26 September 2016

Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning

active-and-passive-vocabulary-in-language-learning-steve-kaufmann

Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning

What is active and passive vocabulary? A learner’s passive vocabulary is the words that they understand but don’t use yet. Active vocabulary, on the other hand, is the words that learners understand and use in speaking or writing.

When learning a language, should we focus more on developing an ability to speak or on building up our understanding of the language? This is a common question language learners ask, especially at the beginning of their language learning journey. Here are my views.

It is impossible to be fluent if you can’t understand. The native speaker with whom you’re going to speak is always going to have a bigger vocabulary than you, so your understanding needs to be of a higher level than your speaking. 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 often do in classrooms? They encourage people to speak, and speak correctly right from the beginning. But beginner learners have no context, no familiarity with the language. It just becomes a matter of rote cramming of information that is relatively meaningless.

I read recently that anything we cram or learn against the grain is only going to stay in our short-term memory. Things that we acquire through longer term and enjoyable engagement will stay with us longer. 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 – will ensure longer term retention of the language. You’re going to be able to revive and refresh those languages more easily if you leave the language for a while. A couple of weeks of listening and reading, and perhaps speaking a bit,  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.

I recently watched a TED  talk by linguist Conor McDonough Quinn. In it he said things that I consider to be simply untrue. He said the biggest obstacle people have in language learning is their fear of not being able to speak. He proposed that the way around that is to learn fewer words, just a few key words and then speak. But if you do that, you won’t understand much, and that’s an even worse situation. To me, the biggest fear I have is not understanding what people are saying to me.

Of course there’s no question that when you speak you are going to struggle and stumble. It’s embarrassing, you can’t say what you want. All of those things are true. If, however, you at least understand what the person is saying, if you have a large passive vocabulary, you’re going to feel more comfortable and more confident. This gives you more time to think, and reduces the pressure on you, so that you can try to use, try to activate, some of your passive vocabulary. This passive vocabulary will be activated once you start to speak more. At some point you have to speak, and speak a lot. However, it is amazing how much you can learn just through a very consistent program of listening and reading. Eventually, however, you have to activate it through lots of speaking.

In the initial stage of your listening and reading program, it’s important to listen to the same limited material over and over because you can’t even, at first, tell where one word ends and the next word begins. You have to allow your brain to get used to the language. However, in my case, after a month or two, I listen less often to the same material. I tend to do more extensive reading and listening, moving on to new material sooner, because I want to cover lots of vocabulary.

In the LingQ reader, which is where I do most of new language reading,  it’s possible to deal with texts that have 30-40% unknown words. This enables me to engage with difficult material, listening and reading, with the goal of building up my passive vocabulary. That’s why at LingQ the easiest and most useful thing to measure is the learner’s passive vocabulary.

How many words can you more or less recognize when you see them or hear them in a given context? Even if you are helped by the context, it still counts because all of 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 down a word or phrase the first time you encounter it. When you are ready to speak, and as you speak more and more, the vocabulary will activate naturally. The idea that, as you start into a language, you’re going focus on trying 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. Perhaps that is so. But then most people are not that successful at language learning. Maybe it is because the can speak but don’t understand very well. This makes it difficult to have a meaningful conversation.

It is true, however, that different people have different reasons for wanting to learn a language. Some people simply want to be able to say hello and give the impression that they speak the language. If that is the case, then to focus on a few key sentences and phrases is probably quite useful. However, if the goal is to be able to participate comfortably in conversations, or understand what people are saying around you in the workplace, if the goal is to gain that kind of comprehension, then you have to focus on your passive vocabulary.

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’s arbitrary. I have compared pursuing passive vocabulary to dogs pursuing the mechanical rabbit in dog races. It’s something that you pursue as a measurable goal, in order to build up that familiarity with the language through massive listening and reading.

There are people who read very well and can’t speak well. But people who read well and understand well when listening are eventually going to be able 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.


 

I just learned Polish and Russian at LingQ. Join us at LingQ.com to power up your language learning.

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18 September 2016

How can you become fluent in a foreign language?

How can you become fluent in a foreign language-

How can you become fluent in a foreign language?

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

Motivation is the driver of success in language learning; the magic ingredient in any learner’s quest for fluency. The TED video by Scott Geller, “The Psychology of Self-Motivation” is highly relevant to the pursuit of fluency in a foreign language. In particular, the three questions that are asked in the video.

Can I become fluent in a foreign language?

can I become fluent in a foreign language

If your 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 in a foreign language, 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 achieve fluency. I know that I didn’t really believe I could do it over 50 years ago, until I did it in French. I have never doubted my ability to learn another language since then.

Unfortunately it is only possible to acquire this sense of confidence after having learned at least one language. Then the more languages you learn, the more competent and 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.

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?

become fluent in a foreign language

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.

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 to start with beginner material that may not be so interesting, but we can move to authentic and interesting material surprisingly quickly.

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 of learning over a dozen languages and from reading research on language acquisition. I know that reading interesting language content on my iPad, or listening to an interesting audio book while walking my dog is not only enjoyable but constantly improves my language skills.

If we are familiar with the language, with the way of thinking of the new culture, and if we learn 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 is putting the cart before the horse.

There are many people, however, who believe that we should speak from day one. 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.

Is it worth it?

become fluent in a foreign language worth it

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

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 to become fluent in a foreign language 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, which is still 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 16 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.

11 September 2016

English Grammar – All You Need to Know

English grammar, how do we make it work for us?

Most of us can’t remember the rules of English grammar, much less apply them correctly when speaking. As Stephen Krashen, the great explainer of language acquisition, has demonstrated, the continued and massive input of meaningful content is the key to success in language learning.

In order to speak English well you need to learn how words are used and how they come together to form phrases and sentences. Only a lot of listening and reading can help you learn this. You need to train yourself to notice how the words are used when you listen and read. You need to master the natural phrases of English in a natural way.

There are, however, a few grammatical terms that we need in order to notice what is happening in most languages. I describe these below for the English language. I find that the more complicated the English grammar explanations or grammar terms are, the less I am able to understand and remember. So in my language learning I prefer to keep it simple.

all the English grammar you need

So here’s all the English grammar you need to get you going.

Nouns refer to persons and things, like a “car”, a “tree” or a “house”. Most nouns do not stand alone. Normally an article (the, an, a) or some other word like “his”, “her” “many”, “both” or “some” will come before the noun. Only if the noun is a general term like beauty, love, money, or honour etc. can it stand alone.

Pronouns are words like “he”, “she”, “it” “his”, “her” or “which” and “that”, which stand in place of nouns. When you use a pronoun instead of a noun, you must make sure that it is obvious which noun you are referring to. If it is not clear, you must use the noun again.

Adjectives describe nouns. They may describe the colour, size, degree or any other quality of the noun. You will notice that many adjectives end in “-ate”. “-able” “-ive” -“ing” or “-ed”. Nouns often change into adjectives by adding the letter “y”, like “anger”- “angry”, “thirst” – “thirsty” “fun” – “funny” etc. Sometimes an adjective can change into a noun by adding a “y” as in “difficult” – “difficulty”. You just have to observe the language and save the words and phrases you want to learn.

Prepositions are small words that indicate place, direction and time, such as “ in”, “at”, “on”, “by”, “beside”, “before”, “after” etc.

Verbs describe actions: “run”, “talk”, “sit”, “listen” etc. The form of the verb can change depending on when it happened (tense), who did it (person), and a few other factors. Watch carefully for these word forms. Some verbs combine with prepositions and have a special meaning. “Get in”, “get by”, “get with” are just some examples. These verbs are called phrasal verbs because the phrase is a verb.

Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Adverbs often end in “-ly”. Nouns, verbs and adjectives can become adverbs by adding “-ly”. Watch for the different forms of similar looking words.

* * *

We group our words and phrases in sentences which are more complete thoughts. In English, a sentence must have a verb. It is usually wise to keep sentences short and clear.

Sentences will often contain logical relationships either internally or connecting them to other sentences. These connecting or relationship words are very important and need to be learned. Words such as “because”, “even though”, “if”,”since”, “more than”, better than”, ‘as much as” and many more need to be learned.

It is also useful to have some good connecter words to introduce your thoughts and ideas. You can introduce your ideas with phrases like, “in fact”, “on the other hand”, “nevertheless”, “however” or simply “and” or “but” etc.

