How to (not) learn a language in 12 hours


My friend D asked me a good question today. Why would someone want to spend 12 hours straight studying a new language?

That’s what two other language enthusiasts and I did on Saturday, studying Bahasa Indonesia from 9am until 7pm, and then speaking it with each other for two more hours. The precondition for the “12-hour challenge” is that none of us could know or learn a single word of the language ahead of time; another was that we choose a language we were all actually interested in learning. Bahasa Indonesia was one of two languages that fit both criteria.

The challenge was inspired by a video showing four polyglots picking up Romanian in just one hour. The results are pretty amazing. After just an hour with a Romanian tutor, they are able to hold a somewhat fluent conversation. My language friends and I weren’t confident we would fare as well in only an hour, but we thought we could get close if we were given ten times that allotment.

Sportingly, I didn’t think much ahead of time about how I was going to spend my 12 hours studying, let alone learn anything about Bahasa Indonesia beforehand or look up any resources. Unsurprisingly, I spent the first few hours stuck somewhere between confusion and panic.

How would you start learning a new language, if your goal was to maximize your conversational ability in 12 hours? Here’s what I did, with hindsight enabling me to give a concise description that belies the chaos I was surrounded by.

Method #1: the scattershot

I started with a scattershot approach, watching some of the IndonesianPod101 3-minute lessons, trying and quickly dropping a Memrise deck, downloading some pre-made Anki decks (there is actually a pre-sorted sentence deck with audio for Bahasa Indonesia in the same vein as the ones I used for a while to learn French and German), and browsing the audio lesson library at IndonesianPod101. I watched videos and shadowed podcast lesson dialogues for a couple hours before realizing this was a hopeless strategy. There simply wasn’t enough time to learn the kind of volume of material I would need to develop a natural, acquisition-like sense of the language.

I grudgingly realized this kind of language learning necessarily resembled cramming for a test much more than it resembled acquiring a language. Clearly I needed to memorize some more useful phrases, the kind of thing I would be using that very night at our Indonesian table.

Method #2: the dialogue

I figured a dialogue would be the easiest package to consume these phrases in, since stories are more easily memorized than individual sentences. I wrote a dialogue of 13 lines in English, and then used Google Translate to turn it into Indonesian, cross-checking the Indonesian-to-English translation to make sure I wasn’t way off. I knew this would probably result in some unnatural phrases, but I decided to lower my standards for the sake of expediency.

How to memorize the dialogue? I turned it into an MCD-style Anki deck, but then found I had another problem: I didn’t know how to pronounce the words I was trying to learn. Bahasa Indonesia is written with the Latin alphabet, but of course the phonetics are completely different from English. I had thought I would get around this by picking up the sounds from my shadowing exercises, but since I wasn’t shadowing anymore I needed to find another workaround.

I used Google Translate’s text-to-speech feature to get an idea of the pronunciation, and then recorded myself doing an imitation of the Google Translate voice, and put the audio from my own imitation on the Anki cards, to accompany the text.

It probably should have been obvious before, but it was only around this point that it started to sink in that this method wasn’t going to be a winner either. Not least because, even if at great effort I did memorize this dialogue perfectly, I wasn’t going to get any closer to fluency in Indonesian than I got in German after memorizing my very first Slow German dialogue. Which is to say still far, far away.

Method #3: the combinatoric

In a last-ditch effort, I decided to try and enumerate all the words I would need to hold a basic conversation, covering all the parts of speech, and just memorize as many as I could. This was an even further departure from what I’m used to with language acquisition.

I made a list of personal pronouns and a list of verbs, and used a few online dictionaries to get the Indonesian words. The verbs included: to eat, to drink, to go, to want, to like, to live, to speak, to think, to know, to have, to buy, to be able, to give, to make, to tell, and to be. I tried making a list of nouns but couldn’t get inspired. I forgot all about adjectives.

Then I got cold feet and instead of persevering with individual vocabulary words I made up sentences using each of the above verbs, thinking this would be 1) easier to memorize than individual words, and 2) would help me incorporate some other parts of speech without having to come up with any more long lists. Did I think to look up frequency lists for individual parts of speech? No, for some reason I did not.

I also forgot until much later useful things like prepositions, impersonal pronouns (this, that, who, what, enough), common adverbs (how, when, where, why, also, too), super common time-related adjectives and nouns (next, last, yesterday, today, tomorrow, day, month, week). There were plenty that it never occurred to me to look up at all, and it was actually kind of fun figuring these out from context later on, during our Indonesian conversation.

Incomplete list of words and phrases in hand, I set about making Anki cards for them all. Unfortunately, at that point I didn’t have enough time to make any meaningful headway memorizing the cards (digression, but I should mention that this isn’t even how Anki is supposed to work. The whole point of an SRS is for memories to build up bit by bit, strengthening over a period of days, weeks, and months. I just don’t know a better way to memorize a lot of information quickly).

The showdown

I showed up for our conversation at the cafe feeling embarrassingly unprepared. Luckily, though I may not have memorized many words, I had all my notes, and I spent the two hours referring to them obsessively and fleshing them out when I encountered a new word from one of the other two.

This part, where we conversed using the words we had learned, was the most fun part of the day for me. We were originally supposed to have a native Indonesian speaker at the table with us, but we were informed that morning that he was out of town. As a result, there was no one at the table but the three of us stumbling through our astonishingly rudimentary conversation with abundant hand gestures and occasional pointing at our notes or showing pictures from Google search results.

It’s certain we were speaking something a bit different from what a real Bahasa Indonesia speaker would recognize as his or her own language, but I think it’s cool that we were still able to communicate. We talked about what we had done during our respective study time, we talked about our ages, what time we went to sleep, and whether we would keep studying Indonesian, and nobody spoke a word of English or any other language that we all knew.

The point of it all

What did I learn from all this? First of all, it’s pretty cool to know that I’m only one long plane ride’s length of time away from basic competency in a new language. In that sense the activity was useful as a proof of concept.

There’s one glaring omission from my day of learning Bahasa Indonesia: I never practiced with any native speakers. I could have gone on Italki or any number of other websites and found friends or tutors willing to speak to me — for money if necessary, but even then probably not a lot. Why didn’t I? At first I used the excuse that I wasn’t quite ready, that it would be more effective to learn some basics before I started speaking. And then I just got carried away with what I was doing and didn’t think about it again.

I may do this type of language marathon again someday (the other candidate we considered was Thai), and if I do, it would be interesting to try the opposite strategy: only speaking, for the whole ten hours of preparation. Now that I’ve been through a two-hour Indonesian conversation with practically no preparation (ten hours of ineffectual stressing out doesn’t actually count, does it?), the idea of jumping into the deep end again isn’t quite as scary. I would probably want to have some paid tutors lined up for the first few hours to teach me the basics, and then I could try to inflict my poor language ability on some hapless conversation partners. This approach would have an extra advantage with a language like Thai, where I wouldn’t need to worry about learning the writing system to decipher written teaching material (though taking notes might involve some ad-hoc transliteration, which could be tricky).

What else? Getting a sense of the set of words and phrases that I actually used in my first Bahasa Indonesia conversation actually gave me a better sense of what’s missing from my Korean vocabulary (and German too, for that matter). It’s inspired me to make more flashcards for Korean with things like the numbers, times, basic verbs, prepositions, etc., which might make me able to start having more fun conversations in Korean soon. This is actually what I was about to do tonight before I got sidetracked into writing this long blog post.

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