25 April 2016

Tips for Learning Spanish Verbs


Looking around at what I have in my room here I see a book called Portuguese Verbs. In it I can read about commands, imperatives, affirmative, imperative verbs ending in this, that and the other, pages and pages of irregular verbs, conjunctions, verbs expressing desire, doubt and volition. It’s very intimidating, all those different endings. In fact, when studying the romance languages, I think verbs are the biggest bugbear.

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

Having spent a lot of time trying to learn verb tables, I’m convinced that it can’t be done. At the very best, you can have a book like this on Spanish verbs and keep it in your bathroom to leaf through while you’re on the john, but it’s impossible to memorize, in my opinion. What should you do? I poked into LingQ, because I haven’t been studying Spanish recently. I saved a few verbs and, low and behold, amongst the dictionaries we have access to is one called SpanishDict.com and it’s amazing. Click on any verb and you will see the conjugation, you will see examples, you’ll see a little video and, of course, you’ll see the meaning.

If you do enough reading and listening in Spanish, you’re attentive to the language and you occasionally review this kind of explanation, (but rely largely on repeated exposure in different contexts), you will eventually be able to get that natural sense for Spanish verbs and you can master them. I shouldn’t use the word ‘master’ because I don’t believe that’s a word that applies in language learning, but the more familiar you become with Spanish verbs, the better your Spanish will become. You won’t have to worry what the form of the third-person singular past tense is and so forth when you use the verb; it will start to come out naturally.

So my advice on Spanish verbs is lots of reading and listening, and if you happen to be at LingQ, select SpanishDict as your dictionary of choice. Even if you get a quick explanation of the verb via our User Hints or via Google Translate, open up SpanishDict and every time you come across a verb quickly review the different conjugation endings. Don’t try to memorize them, just go back to enjoying whatever content you’re reading and, of course, listen to it.

24 April 2016

Listening Comprehension – An Important Language Skill

listening comprehension is an important skill in language learning

Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated and I’m going to explain why. I meet a lot of people who tell me they are frustrated because they can’t speak the language as well as they would like to, so that there is frustration at not being able to speak well. I meet people who tell me that they can understand well, but they can’t speak well. Normally, in my experience, that is not the case.

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

There are people who read well and who can’t speak, but I don’t really recollect having met many people who understand the spoken language well and are totally comfortable listening and understanding, but who have trouble speaking. I have met a lot of people who seem to be able to speak the language but don’t understand when you speak to them at a normal speed.

I believe that listening comprehension is an important skill in language learning. That is what you should drive for first of all. If you develop good listening comprehension, the other skills will come, the speaking will come, even your grammar, your accuracy. All of these things will come if you have had so much exposure to the language that you understand it when it is spoken by a native speaker.

Listening has a number of other advantages: it’s very easy to organize. I just finished doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. I have two different mp3 players and I have different content in each one of them. I have a variety of earphones. I have Bluetooth earphones so that I don’t snare the wires on anything. I’ve got other ones for when I go jogging or exercise. I listen a lot. I can do it all the time.

When I’m listening it’s not just that I’m listening to the language, I’m either enjoying a novel or I’m learning about history and this is true in all languages. There are so many resources available now; podcasts in German, Czech, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, any of the languages that I’ve been dealing with. The only language I haven’t found anything I wanted really was in Korean, but there’s lots of stuff out there to listen to. I could not have hired a tutor to sit beside me in the car driving to speak to me in Italian. I can’t have someone standing by to speak to me in Italian while I’m doing the dishes.

So it’s not that I don’t speak, I do speak. I’ve been speaking probably three or four hours a week, three hours a week with our tutors at LingQ. It’s great to do that. I’m not saying one shouldn’t speak. I speak a lot better this week than I did last week. The speaking and the listening reinforce each other because when I speak I’m made aware of my problems, where my hesitations and doubts are, where I don’t know if I’m speaking Spanish or Italian. I get my corrections back from my tutor and it’s amazing how that makes me more observant of things when I’m listening and reading, especially reading.

I should say reading, in a way, is a form of listening because when we read in a foreign language we tend to subvocalize to start with. Second of all, reading, in other words the written language, is just another form of recording the spoken language. We originally had no way of recording the spoken language so everything was from memory, then we had writing to record the spoken language and nowadays we have various ways of recording the audio so that we can listen to it. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I think, to some extent, the brain is processing the language the same way and getting used to the language by this exposure to it.

I think there’s too much emphasis on speaking at the beginning, too much emphasis on speaking correctly. There’s too much pressure on people to produce the language correctly at a stage in their learning where they’re unlikely to do so because they haven’t had enough exposure. Then they become overly sensitive to the need to produce the language correctly. They second guess themselves. They’re hesitant to speak. I would say that the emphasis should be on comprehension.

In Canada, where kids are taught French for 10 years in the English-speaking school system, not even five percent of those kids are able to speak French when they graduate. That is a colossal failure, even though those same kids pass their tests every year. As in all subjects, a few of them fail, the bulk of them pass. Theoretically, they answer grammar questions and at the end they still can’t speak. They don’t speak grammatically correctly. They have no vocabulary. They don’t understand what people are saying. In the spoken language, they probably are able to read to some extent:a colossal failure.

If, instead, the focus was entirely on helping those kids understand the language, then the emphasis would be on finding things that interest them. They could perhaps work on vocabulary, watch movies, do a lot of things that appear to be passive. Allowing kids to read in the classroom rather than taking turns reading from a book where they all mangle the language has to be more efficient. If those kids graduated with the ability to understand the language, that was the only objective, then any speaking activity is only there in order to make them more aware of certain things in the language, but not to test them on their ability to speak.