Choosing the right word

Work hardest on knowing how words are used. This is more important than grammar rules. The form of a word will change depending on whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective or adverb, singular or plural, and for other reasons. “Enjoy” is a verb, “enjoyment” is a noun. “Act” is a verb, “action” a noun, “active” an adjective and “actively” is an adverb. Notice these differences as you read, listen and save words and phrases.

Many words look similar but have different meanings and are used differently. You have to get used to this by listening, reading and reviewing your saved words and phrases. You need to become observant of the language in order to improve your English grammar or grammar in any language.

Wrong word form and wrong choice of words are the most common errors committed by non-native speakers. Become observant of the language and improve your word choice. LingQ helps you do this. Each time you save a word you automatically save the context. Soon your English grammar will improve and you will get better at noticing which words usually go together, in which form and in what order.

4 September 2016

The Definition of a Polyglot

The_definition_of_a_polyglot_-_Steve_Kaufmann

What is the definition of a polyglot?

As some of you know, I was a speaker at this year’s North American Polyglot Symposium. Here are the main points from my talk on the definition of a polyglot.

As people who speak multiple languages, polyglots like to use those languages; we like to see how we do. But there is an element of performance. Are you better than me? Am I better than you? For some people that’s fine. I think a lot of us are very happy, in fact, when we hear somebody speak better than we do. We’re full of admiration. Even if someone only speaks one other language but speaks it very well, I’m always in awe. But not everyone reacts that way. Some people are timid about trotting out their level of the language, so the question is can we be a silent polyglot?

Anna Karenina begins with “Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему”. Words to that effect, which mean every unhappy family is unhappy in the same way, but every happy family is happy in its own way. So I turn that around and say every unhappy language learner is unhappy in the same way. They can’t do this, they can’t do that. Whereas every happy language learner is happy in his or her own way. In other words, we find our own way to happiness in language learning.

I remember being in this café in Vienna in 1965. There was a fellow there and people would write him questions in 13 languages, and he would answer in writing. It was all done in writing because he was a deaf mute. There wasn’t a question that people put to him in writing that he couldn’t answer, but he couldn’t speak. Maybe in those days sign language wasn’t as widespread as it is right now, but he was, in a sense, a silent polyglot.

People engage with languages differently. There are people who read, understand very well and still don’t speak, and there are people who are very good at social banter but have a very limited knowledge of the language. To me, it’s whatever turns your crank. Either one is certainly fine. I do the latter in languages that I don’t speak very well at all. I say a few words and get a charge out of the people whose language it is, so both are equally good in my opinion.

The_definition_of_a_polyglot_-_Steve_Kaufmann_3

What’s interesting about the definition of a polyglot is that it’s someone who “knows and is able to use several languages”, it doesn’t say to speak. I said this on my YouTube channel and someone said, “well, the definition of a polyglot means many tongues in Greek, so doesn’t it mean that you have to be able to speak?” Possibly, in terms of the etymology of the word, but in terms of the definition in the dictionary it’s just “knows and is able to use”. If you are connecting with the language by reading or listening, you are using the language, you know the language and, in fact, you’re even communicating. Listening is a form of communication, reading is a form of communication and you are communicating with the culture, the history and so on.

The_definition_of_a_polyglot_-_Steve_Kaufmann_2

To me, when I start studying a language I want to get to know it. Here are my statistics from LingQ. The way we count words we know at LingQ is that we count every form of the word, so in Slavic languages you can very quickly run up a huge word count. There’s so much inflection in Slavic languages. As you can see, my statistics at LingQ tell me that I know 20,000 words in Romanian. I worked very hard on Romanian because I have a lumber business and we buy lumber in Romania, which we then sell to the east coast of the U.S. I was going to go visit some of our supplying mills in Romania, so I spent two months studying the language. The first month was spent just listening and reading, and then in the second month I had some online conversations.

The_definition_of_a_polyglot_-_Steve_Kaufmann_profile

I had a great time in Romania. If you travel in Romania and you rent a car, for five Euros a day more you can get a driver. I pictured myself driving amongst all these horse-drawn carriages and decided for five Euros a day, it’s a deal. The driver I had was a university student, so we were speaking Romanian. He was my driver, guide and Romanian teacher for six-seven hours a day. The mayor of the town where the saw mill was located would grab me and kiss me on both cheeks every time he saw me because I spoke Romanian. That’s just to show that if we speak the language in a country like that, it’s very well received.

A year later I was in Edmonton and I went to pick up a rented car. There was a Romanian girl there but I couldn’t say a word to her, zero. So you can lose it pretty quickly if you don’t take it up to a certain level. That I couldn’t say a thing was very disappointing, but the language is there somewhere and if I were to go back to listening and reading for even a weekend, a lot of it would come flooding back.

So the idea that, because you speak lots of languages you should be able to say something on request or instantly start up a conversation is wrong. You’re not necessarily going to be able to pull it off, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean that you don’t know the language, it means that you’re going to require a minimum period here to refresh it. Depending on how far along you’ve gone, how long it’s been since you last used it, that might be an hour, it might be a day, it might be a week, it might be a couple of weeks.

Kató Lomb was a very famous polyglot who lived mostly in the twentieth century. She was totally self-taught, in reply to the question “how many languages do I speak?” she once replied, “I have only one mother tongue: Hungarian. I speak Russian, German, English and French well enough to interpret or translate between many of them and then I have to prepare a bit for Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Polish. At such times I need for the parts of my diaries are written in these languages.” So, again, this idea that you sometimes have to refresh a language. I’m sure any polyglot who says I speak several different languages probably has five they can turn on at will and another five that they would need to refresh a little before they could perform, so to speak, in those languages.

Lomb was entirely self-taught and, of course, this was at a time when there were no mp3 files, no internet, so she would just go at books. She was bored with the fabricated dialogues of course books and her favorite method was to obtain an original novel in a language completely unknown to her and work with a dictionary. She says she didn’t let herself get set back by rare or complicated expressions, she skipped them. She believed that what is important would sooner or later emerge again, which I totally agree with. People say, first, you have to learn the most common 1,000 words. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, those most common 1,000 words, if they’re common, they’ll show up again.

The thing I found very interesting with Kató Lomb is she had, basically, an equation: the language-learning equation, and I think this is brilliant. Language learning is all about motivation and time and I’m sure we’re familiar with that, motivation and time over inhibition.

The_definition_of_a_polyglot_-_Steve_Kaufmann_motivation_plus_time

So you’ve got to get as motivated as possible, spend as much time as possible and reduce the resistance, the inhibition. I think this is a very good description of the process of language learning.

I’m sure Lomb would be amazed if she could see the opportunity to access interesting content in today’s world. It’s unbelievable and a lot of people are not aware of it. Though in the initial period you have to go through boring content because you can’t start with interesting stuff straight away. I’ve talked about an inverted hockey stick. You’ve got a very steep period where you’re working hard, you’re learning new words and you really feel you’re making process. Like, wow, I couldn’t do a thing in this language and now look at me. I can actually understand something, I can say something. There’s this sense of achievement, and because you are discovering the language you can actually deal with boring stuff because it’s exciting that you’re discovering a new language.

Then you hit a point, maybe two months, three months, four months in, and all of a sudden you feel like you’re not making any progress at all. You feel there are so many words. You figured that by now you’d be able to understand everything but you still can’t understand because there are just so many words. People always say, well, if you have 1,000 words that’s 70% of the content. Maybe, but if you’re reading a book, it’s those other words that keep on getting in the way and those other words may only show up once, twice or three times in the whole damn book. It’s a long way.

To my mind, if you picture an upside down hockey stick, you have a steep rise,”hello, look at me”, and then you’ve got this long, slow, gradual period. However, the good thing is once you get on to that point in your journey there are so many resources available. For the first part of it, the starter part, maybe you’ll buy Benny’s Teach Yourself series to get you up that first ramp. Then when you get to a point where you can understand radio programs, movies, books and stuff there are so many resources available.

Audible.com is one I wasn’t even aware of. They don’t have all languages on there, but it’s a great resource. I had to give a Skype discussion in German and I hadn’t done any German for such a long time I figured I wanted to refresh it. I’m interested in German history, so I Googled it and up came a number of audiobooks. I downloaded one on my iPhone and now I’m listening and learning about German history wherever I want. It’s fascinating.

