30 June 2015

How do we achieve fluency in a foreign language?

The quick answer on how to achieve fluency in a language is that it is a matter of motivation, of motivating oneself. Having seen a lof ot language learners, I am convinced that motivated learners achieve fluency, and unmotivated learners don’t.

I was recently approached by a person who is involved in teaching English to immigrants in the US. He asked me for advice on how to prepare learning material for them, sort of like graded readers.  I answered that there was an abundance of such material available. Probably if he could achieve influence the attitude or motivation of these learners he would help them more than by creating a new series of textbooks or readers.

Motivation is the driver of success in language learning. Motivation is the magic ingredient for success in any learner’s quest for fluency.  I was reminded of the recent TED video by Scott Geller, “The Psychology of Self-Motivation.” I don’t agree with all of it, but it is worth watching. It is highly relevant to the pursuit of fluency in a foreign language. In particular, the three questions that are asked in the video.

Achieve Fluency Scott_Geller_Ted_Talk
Scott Geller

Achieve Fluency – Can I do it?

If the answer to this question is no, then you are best to stop trying. If you don’t believe that you can reach the destination in your journey, why start?  On the other hand if you believe you can become fluent,  you are well on your way to achieving fluency.

if you have never learned a foreign language, you may not have the confidence that you are a competent language learner, that you can do it, that you can achieve fluency. I know that I didn’t really believe I could do it, over 50 years ago, until I did it in French. Thereafter I have never doubted my ability to learn another language and achieve fluency.

Unfortunately it is only possible to acquire this sense of confidence after having learned at least one language.  Thereafter, the more languages you learn, the more competent,  and therefore the more confident you become. I am a better language learner at age 70 then I was at age 16 because I have done it so many times.

Achieve Fluency Image by Steven Depolo

I firmly believe that we all have the innate ability to learn foreign languages. We just need to believe in ourselves, and stay with the process. We just need to develop new habits and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

There is a condition. Just as with embarking on a journey, when you decide to learn a language, you accept responsibility for reaching your target. In other words you have to take charge. You have to become and an autonomous learner.

Will it work?

Will the learning method that you are using enable you to achieve your goal? If you want to travel somewhere,  you have to be confident that the mode of transportation you are using will take you to the destination. By the same token you have to believe in the learning strategy that you have chosen. if you believe that the learning method you are using doesn’t work, then you should change that method.

If you don’t believe in the method you’re using, it will not work for you. If you believe in the method, you are more likely to put in the time and effort necessary for success and your belief in the process will actually increase the effectiveness of the method. I referred to this as the placebo effect in in a recent a video.

In my view, the most effective learning strategy is one devoted to massive input, listening and reading, using interesting content you have chosen. Of course we need start with beginner material that may not be so interesting, but we can move to authentic and interesting material surprisingly quickly using tools like LingQ.

This means that you seek first to acquire a large vocabulary and a high level of comprehension as the base upon which to build other language skills. I am convinced of the effectiveness of this approach both from my own experience and from reading research on the subject of language acquisition. The fact that this approach has worked for me in the acquisition of over a dozen languages, has only reinforced my belief in this approach. I know that reading interesting language content on my iPad, or listening to an interesting audio book while walking my dog, or driving, is not only enjoyable but constantly improving my language skills.

AAA - Books

If we are familiar with the language, with the way of thinking of the new culture, and if we have lots of words, the ability to express ourselves naturally and clearly in the new language can easily develop. On the other hand, starting with a concern about grammar  and hoping to speak meaningfully when we have trouble understanding what people are saying, seems like putting the cart before the horse.

There are many people, however, who believe that we should speak from day 1.  If they believe in this approach and enjoy it, and if they stay with it, I am sure it works for them. Make sure you find a method that you believe in and one that you find enjoyable, so that you answer “yes” to the question, “will it work?”

Is it worth it?

Do we want to learn the language? Do we like the language? Do we like to be with people of that language group? Do we want to access some aspect of that culture, such as books, movies, music etc.? Do we want to travel to the country where the language is spoken? Do we need the language for our work or to communicate with friends or loved ones? The more times we answer “yes” to these questions the stronger our motivation will be.

Achieve Fluency - Yes
Image by Alexandre Dulaunoy

Aside from these obvious advantages of being able to communicate in another language, learning a language is a healthy habit. Research has shown that learning and speaking another language is good for our brains, strengthens our cognitive skills, keeps us young, and helps stave off dementia when we are older.

Language learning requires a commitment, and therefore it is important that we feel the effort is worth it. When I start out in a language, I struggle with language content that is not very interesting, and yet difficult to understand. Usually within a few months I can access content of interest to me, but which is still difficult, certainly more difficult than reading in my own language. When I start to speak in the language I struggle to understand and to find the words I want. Is this self-inflicted pain really worth it?

For me it is. I know that eventually I will  be able to enjoy books, movies, and friendships in the language. I feel fortunate to be able to speak 15 languages. I can’t begin to describe the enjoyment and benefit that the ability to communicate in each of my languages has given me. My only regret is that I don’t have the time to focus more on each one of them. Each language is a window to a new world, a new expression of what it is to be a human being.

So if you want to become fluent in a language but your motivation is flagging, ask yourself these three questions. If the answer to all three is “yes” , you are on your way. If the answer is no to any of them, you should either abandon the goal of fluency, or else try find new reasons to say “yes”. It is all a matter of the mind over the brain.

