4 December 2016

How to Learn Any Language Effortlessly



I always try to do the things that are the least amount of work when learning a language; I like to engage in effortless language learning when I learn any language, not completely effortless of course, but as effortless as possible.

I borrow the word ‘effortless’ from two sources. One is AJ Hoge, who is a great teacher of English. His channel and website are both called Effortless English. My other source is Taoist philosophy.

Effortlessness and the Parable of the Crooked Tree

When I wrote my book The Linguist: A Personal Guide to Language Learning, I began with what I called ‘The Parable of the Crooked Tree’. The author of the parable was Zhuangzi, an early exponent of Taoism, a school of Chinese philosophy from over 2,000 years ago. I referred to Taoism on a number of occasions in my book. Zhuangzi’s basic principle in life was to follow what was natural, what was effortless and not try to force things.

Typically, the Taoist philosophy was in opposition to Confucianism, which prescribed rules of what you should and shouldn’t do in order to be a great person. In Zhuangzi’s Parable of the Crooked Tree, his friend Huizi tells him that a tree they are both observing is crooked because the lumber is not good for anything, like Zhuangzi’s philosophy.

How to learn any language effortlessly - crooked tree“Neither your philosophy nor the tree is good for anything”, says Huizi.

Zhuangzi replies “You say that because you don’t know how to use them. You have to use things for the purpose intended and understand their true nature. You can sit underneath a crooked tree and enjoy its shade, for example. If you understand the true nature of things, you will be able to use them to achieve your goals.”

I’m in the lumber business and sometimes those gnarly old trees produce very expensive and decorative wood. Compared to trees in a planted forest, however, their wood is less uniform and less suitable for industrial end uses. Zhuangzi defends his philosophy saying it is useful if we accept its nature and know how to use. His philosophy was based on effortlessness, called wu wei (无为) in Chinese.

In other words, you want to learn better, stop resisting, and stop fighting it; go with the flow.That has always been my approach. Language learning does require some effort, of course, but we learn best when effort is minimized and pleasure is maximized.


If I’m reading in a language that I read well, where there are few unknown words, then I don’t bother looking up these unknown words. It’s too much trouble. On the other hand, if I can’t read well enough to enjoy reading away from the computer, or my iPad, then I usually don’t bother. It’s too much trouble looking words up in a dictionary, since the minute I close it I forget the meaning. So I just I read on LingQ, usually on my iPad. LingQ is where I have learned 7 languages in the last 10 years.

untitled-design-51Once I’ve looked the word up on LingQ it’s highlighted. The word appears highlighted in any subsequent material, so I’m reminded that I’ve looked it up before. I can see the meaning right away, and eventually it becomes part of me, without any effort on my part. I’m not just looking words up in a dictionary and then forgetting them. I am creating a personal database of words and phrases for easy review as I continue reading.


When I read grammar – and I believe we should occasionally read grammar rules as it helps give us a sense of the language – I don’t try to remember anything.

I don’t try to learn or understand anything. I just treat it as a spark, an exposure of something that might help me eventually get a sense of the language. I don’t worry about grammar. I know it will gradually become clearer for me.

Comprehension Questions

I don’t do questions. When I was learning Czech I found an old Teach Yourself Czech that I had bought many years ago. I found it kind of useful. It had questions and grammar drills, but I never did them. It was, however,  useful to go to the back of the book and find the answers.


This way, rather than having to try to answer the question and wracking my brain, I just read all the answers. This gives me a concentration of examples of whatever the book is trying to test me on, case endings, pronouns or whatever else. I don’t like doing the questions because it’s too much work.

By the same token, when I read something I don’t like answering comprehension questions. I would rather have misunderstood the text and have my own interpretation of it than have to answer a list of questions. I have mentioned the great Brazilian educator Rubem Alves before. He once said that nothing destroys the pleasure of reading as much as being asked questions about what you have read.


I use  flashcards only occasionally as a break from reading. They’re easy to do, if you do them the effortless way, for exposure.

I don’t set the flashcard with the new word on the front and then the answer on the back. Instead I put everything on the front. The new word, or phrase, the meaning in English and the phrase, which LingQ captures. I just look at the front of the flashcards and go through them very quickly. I don’t have to think, I’m just being exposed to them – effortlessly.


How to learn any language effortlessly - dictionary

Sometimes the purists will tell you that you must only use a monolingual dictionary. I never use a monolingual dictionary. It’s much easier to use a bilingual dictionary. If I’m starting out in a language and I know few words, a monolingual dictionary is useless.

Even when I’m quite advanced I just find that a bilingual dictionary is more useful. I get a hint of what that word might mean and return to what I am reading, wanting to continue the discovery of what the content is all about. My interest in the text drives my learning. I don’t want to be distracted by a dictionary definition which may contain even more words that I don’t know.

I know that only through a lot of exposure will I eventually get the hang of that word, but I don’t want to spend my time trying to figure it out from a monolingual dictionary. To me it is more effortless to use a bilingual dictionary, and whatever is effortless to me is good.

Strange Language Features

I don’t worry about things that I don’t understand or elements of the new language that I am not used to. One example is the custom, in some languages, to have a large number of very specific terms for relatives, much more than we have in English.

