13 November 2015

Can you get “brain freeze” when speaking a new language? How would you go about learning Farsi? How do you use Assimil?


Can you get “brain freeze” when speaking a new language?

In other words, sometimes we know the word, we know what we want to say, but we just can’t remember the word. We can’t say it and the more we try to remember it, of course, the more we ensure that we won’t be able to remember it. It happens to all of us. It happens to me at my age. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m older now, but I think it happened to me when I was younger, as well. The more pressure we put on ourselves, if we’re at a party and someone comes in and we’re trying to remember that person’s name, the harder we try to remember the name, the harder it is to remember.

If I find that I can’t think of a word or I can’t express what I want to express, I’ll talk about something else. I’ll move into a direction where I have the words and gradually then come back to what I wanted to say. In any case, I don’t let it upset me because it’s normal. The more confident and comfortable we are, the less pressure we put on ourselves, the less likely it is to occur.

How would you go about learning Farsi?

Well, when I started learning Romanian there were no resources, so I went on the Internet, I wrote up 200 sentences in English and I asked someone to translate these into Romanian and record them for me. I paid them for that and the resulting lessons were imported into LingQ. So if there are no Farsi resources, you may have to create your own.

How do you use Assimil?

A lot of people like Assimil. Personally, to me it’s just another beginner book like Teach Yourself or Colloquial. What I get out of it is strictly the lessons, the content. I listen, I read. I used it for Russian. I started using the Korean one and I found it particularly uninteresting. The Russian Assimil has actually some interesting content and to that extent is better.

What I don’t like about Assimil is that they don’t give you the glossary, in other words, the translations of the new words. They give you a full translation, which I find very distracting. I find it distracting to read in the target language and then go reading through English to see the particular word I’m looking for. So I don’t use Assimil a lot, but I know that a lot of people do like Assimil.

9 November 2015

How Many Words Do We Need to Speak a Language?

How Many Words...

It is tempting to believe that we can just acquire a small number of very useful words, and sort of get a jump start in a language. I have never found that to be the case. Even learning “where”, “when” “why” etc. does not help a lot, in my experience, because it simply takes a long time to get used to using these words, or even remembering them. We need to be exposed to them often in order to get used to them and to a new language.

It is not difficult to get a list of the most “useful” words in a language. You can look them up, or you can just type them out in your own language and submit them to google translate. I doubt if that will help much, at least it does not in my case. You need to see and hear them, over and over, in meaningful contexts.

That is why I prefer to focus on finding content, interesting content, to listen to and read. It starts with easier, perhaps less interesting content, but as soon as possible I move on to more challenging but more interesting content.

LingQ enables me to do this. I can look up word and phrases that I don’t understand. I can save these words and phrases for occasional review. The most useful words, the highest frequency words, keep on appearing in the content I am reading and listening to. Almost like magic, in an order that I cannot control, they become part of me. First I understand them and then I start to remember them.

There are also less frequently used words in my reading and listening, words that need in order to understand what I am reading or listening to. I save them as well in LingQ but I ignore them. They are in my database and in my brain somewhere, but will probably not be activated for quite some time. Eventually some of them show up often enough that I learn them. Some of them stick in my brain for reasons that I can’t control.

I create lots of LingQs, in other words save lots of words and phrases to my database at LingQ. I do this not only for words I do not know, but also of common little words that work differently in the new language, like “meu” or “minha” in Portuguese versus “mi” in Spanish. Some of these common words I may tag for different categories to help me review them if I have the time.

My experience tells me that there is not a short cut. I just need to continue enjoying immersing myself in the language and learning about new things via the language. In time I will get the opportunity to speak, and the more I speak, the more I will activate the vocabulary that I have naturally acquire in this manner.

I know that in order to have meaningful conversations, I will need to understand lots of words, not just the most common hundred or so. If I don’t have a large enough vocabulary, I will be lost in my attempts to engage people in conversations. If I have a large passive vocabulary, I will find that all kinds of words that I have never used before just rush to my brain and come out of my mouth.

That is what I am now doing for Polish. After two months of input activity, I have started speaking, and am surprising both myself and my Polish natives speaker counterparts with what I am able to express. I have made no special attempts to learn the most common words of Polish.

1 November 2015

Language Learning is Like Falling in Love


Recently, I had to give a short talk in Japanese to about 30 members of the Japan-Canada Chamber of Commerce. I am a Director of this Chamber, which consists mostly of recent Japanese immigrants to Canada who are involved in their own businesses here. Here is what I said in Japanese.

