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Can You Learn A Language In Less Than 3 Months?

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Can You Learn A Language In Less Than 3 Months?

Post by Anita on Mon Nov 12, 2012 6:02 pm

Hi Hey, everyone!
I read this article which you may find interesting!
Someone's taken a very interesting challenge up: learning a language in less than three months!!
How I learned a language in 22 hours

He's never been good with languages, so can Joshua Foer really hope to learn Lingala in a day?
"What do you know about where I come from?" That was one of the first
questions I ever asked Bosco Mongousso, an Mbendjele pygmy who lives in
the sparsely populated Ndoki forest at the far northern tip of the Republic of Congo.
We were sitting on logs around a fire one evening four years ago,
eating a dinner of smoked river fish and koko, a vitamin-rich wild green
harvested from the forest. I'd come to this hard-to-reach corner of the
Congo basin – a spot at least 50km from the nearest village – to report
story for National Geographic magazine about a population of
chimpanzees who display the most sophisticated tool-use ever observed
among non-humans

Mongousso, who makes his living, for the
most part, by hunting wildlife and gathering forest produce such as
nuts, fruits, mushrooms and leaves, had teeth that had been chiselled to
sharp points as a child. He stood about 1.4m (4ft 7in) tall and had a
wide, wonderful grin that he exercised prolifically. He considered my
question carefully.

"I don't know. It's far away," he told me
finally, through a translator. According to Oxford anthropologist Jerome
Lewis, the Mbendjele believe that the spirit world is inhabited by
people with white skin. For them, the afterlife and Europe go by the
same word, putu. "Amu dua putu" is a common euphemism
for death – literally, "He's gone to Europe." For me to have come all
the way to the Ndoki forest was a journey of potentially metaphysical

"Have you ever heard of the United States of America?" I asked Mongousso.
He shook his head. "No."
didn't know where to begin. "Well, the United States is like a really
big village on the other side of the ocean," I told him. The translator
conveyed my explanation, and then had a back-and-forth exchange with

"What did he say?" I asked.
"He wanted to know, 'What's the ocean?'"
There was a brief moment this summer, a little over a year after the publication of my first book, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art And Science Of Remembering Everything, when I thought I had finally put the subject of my memory
into my memory. No phone interview with an obscure midwestern talk
radio station or lunchtime lecture in a corporate auditorium was going
to prevent me from finally moving on to another topic and starting work
on my next long-term project – inspired by my encounter with Mongousso –
about the world's last remaining hunter-gatherer societies and what
they can teach us.

As part of my research, I had begun planning
a series of logistically complicated trips that would take me back to
the same remote region where I had met Mongousso. My goal was to spend
the summer living in the forest with him and his fellow Mbendjele
pygmies. It's virtually impossible to find pygmies in northern Congo who
speak French, much less English, and so in order to embed to the degree
I was hoping, I needed to learn Lingala,
the trade language that emerged in the 19th century as the lingua
franca of the Congo basin. Though it is not the first language of the
pygmies, Lingala is universally spoken across northern Congo – not only
by the pygmies, but by their Bantu neighbors as well. Today, the
language has about two million native speakers in both the Congos and in
parts of Angola, and another seven million, including the Mbendjele
pygmies, who use it as a second tongue.

You might think that
learning a language with so many speakers would be an easy task in our
global, interconnected age. And yet when I went online in search of
Lingala resources, the only textbook I could find was a US Foreign
Service Institute handbook printed in 1963 – when central Africa
was still a front of the cold war – and a scanned copy of a 1,109-word
Lingala-English dictionary. Which is how I ended up getting drawn back
into the world of hard-core memorising that I had written about in

Readers of that book (or the extract that ran last year in this magazine)
will remember the brilliant, if slightly eccentric, British memory
champion named Ed Cooke who took me under his wing and taught me a set
of ancient mnemonic techniques, developed in Greece around the fifth
century BC, that can be used to cram loads of random information into a
skull in a relatively short amount of time. Ed showed me how to use
those ancient tricks to perform seemingly impossible feats, such as
memorising entire poems, strings of hundreds of random numbers, and even
the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards in less than two minutes.