These names are often introduced early in a language, since they are perceived as interesting aspects of the new culture. I can’t be bothered with them. Those are concepts we don’t have in English, and so they’re very difficult for me to relate to or remember. Eventually, after enough exposure, these things will become easier to learn, as is the case with much that is new and strange in a language.

Similarly, if you’re a speaker of a language which doesn’t have articles, like Russian or Japanese, you’re going to find articles difficult in English. I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s going to take a long time before those things sink in.

As for me, I find it difficult to understand the explanations about certain grammatical concepts, like the aspects of verbs in Russian. I naturally get it right some of the time, and some of the time I don’t. I am aware that such a thing exists. I’ve read the explanations and kind of get it but not really. I don’t worry about it. Similarly, in Japanese don’t worry about polite language at first because it takes a lot of exposure in order to have a sense for that. So I stick with a neutral form of the language, and try to avoid being too polite or too casual. There is less strain that way.


So in summary my advice is as follows:

⇒ Do what’s easy.

⇒ Do what comes naturally and is satisfying.

⇒ Don’t answer questions if you don’t want to.

⇒ Don’t force yourself to learn things.

⇒ Don’t cram things into your brain.

Just expose yourself to the language, follow your curiosity, trust your brain and you will learn any language effortlessly…or almost.


Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques, Motivation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

27 November 2016

The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content

The best way to learn another language? From interesting content

Of course, language learning success depends mostly on the learner. But what about external factors?  What does a keen language learner need most of all?

The answer is interesting language content. What constitutes interesting content will depend on each learner, and even on the changing interests of each learner. But the best way to learn another language is through interesting content, listening, reading and building up vocabulary.

There are at least ten reasons why learning languages through meaningful content is preferable to attending class, studying grammar rules, or trying to speak your way to fluency.

The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 1


It’s easier – You just listen and read. You start with easy content and advance to more difficult content, on your own timetable.



The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 2


It’s more effective – You can concentrate better on noticing the language, if you are not interrupted by teachers, other students, or yourself trying to speak the language. Most successful polyglots only rely on content based learning.



The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 3


It’s cheaper – You do not need to pay for a school, or travel anywhere. You can find all the content you need on the internet, at libraries, on television and radio.



The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 4


It’s portable – You can carry your language learning with you, wherever you are.




The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 5


It’s less stressful – You are not forced to find words and to try to express yourself. You do not need to remember grammar rules nor do exercises.



The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 6


It’s more interesting – You choose what content to learn from. After the initial beginner content, you can quickly move to things that interest you, sports, pop culture, current events, hobbies, literature or whatever you fancy at any given time.



The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 7


You can study for life – Once you know how to learn languages from content, you can continue doing so throughout your life, whenever you want. You can achieve whatever level you desire in a language.



The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 8


It’s easier to study more than one language – You have more freedom to choose when to study, and to dabble in more than one language.


The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 9


Your mistakes don’t matter – Once you realize that you do not need to understand perfectly at each stage, as you progress in the language, you just sit back and enjoy. What you get out of your listening and reading is your own business. No one is standing over you and correcting you.



The Best Way to Learn Another Language? From Interesting Content - reason 10


You decide when to start speaking, and when you do, you tend to do well – If you can understand well, and if you can read for enjoyment, your speaking skills will quickly catch up. Trying to speak before you understand is a far more arduous task.




I look forward to adding to this list. Please let me know more reasons why the best way to learn another language is with interesting content.

Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques, Online Learning | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Responses

20 November 2016

Having Language Difficulties? It’s Time to Believe in Yourself

Having language difficulties? It's time to believe in yourself
Many of you have heard me say before that the three keys to language learning are motivation, the time you spend with the language and your ability to notice what’s happening in the language.

Some language learners aren’t motivated, so they don’t spend the time or develop the ability to notice and they don’t learn. That’s to be expected. But there are many people who are motivated, who do spend the time but don’t succeed. They abandon their goals in frustration. Why is that?

I’ve given this quite a bit of thought. Here I am at age 70 and I’m having a great time learning languages. I can communicate with people in different languages and I have the goal of learning even more. I’m having a blast, yet I hear from people who are learning their first language or their second language and are completely frustrated.

What’s the problem?

3Well, I think one major issue is that people who haven’t learned a second language don’t believe they can do it. It’s a bit like trying to climb a mountain if you don’t believe you’re going to reach the top. They don’t have confidence that they can do it and they don’t know how to do it.

There are a lot of things about language learning these people don’t realize. They don’t realize that you’re going to forget what you learned. You have to keep learning and forgetting, and that should not be a cause for frustration.

People get frustrated that they make mistakes, or that they didn’t learn that lesson and nail it down, but it’s impossible to do that. These are things that I tell people, but they don’t accept them. They seem to feel that if they put all that effort into learning and memorizing that somehow these things should stick with them. They believe they should be able to use these words, get their tenses right etc., but of course, they can’t.

I think people who have experience with learning languages are used to the idea that it’s a gradual process of getting used to the language. People who don’t have that experience want to see results. They want to be able to say something and they want to be able to say it correctly.

Maybe it’s our school system that makes us think along these lines – that because we study something we should learn it. If you’re studying for a test in Physics, for example, you’ve got to try to remember certain information, but language is different. Even if you understand the concept, you still won’t be able to necessarily use it correctly, and you won’t understand it when you listen time and time again.