I found the same for Polish, but it takes time. I went to Polish websites to buy an eBook with a matching audio book. I found these resources, went through all the steps, went to register so I could buy the thing and then they asked me for my Polish postal code. So I went off and found another website. Finally, I found a website where I could download eBooks and audiobooks in Polish. Nowadays, of course, if I buy an eBook I sock it into Calibre so it can be in PDF or any other format. You put it into Calibre, which is either free or you make a donation, and it converts any file format into whatever format you want. I convert it into a format that I can import into LingQ, so now I have an audiobook in LingQ and I’m able to look up all the words and phrases that I want.

One of the great questions when finding input is when to focus on output. For some people, using what they have just learned actually increases their motivation, encourages them to spend more time and reduces their inhibition. For others, the fact that they don’t understand very well and don’t have the words to say much not only increases their inhibition, it also reduces motivation. So every person has to look at this equation and think, in my case, am I motivated by speaking early? Am I not motivated by speaking early? Does it increase my inhibition? Does it reduce my inhibition?

I think on that basis we decide how much we want to speak. In the end, the decision often is “I don’t want to speak; I just want to listen and read because I live in say, Vancouver, and I don’t have the opportunity to speak with people, but I’m very interested in the literature of that language and so that’s what I want to do”. If that is your approach, you still qualify as a polyglot, even though you’re a relatively silent polyglot. I do believe, though, that rich input creates rich output. Here are two great resources I’ve recently come across for Polish and Italian:

Publio.pl – If anyone is learning Polish, a great site and they don’t require your Polish postal code.

Rai – this site has the Alle Otto Della Sera series of phenomenal podcasts on history, unfortunately without transcripts. It’s not always possible to get a transcript. In my case, for example, for Korean and Romanian I actually had to find someone on the internet who would create some transcripts for me because there were none available. I don’t like to listen to stuff I can’t understand and I want to have a chance of understanding it, so I prefer to have a transcript so I can save words and phrases. My Italian is good enough that I don’t need a transcript, but to refresh the language it’s a great resource.

These are just two examples, but there is so much rich content out there, and rich input leads to rich output. This is true not only for foreign languages, it’s also true in your own language.

In her book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing Melissa Donovan stresses that you learn your grammar and vocabulary from reading interesting things. It’s a book to help native speakers of English write better, and she explains that the best way to write better is to read better (and I would add listen with an mp3). Sound goes with reading, always, even in your own language. If you listen to rich material, your language will become richer and your vocabulary will grow.

There is more than one definition of a polyglot. We can be silent polyglots. We can be talkative polyglots who don’t read. We can be any kind of polyglot we want. The main thing is to engage, enjoy the process and to discover new languages.

28 August 2016

What is the hardest language to learn and other questions from my followers

what is the hardest language to learn - LingQ

What is the hardest language to learn? It’s a question I’m asked often on my YouTube channel and blog. Here I provide the answer to this question, and others that followers have asked me recently.

What is the hardest language to learn?

It depends. Obviously, the more similar a new language is to a language that you already know, the easier it’s going to be. Chinese has nothing in common with English, and so it was difficult for me to learn. Russian was difficult, but Czech was easier. Knowing Russian and Czech then made it easier to learn Ukrainian and Polish. It’s all a matter of how related the language is to a language you already know.

But similar languages are not necessarily a cake walk. I can remember going to Portugal for the first time. I already spoke Spanish and had put some time into learning Portuguese. Still I couldn’t really use the language. People would reply to me in English. Sure, I might understand and speak Spanish very well, but I couldn’t really understand them very well in Portuguese, and couldn’t say much in the language. Actually, it was a fair amount of work to get used to Portuguese. Learning similar languages gives you an advantage, but it is still a fair amount of work.

I had difficulty going from Spanish to Portuguese. I was reluctant to move from Spanish pronunciation to Portuguese pronunciation. I was kind of half pronouncing the Portuguese word the way it would be pronounced in Spanish. For a long time, I wouldn’t let go of the comfort of my Spanish pronunciation.

Motivation is also a major factor affecting difficulty. If you are very motivated to learn a language you will overcome other difficulties. A language which might be easier, but which you are not motivated to learn, will become difficult.

Why do you learn new languages rather than work on ones that you don’t yet speak as well as you would like?

To me, learning about another country and another language is an advantage which outweighs the disadvantage of not being able to spend enough time with those languages where I want to improve.

Can you study more than one language at a time?

I don’t recommend it. I find that I need to concentrate on one at a time. However, if you are far enough along in two languages you could work on two of them at the same time. It is really a matter of what you want to do. Try it out and see what works for you.

What is the biggest mistake when learning a difficult language?

One of the main reasons that people don’t become fluent is that they stay with beginner material for too long. You can read the blog post I wrote on the topic.

How often do you read or listen to the same content?

As a beginner, I’ll tend to read and listen quite often. I listen and don’t understand, then I read and listen again, and read again. It could be four, five, six, 10 times. Not necessarily staying with one, but maybe doing lessons one, two, three, four, five and then going  back to lessons one, two, three, four, five again.

As soon as I get to where I can start to understand more I tend to move on, even if I don’t fully understand. I am reviewing all of the vocabulary while I read new lessons. These new words just show up in different contexts. I see that I have met them before because once I’ve saved them they’re in yellow at LingQ.  

What about learning a dialect of a language or a related language? Does it help or hinder?

Well, what’s a dialect? Is Portuguese a dialect of Spanish? Is Cantonese a dialect of Mandarin? You could argue that Cantonese has many more speakers than most world languages.

Studying a closely related language enriches your hold on a language you already know; you’re covering some of the same vocabulary. Even now, I go from studying Russian to Czech and Ukrainian and I’m reinforcing my grasp on the fundamental way Slavic languages operate. I think it’s well worth it and it doesn’t hurt you.

Do cultural barriers make a language more difficult to learn?

No, not at all. Having exposed myself to 15 or 16 different cultures, I’m always impressed by how fundamentally similar all human beings are. You learn about the culture through the language, but it’s not a barrier as long as you’re interested. In Japan some people worry that if they don’t get the politeness level right they might offend someone. I find that it is hard to offend people just by using their language incorrectly. I don’t worry about cultural barriers at all. I just try to learn the language and use it when I can, without worrying.

You’ve covered reading, listening and speaking in a previous post, but how do you write? How do you approach it? How is it different as you go through different levels in the language?

Writing is tremendously powerful as a way to learn. I don’t have the discipline to do it now. I did a lot of writing when I learned French, because I was a student in France for three years and we had to write all of our exams in the language. When I studied Chinese for eight-nine months full time, I had to write, and writing is tremendously powerful.

The main benefit of writing is in the very fact that you write. You’re forcing your brain to think about words. You might be looking things up, so you put a degree of preparation and a degree of thoroughness into your writing that you can’t do while speaking. It helps prepare you for speaking, so it’s obviously a great thing to do if you have the motivation and the patience to do it. I learn for fun now, so I don’t bother writing.

The benefit is not primarily because someone is going to correct your writing. The benefit comes from that the fact that you write, and the more you write the better you get. It’s fine if people correct you. If they don’t correct you, that’s fine too. You’ll eventually start to notice most of your mistakes.

It’s important to know lots of words, but why do some language learners and polyglots constantly insist that you only need to know X words to do just fine in the language?

People talk about learning one word a day or even until you reach your goals. But in my experience it’s best to just enjoy reading and listening. If I don’t understand when reading or listening to podcasts, it’s not because of the grammar, it’s because I don’t know the key words. I also find that when I speak to native speakers, it doesn’t help if I can say a few simple things in the language if I don’t understand what they’re saying.

If I’m out with people and they’re chatting and I don’t understand what they’re talking about, if I watch a movie and I don’t understand the plot, what’s lacking, typically, is the words. So I don’t understand why some people say you only need a few words; it has not been my experience. My experience has been that you need a lot of words. Now, other people may have a different experience.

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What has been the hardest language to learn for you? Are you still working toward reaching your goals?

To learn languages like I do, check out LingQ.com. Also Subscribe to my YouTube channel for more tips and motivation for language learning!

