Linguistics Olympiad and language learning

I was always a bit rubbish at learning languages at school (and when I started learning British Sign Language a few years ago I wasn’t much better), but I find languages utterly fascinating. Otherwise I suppose I wouldn’t have spent four years on a degree studying linguistics! I saw a news article this week about the UK Linguistics Olympiad.

In this competition, the contestants are given some sentences or words from a foreign language along with an English translation and they need to use these to decipher some untranslated sentences. I remember having a similar task for Japanese while studying a module on teaching English as a foreign language. I loved it. There’s something really fun about deciphering bits of a language by analysing a few sentences’ grammatical structures and words.

Why, when I was so useless with languages at school, does this appeal to me? I guess the idea of cracking a code is intriguing for most people, and analysing language structures is always fun. Would someone ‘naturally’ good with languages be better at this kind of task than someone like me, who’s useless at language learning, but who has experience analysing grammar (even if mainly English grammar)?

This reminded me of this post from Tim Ferriss’s blog in 2007, which talks about how to get a grip on a language in an hour. The idea is similar: deconstruct the grammar. While I realise language learning has more components than this, this approach appeals to me. Maybe one day I’ll test it out myself.


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