Language is a matter of getting used to

This is a very important concept, that language is a matter of getting used to. As an approach to learning, it is in some ways quite Eastern. Even though in places like Japan, China and Korea they’re very much into the teacher, professor or master teaching the subject, if we look at their traditions, like the Zen tradition and the approaches to craftsmanship in Japan, it’s very much a matter of watching people, learning and getting used to something.

4It’s not learning it theoretically from a book, but gradually getting used to it. The information sort of layers on to you and with each layer certain things become clear, and because these things become clear some other things become clear. But you have to have the confidence that this process, this layering process, this exposing yourself to the language is going to lead to your desired result. If you don’t have that confidence, then I guess it can be a frustrating experience.

So I think the question then is how do you overcome the obstacle of having never learned a language? It’s kind of like a catch 22. You can’t achieve that sense of transforming yourself into someone who can become fluent in another language until you do it. You have to have that leap of faith that you can do it, anyone can do it.

Now, granted, the more languages you learn, as in my case, the more used to learning languages you become. I’ve developed my techniques of learning.

How should a beginner approach language learning?  

Well, it’s a matter of having confidence that you can do it because others have done it, others in different countries, of different cultural backgrounds and different ages. It’s not a matter of having some unique talent. If you go to Sweden, they all do it and they don’t all have some special gene. Anyone can do it at whatever age, so you have to accept that.

5I think the other thing is to do things that are enjoyable so that the frustration of forgetting, making mistakes, the frustration and feeling that you’re very clumsy when you speak, those things don’t become the dominant experience. You have to do things that are enjoyable so that the enjoyable aspect of language learning becomes the dominant experience. That way you will put in the time, get enough exposure and become accustomed to a language.

What are those enjoyable experiences? That depends on each person. For me, as I’ve said many times, it’s listening to things of interest. It’s discovering countries through listening to political and historical content in the native language. That, to me, is enjoyable. Other people want to get out and speak early, fine. I don’t, for example, do grammar exercises because I don’t find them enjoyable, but some people do.

If you can focus on doing things you enjoy, the journey itself is enjoyable. You must accept the that language learning is forgetting, making mistakes, being clumsy, not understanding. It’s just the process of exposing yourself rather than trying to nail down a table of declensions of endings or conjugations, and if you spend the time with the language, gradually, your brain will get used to it and your ability to notice things will improve.

It’s difficult to notice

I’ve had it happen to me so many times that I don’t notice certain things in the language. Take the third person singular in the present tense in English, people are told you have an ‘s’ there. It’s “I go”, “you go” and “he/she goes”. People say yeah, yeah, I understand and then they kind of don’t really pay attention when they hear the language.

6Where pronunciation is concerned, I’ve used the example many times of people who rely on how words or spellings are pronounced in their own language so a “word” becomes “ward”. Those people aren’t paying attention. They aren’t noticing. The more you learn languages, the more you learn a particular language, and the more experience you have with a language, the better you start to notice. These are all forms of experience that you gradually accumulate.

So a lot of people experience frustration in language learning because they have never achieved success in. But success breeds success and once you’ve done it once and realized that objective of becoming fluent in another language and how wonderful that is, then you have the confidence that you can do it again. Success breeds success.

Some people stay within the comfort of certain language families, romance languages or European languages, but I think the same applies to learning a language from a completely different language group, say Chinese or Japanese or Arabic. At first people are intimidated because they haven’t done it before, but once they do it and they’ve achieved that sense of success then they know they can do it.

I guess the message here is for those of you who do experience frustration in your language learning, you have to stay the course. Find ways to enjoy it, to climb that first mountain. Once you have climbed that first mountain, then you look out and you see all the other peaks, and you know that you can climb any of those other peaks because you’ve already done it. The hardest one is the first one. So I hope that that is in some way motivating.

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12 November 2016

Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?

Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?


Heritage Language or Something Else?

To learn any language takes an awful lot of motivation. So if the child of an immigrant is very motivated to learn the language of origin, or heritage language as it is often described, because he or she wants to talk to family members, that’s great. However, if they’re not motivated to do so then they should just be left alone.

I don’t think there’s any particular value in having someone learn the language of their ancestors rather than some other language.

My Language History

My parents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were German-speaking in a Jewish community in Moravia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, or at least Moravia, became Czechoslovakia.

They spoke mostly German, but at some point they started going to Czech schools once Czechoslovakia was formed, so they spoke both of those languages, but German was more natural for them.

They left in ’39 before Hitler came in and went to Sweden, which is where I was born. I spoke Swedish for the first five years of my life from 1945 to 1950, then we immigrated to Canada and my parents decided that we were going to speak English.

I always spoke English with my parents and I never had any sense that my communication with them was in any way inhibited. There was no pressure to learn German or Czech.

If anything, my parents wanted me to learn French, which we studied at school without any great success. They were quite happy that we spoke English because we lived in Canada.

Placing Blame

1I once spoke with someone who was mad at his father for not forcing him to speak Dutch, his heritage language, as a child. Well, learn it now then I say. How can you blame your parents? In reality, back in those days he probably wasn’t very interested.

In my own case, I might say I wish my mother had insisted that I continue taking piano lessons. I didn’t want to do it and so, eventually, after fighting day after day around the piano she let me quit.

