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Language learning [Nov. 14th, 2012|12:37 am]

One of my biggest personal failures is that I am still effectively monolingual. I've tried learning a couple of languages: Latin, Spanish, Japanese, and even (in a fit of mad optimism) Finnish. As it is I can sort of half-communicate at a drunken-four-year-old level in Japanese and have pretty much forgotten or never learned the others.

(well, thanks to synagogue my Hebrew is okay, just as long as I never try to talk about anything except God and His eternal glory.)

Every time I try to learn a language I buy books that promise "Revolutionary New Language Learning Technique!" and have quotes on the cover about "Instead of boring grammar and rote memorization, we make learning easy and natural!" And then when I open up the books...it's page after page of boring grammar and rote memorization.

I've been trying to think of what a language-learning course that actually wasn't boring grammar and rote memorization would be like, and whether such a thing would even be possible.

So imagine this - I'm going to use Japanese here because it's the only language I could even remotely try to use as an example without making a total fool of myself, and I'll thank you for not correcting the inevitable errors. The course is a novel. Could be any novel, but I imagine for cutesiness reasons you'd want to use a classic from the culture you're studying, like The Tale of Genji or Death Note.

The first chapter is just the first chapter of the novel in English. It would contain normal English sentences like "Ryuk taught Light the secrets of the Death Note."

The second chapter is still in English, but it's a weird English with a sentence structure a bit more reminiscent of the foreign language. It might change to something like "Ryuk the secrets of the Death Note to Light taught". (I'm keeping the sentence the same to make it obvious what's going on here, but of course in the real book it would be the second chapter, not just a repetition of the first).

The next chapter would do the same thing, but get a little more foreign, maybe "About Ryuk, secret of Death Note to Light taught"

And gradually it would get a little more so: "Ryuk-about, Death Note-of secret Light-to taught."

There would be enough of this that sentences with Japanese syntax would become as quickly and effortlessly readable as sentences with English syntax. And the hope is that the reader would keep going because they'd be enjoying the story, and after a little while adjusting the weird sentence structure would be a comparatively slight barrier to further progress.

Then some of the grammatical particles would switch to full on foreign. Now it's "Ryuk-wa, Death Note-no secret Light-e taught." Gradually we'd get through all of the horrible little verb bits where my language studies have previously crashed and burned: "Ryuk-wa, Death Note-no secret-o Light-e teach-mashita."

I might grudgingly allow little footnotes at the bottom like "This is the first time you've seen -mashita. It's just the standard past tense ending for verbs", but even that might be an unacceptable surrender to the grammar-memorization-industrial complex.

Finally, and very gradually, it would start replacing English words with Japanese words. Just simple ones at first, ones that were obvious from context, and of course there would be a glossary in the back of the book you could look them up in if you had trouble.

Finally, the last chapter would just be completely in Japanese: "Ryuk wa Desu Noto no himitsu o Light e oshiemashita." It would probably be very deliberately simplified Japanese, but still, if you can read a book chapter in Japanese that seems like a pretty good success condition for an Intro Japanese textbook.

(and of course Japanese is a bad example here because you'd have to learn the writing system separately. I'd have preferred the example in Spanish, but I'm not confident enough in my Spanish even to do a simple example sentence.)

I don't know if anyone has tried this before; it's really hard to think of the right Google keywords to look for it, and language learning searches tend to get bogged down in a bunch of advertisements for the latest courses. But I'm really curious whether this would work and regret that I don't know any foreign language well enough to try writing such a textbook and testing it. Anyone who wants to has my total permission and support.

[User Picture]From: alicorn24
2012-11-14 05:44 am (UTC)
Well now I have to talk to everyone I know who natively speaks a non-English language and be all "do this do this".
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[User Picture]From: cakoluchiam
2012-11-14 08:45 am (UTC)
As a teacher and tutor, I'd imagine that writing the book could be as much a learning experience as reading the book, and I'm half-tempted to try this.

AP Latin classes do something similar by rote-translating the poems of Ovid, Catullus, Virgil, Cicero, Horace. The metered style simplifies the identification of matched phrases in samples, and would be a useful property if one were to similarly craft a book merging a native work and a translation.

Edit: Graphic novel would also be a good medium, as in Scott's example, since in addition to separating phrases, there is also visual context given for each phrase. Actually, I had a few friends in high school who learned Japanese largely for—and possibly by—translating imported graphic novels.