Language learning is like falling in love. In fact you have to be in love to learn a language well. I mean in love with the language. You have to have a love affair with the language. You do not have to marry the language. You can have an affair and then move on to another language after a period of time. But while you are learning the language you have to be in love with it. And you will learn faster if you are faithful to the language while you are studying it.

Just as when you are in love, you want to and need to spend as much time as possible with the object of your love. You want to hear its voice and read its thoughts. You want to learn more about it, the many words and phrases that it uses to express itself. You think of the language wherever you are. You start to observe the object of your love closely. You notice all the little things it does, you become familiar with its peculiar behaviour patterns. You breathe it. You hear its voice. You feel it. You get to know it better and better, naturally.

Just as in a love affair, there are things about the object of your love that you do not like. You ignore these. You only think about the things that you love. You do not question the object of your love. You just accept it. You do not ask why. You do not ask why it behaves a certain way. You do not seek to understand the secrets to its structure. You just want to be with it, and even to imitate it, the highest form of appreciation.


Loving a language is a one-sided love affair. You love the language. It does not love you back. But the good thing is that it is not jealous of you, of your other previous love affairs. It really does not care if you carry on another love affair at the same time. But, as with people, doing so can create problems…..The language does not criticize you. You can use it however you want, as long as you enjoy yourself.

You are not jealous of other people who love the language you love. In fact you like to meet people who love the language you love. It is a lot less bothersome to love a language than to love a person, Because the love of the language is its own reward. You do not care what the language thinks of you. You are enjoying your affair with the language and do not expect anything in return. As long as you have that relationship, you will learn and improve in the language.

If you just use a language without loving it, you will not improve. If the goal is only to get a better job, or to pass a test, you will not improve. People are the same way. You cannot have a love affair with someone just to get a better job, although……….

This has been my approach. So when I learn a language I spend most of my initial time just listening and reading and building up my words and phrases. I just want to get to know the language, enjoy its personality and get used to it. I do not want anyone to question me, or explain my love to me. I do not want to speak in the language before I have really gotten to know the language, because I know that I will not do justice to my love. I only speak in the language when I want to, when I am ready.

I practice what is known as the “silent period” approach to language learning. Right now I am learning Russian and have been doing so for one year. I read and listen to many different kinds of content, including simple stories, podcasts and Tolstoy. I love it. I do not yet speak Russian. I could if I wanted to. I have been using the latest version of our language learning system, LingQ, which enables people to learn any language they want.

If any of you are interested in having a love affair with a language, read more on my blog and subscribe to my YouTube channel to hear this podcast and more!
You can also improve your English, Spanish, Italian and 11 other languages today! Visit LingQ.com

27 October 2015

What is Your Motivation to Learn New Languages?


Hi there. Steve Kaufmann here again, answering some of the questions that you have written on my YouTube channel. I apologize for this light shinning of my gray hair or white hair, but if I don’t put the light on then it’s too dark in here. Hopefully, that doesn’t disturb you. The first question was:

What is your motivation to learn new languages?

This came from a person in Spain. Another person asked something about, why are you learning Ukrainian, I think? The motivation can be anything. Right now, the motivation to learn Polish is because I speak other Slavic languages or have learnt them and studied them, so I’m curious to see how Polish works. And, of course, every time you learn a new language you learn so much about the country.

People ask me, what about Arabic or Hebrew? Yes, I’m motivated to learn those, particularly Arabic because there’s so much history behind that language and because so many people in the world speak it. So a lot of my motivation is cultural, interest in the country. I want to learn about different people and different cultures in different parts of the world.

The next question was:

How do you keep a language fresh in your mind? How do you not lose vocabulary?

In my experience, if I learn a language through massive listening and reading, massive exposure to the language, I tend not to lose it, but the way I refresh it is that I just do more of the same, listening and reading. Now that I have LingQ it’s particularly good. I can go in and do some Chinese, for example. In fact, I think the person who asked this question was afraid they were losing their Chinese vocabulary. I’ll go through and maybe find something on the Internet or I might just get an audio book. I’ll find the eBook, bring it in and listen and then read and save words that I need. I find that that very quickly refreshes my grasp of that language.

The next question was:

How do you study grammar? Someone specifically asked about all of the – in German. How do I study it?

Well, historically, what I did was I would do a lot of listening and reading and occasionally refer to grammar explanations in the hope that that helped me notice it and, therefore, get used to it. Now I’m kind of interested in this whole approach that I’ve mentioned before, Piotr’s 100 stories where he tells the same story and then asks so many different questions that you are, in fact, reviewing the different structures using very limited vocabulary covering the same ground over and over again with different questions and different answers. That may just be more efficient than trying to remember tables, which I’ve always found very difficult to do.

