23 October 2016

Preparing for the TOEIC Test


Preparing 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.

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.

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.

26 September 2016

Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning


Active And Passive Vocabulary In Language Learning

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

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

It is impossible to be fluent if you can’t understand. The native speaker with whom you’re going to speak is always going to have a bigger vocabulary than you, so your understanding needs to be of a higher level than your speaking. What’s more, in any language, even our own, we usually spend more time listening than we do speaking. You’ve got to understand what people are saying around you.

What do they often do in classrooms? They encourage people to speak, and speak correctly right from the beginning. But beginner learners have no context, no familiarity with the language. It just becomes a matter of rote cramming of information that is relatively meaningless.

I read recently that anything we cram or learn against the grain is only going to stay in our short-term memory. Things that we acquire through longer term and enjoyable engagement will stay with us longer. That is why a language-learning method that is based on lots of listening and reading – I know I’m a bit repetitious on this – will ensure longer term retention of the language. You’re going to be able to revive and refresh those languages more easily if you leave the language for a while. A couple of weeks of listening and reading, and perhaps speaking a bit,  and it comes back stronger than ever before. It’s in there soundly because it’s built up based on this very large passive vocabulary.

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

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

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

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

How many words can you more or less recognize when you see them or hear them in a given context? Even if you are helped by the context, it still counts because all of these words you’re going to see again and again. If they matter to you, if they’re important, they’ll come up again and again. If you are listening and reading in an extensive way, they’ll keep coming up. You’ll see them in different contexts and you’ll gradually get a better sense of what they mean.

You don’t have to nail down a word or phrase the first time you encounter it. When you are ready to speak, and as you speak more and more, the vocabulary will activate naturally. The idea that, as you start into a language, you’re going focus on trying to speak the language, to me is simply nonsense from a language-learning efficiency point of view. It may be what people want to do. Perhaps that is so. But then most people are not that successful at language learning. Maybe it is because the can speak but don’t understand very well. This makes it difficult to have a meaningful conversation.

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

I’m not saying you have to know every word in the dictionary, but you need a substantial vocabulary, and it doesn’t matter whether you only count words as word families or whether you count every occurrence of the word the way we do at LingQ. It’s arbitrary. I have compared pursuing passive vocabulary to dogs pursuing the mechanical rabbit in dog races. It’s something that you pursue as a measurable goal, in order to build up that familiarity with the language through massive listening and reading.

There are people who read very well and can’t speak well. But people who read well and understand well when listening are eventually going to be able to speak well. If they don’t speak well yet, it’s because they haven’t spoken enough. But if they decide to go and speak with that kind of a grasp of the language based on passive vocabulary, they will very quickly become good active users of the language.


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

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18 September 2016

How can you become fluent in a foreign language?

How can you become fluent in a foreign language-

How can you become fluent in a foreign language?

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

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

Can I become fluent in a foreign language?

can I become fluent in a foreign language

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

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

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

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

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

Will it work?

become fluent in a foreign language

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

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

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

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

There are many people, however, who believe that we should speak from day one. If they believe in this approach and enjoy it, and if they stay with it, I am sure it works for them. Make sure you find a method that you believe in and one that you find enjoyable.

Is it worth it?

become fluent in a foreign language worth it

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

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

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

I know that eventually I will be able to enjoy books, movies, and friendships in the language. I feel fortunate to be able to speak 16 languages. I can’t begin to describe the enjoyment and benefit that the ability to communicate in each of my languages has given me. My only regret is that I don’t have the time to focus more on each one of them.

Each language is a window to a new world, a new expression of what it is to be a human being.

11 September 2016

English Grammar – All You Need to Know

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

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

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

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

all the English grammar you need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Choosing the right word

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

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

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

4 September 2016

The Definition of a Polyglot


What is the definition of a polyglot?

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 August 2016

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

what is the hardest language to learn - LingQ

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

What is the hardest language to learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you study more than one language at a time?

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

What is the biggest mistake when learning a difficult language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do cultural barriers make a language more difficult to learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 August 2016

Tips on Learning Portuguese

The best tips on learning Portuguese

Tips on Learning Portuguese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should you learn Portuguese from Brazil or Portugal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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