Language Mixing – An Easier Way to Learn Foreign Languages

[I had this idea about 10 years ago, and didn’t publish it till now. Looks like it’s already being done! Check out Language Immersion for Chrome. Let this be a lesson to move fast if you want to make something of your ideas.]

I’ve run this idea by about 25 smart, multilingual people, including a patent attorney. Most were quite enthusiastic about Language Mixing, and the most skepticism I encountered was from someone who thought it would only do a little bit of good. But, even he said he would want to try it, “just in case”.

Now, I’m curious what other people will think of Language Mixing. If it seems like it might work, then I hope an enterprising entrepreneur will run with the idea and give the rest of us something we can play with. And, if I could really get my wish, I think it would be awesome if Language Mixing would help people around the world understand each other just a wee bit better :).

First, I want you to think about how you learn new English words. I bet you mostly learn them from context, right? You see a new word, and then based on the words you see before and after it, you can usually guess what the new word means.

Here’s the logical leap: when you see that new English word, it is “foreign” to you. So, why not learn actual foreign words using the same method? Why not immerse yourself in a foreign language- the most effective way to learn a foreign language- by bringing the new language into your everyday reading?

Here’s an example. Below, you will see a paragraph from the kind of article people read every day. It’s an article about Edward Abbey, an author from the American West.

I have translated over 30% of the words in the paragraph into Swedish, and these words are in bold italics. I mostly translated very basic words, and Swedish words which are similar to English.

In this 180 word excerpt, there are 40 different Swedish words which are introduced to you. Every time a new Swedish word was introduced, I repeated the word at every opportunity thereafter.

Below the part-Swedish paragraph, you will see the paragraph in its original English. See how many of the Swedish words you were able to figure out :).

Mention the namn Edward Abbey among litterär folk in Manhattan, and de give du looks of condescension and pity, thinking you’ve mispronounced the namn of a well-known playwright. In the five åren I lived in New York almost nobody I met had läst him. In this del of the värld, väster of the Mississippi and east of the left kust, mention Cactus Ed and people’s eyes sken up with endera fury or reverence. Larry McMurtry anointed honom the Thoreau of den Amerikanen Väster. Wendell Berry praised honom as a första-rate autobiographer. His friend Dave Foreman kallade honom a “Mudhead Kachina,” a fond reference to den multifaceted clowns in Hopi religiös ceremoni. Others were inte so kind. In papers och magazines tvärs över den politisk spectrum, from the “National Review” till den “Nation”, han was labeled xenophobic, puerile, dopey, rasismen, sexist, an “eco-brutalist,” a “creeping fascinera hyena.” One reviewer suggested han be “neutered och locked away för livet.” Han never failed att provoke en reaktion. Älska honom or hata honom, it was impossible– remains omöjligt– att läsa honom med indifference.

Mention the name Edward Abbey among literary folk in Manhattan, and they give you looks of condescension and pity, thinking you’ve mispronounced the name of a well-known playwright. In the five years I lived in New York almost no one I met had read him. In this part of the world, west of the Mississippi and east of the left coast, mention Cactus Ed and people’s eyes light up with either fury or reverence. Larry McMurtry anointed him the Thoreau of the American West. Wendell Berry praised him as a first-rate autobiographer. His friend Dave Foreman called him a “Mudhead Kachina,” a fond reference to the multifaceted clowns in Hopi religious ceremonies. Others were not so kind. In papers and magazines across the political spectrum, from the National Review to the Nation, he was labeled xenophobic, puerile, dopey, racist, sexist, an “eco-brutalist,” a “creeping fascist hyena.” One reviewer suggested he be “neutered and locked away for life.” He never failed to provoke a response. Love him or hate him, it was impossible — remains impossible — to read him with indifference.

This example I gave you was extremely difficult. It’s an awful lot of work for your brain to figure out that much new stuff in such a short period of time. Yet, you probably figured out a lot of the Swedish words, right? I also bet it was easiest when you saw a word more than once.

Now, think about how many words you’ve just familiarized yourself with, and how little time it took. And you not only learned some Swedish, you may have learned a bit about Edward Abbey :).

If the paragraph had only been 5% Swedish, rather than 30% Swedish, I bet you could have breezily read the paragraph, enjoying the topic (if you had any interest in it to begin with), and along the way you would have naturally picked up some Swedish. Other foreign language vocabulary would be a lot harder to learn for an English speaker (like Russian or Mandarin), but the principle should still work well. Those languages are always harder to learn, anyway.

Ok, so how could Language Mixing be implemented really well, so that people would really enjoy learning foreign vocabulary?
My best guess is that a browser toolbar or an app would be the ideal implementation.

Ideally, this software would:

  • When turned on, translate and splice foreign words into the online article or ebook which the reader is interested in.
  • Let the reader set the percentage of vocabulary which would be new.
  • Italicize or colorize the foreign words, to alert the reader.
  • Begin by translating words which are quite common, or which are similar to the reader’s native language equivalents.
  • Remember which words the reader has already seen before, and make sure to keep repeating them, to reinforce the reader’s memory.
  • Allow the reader to see the original word when he puts his cursor over the foreign word, so he won’t ever have to try and read ahead while being confused.
  • Generate a pronunciation of the foreign word at the same time, so the reader can learn the sounds of the words, too.

One caveat: language mixing may not be good at teaching grammar. The limitations of machine translations of grammar may simply be too large a hurdle to overcome, especially when combined with the mental burden of mixed languages + oddly behaving sentences.

For example, in this section- “from the “National Review” till den “Nation”, han was labeled xenophobic,”- in Swedish grammar, I’m told it should be “was han”, not “han was”, but that would be unduly confusing for a beginner who is used to English word ordering.

But, after learning enough vocabulary with Language Mixing, readers might be able to jump right into reading materials which are 100% in the foreign language. Or, worst-case scenario, readers would need to do some old-fashioned grammar studying on the side.

Language Mixing is probably best used as a way to *start* learning a language, which is often the hardest and most important step for beginners.

If there are any software developers reading this who think Language Mixing is promising, I think it’s possible you could do very well for yourself by creating a Language Mixing tool. Most people on the Internet would be potential users, at one time or another in their lives- that’s a helluva large market.

And, as a nice side effect, if Language Mixing works, it might help make the world a more peaceful place, once we understand each other better :).

Whether you are multilingual or not, please consider this idea, and let me know if you have any thoughts, questions, or experiences to share :).

Version #33. I’m using Engagement Publishing for this piece.

Coauthors/Acknowledgments: Colin Wright (pointed me to Language Immersion for Chrome), Akira Irie, Jessica Ryden, Amy Fu, Goran Andersson, Vlad Dolezal, Evgeny Pavlov

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