An invading kingdom has conquered a foreign nation and enslaved tens of thousands of its citizens. The enslavers want their captives to perform complex functions in their new country, such as serving the nobility. However, there is a language barrier.

What are the best ways for them to learn the colonizer's language as fast as possible with minimal resource expenditure (e.g. labor hours for instruction or training materials)?

The following conditions apply:

  • The language of the captives is not related to that of their captors.
  • The colonizing class will accept their slaves suffering casualties.
  • The slaves have been transported to the land of the colonizers.
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you care how will the slaves learn Latin? They will learn Latin. Truly they will. This has never been a problem. Sicilian and Iberian and Gaulish slaves learned Latin, Russian and Circassian slaves learned Turkish, African slaves learned Arabic and English... They did. The frakking Romans did not have schools to teach the peoples of the empire Latin, and yet they learned; and today, two millenia later, badly mangled Latin is still spoken in the former provinces. Humans have a built-in ability to learn languages, and this ability surfaces very quickly when it is really needed. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 24, 2018 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ Humans can learn languages. It's built-in, it's part of what makes a human a human. When learning a new language is really really necessary humans learn very very quickly. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 24, 2018 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ Give them a Rosetta Stone $\endgroup$
    – NuWin
    Jul 25, 2018 at 6:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Sinthorion You whip them. If they don't learn, you whip them harder. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Jul 25, 2018 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ Hm, yes, but if the slaves can simply talk in their own language, they have an advantage. But if you have slaves from different countries who cannot communicate but using your language, you have the advantage of cultural superiority - and of course it is way more convenient for you. If you add supervisors (which are also slaves and know their language but are treated better because they are supervisors), you gain another advantage. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2018 at 10:52

7 Answers 7


Don't stoop too low by establishing schools for all the slaves. You pick out the intellectual elite, force then to learn your language and then let them translate and transmit orders to their own people.

This gives the most intellectual slaves an incentive to learn your language (because they don't have to labor away) and lets you make use of your new workforce as soon as possible.

After this first step, you force all children under a certain age to attend language schools, so the next generation of slaves will understand your orders without translator.

After that (next generation) you officially forbid them the usage of their original language to prevent any conspiracies and plans of rebellion to be missed due to your people not speaking their language.


Keeping in mind that you said it's OK for a few slaves to die during this process, you could make learning the language part of their survival. Let's assume they're like us, where water is required to live. You have water available, have the ones in charge say their word for "water" and not supply the water until the slave says that word (or close enough to be understood). Those who do say the word get their water ration. Same with food; teach them the word for one food, give them that, and so on.

Survival is a strong motivation to learn something. The ones who figure it out will teach others the words for "water," "food," "blanket," and so on and will hopefully teach the others. From there, they could require things like "tool" to get a work tool assigned. Those who have no tool do not eat.


You've taken them as slaves, this implies something very specific, that being that you have a culture of taking slaves.

This existing culture means you don't need to worry about teaching them your language, you split them up to situations that already have slaves and get the existing slaves to ensure the new slaves speak enough of the language to be useful.

It doesn't take much to be taught to fetch water and empty buckets, even those who only learn the very basics of the language still have basic use. Each "generation" of slaves teaches the new generation the language and the job they're in.


Humans learn new languages exceedingly fast if cut off from their native tongue. Outlaw the native tongue, then set everyone to work at menial tasks that can be explained by shoving/showing, and have some native speakers (convicts? Only choose verbally firm ones) mingled in to provide exposure to the language.

Now, with iterations of say, a week, establish a pyramid scheme: For 2 hours every day, there is a language school. Teachers are natives for the first week. Best pupils (1:50) now also teach next week, teachers of best pupils get elevated to teach teachers, and so on. Every level gets extra perks. Demotion also happens at every level (otherwise a 50:1, or even 20:1 ratio of next-level picks would soon run out of slaves and levels).

First ones to spontaneously try and copy your written language (native one still outlawed!) get perks and the order to create a dictionary and grammar reference, for use by teacher's teachers.