25 June 2015

Motivation in Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel. This one will help you find your motivation in language learning.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I want to talk about motivation in language learning. You know, I have bought lots of books about language instruction, language acquisition. I have them on my shelves, I’ve read them. Some of them have influenced me, some of them I find totally contradicting my experience, but very little, I have found, has been written on the subject of motivating people.

Yet, I believe that motivation is the most important factor in language learning, so I want a talk a bit today about it. Maybe I’ll do a few videos on the subject of what motivates me from my experience and then I’d like to hear from you and then I have some other ideas about how in language instruction we could do a better job of trying to find those trigger points, those hooks that are going to motivate people and different people are motivated in different ways.

I thought of this today because I was cleaning out my garage. We changed our telephone system, got rid of our old TV, great, big, heavy TV, we even changed our central vacuum cleaner. I’ve got to get rid of all this stuff, so I look up the recycle centers here and find out where I go to take this stuff. I take it there and there’s some free recycling run by the city and adjacent to it and part of this complex is this company that takes in all these electrical or electronic goods, old hi-fi’s and everything else. Whatever they’re able to salvage out of them, they salvage. It’s a business, which is good.

Low and behold, everybody working there is Korean. The girl who’s there to receive me and who I asked my question of she’s Korean, so we start speaking in Korean. She was so happy and really, “Wow! You speak so well.” Of course, I don’t. So that motivated me and I said I’m going to back to Korean. I’ve got to get further along in Korean. So there was just a little spark like that. Prior to that, somebody on the YouTube channel had commented, “Looking forward to hearing you speak Polish.” I’ve been letting the Polish lag, so that was a bit of a motivator. In my own experience, those things aren’t strong enough. They’ll get me going for a while, but I have to have that good content.

I should point out, too, last week I traveled to the interior of BC and in the summer if you have the opportunity to travel by car in the interior of BC it is spectacular! So we drove across the Coast Mountains into Kelowna, this beautiful lake in the Okanagan, which is a different climate zone, different type of forest cover and stuff, drier. Visited with a couple in their mid 80s, whom we’ve known for a long time who have moved up there. The fellow, he’s 86 or 87 and he’s still learning Spanish. Then we drove down through Penticton, Okanagan Falls down to Osoyoos.

That country is so beautiful: the vineyards, the fruit orchards. We played golf and visited some vineyards where there’s free wine tasting. We bought some delicious wine. There’s a small winery called Cassini and we went in there, sampled different wines and we decided to buy two cases, like six bottles each of four different wines. We just had some this evening with dinner, a Cera, it was phenomenal! The owner showed up one day while we carting our two boxes away and he’s of Italian origin but lived in Romania, so I spoke a few words of Romanian. There’s a motivation. But, as I say, that is a small motivator. It’s not good enough, I need content of substance.

I’ve been reading this book ________ in Spanish. It’s such a fascinating book I just keep reading and I know that by reading in Spanish, I am continuing to improve my Spanish. It was only 10 years ago that I read my first whole book in Spanish. I haven’t really been working that much at Spanish, but reading more books, plus learning other languages my Spanish has improved. I was able to read the book almost as if it were English. So the big issue remains content.

I’m still attracted to my Russian and Ukrainian. I’m following the events there, so every day I listen to my Russian and Ukrainian and I don’t have the time to go after my Korean. You can get stimulated, that sort of little spark of motivation, but then I need some interesting content to keep me going.

So I’m going to stop it here, but I want to talk next time about how we can determine what motivated people and how that could be introduced into teaching. If people have ideas on that, I would love to hear from them. So thank you for listening, bye for now.

18 June 2015

Are There Different Types of Language Learners?

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. You often hear that there are different types of language learners. There are auditory learners, visual learners and kinetic learners; people who like to learn by listening, by seeing or by doing. Books have been written on the subject, I think even pedagogy has been developed to suit different kinds of learners. Personally, I don’t believe that we learn differently. I don’t think there are purely auditory learners or purely visual learners. I think we all learn in all of these different ways. I think the basic way in which the brain learns is the same.

A professor somewhere in the United States has written on this subject, he also is of the same view and has demonstrated it. I think it’s a fad. What is true is that different learners have different interests. Different types of learners are motivated by different things, so what we should do in language instruction (this is something I alluded to in my previous video) is find out how we can test. What kind of profile can we have or testing procedure to determine where the trigger points are. Where are the things that would motivate learner A versus learner B versus learner C? Maybe there are different types of learners based on what interests them and what motivates them. Maybe there are ways that we can find out what these things are and, therefore, we can motivate learners. I think that’s the challenge.

I know in my own case, I always think of those wonderful pieces of audio or reading that really grabbed me when I was learning say Chinese. I can think of things in Chinese history or _______. I can think of a German cassette tape series where they interviewed people in different walks of life. To me, it’s always been this interesting content that grabs me. Now, some people like to do grammar, some people like to do flashcards, so how do we find out what kind of a learner the person is in terms of what motivates them.

I don’t think the issue is so much, “Are there different ways in which different people’s brains work differently to learn languages”, I think it’s basically the same. The brain, as I understand it, basically, has to get used to the stimulus that it receives and out of the disorder of all this stimulus it has to create patterns. I don’t for a minute believe in Chomsky’s universal grammar, I don’t believe that for a minute. I think the way we naturally, through listening as children and hearing the language, start to form patterns, put labels on things and then start to make sense of it. It’s the same way we deal with all the phenomena that we encounter in life. The brain has to put some order to this; otherwise, every time they encounter that situation it’s new, so they have to make rules, they make their own rules.