By all means, speak, I think speaking is good. It helps to stimulate the brain to notice the language better, but the objective of the speaking is not to be tested on the speaking. The speaking is just an exercise in improving your comprehension ability, and if at the end of this people graduate being able to understand the language well, if they then want to learn to speak they’ll be able to learn to speak very quickly.

If someone graduates from say French in a Canadian school and goes off to Quebec or France and they fully understand what people are saying, they will learn to speak very quickly. They’ll have much more confidence going into that. If, on the other hand, they have some vague notions about gender, have a limited vocabulary and don’t really understand, they will go to France and they will be lost and it will take them a long, long time to improve.

Of course, in language learning you have to get past that initial stage where you’re listening to silly things for beginners. Not, by the way, kiddy stories, which I find are more difficult because they use more strange vocabulary than simple stories designed for the learner. You can’t get away from it for the first month or two, but as soon as possible move into the real stuff. Try to have text available so that you can look up the words and increase your vocabulary, much as we do at LingQ, and then get on to things that are of interest. Then it just becomes so fascinating you’re hardly aware that you’re learning a language.

21 April 2016

Levels of Proficiency in a Foreign Language


I recently watched a video which features polyglots Luca Lampariello and Anthony Lauder. In it they make the point that you don’t need to have a large vocabulary in order to be fluent. Anthony has said in the past that even with a few hundred words you can be fluent, or you can be fluent at a relatively low level of proficiency in a language. I don’t agree at all.

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

First of all, let’s look at this word ‘fluency’. Fluency is a bit like the word ‘good’ or ‘well’. If you say ‘I’m fluent in a language’, that actually means you are very fluent. If you say ‘I speak a language well’, it means that you speak it well. If you say ‘I speak the language quite well’ or ‘I’m quite fluent’, that actually suggests something less than fluency. You might even suggest ‘I’m fairly fluent in the language’. To my mind, that’s less than fluent. In the video, they both talk about how Anthony can go around town in Prague and doesn’t need many words to exchange pleasantries with shopkeepers or whatever, but is this really fluency? I don’t think so.

There are different ways of measuring levels of proficiency in a language. There’s the European Common Framework of Reference which divides proficiency into six levels from A1 A2, B1 B2, C1 C2. In my view, B2 is where you are fluent, so that’s actually fairly far along. In order to be fluent, you have to be able to do certain things. I think you have to be able to read a newspaper. Now, in Chinese that might cause some difficulty because the writing system isn’t phonetic. So, conceivably, you could be fluent and not be able to read a newspaper, but in most situations someone who is fluent in a language should be able to read a newspaper.

I know in English the difficulty level is roughly grade seven, grade eight and that the biggest factor in the difficulty level of any content is the vocabulary level. Granted, you could have complex sentences and complex structures, but I think the main difference, particularly if we’re talking about levels of fluency, is how many relatively less frequent words are used. In order to be able to call yourself fluent, you needn’t be able to read esoteric literature or scientific papers. You should, however, be able to read the newspaper and to do that you do need at least the vocabulary of someone in grade seven. That’s a fair number of words; it’s got to be 7,000 to 10,000 words in English.

Of course if we’re talking about levels of proficiency in a foreign language or levels of fluency, then I also think the biggest indicator is the number of words you know. So if you are very fluent, I mean if you are at university level, you are going to know a lot more words than someone who can only read at a grade three level. Now, you could argue that someone could be fluent with a limited vocabulary. It’s possible that someone could be fluent with a grade three level of vocabulary, but if you are an adult and you can only communicate with children, to my mind you’re less than fluent. If you can only talk about the weather and very basic things, even if you do so fluently, to my mind you’re not fluent.

Most adult native speakers have a large vocabulary – a large active vocabulary. Certainly, the people that I would like to communicate with have large active vocabularies; therefore, I have to have a fairly large passive vocabulary in order to understand what they’re saying. I think that fluency implies two-way communication. You can learn a bunch of sentences, you can use Anki or whatever to express yourself fairly quickly, but the trick is to understand what other people are saying. That is why I put so much emphasis on listening and reading.

Much of this issue of fluency also depends on what your needs are. If you have a need to communicate right away because you’re in the country and you’re going to the stores, there’s going to be more pressure on you to speak. In my case, as let’s call it a “dilettante language learner”, I’m quite content to let my vocabulary accumulate and my ability to understand develop until I have a need or opportunity to speak a lot, and then my speaking develops quite quickly.

Now, there are people who understand well and who are too shy or inhibited to speak. I think those people are the minority. Once people have acquired a good understanding of the language, they generally have the vocabulary and therefore the confidence that they can start to develop the ability to speak.

So that’s my view on Luca and Anthony’s video. I don’t agree with them. I think if we’re talking about not quite or somewhat fluent, if we’re talking about really fluent, then that requires a large vocabulary. What do you think?

17 April 2016

Google Translate “Doesn’t Work”


I hear all the time that Google Translate doesn’t work. It’s not accurate. It’s this and that. I think Google Translate is a tremendous resource and not only for language learners. If I get a text in a language that I don’t understand, then I can quickly put it into Google Translate and get a sense of what the meaning is, something in Finnish, Hungarian, whatever it might be. It’s not 100% and it’s better for some languages than others, but I find it extremely useful.