21 August 2016

Tips on Learning Portuguese

The best tips on learning Portuguese

Tips on Learning Portuguese

Many of us are watching the Olympics in Brazil. Despite all of the bad reports that we always get in the lead up to any Olympic Games – some British newspaper called the 2010 Vancouver Winter games the worst Olympics in the world ever, then there were all the problems with toilets in Sochi and now pollution in Rio – it looks like actually things are proceeding swimmingly, so to speak.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

People ask, if I go to Brazil, can I communicate? What language do they speak? First of all, some may not know that Brazilians speak Portuguese. There’s no Brazilian language, there is Portuguese. If you want to go there and just have enough of the language to say hello and be friendly with people, then all you need to do is buy a phrasebook, try to memorize three, four or five expressions and that’s all you’ll be able to do. I had this experience when I went to Vietnam. After six or seven days, all I could say was thank you, please and goodbye, that’s about it. We just can’t absorb a lot of the language, at least my brain can’t, all that quickly.

However, if you really want to get into the language, which I highly recommend, there are 200 million people in Brazil. A great place to visit, or so I’ve been told. There’s Portugal, which I know is a lovely place to visit. It’s an important language in the world and it’s very similar to Spanish.

If you’re interested in learning Spanish, you should check out my Tips on learning Spanish blog post. But, if you already know Spanish, then learning Portuguese is easier for you, insofar as the vocabulary is concerned. If you learn Portuguese first, you can then learn Spanish, French, Italian, the other romance languages.

So what would be the first tip on learning Portuguese? I would recommend that you get yourself the Portuguese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar. When it comes to grammar books, the smaller and simpler the better. You also want a grammar book with examples of how the language is used and without any drills or exercises. It’s a resource that you go back to again and again because you can’t absorb all the grammar rules and all the endings the first time, not even the second time. You go back and you go back and every time you pick up a little more.

Generally speaking, there are a number of things that Portuguese does differently from Spanish. For example, if you’re familiar with romance languages, typically the auxiliary verb to indicate the past tense, is “avoir” in French, “haber” in Spanish, but in Portuguese they use “tener”. So that becomes the auxiliary verb and you have to get used to that. There are some funny things they do. For example, ‘to think’ is not only “pensar”, it’s often ”achar”. Then they have very handy words like “ficar” which is ‘to be’,or ‘to get’. It’s has a lot of different meanings that you have to get used to in context.

There are lots of things to discover when learning Portuguese that make it a very interesting language. They have interesting uses of the infinitive that we don’t find in other languages. They have a personal infinitive and then they have future subjunctive that kind of looks like the infinitive. All of these things are there and they’re explained in great detail in books like Portuguese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar, but you should also have a few go-to sites for any language you’re learning. For example, if you were to Google “Portuguese grammar”, you could find tons of free resources giving you chapter and verse on learning Portuguese grammar.

However, you can’t learn the grammar from the get-go. Therefore, I would still recommend that you expose yourself to the language, maybe through a beginner book like Teach Yourself. You can also go to LingQ, our site where we have a lot of beginner material for Portuguese.

Should you learn Portuguese from Brazil or Portugal?

Some people wonder before they start studying Portuguese, should I learn the Portuguese from Portugal or the Portuguese from Brazil? My own experience and my opinion is that, in a way, when you start out it doesn’t really matter. Even though the pronunciation is quite different, probably the pronunciation in Brazil is easier because they pronounce all of the vowels, all of the syllables, which the Portuguese from Portugal don’t. The Portuguese sometimes kind of chew them, they don’t pronounce them. So there are some difficulties there. There are some issues in terms of how the ‘r’ is pronounced. You’ll discover, in fact, that the ‘r’ is sometimes a rolled ‘r’ and sometimes a guttural ‘r’ and it varies depending on where you are.

All of these things are difficult to notice at first. You shouldn’t be trying to notice too many things; you just want to get some words. When I start out, I’m motivated to work my way through whatever content I’m listening to and reading. I was using Living Language when I was learning Portuguese as we didn’t yet have the language on LingQ, and I thought, oh, it’s easy: I’ll just convert my Spanish to Portuguese. Then I realized it’s not that easy because you have to change your habits. If you’re a Spanish speaker, whether a native speaker or speaking Spanish as a second language as is my case, you have to change your habits. We’re kind of reluctant to let go of the comfort of Spanish, so to try and just pick up a few phrases like, oh, they say this in Portuguese instead of this is not going to do it, in my experience anyway.

So I wasted a lot of time trying to just pick up the few ways in which Portuguese is different from Spanish, and then I went to Portugal and hoped that I would be able to speak. But I wasn’t able to speak at all, even though I’d spent weeks or months doing a lot of listening to Portuguese.

What worked was when, at LingQ, we had someone in Brazil who created a lot of content about taking her kids to the zoo and things like that, interesting content. We got Café Brasil and a lot of good content like that and then I found some wonderful podcasts from Portugal, so I was mixing them both. Mostly, I was interested in tuning myself to how they structure the language and how they express things. It’s different. They use ‘tu’ the singular form in Portugal; in Brazil they mostly only use the “Voce”, which is the third person for ‘you’. There are a lot of things like that and you’ll eventually get used to it.

I think a person should do a lot of listening and reading in both the written forms. It doesn’t matter if you pick up a book written by Paulo Coelho, it’s not obvious (in terms of any dialogue) whether it’s Portugal or Brazil. Go for both and then at some point decide which accent you want to focus on.

I had lot of fun with learning Portuguese, and studying it helped with my Spanish. Although, in an initial period my Spanish knowledge kind of held me back. If you’re already a speaker of another romance language, then add another arrow in your quiver. If you’re starting from scratch and you want to go to Brazil or Portugal do the Portuguese, it will open the door to other romance languages. It’s a language that’s well worth studying.

The main tip I have on learning a language is, first of all, get motivated. Every person has to discover the language on their own and stay with it until they achieve what they want to achieve. Fluency is achievable, especially if you’re studying on LingQ. That’s why we’re thinking of changing the slogan to “All the Way to Fluency!”

So if you want to get to fluency, go for it. Portuguese for an English speaker is a relatively easy language to learn and for a speaker of other romance languages extremely easy, but not a slam dunk, you’ve got to work at it.

14 August 2016

The best way to learn a new language

best way to learn a new language

The best way to learn a new language

Good language learners notice what is happening in a language. They notice the sounds of the language, and the structure and the vocabulary. They notice as they listen and read. They notice when they use the language. How can we train ourselves in the ability to notice, in order to become good language learners and what is the best way to learn a new language?

Language teaching methods too often try to force learners to notice based on explanations of grammar, drills, and other exercises and class activities. I find these approaches intrusive and stressful. I do not easily understand many of the explanations, find it difficult to remember rules and tables, and do not like to have to reproduce all of this in drills, tests, or “role-playing” or “task-based” exercises imposed in class.

The best way to learn a new language and that I find is more enjoyable, is to learn by listening and reading and using the language when I feel like it. Here are some ideas on things that can help us notice, while just doing what we like to do in the language we are learning.

1) Repetitive listening:

Listen to content of interest more than once. When I start in a language I can listen to the same content ten or more times, since there are always bits and pieces that I just do not get, despite having read the text, and looked up all the words. The effort to try to “get” these fuzzy parts, keeps me focused and trying to notice. I gradually notice the fuzzy parts, and also reinforce the parts that I already understood. I notice more and more clearly. Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated, but listening is an important skill when learning a new language. That is what you should drive for first of all. Here’s an article I wrote on the importance of listening comprehension

best way to learn a new language

2) Fast and slow:

Listen to content at normal speed, and then listen again to a slowed down version. Either the content has been recorded twice, once at normal speed, and once slowly, or you can use Audacity or some similar audio management system to slow things down. You will notice much more when you listen the second time, to the slower version.

best way to learn a new language

3) Points of view listening:

We are experimenting at LingQ with creating a series of lessons that are similar in content with one element changed each time. This could be the tense,  or the use of pronouns, or other structural aspects that cause trouble. Listening to similar content over and over, will reinforce the elements you already are familiar with, while you focus on the specific elements that have changed. 

best way to learn a new language

4) Use the language is the best way to learn a new language:

Using the language is a great way to notice. When you write or speak, even if you are not corrected, you tend to notice where your gaps and problems are.  Of course, having your errors pointed out can also help you notice. This is helpful as long as we don’t expect the corrections to actually correct us. They will only help us notice. Trying to speak may not be the best way to learn a new language.

best way to learn a new language

5) Mark up your books:

I am so used to creating LingQs and seeing highlighted in my reading, I now tend to mark up books and newspapers when reading. The action of underlining words, phrases, word endings, etc.helps me notice. I then go back and review the chapter that I just finished, going over what I have underlined, and occasionally adding some of these words and phrases to my vocabulary in LingQ.

best way to learn a new language

So to recap, the 5 tips for the best ways to learn a new language are:

  1. Repetitive listening  Listen to content of interest more than once.
  2. Fast and slow – Listen to content at normal speed, and then again in a slowed down version.
  3. Points of view listening – Listen and read content with one element changed each time.
  4. Use the language is the best way to learn a new language – Don’t be scared to use what you’ve learned.
  5. Mark up your books – mark up books and newspapers when reading and make lots of LingQs.