I think all of our brains work the same way; however, for whatever reason, we have different interests. Some people like sports. Some people like music. Some people like reading. Some people don’t like reading. So there are definitely different types of language learners. I think the key thing there and the challenge is to try to find out what makes people tick when it comes to language learning. How can you trigger people and how can you design a curriculum with 30 different people in the classroom that is going to make sure each student is motivated to the maximum. That should be the challenge in language learning, rather than grammar instruction or drills and worrying about kinetic learners and things of that nature.

Anyway, that’s the start of a good discussion, so I look forward to hearing from you. Bye for now.

11 June 2015

The Importance of Grammar

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I want to talk a little bit about grammar. By the way, you notice I don’t have my glasses on. I had this eye operated on so I can see. If I look at the screen now and close my bad eye, I can see very, very clearly. If I close this eye, it’s a blur. Eventually, I’ll have the other eye done and then I’ll see far away. I’ll still need glasses for reading, but that’s great.

Grammar, the importance of grammar and how we should deal with grammar, there’s this constant debate. Some people say grammar is a waste of time. Other people say that you have to first learn the basics. It’s a theme that I’ve dealt with before, but I thought I would go into it again.

Very quickly on the subject of videos in different languages, we want to take our time doing them because we want to develop subtitles in English. I’ve got the list here:

{Steve speaking various languages}

I don’t think I’ll be able to handle Polish yet.

{Steve speaking various languages}

Anyway, just to say, I’ll be going through those, but I want to wait until we’re able to provide subtitles.

Grammar, a big debate on our forum at LingQ, my view is this. I think traditional language instruction places far too much emphasis on grammar and it does it the wrong way. It introduces complicated explanations, complicated rules and then a bunch of exercises where you’re forced to try to practice what you’ve just, presumably, learned. The trouble is you don’t learn it because many of these correct usage patterns take a while to assimilate.

Most language books you buy are going to have 70% grammar explanations, exercises and a small amount of text. I think you should have far more interesting text with a vocabulary list and some focus on the basic patterns that show up in this text and then they should be introduced again in subsequent lessons. Here again is this pattern that we’ve seen before, here are five more examples and here are two that show up in the lesson, so you’re getting a chance to review the basic patterns without worrying too much about explanations.

Grammar Granny

You can have some explanations, but without the drills and the exercises and focus mostly on content and the reason is this. A language that you have had lots of exposure in, that you’ve spoken a lot in, you start to sense instinctively what is correct and what isn’t. Correct not only insofar as grammar rule endings or whatever, but also in terms of word usage. This is just a matter of getting used to the language and when you are used to the language you naturally say it correctly.

If you are relying on your recollection of the rule, you will always doubt yourself. Even when you got it right, even when you have a sense of how it’s used correctly, you will doubt yourself. You’ll want to look it up, you’ll want to check against the rule and that’s not good for developing fluency. Focus more on comprehension, vocabulary, input, getting used to the language, with a little bit of help by way of review of basic grammar patterns. Grammar has its place, but that’s how I would go about it.

I’m trying to keep these videos short. We can have more discussion on the subject, if there’s interest. Bye for now.

4 June 2015

What Do You Believe? The Placebo Effect Of Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi There Steve Kaufmann here again to talk about language learning.

And I want to talk about something that I often think of and that I have been meaning to do a video on and that is what I would call the placebo effect in language learning. Placebo P L A C E B O that’s what they call the sort of; hen they test a new medicine, they typically give, say, half the people they are testing the new medicine and another half the placebo, which looks like the medicine, but in fact doesn’t have any medicinal ingredients.

And when they test people they find that if there are three groups. Let’s say; those who took the medicine, those who took the placebo, which is an imitation medicine and those who took nothing. That if the medicine is effective then the people who took the medicine will do better. The people who took the placebo will do next best and the people who did nothing, will do less well. So even those who think they have the medicine are going to do better, because our belief in the power of, say, a pill or something influences us because everything inside us is influenced by how we feel and what we think.

Whatever Works For You

And in language learning it is exactly the same way. I know that I am a better language learner today in my 70th year than I was at the age of 16 because I know I can do it and I am confident that I going to succeed. But it is not only that. I know that the method I am using is effective. I know that reading is very good for my language learning. Right now I am reading a long novel in Spanish, it is called “Dime quién soy” and it’s a very interesting spy thriller that takes place in the historical – you know – civil war in Spain and Second World War and stuff, but I know that just the fact of reading this book is going to do so much for my Spanish. Improve it. I am exposing myself to certain patterns, to words and stuff. But if I don’t believe that reading is good for my Spanish, and right now I am not really working on Spanish. It is just that I happened to come across this book and I am reading it.

Believe - Book
Image by Simon Cocks

But it was the same when I was learning Czech. Very early on I started reading this book on Czech history and even though there were a lot of words that I didn’t know and which I didn’t look up, but I know from experience that – and because I have some sense of the history – so as I read through this thing it is not only enjoyable, but it makes me feel good because I know that it is going to improve my Czech.

Believe In The Method

So some of you may not like to read. I happen to believe that reading and then listening when you don’t have the ability to focus on just the one task, but I happen to know that that is very effective and I believe it is very effective. If you believe other things are effective. If you believe that Pimsleur is effective, if you believe that assimil is effective, if you believe that Anki is effective. Whatever it is, if you believe it that is going to help you learn. Our attitude towards the task, as I have said so many times, you know that we like the language, that we’re confident and stuff. But even to the extent that you have to believe in the method – the learning method.

