Parable of the Sower: 9. Learn a New Language–Become a Mapmaker

Language helps us create a map of the exterior world so that we can understand it, and even manipulate it using our interior world.   It creates a map of reality in the brain, in other words.

When you learn a new language, you are essentially learning a new map of reality.   Creating a new map ends up changing the mapmaker.   It has the practical benefit of increasing brain plasticity, which has shown to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s for those who learn a second language.   But it has the effect of increasing one’s ability to take on perspectives.   When you have a conversation in a foreign language, you are learning about the culture of that country automatically.

In the past year, I’ve made two language study decisions which have helped expand my repertoire of languages from five–Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Chinese–to eleven.   I have added Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Irish and Swedish to the languages which I am studying.   I am still at the beginning or “A” level with these languages on the scale of the CEFR (Common European Framework of reference), but hope to bring at least some of them to the “B” level in the coming year while pushing for improvement in my five “core” foreign languages I mentioned above.

The first decision was to sign up for Duolingo, which I did to study two new languages Italian and Portuguese.   After I while, I enjoyed the platform so much that I decided to use it to review the three European languages I had already studied, Spanish, French, and German.

Duolingo is free, and it just requires that you sign up and register at the site,  Choose the language you want to study, and then you start out with the skill at the top of the skill tree called “Basics 1.”  Once you have covered the lessons that are comprised in that skill, the skill tree unlocks the skills underneath it, which are “Phrases” and “Basics 2.”   There are, at current count, 10 skills in the first “tier” of the tree, 8 skills in the second tier, 14 in the third tier,and 35 in the final fourth tier.   Each time you get a set number of “experience points” or “XPs”, you go up a level in the language, starting at level 1 and going to level 25.   I think it takes going to about level 18 or 19 to get to the bottom of the skill tree, because I’m at level 17 on Spanish and have 10 more skills to go until I finish the tree.

Once you finish a skill, however, the system will sometimes require you to go back and review it after a certain amount of time has passed in order to cement it into your memory.   So when you go to the skill tree page every day to practice, you will see some completed skills will now have the orange strength bar counter on the left of the skills icon go from being all the way complete (5 strength bars), to being incomplete (4 strength bars).   If you simply left of practicing that skill, it would soon go down to 3 strength bars, etc.   But I usually shore up these attenuated skills by practicing them all until they are all at full strength, and THEN going to study new lessons in a skill at the bottom of the tree.

To do 10 XPs of practice takes about 5 to 10 minutes of one’s time.   If you study every day for just 5 to 10 minutes, therefore, you will see steady progress in your ability to read and write, and even speak the language.   Now, even if you get to the bottom of the skill tree you would not necessarily be fluent in the language, because that would require reacting with a live person rather than a computer program.  But you would understand enough so that going on to practice with a live person would make you progress ever so more rapidly than if you hadn’t practiced the language beforehand.

Right now, I’m currently studying Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Irish and Swedish on Duolingo.   New languages that are being prepared for release are Turkish, Hungarian, and Russian.    One question that always gets asked in the comments section is “why aren’t there any Asian languages being offered?”   Chinese and Japanese would be welcome by the language-learning community that goes to Duolingo, but there is a lot of challenge in offering languages that do not rely on a Western-style alphabet, but instead offer a series of syllables and/or characters.  I hope that the Duolingo team is able to surmount this technological hurdle in the coming years.

The second decision was to take advantage of the offer by Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot and language-learning leader who runs the website Fluent in 3 Months, to join his “Language Hacking League” on Cyber Monday when he offered the program for half price.  I had wanted to join his program in 2015, but the Cyber Monday sale pushed me into starting it early.   There is a ton of material on learning specific foreign languages as diverse as Chinese and Irish, and general methods for studying any foreign language.   He is great proponent of studying language by immersing yourself in actual conversations with native speakers, rather than just taking a course where you are interacting with a CD, DVD or computer program.   I have read his tips on how to get started in either a language exchange program where you agree to teach your own language to a native speaker of the language who wish to learn, but he also offers tips on how to find a language teacher if you want to pay for lessons.   My biggest question for 2015 is not whether I will do or not, but which language I’ll start with!   I’m torn between Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, and Swedish!

In any case, discovering his program gave me a huge boost in passion for language learning in the coming year, because I was frankly stuck in the language learning paradigm where I was using courses.   These are useful for learning a language, but they have a decided disadvantage in that they can lead to boredom.   Speaking with a native speaker will very rarely lead to boredom, and although it is more challenging, the excitement it brings in actually communicating with a real person will carry one through any difficulties one faces.

I am in fact assembling my multilanguage learning plan for 2015 which I will post on this blog on December 31st, and I hope that you will visit Benny Lewis’s site,, and share in the passion of learning a new language.  It will help you explore the world, and expand your inner world at the same time!


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