Pulling Back the “Magic” Curtain of Language Hacking

Here you go – my one month update into this Arabic project. I’m a third in, and as always you can follow along in my stumbling attempts to use the language, with subtitles in English/Arabic/Portuguese.

Big thanks to Sam (Egyptian living in the states) for joining me in the call, which was arranged at the last minute. If there are particular Egyptians you think I should talk to, or who can offer themselves to appear in future videos (preferably with experience on video), let me know.

This video is the first one that was entirely unscripted, and is unedited so you can see even when I don’t understand parts of what is said back to me.

Today I want to emphasize a controversial and extremely important point that I’m trying to make throughout this entire project: Learning a language is NOT impressive!!

A look behind the curtain

When I met my first polyglot at age 21, I was floored. It was like looking at a wizard! He jumped into various languages, and could express himself with ease in each language!

And unfortunately, this is how most monolinguals look at it. It’s as good as magic. (Never mind that most of the planet speaks more than one language, and you are looking through it from a culturally skewed perspective).

When I see the reaction to some language videos online, I see that even though the person recording the video is genuinely trying to encourage language learning, sometimes people do have to just give up and say “I wish I could do that, but I’m not as talented/young/have as much time/blessed by a virgin monkey” or whatever random other thought appears in their mind at that particular moment.

This is why I’m recording so many videos – I want to show, once and for all, that language learning is NOT about someone going into a magical black box, shrouded with other-worldly forces that only a privileged few have access to, and then coming out after of the box having learnt the language, for the world to appreciate in awe.

It’s time to look behind the curtain of these “magicians”.

When you know the trick, it’s not so impressive any more: But now YOU can do it

It really is like looking at a magician though – you see him on stage perform his trick and it seems out of this world. Maybe magic and eerie forces are real!

But what about when someone sits you down and walks you through the trick? Then you would react to say “Oh… really? Is that all it is? Sure I can do that!”

Sure, sometimes these magicians have some showmanship (see how I add nice graphical intros and outros to my videos?), assistants, smoke and mirrors (like selective editing or reciting a script), but sometimes what they are doing is actually pretty basic. I’ve seen impressed comments from people by those discussing their favourite colour in a foreign language – without subtitles, they may as well be arguing the moral dilemmas of killing a few people to save many, as far as you’re concerned.

Like my friend Khatzumoto says, it’s like watching the Olympics and presuming they are all superhuman. You wouldn’t think that if you watched every single hour of their training over years. Then you’d appreciate hard work instead of magic that’s out of your reach.

Is fluent in 3 months impressive wizardry?

I hope in making incremental improvements with these videos, some of this is conveyed.

If I disappeared off the face of the planet for three months, and came back speaking Arabic really well, you could guess that I perhaps consulted a witch-doctor, or used my wonderful language gene to do all the work for me.

What’s actually happening is achievable real incremental improvements, over an intensive period. That’s it. ACHIEVABLE improvements that anyone else can apply, but that I’m just doing intensively, which is indeed definitely a LOT of work. There is no quantum leap where [insert excuse that I have access to and you don’t] makes me do something you can’t.

[If you work 9 hours a day in the wrong language instead of 6-8 hours a day like me, (and I bet you work less than the 63 hours a week I’ve had in the past, while I was still learning a language) stop being such a cry baby and find a way to learn as fast and efficiently as you can, even if you don’t aim for a 3 month deadline.]

So in today’s video, unlike in the first month, I’m now ready to get into unscripted conversations. The merits of knowing things in advance, can get your foot in the door, but now I need to interact live with another human being, spontaneously.

Taking away the magic – do you really think you can’t do this?

In the last video, I was reading the entire script. A lot of people complimented me on how well I was doing, but seriously come on – I was reading a script. Practice it a few times and you’d be amazed at how easy it is.

In the two week video, I didn’t read a single word. Sounds fantastic, right? Well, firstly (as I was clear the entire time) I was following a script, just that I learned it in advance instead of reading it live. Secondly, I used memory association techniques to make it much easier to recall what I wanted to say despite not having anything remotely resembling a photographic memory, and thirdly, I practised it enough times that I was comfortable with it.

In today’s video however, I didn’t prepare anything in advance. In fact, I had never even talked to Sam before apart from very brief emails just to arrange the time of the call and the recording equipment. If you presume that means I had a fascinating discussion for the eight minutes of the video, then you are missing something crucial: I did pretty much all the talking.

Now, to the untrained language learner, this may seem like it’s even more impressive than letting the other guy do all the talking. In fact, a major issue I have right now in Arabic is in comprehension. This is due to how words you already know morph with different vowel sounds and extra consonants. It’s actually not complicated at all, and follows very predictable patterns – I just need to get used to these patterns.

But the point of my one month progress point wasn’t to have a deep conversation, just to have my end of the conversation to be entirely spontaneous rather than scripted. So I said as much as I could, and asked questions that I was really only looking for confirmation (that he was a sports photographer etc.) I took control of the conversation in such a way that would allow me to do as much talking as possible, as that’s my level of capabilities for now.

Nothing in the dialogue is that complex, and I’m still making basic mistakes.

It’s like this all the way up to fluency

The point of all of these videos, all the way up to the ones I’ll make when having complex discussions with Egyptians in person in January, is to show that fluency is just a collection of achievable incremental changes.

In the next video (in about a week and a half) I’ll use my solve specific problems philosophy and aim to turn it more into a Q&A format so real interaction comes through.

The key is that I won’t need to work on speaking spontaneously, because I’ve already done that. I need to work on recognizing words I already know from changes in how they are formed, so that I recognize the question well enough to make a useful answer to it.

That’s something specific I can practise (NOW it’s time to hit some grammar books, only because I specifically need to – you can bet it will hold my interest much more than it would have at week 1). And of course I’ll continue learning vocabulary in general, so I can say more and potentially recognize more.

The next video may look exactly like this one in terms of simplicity of the conversation, and my amount of hesitations or mispronunciations (despite plenty of nagging from perfectionists, I’m NOT going to prioritise those until they are my “biggest” problem, and when the person I’m speaking to understands me anyway, this is not the top of my triage of issues that need solving. Think practically and prioritise things that are genuinely hindering communication).

After that, I’ll continue to make the videos (and my general level) that little bit better, hopefully with each video. And if I do reach my target, or something close to it, then I hope you’ll see that it wasn’t impressive in any mystical sort of way. It’s just a lot of purposeful work, that when you break it up, involves no wizardry, genes or advantages that I have over you.

I was convinced that first polyglot I met had mystical powers, until I got off my lazy ass and tried to realistically emulate what he did myself. I hope some of you are trying this out for yourself! Let me know in the comments!




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