There’s no point in hindsight now to say that I wish she had forced me to carry on. It was just too much effort because I didn’t want to do it. I had developed my own interests.

Insofar as languages are concerned, the first language besides English that I learned to speak well was French, followed by Chinese and Japanese and then Spanish and German. It had nothing to do with whatever might be considered the language of my ancestors.

My wife, who was born in Macau and whose mother is Costa Rican, spoke Cantonese best as a child, but the language of her mother was Spanish. So now, in terms of our kids, which ancestral language should we have forced them to learn? As it was we couldn’t even get them to learn French, which I tried very hard to do. The more we tried, the more they resisted.

It wasn’t until my son Mark had the opportunity to live in different foreign countries as a professional hockey player that he became interested in learning languages.

Interest is Key

I think language learning is something you do if you’re interested.

If the parents can create an environment where the children are genuinely interested in learning the language, 
then they might be able to pull it off. In many cases they won’t and, in some cases, they might actually turn the kid off learning that language.

To me, the culture is not in the DNA. We have immigrants here in Canada from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico. Those people are also mixed, so is the heritage language Spanish? Is it Arabic if they’re of Lebanese origin?

I know Lebanese-origin Mexicans, Jewish Mexicans and Japanese Brazilians. What’s the heritage language? How many generations are you going to go back? The reality is that, in all probability, within a few generations in Canada all those people will intermarry and only speak English. By the third generation, two-thirds of the people have spouses who are not of the same ethnic group, so English simply takes over.

People get very moralistic about this. It’s just so obviously a good thing to learn the heritage language. It’s part of your heritage. It’s diversity and blah, blah, blah. If people do it, that’s fine, nothing wrong with it, but if they don’t like doing it that’s equally fine. Let people learn the languages that they’re interested in.

Posted in Learning Languages | Tagged , , , | 5 Responses

6 November 2016

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

They say “you are what you eat”. In the global information age, maybe it should be “you are what you can say”. Language, in its varied manifestations, is mankind’s defining achievement, and it also defines us. Language can be social, political, technical, practical, entertaining, sensual, philosophical, and much more. At the banquet of life, each language is another course. The better you can use languages, your own and others, the more you can enjoy the feast. At least that has been my experience.

I have achieved varying degrees of fluency in 16 languages, and look forward to learning more. To me, there are three language acquisition stages, which I outline here. Billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective language and literacy instruction programs, which ignore these natural stages.


The first stage

60-90 hours

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

My Goal: To become familiar with a strange language

My Measurable: Learn to recognize 1000 words

Main Task: Listen repeatedly to short, simple content

My Target Languages (possible future): Arabic, Hindi, Turkish, Farsi

When I begin, I need to “connect” with the new language and overcome my resistance to its strange sounds and structure. I don’t need to speak. I don’t need to understand any grammar. I don’t need to get anything “right”. I am not interested in mastering a few phrases or simple greetings. I want to get into the language, to get a feel for it.

Here is how Fred Genesee of McGill University describes the beginning stages of language learning.

“When learning occurs, neurochemical communication between neurons is facilitated, in other words a neural network is gradually established. Exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words…”

I start by repeatedly listening to short morsels of content. These are 30 seconds long at first, eventually growing to one minute or longer. I listen to the same mouthful (earful?) 20 times or more, to help forge the new “neural networks” in my brain. Ideally these short episodes are part of a longer “story”, which makes the whole context meaningful. After focusing intensely on a new episode, I review all the old ones, so that I am able to digest longer and longer cumulative doses of the language. The Internet and my iPhone make this content accessible and portable like never before in history.

Nowadays, I read the text of whatever I am listening to on my computer. This allows me to access an online dictionary and create my own database of words and phrases for review in a variety of ways. This acquisition of words and phrases, encountered in my listening and reading, is my key measurable goal as I grow in a language.

New words in a language at first seem strange and confusingly similar to each other. However, by staying with simple content, where common words appear often in different contexts, these words eventually start to stick. I usually associate the new words and phrases with episodes where I have heard them. The more associations I can attach to a word or phrase, the easier it is to remember.

I don’t speak much at first. I have so few words anyway. I practice repeating words and phrases out loud to myself, in a haphazard manner. I don’t worry about pronunciation. That will be easier to work on once my brain gets better at distinguishing the sounds.

I might speak a little, just for fun, to try out what I have learned. I can easily find a native speaker tutor or language exchange partner via the Internet. I don’t got to classrooms, since I don’t want to be confused by other non-native speakers.


The second stage   

180-360 hours

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

My Goal: To understand ordinary conversations and most everyday language

My Measurable: Less than 10% unknown words in most conversations

Main tasks: Listen to natural conversations; Work on vocabulary; Step up speaking and writing activity

My Target Languages: Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Romanian

Now that I no longer find the language strange, I want to deal with the language as it is usually spoken or written by native speakers. This is sometimes referred to as “authentic” language.

Conversation is the easiest “authentic” content to understand, because the most commonly used words of a language account for 90-95% of conversations. The same most commonly used words usually account for 70-75 % of more formal written material. Unfortunately, interesting and authentic conversational content with transcripts are difficult to find.

