Stories and Science for Better Foreign Language Learning

Hackable and Hackability When Considering Learning a Foreign Language

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Over the last 5 or 6 months, I’ve attempted to “hack” four Asian languages, namely Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese and, most recently, Korean. Obviously in that span of time, one can’t master a language, but in my case that was never the main objective.

My main goal was to “hack” said-language in order to achieve certain liveable language fluency or just attempt to “spark” the vocabulary acquisition part. In turn, this initial hack would allow me to jump start latter, deeper learning.

My secondary goal in learning these four and eventually five languages (I started on Malay too!) was to understand more about language learning process in general. Long-term, this understanding of language learning will help me as a technologist build some cool tools to help language learners like myself. (Hopefully more on this in an upcoming post!)

During this process, I’ve also come to become very aware of the fact that some languages are by their very nature (and lack of relationship to one’s native tongue) much less easily hacked than others. Tonal languages like Thai and Vietnamese are tough to accurately pronounce even after weeks of study. Some languages are more “hackable” than others in the sense that you can get up and running in the language much faster.

At the same time, even the hardest languages are hackable, since well… all language are hackable in the sense that you can improve how you learn in order to improve your learning efficiency and time to acquire mastery of vocabulary, skills, etc.

Two of the most important things I’ve learned from these hacking language challenges is that:

  1. Not all languages are as hackable as others
  2. All languages are hackable

Let’s look at these two points.

Different Languages Have Different Levels of Hackability

As is obvious to pretty much ever language learner, some languages are easier to learn than others. Depending on your native language and other foreign tongues you know, the current language you are learning will be easier or hard.

While it seems quite simple, it’s important to remember that not every language has the same level of “hackability.” By “hackability,” I mostly mean the difficult of that language to learn.

Essentially there is a scale of difficulty depending on your background. For example, if you know French, then Italian will be easier. If you can read Chinese, then reading Japanese will be easier.

At the same time, there are also some characteristics of certain languages that make them more difficult to learn in general. These features of language can create specific challenges for learners at different stages, since while you can get away with little grammar early on, some languages require more grammatical mastery for true fluency.

Some Examples of Language Hackability for Initial Learning

Including these five languages I’ve recently studied (Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, Korean and Malay, I consider myself fluent in Chinese, French and Spanish.

In my opinion and I think most learners would agree, Chinese is one of the hardest foreign languages to learn. It is particularly hard for early learners due to the difficulty of the pronunciation system, which creates huge challenges for both listening and create comprehensible expression. While people often point to the difficulty of the writing system, I consider Chinese to be particularly hard to “hack” early on due to its pronunciation.

Similarly Thai and Vietnamese are quite hard for early language hacking. Both Thai and Vietnamese use a multiple tone speaking system, which means to Western ears the same “sound” might have several “meanings” depending on the intonation. So, while other characteristics of these languages might be easier compared to some European languages, in fact the speaking and listening are such a challenge that it’s pretty hard to hack these languages in a few hours of self-study.

In contrast, Burmese and Malay are quite hackable to early language learners. While both these languages contain very little vocabulary similarity with English, the characteristics, in particularly the speaking, of these languages makes them easier to “hack” or learn quickly. You might spend weeks trying to pronounce something relatively native sounding in Thai or Vietnamese, you can pretty much speak correctly after only a few tries with Burmese and Malay.

In my case with learning Burmese, I didn’t even to have to do anything special for Burmese pronunciation, besides mimicking the native speakers. In fact, I was able to learn 150 words and expressions in around 50 study sessions over a couple weeks before I traveled to Burma in December 2013. To break it down, I spent 451 minutes (7 hours and 31 minutes) of study time on Burmese and was able to learn one linguistic chunk (word, expression or sentence) every 2-4 minutes. Or about 3 minutes per item.

Arguably, I think vocabulary acquisition can be plotted to fairly predictable numbers if you plan accordingly and use the best learning techniques (specifically by creating sticky first impressions of new terms and reviewing through spaced repetition).

In fact, I use the same techniques on most languages I study but since I could speak the words accurately in Malay and Burmese, I was able to be functional a lot faster than the other languages.

So, while some languages might be more easily hacked than others, in the end, it’s important to remember that any language can be hacked. It’s not rocket science. It’s systematic vocabulary acquisition. It’s hacking language.

Every language is hackable.

I’ve come to believe that all languages are “hackable” in the sense of there being ways to improve the effeciency of your learning. For example, using certain techniques, resources and technologies, I was about in about 2 weeks to learn some 150 or so words and phrases in Burmese and subsequently better travel and experience life in Burma.

While there are some general principles and tools you can learn to “hack” a foreign language, the challenge and uniqueness of each and every language means you need to be flexible.

For me, the main principle of rapid language acquisition or language hacking is a two step process: make the memory stick, then review it so it stays stuck.

First, you need to make a good first impression of that new word, so it’s easier to remember. I call this the “stickiness” factor where you try to make that foreign word stick somehow to your memory through a pun, a visual or some bizarre personal connection.

Second, you have to review. The best method is space repetition. Essentially you learn a new word, then review it over spaced intervals so that the memory moves from short term to long term memory.

For me, this is one of the most important techniques for language learning I’ve developed across different language learning challenges: If you can make the new word stick to your current mental frame, then it’ll be easier to recall. If you can force yourself to recall or use that word or phrase several times over the span of several weeks or months, then it’s likely something you are going to remember long term.

Beyond this key insight about memory and memorizing new words, there are quite a few interesting ways you can shortcut your learning of specific languages. There are “tricks” that help you get over certain obvious hurtles. There are workarounds that make certain obstacles avoidable until mastery of more challenging aspects.

Conclusion: Hackable vs Hackablity

I’ll admit that some languages are harder than others. You’ll never be able to get yourself understand as quickly in some languages over others. Some languages just have a highly requirements making them have a different levels of hackability.

I’m a firm believer in showing people that foreign languages can be learned. Morever they can be “hacked” by employing best practices and a creative spirt.

While I have had some tutors and took a short class early on in Chinese, I’ve more or less learned Chinese on my own in my free time.

As my current tagline goes at HackingLanguage, we’re aiming at “Stories and Science for Better Foreign Language Learning,” which means I want to learn the quantitative and qualitative data on how to learn. While I’ve got my own stories about language learning, I’ve been meeting with passionate language learners discuss their journey to fluency and foreign language mastery.

What’s your story? Which languages do you think are more hackable? Do you think all languages can be hacked?

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