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For you to learn a new language you could first memorize a lot of words, then force yourself to use some abstract meaningless grammar rules, then fix the crooked pronunciation this whole thing is bound to distil in you. There are many many schools that follow this (let’s say) strange procedure.

There is a short-cut. The basic mechanism of our use of language is something i will (imprecisely) call “frames of mind”. And the trick is to assume the frame-of-mind of the new language before you understand it.

A frame of mind is not a list or set of things you remember, but instead a mode you put your brain in. It is almost the same path we use to adapt to diverse social contexts: Instead of repeating the rules of behaviour to yourself, you just assume the attitude. Similarly, you don’t try to remember all the words in Italian, you conjure up into yourself “Italian mode”.

The basic error language-learners do again and again is confusing learning a language with understanding it. Words are actions, and they have performative power unrelated to their meaning. To arrive at the meaning you make use of your frame of mind. You picture this word inside this frame, and from the contextual clues you infer possible meanings, sometimes speculatively.

So, for example, if someone shows you an empty cup and shouts “Aqua”, you’ll know he is thirsty, even if you don’t know this word means water. What you need to know is just that in this context it makes sense for him to say the word.

That is why most of the time we do not need ask what new words mean, we just figure out from context. This is also why we can understand what a word means by hearing an explanation that consists of other words, and has absolutely nothing in common with the thing the word refers to. And finally that is why language is useful at all, since if we could only communicate things the other person already knew it would be a very lame technique.

But the frame of mind comes first, is independent, more important, and not completely explainable in terms of meaning. In other words, from the italian-frame-of-mind you can understand the rules of Italian, but not the other way around.

Some times you’ll hear references to a stage of language learning when you “stop translating”. That is when your new-language-frame stands by itself. When you don’t need to switch to native-language-frame in order to work. If you follow the standard way to learn a language that is what you are looking for. But if you learn a lot of translations from the new language into your native one, what you’re doing is just creating barriers to this new frame. Every time you hear that word you set yourself into the other frame, and this will make it harder and harder to get the new frame, the new frame will become correlated in your memories to images of failure and feeling lost.

Instead of this, you can stop falling back to your previous frame when you don’t understand something. This of course means you’ll be a little dumber, you’ll understand less of what people say. It is like you had gone back to talking like a child. But this can also be a very creative way of communicating, if you embrace it. It is funny, it is improvisational, it is risky and lively.

How exactly you activate the new frame is a little too introspective a thing, it is like describing which muscle to pull in order to pee. But it is not too difficult, really. You need to assume the attitude. You can use some very basic phrases to achieve this, something you like to say to yourself in this new language.

Once you do, you are faced with new contexts which you can’t penetrate deeply. You can only stay at the surface. But you’ll probably realize there is more to them than you get. That is why your brain will be trying to look further, and, in so doing, learning a lot of this new language of yours.

Our brains are actually quite good at creating new frames and switching between them and using them. That means learning a new language can be quite fun. Just do it the easy way.


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