And one of the difficulties we have at LingQ is to persuade people that just by doing the things that we ask them to do, just by reading and listening and saving words and reviewing these words and then eventually talking to people that that’s going to improve their language skills. If they don’t believe that: A. they won’t stick with it but B. it’s that placebo effect, just as with these tests of the effectiveness of medicine. If you believe in the medicine, if you believe in the method, you will do better. So whatever your favourite method is believe in it and stay with it and you will learn better.

Videos In Your Language

By the way, one final thing, I am happy to do some of these in other languages. Which languages would you like hear me speak in? Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, German, Swedish whatever. Let me know. I will try my best even if in fact if I happen to stumble while speaking in those languages.

Bye for now.

1 June 2015

Why we need language teachers

Many people, at some time or another, say they want to learn another language. Few manage to get beyond a beginner level. Most of these unsuccessful learners have language teachers explaining the language to them, drilling them and correcting them. Successful language learners don’t need anyone to explain the language to them, correct them, nor drill them in the language.

This, then,  begs the question. Do we really need language teachers?

The Quiet Revolution

Montreal in 1961 was a society of two solitudes, of two separate societies, one French speaking and one English speaking. The “quiet revolution”, which would change the role of the French language in Quebec, and lead to a transformation of Quebec society, was just about to take place. Jean Lesage had just been elected Premier of Quebec.

I lived in Montreal at the time and was essentially unilingual, despite 12 years of French language classes at school. Just as happened with Quebec society, I experienced my own quiet revolution, and was transformed. As result I now know 15 languages. Why did that happen?

graffiti-156018_640

The agent of my transformation was not a politician, but a teacher, a French professor at McGill University, whose name was Maurice Rabotin. He stimulated me. He provoked me. He encouraged me, and I developed a passionate interest in French culture and civilisation. I then proceeded to learn the language on my own. He didn’t teach me the language.

The Best Kind Of Teacher

Over the past few months I have been interacting with a Spanish class at St. Andrews School in Delaware, in the United States. The high school students in this school, after 2-4 years of Spanish, are able to express themselves surprisingly eloquently, on fairly complex subjects of their own choosing. Their achievements are impressive, and far above the ordinary. Why are they so exceptional, compared to the typical results of high school language instruction?

In my view, a major reason is their teacher, Donald Duffy. He stimulates them, provokes them, and encourages them. The results speak for themselves. When his students spoke to me in Spanish, he only helped them if they ask for it. He didn’t correct them. Yet they discussed history, art and other subjects quite fluently.

Language teachers - happy studentsImage by www.audio-luci-store.it

So it seems to me that a teacher is not needed to teach the language, but can be a decisive factor in the acquisition of the language. To see why that is so it is important to review some interesting research results on language acquisition.

Language Acquisition

In my recent video entitled “The three main myths about language learning” I referred to a most interesting paper entitled:

Self-Selected Pleasure Reading and Story Listening for Foreign Language Classrooms by Beniko Mason

Some of her most incisive comments, based on her research, are as follows.

Reading books and listening to stories for acquiring a foreign language may sound like nothing new. We have been teaching reading and listening for the last 50 to 100 years in foreign language programs in schools all over the world. But the way we have been offering reading and listening classes to students has been ineffective, inefficient, and insufficient.”

What has been ineffective, inefficient, and insufficient about the way we offer reading and listening classes is that we teach in skill-based explicit ways…. Teachers have been misled to believe that conscious learning of the rules of the language is necessary, and that output practice helps consciously learned knowledge become automatic competence. What is needed is a drastic change in teachersʼ understanding.

Teachers must understand that consciously learned knowledge is fragile and easily forgotten, but unconsciously acquired language competence is permanent. Most language rules do not have to be explicitly taught. They can be acquired without teachers’ spending hours on explanation, and without studentsʼ doing hours of drill-based homework. They can be acquired through reading many books and listening to many stories”(for more research evidence of the effects of reading on language acquisition, see Krashen, 2004). Besides, when students are forced to do drills, they do not learn much. People have said that conscious learning is a short cut, but this is not the case.”(Mason, 2005, 2007; Mason & Krashen, 2004)

Language teachers - Bored students

Some late-acquired rules of grammar may have to be pointed out and taught to more advanced second language acquirers, especially for editing purposes, but the majority of foreign language students in colleges and universities seem to be beginners and low intermediates, and our immediate goal is to help them become upper intermediate or low advanced learners. Another goal in school is to help students become autonomous, so that they can keep acquiring English on their own after they finish school“(Krashen, 1998). After we help them reach the high intermediate(for example, paper and pencil TOEFL 500) and low advanced levels (for example TOEFL 550), they can continue to improve their competency on their own.

Students can reach the upper intermediate level largely from reading and listening” (Krashen, 2004) and can reach the most advanced “academic” language level only through reading. “More skill-building, more correction, and more output do not consistently result in more proficiency” (Krashen, 1994, page 48). Rather: “Reading is the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar, and the only way we become good spellers.”

Abundant listening and reading experience is missing in our language programs. Story-listening and self-selected pleasure reading are the bridge to academic language.

We have been making students speak and write too early. We make our students repeat after the teacher or a tape, have them sing songs, and make them memorize texts and dialogs. We make them do free conversation when they are not yet ready to speak easily. We make students write with correct spelling, make them write a diary, and make them translate texts in writing. We do this because we believe that speaking and writing practice causes improvement in speaking and writing. Those who listen and read do better on writing and speaking than those who do not spend as much time in reading and listening.”

