How Cartoons Help You Learn Another Language

Francis Tapon is the author of the new book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. This article is an adapted excerpt from the chapter on Slovenia.

Nation of polyglots


The complexity of slovenščina (the Slovenian language) isn’t the main reason few try to learn it; the real reason nobody tries to learn it is that Slovenians usually speak your native language.

Within Europe, Slovenians come in third in speaking a foreign language. Europeans proclaim they’re all polyglots, but 44 percent of EU citizens can only speak one language.

In contrast, it’s nearly impossible to find a monolingual person in Slovenia. While 28 percent of Europeans speak at least three languages, a whopping 71 percent of Slovenians are at least trilingual. Only the Netherlands (75%) and Luxembourg (92%) have higher percentages.

In Eastern Europe, I often had to ask 10 random people to find one good English speaker. In Slovenia, I had to ask 10 people to find one person who did not speak English. They also normally spoke either Croatian, Italian, or German (and many spoke all three of them).

Several Slovenians I met also understood Spanish, thanks to the telenovelas. Sanela Kadić, a Slovenian who is fluent in six languages, told me, “Slovenians always make the effort to learn other people’s languages, so nobody bothers to learn Slovenian.”

That’s the price you pay for being a nation of just two million surrounded by much larger linguistic regions (Italy, Germany, South Slavic). Nevertheless, Slovenians are rightfully frustrated that some immigrants live in Slovenia for years and never learn Slovenian properly. Since Slovenians are the masters of learning many languages, they can teach the world how they do it.

How to learn a language quickly

With seven in 10 Slovenians being trilingual, they know all the tricks to learn any language fast. They shared their tips with me.

First, it’s a myth that kids are better at learning languages than adults. If an adult spends as much time as a child does to learn Latvian, he’ll know it just as well as a child. The only reason children seem to learn faster than adults is that they spend more time studying.

Still, a child does have one advantage over an adult: pronunciation. Although an eight-year-old can’t learn Bulgarian any faster than a 40-year-old, the child will be better at speaking it without an accent. Before 14 years old, humans are able to mimic the correct sounds of any language. However, after 14, we begin to lose that ability. That’s why some American immigrants use words that only a Scrabble nut would know, but say them with an accent.

Now that you know you can learn any language, let’s see how Slovenians do it quickly. Andreja Nastasja Terbos, who is fluent in three languages and proficient in three more, offered great advice: do what children do.

  • Watch cartoons (which is easy with YouTube)
  • Read children’s books and comic books. They all use core vocabulary, basic grammar, and helpful pictures.
  • Don’t feel stupid reading Little Red Riding Hood in Hungarian.
  • When you read books, don’t discourage yourself by trying to understand everything.
  • Favor small dictionaries because they’re easy to carry and have the essential words.
  • Improve your vocabulary by associating it with experience—you’re more likely to remember what a mešalnik is if you use one (it’s a blender in Slovenian).
  • Listen to music in your desired language, decode the lyrics, and sing along.
  • Many children aren’t afraid to make mistakes—neither should you.

If you lack discipline, hire a young tutor. They’re cheap and are unlikely to teach you the traditional (not commonly used) way of saying something. Favor solo learning over group learning.

The Slovenian wife of a Belgian man explained how she helped him become fluent in Slovenian. Write text messages: since you’re limited to 140 characters, it’s good for simple sentences. It’s also good to receive a text message because decoding them is like a mini exercise.

My Slovenian friend, Dušan Trušnovec, is fluent in five languages and advises that if several languages interest you, start with the easiest one. Some believe, “I’m going to learn Japanese, because if I can learn that, I can learn anything.” Yes, that’s true, but you might commit harakiri first.

Pick something that helps you make quick progress. Once you have one or two languages in the bag, learning a fourth or fifth language becomes easier, even if they’re weird ones. That’s how Pope John Paul II learned over a dozen languages.

This strategy works because sometimes seemingly unrelated languages have some random thing in common. For example, in Russian, mokri means wet. Since I speak Spanish, mokri reminds me of the Spanish word mojado, which also means wet.

A Slovenian language teacher advised me, “Learn verbs first. Verbs are the core of any sentence. Without them, a sentence collapses.” Another strategy is to learn the most common words first. Although every language has its own list of common words, use this list as a starting point, and translate these hundred words into the language you want to learn. The best way to learn them is through association. Use the way the word is written or the way it sounds to associate it with something. For example, in Slovenian I recall ljudje (people) by thinking of a bunch of lewd people; or to remember the action iti dol (go down) I visualize an E.T. doll going down.

Anamarija Mišmaš, a Slovenian who understands five languages, helped me by taping a piece of paper on every object in the house and writing what it was. That way, you’ll learn that you enter through the vrata (door) using a ključ (key), then look at yourself in the ogledalo (mirror), put your jacket in the omara (closet), open the hladilnik (fridge) to get a six-pack of pivo (beer) and get drunk on the kavč (couch). Say the words aloud when you see them and eventually add verbs to describe how you interact with the object.

Everyone knows that the best way to learn a language is to live in a country that speaks it, but many who get that chance don’t fully immerse themselves. Instead, they hang out with people who prefer speaking in English. Advice: greet English speakers with a smile, then run away.

However, what if you live in Kentucky and you want to learn Romanian? Thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to find speakers of any language in your community. Believe it or not, there are about 150 Slovenians in North Dakota.

Watch foreign movies with subtitles; if you watch enough of them, you’ll start to understand the language.

When you’re good enough, watch them with subtitles of the language you’re trying to learn—you’ll learn writing and listening simultaneously. Dubbing doesn’t seem like a big deal, but since the average guy spends thousands of hours watching TV and movies every year, subtitling can passively teach us another language.

Although these are all excellent shortcuts to learning a language, ultimately you’ll need to invest several hundred hours to become proficient. There is no magic formula that will let you become fluent in a week. Put in those hours by letting a language infiltrate every part of your life. Then, just like a child, within several months you’ll be speaking some weird language.

Francis Tapon has traveled to 80 countries and spent the last three years traveling to 25 Eastern European countries. He is author of the new book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. This article is an adapted excerpt from the chapter on Slovenia.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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