Languages, Efficiency and Logic

At some point, every language learner has wished that their target language were more logical. In fact, an entirely logical language already exists: Lojban. The entire system is based solely on logic and a look through this guide will likely enthrall a logician — figuring out simple words requires a truth table. Not surprisingly, the practical applications of Lojban are limited.

It’s easy to forget that languages have to be processed by the human brain. The framework of a quick, instinctive and often inaccurate system 1 and a deliberate, slow and logical system 2 is useful for looking at language learning and use.

Nearly all spoken language uses system 1, yet most language learning centers on system 2. Were we to use system 2 as our primary linguistic processing mechanism, the pace of communication would grind to a halt while the computational cost of this communication would preclude nearly any simultaneous activity. Even making a passing mental note about the weather would require a shift into system 2 if one were thinking in an entirely logical language. Using system 2 can help you write an email or craft a blog post, but it’s inefficient for most of our daily linguistic needs.

The difficulty for second language learning arises when teachers focus entirely on system 2. The traditional approach that I’ve observed of grammar instruction followed by exercises from a textbook is great at training students to use system 2 in an entirely artificial context. It rarely results in students developing the heuristics, biases and instincts needed to use a foreign language within a system 1 context.

Learning English requires adopting the system 1 of an English-speaker. The role of the teacher is to create contexts that lead students into system 1 thinking and provide feedback. A simple sentence contains an incredible amount of information, but languages encode this information differently. English-speakers explicitly mark identification or classification (the vs. a/an) while other languages rely on context or different phrasing. Conversely, English-speakers have no need to mark the gender of the agent of a past action as Slavic languages do; context suffices for us. A good teacher can help students figure out and develop this encoding for themselves.

Approaching language learning this way prepares students to actually use their target language functionally. Applying system 2 logic to what is primarily a system 1 function will cause consternation and unnatural language production. Look at the quirks of any natural language and realize that that language serves as a medium of communication because of, rather than in spite of, its illogical features.