Saturday, December 26, 2015

Want to Learn a Language in the New Year? Learn from Richard Burton...

Not Richard Burton the actor! Long before him, there was a yet more famous Richard Burton whose accomplishments in the area of language acquisition and adventurous discovery are the stuff of legend. 

Richard Burton was a British linguist, explorer, soldier, and spy who lived from 1821 to 1890. 

They made an excellent movie about the expedition that Burton and Speke made in search of the source of the Nile, Mountains of the Moon.

But if you want to learn a new language, follow the advice of this exceptional linguist. I've been following it for years. And I worked my way up to become an Arabic linguist at the National Security Agency after 9/11.

It's this simple. If you want to learn a new language, the cold reality is that a hundred hard hours of work stand between you and that goal. And no one can do that work for you--but you.

Burton's method addresses the practical reality of how you can actually study for those thousand hours without losing your ambition (and your mind). 

Here's the method he describes in his autobiography (posthumously published by his wife):

"Learning foreign languages, as a child learns its own, is mostly a work of pure memory, which acquires, after childhood, every artificial assistance possible. My system of learning a language in two months was purely my own invention, and thoroughly suited myself. I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day. I never worked more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the rain lost its freshness."  (P. 56, The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton)

Following Burton's advice, whenever I wanted to attack a new language, I focused primarily on those absolutely most essential and common words, phrases, and grammar. And I studied these things in hard bursts of time for just fifteen minutes, after which I would take a break. In fact, I discovered that one can work for fifteen minutes on a language, and then devote another fifteen minutes to a different language or intellectual project without losing mental energy at all. The sheer variety allows one to keep moving forward. Notice, Sir Richard Burton does not say he only worked for fifteen minutes a day on a language. He undoubtedly worked more, but taking mental health breaks, even if that means working on something else, is crucial to preventing burnout.

Burton explains further:

"After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy book-work (one of the Gospels is the most come-atable), and underlined every word that I wished to recollect, in order to read over my pencillings at least once a day. Having finished my volume, I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me. The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid." (Ibid)

Following his advice here, I devised a list of the actual most important basic words to learn. Many books you may get follow the flawed methodology of throwing, for instance, all the words for colors at you in one chapter. You need to know the words for black and white months before you actually will ever need to know the word for tan. You need to know how to say door in a language and you can probably get by without ever learning how to say door-knob. So learn those actually important words. Master those. 

A final thought from Sir Richard Burton:

"...and whenever I conversed with anybody in a language that I was learning, I took the trouble to repeat their words inaudibly after them, and so to learn the trick of pronunciation and emphasis." (Ibid)

He hints here at the most important advice of all. If you want to learn a language, you need to fearlessly use that language, regardless of whatever mistakes you might make. Chances are, the person you are speaking with will graciously receive your efforts. If they don't, if they rudely insult the mistakes you might make in your attempts, then all the more shamelessly butcher that rude person's language and still use the encounter as a learning opportunity. 

Bless your efforts in the upcoming year! Whatever you choose to study, if you really do work very regularly on it, in fifteen minute bursts of time even a few times a day, and if you then fearlessly use what you are learning, you will acquire a functional knowledge of a new language.

I offer you for free the basic word lists I crafted for Spanish, Arabic, Romanian, and Latin, complete with sound files to practice pronunciation. 

Let me know how you are doing!