Analysis & Comment

Opinion | How to Say What You Need to Say in Another Language

“My uncle is a lawyer, but my aunt has a spoon.”

You know those language textbook dialogues? Where people seem to talk more about silverware (“the fork, the knife”) and what color things are more than any real person ever does and, having mastered these locutions, you get off the plane in a place where the language is spoken and can barely figure out how to say, “How do I get outside?”

People often ask me what the best ways of learning a language are without a classroom. And the truth is that a lot of ways most readily available will be fun and useful but won’t give what they really want. Say you want to be able to connect with an in-law who doesn’t speak English well or with people you supervise who don’t or you just want to be able to enjoy films and TV shows in the language.

If so, lawyers and spoons aren’t going to do the job. Neither actual people nor fictional ones are much given to discussing silverware or remarking on basic weather conditions (“It is raining”), and “My name is …” is useful in an interaction with someone only one time. You need to be able to say and understand real things, such as “He didn’t even know she was right in front of him” and “That smells more like turkey than chicken” and “No, you’d better go around back.” Those aren’t idioms; they are the kinds of things you say all the time.

Plus you need to be able to get past feeling that actual speakers of the language talk too fast. There are no spaces between words in spoken language, and sentences go by in a stream. But this is no more “too fast” than the sky is too blue. Humans don’t express themselves in carefully paced nuggets of speech. To be able to handle a language means dealing with that reality.

The issue is the intermediate level. What do you do after you’ve done a program that gets you started and takes you through the basic level, like Duolingo or Babbel (or my favorite, less known in the United States, Assimil)? You can take a class, but suppose you want to do it yourself? How do you get past “My cousin has a house” and “I see seven pens”?

I want to share my answer to that, because I have spent my life compulsively teaching myself to get around in languages — I have the polyglot disease — and I know of a way to get farther than people usually get. There is no reason that Glossika shouldn’t be as well known as Duolingo and Babbel. It teaches you real language, and it gets you used to just hearing the language, rather than relying as much on text as sound. After all, there are no subtitles in real life.

The method is pretty simple. You get recordings of 5,000 sentences in the language of your choice. Glossika comes in more than 60 languages at this point: If you feel your life isn’t complete without immersing yourself in some Slovenian or Uzbek, Glossika is for you. But the important part here is that the sentences are real ones. The first time I used it, the first sentence was about being good at tennis. Think: In a foreign language you know, were you ever taught how to say “good at”? To speak a language is to know how to say things like that.

I like to do about a half-hour a day when I’m doing Glossika. More than that feels like labor, and then you fall off. You do a small bunch of sentences at a time — say, 15. You listen to the sentence as many times as you like, glean what it means and look at the written materials only as support if needed. Then you repeat the sentence. This is important: Saying the sentences not only helps with enunciating but also massively helps with retention. If you only listen to the material, it kind of goes right through you.

The key thing is what’s called spaced repetition. The system gives you a sentence again later in your lesson and sprinkles it in with other sentences in later lessons. As time goes by, you cull the sentences that you’ve had so often that you, as it were, know the drill. Also, no grammar lessons. You can study such things in the written materials if you want, but the idea is to pick up how the language works in a similar way to how we learn language as children — by just hearing it, all the time. So if you’re not much for the “hablo, hablas, habla” thing, you don’t have to deal with that.

Glossika isn’t flashy. You don’t get much by way of games (or “gamification” as one apparently says these days). Culture is not the point, either; it is assumed you will take in that kind of information elsewhere. Glossika is about doing the work. And do it for some months, getting in all the sentences … and one fine day, it’s like going from the black and white to the color part of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Suddenly you can understand what native speakers are saying, because now the language is in your ear for real. I’ll never forget the day I walked by some Chinese people and heard one of them saying in Mandarin, “Wait, take a picture of that statue,” when just a few months earlier I would have heard nothing but a stream of sounds.

This, then, is the handiest way I know of to get past “That is my neighbor’s pencil” on your own. And by the way, no, I am not connected with the company in any way. I just want to share something really useful.

Glossika includes some other activities to help you learn to write in the language and allow you to listen to yourself speak. I find those less important than just getting the language poured into my ear daily, with a kind of repetition that no actual human would be patient enough for — even for pay.

I also want more people to know about Glossika because its creator, Michael Campbell, is a sterling citizen of the world’s languages. Of the roughly 7,000 languages that are currently spoken, only about 500 or 600 may still be in use a hundred years from now. Globalization and urbanization focus people on speaking the big lingua francas, such that languages spoken by small Indigenous groups stop being passed on to children. Also, in countless cases in the past, Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals were discouraged from using their languages, with children physically abused in schools for doing so. There is now a language diversity crisis akin to the one facing so much of the world’s flora and fauna.

As one response to this, Glossika helps you learn some struggling languages, such as Welsh and Taiwanese, free. Campbell is encouraging the last speakers of various Indigenous languages to record Glossika sets in their languages. The chance that many of these languages, such as Native American ones of the Pacific Northwest and indigenous ones of Taiwan, will survive as spoken languages is small. However, having them recorded in the Glossika format will be an invaluable way to at least preserve them for posterity.

Campbell intends Glossika as a way to learn a language from the ground up. However, it’s really a set for going intermediate. With all due respect for the platform, few adults are really up for piecing out how a language works by just jumping into idiomatic sentences without knowing any vocabulary or grammar at all, like babies.

Also, most people will want to check up on the grammar of a language more than the Glossika ideal assumes. Because the format uses the same 5,000 sentences for all of the languages, there are things that aren’t drilled as much as they would be if the sentences were tailored for the language individually. In Spanish you’ll want to see the masculine and feminine marking explained. In Japanese you’ll need some explanation about which pronouns and verbs to use with whom and so on. But the general intensity of exposure you get to any of the languages is, in the grand scheme of things, invaluable.

Overall, how do you learn a language beyond the basics? You start with things like Duolingo and Babbel (and Assimil!), and the next step is Glossika. After that, the next move is immersion with real people. After I did one set, a speaker told me, “You know a lot of words!” That hedged but sincere compliment was dead on; I spoke roughly like a bright 4-year-old, and Glossika did that.

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