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Learning a new language is a difficult task. Why make it more difficult by learning aspects of the language that you either do not care about or will not use? This post defines some possible goals for learning a language and the corresponding skills required. By identifying which goals to pursue and which to ignore or postpone, you can drastically reduce your language learning time by cutting out the unnecessary skills.

Word Representation

Update: I just discovered that these concepts have more technical names in linguistics such as: phonology, orthography, morphology, and semantic meaning. I was under no illusion that these concepts were novel, and if you wish to know more about them I suggest you Google those terms.

  1. Meaning - This is the concept or idea for each word. Any adult will already have mastery of this. You need this in order to understand what is being communicated.

There is the underlying meaning behind your thoughts. Language gives you two ways to represent these for recording or communicating. Until we can communicate by transmitting our thoughts, we are stuck using language of some sort.

  1. Spoken Representation - This is the series of sounds used to convey meaning. In other words, how you speak or pronounce it. You need this in order to have a verbal conversation.
  2. Written Representation - This is the series of markings used to convey meaning. In other words, how you write it. You need this in order to read and write.

Converting to Different Representations (aka Communicating)

Learning to communicate in another language can be broken down into the different paths between these concepts. Each of these corresponds to a skill that must be learned. We can begin to design a customized plan by breaking language learning down to these basic skills.

  1. Meaning –> Spoken : Speaking - This is being able to speak the language to others.
  2. Spoken –> Meaning : Listening - This is being able to understand someone speaking the language to you.
  3. Meaning –> Written : Writing - This is being able to write.
  4. Written –> Meaning : Reading - This is being able to read.
  5. Spoken –> Written : Transcribing - This is simply being able to write down or transcribe the sounds you hear. You do not need to understand what you are hearing but are more accurate if you know the alphabet, sounds, and pronunciations.
  6. Written –> Spoken : Dictating - This is being able to read something aloud or pronounce it but not understand it. Again, the sounds of the language are important but possibly even more so is the cadence at which words and sentences are spoken.
┌───────┐          ┌──────┐        ┌───────┐
│Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
└───┬───┘          └─┬────┘        └───┬───┘
    │   Speaking     │                 │    
    │ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ >│                 │    
    │                │                 │    
    │   Listening    │                 │    
    │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│                 │    
    │                │                 │    
    │                │  Transcribing   │    
    │                │  ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ >│    
    │                │                 │    
    │                │    Dictating    │    
    │                │ <─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│    
    │                │                 │    
    │             Writing              │    
    │ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ >│    
    │                │                 │    
    │             Reading              │    
    │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│    
┌───┴───┐          ┌─┴────┐        ┌───┴───┐
│Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
└───────┘          └──────┘        └───────┘

Prioritizing Based on Your Needs

To best approach a new language, you should decide what is and is not important for you and then prioritize. Giving each skill a difficulty rating can help with the prioritization. I have my own biases but what you prioritize can also heavily depend on your preferred method of learning.

  • Speaking
    • If you hope to interact with speakers in person, you will most likely need to learn Speaking.
    • If your goal for learning the language doesn’t involve in-person interaction then you can either skip this or give it a lower priority.
    • Here are some example use cases where Speaking is not important.
    • Reading books.
    • Watching TV shows or movies.
    • Interacting with people using written communication such as letters, email, or instant messaging.
  • Listening
    • Depending on your learning style, you may favor Listening or Reading more. The most important factor will be your application, but how well you retain Spoken vs. Written information could be a secondary consideration.
  • Reading
    • Learning to read will vastly increase the amount you can learn because you can start to read in your target language and pick up new vocabulary through context.
  • Writing
    • If your target language uses an unfamiliar alphabet then this task can be even more challenging.
    • Computers can help as there will likely be software that allows you to type without knowing how to actually write the characters.
  • Transcribing
    • This is impossible in languages that have do not have a phonetic representation. The characters used in Japanese and Chinese are one example. However, there can be workarounds using technology. Japanese, for instance, also has phonetic alphabets in addition. One can transcribe into a phonetic alphabet instead. If using a computer, software can help guess how to convert the phonetic to the non-phonetic symbols, but it will not be perfect. If you also have the Reading skill then you would be able to pick the correct written representation from the list the computer gives you.
    • Transcribing will be much easier to get started with than Writing because it doesn’t involve the Meaning of words.
    • Notice in the graph how you can get from Meaning to Written through either Writing or a combination of Speaking and Transcribing. When I learn to write I typically do so in the two-step process of saying the word aloud in my head and then writing down the sounds. This is a time-consuming process at first but, over time, becomes faster as I naturally go straight from Meaning to Written and bypass Spoken.
  • Dictating
    • This will help with Speaking as it will give you practice with unfamiliar sounds and the language cadence. It is also the easiest to begin with because you can start at a very slow pace and work up to it.
    • In order to know whether you are practicing correctly you will either need someone to give you feedback or attempt to listen to someone and mimic them. This can be very difficult as your ear also needs to be trained to hear the language.
    • My personal opinion is that this is not worth pursuing on its own after a few introductory phrases. I will get practice with this by Speaking anyway.