Another person asks:

How do you find stuff to write about?

It’s difficult. If you’re in a school or in a classroom you are assigned writing. If you have to motivate yourself to write it’s more difficult. What you can try doing is something that Luca does, Luca, who is a very accomplished polyglot. He transfers from the target language into his own language and then back into the target language. So you grab a sentence of something you’re reading, translate it back into your own language and then try to write it again in the target language.

Another person asked:

Polyglots, they claim to speak many languages, but how many languages can they really speak well?

Well, if you listen to Richard Simcott or Luca, to name two specifically, I would say they speak extremely well in at least half a dozen languages. In my own case, certainly it’s true that my strongest three or four are stronger, the next three are okay and as you work your way down then I don’t speak them so well. I think, inevitably, anyone who is a polyglot is going to have a handful of languages that they speak very well, another handful that they speak okay and others that they don’t speak so well. However, it’s possible that there are polyglots out there who devote more time to it and who can actually maintain a high level in more than a handful of languages.

A question I get all the time is:

How do you spend your time? How much time do you spend?

I’m down here in Palm Springs now. We’re down here because my wife likes to play golf. I prefer to play hockey in the winter. If it were me, I would still be up in Vancouver. So we play golf most days and then there are other chores and stuff, but I think I put in an hour or two a day with my language. A good hour of that is listening.

I recently had to go to three stores to buy stuff. I went to Home Depot and then I went to Walmart and Target buying different things for the house here and the whole time I’m in the car I’m listening. I also sat down with my iPad and did some of Piotr’s stories for a good half hour. I also in the evening will sometimes go through my Polish history creating links. When I do the dishes and clean up I’m listening. So I think I get in an hour to two hours a day and that’s how I manage to do it, by combining it with other activities.

Am I interested in Dutch?

Sure. We have Dutch at LingQ, but the difficulty is I’m interested in Dutch, I’m interested in Arabic and I’m interested in Turkish. I can only do one at a time, so one day maybe. I have done some lessons of Dutch at LingQ and it doesn’t strike me as being very difficult.

The question was:

What do you find difficult with Korean?

I’ve gone over this before. The difficulty is finding interesting content that’s not too difficult. When you look in the online dictionary, it seems that a lot of words mean the same thing. Of course it’s written in Hangul, it’s not written in the Latin alphabet. It always makes it a little more difficult when you’re reading in an alphabet or a writing system that you haven’t been using all your life. So those are some of things. I don’t really know why. I have just found Korean to be difficult, but I am continuing.

Another question was from a person studying Chinese:

Should I learn to write from the beginning?

Absolutely, especially the hiragana and katakana. I recommend for Asian languages, learn to write the characters, if they have characters.

Finally, there was a question:

How do I develop my academic English or my ability to write in an academic way?

To me, there’s no difference between say English, Business English, Academic English, any other kind of English. You have to go and find interesting content on the kinds of subjects that you want to develop an ability to write and speak in. So Academic English, if your field is medicine, chemistry or physics you go find on the Internet or whatever source you have, content. Ideally, both audio and text if you can find it and you just read lots of that. I would recommend doing it at LingQ where you can save key phrases, the kind of phrasing that people in your field are using and you just acquire the vocabulary and the phrasing of people in that field.

There’s nothing special about Academic English versus Business English or any other kind of specialized jargon and specialized terminology. You just have to acquire it and make it, first of all, part of vocabulary that you understand and, ultimately, vocabulary that you can use.

So there you have it. I apologize for the light. One thing I am going to talk about in my next video is Mark Zuckerberg, who made a 20-minute presentation in Chinese in Beijing. I was quite impressed and I’m going to give him suggestions on what he could do to be even better, but that will be in the next video.

Thank you for listening, bye for now.

26 October 2015

Should You Learn Multiple Languages at Once? (Part 1)


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here today and I’m going to talk about learning multiple languages at the same time. This is in response to a question I received from one of my YouTube viewers from Sweden, Pelle. If I remember correctly, he’s studying Russian, hasn’t been at it very long, but would also like to start studying German and what do I think. He asked whether I would recommend it or not.

I am asked this question regularly, what do I think. Well, I have a number of thoughts on the subject.

First of all, a person who is learning one language and wants to learn another language or even a third language is something that I fully understand and fully endorse. Once we discover the pleasure of learning a language, of discovering a language, even before we’re able to speak it the pleasure of exploring a new world of different culture, different history, different ways of expressing things, is very, very rewarding, enchanting, pleasurable and so now we want to explore some other language.