With enough noticing, the brain will start to form new patterns for the language, and our performance and understanding will improve. 
Try these things to improve your ability to notice, and your ability to learn a new language. Remember, the best way to learn a new language is to start!

8 August 2016

A New Age for Language Students, Teachers and Schools

A_new_age_for_language_students,_language_teachers_and_language_schools.

Hello everyone, a few weeks ago I had a great conversation via Skype with Lindsay Dow. I wanted to share the transcript from that video here:

Steve: Hi, Lindsay. I’ll let you have a glass of water because you’re going to be doing a lot of talking. I’m very happy to be able to talk to Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages and maybe you can start by explaining what it is that you do.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

Lindsay: Okay. Thank you very much, Steve. Hello, I’m Lindsay, as Steve said. What I do is quite a mixture of things. I teach languages, I teach English, French and Spanish, but I also learn them myself. That’s my main passion, the learning side of things. Right now, I’m learning Korean and trying to keep up a little bit of Japanese, as well. I recently finished Esperanto, which is quite interesting because I started it a lot later than those languages, yet I feel so much more advanced already, which goes to show the whole ‘no language is created equal’ theory. Also, in each of those languages I blog, I make videos about language. It’s pretty much everything in my life, language, language, language.

Steve: Okay, we’ll leave a link in the description box here to the video so people can come and visit you. Now, question. First of all, let me say that having learned a bunch of languages that languages are not equal in term of their level of difficulty, as you say. It all depends on the language we start from, but I’m finding Korean a challenge. Even though I speak Chinese and I speak Japanese, Korean is difficult. We can get into that later on, perhaps, in the discussion — what makes a language difficult. No question that after Russian and Czech then Ukrainian becomes easier. For French speakers, Spanish is easier. So they’re not all equally difficult, no question, but my question is this.

I think we have a tendency to think of English-speaking countries, that includes, of course, the UK, Canada and so forth, as countries where people are less interested in learning other languages either because they’re less intelligent, which is probably not the case, most people are equally intelligent, on average, or because they just don’t feel the need. And, typically, people from smaller countries, smaller languages feel a greater need to learn. If you go to Japan, Russia or Spain, mind you, the Germans are pretty good. So the question is this. How keen are people in the UK on learning languages, is a big part of your job trying to motivate them or are there a lot of motivated people who just need your help?

Lindsay: That’s a very good question. Before I did Lindsay Does Languages, I worked in a secondary school. I was a Learning Support Assistant primarily in the Language Department and I would take out small groups to teach them. If they wouldn’t pick up as much in the class, I’d teach them at a slower rate myself and it was always a challenge within the main language classroom in secondary school.

Bear in mind, a lot of the time this was the first exposure people had had to languages. When I was working in schools it wasn’t compulsory. I think it was in 2014 they actually made it compulsory to learn a language in primary school and a very interesting thing is that it’s actually very open. They say any language living or dead. They have to learn a language, a different language to English within primary school, which is really interesting because it then creates this difference that you have when people then go to secondary school and they start, generally, with French or Spanish, occasionally German, maybe something else.

It was the same problem when I was that age, as well. I had had French back in primary school as a kind of extracurricular thing, but then going to secondary you start from the beginning. You’re coming from all these different schools and no one knows where you’re at and so the teachers then have this quite difficult job, granted, of trying to bring everyone to the same point. What happens there is you’re 11 years old and your teachers are talking to you as if you’re four. You know, dog, cat, green, blue, all of that stuff and it’s taught in a very primary manner, very simplistic. You go into maths lessons and you’re learning trigonometry for the first time and then in French you’re still learning I like football.

I think a big reason sort of on the official education side of things is that it’s not very inspiring, perhaps. That’s by no means most teachers. There are some fantastic language teachers out there. But then, also, as you say, coming from an English-speaking country where the need is seen as less.

Steve: A couple of reactions. If you’re in Sweden, most kids by the time they reach secondary school already speak English because they’ve been watching English-language television programs, English-language movies, listening to English pop music and so forth. Another thing, too, I often question the relative importance of the classroom versus other factors.

I’ll give you another example. My grandchildren are in French immersion. French immersion in Canada is a situation where English-speaking kids in a place like Vancouver where there are no French speakers to speak of do all their schooling in French. The late immersion kids who start in grade 7 or grade 8, they catch up right away. So they’re in a classroom studying history, chemistry, whatever it might be, maybe getting a little extra help, but they’re doing it in French. They’re in there with a group of kids who started doing this from grade 1 and they catch up right away. It’s interesting.

It gets back to your point. Maybe in high school in Britain instead of teaching them this is a dog, if they actually gave them something that was more challenging to do and more interesting they might advance more quickly.

Lindsay: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I completely agree with that. Like I mentioned briefly, now it’s compulsory in primary school and it’s very open. They’ll say you learn a language. Primarily, it’s going to be French, it’s going to be Spanish.

There’s one company, I think they’re called Springboard to Languages, they teach Esperanto and their whole kind of ethos is, well, in primary school kids learn the recorder. Not to create a nation of recorder players, but to create kids who understand the basics of music. They teach Esperanto with that mindset of this isn’t so that everyone speaks Esperanto, it’s so that people are exposed from a young age to other languages. I think that is what’s needed and that, hopefully, is now beginning to change in the last couple of years with that introduction.

Steve: Now, question. I’m in favor of giving kids choice. I’m against the idea that in Canada, say in Vancouver, everyone has to learn French. Even though French is an official language, the reality is they will probably not have much use for French and if they were more motivated to learn Chinese or Spanish why wouldn’t they be able to learn that language. The counter argument from the schools always is we don’t have qualified, accredited teachers in that language. My answer always is there are so many resources available it doesn’t matter, if you have a motivated language coach who knows how to help kids access all this stuff.

So what do they do in Britain, how would they deal with this fact? The kid says, okay, I want to learn Japanese and the school says we don’t have a Japanese teacher, then what?

Lindsay: That’s pretty much what happens, so then the kids won’t get schooled in Japanese. For example, my partner is a primary school teacher and they have French at their school. They have a French teacher who comes in I think one day a week and teaches each class one by one their French lesson for the week and that’s the way it goes. It may be that a teacher that already works at a school studied Latin, for example, when they were at school 30-40 years ago and they’re like, oh, I’ve got some Latin, then they might teach Latin if the school can’t find an external teacher to come in and do it. So there are occasions where it would vary like that, but it’s very rare I think that the child would get the choice. Again, like you say, because of that lack of teachers.

Steve: But you said they were allowed to choose whatever they wanted.

Lindsay: Oh, no, the school is allowed to choose.

Steve: Oh, the school is allowed to choose. Again, it always annoys me that everything that happens in language learning is dictated by the teacher. Let’s say you had a skill, within the teaching profession you had people who knew where to find resources on the internet, let’s say Japanese. There are going to be children in the UK who are interested in anime, who are interested in some aspect of Japanese culture. Even at the age of 10 those people exist.

Let’s say that the initial course was to start to show them some of the things they can do in different languages, which might be Swahili, Japanese, Russian, whatever, and then the kid says I’m interested in Japanese. Then the teacher chooses to say, well, here are some resources you can use that you can listen to, that you can do stuff with.