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

Second of all, Google Translate is an excellent dictionary. It normally gives you a lot of information about the word, some synonyms, the pronunciation, text to speech, so it’s a very good dictionary and quite accurate. This depends on the language. It doesn’t work as well in Korean as in let’s say German or Russian, but by and large it’s a very good dictionary. Not only does it do words, it does phrases and that’s very useful.

Often, if I’m working at LingQ and I look up some individual words and I don’t have a good sense of the meaning of these words in combination, I can highlight the phrase, put it into Google Translate (we’re connected to it) and I can see the meaning. Not only that, but you can also work the other way with phrases. ‘In other words’, there’s a phrase, how do we say that in Czech. There it is jinými slovy. So if you want to improve your language level by having some handy phrases like ‘in other words’, ‘in my opinion’ or ‘by the way’, then you just put it into Google Translate and you get that phrase. So that’s its function as a dictionary.

It also helps me when I have to write in a language which uses an alphabet other than the Latin alphabet. For me, to write in Russian I can do it, but it’s much faster for me to simply type quickly in English and translate it into Russian. I can go into the Russian and fix up those parts that are not correct and voila, my Russian text, if I have to comment on a forum or something of that nature. It also ensures that my spelling is correct. Now, it works better for some languages than others. It doesn’t work so well for Asian languages, but it works very well for European languages, in my experience.

The last thing I will say is that I find it very useful sometimes if I want to focus on a particular area of vocabulary, let’s say having to do with forestry or something. I can plunk in a text in English on one side at Google Translate, translate it into Russian, Chinese or whatever language, then I can import that into LingQ and I study saving words and phrases. Overall, the text that Google Translate produces is somewhat unnatural and has errors, but in terms of acquiring the vocabulary I find it tremendously useful.

To me, Google Translate is not going to replace translators that are required for legal work or business documents, but it does facilitate people working across different languages and makes it easier for us to learn languages and I don’t see that it will replace the need for learning languages. If I’m in a foreign country like China or Brazil and I want to communicate with the locals, I’m not going to do it through some device that translates it back and forth. I want to speak the local language, learn about the culture, learn about the history and so forth.

So Google Translate is a tremendous boon. It’s one of the many sort of technological advances that have made language learning so much easier today than it ever was.

11 April 2016

Tips and Tricks for Learning Spanish


As I’ve said so many times, the big thing in language learning is motivation. I keep on repeating it because it’s not about talent, it’s not about classes or teachers or methods, it’s primarily about motivation. The amount of time you spend on the task and noticing – noticing what’s going on in the language. I think the good language learners have become better at noticing. They’ve become more aware, more alert to what’s happening in the language.

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

I think Spanish is one of the most attractive languages to learn. We can all be motivated to learn a specific language like Mongolian or Finnish because we have a friend or a particular interest. Maybe we want to learn Korean to be able to watch Korean dramas or Japanese for amine or business, all kinds of reasons. Spanish is different: there are a number of real big advantages to learning Spanish.

First of all, a lot of people speak Spanish. You have all of Latin America, except Brazil and Haiti, and of course Spain. All these countries are quite different. When I think of Spain, which I know much better than Latin America, I think about color and music. It’s a world where people have fun.

I still remember sitting in Marbella in southern Spain. They had closed down the street and the restaurant had their tables out there. It was 11:00 o’clock at night and we were sitting under the starlit sky. We could smell jasmine around us. We were having dinner at 11:00 o’clock at night. You don’t do that at home. It’s like time stands still. We were eating this wonderful meal and nothing mattered. I think the Spanish have an ability to live in the moment and enjoy it and so those are the kinds of things you enjoy there.

I can still remember being there in the ‘60s and going to a bullfight. Now, granted, there are animal lovers who don’t think that’s a great thing to do, but the music and colors and the powerful sun left a lasting impression. I also remember hitchhiking into Valencia and seeing the green and orange of the orange fields. Driving into Cordoba and Sevilla and smelling the lemon blossoms, and the music, of course, not only Flamingo, but all of the music. Spain is powerful that way.

Recently, I visited Mexico with my wife. We were in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Mexico City and, again, powerful colors, friendly people, music. I am sure that Peru, Argentina and Central America are different. Even other cultures like the Mayan or Aztec cultures now come to us through Spanish. There’s a whole world there, so that makes Spanish attractive and I think it should motivate people to want to learn it. Those are also very popular tourist destinations.

Spanish, I think, is an easy language to learn and it’s kind of like the door to the romance language world. If you learn Spanish, you can learn Portuguese; 200 million people in Brazil. You can learn Italian, which is a phenomenal language and has so much history behind it, and French. Spanish kind of leads you into this world.

So I think there’s tremendous motivation – there should be – for a lot of people to learn Spanish. Not just because if you’re an American there are more and more Hispanic people and you might one day need Spanish to find a job. I think these are minor issues. Language learning is a long road. It is not enough to need the language for a job; you need a deeper level of motivation.

Once you realize that it’s actually a very long haul to get to genuine fluency, that’s where you need that intrinsic motivation. You have to like the language and like the people, at least some of them. There has to be that personal desire and commitment to the language, and I think Spanish is an easy language to get committed to. Let’s move on from commitment to some tips and tricks for learning Spanish.

Spanish is an easy language to learn for a number of reasons. First of all, like all romance languages, for English speakers there’s a lot of common vocabulary – lots. Spanish has the advantage that the spelling is extremely consistent, unlike French, for example. The vowels are pure, there are no diphthongs.

Accents: I always find accents a little bit annoying because I have to change my keypad in order to accommodate them, but the system is quite consistent as to when we use accents in Spanish and when we don’t. Look at the rule and you’ll forget it the first few times, but eventually it will stick.

