Klaatu Barada Nikto! The meaning of this phrase, repeated in the recent rendition of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” has been widely discussed and the generally agreed uponÂ meaning isÂ that it is a kind ofÂ “safe word” used to keep the giant Gort from destroying the Earth.Â While no translation has ever been given by the writers of the original screenplay, you can understand the meaning by the context in which it was used.
When we are babies, that is exactly how we learn English, or whatever other language you happenedÂ learn when you grew up. We pay attention to the sounds, and expressions, and figure out what they mean by the context in which they are used. When we practice copying the sounds and phrases of the adults around us, we learn what words get us what things. Over the course of three or four years, we unconsciouslyÂ soakÂ up all the grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary that will form the basis for our entire communication that we use for our entire lives. We do all this without thought, worry, or stress. It just happens.
So what makes it seemingly so hard to learn a foreign language when we get older? Do our brains change somehow,Â as many believe, making it harder for us to learn as we get older? I don’t think so. I suspect that wherever you are in your stage of life, if you put yourself in an environment exactly the same as when you learned your native language, you’d learn a new one just as quickly. The rub is making sure the environment is EXACTLY the same. Surrounded by loving adultsÂ who give you all kinds of happy feelings when you speak,Â correctlyÂ or incorrectly.Â An environment where the ONLY thing you were expected to do was learn things. And environment where you didn’t have to worry about food, TV, or anything elseÂ that you take for granted today.
Unfortunately, unless you have a lot of money to throw around, re-creating the environment where you learned your first language is not likely. So if you want to learn another language, you need another strategy. Luckily, if you’ve read my other articles on memory, you already have a fantastic strategy for learning new words in a foreign language. It’s called pegging. If you haven’t read the other articles on memory, I suggest yo do that.
Imagine you want to learn the Japanese word for apple. Ready? I’ll teach it to you. Imagine you are in Tokyo at a Beatles concert. You can see John and Paul in the front, and George off to the side. But you can’t see the drummer, what’s his name. You walk over to the side, to get a better look. And to your shock, instead of the Beatles drummer, you see a giant apple, with arms and legs, banging away on the drums. How do you say “apple” in Japanese? You guessed it: Ringo.
Now if you need to, you can add more stuff to that picture to make it more memorable, but keep the elements the same. An apple playing drums for the Beatles at a concert in Tokyo. Try this with other words. Take the target word (in this case, “Ringo”) and say it until it reminds you of anything in English. Then just connect them up using a crazy, emotional, nonsensical picture/story. The more you do this, the easier it will get.
Now how long did it take to learn that? One minute? Two minutes? Do you know how many words are the base for everyday fluencyÂ in any given language? About 3000. And that’s really stretching it. Most linguists figure there’s really only about 500 that people use in basic non-technical conversation every day.
If you only spend 5 to 10 minutes a day, you could easily become conversationally fluent in a new language every year. And simply because you can imagine this, you can make it happen. How much would that impress your friends?