“How I learned a language in 22 hours”
by Joshua Foer
“What do you know about where I come from?” That was one of the first questions I ever asked Bosco Mongousso, an Mbendjele pygmy who lives in the sparsely populated Ndoki forest at the far northern tip of the Republic of Congo. We were sitting on logs around a fire one evening four years ago, eating a dinner of smoked river fish and koko, a vitamin-rich wild green harvested from the forest. I’d come to this hard-to-reach corner of the Congo basin – a spot at least 50km from the nearest village – to report a story for National Geographic magazine about a population of chimpanzees who display the most sophisticated tool-use ever observed among non-humans.
Mongousso, who makes his living, for the most part, by hunting wildlife and gathering forest produce such as nuts, fruits, mushrooms and leaves, had teeth that had been chiselled to sharp points as a child. He stood about 1.4m (4ft 7in) tall and had a wide, wonderful grin that he exercised prolifically. He considered my question carefully.
“I don’t know. It’s far away,” he told me finally, through a translator. According to Oxford anthropologist Jerome Lewis, the Mbendjele believe that the spirit world is inhabited by people with white skin. For them, the afterlife and Europe go by the same word, putu. “Amu dua putu” is a common euphemism for death – literally, “He’s gone to Europe.” For me to have come all the way to the Ndoki forest was a journey of potentially metaphysical dimensions.
“Have you ever heard of the United States of America?” I asked Mongousso.
He shook his head. “No.”
I didn’t know where to begin. “Well, the United States is like a really big village on the other side of the ocean,” I told him. The translator conveyed my explanation, and then had a back-and-forth exchange with Mongousso.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He wanted to know, ‘What’s the ocean?’”
There was a brief moment this summer, a little over a year after the publication of my first book, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art And Science Of Remembering Everything, when I thought I had finally put the subject of my memory into my memory. No phone interview with an obscure midwestern talk radio station or lunchtime lecture in a corporate auditorium was going to prevent me from finally moving on to another topic and starting work on my next long-term project – inspired by my encounter with Mongousso – about the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer societies and what they can teach us.
As part of my research, I had begun planning a series of logistically complicated trips that would take me back to the same remote region where I had met Mongousso. My goal was to spend the summer living in the forest with him and his fellow Mbendjele pygmies. It’s virtually impossible to find pygmies in northern Congo who speak French, much less English, and so in order to embed to the degree I was hoping, I needed to learn Lingala, the trade language that emerged in the 19th century as the lingua franca of the Congo basin. Though it is not the first language of the pygmies, Lingala is universally spoken across northern Congo – not only by the pygmies, but by their Bantu neighbors as well. Today, the language has about two million native speakers in both the Congos and in parts of Angola, and another seven million, including the Mbendjele pygmies, who use it as a second tongue.
You might think that learning a language with so many speakers would be an easy task in our global, interconnected age. And yet when I went online in search of Lingala resources, the only textbook I could find was a US Foreign Service Institute handbook printed in 1963 – when central Africa was still a front of the cold war – and a scanned copy of a 1,109-word Lingala-English dictionary. Which is how I ended up getting drawn back into the world of hard-core memorising that I had written about in Moonwalking.
Readers of that book (or the extract that ran last year in this magazine) will remember the brilliant, if slightly eccentric, British memory champion named Ed Cooke who took me under his wing and taught me a set of ancient mnemonic techniques, developed in Greece around the fifth century BC, that can be used to cram loads of random information into a skull in a relatively short amount of time. Ed showed me how to use those ancient tricks to perform seemingly impossible feats, such as memorising entire poems, strings of hundreds of random numbers, and even the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards in less than two minutes.
Since my book was published, Ed had moved on to other things and co-founded an online learning company called Memrise with a Princeton University neuroscience PhD named Greg Detre. Their goal: to take all of cognitive science’s knowhow about what makes information memorable, and combine it with all the knowhow from social gaming about what makes an activity fun and addictive, and develop a web app that can help anyone memorise anything – from the names of obscure cheeses, to the members of the British cabinet, to the vocabulary of an African language – as efficiently and effectively as possible. Since launching, the site has achieved a cult following among language enthusiasts and picked up more than a quarter of a million users.
“The idea of Memrise is to make learning properly fun,” Ed told me over coffee on a recent visit to New York to meet with investors. “Normally people stop learning things because of a bunch of negative feedback, such as worries about whether they’ll actually get anywhere, insecurities about their own intelligence, and a sense of it being effortful. With Memrise, we’re trying to invert that and create a form of learning experience that is so fun, so secure, so well directed and so mischievously effortless that it’s more like a game – something you’d want to do instead of watching TV.”
I have never been particularly good with languages. Despite a dozen years of Hebrew school and a lifetime of praying in the language, I’m ashamed to admit that I still can’t read an Israeli newspaper. Besides English, the only language I speak with any degree of fluency is Spanish, and that came only after five years of intense classroom study and more than half a dozen trips to Latin America. Still, I was determined to master Lingala before leaving for the Congo. And I had just under two and a half months to do it. When I asked Ed if he thought it would be possible to learn an entire language in such a minuscule amount of time using Memrise, his response was matter-of-fact: “It’ll be a cinch.”