Masculine and feminine: Almost all words that end in ‘o’ are masculine. Almost all words that end in ‘a’ are feminine, with a few exceptions.

Spanish masculine and feminine words

To that extent, it’s easier to tell the gender of verbs and nouns than in French or some other languages.

Verbs: Like all romance languages, you have to come to terms with the verb issue. There is a very good website called Verbix and there you can find conjugation tables for I don’t know how many languages, including Spanish. Refer to it from time to time. It’s difficult, I find, to try and concentrate on memorizing those tables. You just have to look at the conjugation tables from time to time and start noticing as you’re doing your listening and reading.

What else is there? There’s this “ser” and “estar”. Spanish has two words for ‘is’. Something that you are permanently is “ser,” something that are now but may not be later, like happy, is “estar”.

tips and tricks for learning Spanish

A difficult concept at first. You’ll continue to make mistakes, but it doesn’t prevent you from understanding. It doesn’t prevent people from understanding you either. It’s something that you kind of work away at.

Also, Spanish has two words for ‘for’: ‘por’ and ‘para’. Here again, you’ll read the explanation and you won’t understand it, then slowly and with enough exposure and practice it will gradually sink in. Getting it wrong won’t prevent you from communicating and understanding.


Spanish has funny little features. It has upside down exclamation marks and question marks at the front of the sentence in addition to the regular one at the end of the sentence. It’s the only language that I’m aware of that does that. I don’t know why they do it. Everybody else manages fine without that. We know when there’s a question or an exclamation. I’m sure Spanish people who read other languages don’t miss them. At any rate, that’s a little idiosyncrasy of the Spanish language.

I won’t go into the subjunctive since you needn’t worry about it until you are well on your way to understanding Spanish and communicating in the language. Focus on listening and reading, on building up your vocabulary, and enjoying the language. Get started now, and you will thank yourself a year from now.


4 April 2016

How to Have Motivation in Language Learning


Maintaining motivation is absolutely key. I think many people start with some motivation to learn a language and, for various reasons, get frustrated and they are unable to maintain their motivation.

In my own case, I am usually quite motivated to learn a language, but it wasn’t always the case. When I was 16, I wasn’t very motivated to learn languages and I spoke only one. Today, I speak 16 languages to varying degrees of fluency.

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

Most of my professional life I have been in business, in particular the lumber business. In a way, I want to compare the undertaking or the enterprise of running a business (I’ve had my own company for 30 years) and the activity or the undertaking of trying to learn a language. There are similarities and there are differences.

Seven or eight years ago, I was in China and I met a Canadian there who was building homes. He made this comment: “In China nothing is easy, but everything is possible.” He referred to the fact that, of course, the business environment in China was different from what he was used to, so he found it quite complicated. Nothing is easy, but in China there’s always a way to get things done, he sort of said, therefore everything is possible.

This expression has kind of stuck with me because I think it applies to a lot in life. Most things that are worthwhile doing are not easy. Starting a business and making a business successful is not easy. Learning a language is not easy, but it’s very worthwhile and, what’s more, it’s possible. Certainly, learning a language is possible. In the case of business, there are more unpredictable factors, things that are outside of our control, but I think it’s very much possible. It’s possible to be successful in business, it’s possible to learn a language and if we have tasks that are not easy but that we make them possible, this gives us a great sense of satisfaction.

This has been described in great detail in what is known as Flow Theory. If we are dealing with a task that is a little difficult for us, not so easy but we’re able to cope with it, that this is very satisfying for us, satisfying for our brains. It gives us a great sense of satisfaction. It’s one of the most enjoyable things we can do. It’s more enjoyable than doing easy tasks where there’s no sense of satisfaction and, of course, it’s more enjoyable than a task that frustrates us because it’s too difficult, therefore not possible.

If we can achieve this state of flow, like the flowing of a river, then we will not only be able to maintain our motivation. Our motivation will grow because we’ll be getting a sense of satisfaction and achievement that we’re coping with something that isn’t easy, but that we’re making possible to achieve. So how do we do this? How we get ourselves into this state of flow? Here is where we come to this issue of whatever we want to do, we have to be prepared.

When I started my own business, I had to be prepared. I had to know something about my market. I had to know people. I had to know the product. I had to be prepared, otherwise the risk was simply too great. In language learning you have to be prepared. You have to make sure you have the materials you need. Maybe a starter book in the language. You should look into resources that are available online, there’s of course LingQ.com, but other resources, grammar resources that are easily accessed online. You have to have the tools. You have to prepare yourself, otherwise the task isn’t easy.

Again, if we want to achieve this state of flow we should do two things. We should make the task as easy as it possibly can be and that means being prepared. The second thing is we want to have a method that’s going to make things that might seem impossible become more probable. That means not trying to do things that are too difficult to do, for example, trying to memorize conjugation tables. In my experience, I can’t do that. If you can do that, fine, but I find that’s not possible.

I don’t think it’s possible to learn lists of words and, in fact, there is considerable research that shows that the more time we spend on trying to learn something like lists of words, the less we retain. A far more effective method is to expose yourself to lots and lots of the language. Initially, you have to deal with rather uninteresting material, but then as soon as possible you should move into content that’s of interest so that you’re just being exposed to the language.