Potential Shortcuts

Shortcut Listening

To aid in learning more of the difficult skills, use the diagram above to find an alternative path, which may be easier and allow you to double up by studying one aspect and get another for free. For instance, say your goals are to learn Listening and Reading. Instead of trying to learn Listening by understanding the Meaning of Spoken words, you could learn to Transcribe much faster and then study to learn Reading instead. With a little practice, you would not even have to write anything down to Listen but would mentally Transcribe and Read the words in your head. That would allow you to start Listening immediately and would eventually develop into a true Listening skill.

Graphically, it would look like this. Instead of learning both Listening and Reading right away, both of which are time-consuming and difficult to do…

  ┌───────┐          ┌──────┐        ┌───────┐
  │Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
  └───┬───┘          └─┬────┘        └───┬───┘   
      │                │                 │    
      │   Listening    │                 │    
      │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│                 │    
      │                │                 │    
      │             Reading              │    
      │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│    
  ┌───┴───┐          ┌─┴────┐        ┌───┴───┐
  │Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
  └───────┘          └──────┘        └───────┘

You would learn Transcribing first because that is very quick to pick up. Then you could double down on Reading and advance much more quickly than if you had tried to split your focus between both Reading and Listening.

  ┌───────┐          ┌──────┐        ┌───────┐
  │Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
  └───┬───┘          └─┬────┘        └───┬───┘  
      │                │  Transcribing   │    
      │                │  ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ >│      
      │                │                 │    
      │             Reading              │    
      │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│    
  ┌───┴───┐          ┌─┴────┐        ┌───┴───┐
  │Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
  └───────┘          └──────┘        └───────┘

Shortcut Reading

Maybe a more familiar example would be to first learn Listening and then turn that into a Reading skill through Dictating. This is what all children go through. Growing up they learn to recognize the words spoken by their parents. They go to school already knowing the basics of speaking a language. Then school teaches them about reading by having them sound out the written letters. Once the child can Dictate the word by sounding it out, they can recognize the meaning because they have already learned Listening.

This is what a child’s knowledge looks like going into school.

┌───────┐          ┌──────┐        ┌───────┐
│Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
└───┬───┘          └─┬────┘        └───┬───┘
    │   Speaking     │                 │    
    │ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ >│                 │    
    │                │                 │    
    │   Listening    │                 │    
    │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│                 │  
┌───┴───┐          ┌─┴────┐        ┌───┴───┐
│Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
└───────┘          └──────┘        └───────┘

Then instead of going directly going from written words to their meaning, the child Dictates or sounds out the words which they can recognize because of their Listening skill. With practice, this combination eventually turns into a Reading skill.

┌───────┐          ┌──────┐        ┌───────┐
│Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
└───┬───┘          └─┬────┘        └───┬───┘
    │   Listening    │                 │    
    │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│                 │  
    │                │                 │    
    │                │    Dictating    │    
    │                │ <─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│    
    │                │                 │    
    │             Reading              │    
    │<─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─ ─│    
┌───┴───┐          ┌─┴────┐        ┌───┴───┐
│Meaning│          │Spoken│        │Written│
└───────┘          └──────┘        └───────┘