As a result, I usually end up learning mostly from podcasts on subjects of interest where transcripts are available. These are more difficult than conversations, but by importing them into LingQ I am able to use these as learning material and increase my vocabulary and familiarity with the language. I have been pleasantly surprised by the wealth of material available on the Internet in the languages that I have been studying. Through these podcasts I have learned a great deal about the history, politics and even cuisine of countries that I knew little about prior to studying their language.

Each item of study is now longer, three to five minutes or even 10 minutes or longer. I listen to each item less frequently and cover more material, in order to learn more words. I use dead time, doing chores, driving or jogging to listen, over and over. The more words I already know, the easier it is to learn new words. Vocabulary is like money, “the more you have the more you get” or “the rich get richer”.

I like to stick to interesting and familiar subjects in my listening and reading, so I quickly drop anything that is uninteresting, or where I do not like the voices.  At first it seems that native speakers talk very quickly, but my brain gets used to the natural flow, with enough repetition. I am not frustrated when I do not understand “authentic content”. I feel exhilarated when I do.

Again, Professor Genesee’s observations are helpful. Students’ vocabulary acquisition can be enhanced when it is embedded in real-world complex contexts that are familiar to them.

I sometimes talk to native speakers on the Internet. Speaking helps me to identify weaknesses, missing words, concepts that I can’t express, and words that I have trouble pronouncing. I can then work on these things on my own.

With limited contact with native speakers, I also write, especially on blogs and forums. Writing is great for learning. I have time to compose my thoughts, and retain a record of my mistakes and problems.

At this stage, my main emphasis is still to listen, read, and increase my vocabulary.


The third stage     

180 hours to forever

The Three Language Acquisition Stages

My Goal: To continue to enjoy the language, to learn more words, and to use the language better

My Measurable: Less than 10% unknown words in contexts that are of interest to me

Main tasks: Follow my interests

My Target Languages: French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, Cantonese, Russian, Portuguese, English

This is the most rewarding stage. I can travel to the country where the language is spoken, or meet with native speakers. I know I will enjoy the experience, even though I make mistakes. I can maintain the language, even if I go for long periods without using it.

This is the best stage to study grammar. I  have books and audio books on grammar, intended for native speakers of the language. I am now familiar enough with the language, through exposure, that I can use style and usage manuals intended for native speakers. Nevertheless, my personal interest takes me more to history and literature. I find reading books and listening to audiobooks, on subjects of interest, is the most enjoyable and most effective way to continue improving, or to refresh in a language that I have not used for a while.

I am not required to take any language proficiency tests. If I were, this is the stage when I would prepare in earnest for them. The keys to success on these tests are, the ability to read quickly and comprehend the spoken language, and a wide vocabulary of words and phrases, all of which I have already acquired, enjoyably and painlessly. Only at this level would I take these test, since I know that I would score well.

This is also the stage to work on special skills like making presentations, writing academic papers, or producing business reports. It is easy to find relevant material in the target language on the Web and elsewhere. The goal is to imitate the wording and turns of phrase, as well as the ways of organizing information, that are most appreciated in a particular language and culture. It is easy enough to find a native speaker professional tutor or coach, again via the Web, to work on these skills.



Having done it a few times, I know that I can learn a new language, or improve in a language I already speak well, including my own. You too can move through the three language acquisition stages and gain fluency in your target language. The key is motivation and enjoyment, not a school or a diploma. I know, as well, that the pursuit of perfection in any language is futile, so I am happy to make mistakes and do not really ask to be corrected. I just like to feast on languages, drinking, eating, tasting, chewing and digesting them. I never get full, although I may get a little intoxicated from time to time.

Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques | Tagged , | 7 Responses

30 October 2016

Why Learn Another Language?

Why Learn Another Language?

What Motivates Us to Learn Another Language?

There are many reasons we might decide to try to learn another language. We might need the language for study or work purposes, to communicate with family or friends or to connect with the culture of the country where the language is spoken. Ultimately, the goal is one and the same, to speak and understand the language as well as we can.

In my own case, I am motivated initially just by the possibility of accessing a new culture, with all that this can bring me in terms of learning about another country, its people and its history. This kind of motivation just suits my situation as a learner not living where the language is spoken.

Let’s take a language like Italian for example and consider the ways in which I might enjoy Italian while living in Vancouver. I could go to an Italian restaurant and chat with the waiter in Italian, but that really wouldn’t happen very often. I don’t know many Italians in Vancouver with whom I could carry on conversations in Italian, so that is also not a practical motivation.  Although I could try to connect with people via Skype, I have often found it difficult to find language partners who share my interests, and with whom I want to spend hours in conversation. As a result, my opportunities to use the language here in Vancouver are quite limited.

On the other hand, it is quite easy for me to arrange to read a book in Italian. I can buy or borrow a paper book or download an e-book, which I can import into LingQ in order to learn new words and phrases. I can watch movies, which I can find online in Italian or other languages on sites like Filmdoo. I can  listen to audiobooks in Italian from sites like Il Narratore, where audiobooks and matching e-books are available for download. If I am interested in food, I can listen to podcasts like Il Gastronauta from Italy. For more serious fare on history, culture and politics I can download podcasts from the Italian national radio RAI’s outstanding series Alle otto della sera. I can listen in the car or while doing chores around the house. There are endless opportunities for me to interact with things Italian, and learn about that country and its culture.