It is true that once we have mastered or become relatively good at communicating in a new language, we feel more confident and we’re better able then to learn a third, a fourth and a fifth language. In fact, I guess in Europe it’s more common that people speak two, three or four languages because there are so many different languages in Europe in a relatively limited area. It’s far less common in North America.

If I take the example of Canada, kids who study French in school mostly don’t end up speaking French, so even learning one language is a major achievement. All kinds of people I meet here in Vancouver say “wow, Steve, you speak all those languages? I would love to learn French or Spanish or something.” Of course, they don’t do much about it or they might have taken a course and have given up. So here in North America we have all kinds of people who can’t even speak one foreign language, but in Europe speaking several languages is quite common.

I don’t think it takes any special talent to learn multiple languages. I mean some people may do better than others, but everyone can do it. Some may pronounce better, some may have a larger vocabulary, different people have different interests, but everyone is capable of doing it and it’s a rewarding thing to do for everyone so I encourage it.

I’ve often said that the way French is taught here in Canada makes no sense because we’re teaching kids how to say certain basic things in French, hopefully correctly, when in fact the kids know that they will probably never have a chance to use French and certainly not in those specific scenarios that they like to teach in school. I’ve often felt that language instruction in our schools should be more a matter of discovery, learning to understand, building up vocabulary, exploring languages, even more than one language.

So exploring languages, even if it’s only sort of passively in order to understand the language and understand more about the countries, to learn about the countries through the language, learn about their history and culture, all that stuff is great, multiple languages, great. That’s part one of my answer.

Part two of my answer is while I know that there are some polyglots — and I’ve seen their videos — who can study two, three, four, five languages simultaneously, I can’t. So that suggests that there are some people who can and some people who can’t. I shouldn’t say that I can’t, but I prefer not to. So some people like doing it and others don’t. I prefer to concentrate on one language because I find it so absorbing studying one language. It ties me up. I’m committed. I just can’t enough of the language.

I know from experience that the more intensive, the greater degree of concentration on that language, the better I will do. In other words, I spent five years learning Russian an hour a day. I spent nine months learning Chinese seven hours a day. I did a better job on Chinese. The more intensive the experience, the better you’re going to learn, the more often you’re going to meet the same words again, the more your brain is going to get. It’s sort of that greater heat of intensity that is helping the brain absorb the new language, so my preference is always for a high degree of concentration.

I also like to explore, so at LingQ I’ll go and have a look at Dutch and discover that I can decipher quite a few of the Dutch lessons or Polish, which is a little similar to Czech. So I’ll do a little bit of exploring, but I won’t spend much time because learning another language is a lot of work. So it’s one thing to go and explore. I’ve explored Arabic, I’ve explored Turkish, all at LingQ, but I know that if I were to engage in committing myself to learn any of those languages it would be a lot of work, a full-time job.

You can’t have two full-time jobs. So if my full-time job is Czech, the Czech language, then I’m going to be totally on to Czech. I might have 20% to spend on languages that I already speak to a fairly good level, so with my Czech I would occasionally listen to Russian so that I could maintain my Russian. When I went to learn Portuguese, even though I spoke Spanish and the vocabulary is 85-95% the same, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. It was difficult and I bought a book, for example, How Spanish Words Convert into Portuguese. Well, it’s not a matter of reading a list here and this Spanish word becomes this in Portuguese. No sooner have you gone through the list that you’ve forgotten it.


You have to create habits in the brain and to create these habits, the greater the intensity of the exposure, of the workout, in my view the sooner you’re going to get a real good control of that language, even for relatively similar languages like Spanish and Portuguese, not to mention difficult languages or languages that are quite different from each other like Russian and German. What you can do is focus on one language for six months maybe 80% and then 20% exploring the other language. Then you can turn it around and go 80% on language two, say German in the case of our friend from Sweden, than just a little 20% on Russian and you can flip flop back and forth if you want.

I tend to get totally absorbed. If I look back at some situations that have occurred to me, I spent a year on Czech leading up to going to Prague. And, of course, eventually to be good at a language you have to speak a lot. You build up your potential through a lot of intensive listening and reading. You build up your familiarity with the language. You build up your vocabulary. You’re not too concerned about grammar; although, you refer to it from time to time because it helps you notice things. Then you have to start speaking and when you speak not only do you improve your ability to speak, but you also improve your ability to notice because you remember and you notice those things that you weren’t able to do when you were speaking and so you step up your speaking. So it’s all intense work.

