For a long time I’ve been meaning to write something about my language learning process and never really managed it. Rather than talking about my procrastination I think I’ll just cut straight to the point this time.

I’m kind of in love with languages of all kinds, natural, programming, musical…every time I discover a new one, I want to learn it. I was developing a ridiculously long list of languages I wanted to learn, so a year ago , out of desperation, I recklessly decided to start learning 5 at once (vocabulary only; grammar would have been too difficult). I chose Russian, Irish, Finnish, Norwegian and French.

Although far from my first foray into language learning - in the past I’ve dabbled in Latin, Greek and French, and I spent quite a lot of time in 2013 learning Russian - I’d never been very good at committing to anything for more than a short period of time. I’d tried language kits, Anki, textbooks and foreign language book translations without managing to stick with any for very long. I figured it was time to take matters into my own hands and formulate my own way of doing things. Here follows a very much simplified explanation of what I came up with.

Although it’s evolved over time, and I’ve added new languages, the overall idea remains the same: I have a spreadsheet with a separate sheet for each language (currently all the languages mentioned earlier, plus Japanese, Icelandic and Polish). One column contains a list of English words, each of which is a hyperlink to the pronunciation of that word on Forvo. One column is for notes and hints, and then there are 2 columns dedicated to the date I learnt the word and the date I next need to revise the word, respectively.

The calculation of revision dates - which is based on powers of 2 - is entirely manual and also subject to arbitrary adjustment, depending on how well I feel I’ve remembered a word.

I’ve now been learning vocabulary for over a year using this technique, and it’s surprisingly effective. The biggest change in my revision technique was forcing myself to type out each word as I revised it in a text file, something I decided to try after feeling like I wasn’t really paying enough attention to words as I revised them: not only does this test my spelling, but it has also taught me to touch-type in Cyrillic to some extent. Although I’m prone to off-by-one errors when trying to type in Cyrillic, I’ve started to get confused between keyboard layouts occasionally and try to type in English as though still using the Cyrillic layout!

This leads me to an interesting thing I’ve started to notice during the last couple of months. When I’m doing revision and see a word in the English word column, a foreign translation usually pops into my mind instantly - but it’s not always in the same language, and definitely not always in the language I’m actually meant to be revising.

The fact that different English words trigger a different “automatic” translation is something I find intriguing. Why is it that the first translation of “sorry” that comes to mind is the Finnish “anteeksi” rather than Norwegian “unsskyld”, while “every” is automatically Russian “кажды” rather than Irish “gach”, and “accident” is always Irish “timpiste” rather than Russian “аварии”?

I actually have trouble differentiating between translations for a specific English word because they’ve all come to mean the same thing to me in their own right. I’m not translating in my head anymore: the meaning is embedded in the foreign word itself (I imagine this is how fluent speakers feel about every foreign word). As a result of this confusion I’ve frequently made the disconcerting mistake of “answering” in the wrong language when trying to revise vocab.

Perhaps a good analogy is the confusion that can come about when you’ve learnt several programming languages with subtly (or not-so-subtly) different syntax. I frequently find myself typing in some weird Python-Javascript-Java-C mish-mash with stray colons and semicolons and variable declarations all over the place:

if bla:
	blabla;
	for (int bla = bla; bla; bla++) {
		blaaa
	}
else if bla:
	$("bla").bla;

(note: the above programming language does not exist.)

Here’s a very simple example with natural languages (grammar is completely fake btw): это jeudi tänään ach я не ag oibre

that is: russian-french-finnish-irish-russian-russian-irish-irish

For some reason I find the above nonsensical phrase easier to understand than if it was all in one language. ¯\(ツ)