Maybe you have to pool the human resources within the teaching community. So a teacher at school A is a coordinator, coach, motivator, but she’s able to access some other more specific resources, Japanese language resources that are available in Yorkshire or somewhere. I come across this here. Again, if we don’t have a teacher in our school who can teach Japanese you can’t have Japanese, which in today’s day and age strikes me as very backward looking.

Lindsay: I think that’s a fantastic point and I love that idea of having someone who gives the child the resources because everything now is so much easier. Like you say, with the internet and everything it’s so easy, as well, for a child. A child picks up an iPad and they know exactly what to do with it, so if you’ve got a Japanese app installed on the iPad the child is going to know exactly what to do and they’re going to learn Japanese.

Yeah, it is so easy. It should be the case that the child can say I want to learn this language. I’m intrigue by that. I love this aspect of that culture or I love that food. Just something small that they’ve picked up on, even from a young age, that they can then drawn on and learn a language from. I would like to think that that is something that will change. You asked at the beginning is it a case of the students in the UK already there or am I kind of having to motivate and I’ve always felt very passionate about that idea of inspiring language learning with what I do and I hope that comes across. I hope that I do inspire people.

Steve: Well, you know, there’s always this sort of dilemma. On the one hand, sort of the learner-centered approach says that the learner, not just kids, should have the freedom to choose what to learn, how to learn, but the reality is most people don’t want that degree of freedom. Most people like to be directed. I always find as a learner that the teacher is like, here, you have to read this story and then you have to answer my questions on this story, so we’re dancing to the tune that’s dictated by the teacher.

There has to be some kind of balance between freedom and people being motivated by what interests them. The fact is the teacher is like a shepherd. You have the lagers, so they need be herded along with the others. So some kind of more of a role of a motivator, coordinator, providing some guidance and direction, but where possible allowing people to do what they want to do rather than forcing them, which gets me to the subject of Esperanto.

Some people say if you learn Latin, then you can learn the other romance languages. I always say why not start with Spanish because it’s more interesting than Latin, for most people, unless you’re interested in ancient Rome. Personally, because I have yet to meet a resident of Esperantia, I’m more motivated to learn another language and with every language you learn, of course, you get better at learning languages. Maybe Esperanto is faster, but the effort you put into learning Spanish, Russian and Korean is also going to prepare you for then learning other languages. So I think Esperanto should be part of the mix, but I would not like to see a situation where the school says, okay, in primary school everyone does Esperanto because we think that’s good. I would not be in favor of that.

Lindsay: That’s very interesting. The only reason I learnt Esperanto is I met some friends, probably last year, who spoke Esperanto. I then found a book last year and I thought, oh, this is kind of falling into my lap. It was on Duolingo and I was like let’s get Duolingo again, let’s see how this goes. That was it.

As I was going through the course there were things like I would like to order a pizza or whatever and you’re thinking I would never be in a situation where I’m in a restaurant, me, a waiter or waitress and the only common language we’d have is Esperanto.  Where’s that going to happen because, like you say, you have yet to meet a native speaker of Esperanto. Of course, there are native speakers now, well, probably not just now, probably over the past few decades even.

But, yeah, I did find that as I was working I’m thinking this is cool and it’s very interesting that I’m picking this up. It’s a new language and it’s happening so fast, but I couldn’t see an opportunity in my life when I would use it, which was curious.

Steve: For example, it depends how we’re motivated. If I hear a foreign language around me, my ears prick up and I want to go over there and see if I can talk to them. If I’m on an airplane, I’m always hoping the person sitting beside me with be a speaker of some other language.

Now, for example, with my Ukrainian I’ve been listening to some really interesting stuff about Ukrainian history in Ukrainian and I do the same with Polish, it doesn’t matter, Chinese. When I started learning Chinese, you get involved in this whole phenomenal world of China, its history and stuff like that. To that extent it may be that I could learn Esperanto very quickly, but I’m just not motivated. However, for those who are motivated that’s fine. All I’m saying is to impose that as sort of all kids shall learn Esperanto in the primary school, personally, I wouldn’t think that would be such a great idea.

Lindsay: I can see that. I can see why.

Steve: By the way, you have experienced Duolingo. You should get on LingQ sometime and work on your Korean, for example.

Lindsay: Yes.

Steve: Although, Korean is a tough one on LingQ. What I find so difficult in Korean is there are so many words that have so many different meanings. I look them up in my Naver Dictionary and I’m no further ahead. In fact, we have a Korean girl in the office. For three months here we had this LingQ Academy Live where we got a learner from Taiwan, a learner from Korea and a learner from Hungary and we’re interacting with them and working on their English and stuff. She’s going to help me with my Korean and I’ve got a list of words that I’ve saved in LingQ where the Naver, which is an excellent dictionary, provides no clue at all as to what the meaning is.

Lindsay: Oh, wow!

Steve: I find that in other languages the dictionary is pretty good. Depending on which language, you’ll find the dictionary that you like the best and we link up to it at LingQ and I’m working my way through the text and I understand it. But Korean, to that extent, is more difficult.

Lindsay: It is because you do feel that kind of, well, I’ve learnt this language so now it’s going to be easy from here on. I’ve learnt X number of languages, so I know what I’m doing now. But, yet, Korean has been interesting. I don’t know. I’m wary to say it’s the hardest language I’ve ever learnt. I always kind of hold that to German because at the time when I learnt German, everything before had been a romance language. Then all of a sudden it was cases and I’m thinking hang on a minute, what is a case. It really took a long time for me to get my head around that concept, but once I got it it was easy. So maybe in that sense Korean is now taking over German as that title for me as the hardest one I’ve looked at.

Steve: Can I ask what your motivation was to learn Korean.

Lindsay: To learn Korean?

Steve: Yes.

Lindsay: I have a friend, Shannon, who has a language blog and we wanted to learn a language together. She had some resources for Korean, I have nothing. I’m going completely from sort of free resources that are available, whereas she’s got some books and dictionaries and all of this stuff. There’s kind of this interesting contrast, so we wanted to learn it together. She lives in California on the other side of the world, so it’s a nice way that we can connect and study together in that sense.

Steve: Right, right. In the case of Korean, we have some beginner material at LingQ and then I went to the Talk to Me in Korean material available. Are you familiar with Talk to Me in Korean?

Lindsay: Yes, it’s very good.

Steve: So I used a bunch of that. Now, a lot of members have contributed content in our library in Korean and then as I advanced in Korean I needed something with more substance, so I found two podcasts which I paid a lady to transcribe. So I’m now learning from those, but they’re just a little difficult for me. I struggle to find something that’s kind of intermediate, even slightly advanced intermediate, yet interesting.

Like with Ukrainian, I found all this interesting stuff about Ukrainian history and the same with Russian, Czech and so forth. So part of it is finding interesting material because that will motivate you to fight your way through all the vagueness and uncertainty and stuff like that.

Lindsay: Definitely. I think one of the big mistakes I made was when I started Japanese I started with a tutor straightaway and it was a fantastic tutor. I learnt so much, I was able to put together really kind of basic sentences and then questions and it expanded.

So with Korean I thought I’ll do the same thing, I’ll get a tutor early on. I’ll get speaking, it will work. We spent about seven-eight lessons on pronunciation and I was bored to tears. I’m not someone that can study pronunciation for a prolonged period of time. I made that mistake and from the beginning it became not as fun, so I had to then kind of almost shake things up, restart, make it fun and find things that did work for me. I think I’m getting there now in that sense.

Steve: See, that’s interesting. My approach is I’m going to have so much trouble pronouncing at the beginning that I don’t worry about trying to pronounce or trying to say anything until my brain has become much more familiar with the language. The fact of the matter is we don’t hear the pronunciation. We don’t hear it, how can we reproduce it if we can’t hear it. It’s interesting.

The reason I know we don’t hear it is one of the functions we have at LingQ is dictation, where if you save a bunch of phrases you can then review these phrases one by one in sort of cards and there’s text to speech. So you hear it and then you’ve got to type it out in Polish and what I thought I heard and what was actually said were two different things. We really have to train ourselves to actually hear what’s said, in my view, before we can hope to be able to pronounce it. Once we hear it better, then we have a better chance of pronouncing it correctly.