This is obviously not only true for Italian, but for many languages. The desire to read Russian books was a big part of my motivation to learn Russian. I have literally hundreds of books and CDs at home in languages such as Chinese, Russian, Czech, Spanish, French, German and more. I have found a wide range of internet resources for these and other languages, which have enabled me to enrich my life in the process of learning and improving in these languages. I have catalogued many of these resources on my computer so that when I feel like listening to or reading something in a language, these resources are readily available.

Unless I live where the language is spoken, the amount of time that I can spend listening and reading far exceeds the amount of time that I am able to spend speaking in the language that I am learning. I don’t think that’s unusual. As a result, that is what I am mostly motivated to do.

Of course I also want to be able to speak these languages but I know from experience that these journeys in the language, based on reading, listening and using LingQ to increase my vocabulary of words and phrases, will eventually enable me to speak, and speak well.

Some people are motivated to learn another language in order to be able to use it on their next visit to Mexico or Italy on holiday. Their motivation is to just to speak, to say a few things in the language. That is quite understandable. However, it has been my experience that when I try to  learn a language just in order to say a few things, since I have so few real opportunities to do so I don’t do very well. I find that I don’t really understand what people are saying, and struggle to say much beyond a few phrases.

Perhaps the majority of people are motivated to learn another language because they need the language for academic or professional reasons. These learners usually spend a lot of time in classrooms and study the language with great determination, often focusing on preparing for language proficiency tests, and studying grammar rules and vocabulary lists.

Even though these learners put in more time and effort than the tourist planning to visit Mexico or Italy, the results are often disappointing. If these learners are able to acquire a more intrinsic sense of motivation, an interest in the culture and the kinds of things that inspire them to learn languages, they are more likely to achieve their more “practical” goals of achieving a high level in the language that they need for their tests and professional purposes.

I have always found that when I am able to acquire a familiarity with the language through my interests, and gain different perspectives on the culture, current events, history or even cooking, I connect more strongly with the language. As a result, not only my listening comprehension and reading skills improve, but my speaking ability develops very quickly once I have the opportunity to use the language. Usually having invested so much time on my input activities, when I go to speak I have a much better background from which to work on my speaking skills. More and more of my accumulated passive vocabulary becomes activated the more I speak. While I struggle at first, I progress very quickly.

I don’t think it is possible to do well in language learning without committing to going beyond the language itself. We need to use the language to take side trips into the culture, into whatever interests us, not just what is in the text book. This makes the language learning journey more enjoyable, and ensures that we reach our goals.

Why did you start to learn another language? I look forward to discussion in the comments.

Posted in Learning Languages | Tagged , | 10 Responses

23 October 2016

Preparing for the TOEIC Test

TOEIC test

There’s a more effective way to study for the TOEIC Test

The TOEIC test, or the Test Of English for International Communication, is the most commonly used test of English proficiency around the world. The test is especially popular in Korea, where people need a good score to get a job, get into or graduate university and so forth. I spoke with LingQ Academy student Hanna, who is from Korea and has experience with TOEIC, about how LingQ can help learners ace the test.

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Hanna did some research, and discovered that the test was changed in May of this year. Graphs have been added and the dialogues can now include up to three people speaking, not only two as was the case before. This makes the test more difficult. Also, longer paragraphs have been added as the company that creates the test, ETS, wants learners to have a firm grasp of English rather than relying on strategies that might allow them to successfully guess an answer. In other words, learners will actually have to know English. I think this is a good thing. A test of English proficiency should test exactly that, not how well you can hack or cheat the system.

The main skills needed to do well in the TOEIC test are the ability to read fast, understand what you hear (have excellent listening comprehension skills) and know the meaning of quite a lot of vocabulary in different contexts. Really, those are the main activities at LingQ: reading, listening and acquiring words in context. That’s why we’ve developed intermediate and advanced courses for English language learners who are studying for the TOEIC test.

When I was in Hanna’s home country Korea, I saw the same thing I saw in Japan; you go in the bookstore and there are all kinds of TOEIC specific study books. Some are filled with TOEIC test word lists, and people buy them and try to memorize the words. In the new version of TOEIC, learners are  not only tested on their knowledge of the word’s meaning, but also how the word is used with other words, and that comes from learning the words in context. That’s why LingQ would be a such great tool for someone preparing to take the TOEIC test.

Hanna took the previous TOEIC test before she came to Canada and found it tough. It was especially difficult to read quickly in English, and when she sat down to take the test she felt that she hadn’t had enough practice. The TOEIC test preparation classes she had taken required her to concentrate for more than two hours at a time on memorizing vocabulary and strategies, which she found tiring and ineffective. A focus on reading and listening interesting content would have been a more engaging way to to learn.

Learning from context to ace the TEOIC Test

My belief that focussing on learning from context doesn’t mean I don’t see the value in practicing the test. People who take the test more times are going to get better at it, so practicing with mock tests can be helpful. I’m saying that the bigger focus should be to build up your listening comprehension and reading skills.

Take my own experience with learning Korean right now. I’m learning 4,000 new words a month on average. If a person at LingQ learned 2,000 new words in English, that would be equivalent to 100 points in TOEIC. So in a month if you learn 2,000 words, you should go up 100 points. A person at 500 would increase their score to 600, or someone at 600 would go up to 700. That said, 2,000 is a minimum. I think a person can do more than that. I see no reason why people can’t learn 4,000 words a month using LingQ, all of them learned in context.