In my case with Czech, it led up to me going to the Czech Republic and I spent five days there in Prague speaking seven-eight hours of Czech a day and I was very happy with what I had achieved. Then I said okay, now I’m going to work on Korean. So I worked on Korean for four or five months, not quite as intensely. Then I had a business trip to Romania, so I spent two months working on Romanian and I got the Romanian up to a level where I could kind of communicate and speak and talk about a variety of subjects and understand newscasts and so forth. Bear in mind that Romanian is 70% similar vocabulary to Italian.

When I was in the midst of talking to all these Romanians, there was a fellow there who was Czech and so I wanted to speak to him in Czech. I couldn’t find one word, nothing, gone, whoosh. Even though my Romanian is nowhere near as good as my Czech, because I had been focusing on Romanian my Czech was gone. Now, that would not happen to stronger languages like Japanese, even German, even Russian, but for Czech, which was not yet at that level where it was solidly anchored, I couldn’t speak a word.

Now because I’m going to the Czech Republic and Slovakia over Christmas and New Year with my son and his family who live in England, I’m back on Czech. Well, my Romanian is gone. I can’t say anything in Romanian. I understand. I can read. It wouldn’t take me a day or two to get back onto it. What I’m trying to say is that there is real advantage in focusing very intensively.

You can always revive your languages. I do this regularly, you go back to them. Maybe if you were talking to Pelle, if you were to spend six months or a year on Russian, which is a full-time job, then you were to spend six months on German, during that six-month period you might want to spend 20% of your time just keeping the Russian on the back burner simmering there so you don’t fall back too far.

I never worry about what I might have forgotten or lost in Korean, Romanian or Czech because I know that in a day or two I’ve gotten it back, or even less. But on the fly like that, bingo, today you say you speak language X, go for it. I can do that in most of my languages, but I can’t do it in Czech, Romanian, Korean and so forth.

So, to summarize, by all means study more than one language, I think it’s a good thing. I think that our language instruction in our schools should be more of an exploration, discover more languages and cultures through language and stuff like that, rather than getting people to speak correctly. Obviously, where the language is required for work and that’s typically the case with English, that’s not the correct strategy there. You have to focus on enabling people to communicate.

So, yes, multiple languages is good. Insofar as what I like to do when I study languages, I like to concentrate on one at a time, but that is me. I know there are other excellent polyglots who have a different approach with advice that’s different from mine.

To learn languages like I do, check out LingQ.com. Also read more on my blog and subscribe to my YouTube channel to watch this video post and more!

19 October 2015

How Long Should it Take to Learn a Language?


Language learning depends mostly on three factors, the attitude of the learner, the time available, and learner’s attentiveness to the language. If we assume a positive attitude on the part of the learner, and a reasonable and growing attentiveness to the language, and even a method that cultivates the learner’s attentiveness, how much time?

FSI, the US Foreign Service Institute, divides languages into groups of difficulty for speakers of English:

  • Group 1: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili
  • Group 2: Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu
  • Group 3: Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
  • Group 4: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

FSI has 5 levels of proficiency:

  1. Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
  2. Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
  3. Minimum professional proficiency. The person can speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.
  4. Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.
  5. Native or bilingual proficiency. The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.

On this scale, I would call 2 above basic conversational fluency.

FSI research indicates that it takes 480 hours to reach basic fluency in group 1 languages, and 720 hours for group 2-4 languages.

If we are able to put in 10 hours a day, then basic fluency in the easy languages should take 48 days, and for difficult languages 72 days. Accounting for days off, this equates to two months or three months time. If you only put in 5 hours a day, it will take twice as long.

Is ten hours a day reasonable? It could be. Here is a sample day.

8-12: Alternate listening, reading and vocabulary review using LingQ, Anki or some other system.

12-2: Rest, exercise, lunch, while listening to the language.

2-3: Grammar review

3-4: Write

4-5: Talk via skype or with locals if in the country

5-7: Rest

7-10: Relaxation in the language, movies, songs, or going out with friends in the language. depending on availability.

To some extent the language needs time to gestate and often things we study today do not click in for months. On the other hand intensity has its own benefits. I have no doubt that someone following this intense program, or something similar, would achieve basic conversational fluency in 2 months for easy languages, and 3 months for difficult languages.

To go from level 2 to level 4, or full professional fluency would take quite a bit longer, perhaps twice as long.

18 October 2015

What is The Hardest Language to Learn?


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Questions and answers, I did it with my sons last time and we did another one with Mark, but somehow I bungled getting that video into my computer and uploaded to YouTube. So, unfortunately, you’re just going to have me reading the questions, which come from my YouTube channel, questions that you, the viewers and listeners, have asked me.

