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The Laddering Method

October 2011

Hi Steve-- I was wondering what you thought about Khatzumoto of AJATT's "laddering method" for learning multiple languages.

From AJATT:

"The idea with laddering languages is to (as far as possible) never use the same “base language” twice. For example, I used English as a springboard (base language) for learning Japanese. But I will not use it as a springboard for future languages. Japanese is now my base language for learning Mandarin Chinese, and Mandarin will be my base language for learning Cantonese…I get the impression that Cantonese may be kind of a dead end in terms of lacking materials for learning other languages. Hopefully I am wrong on that, but if not, I may have to re-use a different language as a base (I would recommend one use the most recent base language available, i.e. not going back all the way to English but just stepping back onto (in my case) Mandarin or Japanese); this is admittedly dangerous, but perhaps unavoidable — unless I bust out a purely monolingual Norsk Experiment. Of course, in each case, as with Japanese, I will eventually switch to only learning in the language in question using the language in question (Autolearning? Monolingual Acquisiton? No idea how to phrase this one…). So, I will go Chinese-Chinese only at some point.

The beauty of laddering is that it requires you to be pretty darn good at the base language before you use it to learn another language. But even if you aren’t perfect, the worst that can happen is that you’ll increase your proficiency in the base language by necessity. Laddering also prevents deterioration of proficiency in the base language, which is always a danger when taking on a new language — you wouldn’t want to start sucking at something you had worked so hard to get good at. So, I am currently using Japanese translations when learning Chinese sentences (my electronic dictionary has Chinese-Japanese-Chinese on it…and a buttload of example sentences — however, my environment is not yet Sinified, so the pace remains slow for now). This way, Japanese remains firmly on my radar, and I even learn some obscure Japanese words, but I also get to spread my wings into Chinese. Very much a win-win situation. I never make reference to English for a Chinese word. And I never find myself getting confused between Japanese and Chinese."

I know Japanese to a proficient enough extent that It could be my "base language" for Korean. Have you ever done something like this during your language study? Do you think it makes much of a difference, or is it largely irrelevant?

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