I can’t improve on what Ms. Mason has written here. I can only confirm that this has been my experience.

My Language Learning “Secret”

Why have I often learned faster than other learners? Because I read so much more than most other language learners. I also engage in massive pleasure listening to subjects of interest. Where I am unable to find interesting content in both audio and text format, my learning suffers.

Why do I not tend to forget the languages that I learn? Because I learned them through massive listening and reading using material of interest to me. If I were to learn them using grammar explanations then my knowledge of these languages would be “fragile” as Mason says.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Krashen over lunch in Riverside, California. He gave me a remarkable paper which I hope will bring about a  “quiet revolution” in language instruction.

language teachers Krashen and Steve

Can second language acquirers reach high levels of proficiency through self-selected reading? An attempt to confirm Nation’s (2014) results.

Stephen Krashen
University of Southern California (Emeritus)
USA

Beniko Mason
Shitennoji University Junior College
Osaka, Japan

Abstract
An analysis done by Nation (2014) leads to the conclusion that readers in English as a foreign language can gain about one-half a point on the TOEIC test for every hour of independent English reading. A statistical analysis of progress made by seven adult acquirers of English living in Japan was performed to confirm this conclusion: All were intermediates, but there was considerable variation, with TOEIC scores ranging from 220 to 705. All engaged in self-selected reading, and took pre and post TOEIC tests. Hours spent reading was an excellent predictor of gains on the TOEIC and the rate of improvement was nearly exactly the same as that reported by Nation.

On the basis of a corpus analysis, Nation (2014) estimated that readers can move from elementary levels of vocabulary knowledge in a second language (knowledge of 2000 word families) to a very high level (knowledge of 9000 word families) after a total 1,223 hours of reading, about one hour a day over three years. Nation concluded that a “vocabulary size of 9,000 words or more is a sensible long-term goal for unassisted reading of simplified texts” as it will “provide coverage of over 98% of the running words in a wide range of texts.”

Some may argue that this sample is too small, and perhaps from a methodology perspective this is a valid criticism. However, the validation of these results is all around me.

Passing The Tests

I can confirm that a high level of vocabulary is needed to understand normal adult material in a language, whether listening or reading. This is essentially what TOEIC is all about.I can also confirm that reading is the most effective, and least expensive, way to acquire this vocabulary. Even for specific tasks, like working at the reception desk of a hotel, or going to the bank, we can’t just learn the “task based “ language. We need a broader grounding in the language which is best acquired through pleasurable listening and reading.

language teachers A plusImage by Bman2011

I enjoy listening,  as a convenient way to get used to the sounds and intonation of a language, and to prepare for speaking. But to acquire a word, I usually want to see it. The image that I retain of a word is its written form, rather than a picture. I visualize the letters “R” “E” “D” and not the colour red when I hear the word “red”.

Why Do We Need Language Teachers?

So again, we have the question. If reading and listening are the most effective ways to learn a language, why do we need a teacher? The answer is simple. Most of us need to be stimulated, encouraged and provoked.

I have likened language learning to grazing, wandering over vast areas of content, reading a bit here, listening to a bit there. The role of the teacher is that of shepherd, prodding us to go in search of greener pastures, steering us in the right direction, rounding up the stragglers, but letting us munch away at our own pace and to our hearts’ content.

28 May 2015

Three Myths About Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I want to talk about what I consider to be the three myths about language learning – the biggest myths. That…

  1. You have to practice speaking and focus on grammar.
  2. You have to go to school.
  3. It’s difficult.

I’m going to do this with reference to some information that I got from Stephen Krashen.

I’m still excited about having had lunch with Stephen Krashen in Riverside, California last week. At that time, he gave me a paper which is called ‘Can Second Language Acquired Reach High Levels of Proficiency through Self-Selected Reading.’ In this paper, he confirms that the more we read, the better we learn and the higher our score on tests like TOEIC. There is research to show how many hours of reading will give you what result on TOEIC and I’m going to analyze this in more detail in a blog post at my blog.

In doing research for this, because this paper was produced by Stephen Krashen and Beniko Mason, who is an English teacher in Japan, I also Googled Beniko Mason and here there was a very interesting paper called ‘Self-Selected Pleasure Reading and Story Listening for Foreign Language Classroom’.

Myths About Language Learning

Both these papers stress the basic fact that in order to acquire a language, more than anything else, you need to read and it identifies how much you need to read and, of course, listening is also powerful. I happen to be a great fan of listening because it helps prepare me to speak and because it’s something I can do while doing other tasks, but I know that I need a lot of reading in order to acquire vocabulary.

There are a number of gems in both of these articles about how at the early stages most learners of language never get past the beginner or early intermediate stage. So whether those people speak absolutely correctly, whether we hound them on points of grammar, in any case, it’s going to take a lot of exposure and practice before it’s going to click in. Maybe the main thing is to get those people to where they can communicate a little bit without worrying about how correctly they speak. That’s just one example, there are many more.

Read And Listen

This is so fundamental, so important, read and listen. Therefore, you don’t need to be instructed, you don’t need to be corrected. Once you get to an intermediate level, the other goal of language teaching should be to make you an autonomous independent learner. So once you reach that intermediate level through lots of reading and listening, you will more and more correct yourself or you’ll seek out some grammar explanations. Wherever you feel there are gaps or mistakes that you keep making, you’ll start to notice those, if you are an autonomous and motivated learner. To get to that stage, rather than overwhelming you with rules, if we can get people to choose things of interest, stories, whatever they’re interested in, to read and listen.