I’m interested in the process of reviewing vocabulary by reading on LingQ. How do you do it and how often do you stay on one lesson before going to the next one?

How long I stay depends on where I am in the language. As a beginner, I’ll tend to read very often because when you read you sort of understand by looking up the words. Then you listen and you don’t understand, then you read again, so it could be four, five, six, 10 times. Not necessarily staying with one, but maybe doing one, two, three, four, five back to one, two, three, four, five lessons, that kind of thing.

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, because, in fact, I am reviewing all of the vocabulary. It just shows up in different contexts, but it’s very often the same words. I see them because once I’ve saved them they’re in yellow at LingQ. I read quite quickly now because I use the auto mode. With the keypad I can just move to the next blue word, the next yellow word, learn a new word or look at a word that I just saved. So it actually goes quite quickly and I’m motivated then by my interest in the subject, which right now is Polish history. So that’s how I do that.

Any languages you don’t use as much as you had hoped?

Of course, I’m now on my 16th language. I can’t possibly find the time to read books and listen to interesting things in all of those 16 languages, so I have to focus on the one that I’m working on right now, which is Polish, with a little bit in some of the other languages. I don’t have the time, even for Polish, to go and find the local Polish community and spend my whole time hobnobbing with people with whom I can practice the language. I’m not that motivated to stumble with people online. I am going to start speaking some Polish.

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 that I already have learned to some degree.

Are cultural barriers stronger than the difference in just the language?

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, well, if I don’t get the politeness level right I might offend someone. I find that you can’t offend people and anyone who is offended because you, as a foreigner, don’t use their language correctly isn’t worth worrying about. I don’t worry about cultural barriers at all. Of course you want to be sensitive to how different cultures operate, but I don’t worry about making a cultural booboo.

What is the hardest language?

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 had nothing in common with English, it was difficult for me. Russian was difficult. Czech was easier, Ukrainian was even easier and Polish is even easier, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian. It’s all a matter of how related the language is to a language you already know.

Reading, listening and speaking is covered, 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, obviously, when I learned French because I was a student in France for three years and we had to write all of our exams in French. When I studied Chinese, eight months full time, nine months full time, I had to write and writing is tremendously powerful.

The main advantage of writing is the 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 advantage is not that someone is going to correct it. The advantage is that you write and the more you write the better. The corrections, 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.

What is your view on learning similar languages? Is there any point?

Of course there’s a point. I can remember going to Portugal for the first time and people would speak to me in English. Yes, I might understand and speak Spanish, but I couldn’t really understand them very well and, actually, it was a fair amount of work to get used to Portuguese. So similar languages gives you an advantage, but there is definitely a point.

Sometimes there’s a bit of difficulty say going from Spanish to Portuguese and you’re reluctant to move from Spanish pronunciation to Portuguese pronunciation so you kind of half pronounce the word in the new language the way it would be pronounced in the language that you know better, let’s say Spanish. Every language is different; every language is well worth it.

Okay. Lots of pleasant birthday greetings, which I appreciate.

Do you have any thoughts about learning a dialect of a 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 certainly than in Portugal. Now, of course, in Brazil they have many more speakers. I think it enriches your hold on the language; you’re covering some of the same vocabulary. Even now from Russian then I do Czech and Ukrainian, I’m reinforcing my grasp on sort of the fundamental way Slavic languages operate. So, yes, it’s well worth it and it doesn’t hurt you.

You stress the importance of knowing lots of words. Why do you think some polyglots constantly insist that you only need to know X words to do just fine in the language?

Well, I’m just going from experience. I enjoy reading and I enjoy listening to podcasts. If I don’t understand them 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 movie, 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.

What do you think of the Finnish language? Is it possible to be fluent in Finnish?

Why not? The Finns are fluent in Finnish. If you live in Finland, if you study the language. It’s obviously different from other European languages and, therefore, it will be a little more difficult for that reason.

That’s about it. I’m sorry that I didn’t do this with Mark, we tried to. Keep sending your questions in and keep working hard on your 90-Day Challenge. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

13 October 2015

English Will Remain The International Language



The dominant position of English as an international language seems to create controversy in certain circles. Some French people for example, resent the increasing importance of English in the European community, and Claude Hagège is but one spokesman for this point of view. French used to be the language of diplomacy and the preferred language of international exchange. Educated people in Europe, as well as the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East were proud to speak French. This is much less so the case today.

The Chinese government is promoting the teaching of Mandarin around the world, through its Confucius Institute network, in order to establish Chinese as the new international language. Yet the difficulty of writing Chinese characters, and the tonal nature of the language, make it unlikely the Chinese will become a preferred language of exchange for people who are not native speakers of Chinese.