Going back to this idea of preparation: Part of our mental preparation has to be to recognize that in the first few months you’re learning new words, you’re learning to say things in a new language and it’s very exciting. Then, at some point, we realize that to achieve fluency is a long, long road. So we need to be mentally prepared for that, but at the same time we need to have a method of learning that enables us to stay with the task, to remain in that state of flow. As we get into authentic material, we’re reading about subjects of interest to us or watching movies that are of interest to us. We’re engaging with the language in a way that’s interesting and satisfying and we can introduce variety.

Another aspect of method is to vary listening and reading and possibly use flashcards, talk with people and so forth. Something that might seem impossible to you, like becoming fluent in another language, now becomes possible because you have a method that enables you to stay with the task over the long haul. If you can get yourself in this state of flow where you have content that’s not too difficult but is of interest to you, and you’re achieving this sense of satisfaction because you’re able to understand it, then you’re in that state of flow.

This brings me to another point: failure.


Obviously, in business if you fail that could be quite dramatic. In my business career, I have had customers go bankrupt and not pay me what they owed me. I’ve had customers suddenly decide they no longer want to buy the product that we’ve been supplying for a long time. I’ve had a number of problems and the consequences can be quite dramatic. In language learning, a lot of the failure is in our own minds. We think we didn’t do as well as we would have liked to. We weren’t able to express ourselves as well as we would have liked to. We didn’t understand as well as we would have liked to.

I think there we have to be realistic, so one of the reasons that I focus on listening and reading is there’s less opportunity to fail. I’m just listening. I’m reading. If I don’t understand, I listen again or I read and study the words and listen again. On the other hand, if I’m forced to do tests, which I don’t like doing, then there’s a real opportunity to fail the test, to get the wrong answer. That’s why I believe in language learning we shouldn’t give people tests, drills and exercises, but rather let them enjoy the language so that we don’t confront them with failure. As they build up familiarity with the language, gradually they start to speak better and better.

Even with that, there are going to be moments when we don’t do as well as we would like or we feel we don’t pronounce as well as we would like. Very often, these things don’t really matter because, in fact, you’re able to communicate quite effectively, even with less than perfect pronunciation and less than perfect usage or grammar.

As in business, we have to overcome failure and start again, very often. There are periods when we’re very depressed because things didn’t go as hoped. It’s the same in language. There are times when you are disappointed with your results, but you have to cope with that. Again, if you focus on comprehension, accumulating words and enjoying the language in this state of flow, you will be less upset over your perceived shortcomings.

Finally, I think it’s important to find people to help you in business. You can’t do business without suppliers, customers, friends, contacts, people who help you along the way. Language learning is a little more of an individual journey, but people can be so helpful. These can be native speakers, teachers, fellow students, people who can direct you to resources on the Internet where you can find reference to whatever you need to know. It could be conjugation tables in Italian. It could be audio and text content in the language you’re learning. People can help you and you can find people to talk to.


Never has it been easier to find language companions than today. In fact, never has it been easier to find language resources than today using the Internet and all the different forms of modern technology.

Staying motivated in language learning really is a matter of getting yourself into a position where you can enjoy the process of learning, where you’re in this state of flow and therefore you don’t get frustrated. Once you’re frustrated, what do you do? Perhaps leave it for a couple of days, go back to it and study in different ways.

Ideally, I don’t get frustrated in my language learning because I do things that are enjoyable. I have realistic expectations. I sort of try to do things that are a little bit difficult for me but not impossible. I focus on listening and reading to things that are enjoyable for me and, as a result, my motivation grows. I think all of us can learn languages in a way that sees our motivation actually grow.

I believe in LingQ as an extremely effective way of learning languages and staying motivated. The LingQ system gives you access to interesting and authentic content earlier, so you aren’t stuck with what I consider to be somewhat discouraging learner material. I definitely recommend that you give LingQ a chance and see if it can help you.

28 March 2016

Similarities and Differences Between the Slavic Languages


One of the great things about learning languages is that it’s a way of discovering the world. Of course, we create our own language worlds and we do that by finding things of interest, at least I do, whether it be in libraries on the internet or elsewhere. Through our own language world we discover things about the wider world. When I wrote my book on language learning, I referenced  Zhuangzi and Taoist philosophy, and it was Laozi who said: ‘Without stirring abroad, One can know the whole world; Without looking out of the window, One can see the way of heaven.” We have this tremendous ability to learn about so many things today without going very far.

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

Another thing that I firmly believe is that culture or language is not in any way associated with our genes or DNA, so language doesn’t equal some kind of ethnic division necessarily. Often it matches, but it doesn’t have to match.

If we look at a map of the world we see this area north of the Black Sea, this vast area of steppe land where the Proto-Slavic people apparently originated from. Today, we have a variety of Slavic languages and they differ from each other because of the different historical influences that affected their development.

The most popularly spoken Slavic languages are Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian in the east, Polish, Czech and Slovakian in the west and then the the languages of the former Yugoslavia in the south: Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Macedonian, and also Bulgarian.


I studied Russian first and I would recommend that because Slavic language speakers are a large group of people, and the Russian speakers are the largest group. Geographically, they inhabit most of Russia, and it’s not just the ethnic Russians who are Russian speakers. Russian is sort of a lingua franca in Central Asia and other countries of the former Tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union. So it covers all of that area and even right into Eastern Europe.

I started learning Russian 10 years ago because that was the most popular of the Slavic languages. I had also been exposed to Russian literature as a teenager and wanted to read those books in the original language. Then with the development of the Ukrainian crisis, I started watching Ukrainian television and couldn’t understand what the Ukrainians were saying, only what the Russians were saying. Yet, it sounded so similar I felt as if I should understand it. There were words there that were similar, but I just didn’t quite get the gist of what they were saying.