Since my book was published, Ed had moved on to other things and co-founded an online learning company called Memrise
with a Princeton University neuroscience PhD named Greg Detre. Their
goal: to take all of cognitive science's knowhow about what makes
information memorable, and combine it with all the knowhow from social
gaming about what makes an activity fun and addictive, and develop a web
app that can help anyone memorise anything – from the names of obscure
cheeses, to the members of the British cabinet, to the vocabulary of an
African language – as efficiently and effectively as possible. Since
launching, the site has achieved a cult following among language
enthusiasts and picked up more than a quarter of a million users.

idea of Memrise is to make learning properly fun," Ed told me over
coffee on a recent visit to New York to meet with investors. "Normally
people stop learning things because of a bunch of negative feedback,
such as worries about whether they'll actually get anywhere,
insecurities about their own intelligence, and a sense of it being
effortful. With Memrise, we're trying to invert that and create a form
of learning experience that is so fun, so secure, so well directed and
so mischievously effortless that it's more like a game – something you'd
want to do instead of watching TV."

I have never been particularly good with languages.
Despite a dozen years of Hebrew school and a lifetime of praying in the
language, I'm ashamed to admit that I still can't read an Israeli
newspaper. Besides English, the only language I speak with any degree of
fluency is Spanish, and that came only after five years of intense
classroom study and more than half a dozen trips to Latin America.
Still, I was determined to master Lingala before leaving for the Congo.
And I had just under two and a half months to do it. When I asked Ed if
he thought it would be possible to learn an entire language in such a
minuscule amount of time using Memrise, his response was matter-of-fact:
"It'll be a cinch."

Memrise takes advantage of a couple of
basic, well-established principles. The first is what's known as
elaborative encoding. The more context and meaning you can attach to a
piece of information, the likelier it is that you'll be able to fish it
out of your memory at some point in the future. And the more effort you
put into creating the memory, the more durable it will be. One of the
best ways to elaborate a memory is to try visually to imagine it in your
mind's eye. If you can link the sound of a word to a picture
representing its meaning, it'll be far more memorable than simply
learning the word by rote.

Memrise encourages you to create a
mnemonic, which it calls a "mem", for every word you want to learn. A
mem could be a rhyme, an image, a video or just a note about the word's
etymology, or something striking about its pronunciation. In the case of
languages such as French and Chinese, where there are thousands of
people learning it at any one time, you can browse through a catalogue
of mems created by other members of the Memrise community. This is
especially fun for Chinese, where users have uploaded videos of various
logographic characters morphing into cartoons of the words they

Joshua Foer in the Republic of Congo

As I was the only user trying to learn Lingala at the time, it was up
to me to come up with my own mems for each word in the dictionary. This
required a good deal of work, but it was fun and engaging work. For
example, engine is motele in Lingala. When I learned that word,
I took a second to visualise a rusty engine revving in a motel room.
It's a specific motel room I stayed in once upon on a time on a
cross-country road trip – the cheapest room I ever paid to occupy.
Twenty dollars a night, as I recall, somewhere in central Nevada. I made
an effort to see, hear and even smell that oily machine revving and
rattling on the stained carpet floor. All of those extra details are
associational hooks that will lead my mind back to motele the next time I need to find the Lingala word for engine.

Likewise, for motema, which means heart, I visualised a beating organ dripping blood on a blinking and purring computer modem. To remember that bondoki
means gun, I saw James Bond pointing a gun at Dr No, and saying,
"Okey-dokey." If this all sounds a little silly, it is. But that's also
the point. Studies have confirmed what Cicero and the other ancient
writers on memory knew well: the stranger the imagery, the more markedly

Memrise is built to discourage cramming.
It's easy to spend five minutes learning vocabulary with the app, but
hard to spend 50. That is by design. One of the best-demonstrated
principles of memory – proven both in the controlled setting of the
laboratory and in studies conducted in the wilds of the classroom – is
the value of what's known as "spaced repetition". Cognitive scientists
have known for more than a century that the best way to secure memories
for the long term is to impart them in repeated sessions, distributed
across time, with other material interleaved in between. If you want to
make information stick, it's best to learn it, go away from it for a
while, come back to it later, leave it behind again, and once again
return to it – to engage with it deeply across time. Our memories
naturally degrade, but each time you return to a memory, you reactivate
its neural network and help to lock it in. The effect on retention of
learning in this manner is staggering. One study found that students
studying foreign language vocabulary can get just as good long-term
retention from having learning sessions spaced out every two months as
from having twice as many learning sessions spaced every two weeks. To
put that another way: you can learn the same material in half the total
time if you don't try to cram.

One of the great challenges of our
age, in which the tools of our productivity are also the tools of our
leisure, is to figure out how to make more useful those moments of
procrastination when we're idling in front of our computer screens. What
if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget
of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we
could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity,
such as learning a foreign language?