Hanna needs to take TOEIC again when she returns to Korea. To see how well LingQ works to increase TOEIC scores, we’ve signed Hanna up for a TOEIC test here in Vancouver before she leaves. She will then study the TOEIC course on LingQ for two hours per day and take the test in three months time. I’ll report back on how she does.

Do you have any experience with TOEIC? Have you taken the test before and would like to take it again to improve your score? I look forward to reading about your experiences in the comments section.

Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques, Online Learning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

16 October 2016

How to Avoid Language Attrition


How To Avoid Language Attrition

Many people, even if they’ve only learned one foreign language, may only visit the country where the language is spoken once a year or once every few years, so it can be hard to maintain or improve those language skills. Not being able to maintain a language can lead to something many multilingual people fear: language attrition, or the weakening or loss of a language. In my case, I claim to have 16 languages, and so language attrition is a concern.

The last time I visited Berlin some while ago, I was very much aware of the deficiencies of my German and yet people said no, you’re doing fine. So to some extent we tend to be more aware of our own shortcomings, whereas other people, especially native speakers listening to us, are more inclined to give us credit for what we can do. They’re less aware of the fact that we’re frustrated because we can’t do as well as we would like to do. However, the issue then is how do you maintain your languages and avoid language attrition?

In my own case with French and Japanese, I can turn them on whenever I want and I really don’t miss a beat. That’s because I lived in France for three years and Japan for nine years. There’s absolutely no question that the more you have spoken a language, the better you can speak it. I say this again and again, even though I am a proponent of input-based learning to build up your vocabulary you should also build up your comprehension and potential to speak well. In order to speak well, you ultimately have to speak a lot and so I obviously have spoken French and Japanese a lot.

The other language I can probably turn on, although I am aware of slipping in the language, is Mandarin Chinese; a language I’ve spoken a lot of over the years. For example, in Vancouver when I was invited to participate in television programs in Mandarin, I would typically spend a few hours that day listening to audio to kind of refresh my memory, something I wouldn’t have to do in French or Japanese. That’s not to say that I couldn’t improve in French and Japanese – I would love to. When I’ve listened to audio books in French or Japanese it definitely elevates my language skills, so listening to interesting material is always a way of refreshing yourself in languages, especially languages you already speak well. The same would be true of Mandarin, but in Mandarin I would say my vocabulary is not as broad as it is in French or Japanese.

Spanish I can still probably turn on, but again it wouldn’t be quite as easy. Swedish, German kind of more or less with gaps and more problems, but once I reach further down into Italian, Portuguese, not to mention the languages that I’ve learnt more recently, then it’s just not that easy to get myself to a level where I can have a conversation comfortably. In Russian, for example, before I participated in a language conference in Moscow, I spent a good three weeks going over my lessons on LingQ, working with material from Ekho Moskvy, looking up words. I had lots of online discussions with our tutors too, so when I came to make my presentation I had kind of revved myself up.

If I have to do a video now in Czech or in Russian, I’m going to spend at least two weeks listening heavily in those languages with a good five hours or so of online discussions with native speakers. I think the big thing to refresh yourself is the more you have spoken in the language in the past, the less you need to practice speaking.

Speaking is a good practice and it also points out your gaps so in your listening you can deliberately try to notice those areas where you have a weakness so that when you next go to speak you try to do better. It might be in the conditional or in the third person plural future, whatever it might be. You start to identify where those problems are and then you need to practice them in speaking.

It’s not realistic to expect that people who speak even one other language or more can turn that language on just like that, especially if they haven’t had the opportunity to live in a country where the language is spoken. So if you are going to be in a situation where you want to do well in the language, you can use online resources like LingQ and within a couple of weeks you can bring your level up. Even if it subsequently falls off, you’ve taken it up another level and every time you have one of these spurts of concentration, you’re progressing in that language.

So that is how I go about warming up my languages to speak in them, whether it be for a video on my YouTube channel, a webinar or an event. I’m interested to hear what you do to maintain your languages and look forward to discussion in the comments.   


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

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9 October 2016

How To Improve Your Speaking Skills


You are unlikely to learn to speak a new language perfectly, but perfection should not be your goal. Your main goal should be effective communication. I am not perfect in any of the languages that I speak, but I can communicate. And whenever I communicate in another language I’m satisfied. I also know from experience that my ability to speak and to pronounce well will only improve with time, as long as I remain alert to what I hear and read, and how I use the language.

Here are the steps I take when trying to improve my oral skills:

Listen a lot

Hipster in the Library

I mean more than one hour a day, just about every day. Search our content on LingQ, find items that interest you and download them. Transfer them to your phone or MP3 player and study on the go, wherever you are, and whenever you have the time. Just listen and listen. You will start with short, easier content and graduate to longer more interesting content. Just keep doing it. Ideally listen to material where you also have the transcript so that you have a better chance of understanding it.

Read a lot

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Reading, and especially saving words and phrases from your reading at LingQ, is the best way to increase your vocabulary. To express yourself you need words. To communicate you need to understand what the other person is saying, and this requires even more words. Reading and LingQing will give you the vocabulary you need to become a confident speaker. The combination of reading and speaking will enable your brain to become used to the new language, and this will build up your potential to speak well.