To some, the widespread use of English is seen as advancing the political agenda of the English-speaking world. Esperanto, is offered up as an alternative, as a politically neutral international language. It also has the advantage of being quite rationally constructed and easy to learn, apparently.

Often, when I read or hear French or Mandarin or Russian or some other language I have learned, I reflect on the natural elegance and power of that language. Each language is a master-piece of human creativity, having evolved naturally during the course of centuries. In that sense, all are equally valuable and sophisticated in my view. Some are less useful than others, however.

The use of English as a highly convenient means of international communication is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. The relative power and influence of the United States and Britain will continue to decline. This will not, however, make English less useful. It will just make the political argument against English less relevant.

At the same time, in a shrinking world, I expect to see an increasing interest in learning languages, major regional languages, minor languages, threatened languages, artificial languages, all languages. The recent Polyglot Conference in Budapest is but one example of this.

The Internet makes it easier to learn languages, in ways that were not possible before. It makes it easier to connect with people who speak different languages. The future of language learning is bright, but the role of English as the main international language is unlikely to change.

11 October 2015

Do We Learn Languages Subconsciously?


Steve: Hi, Steve here on my seventieth birthday. I’ve got my two sons visiting, Mark, who is with LingQ whom you know and, Eric, who’s manning the camera.

Mark: Hi, all.

Eric: Hello.

Steve: Hello, right. So we thought we’d change the venue a bit.

Eric: We’re ready to go.

Steve: Okay, here’s the list of questions. We, unfortunately, don’t have time to get to all of them, but we’ll do as many as we can. Please keep sending them in and we’ll try to fit all questions in, if not this time then next time.

Mark: For the first question: Steve, would you or have you considered doing live meetups?

Steve: Live meetups. I mean yeah, sure. We can do them, we have done them.

Mark: We have done them.

Steve: We have done them. We use Google Plus on occasion or Skype.

Mark: Well, no, live meetups. Like face-to-face meetups, I think, when you travel.

Steve: Oh, yeah, when I travel.

Mark: You do them in Europe, for sure, when you go travel there. I don’t know if there are LingQers in the desert here, but I think you’re always quite happy to do any meetups that people want to do.

Steve: Absolutely, let us know. If you know where I’m going to be traveling we’d be happy to meet up, we’ve done it in the past.

Mark: And we’re happy to announce it on our forum and spread the word. The next question: You’ve talked about learning foreign languages as a subconscious process. What do you think? When we choose words…

Steve: I think what he means is when we speak do we deliberately choose words or do they just come full out.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I think it’s a bit of both. It’s a combination of both. I think one thing that’s very important when you learn a language is to trust your instincts. So rather than worrying about, did I chose the right word, is this the right word, is it grammatically correct, just let it flow out as much as possible.

Also, sometimes we have the time to think about the word, to think about the right form. To some extent we do that, but the more we can just trust our instinct and have the confidence to assume all the work you’ve put into your listening and reading is just going to enable you to speak more or less correctly. I think we just go with the flow is my advice.

Mark: Sounds good. When you’re using LingQ and you link a new word, what do you do with it? Do you study it; take it up to learn it?

Steve: Well, you know, I love linking. Particularly, I like using this sort of auto link mode where I’m using the arrow keys and then just going from blue word to yellow word to blue word. So if it’s a blue word of course I’m selecting it if I need it or if I know it I mark it as known. If I come to a yellow word, then I get to review it again.

Much of my reviewing of words is when I’m reading on LingQ. In fact, I’ll often read a text where I have no more new words. It’s all yellow words where I have created links and I go through again, sometimes I change the status and sometimes I change some of them to known. So linking words, it’s sort of my first contact with a new word and I know I’m going to meet up with these words again and again in the text, so that’s what I do with it. A lot of people like the flashcards; I do my word review more in the context of my reading.

Mark: For those of you who aren’t familiar with the different modes, if you click on the settings control on the lesson page you’ll see the different available modes. Auto mode is the default mode when you start, but some of you may be on different modes. Auto mode is certainly our preferred mode, but obviously there are few different options there you should probably get familiar with.

Steve: I tell you auto mode, once you get used to it you go through the lessons very quickly.

Mark: Especially using the keyboard shortcuts.

Steve: If you look at my statistics here on my 90-Day Polish Challenge, I don’t know, I think I’ve increased my known word total by 10,000 words, I think I’ve linked 5,000 words. I mean I’m right at the top in terms of the number of links I create and the number of words I learn. It has a lot to do with using that auto mode, so I recommend you have a look at it and get used to it.