I know I sound like a bit of a broken record, but it’s so overwhelmingly true. Not everybody likes to read when they don’t know the words and, basically, that’s what’s behind LingQ. I was the same way. I had all kinds of books in different languages, there were too many words that I didn’t know, I didn’t like looking them up in a dictionary, therefore, we developed LingQ as sort of an assist, but the fundamental activity is reading and listening. That will get you to where you have a sufficient base in the language so you can then work on the areas you’re weak in, including pronunciation. At least you have a feel for the language, you have some vocabulary and you’re not discouraged.

Motivation Is All You Need

Again, the three major mistakes that people make are they think they need lots of instruction. They’ve got to worry about grammar. They’ve got to worry about output. Not true. Second of all, they need to go to a classroom. They don’t. It can help if you don’t have the motivation, but it’s not necessary. The third thing is that it’s complicated. It’s not complicated. It requires time and motivation.

So there you go. I kind of say the same thing over and over again, but it’s so important and so few people really grasp it. So for further information, please visit my blog. I’ll be putting a post up there within the next week or so.

Thanks for listening, bye for now.

Learn from this transcript on LingQ

25 May 2015

Introverts and language learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I’m going to talk about introverts and language learning — Do you need to be an extrovert in order to learn languages. You know, there are so many myths surrounding language learning. You need to do this. You need to be that. You have to be musical. You have to have an ear for music. Some people have a talent. I don’t have a talent. I don’t believe any of that. I don’t believe you need to be an extrovert to learn languages and I’ll tell you why.

Language learning comes down to the three keys. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, number one, attitude. You have to be interested in the language. You have to like the language. You have to believe you’re going to achieve your goal. I’ll just stay with that for a second because it’s very important.

If you’re looking for something around the house and you go looking in a closet or through your different pants pockets, say you’re looking for a key, if you’re convinced that the item you’re looking for is there you’ll find it, in many cases. But if you’re not really sure that it’s there, you kind of half-heartedly look and in the end you don’t find it. So you’re belief that you can achieve your goal is very important and I think there, very often, the first-time language learner has a problem because they’ve never done it before. But that’s one part of attitude — enthusiasm, interest, dedication and so forth. Attitude is 70% of the battle.

Number two is time. You have to spend the time. You have to spend a lot of time. Language learning takes time. It’s not three months to fluency. It takes a lot of time every day for many, many months or longer.

The third thing you have to do is develop this ability to notice. So often people are stuck with the way words are written in their own language and they don’t listen to how it’s pronounced in the new language. They’ll constantly translate expressions from their own language into the new language and they’re not paying attention to how things are said in the new language, so alertness, attentiveness.

Now, the attitude, the willingness to spend the time and the attentiveness to the language, none of those three things require you to be an extrovert. Introverts can just as easily have those qualities. If I look, for example, at LingQ at some of our members in our wonderful community, many of whom speak several languages, many of whom I’ve spoken to in a variety of languages, some might be extroverts, but a lot are introverts. It’s irrelevant.

Happy Introverts
Image by Quinn Dombrowski

If we look at the sort of main language-learning activities, an extrovert may want to get out there and speak right away and not worry about what he or she doesn’t understand and wants to show-off the few phrases they have. That’s all good. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not really an introvert, but I don’t do that. That’s not a necessary condition of language learning. I derive immense enjoyment from listening and reading and building up my vocabulary, building up my familiarity with the language, activities which are so enjoyable to me.

For the last two weeks I’ve been listening to Italian. I’ve been listening to pod-casts and audio books and reading and really getting into the language, deriving great enjoyment and thereby refreshing my knowledge of Italian, acquiring new vocabulary and so forth and so on. It doesn’t require me to be an extrovert. These are all introverted activities, if you want. I’m communicating with the language and through the language with the culture, but I’m not required to be an extrovert to do that.

My goal, eventually, is to speak and I know that these activities improve my ability to speak. Now, an introverted person may be more included to be afraid to expose their shortcomings in the language, the mistakes that they’re going to make. Maybe they’re more afraid that they’re going to sound less educated than they are, less intelligent than they are. It’s possible. The solution, nevertheless, is to engage, in my view, in these input-based activities. Build up their familiarity of their vocabulary, their comprehension skills, so that when they go to speak they will feel more comfortable.

I see no evidence that introverts are less capable in their own language. I see no evidence that they have a smaller vocabulary, that they read less, that they understand less well, that they’re interested in fewer things. So if that’s true of their own language, I think it will be equally of a foreign language or a second language. They may behave differently in the new language. They may speak less at some gathering.

However, introverts, typically, when they are very comfortable, they usually have a lot to say, a lot of things of substance to say. If you’re an introvert, devoting yourself to input-based activities such as we do at LingQ, lots of listening and reading and building up your vocabulary, this is going to make you more comfortable because when you go speak you will have better listening comprehension, a bigger vocabulary. You’ll be better able to defend yourself and that’s going to make you more confident.

I think that very often the idea is that people who are extroverts and love to talk are going to do better. I think, initially, it’s a bit of a tortoise and hare situation. I think they’d be more like the hare, off the bat they’re speaking more quickly. But in the long run, in terms of all of the language skills that we normally talk about, listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary, accuracy, all of these things, I don’t think the extroverts have an advantage.

