Some time ago I heard a lecture that touched on language a bit. Timothy Ferriss stated that you need to be comfortable with about 1,200 words of vocabulary to have conversational fluency. (This isn’t just conjecture. There’s some evidence that if you know 1,000 lexemes in Spanish, you can understand almost 90% of spoken conversation.)
Ferriss also said that the Rosetta Stone model of pretending that you don’t know anything about a language or “language” in general—learning like a child does—is crap. We have a lot of linguistic context to draw on as people who possess one or more languages already, and we should use that knowledge to accelerate learning a new language. This rings true to me; I’ve had some success with a Rosetta Stone course, but I find the process of learning how to put sentences together with its method so slow. He suggests learning a new language with explicit reference to one that you already know. Obviously you need to leave enough wiggle room for idioms and the ideas behind expressions, but most language isn’t very complicated.
One other very intriguing suggestion was to use the acquisition of a new language to strengthen another language that you previously learned (but which isn’t your native tongue). I decided to try this with my Spanish class and have been taking my notes, which are mostly just vocabulary lists, in French.
The instructor holds most of the lecture in Spanish, although lately more English has been seeping in as the concepts are getting a little more complicated. (And several people still have trouble with one of the first verbs we learned). At first, it was very difficult to hear the Spanish word and an English translation or explanation and then write down a French phrase. One of my notes from the first day said exactly that: «C’est assez difficile d’écrire en français, écouter l’anglais, et étudier l’espagnol.» Gradually that’s getting easier, too.
I’m kind of amazed at how well it’s working out. For the most part I can make a very accurate translation of this intro-level Spanish vocabulary in French. It probably helps that Spanish and French share so many words. (It almost feels like cheating.) Writing out sentences about grammar is a little trickier, since my French is better at describing things and events than abstract concepts, but eventually I get there, too. On just a few occasions, I’ve had to write an English word or phrase [in brackets] as a placeholder until I could get an answer from Google Translate about a proper Spanish to French translation.
Two words that surprised me that I didn’t know? The color-modifying adjectives “oscuro” and “claro.” It turns out the words for “dark” and “light” are “sombre” and “claire,” which I could have totally gotten in the context of a sentence . . . clearly just not from the dark recess of my mind.
That and “lazy.” Perhaps it’s good that my high school French classmates and I didn’t hear the word “paresseux” often enough from our teacher to know instantly that it was the proper translation for “perezoso.”