This gets back to this idea that you can’t just have a few words. Some people say if you have a thousand words you understand 70% of any context. But, in fact, that is never true. Very often the key words are just those words that you don’t understand, so I started learning Ukrainian. I actually learned Czech before Ukrainian because my parents were born in what became Czechoslovakia. I never understood any of it and I figured with Russian it would be easier. Well, it is easier. In fact the grammar of the Slavic languages that I have studied is remarkably similar.

There are minor differences between Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and so forth, but they are remarkably similar in terms of grammar. Their grammars are at least as similar as the grammars of  French, Spanish and Italian. So they’re grammatically very similar; however, quite different when it comes to vocabulary; more different than Spanish is from Italian or from French. In a way, in terms of vocabulary, the sort of outlier, the one with the largest lexical difference or distance seems to be Russian. In other words, I found that Czech, Polish and Ukrainian in terms of their vocabulary were closer together. Although perhaps grammatically Ukrainian is closer to Russian, and certainly in the writing system they use. It is, in fact, a form of Cyrillic.

The reasons for this, of course, are all historical. There was nothing that said over a thousand years ago when the early Slavs were breaking up wherever they were that there would be these divisions that we have today. There were influences like the Orthodox Church and Church Slavonic. There was the impact of the Mongol invasions, which meant that the original eastern Slavic nation built around Kiev, Kievan Rus’, split up and so you had Muscovy up north. Then the southern part of the Kievan Rus’ was increasingly under the influence of Poland or the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and so they developed more as part of that political entity. In fact, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had a lot more Ukrainians and Belarusians in it than Lithuanians. The Lithuanians were not numerous and the Lithuanian leadership gradually spoke more and more Polish as it became the dominant language.


The Poles, as is often the case with societies where you have more than one language group, became quite intolerant in their approach to the Orthodox Ukrainians. That’s why at some point a portion of the Ukrainian Cossacks under the leadership of Khmelnitsky, I believe, broke away and went off to seek help from the Russians.

Over time, as part of the Ukraine came under Russian control, of course, now the Russians were less tolerant of the Ukrainians so they tried to suppress the Ukrainian language. Similarly, between the Czechs and the Poles there were a lot of kings that were common to Poland, Czech Lands and Moravia. In fact, going back a thousand years there was even a greater Moravia. Then in those lands you had the German immigrants. So lots of different influences, including the influence of the Catholic Church as the Poles and the Czechs became part of the Catholic world.

All of these things influenced the language. However, as a learner, if I were to learn those languages I would go in the following order: I would learn Russian first because it’s the biggest, biggest in terms of number of speakers, biggest in terms of, rightly or wrongly, the extent to which their writers are celebrated around the world. They’re more famous than Polish, Czech or Ukrainian writers. This might be a prejudice on my part, but I would start with Russian. With that, you’ll get the basics of how the grammar works. Although, certain minor things are different and, of course, the endings are completely different, but the principles under which these languages operate are more or less the same. Then with each language you have to learn the vocabulary of that language.

Fortunately, for each one of those four languages I have found ample resources via the internet, whether it be audiobooks and eBooks for Russian. There’s an abundance of books that you can download and import into LingQ. As I’ve said many times, I’ve found Ekho Moskvy a phenomenal resource because every day there are interviews with transcripts put up. With Czech I’ve found this history series Toulky českou minulostí and the political podcast Jak to vidí. Unfortunately, they no longer publish the transcripts for that, but that was very helpful to me. You can find eBooks and audiobooks for Czech. Similarly, with Polish I was able to find eBooks and audiobooks.

I haven’t had the same success with finding Ukrainian eBooks and audiobooks because wherever you search it’s all basically this is free, that is free. I’m not that interested in free, I’m happy to pay for a decent eBook or audiobook. So with Ukrainian I rely largely on Hromadske Radio, which is a very interesting source of podcasts daily on events in Ukraine, both in Russian and Ukrainian, and Radio Svoboda where often they will have texts with audio.


So there are resources on the internet for those languages, and as you discover them you discover this Slavic world and there are certain characteristics in common. I was asked whether I found that there were these similarities between Slavic peoples and I must say that I find that there are some, but more than that it depends on individual people. There are the sort of intellectuals who are more worldly. There are those that are more stridently “we are the best”. There’s a whole range and I think that’s probably true for most cultures.

So I am very happy that I went after four languages within the Slavic collection of languages and I may go after Serbo-Croatian, particularly if I decide to go there on holiday. Similarly, I have my group of romance languages and it’s fun to explore the differences between Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and so forth. Of course Romanian as a bit of an outlier. The Germanic languages, between my Swedish, my English, my German and from the little bit of Dutch that I’ve looked at I don’t think it would be difficult to learn.

All I can say is it’s fun to explore these different language families. Over the course of history, different people who spoke one language were converted into speakers of another language. So there’s really no connection between genetics, genetic code or anything in language. It’s more a matter of circumstance in history, and exploring these languages is a great way to explore what we are as human beings.

I should say, also, on my Asian-language side obviously Chinese, or Mandarin, was a good base for Japanese and Korean, even though those languages – though they borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Chinese – are part of a different language family.

21 March 2016

A Language Learner’s Manifesto


Have you been studying a language for a while? Are you still afraid to speak ? Follow the Language Learner’s Manifesto and become confident and FLUENT in your chosen language.

Repeat the following mantra daily:

“I can be FLUENT. My goal is to be FLUENT. My goal is not to be perfect. My goal is to be FLUENT. I can be FLUENT and still make mistakes.”