Edited at 2012-11-14 08:47 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-11-14 06:11 am (UTC)
There was an old, old school Korean textbook that did this, kind of. There would be the Korean phrase, the "proper" English translation, and then a literal translation of the Korean. An example (please excuse my awful Korean):

어닐애 밥을 먹었어요.
Today I ate rice.
Today rice ate.

In addition to lessons about things like particles (애,을) or past tense verb conjugation and how to use them/make them.

My friend who speaks pretty good Korean was a big fan of this particular textbook. As well as rote memorization: people piss all over it but sometimes it's inevitable, as well as being the most efficient method.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-11-14 06:13 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'm a big fan of rote memorization as effective, I just wish there was some other effective way.
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[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-11-14 06:17 am (UTC)
The other effective way seems to be to have multilingual parents and be three years old for a couple extra years. Unfortunately that one isn't possible (yet?).
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[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-11-14 08:14 am (UTC)
There is.

Go live in a place where everyone speaks the language you want to learn. Carry around a phrase book.

Within a week you'll be reasonably confident at ordering food and asking directions. Give it three months (if you actually immerse yourself) and you'll be able to chat. A year and you'll be pretty fluent.
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[User Picture]From: cakoluchiam
2012-11-14 08:38 am (UTC)
Most American musical scores for songs in foreign languages do something like this—they have one line with the native script, one line with the phonetic, and one line with the translation.

Granted, usually the translation is meant to be an alternate verse, so it is poeticised, but if you have some familiarity with the language family, you (I, at least) can usually identify a lot of it.
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[User Picture]From: little_ribbit
2012-11-14 06:51 am (UTC)
I shared this on Facebook. The nice lady I tagged is a senior at UCSCU studying computational linguistics. You should go read her comment there (sorry, friends-locked).
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-11-14 08:16 am (UTC)
It worked for watership down in a small way. I'm also trying to imagine if there's any automated way of doing this; say having a bilingual news site, and reading the news in Japanese, but whenever you hover your mouse you get the English translation, so you can always just read in English, but it goes faster the more common Japanese words you absorb?
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-11-14 03:36 pm (UTC)
I was thinking about Watership Down, too.

I think it could work to introduce words in the new language fairly early.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-11-14 04:12 pm (UTC)
This has been done exactly as you describe: I don't remember its name, but there was a tool that showed translations of the word, phrase and sentence under the mouse. IIRC it only worked with hand-translated texts, but nowadays machine translation is good enough to maybe usefully do this for arbitrary text.

...now I want this as a browser plugin.
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[User Picture]From: simplicio1
2012-11-14 05:39 pm (UTC)
Google translate's Chrome plugin will do this for you, although you have to double-click on the word to see the translation. Unfortunately it doesn't operate at phrase-level unless you copy/paste.
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[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-11-14 07:04 pm (UTC)
Language immersion chrome plugin, it runs a google translation of the webpage you're looking at and with a slider you determine how the languages are mixed. I ran it with French for a while until I got tired of it.
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[User Picture]From: cakoluchiam
2012-11-14 08:34 am (UTC)
I actually like your idea of the footnote. It's reminiscent of the way Magic: The Gathering teaches players the new keywords: in the first set where a keyword is used, there is "reminder text" on all the common cards containing that keyword, in parens and italics. Then, in the next set, the reminder text is gone, and you just see the keyword on its own.

A simple way to do this that wouldn't be obtrusive to the reader who -doesn't- want the flow interrupted by reminder text would be to have the novel be in hypertext format, using the anchor tag's "title" property.
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[User Picture]From: Roman Davis
2012-11-14 08:51 am (UTC)
I had an idea for a game that would teach you Japanese. It was basically a noncombat Metroidvania, and at the beginning, your only ability was "Sore wa nan desu ka?" "What is this?" So you'd only be able to ask people about things that were close to your character.

With that ability, you could find out words in Japanese, and use them to get past various people. Later you'd get "Kore wa nan desu ka?" "What is that?" so you'd be able to ask things that were close to other people. The game would go on like that. You'd learn blue, by getting the power iro and asking (I think, I've forgotten a lot of Japanese) "Sora wa nan iro desu ka?" "What color is the sky?" and an NPC'd say "Sora wa aoi desu." "The sky is blue."

