How To Really Learn a Language

An old article from AJATT (I forget which one), reminded me of this scene from the movie The 13th Warrior:

In this scene, from the movie The 13th Warrior, the Arab character Ahmad ibn Fadlan (based on the real historical person) is riding with Viking warriors far to the north. At first, he can’t understand their language at all, but each night he watches and listens, and after a while some words make sense. Later, he understands most of the conversation and can even talk to them. His words are slow, but they understand him, and that’s important.

I know this from experience too. When my daughter was a little girl, we used to listen to Disney stories on CD, or watch Disney movies on DVD. Both were in Japanese. At first, I couldn’t understand very much. Even though I had studied for the JLPT, it was amazing how little I understood. But like Ahmad ibn Fadlan, as time went on, I couldn’t understand some words. After a few months, I could understand more words and so on. Earlier, when I was in Vietnam, I really struggled to understand Vietnamese at first, but after 2 months, I started getting used to it and could understand it better. I could even distinguish people’s accents (people from the countryside, people from Hanoi itself), more easily.

So the method definitely works. I personally know this is true. The only challenge is staying with it long enough. Because my daughter learned Japanese first (and is fully bi-lingual now), I listened to Japanese a lot even if it I wasn’t “in the mood”. If you can figure out how to do the same thing for your situation (listen to a foreign language whether you want to or not) and keep doing it for a long time you will probably get very good at that language.

Like Ahmad ibn Fadlan says: just listen!

P.S. Although the movie wasn’t very successful, I always thought it was a cool movie. I read the book, Eaters of the Dead, at a young age and believed it was real. Even when I found out later it was not real, I still thought it was a great book. Antonio Banderas was great in the movie, and one of the few examples of a positive Arab character instead of the usual stereotypes in American media.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “How To Really Learn a Language”

  1. Really enjoyed the clip and this post! Maybe I’ll check out the movie sometime. I try to get my son used to watching Japanese children shows on YouTube- which is a hard task for any two-year-old, especially mine- but I have really needed a better source. I didn’t even think to buy some Japanese kids’ movies. Brilliant! Thanks for the suggestion!


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