Learning Languages

Languages are incredibly interesting. They enable us humans to communicate complex things, do science and improve society. Languages also tell a story about the people that speak them. Take Inuktitut for example, an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken by people in Greenland, Alaska, Siberia and Canada - the language has an incredible number of words for describing snow. Why? Snow is what they see most of the time and their lives depend on understanding which snow is dangerous and which is not. Analysing a language can help us understand the culture behind it.

Muyueh Lee created an incredible visualization of the words for colours that exist English and Chinese. There is no explanation given for the difference, but it is obvious that the cultures behind the languages perceive and think about colours differently.

Learning a new language can be a challenge but will open up incredible opportunities and insight into foreign cultures. Personally I was always rather bad at learning languages. I hated grammar exercises and going through vocabulary lists. It was in my second to last year in school that I started watching series and movies on DVD in English and was actually able to experience the language as one. From that time on I knew, that in order to really learn a language you do not need to brainwash yourself with grammar exercises and vocabulary lists - you just need to start to listen to the language.

Obviously, in order to get to the point where you could simply listen you would still have to learn a basic set of words and a basic understanding of sentence structure. This however has gotten much easier in recent years with the advent language learning apps and improvements in cognition research.

Apps like Duolingo help tremendously to get you started in a new language. Duolingo is still expanding and adding new courses through their Incubator where you can follow new courses being developed until they finally "hatch". The courses will not take you all the way to fluency in a language but will give you a kickstart and place you somewhere between A2 and B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. From there you can, with some work, start reading basic books and watch easy TV shows or listen to radio stations in the language you are learning.

Reading, writing and listening to a language is what Duolingo can give you. The speaking part is sadly completely missing. This however can easily be compensated by finding tandem language partners in the Duolingo community that are willing to talk to you over Skype or Facebook.

Within a few months of using Duolingo I have surpassed my knowledge of 3 years Spanish in school. I am currently working towards finishing my Spanish tree on Duolingo and at the same time learning about 2,000 new words using Memrise. Just a few years ago I would have told you that it is impossible for me to learn another language, now I think that life is too short to learn all the amazing languages I want to learn.

Next stop after Spanish will be Dutch, Toki Pona and then Turkish (which I hope will be added to Duolingo soon). If you thought about learning another language, now is the time! Grab your smartphone, install an App and get going. Consistency is the key you need to progress in a language - just do one exercise a day and you will quickly find yourself reading a new language.

Solms, Germany