I am infatuated with languages. I really like the idea of learning languages. Emphasis on the word “idea.” Because I’m not good at the actual sitting down and learning the things part of language learning. Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Chef claims that you can break down a language with a handful of phrases, that you can teach yourself the way that a language is structured with a handful of words. And maybe you can, I don’t know. I found his actual breakdown of how to break learning down pretty vague and hard to apply, in all honesty.
A few years ago I was fascinated by the idea of building myself some sort of structure for learning languages. I remember looking at language families and trying to plot out a way that I could acquire one language, then another, then another. I made notes, then I made charts, then I made the language-learning equivalent of a video game skill tree.
At this point, I spoke English, French, and a little Finnish. Since Finnish is a lonely language with little in the way of family and my knowledge of it is limited to conversations with my great-grandparents when I was three, I used French as my starting point. Which led me to take a Spanish class (because they’re both Romance languages).
I didn’t speak Spanish “like a French street urchin” the way some of my classmates did (the prof actually said “street urchin”), but I had a lot of trouble keeping my brain in the right language. I’d be responding to a question in Spanish, everything going fine, and then all of a sudden I’d hit a cognate and be speaking French. It was really frustrating.
And led me to think that maybe my very rough plan to gradually conquer a video game skill tree of languages might be a little flawed. So I decided I should flip the script a little. Instead of trying to learn languages in families, I would jump between different language families. I didn’t feel like learning a whole new alphabet, so I took German.
I also thought about trying to improve my Finnish by learning it in Spanish, but it quickly occurred to me that that was crazy. Finnish isn’t much like most languages, so whatever language I learned it in, it would be difficult to learn.
I did use my Spanish textbook to structure my Finnish language learning. For a while. It’s a lot of work to do without knowing if you’re actually doing it right. I ended up downloading a bunch of Before You Know It apps for my phone and getting the phrasebook basics of a couple languages before school started up and I lost all concept of time. And the ability to think about personal projects.
I’m still really attracted to the idea of a video game skill tree for life skills. I feel like there are a lot of things I could learn, that anyone could learn, if things were laid out in an order that let the skills build on themselves gradually. I grew up playing piano, so I’ve got a lot of baseline knowledge about music that can be applied with other instruments and in other areas, similar to the what I tried to do with languages, but hopefully more effective.
I realize that now that it may not be the best method for language learning, but I do still think it could work for something.
P.S. I’m a liar. I’m probably going to try to use my video game skill tree to learn languages again, somewhere down the line.