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Can English be learned with a dictionary alone?

  1. Aug 22, 2011 #1

    Fuz

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    So I had no idea what forum this question should have been posted in, but here it is...

    Is it possible for a person, (like for example a Chinese man, or for even more simply, an alien), that knows literally 0 words in the English language, to pick up an English dictionary (assuming that he understood he was reading a dictionary) to go through and 'decipher' most, if not all, words and their meanings/definitions by reading their English definitions alone?

    For example, start with the word 'aardvark' and take the first word that pops up in its definition and look up THAT word in the dictionary, read the first word in its definition, look it up, etc. until you have gone through the whole dictionary (or most of it at least) so that you can, in a sense, *understand* English.

    If the above isn't possible, could it done with the understanding of what at least one, maybe a couple words mean to start off? e.g. with the knowledge of what the English words 'the', 'and', 'a' etc. mean before you pick up the dictionary?

    Fuz
     
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2011
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  3. Aug 22, 2011 #2

    Evo

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    Sure, you could learn the dictionary definitions for words in another language, but that doesn't mean that you can speak that language or know how words are used differently in context. All you would have is a list of words.
     
  4. Aug 22, 2011 #3

    lisab

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    Do you mean an English-to-English dictionary...like, just a plain dictionary?

    Or a Chinese (for example)-to-English dictionary?

    Unfortunate "dictionary" can be both of those.
     
  5. Aug 22, 2011 #4

    micromass

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    A language is a lot more difficult than simply knowing words. I dare to say that I know quite a lot of english words, but I talk it very badly. So just knowing words will get you somewhere, but you won't really "know" the language...
     
  6. Aug 22, 2011 #5

    Fuz

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    I'm talking about straight up pure English-to-English dictionary.

    I see your point, I'm just wondering if one could *understand* the *meaning* of the words by deciphering the definitions using definitions alone.
     
  7. Aug 22, 2011 #6

    micromass

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    Why don't you try it?? Take a Greek dictionary and try to decipher everything!!
     
  8. Aug 22, 2011 #7

    Fuz

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    Ha, it was just a hypothetical. I'm just wondering if it could theoretically be done given as much time as you need.
     
  9. Aug 22, 2011 #8

    lisab

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    Then, I think it would be very very difficult. Even if you could get it figured out (I guess it would be a huge logic puzzle, cross referencing the definitions with the alphabetized words), you'd have no idea how to speak it. Like micromass said, there's more to a language than just what the words mean.
     
  10. Aug 22, 2011 #9
    Speaking practically, I think it is possible, but difficult. The reason I say so is that it is rare to find a person who doesn't already know a few English words, and who speaks a language that doesn't have any English cognates. Also, the dictionary may contain pictures that would provide clues.

    However, lacking those and similar aids, I think it is impossible. I remember, when first learning geometry, the reason why point and line are undefined. The reason, I was told, is that they would have to be defined in terms of other words which would then need defining themselves. The result would either be endless definitions of words in terms of other words, or circular definitions.
     
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2011
  11. Aug 22, 2011 #10

    Fuz

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    You're right, it's basically a very difficult logic puzzle. I guess you don't have to know HOW to speak it correctly, but given the definitions, could you discover what an 'animal' is? or know what a 'tree' looks like by understanding what the words 'big' and 'green' mean. (hmm, I guess a little picture of the color green could be shown, because describing what a color looks like is pretty much impossible...)
     
  12. Aug 22, 2011 #11

    Fuz

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    The situation is just a hypothetical logic based question. For the sake of the question, the person knows absolutely no words in the English language.
     
  13. Aug 22, 2011 #12
    Then you read the wrong half of my post.
     
  14. Aug 22, 2011 #13

    rhody

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    Fuz,

    I have a Hungarian friend, Victor who imigrated here in the early 1960's and spoke no English, he swears to this day he learned English by watching soap opera's on TV.
    He still has an accent, but I have no trouble understanding him. For what it is worth, I thought I would pass it on.

    Rhody...
     
  15. Aug 22, 2011 #14

    lisab

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    I suppose it would depend on the dictionary. Some are quite miserly with their definitions.

    If, as you suggest, the dictionary exceeds the usual effort (like printing a small patch of green for "green"), perhaps one could cobble together a rudimentary understanding. But that would mean going beyond simply using words to define other words. Once you start using pictures, your original problem becomes easier. In this situation, a picture is worth probably well over a thousand words!

    Tough problem, though!
     
  16. Aug 22, 2011 #15

    micromass

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    Another question. Given a computer and an internet that uses only one language. For example, everything about the computer is written in portugese, and all the internet is written in portugese. Is it possible to eventually learn that language?? I actually think that this may take shorter than one thinks...
     
  17. Aug 22, 2011 #16
    That would be lot easier. Because we have an interacting environment. We hit the X button on the corner. A pop-up appears, with #%#~ and @#$* . You hit one, and the program exits. Then you know that means.
     
  18. Aug 22, 2011 #17
    No matter how long it takes, I don't see how one can think it will take shorter than one thinks.
     
  19. Aug 22, 2011 #18

    micromass

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    Blind AND deaf?? Well, I would guess that it would indeed be quite difficult for such people to talk like normal people...
     
  20. Aug 22, 2011 #19
    Yes. blind AND deaf. and I didn't mean talking, because a deaf person can't talk(speak). but do you think if they were asked to write down what they wanna say, they'd have problems with their language skills?
     
  21. Aug 22, 2011 #20

    micromass

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    I'd also be guessing that they'd had much trouble learning to read and write...

    And by the way, deaf people can learn how to talk! It happened before. But it requires practise.
     
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