Normally, I don’t even worry about pronunciation until several months. I don’t really worry that much about output until I have built up a certain amount of vocabulary. To that extent even the cases, say with German or Russian, normally there’s sort of a redundancy of words so that, in most situations, you can figure out the meaning like 70-80% clearly, somewhat vaguely, without really being able to nail the cases. So you can read stuff, it has meaning, it’s interesting, more or less, then once you become familiar with certain patterns, you then go back in and really try to understand how the cases work. You now have some experience, something to refer to. Otherwise, you start from ground zero and you’re trying to remember case endings and stuff like that.

To my mind, I think the emphasis on output, pronunciation, all those things too early, for me at any rate, is unnecessary pressure. I prefer to sort of get it in, get it in and now I’m really ready to go for output and pronunciation.

Lindsay: Yeah, it is a pressure and I think it’s a pressure easily can flow you. If you’re really trying and you just can’t because, like you say, you can’t hear it in those early stages, then why would you carry on. I do prefer that idea of almost the input, sort of absorbing the language and kind of getting familiar and then gaining confidence with that. It’s quite refreshing to hear someone else.

Steve: People underestimate the difficulty of remembering things. People think because I learned how to say buenos dias, como estas that I’m going to remember. I can say it once or twice, then when I’m all of a sudden confronted with someone where I have to say even the most basic things like buenos dias, como estas all of a sudden I’m frozen and that’s just something very simple like hello, how are you. It’s so difficult to remember things. In fact, my view is that we don’t remember them, we gradually get used to them.

I see so many people, say friends of mine, who have been studying Spanish and they still can’t get past the most basic phrases and expressions because all they’re trying to do is to train themselves to produce these phrases, whereas if they devoted the same amount of time and effort into initially getting to a stage where they actually could read a novel in Spanish.

We use LingQ to access the text, but they can use online dictionaries, import these as eBooks. There are so many different ways that you can engage with the content and just have this very pleasant involvement with the language and at a certain point you say, okay, now I’m going to go after speaking. Then you’ve got some point of reference, some experience, some confidence, comprehension.

How can you even talk to someone if you don’t understand what they’re saying? That’s why I’m kind of that way oriented rather than hoping in a short time… Like Korean, you can go at Korean for a year before you start speaking. I find it very difficult to understand people with far less effort in Ukrainian. I can listen to a Ukrainian history professor talk about what happened a million years ago and in Korean people are saying stuff that I know and I can’t pick it out.

At any rate, the main thing is to motivate people. So a quick question here because it’s very topical — Brexit. Sitting here in Canada, we have this impression of a country that’s basically split down the middle.

Lindsay: That would be correct.

Steve: You hear that so and so is having buyer’s remorse and they were lied to and stuff, I don’t believe that. I think that the majority of those people who voted to leave want to leave. Even though there might be a million people in Trafalgar Square and five million people who signed a petition, basically, if there are however many, 60 million people in the UK, they don’t all vote, but 30 million people want to leave and 30 million people want to stay. To what extent does any of this effect interest in language learning?

Lindsay: That’s a very good question. It’s difficult because for me in my kind of social sphere, if you like, I guess I was in this bubble before it happened. Most of my friends and acquaintances are quite language-oriented and quite internationally-oriented, so I was seeing all of this huge support for Remain and then the very occasion of seeing a news story related to the Leave Party like they’re bus and all the lies on their bus.

All of these silly stories and you think, oh my goodness, this is ridiculous. They’re never going to win. Then you see the polls coming out, they’re close and you think, ooh, hang on a minute. Surely not this many people can disagree. You do feel very strongly about the idea that I’m right and they’re wrong. Of course that’s not necessarily the case, but it built this huge tension that I think is still present after the result, definitely, and it made me realize something about myself and my own language learning that I’d like to mention.

First, if someone said to me name one reason why you learn languages it would be tolerance. It would be to understand people, to understand other people that are different to me and it gives me a level of tolerance towards them. This whole Brexit thing has made me realize that, which I’m grateful for. Obviously, this vote is representative of how our country feels. Whether or not, like you say, people are having buyer’s remorse and they’re feeling I should have voted to remain and I voted to leave, I didn’t think this would happen, it is representative that there is a percentage of this country that does feel a strong desire to “make Britain great again” and take our country back.

I think by that there is a feeling of English, English is the language. Of course this alone in itself isn’t true, even if you take immigration out of the question. The British Isles is a multilingual nation. We have multiple languages that are spoken natively to this land, but again I think that’s unrecognized. Cornwall and Wales received a lot of EU funding, a lot of support, as well, in terms of language rights, what happens now to those languages that were getting support from the EU. That’s one side of the language effects of Brexit.

The other side that’s now beginning to come out is will English be an official language within the EU if Britain leaves and I think the answer to that is yes because you’ve got countries like Ireland and Malta where English is quite prominent, but this has been questioned. So it will have an effect on a wide scale, but in terms of individual language learning I would like to think that it would encourage people to learn languages. Perhaps not even as a result of Brexit, but as a result of the even more recent kind of racial tensions that seem to have appeared since the result, which I think is horrific.

Maybe people are now beginning to feel we need to be united as native Brits, as people that are immigrants to this land that live alongside us and contribute to our society, we need to unite with people. Maybe that will have a positive effect and it will inspire people to pick up languages and to learn community languages even more so, perhaps. Then, of course, as I said, there is a percentage of Leave supporters that I believe don’t feel that way and very, very strongly don’t feel that way, but I don’t think that Brexit has impacted their thoughts. I think, possibly for a long time, they have felt that same way and felt English only. This is our land, speak English.

Steve: There are some interesting contradictions. You mentioned Cornwall and Wales, I’ve been following it and both Cornwall and Wales, if I’m not mistaken, voted quite heavily in favor of Leave.

Lindsay: Yeah and within a day, two days, were saying we still want our funding. It was like hang on a minute.

Steve: Well, yeah, they want their funding, but for a variety of things not necessarily just for language. It’s interesting. The votes are two areas of the UK, more so in Wales than in Cornwall, with a still surviving, call it regional language, they voted to leave. Another interesting thing is there are over a million Brits who live on the continent, retired or otherwise or who have homes there, and a very small minority of those actually bother learning French or Spanish. Those are people who actually have an opportunity, day-to-day exposure to the language that surrounds them and they still live in their little island.

Lindsay: I would say that’s where the attitude comes in of, oh well, if I’m going to live in Spain then I’ll pick it up.

Steve: Right.

Lindsay: I feel like there’s a certain level of that, especially if people aren’t used to language learning and they’re not kind of obsessed like we are.

Steve: Like we are, yeah.

Lindsay: It might be a case of, oh well, if I go and live in a country I’m going to learn the language, I wouldn’t need to make an effort, which of course is incorrect.

Steve: I think that’s a very important point. Something that maybe in a subsequent discussion we could get into is that people underestimate how much I wouldn’t say effort, it’s effort, yes, it’s time, it’s commitment, but how much is involved in learning a language. We have the same here amongst immigrants. In many cases, whatever level of English they arrive with that’s about what they’ll have after three, four or five years, especially within certain groups where there are a lot of them, like the Chinese for example.

Obviously, if you are Albanian there are not too many Albanians here so you’re going to have to learn English, but if you’re Chinese, you can live in Chinese. So then the attitude is, well, once I get a job then I’ll learn. But, in fact, (A) they don’t get a very good job because they can’t speak English very well and then, in fact, their language basically plateaus. I’ve seen this. I know people, not only Brits, Swedes and others who live in Spain or in France, and they kind of half sort of feel they should try to learn, but then they go off and play golf and don’t worry about it. They think they can kind of pick it up. They can order food in a restaurant, so they’re happy.

The thing is it does take a lot of deliberate effort. It takes a strategy. You have to find out what resources are there. Again, I get back to this idea of language coaches not only in school, but even for lifelong learners, people like you who can advise people, direct them to the appropriate resources, motivate them. That’s almost more important than finding a tutor in Toulouse or Malaga. You’ll go a few times and then you’ll lose interest and you won’t learn much. So I’m a big believer in this language coach familiar with resources who could recommend a strategy, keep people motivated and then people have to go and do it, basically.

Lindsay: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, I teach online and a huge part I see of my job is also, look, we’re together for one hour a week, you’re not going to learn Spanish, you’re not going to learn French in a year. You need to also put in your own time and your own effort. Sometimes it works. Sometimes a student will be committed and they will make real progress, but sometimes it doesn’t. You can generally tell quite early on because it’s a level of motivation that you can sense.

