It’s all connected
Finally—after rather a long break in which all I really did was keep the vocabulary warmed up—I seem to have resumed the Norwegian-learning. Still the same technique: interact on Twitter in Norwegian, and learn whatever vocabulary and grammar I find I need in doing that. One or two people have made startlingly positive and very encouraging comments to the effect that I’ve been learning quickly.
I’ve never felt I was learning it from scratch, though. For a start, I learnt German at school; Norwegian is another Germanic language, so there are lots of connections. If you know that eigentlich and wichtig in German mean actually and important for example, it’s not so difficult to remember that egentlig and viktig in Norwegian mean really and important. In fact it’s a pretty fair bet (so far) that if changing -ig at the end of a Norwegian word produces something similar to a German one ending in -ich, the meaning will be roughly the same. Changing -lig to English -ly often works, too: for example nemlig means namely among other things. It’s all about connections.
These connections come up all the time. For example, it puzzled me for ages why Norwegian uses the word og for and. It’s clearly nothing like and or its German equivalent und. Neither is it like the French or Latin word et. It seems to be out on a limb, apart from being a bit like och which I happen to know is the Swedish version.
Except . . . well there’s og and there’s òg. They’re closely connected in meaning: òg is an emphatic word for also. (The usual word for also is også.) Also isn’t so far from and. Maybe there’s a clue here . . .
I haven’t learnt Dutch, but I can understand odd snippets by relating them to German. Often the key is to replace a k with ch. So when yesterday I was looking at the Dutch word ook in a tweet, I found myself wondering whether it was equivalent to German auch and meant also. It does. And then suddenly og made perfect sense. Of course it’s nothing like and or und, because that’s not where it goes. It belongs with the German for also. Norwegian og = Swedish och = German auch. Suddenly it fits nicely into a pattern.
I visualise this as a sort of network with branches and interconnections. I hadn’t been able to see the connection because I’d wanted to attach og to the wrong branch. When I found the right one, the connection was obvious.
When I learn a new word—unless it’s a short one with no obvious connections to anything else—I try to learn not just the word, but its connections to other words too. This is a bit different from how we mostly learnt at school, where in most cases a new word was simply a new word which came as a single unit of information.
Take for example bemerkelsesverdig, which came up a few months ago. I learnt this group together:
- å merke: to mark, notice
- å bemerke: to remark
- -else: ending used to make a noun from a verb
- ei bemerkning: a remark (I had to learn this to avoid thinking it would be en bemerkelse)
- verdig: worthy
- bemerkelsesverdig: remarkable, noteworthy
- I should also have learnt verd(-et), “(the) worth”, but didn’t think of it at the time.
- I noted, but didn’t put on my vocabulary list, that be- at the start of Norwegian verbs seems to do pretty much the same thing that it does with English ones.
This has several advantages:
- Learning all the bits of a word (morphemes) means you’re half way to learning lots of other words too which use the same bits.
- You mostly don’t end up learning long obscure words before short frequently-used ones. A long obscure word is likely to be made up of several short frequently-used ones, which you learn straight away.
- You start to get a feel for how Norwegian words work.
- Sometimes you pick up little bits of grammar from seeing how the words are made.
- The words fit into a logical pattern, which makes them easier to remember.
- At least for me, the connections are interesting in themselves. Information you’re interested in is much easier to remember than things you feel neutral about.
Thinking back to when I first learnt a foreign language, I remember being encouraged to make connections between words. Guessing was not just allowed but encouraged. What does the unfamiliar word look as if it might mean? What English word might it be similar to? Have a guess! The guess might be right or wrong, of course . . . so you have to check. If you were right, a theory forms about how the language works. If you were wrong, you learn that the theory behind your guess didn’t work. Either way, you’ve learnt something.
I love these connections. They’re one of the things I most love about languages.
German was one thing. There was however another subject at school, which I absolutely hated: history. The school version had two basic problems.
- It seemed not to be about anything remotely interesting or edifying. Most of the time it was about people killing each other or perpetrating other acts of inhumanity, mostly for rather silly reasons. (I’d hoped it would be about things like the history of science, or how archaeology works.) This made it incredibly depressing. There was enough cruelty in the world already, without having to hear about previous centuries of it as well.
- I found it next to impossible to remember the information. It was a mass of names which all sounded the same, and dates which may just as well have been random numbers. There was no logic to it; no pattern of connections.
The second of those is the relevant one: I couldn’t absorb history because I couldn’t make the connections.
Not everyone might instinctively make such connections when learning a language, though. I was actively encouraged to do so. But I can imagine someone thinking entirely differently when they begin: “Don’t guess, because you might be wrong. Look it up first, or ask the teacher. If you’re wrong, you’ll be setting yourself back by learning the wrong meaning. Since it’s a completely different language from your own, you must put thoughts of your own language out of your head. If you try to make connections they’ll just get in the way and mislead you.” That seems logical on the surface: if you’re going to learn something, you want to learn it right. But it takes away what I think is the most important tool for remembering things: connecting them to other things. It also, I think, stops you freely applying your intelligence to what you’re learning.
And so today I found myself wondering about these two opposite approaches, and about whether they might be reflected in how easy or difficult someone finds it to learn a language. Do different people gravitate towards one or the other approach, and find it easy or difficult as a result, or is it simply a matter of some people finding some types of information easier to connect together than other types? Or are some people able to remember random-seeming information without needing a pattern, even? I don’t know, but I find it an interesting question. As for me, I’ll continue making all the connections I can.