Eventually, you'd get quest to do things in Japanese. Buy things at the store. Read a kid's book or manga. Go on a date. There could be progress bars that kept track of how many words you knew. The game would detect when you forgot words, too, when you'd have find ways to get them, and it would make sure to bring up words you had forgotten in quests. Every so many words, you'd gain a level, the levels wouldn't be numbered, but named. (I can't be the only one who gets progress in those types of RPGs just to find the names of things.)

The end goal would ideally be something legitimately fun and game like as an end goal. Become boss of the Yakuza, or an astronaut in the Japanese Space Program, work for a game or animation company, score with a Japanese girlfriend. I'm not picky.

The point should never be to take the memorization away. That's impossible. Memorization isn't fun in and of itself. But it's not actually boring either. We memorize things every day. The way home from work. A new friends name and interests. Faces. A conversation with your girlfriend. Every. Single. Day.

It just needs to be gamified. It needs to be treated as a worthy challenge with progress, and each word is a secret power that can be combined with other words to make a magic spell. Giving people powerful ways to combine words will reinforce memories, and make each word that much more memorable. And the spell book is already there, but instead of being called a GRIMOIRE it's spelled DICTIONARY.


Edited at 2012-11-14 09:21 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: toothycat
2012-11-14 05:17 pm (UTC)
Slime Forest Adventure attempts to do something like this.
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[User Picture]From: novalis
2012-11-18 03:14 pm (UTC)
Magicians aims to do something like this.
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From: gjm11
2012-11-14 09:24 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-11-14 03:42 pm (UTC)
It didn't work for me. I'm not sure how much it was that I needed to make the test larger and how much it was that gender essentialism makes me crazy.
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-11-14 04:59 pm (UTC)
You can learn a sentence of ANYTHING in 3 minutes. That's what memory is. The fact that people don't OBVIOUSLY build pictorial (or musical or spatial or whatever) associations for things they're trying to memorize is a sign that nobody knows how to memorize anything, which is really fucked up.
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[User Picture]From: naath
2012-11-14 09:50 am (UTC)
Have you read Watership Down? it famously does almost exactly this, with an entirely made up language (only rather slower, and culminating in only a single sentence not a whole chapter).

I think it could work quite well, if the book was sufficiently interesting. And I'd like to see it done. The thing I don't think you could get from it is the correct way of pronouncing things (languages which share the Latin alphabet do not all share the same orthography).

The only way I've ever got beyond "hello, my name is naath; do you know where the train station is" sort of conversations is by spending time in a country where the language is spoken and *avoiding English*.
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[User Picture]From: ari_rahikkala
2012-11-14 10:53 am (UTC)
Personally I find that speaking two natural languages gives a lot less insight and expressive power than knowing a programming language does. I've had many enlightening and fruitful conversations in Finnish with Finnish-speaking people, but it's hard to imagine I would have missed a lot of the same insights only speaking English with English-speaking people. But if I hadn't learned Haskell, I *would* have missed many conversations with GHCi. I have had my assumptions challenged, I have untangled my understanding of concepts like identity and change, I've explored properties of different constructs and algorithms, all by asking GHCi questions.

There's no illusion of transparency when your counterpart is a compiler. You either specify what you mean precisely, or the program doesn't work. Well, okay, there's a kind of an illusion - that being that even simple-looking programs are incredibly likely to be wrong (aka buggy), but in ways that are invisible until you find the particular test that exposes them. You need precision and humility. You learn to make deep models and then poke holes in them. Now I think you're already pretty damn strong at those things... but I think that learning a programming language would do more to increase your power than a natural language would.

To save you a little possible future effort if you do make the strategic decision to put effort into learning programming, I'm going to throw in a few recommendations. Learn Python the Hard Way might be the best starting point (operative word being "might" because I don't think there's been research on this). It's really big on the precision and humility. As in, you're going to hate it because it takes an approach that's even more boring than rote memorization and grammar rules, but, well, that's what it takes when you have to get every character right. Oh, and the nice thing about programming languages is, once you know two (from different paradigms), you'll be conversant in all of them. So in the even more distant future when you've gone through the really painful stuff, you could try Real World Haskell. It's more conventional and more oriented toward people who want to actually be programmers rather than just people who know how to program, but it's one of the least stupid Haskell tutorials around, and then I'll finally be able to explain what that signature about naming things that I once used means.
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[User Picture]From: sunch
2012-11-14 09:08 pm (UTC)
Second that, Ilya Frank's method seems to be fairly close. It would also allow you to mix the two languages in whatever proportion you're comfortable with at the moment, without "breaking" the grammar and syntax of the language you already know (which is what squid314's method would arguably do).