Listening when combined with reading will fill your brain with phrases you recognize, and eventually will be able to use. You may want to imitate out loud the odd word or phrase, even as you are listening. This is sometimes referred to as shadowing. But you need even more practice at getting the words out. Listen a few minutes to content for which you have the transcript, and where you like the voice and the way the person speaks. After listening, read the same text out loud trying to imitate the way the person speaks. Focus on the rhythm and intonation. Don’t worry about words that you mispronounce, get the rhythm and flow. Do this over and over.


How To Improve Your Speaking Skills

Writing is a great way to start producing the language. You may not really feel like writing much at first. The dictation function at LingQ is a great way to get into the writing habit. You will only be writing out the words and phrases that you have saved. Hopefully that will give you the confidence to write more. Submit your writing for correction at LingQ if you want. The main thing, however, is to write to get used to expressing things in the language, without the pressure of speaking with someone.

Record yourself


Use of words is more important than pronunciation. However, we all like to work on getting closer to the pronunciation of the native speaker, although we won’t quite get there. In order to work on pronunciation, you can practice recording yourself every now and again, perhaps once or twice a month but not too often. Find content of interest at LingQ, listen to the audio, then read the same content out loud and record yourself. Listen for the differences. This is your chance to work on specific sounds. It is important to notice the words that you mispronounce and then try to notice these sounds when listening to the language. If you can notice them, you will have a better chance of pronouncing them correctly.



If you can find someone to speak to where you live, that is great. However, there are many online sites, as well as LingQ, where you can find native speakers to speak with online. Don’t worry about your mistakes, even encourage your partner not to correct you while you speak. Our tutors at LingQ send learners a conversation report with a list of words and phrases that caused trouble. This report can be imported into LingQ as a lesson. The main thing, however, is to speak more and more, ideally on subjects of mutual interest to you and your native speaker partner.


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

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2 October 2016

Input, Output, and Language Hacking Techniques

language hacking techniques

Input, Output, and Language Hacking Techniques.

In my view, there are three divergent approaches, in terms of their emphasis or principal focus, to language learning. This is true whether we learn in the classroom, online or on the street. One approach focuses on input, another on output, and a third on what I would call shortcuts and some people call language hacking techniques. These language hacking techniques include grammar study, studying vocabulary lists and phrase books, heavy use of Flash Cards, ”deconstructing the language”, memory techniques and so forth.

Any successful language learning program uses some of all three approaches. Where proponents of different approaches disagree is on the emphasis.

What “language hacking” technique do I use?

As many of you know, I favour an emphasis on input. The input should be interesting and meaningful for the learner, although this is harder to do for beginners. I believe that the preponderance of input based activities is just natural to how we interact with a language, even our own. In any conversation, especially if there are more than two people involved, we mostly listen. If we add to that our listening to radio, and television or classroom lectures, and then toss in reading – that wonderful human invention that enables us to communicate with the thoughts and ideas of people we do not know, in places, cultures and even eras, that are removed from our own little world – we are mostly consumers of input, not producers of output. This is the same when we learn a language.

I see three circles. One is large and represents input. This is where we acquire familiarity with a language, get to know its words and structure naturally. We prepare our brain for the language, so that the bits and pieces, grammar rules, or words and phrases can eventually stick. We acquire this input from reading and listening to things that matter to us. These can be novels, newspaper articles, stories, or short content from beginner books. Talking to native speakers is also a great source of meaningful input. It has relevance and credibility. It is, however, usually harder to arrange as a beginner unless it’s with a teacher, since we are not yet able to say much ourselves. On the other hand, input activities are easy and inexpensive to do. We can listen or read while on a train, or listen while doing the dishes or going for a run. We can use dead time for our learning.

3 keys of language hacking


The next circle is much smaller and sits inside the first circle. It is the output circle: speaking and writing. That is where we train ourselves to use the words and phrases of the language that we learn passively from input. This is also a great way to discover our gaps, and start to notice them better when we listen and read. Our volume of output grows as we acquire more words and phrases from our input activities. At the beginner stage, it’s difficult to engage native speakers in conversation unless they are good friends or teachers. It is often easier to start by writing, but that requires a lot of discipline. Our desire to produce output usually grows as we acquire more familiarity with the language, more words and phrases, and want to try these things out with other people. We usually know when we want to produce output.

The third circle sits inside the second circle and is a little smaller than the output circle. We spend less time here, but good language hacking will require you to check in every now and then. Books with lists of words and phrases, or grammar rules, are, to me, hard to understand and remember until we have had enough input. I’ve tried learning from phrasebooks as a beginner and I could not remember them because I had no context. The same is true of grammar rules.

However, once I have had a lot of exposure to the language through interesting and meaningful input activities, these phrasebooks and grammar rules are easier to use. They can help me fill in gaps in my knowledge.

Language learning is still largely a matter of finding a way to enjoy the process.The golden trinity of Attitude, Time on task, and Attentiveness are the keys. Obviously if we enjoy learning, we will have a good attitude, put in the time and remain alert to the language. Different people enjoy different ways of learning.keys to language hackingWhat I have outlined here is how I like to learn, and this approach is at the core of LingQ. Some may call it a language hacking technique, but I call it a shortcut that can eventually lead all the way to fluency.

Posted in Learning Techniques | Tagged , , , , | 7 Responses