turkic language or some highly agglutinative languages.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    You think I don't make time for Turkish?

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I completely agree and I've just had a go at it myself. Being a speaker of conversational Spanish and Italian, I thought what the heck, let's try Portuguese.With a dictionary in one tab and Google Translate in another, I had a go at a few instant messaging chats in Portuguese, having never studied it.I'm pleased to say that by jumping in at the deep end, I've made a good start. Thanks for an excellent idea, which I would recommend to anyone starting to learn a language close to one they already know.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Excellent! I'm most pleased by the fact that, rather than engaging in some sort of discussion of the idea, you just went ahead and gave it a try. I'm glad you found it wasn't so hard.Now, how much have you learned about Portuguese already, after just doing this? I'll bet it's a lot more than you expected!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Привет! У меня вопрос о "Я был бы рад". Эта фраза должна быт "Я буду рад"? Не знаю. Я - любопытный потому, что я недавно разговаривал с русском, и я сказал "Я рад бы помогать", или что-то в этом роде, и потом он мне сказал: ""я рад бы помогать" это начало фразы, окончание которой такое - "но не могу" Он предложил "Я буду рад помогать." Это правильно?
    Спасибо большое!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    По-моему, то прав. Думаю, что самый лучший способ — это "было бы здорово," вместе "я был бы рад." :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    This is a fascinating little experiment, thanks for conducting it. Like you said, it really is very telling, your results...I may just try this with Brazilian Portuguese since it's so similar to Spanish and I've been wanting to learn it for a while anyway (it would open up ALL of South America to me instead of just the Spanish-speaking portion of it--which, yes, is everything but Brazil, but Brazil is a BIG part of South America).Cheers,

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