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How to learn a language without trying

November 8, 2010

Remembering stuff comes naturally to me. It’s why languages aren’t that hard. And by not that hard, I don’t mean easy, but rather surmountable, one word and one piece of grammar at a time. It’s not impossible to master something when you don’t struggle to remember what you forgot you already knew.

My memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be in high school or even in college; half a decade of insomnia probably killed my best brain cells. It’s also hard to remember what you struggle to find terribly interesting in the first place, which is why I’m not confident speaking Hebrew yet despite having lived in Israel since January. I’m not saying Hebrew isn’t interesting, because it is, but only in a passive sort of way. I’m sure this has a lot to do with not being that crazy about living in Israel in the first place, but for now it doesn’t help anyone to feel bad about not feeling bad for not feeling interested. Moving on.

Despite my slowly failing memory and lack of sufficient interest in Hebrew, I still manage to inadvertently absorb a lot of vocabulary by the automatic associations my brain assigns to new words. Driving past a cement factory one day, a friend randomly asked if I knew how to say cement in Hebrew. “Of course,” I replied. “It sounds like stomach.”

A friend asked me if I knew how to say knee the other day. “Sure,” I said. “It sounds like road.”

Cement is בטון (beton), stomach it בטן (beten); knee is ברך (berech), road is דרך (derech). In my head, the words for respect and liver (כבוד kavod and כבד kaved, respectively) are also inextricably linked. The list goes on.

The more I think about it, I seem to be in the habit of associating completely unrelated words based on sound, and can fairly easily recall the vocab in question by remembering the unusual pairings of words. It’s never been a conscious learning strategy, but seems to nonetheless be effective enough to expand my vocabulary despite no more than a passive engagement with Hebrew. Looking back through blog posts about language learning, I’ve paired Hebrew and Japanese words in a similar way on at least one occasion, and those words are still solidly embedded somewhere in my long-term memory as a result.

Hopefully being conscious of this habit won’t render it useless.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2010 1:59 pm

    I really enjoy your writing. As a native Israeli and having Hebrew as my mother tongue i am biased towards thinking Hebrew is a most beautiful language. It is the original language of the bible so it’s roots run very deep. I think Hebrew is a language more blunt then English, there are less words in Hebrew so it is less subtle. It’s part of the culture here of being direct and upfront.

    • November 9, 2010 10:39 pm

      The history behind Hebrew is definitely fascinating. I love trying to read the Torah and recognizing verses I leaned in English, though it’s really, really hard. And sometimes I wish there were more words in Hebrew — I still can’t believe it’s possible to use the same word for bill, receipt, invoice, and bank account!

  2. Tomas permalink
    November 9, 2010 10:21 pm

    I’ve been here almost four years you know, and I still don’t speak Hebrew. I’m rather going the other way and I now know less than after he ulpan in January. It is interesting that you subconsciously associate words with each other. I have it as a planned strategy which is also why Hebrew is so darned difficult to learn, because most of the words cannot be associated with anything. I can as example never learn the color ‘blue’ (Kahol) no matter how many times I hear it. The Hebrew word for ‘airplane’ (Matos) I learned instantly because it sounds almost exactly like the Swedish word for cooking odors.

    • November 9, 2010 10:35 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Tomas! I’m sorry to hear all your hard work at ulpan didn’t stick. To me blue sounds like spleen in Hebrew (כחול/kachol and טחול/tchol). I have the same problem remembering “orange” though. Nothing sounds like “katom” to me! And now I will always remember how to say “cooking odors” in Swedish 🙂


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