More Adventures in Learning Languages

In trying to take a break from Latin and Greek, I’ve been learning Old English, Old Norse, and German. I’ve been using an odd cocktail of textbooks and online resources, and slowly over the course of the week gain a feeling for the languages, particularly German and old English.

I thought I’d take some time and write a bit on how I tend to learn languages, and some of the things I’ve realized over the years. Perhaps someone else on the internet may find it useful.

In learning Latin and Greek, you come to rely on paradigms for everything. Always fall back on your paradigms which you ought to have memorized perfectly.

I can’t rely on pure paradigms so much with the Old English, since there seems to be a sound instinct that one must develop in order to really internalize the verbs. Kind of like how English speakers develop an instinct for which verbs behave in certain ways, such as “sing, sang, sung.” To an outsider, those kinds of distinctions seem really arbitrary, so you just have to memorize them at first until you know a lot of them, or somehow manage to develop a feeling for how it works.

Old English contains all the proto-forms of these sorts of verbs, though they don’t always work in the same way that Modern English ones do.

I’ve gotten so used to being proficient in Latin and Greek and reading fairly  easily that it’s been interesting to have the reminder of what it is like to look at a far-less familiar language and have to piece it all together while still in the process of memorizing all the necessary forms and rules.

My most effective method for learning things is simply to write them out until I’ve got them memorized, which takes a lot less time than you might think. I’ve been working on it for almost a week and have a pretty decent framework for the forms, though I’m still working on it. I make sure to memorize important and common verbs and nouns, which often tend to be irregular or have odd quirks.

I have been becoming slowly more disenchanted with trying to learn things straight from textbooks, since that is such an artificial way of approaching a language. People never develop languages by thinking about Grimm’s Law, or Verner’s Law, or phonological changes like “breaking,” and it seems ridiculous to try and learn a language through its back door. I simply do what I do out of desperation and because I can get all the resources more or less for free.

But rather than going through a textbook from beginning to end, I am working on a method for learning languages from textbooks more efficiently. I think one of the reasons why people are scared away from learning languages on their own is because they look at the standard textbooks (the ones that don’t dumb it down too much) and see that there’s 100+ pages of linguistic information that isn’t directly  relevant to actually knowing the language. The phonological information tends to be more useful once you actually have a grasp of the language. This is why Duolingo is generally a better method of learning, even if you aren’t getting all the information up front. Given enough time, you tend to adopt it without having to think about it too much.

But Duolingo doesn’t yet offer Old English or Old Norse, so I have to do that the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, Google books have a ton of resources entirely for free that I can put in my library on my computer and my tablet.

So my method is to go straight for forms. It doesn’t matter how many declensions there are, or how many verb conjugations. The trick is to figure out the general patterns they follow, even if it seems like a ridiculous number of things to learn. It sometimes can take awhile to break that down, but you can generally start figuring that out when you spend enough time just writing things out, as much from memory as possible.

In Old English, the verbs can seem insanely complex, but you can pretty quickly figure out that there are certain vowel combinations that tend to be in the present and certain vowels that are in the past, and what matters most is what the last two letters of the word are. Figuring out bigger patterns is important, and that’s what you will recognize when you actually start reading the language. I think that’s how you develop the more unconscious “feeling” of a language; not by obsessing about memorizing every exact form individually, or looking at it as one giant mess of separate elements. No human being can operate on a completely arbitrary and random language system, so there have to be bigger patterns.

But no matter how many clever mnemonics you come up with, or connections you make, the main ingredient in all of this is time. And time is what I happen to have a lot of right now, and that’s how I’m able to do this.


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