Mark: Next question: How do you deal with proper nouns on LingQ, do you treat them as normal or do you ignore them?

Steve: Again, by enlarge this comes up particularly in Slavic languages where proper nouns, names of people, names of places and so forth can have many different forms because they’re declined just like any other noun. Mostly, I X them. I ignore them, simply because, if anything, I want to understate my statistics. In a Slavic language, you’re getting so many words as words that you have learned or known words and because you know one or two forms you know all the other forms. So I tend to not count the proper nouns, but you can go either way. It’s not obvious that _______ in Prague is the same noun as ________. I think it doesn’t matter. The statistics are for your own use, whatever you feel comfortable with.

Mark: Sounds good. The next question is: I always say obrigada because I am feminine, at least I think so. Whether I say ______ or _______ depends on what I’m referring to.

Steve: The agreement is always with what you are referring to. So when you say ________ you are referring to yourself and if you are a girl or a woman, obviously, the agreement there is feminine because you are saying I am obligated or I appreciate it, whatever. So if you say ________ my, my mother, it’s because mother is feminine. So the agreement is always with the noun that you are referring to.

7 October 2015

Syrian Refugees Will Need to Invest in Language Skills



Refugees are flowing into Europe. The newspapers, TV news and social media are reporting on the desperate plight of people fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere, or people who are simply seeking a better life in Europe. Europe is not the only area into which refugees are flowing. We are witnessing a massive movement of people. Whether this will prove permanent or temporary remains to be seen. In any case, these refugees will need to learn the language of the countries where they will settled.

Most of the world’s refugees are not to be found in Europe but in countries near their countries of origin. However large numbers have been risking their lives and the lives of their families , paying people smugglers to help them cross the Mediterranean in unsafe boats in order to reach a better life in Europe.

To the Europeans, this influx has sparked two kinds of responses. On the one hand there is a natural impulse to want to help people who are in danger or who are seeking a better life. On the other hand there is concern that the new arrivals represent a threat to established societal norms, common values and social cohesion. In other words there is concern that this large influx of immigrants cannot be absorbed by the host countries.

It is highly unfortunate that this movement of people is driven by people smugglers and is not part of an organized immigration program. I expect the result will be many problems for the emigrants and for the receiving societies. At some point this process will have to brought under control. This will require considerable political will.

Canada has been taking 250,000 immigrants a year, including refugees, for the past twenty or more years. In addition Canada has been receiving over 200,000 temporary workers per year for the last five years or so, many of whom end up remaining in Canada.

This is a large number of newcomers. While the Canadian system is far from perfect and subject to lots of abuse, by and large the results have been positive for immigrants and Canada. One of the most important factors affecting the successful integration of newcomers, whether in Canada or Europe, is language. Newcomers who learn the language of the country, find work, interact more easily with the host society and are happier with their new life. This can go a long way to overcoming tension which otherwise can easily arise between immigrants and locals. Even if the immigrant is comfortable in the local language, there can still be problems. However, everything becomes much more difficult if the immigrant has poor local language skills.

In the recent past, the policy of multiculturalism has tended to place the onus on the host country to be tolerant and open to the culture of the new arrivals. I think this approach is misguided. We are starting to see the limits of this approach in Canada.

As someone who emigrated to Canada with my family almost 65 years ago, I believe the responsibility for integrating and understanding the other culture rests primarily with the immigrant. The immigrant cannot expect to impose his or her culture or values on the host country. The successful immigrants are the ones who try to fit in and respect the values of the host country, not only when interacting with society outside the home, but even to some extent within their own homes.



The first step to fitting into a new society is acquiring the language. In Canada, those immigrants with poor language skills are often unhappy in their new country, even if they have a high level of education. These people often lack the confidence to function in the broader society, and end up living lives of frustration, low income and insecurity. This can carry on to the second generation. This is not a viable long-term solution neither for the immigrants nor for the receiving countries. We have already seen the tensions created by ethnic enclaves in different countries of Europe.

I don’t know how the present refugee crisis in Europe can be resolved. The better the reception for these refugees, the more people will be encouraged to come. They will come, not as part of an officially controlled immigration program, but they will just show up on Europe’s borders. There will be many deaths, and the people smugglers will profit. Ultimately Europe will have to say no, and will have to repatriate these refugees, and economic migrants.

These migrants are only a small part of the tens of millions of refugees in the world. It is to be hoped, that rather than focusing so much money and attention on this illegal flow of people, more money can be provided to the vast bulk of refugees who live in camps with insufficient food and medicine, and don’t have the money to pay people smugglers.