So that’s my take on whether being an introvert is an obstacle to language learning. I’ll be very interested in hearing your opinion. I’ll remind you again that I want to hear your opinions, but it doesn’t mean that I will agree with these opinions. Sometimes when I ask for opinions, someone gets on and makes a comment and then I don’t agree with that comment. I’ve had this sort of thing ‘Well, if you didn’t want my opinion, why did you ask for it’ kind of thing. I don’t have to agree. We can exchange opinions. I won’t convince you, you won’t convince me, but it’s interesting to see a variety of opinions.

So there you have it. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing from you. Bye.

Learn from this transcript on LingQ

21 May 2015

The Importance of Compelling Content

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Today, again, I want to talk about communicating in language learning, it’s so important. We communicate when we speak, obviously, but we also communicate when we listen and read.

The other day on our forum at LingQ, someone said they had been working at LingQ listening and reading and felt as if they weren’t making any progress. They didn’t feel they understood any better than three months earlier. They had done a 90-day challenge at LingQ.

I’m going to ask that person: Are you listening to and reading things that you’re really interested in. In other words, is this compelling content?

Stephen Krashen on compelling content

This is something that Stephen Krashen refers to all the time – compelling content. If what you are reading and listening to is of great interest to you and, I might add, if you’re listening to something where you enjoy the voice and the subject is of interest and possibly the subject is familiar to you, I don’t see how you can’t understand more and more.

If, on the other hand, you’re listening to something that’s not interesting and you’re listening over and over again, yes, you are going to basically stop progressing because the brain requires things that are stimulating. Even in terms of learning content it has to be stimulating in some way.

I have made reference in previous videos to this interleaving, that it’s a good idea sometimes to leave something you’re working on. Go and do something else, study some other subject and then come back to it. All of this refreshes the brain and the brain learns better, rather than trying to learn a block of something or force yourself to learn something that’s not very interesting to you.

Communication is the way to go

Communicating is the best way to learn. Communication, whether it be listening and reading, which I consider to be communicating, or speaking, this is the key to learning, but it has to be compelling. It has to be of interest and the more compelling, the nicer the voice in your ears, the more you are attracted to the subject, the better you’re going to learn.

Compelling Content - communication
Image by Rick & Brenda Beerhorst

So remember Stephen Krashen with his compelling content, it has to be compelling. If it’s very compelling content it can be very difficult for you, but you’ll work your way through it. So, communicating, but meaningful, compelling communication.

Thanks for listening.

Learn from this transcript on LingQ

17 May 2015

Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there. Steve Kaufmann here, talking to all of you who want to learn languages. I’m very happy to share with you my experience, my views, and I think my views should count for something because I have learned 12 languages to varying degrees, I have another two that I’m working on, yet my views I think are very much in the minority. Okay? I’m going to talk today about active and passive vocabulary and I’m going to say that there is far too much emphasis placed, both in terms of how we teach languages and the things that people worry about when they learn languages.

There’s too much emphasis on active vocabulary. It’s this old question of developing an ability to speak or, rather, focusing on building up your understanding of the language. It is impossible to be fluent if you can’t understand. It is impossible to claim that you are at some level. They have all these numbers B-1, B-2, C-1. Whatever you claim, you can’t claim that you speak at that level if you don’t understand at a much higher level because the native speaker with whom you’re going to speak is always going to have a bigger vocabulary than you do. You have to understand what that person is saying. What’s more, in any language, even our own, we usually spend more time listening than we do speaking. You’ve got to understand what people are saying around you.

What do they do in classrooms? They try to force people to speak correctly. I read something recently about how anything that we cram will only stay in our short-term memory. Anything that we learn against the grain is only going to stay in our short-term memory. Things that we acquire through regular and enjoyable repetition is going to stay with us and that is why a language-learning method that is based on lots of listening and reading – I know I’m a bit repetitious on this – is going to stay with you. You’re going to be able to revive and refresh those languages easily as I have done with my Italian, which I haven’t touched for the longest time. Then a couple of weeks of listening and reading, talking a little bit with our tutors at LingQ and it comes back stronger than ever before. It’s in there soundly because it’s built up based on this very large passive vocabulary.

There was a talk at TED that showed up on my YouTube channel, you know how they recommend things for you to watch. Maybe I’ll put a link here, but there was this linguistics person saying things which I considered simply to be untrue. He said the biggest obstacle people have in language learning is their fear of not being able to speak and the way around that is you don’t need so many words, you just need a few key words and then you can speak. But you won’t understand anything, that’s an even worse situation. To me, the biggest fear I have is not understanding what people are saying to me.

I mean there’s no question that when you speak you are going to struggle, stumble. It’s embarrassing. You can’t say what you want. All of those things for sure, but if you at least understand what the person is saying, if you have a large passive vocabulary, you’re going to do better. You’re going to understand better and now you have some time with less pressure to try and use, try to activate, some of your passive vocabulary and the passive vocabulary does get activated as long as you speak. At some point you have to speak. However, it is amazing how much you can learn just through a very consistent program of listening and reading.

Someone asked as well here, do I listen repeatedly or repetitively to the same material or do I read or listen more extensively in order to acquire a large vocabulary? Well, initially, in order to become familiar with the language you have to listen to the same limited material over and over because you can’t even, at first, tell where one word begins and the next word ends. You have to get your brain used to the language, but within a month or two I move on to extensive because I want to cover lots of vocabulary with a system like LingQ.

I hate to always refer to LingQ, but it’s possible to deal with text that has 30-40% unknown words, so I very definitely move in to a more extensive pattern of listening and reading with the goal of building up my passive vocabulary. That’s why at LingQ the number one metric, the easiest thing to measure, is the passive vocabulary. How many words can you more or less recognize when you see them or hear them in a given context, even helped by the context? It doesn’t matter because all these words you’re going to see again and again. If they matter to you, if they’re important, they’ll come up again and again. If you are listening and reading in an extensive way they’ll keep coming up. You’ll see them in different contexts and you’ll gradually get a better sense of what they mean.

