Learning Languages Fast - Can you Flush the Toilet in Zulu?
Tim Ferriss has a penchant for languages. His post How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour got me thinking because he gives eight sentences that you can use to get a really good understanding of how a particular language is constructed.
The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.
I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.
Tim uses these sentences because they show how verbs are conjugated between speaker and subject, they show gender, number, direct and indirect objects, negations and tense. Fantastic.
Interestingly, if you ask two speakers of the same language, you might get different answers.
Here's my wife's answers for the first 6 sentences in isiNdebele:
I ephuli libomvu.
Li ephuli likaJoni.
Nginika uJoni i ephuli.
Simnika i ephuli.
And here is the same from her sister.
I apple leli libomvu
Ngipha uJohane i apple.
Siyamupha i apple.
There's a few things interesting about this, other than two sisters will never agree on anything. Deconstructing isiNdebele (isiZulu), we see:
- Nouns start with a vowel as in iapple or iephuli or uJohn. (There are many noun classes, not every one starts with i.)
- The prefix si- indicates we and ya- is present tense, so siyamupha is we (are giving) give
- Mo uses ukunika to say "to give" and her sister says ukulipha meaning "to hand over" but they really both mean to give. (From http://isizulu.net/) Then her sister goes an uses ukulipha in her 3rd example, so get good examples!
- There's no gender in the last two, so uyalipha can mean both he gives and she gives.
- I can see how some verbs are conjugated as in ngipha (I give) and uyalipha (he/she gives)
If there are borrowed words in the language that resonate with me (meaning, I can easily remember them) like imota (car) or ifoni (phone) I can now put together sentences like Imota kaScott (It is Scott's car) or if I learn a few basic infinitive verbs like ukufuna (to want), ukufunda (to learn) or ukucela (to request) I can assemble sentences like:
- ngicela imali - I want (request) money
- ngifuna ukufunda isiZulu - I want to learn Zulu
What do you think of Tim's sentences? While you'll not become fluent, it seems to me that this a fun an effective way to learn more than just memorized phrases. You'll certainly build a nice base to build on if your brain works this way.
I know I have a very international readership, and I love travel, so I'd love it if you'd all add in the comments the native translations of these eight sentences in the format:
The apple is red. - PHONETIC PRONOUCIATION - NATIVE ALPHABET
As an aside, Richard Sprague once said that if you really want to know if someone who says they know a language is really fluent in that language, you should ask them how to say "Flush the toilet." Why that phrase? Because most folks who've cobbled together an understanding of a language from High School or phrase books might be able to assemble an awkward sentence that sounds like "push the button to make the water come" rather than the colloquial or commonly used phrase. For example, in French, "tirer la chasse" translates to the English "pull the chain." Only a person who has lived in a country and gained some fluency knows these kinds of colloquialisms. So the next time your office mate says he knows six languages...find out in how many he can say flush the toilet.
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- The (Programming) Language Explosion