Monthly language olympiads give extra incentive and help in identifying the unavoidable holdouts.

After a year, phase out the pyramid scheme to 1-year iterations without prior hinting about it, thereby fixing the whole operation in a merit-based configuration. School goes on for those headed towards white collar employment, and for any minors. Add other important skills to the curriculum as needed (numbers? Crafts?).


Most of this has been mentioned in replies and comments, but here is my take.

The conquered have a good chance of learning the basics of the language just by being surrounded by their masters' native language. They'll learn "no" really quickly as they learn that various phrases and terms are perjoratives. Eventually, more and more things will "click" until the slaves can understand enough to work unattended. If a slave has to ask for something to get it and are given an example (like water rations in a previous answer), the slave has a huge incentive to learn. A slave will probably make sure his or her relatives, friends, associates, and former worst enemies know how to say the basics if the conquerors are harsh enough to let people starve, dehydrate, or soil themselves and get a beating before providing basic necessities.

The children--or more likely grandchildren--will have a much easier time. They've grown up with the language. Even if their parents only conversed at a substance level (eat, bathroom, sick, yes, no), their children (assuming the conquerors have this long to assimilate the conquered) will have a better base in their childhood which will facilitate better vocabulary and syntax if they hear or are involved in conversations with fluent speakers. They'll probably have a much easier time if they do the same work as their parents.

Do the conquerors have any sort of religion? Maybe, the prophecies are only preached in the slaves' new language and, in an effort to secure the slaves' salvation (and obedience?), a sect is authorized to teach them to speak and listen (and afterwards get a meal--and, for vetted adherents--an afternoon off) by spreading the good word. In addition to learning the language, religion could serve as a path to becoming an aristocrat's servant. Or, you get the chants right or you're among next week's sacrifices.

There will be exceptional slaves and exceptional slaveowners. If an aristocrat that values aesthetics and art purchases a slave solely for her beauty and finds out she has perfect pitch, the aristocrat will probably try to increase the value (and his enjoyment) of his investment by having a native expert teach her the songs of his people. A laborer might show his foreman an invention or process change with even limited language skills; if the foreman and the slave's owner truly want to integrate their conquered, more effort might be shown to teach the language to the slave. Talent could lead to enfranchisement. If you decide to allow dedicated schooling, perhaps owners might be rewarded for supplying exceptional students with laurels or just free tuition for their chattel. Magna cum laude might mean eventual manumission in a particularly unified government and citizenry.


First of all, you don't "teach" the slaves anything. You're the noble owner of this latfundium --- you have overseers to, heh, whip those new slaves into shape!

Your overseer will learn them everything they need to know, and he'll do it very efficiently with whip and his big drill sergeant voice. They'll learn all the basics of the language right quick if they don't like the feel of his whip tickling their ribs! "Yes sir!" "No sir" "Right away sir!" "Get that bucket!" "Haul that sack!" "Push that cart!" "Dig that hole!" "Clean that crapper!" "Don't get any shit on the floor, squag, or you'll lick it up!" "Take this cup! Put on her ladyship's table! Don't spill it or I'll spill your stupid brains on the floor!"

None of these slaves are going to be discussing the finer points of Spontoon's sonnets or the politics of the day with you. The only one you'll ever really be talking to is the cute red head you picked out to be the household's new, ah, maid. Everybody ought to have a maid! And, really, how much talking are you going to be doing with this new maid anyway!? The finer points of grammar and syntax will be lost on them anyway, so you needn't bother teaching. And anyway, they and their scrappy brats will pick up enough as they go along the track towards fluency & incorporation.


Create a language learning app with instructions on their language, but with tests on yours. How much food and medicine they get depends on their score for the week.

Since you're already on gamification, propose a stack for your language in SE's Area 51, and make accounts in the new stack mandatory for slaves. Make a weekly score there another requirement for food.

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    $\begingroup$ You must be a millennial; you give slaves iPhones while withholding food. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:11

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