First I must forget what I learned in school. I will make a fresh start. I will forget the rules of grammar. I will forget the quizzes and tests. I will forget all the times I made mistakes. I will forget what my teachers taught me. I will forget my native language. I will forget who I am. I am a new person. I will make a fresh start. I will have fun! I will focus on things that are fun and interesting. I will learn.


I will learn how to learn. I will listen a lot. I will let myself go. I will listen and let the English language enter my mind. I will listen often. I will listen every day. At first I will listen to the same content many times. Soon I will move on to meaningful content, subjects that interest me, things I love to listen to. I will listen to the meaning. I will listen to hear the words and phrases. I will listen early in the morning. I will listen late at night.


I will understand the language. I will understand what I hear and read. Only if I can understand what I hear and read will I be able to speak and write. Until I can understand what I hear and read, I will not be able to speak and write well. But there is no hurry. I will work on understanding. I will read a lot and especially, listen a lot. I want to understand the meaning.


Every day is a learning day. Every day the language is entering my brain. I enjoy reading and listening every day. I study with energy and enthusiasm. I study interesting things and enjoy the language. If I enjoy the language I will improve. Let the language enter my mind. There is no need to push myself. I am getting better every day.


I will never say that I am no good. When I read and listen I will tell myself “nice job”! I will learn naturally and easily. I will be nice to myself. I will not be nervous.  If I make a mistake I will say “never mind”. If I cannot understand something I will say “never mind.” If I forget a word I will say “never mind.” If I have trouble saying what I want to say , “no problem”. I will continue.


I will Trust myself. I will be confident. Confident learners improve quickly. I will treat myself with respect. I will tell myself that I am doing well. I just need to keep going, no matter what. The more I listen and read using LingQ, the more I will understand. The more words and phrases I save the more I will know.  Soon I will be ready to speak and write well. I will take it easy. I know I will succeed. I will trust myself and trust LingQ.

16 March 2016

Come to Vancouver and Learn With Me!


Don’t go to language school, join me at LingQ.

I have an idea for a different approach to achieving a breakthrough in English.

I have always felt that it is best to not just learn a language, but to learn something else through the language. That way we learn the language better, and broaden our knowledge.

I became aware of an offer from marketing guru Seth Godin, and thought it would be fun to do something similar.

So here it is. Join me in Vancouver, at our LingQ headquarters, for three months to do the following:

  • Spend two hours a day studying English with LingQ under my personal guidance.
  • Spend up to five hours a day of working with our LingQ team in English.
  • Spend the rest of your time taking advantage of living in an English speaking environment.

At the end of three months, you will get a letter of reference and a LingQ Certificate you can frame! The certificate will attest to your progress in English and to having worked in English for three months.

The program includes working in a real world tech start-up and interacting with LingQ personnel every day. You will be participating in real projects, helping to solve real marketing, design, and project related problems. You will help LingQ and at the same time you will become fluent in English.

To ensure your English breakthrough, and to help other LingQ members, you will use the LingQ system every day:

  • Recorded and transcribed conversations with me and LingQ staff will be studied.
  • Incoming emails and messages will be studied.
  • Outgoing emails and messages will be corrected on the Exchange.
  • Relevant articles on subjects related to our work day, such as user onboarding, ux design, conversion rate optimization, search engine optimization, social media marketing and more will be studied.


  • You will need to find your own way to and from Vancouver, Canada.
  • You will have to find a place to stay within a reasonable commute time from our office in West Vancouver (we can help you with this).
  • You will need to come with your own laptop and either a tablet or smartphone or both.
  • You must provide strong references.

English Native Speakers Welcome

Although we are looking for mostly non-native English speakers from different language groups, we will also take one native English speaker who is learning another language. As an English speaker you will not benefit from the immersive, native speaking environment in our office. Nevertheless, we will arrange virtual discussions in your target language with tutors with experience in relevant fields. We will also make sure one of your co-learners is from your target language group so you can have real conversations with him or her.

How to Apply

LingQ Academy starts May 16, 2016, which doesn’t give a lot of time. We need to receive all applications by April 5, 2016 at the latest. We will be conducting Skype interviews for those who get through to the second stage. We are hoping to find three to six learners to take part in the course who will be notified by April 15, 2016. That will give you a month to prepare for the trip. I realize the timeline is short, but that’s the way it is.

You should be passionate about learning, whether it be learning languages or learning about web and mobile marketing, optimization etc. Tell us what you’re interested in! A genuine interest in technology and technology related fields is a must. Experience in these activities can be an asset but is by no means a requirement.

As part of your application, prepare an imported lesson on LingQ. Explain why we should include you in this program. It can be in any language. Include a video, audio and transcript of course. Include the lesson url in your application email.

Don’t worry, it won’t all be work! We will find lots of opportunity to enjoy and explore the fantastic summers here on the west coast of Canada.

If you are interested, please submit an email to LingQAcademy@lingq.com answering the following questions. No prior experience is required, all levels of English speakers should feel free to apply.

Please answer the following questions:

What do you do now?
Why do you do it?
Why do you want to learn English?
Which language do you want to learn and why? (For native English speakers)
What is your current level in (English)?
What other languages do you speak?
What are you hoping to learn?
After you learn it, what are you going to do with it?
What are some of the things that you have done in your life that you are most proud of?
If you could do anything in your life, what would that be?
What else should I know about you?

For those of you who aren’t able to apply, we’ll also be making the learning materials from the course available on LingQ so you will be able to follow along and study the same program. We’ll provide more details when the time comes.