You don’t have to nail it down the first time you come up against it. When you are ready to speak and when you speak more and more these words will activate naturally as you speak. I will do a separate video on the kinds of things you can do to help activate your passive vocabulary to help yourself prepare for speaking. The idea that as you start into a language you’re going to try to speak the language to me is simply nonsense from a language-learning efficiency point of view. It may be what people want to do, I have no doubt about that, but most people are quite unsuccessful at language learning. When you, basically, don’t understand what the person is saying you aren’t going to have a very meaningful conversation.

If we look at motivation in language learning, I grant you that people are motivated differently. Some people simply have the motivation to be able to say hello and give the impression that they speak the language, in which case to focus on a few key sentences and phrases to be able to trot them out is probably quite useful. However, if the goal is to be able to participate comfortably in conversations or if you’re in the workplace, again, you have to understand what people are saying. If the goal is to gain that kind of comprehension then you have to focus on your passive vocabulary.

Now, I’m not saying you have to know every word in the dictionary, but you need a substantial vocabulary and it doesn’t matter whether you only count words as word families or whether you count every occurrence of the word the way we do at LingQ. It doesn’t matter. It’s arbitrary. Pursuing this passive vocabulary, I compare it to the mechanical rabbit that the dogs chase in dog races. It’s something that you pursue in order to build up that familiarity with the language, to expose yourself to the language to build up your passive vocabulary.

You know I saw a video on how to motivate people because, obviously, motivation in language learning is extremely important. There was a study done that showed that insofar as motivating people to do tasks, for very simple basic tasks the more money you give them, the more motivated they will be to do it. Move this pile of stones over there as quickly as you can and the fastest person will get the most money. Then that will work. However, if you’re dealing with more challenging tasks that involve concepts and thinking and creativity and so forth, the researched showed that giving more money, in fact, is counterproductive.

There are three things that people are looking for in these kinds of challenging tasks and I would include language learning amongst them. Number one is independence in the workplace. People want to have the feeling that they control their workplace and that they do things they want to do, number one. Number two is what’s called mastery, the sense that the challenge is something you can cope with it’s just a little bit difficult for you, that as you’re doing it you’re developing new skills. You’re becoming more powerful in terms of your abilities. You’re achieving this mastery over a set of skills, a task and so forth.

So the first one was independence, the second one was mastery and the third one was purpose. People like to do jobs they think are meaningful that serve a useful purpose. So if you can give an employee the sense that they are independent, that they can achieve mastery over the requirements of the job and that the job that they’re doing is important and useful, then that person will perform better than someone who you just simply reward with money.

Now, how does this relate back to language learning? Typically, people say well you have to learn English because you need it for your job. That’s a bit like giving them money. On the other hand, if you can devise a language-learning approach that allows you to learn from things that are of interest to you. So you’re not forced to study a specific curriculum. You’re not forced to learn parts of speech in the order that the teachers choose to give them to you.

I, personally, don’t like that approach. I like to pursue the language on my own. I learn those aspects of grammar that interest me when they interest me, when I come across them, when I have questions about them. I study things that are of interest to me, so I have that sense of independence in my language learning.

The second thing is mastery. If at a very early stage you are confronted with the task of getting your conjugations right, getting your declensions right and trying to find words and not understanding what the person is saying, all of this is frustrating, unless you’re in a situation where you don’t have that independence and the teacher is just drilling you and you’re just a robot responding to these prompts. But if you want to be independent and then you want to achieve that sense of mastery, it is easier, in fact, to achieve that sense of mastery by doing a lot of listening and reading and watching your comprehension grow.

You’re never confronted with frustration. It’s a little bit foggy at first then, gradually, following things that you have selected that are of interest to you it becomes clearer and you have that sense of achieving a higher and higher degree of comprehension, which is tremendously satisfying. And for most people, who don’t live where the language is spoken, it’s also quite easy to arrange.

The third issue is purpose. Obviously, you have to want to learn that language. If you are not interested in learning the language, again, you won’t have that sense of purpose. But if you are interested in learning the language for whatever reason, which could include for your job, but might be because of a partner, wife, husband, friend, interest in literature, culture, history, whatever it might be. So if you have that purpose, if you have an independent approach to your learning and if you have a sense that you are gradually increasing your mastery, these three things are going to keep you motivated.

So those three elements, I guess for the person who is largely motivated to get into that active vocabulary early, could also apply. I just feel in my experience that you will never be in a situation where your active vocabulary exceeds your passive vocabulary. You will always be in a position where your passive vocabulary exceeds your active vocabulary. Now, there could be situations where you have this passive vocabulary. It’s so passive and your listening skills are so poor that you don’t understand it when someone uses the word in speech; although, you may be able to understand that if you read it.

I mean there are people who read very well and can’t speak, but people who understand very well and not just vaguely what it’s all about, but who genuinely understand clearly what’s being said when the language is spoken, people who understand that well and who have that kind of a passive grasp on the language are going to speak well. If they don’t speak well yet it’s because they haven’t spoken enough. But if they decide to go and speak with that kind of a grasp of the language based on passive vocabulary, they will very quickly become good active users of the language.

So, a bit of a long rant here on this whole issue of active and passive vocabulary. Thank you for listening, bye for now.