Learning several languages at once

I’ve long been interested in human languages, and have learnt the basics of several. I’m just starting to be more systematic about it (after at least a year of good intentions to do so). The tipping point was switching from the default Leitner algorithm and trying the “sm5” algorithm, for the Emacs flashcard program.

This uses the same algorithm as Supermemo (there’s a more commercial site here), developed by Piotr Wozniak. It’s a spaced repetition system, that shows you flashcards. You try to recall the answer, then the program shows you the correct answer, and it asks you how well you remembered it. It uses the history of such information to work out how long you are likely to remember that card for, and tries to schedule the next appearance of each card just before you are about to forget it, which is apparently the optimum — any earlier is wasting time, any later and you’re not reinforcing your memory.

It is extraordinarily much better than the Leitner method, and that has greatly increased my motivation.

So, I’ve been entering vocabulary and grammar questions from the various self-study books I’m using, and my Emacs gives me a heady mixture of questions. This ties in with my attempts to spend less time looking at things on the web; I’m trying to shift the bits of time between thinking about programming into doing something productive.

I’ve enhanced the process further, by interfacing the flashcard program to my Emacs Gamepad interface (which I’ll blog about separately some time). This way, I can sit back while going through cards at a great pace… I can even use it comfortably in bed, with the netbook on my bedside table!

But enough on the technology, and on to what I’m trying to learn, and how. Originally I wasn’t going to post how many I’m trying to learn at once, because while it’s acceptable to tell people about some ambitious physical target such as running a marathon, it seems to be against social convention to do the same about a mental target. So, let’s stuff social convention, and admit to my ambition: I’m trying to learn 20 languages at the same time. A crazy plan, but I’ve not found documented evidence of anyone else trying to do anything like it before (possibly nobody else is crazy enough, or perhaps they are but they’re keeping quiet about it). It’s not just to satisfy my fascination for the differences and similarities between languages; it’s very much an experiment, using myself as the guinea-pig, to compare learning each language relatively slowly but many at the same time, against the more normal approach of trying to learn each language more quickly, but fewer at a time. I don’t expect progress to be distributed steadily between them; most multiple language learners I’ve heard of seem to shift their attention around.

Of course, I’m not going at this from cold; I learnt French and a tiny bit of German at school, was once reasonably fluent in conversational Dutch, learnt some Occitan because of my interest in medieval music, have been learning Irish since moving to Ireland, know a bit of Norwegian and can guess at Swedish from it, and have been to introductory classes in Japanese and Mandarin.
Here, out of interest, is my selection: Basque, Chinese, Cornish, Czech, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Icelandic, Irish, Japanese, Maltese, Mongolian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Swedish.

I’ll post progress reports from time to time.  To help me do so, I’ll try to come up with a criterium for whether a word counts as “learnt”, and write some code to analyze the flashcard deck and tell me how many of each language I’ve successfully learnt.

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2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Language learning, up to July 2010 Here’s the first numeric status update for my project to learn several languages at once. […]

  2. […] at the Sugar talk is to sugarize Mnemosyne. Now I don’t actually use Mnemosyne myself, but I use the Emacs implementation of such an algorithm and am very impressed by it. I’ll at least look […]

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