karen shea, captain's log

language acquisition

Fri, May 28 2021

brute force

Compared to simultaneously powering the programming and linguistic parts of my brain for the first time, learning the German computer vocabulary that I was hitherto missing was the easiest part of speaking German at work. Some of them are easy: the bug, der Bug; the code, der Code, the (file) path, der Pfad, to call (a function), aufrufen. Most of these I picked up from context. Over lunch with a German friend we attempted to find a pattern to the genders.

"It seems like most of them are maskulin. Which is counter to the advice that 'die' is the best guess for words whose gender you don't know."

"What about Kompilierung?"

"Ja, but all '-ung' words are feminin."

And then I saw it. I watched my native speaker friend realize that all German words ending in '-ung' have a feminine gender classification. I couldn't believe it. I asked him if he knew that was true of '-tion' words as well. Same reaction: huh, that's interesting, never noticed that before. Astounding. I recognized glimmers of my middle school self, when I realized that Chinese doesn't possess grammatical articles.

I ruminated on this for a while. Why was this so interesting? If German is the first heavily inflected and gendered language that you learn, the most important flotation device you desperately cling to is any kind of hard-and-fast rule as to what a word's gender is. That words ending in '-ung' and '-tion' are feminine is one of them. Of course it speeds up acquisition for a non-native learner, but I also figured it was just more efficient, for the brain, that power-hungry organ. What I observed in my friend's not-knowing however was that his brain had had no need of this "shortcut." He had brute-forced it.

To me, brute-forcing something means results through exhaustive increment rather than pattern-based strategy, which is the opposite of how you might think you're supposed to learn a language, certainly the opposite of how most of us are taught languages. After a couple of days of thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that this represented a strong case for linguistic hope.

In the first coronavirus lock down, I had cracked open a Polish language textbook from a friend who had done his civil service in Poland. After a couple modules, all the confidence from my C1 first-gendered-and-inflected language victory in German drained away. Slavic languages, if you've never encountered them before, are thorny. In Polish there are three genders, and one sub-gender (the animate masculine) that determine the inflection of a word, depending on which of the seven cases you're talking about. Seven is only three more than German's four, and I had gotten a handle on those, hadn't I? Unlike in German though, where the declension is (mostly) only applied to the article (e.g. der, die, das), noun declension in Polish is applied to the word itself, often rendering it barely recognizable to its dictionary form. Every explanation starts out fairly simple and then declines from there (no pun intended): feminine words get this ending, neuter words get this ending, masculine words get this ending, unless it's an animate masculine, then it gets this ending, but ignore all of that if the word is feminine and ends in a historically soft consonant such as g, k, h or ch. Or sometimes the ending is like this or that, just because, sorry!

I despaired. German was starting to look like a kiddie pool, filled with flotation devices. Polish was the ocean, drowning me in rules and exceptions that made me feel like I was doing my taxes. I found that even if I could get the convoluted rules straight in my head, I needed to take two seconds to do a "blocking" (in programmerspeak) calculation for every inflection.

By observing however that even Germans don't learn hard-and-fast rules to their own language, I was reminded of something: There are no shortcuts to feeling a language. It doesn't matter if you know why it's correct, only that you know the word. Thus, my current language acquisition approach is: learn the rules, but then apply brute force to it. I just talk, to myself in the shower, to my partner, to the duolingo owl*, focusing on getting the word into my mouth first, and later what the right ending is supposed to be.

* I was also able to start using duolingo for Polish again. For a language that is basically a bunch of edge cases wearing a trench coat, it was too infuriating to try to blindly accept what the owl was teaching me without being able to see a pattern in anything. Now that I'm also going through the textbook, I lean on duolingo as an easy way to build muscle memory.