I’ll often work with students in guidance and say here are some great resources you can use in the week. We’ve got some vocab we’ve learned today, put this into sentences in your own time. Set some time aside each day so that you’re keeping this up. I think the risk and I’ve definitely been guilty of this, too, is when you get a tutor you’re almost like I’ve logged on to Skype, I’ve pressed call, teach me.

Steve: Exactly.

Lindsay: You sort of almost sit back and expect them to just tell you and absorb. No, not going to happen.

Steve: No. Worse than that, not only does the learner become passive saying teach me, the learner says, okay, I’ve spent the money, I’ve devoted an hour a week. I’ve done my thing, so I can tick that off.

Lindsay: Here are the results, yes.

Steve: I’m learning Spanish, okay, now I can go on and do something else. I was once at a conference in Germany called [Insert German], Language and Professions, and there was a survey done of people who were studying English, let’s say, in German companies because the German employer, they spend a lot of money on language learning. They found that, on average, the amount of time per week that the professional sort of employee learner spends on language learning outside the hour of instruction was one and a half hours a week.

Now, in my experience of learning languages, one and a half hours a week is not enough to really make any progress whatsoever. So I guess your job and mine is to motivate people to put in more than an hour and a half a week into learning new languages, if they want to get there.

Lindsay: Absolutely, yeah.

Steve: We could probably talk for hours, but we’re already at 36 minutes and I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. So I’m going to shut off the recorder and we can have a few more minutes of discussion, if you wouldn’t mind.

Lindsay: Okay. Thank you very much, Steve.

Steve: Thank you and thank you for all those listening and I will leave a link to Lindsay Does Languages in the description box. Bye.

Lindsay: Bye, thank you.

1 August 2016

Discussion with Benny Lewis

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Last week I spoke with Benny Lewis the Irish Polyglot, famous globetrotter linguist and general cheerleader for language learning around the world who has touched many people with his enthusiasm.

We talked about the Polyglot Conference in Montreal that we both attended and gave talks at, as well as language learning in general. I had never been to one of these polyglot symposiums before. I prefer to call it the Language Festival “Festival des Langues”.

Benny Lewis told me that he has attended various Polyglot Gatherings and Polyglot Conferences, and that they are not just get togethers for people who speak multiple languages. “If somebody does not speak four languages, five languages or more, they don’t have to think, okay, I’m not good enough to attend. There are a lot of people who are aspiring language learners and they go to meet people that they know from YouTube and get to know them in person.”

Benny sees these events are more of an opportunity to get to know the language learning community face-to-face. There might be picnics, game shows, movie screenings but the best thing is just getting to talk to the people who engage with him online and share his passion for languages.

The language learning community is truly extraordinary. I had never met Benny, I’d never even shaken his hand, but we were always very much aware of each other, as we were of other people on the internet who talk about language learning. I sometimes get concerned that we are this little ghetto of people. I wonder what the hundreds of millions of people who, at some level, want to learn another language and, yet, for a variety of reasons, hang back, feel uncertain or lack confidence can get out of an event like this.

The first thing they come away with, Benny explained, is the actual talks that take place because they are about the process of learning languages or sometimes specific languages. If someone has a passion for a lesser studied language like Welsh or Scottish, they might find a talk on that language. It’s an opportunity to learn about those things and also meet others with the same interests. These people can get a lot of inspiration from others like themselves who have that special interest.

The meet ups that I have tend to attract language keeners. Not necessarily people who have an internet presence or following, but people who speak three, four, five languages. I think part of the LingQ mission is to get the monolingual or unilingual person to take the jump because it’s such a wonderful thing to be able to speak other languages and connect with people.

There’s something about this language learning world where we’re connected. It’s that warmth of other people trying to do the same thing as you. It just generates that level of enthusiasm and energy that a person needs to take on a language. It’s a long haul, so you meet people that you might be friends with going forward and they will keep you motivated, energized and can be an inspiration. Plus, you might pick up some tips that work for you. Those tips can help you a great deal, but at the end of the day it comes down to the work you’re willing to put in. It’s amazing how much hard work will do for you. It’s easy enough to say, “he’s talented. I could not do that”, but in fact you can.

Benny has found the most success with two tools: italki and Teach Yourself courses. In fact, he’s been busy over the past year making new language courses with Teach Yourself. “The kind of stuff I focus on, because I generally like helping people, as you said monolinguals, is for absolute beginners and those are going to be coming out in September. We’re starting with Spanish, French, German and Italian, so the four big languages. After that, when the series is established, I’m going to be able to start titles for languages that have been neglected in language learning courses. So I’m going to be able to make an Irish language learning course that can go around the world. I can work with translators to make these courses work well for immigrant communities. So we can translate the German course to Kurdish and make it dialect friendly for Arabic for the Syrian immigrants in Germany, for instance.”

I have used Teach Yourself to get started on a number of languages, and I’ve used italki when we didn’t have tutors at LingQ, for example for Polish. The idea that a person has bought this Teach Yourself and it’s chapter five and now they actually have to go and use it so they can connect with someone, I think that’s a very good use of the internet. I’ve certainly found those local resources very, very good, so I’m sure it will be successful.

We also encourage people to speak at LingQ. We don’t necessarily push them to speak right away, although the opportunity is there. We are working on a new version right now, which I am using. It seems a significant improvement over what we now have, in particular the mobile app.

I think it is becoming easier and easier to learn languages. An example is my discussion with Benny, and the way he’s working with Teach Yourself. They found out about him through the internet, and Benny connected italki with what they’re doing and what he has been doing on his blog. This is the new world, so people can learn languages a lot more easily than 50 years ago.

So the message at an event like the North American Polyglot Symposium, or the Festival des Langues, is it’s easier than ever to learn languages. All you really need is the inspiration and the motivation, and that you can get big time by attending a language event like this.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

24 July 2016

Inspirational Quotes – The Tao of Language Learning

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Language learning is an endurance sport, and we all need a little encouragement along the way.

If you’re in a rut, struggling to move to the next level or just need a gentle push to start your study session for the day, let my Tao of Language Learning set you on your way. “A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi

If you are learning a language, listen to it, observe it, quietly, until you notice the patterns, phrases and words.

 

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The language is like a forest, with trees, branches and leaves. These are the patterns, phrases and words of the language.

 

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If you are in a forest, stop to hear the branches move, listen to the rustling of the leaves, and observe them, quietly.

Do not talk while you are observing the forest or you will miss something. At first you cannot discern the subtlety of the language, you do not hear, you do not notice.

But you must continue, not resisting, but patiently waiting until the branches, twigs and leaves become clearer and clearer, until the language reveals itself to you.

 

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You do not need to rely on teachers. Your experiences as a learner will teach you all you need to know.

 

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Before you can speak, you must listen, and you must listen a lot, without resisting.

 

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Absorb the language. Feel its essence, its rhythm and flow.

Feel the power of the language, more and more, limitless in its ability to express the grandest or the most sublime meaning.

 

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We are small compared to the forest, and small compared to the language. We are just visitors. We should be humble.

Do not be in a hurry or you will never reach your goal.

Do not seek to hack the language. You cannot.

 

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Do not seek to master the language. Do not fight the language or it will defeat you. If you devote yourself to the language, you will be rewarded.

Just enjoy feeling its wisdom and expressive power grow, the power of ages.

 

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If you hurry you will be delayed. If you tarry you will reach your goal. You will know when you are ready to speak. There is no need to rush.

If you are in a hurry to speak, a few days will seem too long. If you respect the language, three years will be too short.

The fewer ambitions and fears you have, the sooner you will learn.

 

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Forget who you are and where you came from, the language does not care. Let the language sink into your mind, in all of its variety and richness.

 

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Do not try to speak until you are ready. You will know when you are ready. The language will tell you.

When you speak,take pride in the language and just let it come out.

Only a vain fool strives for perfection.

 

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Whatever language you are learning, it is everywhere. You can find it without going outside your door. You can bring your language with you wherever you are.

You do not need to ask others how you look. Don’t wait for others to correct you.

Continue to learn with the intensity of a child at play.

Accept what you have achieved and you will achieve more.