Deconstructing a language in 13 sentences
Posted: 21 March 2013 08:27 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I’m reading a cookbook that, interestingly, starts off with how to learn new things in the most efficient way. The recommended first step in the process is deconstruction, for the purpose of finding the smallest learnable units. There are several examples given of different types of deconstruction, but one of them is by someone who likes learning new languages and who has developed a process for quickly discovering “the soul of a language and estimate how long it would take me to learn it.”

When he meets someone who speaks a language that is foreign to him and who is willing to play along, he asks them to repeat verbally these 13 sentences and then to write them down.

The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.

He gives it to John.
She gives it to him
Is the apple red?
The apples are red.

I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.
I’m going to know tomorrow.
I have eaten the apple.
I can’t eat the apple.

“By memorizing a few verbs in a few tenses, you get access to all verbs. It opens up the whole language in a few weeks.... All I need to memorize are the conjugations for a few verbs - to have, to want, to need, etc. - and I can slap the infinitive, or ‘to’ form of any other verb on the end. If you learn the auxiliary verbs in your target language, plus the all-important to be, to have, to do and to go, you can very quickly express any idea.”

This reminds me what a wise piano teacher once told me… “You don’t need to learn how to play the piano; all you have to learn is how to play four songs you like and you’ll have fun at parties.”

So, do you think with these 13 sentences, you could have fun at parties?

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Posted: 22 March 2013 01:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Well if not, they could help teach a 4-year old to read.  Or you could substitute other words and see where it leads.  Could be interesting at a party as the night wears on.

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Posted: 22 March 2013 01:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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When he meets someone who speaks a language that is foreign to him and who is willing to play along, he asks them to repeat verbally these 13 sentences and then to write them down.

Presumably he means people who don’t speak English, rather than those who also speak a language that is foreign to him.

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Posted: 22 March 2013 04:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I don’t see this as a useful tool.

1) The example sentences are English-centric. You would need different sentences for each target language to capture the distinctions of each.
2) For English, the thirteen sentences do give you a decent rundown of the rudiments of grammar, but for other languages with more tenses and cases, you’d need more sentences. English grammar is almost nonexistent, so it’s easily deconstructed with a dozen or so examples.
3) The rudiments of grammar don’t take long to learn anyway. They’re pretty quickly absorbed in traditional instruction methods, so the deconstruction isn’t necessary. (Although if an individual finds they learn well this way, that’s great. I’m all for trying different approaches for different individuals.)
4) The difficult and idiosyncratic stuff (what gives a language its “soul” to use the originator’s term) isn’t covered by the rudiments of grammar. For English, it’s prepositions and phrasal verbs that trip up second-language learners. In the languages I’ve studied most intensely: in Old Norse the problem is the myriad patterns of vowel shifts when words are inflected; in Latin it’s the multiple conjugations and declensions and knowing how and when to use them, e.g, ablative absolutes, double datives, indirect speech. These can’t be adequately demonstrated using a dozen or so sentences.

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Posted: 24 March 2013 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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For English, the thirteen sentences do give you a decent rundown of the rudiments of grammar

And that’s exactly the point. By starting with what you know, you immediately see what is the same and what is different in the new language. The point isn’t to learn a language from 13 sentences, the point is to show you what you already understand about how that language works and what you don’t understand and where you need to focus your efforts in the beginning.

They’re pretty quickly absorbed in traditional instruction methods, so the deconstruction isn’t necessary.

Traditional instruction methods don’t teach how to get a grasp of a language by talking to a stranger on a plane flight. The point of this exercise is to determine the minimum amount of learning you need to do to get by and where to focus your efforts in the beginning.

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Posted: 24 March 2013 12:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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But the thirteen sentence don’t do that either. Will it distinguish when to use the ablative and the when to use the dative? Do verbs have vowel shifts, as in Old Norse? And if so, will these sentences illustrate the scope and variety of those shifts? The answer is no. All these sentences will tell you is that English is poor in grammar, which you should know already. These sentences tell you nothing about what you must learn in the target language.

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