If five million people can be convinced to log into Zynga's Facebook game Farmville
each day to water a virtual garden and literally watch the grass grow
on their computer screens, surely, Ed believes, there must be a way to
co-opt those same neural circuits that reward mindless gaming to make
learning more addictive and enjoyable. That's the great ambition of
Memrise, and it points towards a future where we're constantly learning
in tiny chunks of our downtime.

The secret of Zynga's success has
been endless iteration of its product through A/B testing. Show two
groups of users two slightly different versions of the same game, and
see which group sticks around longer. Then change another variable and
re-run the experiment. Memrise is beginning to use the same aggressive
empirical testing to figure out not just how to make learning appealing,
but also how to make it more effective. If it turns out that users
remember 0.5% better when words are shown in one font versus another, or
that their memories are 2% more durable when prodded at 7am versus
11am, those changes will be logged in Memrise's servers and affect the
next day's updates to the app. The software is beginning to act as a
massively distributed psychology experiment, discovering on a daily
basis how to optimise human memory.

In a nod to Farmville, Memrise
refers to the words you're trying to learn as "seeds". Each time you
revise a given word, you "water" it in your "greenhouse" until it has
fully sprouted and been consolidated in your long-term memory "garden".
When you've been away from Memrise for too long, you receive an email
letting you know that the words you've memorised have begun to wilt and
need to be watered.

Because Memrise knows what words you already
know – plus exactly how well you know them – and what words you haven't
yet got a handle on, its algorithm tests you only on the information
just at the edge of your knowledge and doesn't waste time forcing you to
overlearn memories that you've already banked in your long-term garden.

own pattern of using the app worked like this: each morning there would
be a message waiting in my inbox, prodding me to water a few of my
memories that were in danger of wilting, and so I would dutifully log in
and spend a few minutes revising words I had learned days or sometimes
weeks earlier. Sometime mid-morning, when I was ready for my first break
from work, I'd log back in and get a new bundle of seeds to start
watering. Two or three times after lunch, just after checking email and
Facebook, I'd go back and do some more watering of whichever plants
Memrise told me needed the most attention. All the while, I kept a close
eye on all the points I was accumulating, and took meaningless
satisfaction in watching my ranking among Memrise users inch up day by

After two and a half months, I'd not only planted my way
through the entire Lingala dictionary, but also watered all of my mems
to the point where they were secure in my long-term memory garden. You
could pick any word in the dictionary and I could translate it into
Lingala. Still, even after memorising an entire dictionary, I was only
the 2,305th highest-ranked Memrise user.

I asked Ed if one of his
software engineers could mine the data stored on Memrise's servers and
put together a report on how much time I ended up whiling away with the
software. When the figures were finally tallied, I had clocked 22 hours
and 15 minutes learning vocabulary on Memrise, spread out over 10 weeks.
The longest single uninterrupted burst that I spent learning was
20 minutes, and my average session lasted just four minutes. In other
words, it took a little less than one full day, spread out over two and
a half months, devoting bite-sized chunks of time, to memorise the
entire dictionary.

But did it work?
It took me almost
a week by plane, truck and ferry to get back to the Ndoki forest and
Mongousso's village of Makao, the last small outpost on the Motaba river
before you reach the uninhabited wilderness of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.
For several days, I was stuck 120km west of Makao in a village called
Bomassa, while I waited for a truck. It was a frustrating experience,
but it gave me an opportunity to begin to test my Lingala with the
locals. On my third day in town, a pygmy named Makoti came to visit me
early in the morning. I couldn't tell within a decade in either
direction how old he was, but he had a long, intimidating scar down his
left cheek and an intense demeanor. "Yo na ngai, totambola na zamba"
– "You and me, let's walk in the forest," he said. He pointed at me and
pointed at himself, and then held his index and middle finger together
to suggest it should be just the two of us.

I had brought with me a
translator from Brazzaville, who spoke not only English, French and
Lingala, but also a little bit of Mbendjele – and four other tribal
languages to boot. Though he was helpful in getting me settled, we
quickly ran into a problem. The pygmies have a complicated relationship
with their Bantu neighbours, one that in some ways resembles medieval
serfdom. Pygmies are relentlessly discriminated against by the Bantu,
who refer to them as subhuman and often refuse even to touch them. Each
pygmy has an inherited Bantu "proprietor" for whom he does menial
labour, often in return for little more than cigarettes or alcohol. The
pygmies in turn put on a completely different face among the village
Bantu – to whom they refer as gorillas behind their backs – than they do
when they're alone out in the forest. Even the presence of an affable,
urban, educated outsider such as my translator immediately caused the
pygmies to tighten up.