However, I've tried to read some French this way, and found that it's kind of hard (for me at least) to read words you have no I idea how to pronounce. So some kind of interactive Frank-based book with IPA transcription and possibly recorded or TTS pronunciation would probably be the best.

Can't wait for speech recognition systems to become sufficiently advanced to be able to recognize pronunciation errors and correct them.

Edited at 2012-11-14 09:12 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-11-14 12:51 pm (UTC)
I'm now learning German. And doing a reasonable job despite putting no effort into the course. I think it's for an entirely different reason.

Namely, I know lots of German *songs*, thanks to classical music. Yesterday I learned the word "Huter" (imagine an umlaut there), which means protector, and I thought "Oh, right! Like "Erkenne mich, mein Huter" from the Passion of St. Matthew!" And that way I'll never forget what it means and I have the gender for free, and in general I have kind of the rough sense of what sounds right and what sounds wrong grammatically because I've heard it in a million songs. I wouldn't have to do your weird syntax game, because German syntax already sounds normal because that's the way all the songs go.

Sure, I had to do a *little* grammar memorization, but the haze of familiar references fills in the gaps, like a friendly musical exocortex. I'd probably be terrible at Japanese because I have no cultural references in Japanese -- I'd probably have to spend years watching subtitled anime without really trying to learn, and then I'd take a class and be all, "Oh, that verb was in that cute scene in Kenshin!"

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[User Picture]From: Emanuel Rylke
2012-11-14 02:08 pm (UTC)
I wrote a few sentences with English words and German syntax and my brain doesn't recognize them as that, but as English sentences with garbled syntax. In the reverse it's the same. So it seems that my knowledge of the syntax and words of a language are not independent. So i wonder if it makes sense to learn them independently.

So i do suspect that courses that teach grammar explicitly and words out of context are doing it wrong.

Still i think there is no way to make learning a language not hard work. But falling in love with someone who only speaks your target language, or falling in love with a subject which gets written about only in your target language, can make it feel like it isn't hard work. The latter is how i learned English without even seriously trying.
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From: predictor2
2012-11-14 03:00 pm (UTC)
New predictions

Shaul Mofaz (Antichrist) will be Israeli Prime Minister( and

After from earthquake in northern Israel and Syria (december 2012)- and become dry lake Kinneret/ govern -

period mofaz 427 day and will be killed In Jerusalem:march 2014

Saudi Arabia king will be dead and after

start War for get reign :november 2012

unprecedented Floods In many regions of the world in: september-.. 2012)-

will be eruption Yellowstone?

and will be send out ashes During the eight day

earthquake in East Mediterranean Sea - with hundreds thousands killed on :december 2012

will be occupy syria by Jordan army on

december 2012-February 2013

and will be war Between Turkey and Jordan in the north-

eastern syria april 2013

and after to leave american army in iraq Jordan army will

be occupy iraq on may-june


, some of Sufyani armys (Jordan) will be sink

into the ground./ This place will be known as Baidah and

will be located either between Makkah:


(and Madina-volcano (alaise

Will be killed pious man in Mecca on


2014- return Jesus perhaps on...2013.

will be coming to earth from the sky for to help Imam Mahdi propagation

freedom and justice and beneficence in the world


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[User Picture]From: gwern branwen
2012-11-14 04:59 pm (UTC)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interlinear_gloss seems relevant.
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[User Picture]From: maniakes
2012-11-14 05:26 pm (UTC)
I vaguely remember reading about a language learning technique that's actually been used in the past that's somewhat similar. Rather than gradually transitioning the text from the learner's native lanugage to the language being taught, a novel (Felenon's Les aventures de Télémaque, I think) is presented side-by-side in its original language on one page and translated into English on the facing page. The idea being that an intermediate student who already knew the basic grammar constructs and a few dozen of the most common words, plus could make a guess at other words via cognates and loan words, could try to stumble through the French text, referring to the English text as needed.

The utility of this version seems like it'd be limited to improving an intermediate student's skill, and would be more successful at teaching a language that's closely related to one the student already knows. From personal experience, I've found it very effective at getting the knack of reading Middle English, but short of Scots, Frisian, or maybe Africaans, that's one of the easiest language-acquiring tasks for a native Modern English speaker to accomplish.

