How to learn Quechua in two months

Deutsch Tag 23 – Dienstag

I just read an article about Thierry Hsieh, the founder of the polyglot cafe I’ve started attending, and how he learned 25 languages in ten years.

The story of his acquiring Quechua, once the main language of the Incan Empire and now still spoken by many people in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, is especially remarkable.

In 2012 he went to Ecuador with a group of linguistics graduate students to do some research. Since none of them could speak Quechua yet, they spent three hours every day in language class.

While everyone was attending language classes, Hsieh created his own immersion program. He made friends with some local people. He used Spanish at first to express his desire to become friends, but from then on only spoke Quechua.

At first he couldn’t speak or understand a single word, but after a few days of listening and mimicking he started to learn basics like eat, drink, and sleep. Progress was fast after that point. In about a month, he could already talk to strangers from other tribes; after two months, he could speak and listen fluently enough to attend church with his friends and understand what was being said.

Meanwhile, in those two short months, none of the other grad students who had been attending class for three hours a day learned much Quechua at all. When they all went back to the US, most of them probably forgot the little Quechua they had learned; Hsieh presumably still speaks it.

The article summarizes Hsieh’s method into four points:

  1. Create a learning environment; use all your senses to create memories. Listen to natural dialogues, music, or audiobooks. If you don’t understand, don’t worry. Whatever you do, do not use a dictionary.
  2. Follow along. Choose a dialogue or speech, and follow along. Listen to one sentence, copy it, repeat. Do this every day for 15 minutes. Treat it just like learning to sing a new song.
  3. Speak. Start to speak and communicate. Don’t worry about making mistakes. If you can’t get your meaning across, use body language.
  4. Don’t be “abducted by script.” First focus on listening, then focus on speaking. Only start to read and write once you’ve acquired the spoken language.

To some extent I’ve already been “abducted by script” in my German practice, since a lot of what I do, especially Anki, involves reading. That, plus I already have a mental model of German as a written language; when I hear a sentence in the German, the first thing I do is visualize the words written out in my head.

And I have been looking up words in the dictionary when I don’t know them. This feels like it makes it easier to follow along and learn new material, but am I actually hindering my progress by doing this?

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