Give Yourself an Edge

When applying, let us know how many others you directed to this opportunity or how you were able to spread the word. This will demonstrate your creativity and willingness to help us out, even if it might hurt your odds of becoming a successful applicant.

What’s more, by spreading the word you can help guarantee that we will offer this program – to be honest, if we don’t get the level of interest we are hoping for, we won’t be able to offer it.

What’s in it for us?

What’s our goal in all of this? First and foremost, we intend to document the whole process both through video and on the blog. We want to demonstrate how to use LingQ’s full potential in a work environment. We also want to demonstrate the effectiveness of LingQ in general. By running our own “reality show”, we are confident the results will speak for themselves while at the same time showing what is realistic to achieve in a three month period. Yes, we have never done this before so are just as curious to see the results…should be interesting!

At the same time, we do expect to benefit from new ideas and feedback both from participants and those who might be following your progress online as we expose our internal decision making and strategy for all to see.

At the end of this process, we hope to have generated some PR, have documented a “case study” of LingQ in action for future marketing efforts, improved our products and had some fun doing it. Whether you are an applicant or just want to watch from afar and enjoy the ride, we hope you will join us!

Key dates

Deadline for applications: April 5, 2016
Participants finalized by: April 15, 2016
Start date: May 16, 2016

13 March 2016

The Seven Secrets to Language Learning Success: Part 2


Last week I wrote about the first four secrets to language learning success: spend the time, do what you like to do, learn to notice and words over grammar. Today’s post reveals the last three secrets.


5. Be patient

I see many frustrated language learners who get upset because they forget words. They get upset because they don’t understand. Even after listening many, many times to the same content, certain parts remain difficult to understand…that is absolutely normal. What’s more, you will continue to have times when you find it difficult to say what you want to say.

It’s important to realize that the brain is constantly learning. It will constantly learn, change and renew itself. However, it does so on its own schedule. So just because you’ve studied something doesn’t mean you’re going to learn it. You have to accept that it’s not going to happen overnight. It may take six months for certain things to sink in, but all of a sudden they do. Almost without realizing it (and I’ve had this feeling), I’ll go back to a text that I struggled with months earlier and all of a sudden it’s crystal clear to me.

Similarly, in speaking you have these moments of great triumph when you are in a discussion and you are able to express your ideas just the way you wanted to. Maybe the next day you won’t be so successful, but it’s a very gradual process. It’s not obvious which words or which structures in the language the brain is going to learn first or later, so you just have to be patient and believe that what you’re doing is going to lead to the desired result.

Negative thoughts, like the ones you get when you forgot something, or didn’t understand something, are very damaging to the learning process. I’m not a neuroscientist, but there is so much emotion involved in how the brain learns, that it’s very important not to get negative and to be patient. Realize that it’s a long road, hopefully an enjoyable road, but one that will definitely lead to fluency in that language. Fluency need not mean perfection, so if you don’t expect perfection but you do except to constantly improve, you can afford to be patient.


6. Get the tools

If you’re fixing something up around the house, you need the proper tools. Any job is easier if you have the proper tools. So you need to have some kind of listening device, whether that be an mp3 player, an iPod, smartphone or whatever you prefer.

Also, I think you should buy books. Obviously, we at LingQ feel that we have a wonderful platform for language learning, but I would be surprised if most of our members don’t also buy books. A book will last you a long time. It’s not a big investment, whereas language learning is a major investment of your time. So I would suggest anyone beginning in a language should buy one of these beginner series.

If you’re an English speaker, there is the Teach Yourself Series or the Colloquial Series. There’s Assimil, which is available for French speakers and English speakers. There are a number of these starter books. Get one. I will often buy one or two. While my main interest is listening and reading to the dialogue, I also flip through for some of the explanations, never expecting to remember them but as sort of a gradual refresher that helps me notice.

I’ll also buy a quality audio book rather than rely on LibriVox which is free, but where the quality can be uncertain. I use the LingQ app on my iPad, but not everyone is going to spend the money on an iPad. My point is that I don’t think you can do everything for free. You may end up spending more time by using less than satisfactory tools, and that could cost you a lot of time in the long run. So whatever your budget is, make sure you have the proper tools.


7. Become an independent language learner

It’s maybe the most difficult thing to achieve: taking charge of your own language learning.

I believe that only independent language learners are successful and convert themselves into fluent speakers of another language. There are millions of people who go to language class and most of them don’t achieve success. The only way to truly succeed is to take your learning out of the classroom. Spend time alone with the language, pursuing things of interest, listening and reading, interacting with the language in ways that you like, developing the ability to notice, making sure you have the right tools and being patient. All these things that I’ve described in these two posts are the attributes of an independent learner. You have to become independent.

I hear people all the time saying “Why does this language go this way?”, “Is this right or is that right?”, “What does this mean?”. I consider myself an independent language learner having learned 15 and now working on my 16th language, but I never ask myself those questions. Either I can figure it out by looking words up in an online dictionary, or I let it go and don’t worry about it. I know that eventually this pattern or these words will start to make sense to me.

If I want to look up something to do with grammar, it’s easy enough to do today. Just by Googling I can see verb tables or noun declension tables in any language. I have a little grammar book that I occasionally leaf through in the different languages, but I don’t expect that any teacher has to teach it to me. I can access the language, learn from it and explore it on my own, I don’t need structure. Many people prefer to attend class, however, and that is fine. But even as a classroom learner, make sure you take control of your learning.


Click here to read Part 1!