Your proposal, by improving the bootstrapping process by gradually introducing intermediate versions of the language, seems like it could be a considerable improvement.
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From: Anti Suji
2012-11-14 06:51 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of The Gostak — http://iplayif.com/?story=http://parchment.toolness.com/if-archive/games/zcode/gostak.z5.js — a bit of interactive fiction that uses English grammar, but is entirely immersive in its verbs and nouns. And adjectives too, I think. The learning curve is extremely steep up front, which is part of its charm in my opinion (that, and the fact that you never actually get English-language translations of the Gostakian vocabulary but you end up mostly understanding it anyway).

But you could soften the curve with your idea of starting with English and gradually introducing new grammatical structures and vocabulary. If the game is good enough you might have something along the lines of what you're looking for.
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[User Picture]From: sjwt
2012-11-15 01:43 pm (UTC)
Ive always wanted Anime to be translated directly, I think that would help with the learning..
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-11-15 02:47 pm (UTC)
My friend has a relative who I'm told learns languages kinda like this. She'll pick up a dictionary and a novel written in a foreign language, and start reading through the novel with the help of the dictionary. I think my friend claimed that her relative would often be fluent in the language by the time she finished the book, but of course most people won't have that good of a language talent.
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[User Picture]From: zarzuelazen
2012-11-16 01:16 pm (UTC)
Savant Daniel Tammet fluently speaks 10 languages. In a famous TV challenge, he was able to learn how to speak Icelandic at a conversational level in only 1 week. Check YouTube video here:
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[User Picture]From: Douglas Scheinberg
2012-11-16 10:40 pm (UTC)
I don't have any trouble with grammar memorization, it's vocabulary that drives me crazy. As I've said many times, I struggle with this because there's no context to put them in; learning the words for "blue", "red", and "yellow" in a foreign language won't let you derive the word for "green" if you've forgotten it.
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[User Picture]From: lastconformer
2012-11-17 11:15 pm (UTC)
Very vaguely similar: Mark Twain's The Awful German Language.

It breaks your rules because it actually talks about the language. But it has the mixture of a textual device to keep your attention (in this case snark rather than a plot) and language-mixing to demonstrate the differences.

I don't think it would save anyone from learning grammatical tables, but it probably does convey an idea of what the tables even mean.

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[User Picture]From: standgale
2012-11-20 03:33 am (UTC)
I always wanted to write a language learning book that was similar to this idea, but I had only thought of gradually replacing the words throughout the book, not modifying the sentence structure. In any case, like you I have never actually known any other language well enough to be able to make one of these books myself.
Also like you, I thought it sounded like a fascinating idea, a great way to learn a language just using the natural abilities of the brain instead of having to actually do "work". Of course, there would be a lot of work put in to actually create the book in the first place.

Once you know enough of a language to be able to read or understand enough for the language to be interesting, this is basically the method you use to improve anyway - you encounter things you don't understand in a context that you do understand, and you learn.
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[User Picture]From: arundelo
2012-11-27 05:32 am (UTC)

(For the avoidance of doubt, since we touched on the subject during your visit, I know tiny bits of other languages but so far English and Esperanto are the only ones I actually know.)

There would be enough of this that sentences with Japanese syntax would become as quickly and effortlessly readable as sentences with English syntax.

My friend Sylvan used to daydream about making an Esperanto course like this. Not so much the "gradual transition from English to the target language" part, but the "English vocabulary with target language syntax" part. He did a bit of this in his book Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village. For instance:

Let us consider a sentence taken from an interview that was held in Esperanto. In 1994 Professor Reinhard Selten of Germany became the first Esperantist in many years to win a Nobel Prize when he shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Here he explains what his specialty, game theory, is:

La ludo-teorio estas matekmatika teorio pri konflikto kaj kunlaborado, en kiuj oni povas kunagadi, aŭ kontraŭi unu la alian, aŭ samtempe, ambaŭ.

Game theory is a mathematical theory about conflict and collaboration, in which you can act together or act against one another, or, at the same time, both.


Putting these [literal translations of each word] together in the manner of Mark Twain['s "The Awful German Language"] we come up with:

The game-theory is mathematical theory about conflict and withworking, in which one can towithact or toagainst one another, or sametimely both.

Giuseppe Peano (of axioms fame) created a version of Latin with a simplified grammar and wrote an article introducing it that began in classical Latin and gradually transformed into Peano's simplified Latin.

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