Don’t Learn Latin, Don’t Use Translations, Don’t Be a Hack.

I recently read my first book in Spanish. To celebrate, I’m reflecting on how I got here. It was an arduous journey and there are many pitfalls to avoid. Three principles guided my way:

  • Don’t be led astray
  • Eliminate the unimportant
  • Go slow to go fast

Don’t Learn Latin

Almost nobody should bother wasting time on Latin. Why? For most people Latin is the lethal combo of useless and annoying to learn.

To be clear, some people love learning Latin for its own sake. A few people also find it useful to their work as (for example) historians. Those are excellent reasons to learn something, and I wish them the best.

But most people shouldn’t learn Latin. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Sometimes I will mention this view to someone, and they will try to argue that “learning Latin can help you learn a language like French, Spanish, or Italian faster”. But this argument isn’t very good.

Indeed, learning Latin will help you learn Spanish. The problem is that Latin takes longer to learn than Spanish does. So, no matter how much it speeds up your Spanish, it cannot be quicker to learn both Latin AND Spanish. Even if Latin makes Spanish twice as fast, don’t learn Latin.

Principle 1: Don’t be led astray.

Don’t Use Translations

Translations look like an obvious place to start learning a language. Once you’re fast enough, you’ll speak Spanish. Right?

The sad truth is that while translations seem easy, they are hard.  Real time translators are paid up to $200,000 a year because their jobs are difficult. Testament to the difficulty of their work, translators have been known to collapse on the job.

On the other hand, thinking in a language is easy. We do it every day. I’m doing it right now.

So, you shouldn’t practice translations, you should practice thinking in the language. There are a few ways to do this, one is just to associate images of the thing you’re trying to learn with the word for it. This strategy is limited to concrete words (like dog) that you can picture, however, you can extend the approach further.

Principle 2: Eliminate the unimportant.

In general, only a small amount of what we do actually gets results. This is often called the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule. Focus on the most important activities, ignore the rest.

Don’t be too Hacky.

However, there is a subtle art to eliminating the unimportant. It’s often just as important to focus on the basics. In language learning you might spend a few weeks perfecting the sounds of a language. A few months memorising basic words. And then a few months on understanding grammar.

Few people actually do this, and it gets me every time.

The problem is that this approach feels slow. After 3 months all you can do is say random words. But it’s actually fast. After 6-8 months you can say most things that come to your head, and perhaps read a book.

Alternatively, you could spend the first few months learning useful phrases. Just a few weeks in you’d feel way further ahead than the stage where you can just say random words. This feels fast but is actually slow. If you keep going down this route, then 6-8 months in you’ll be able to say a bunch of stuff, but only things you’ve memorised the phrase for. You’ll end up way behind the method that feels slow.

Principle 3: Go slow to go fast.

This applies to other things. Personally, I could have slowed down and taken some math courses during my economics degree. This would have put me way further ahead of where I am now, and I would have done much better in the rest of my courses. But it felt slow at the time, so I didn’t do it.

I hope these principles are helpful. Good luck with your learning!

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