I followed Makoti out of the village and on
to an elephant trail, where we found a comfortable log on which to sit,
smoke a cigarette and talk in hushed tones about relationships between
the Bantu and the pygmies. "Bantu, mondele, babendjele: makila ya ndenge moko" – "The Bantu, the whites, the pygmies: we all have the same blood." He pinched the skin of his forearm. "Kasi, bayebi te," he told me. "But they don't know that." He meant the Bantu.

This was my first conversation in Lingala without a translator at my side. Even though I had to keep telling him, "Malembe, malembe"
– "Slow down, slow down" – I realised I was understanding quite a bit
of what he was telling me and that my drilling with Memrise had given me
a far better grounding than I had thought possible.

It goes
without saying that memorising the 1,000 most common words in Lingala,
French or Chinese is not going to make anyone a fluent speaker. That
would have been an unrealistic goal. But it turns out to be just enough
vocabulary to let you hit the ground running once you're authentically
immersed in a language. And, more importantly, that basic vocabulary
gives you a scaffolding to which you can attach other words as you hear
them. It also lays down the raw data from which you can begin to detect
the patterns that define a language's grammar. As I memorised words in
Lingala, I started to notice that there were relationships between them.
The verb to work is kosala. The noun for work is mosala. A tool is esaleli. A workshop is an esalelo.
At first, this was all white noise to me. But as I packed my memory
with more and more words, these connections started to make sense and
I began to notice the same grammatical formulas elsewhere – and could
even pick them up in conversation. This sort of pattern recognition
happens organically over time when a child learns a language, but giving
myself all the data points to work with at once certainly made the job
easier, and faster.

Makoti, who had worked with European
foresters, American primatologists and even for a brief spell with the
Oxford anthropologist Lewis, seemed to understand what I was after, and
why I had come such a long way to spend time with his family
and friends. As he stubbed out the last ashes of his cigarette, he
suggested, in Lingala sentences that had to be repeated three or four
times before I fully grasped them, that I abandon my Bantu translator
and make him my assistant instead. It was a tremendous, if perhaps
unwarranted, statement of confidence in my Lingala. "Nakokende na ya na Makao"
– "I'll come with you to Makao." It was only a four-hour truck
ride away, but the farthest he'd been from home in his entire life.

I told him, "Omona, nayoka Lingala malamu mingi te. Nasengeli kozala na mosalisi koloba Anglais" – "Look, I don't understand Lingala very well. I need to have a helper who speaks English."
He shook his head. "Te, te, oyoka malamu" – "No, no, you understand well."
Then a thought occurred to him, which I was surprised it had taken him so long to express. "Wapi oyekolaka Lingala?" – "Where did you learn Lingala?"
I thought about trying to tell him about the internet, about my computer, about this web app developed over in putu
but once again I didn't know where to begin. Instead, I held out my
hand to shake his and told him he should let his wife know that he'd be
travelling with me to Makao. As for explaining Memrise, that
conversation would have to wait for a little more fluency.

Your thoughts?

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Re: Can You Learn A Language In Less Than 3 Months?

Post by Nicole on Mon Nov 26, 2012 2:10 pm

I'm not sure that it is possible for me to learn a new language in less than three month but I think that it is a good topic.
What are your thoughts ?

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Re: Can You Learn A Language In Less Than 3 Months?

Post by Anita on Tue Nov 27, 2012 4:24 pm

If you dedicate yourself to nothing else but that language, then I think it's really possible to reach an average conversational domain. It also depends on the language... If their script system is similar to ours, then you're likely to learn the language far more effectively. Of course, in order to reach a fully conversational level, you need to be immerse in the context for minimum 6 months!

The language Mr Foer was learning was a difficult one! So I'm really glad he made it!! I don't know, however, if it's possible to try the same with languages such as Russian, French or Italian. I think it is really possible!! Yes!

Which other languages would you like to learn, Nicole? Very Happy

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Re: Can You Learn A Language In Less Than 3 Months?

Post by Nicole on Wed Nov 28, 2012 9:08 am

I would like learn Spain and Mandarin when I had enough time but at the moment there is no chance to try it. Sad
I'm worried that my time to improve my english skills is to short. I hope that I get the time in the future to do more for my skills and have a chance to Start to learn the other language and to improve my swedish skills a little bit.
What languages are your goals?

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Re: Can You Learn A Language In Less Than 3 Months?

Post by Anita on Fri Nov 30, 2012 1:28 pm

In my case, I've got to resume my German and French studies before our world comes to an end, he he!! Yay! Once I reach these goals, I may start studying Japanese and Italian - although Italian is not my cup of tea, I confess!!

How much Swedish do you know, Nicole?

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