The linguistic philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine poses an interesting thought experiment in his book Word and Object: suppose a linguist conducting field research is trying to unlock the secrets of a rare language isolate by spending time with the speakers of the language. A rabbit darts out from a bush, prompting a speaker of this rare language to exclaim, “Gavagai!”
The problem Quine poses is how the linguist can then come to know what that word means. It could mean “rabbit”, of course, but it could also mean “mammal”, “dinner”, “fast”, or “finally!”. Or possibly “Finally, a fast mammal that we’re going to have for dinner!” (Hey, it could happen.)
The meaning of unknown words can be painstakingly elucidated through context clues and comparisons to other utterances—in fact, field linguists (and Avatar enthusiasts) do this everyday. To take Quine’s example, if “gavagai” is subsequently used
to describe an alligator, it may correspond to “animal” in English. If it’s used to describe an arrow in flight, then it probably means something like “fast”.
When you’re completely ignorant of a language’s lexicon or syntax, it can be an arduous task to find some solid ground from which to expand your understanding of it. But if you’re learning a more mundane language, for which dictionaries and grammars have been written, why approach the language as though it were a complete unknown? Given the limited free time most learners have, they should use every shortcut they can get.
Rather than the “immersion” method that has been gaining traction (and isn’t actually so immersive), we at Brainscape believe that it would be silly not to use the shortcuts available to you to boost your knowledge of a language. The best way to learn a language is still growing up in a linguistic community that uses it. Failing that, children and adults alike ought to use the tools available to them to increase their pace of learning—and hopefully reach a point where they start to think in, and appreciate, their target language.
(By the way, even Na’vi has a grammar and lexicon now, so you don’t need to watch Avatar 30 times to suss out its phonology and grammar!)