The mathematics of language learning: finding formulas for your success

calculator

I’m sure nobody will be surprised to hear that at school I was appalling at Maths and Science. I realised at about the age of seven that it just wasn’t for me, and that the humanities were my calling. However, what I later discovered is that the two worlds are actually more similar than I’d first thought. When it came to studying things like Chemistry and Algebra at school, I could just about stomach it if I convinced myself that these were just languages: if I learnt the rules, learnt the vocabulary, I could pull it off. But of course, this can work the other way round as well. If you’re a science or maths-minded person, and you think that it’s those skills that are holding you back from succeeding in learning a language, then this post is for you.

In my opinion, a big pit-fall for many who set out to learn a language is that they are far too ambitious. People that only speak their native language are used to ‘language’ being a device which they use very comfortably and proficiently to express themselves in all sorts of different shades of meaning and for all manner of purposes, and when they start learning another language that is the reward they expect, far more quickly than is realistic to achieve it. Reaching that goal of fluency can only really happen after years of conscientious and focused study. But bearing this in mind, there are still many ways that you can make things easier for yourself – by looking out for grammar patterns, observing how these can then be applied in all manner of circumstances, and then eventually on that basis being able to produce sentences or phrases of your own. Really, language learning doesn’t have to be any harder than you make it for yourself.

Vocabulary

The biggest task for anyone learning languages. Basically, you do just have to sit down and learn this. But, it’s actually not as scary as you might think. You’ve had to learn vocabulary your whole life, even if you’ve never studied languages before. In all subjects there are terms and phrases that you would never have picked up just by being at home or as a child. It’s easy to forget that you weren’t born with the command of your first language that you have now – you went to school and there it was shaped, expanded, and improved on.

MineralogyIf you have studied science or maths, then you’re in luck. Most of the words you will have learnt are probably of Greek or Latin origin, and in some way shape or form will still be in use today. E.g. Photosynthesis is made up of the Greek words phos and synthéto, which mean ‘light’ and ‘to put together, compose, or synthesise’. Hence it means the putting together of light. Equally in geometry (also a Greek word – gee means ‘earth’ and metráo means ‘I count’ or ‘I measure’) the names of shapes are all Greek words: pentagon – pénte means ‘five’, hexagon – éxi means ‘six’, dodecahedron – dódeka means ‘twelve’. If you’ve managed to enter these low frequency, specialised terms into your vocabulary, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to learn other words in other languages. Least of all because they’re made up of words in other languages in the first place.

But there is also a more formulaic approach. In so many languages, a lot of vocabulary is made up of words being put together or altered in order to create a broader meaning. There are formulas that exist to put these words together, and once you’re aware of them, suddenly you’ll realise that your vocabulary in your target language has increased phenomenally. Here are some examples in German:

 

Word

+

Word

=

Meaning

German

Staub

+

Saugen

=

Staubsauger

English

Dust

+

To suck

=

Vacuum cleaner

German

Arbeit

+

Geben

=

Arbeitgeber

English

Work

+

To give

=

Employer

This can work in other ways too. Russian, for example, has a system of prefixes, that is very short words that can be added to the beginning or end of an ordinary word to give it a different meaning. Here is a formula to make it a bit clearer:

prefix(word) = meaning

The prefixes that you can add in each case generally have the same or similar effect on the base word every time you add them. That means that after a while, you will start to recognise words you already know and see that they are prefixed, and will be able to have a good guess at what they mean. Here are some examples using the root word davát, which means ‘to give’.

 

Prefix

( Word )

=

Meaning

Russian

Iz

( Davát )

=

Izdavát

English

Out

( To give )

=

To publish

Russian

Pri

( Davát )

=

Pridavát

English

At

( To give )

=

To attach

Prefixes can change the meaning of the base word quite dramatically, so I think it’s more appropriate to use a brackets formula, rather than to say it’s just a simple addition.

Grammar

This is one of the trickiest parts of learning a language, but I reckon for science-minded people it shouldn’t actually be too hard. This is really where formulas are at work. Forming a sentence in any language always relies on three basic components, the subject, the verb, and the object. That is who is doing something, what is being done, and to what or to whom is it being done. Here’s an example of this:

The girl eats the cake.
The girl eats the cake.
[Subject] [verb] [object].

Now let’s create a formula for this. To make an English sentence, we need to know a) how many girls there are, b) when the eating is taking place, and c) how many cakes there are. The number of girls in part a) also affects part b), as if there are more than one we have to say ‘eat’ instead of ‘eats’. So let’s go for a formula that looks like this:

(number(subject) x tense(verb)) + number(object) = meaning

So the formula behind our example sentence is this:

(1(girl) x present(to eat)) + 1(cake) = The girl eats the cake.

Other languages have slightly more to think about though for sentence structuring. One of these things is that words can have genders. I’m afraid there is no simple explanation for this. It’s just a rule that has to be learnt, just in the same way that some elements don’t react with others, or some forces are more powerful than others. This does not really affect our equation though, as a noun can only ever have one gender which is inseperable from its usage.

So if we put our sentence into French it would look like this:

La fille mange le gâteau
La fille mange le gâteau
[Subject] [Verb] [Object]

Our formula is exactly the same as the one we had for English, we’ve just swapped the words we’re applying it to to French ones. If you like, we can make a slight alteration to add the fact that in French ‘girl’ is a feminine noun, and ‘cake’ is masculine.

(number(subject = feminine noun) x tense(verb)) + number(object = masculine noun) = meaning

Final thoughts

The examples I’ve used are the basis of all language learning. Of course, there is still a lot of learning to be done, such as verb declensions, noun declensions and so on. But all of this is accompanied by a handy set of grammar rules, and these are basically just formulas in word form. If you have problems deciphering the language used in grammar books, maybe it’d help to try and write them out again as formulas.

Unlike in maths or science, languages do come with exceptions and irregularities. However these can be overcome, simply by learning them. Then you may even start to spot patterns that will help you to know instinctively whether a verb is irregular and what to do with it, or what the gender of a noun is.

I’ve always believed that there’s nothing more special about people who can speak lots of languages than about those that know, for example, endless facts about football teams, players, and game stats. It’s only a question of the different ways in which people apply their memory faculties. It’s just that for various reasons, people seem to be more impressed when they hear of someone who has applied those skills to languages, but this should never put anyone off from having a go.

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