9 February 2016

4 Steps to Self-Empowerment Through Learning

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Elon Musk thinks a human’s hardware is her physical body and brain and her software the way she learns to think, her value system, her habits, her personality. Learning, for Musk, is simply the process of “downloading data and algorithms into your brain.”

We are, in fact, downloading data and algorithms with every day and every new experience. Human beings are learning machines. We spend our lives learning. We can’t help but learn. The only question is what we will learn and how it will affect our lives.

Unfortunately we have been conditioned by the school system to think that learning can only take place in a classroom. We need to take charge of our own learning. Here are four steps.

1. Forget the classroom.

As the influential German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer said in his book “Learning: The Human Brain and the School of Life”, learning doesn’t take place in classrooms, it takes place in our brains.

Roman school children learned from their masters and wrote things down painstakingly on clay tablets. Today we have electronic tablets that connect us instantly with knowledge and information that no Roman could have imagined.

But classroom education hasn’t changed. Teachers are perceived as the source of knowledge. “If they don’t teach we don’t learn.” The problem with this model is that it disempowers the most dynamic performer in the learning process, the learner. When we are dependent on others for our learning, we lose out.

For Musk, the greatest frustration with formal classroom learning is the “ridiculously slow download speed” of sitting in a classroom while a teacher explains something. Musk learned mostly on his own, through reading.

Good teachers know that their role is to encourage and stimulate, not just to teach. However, many teachers prefer their students to be dependent on them. Often in school, we are told not to get ahead of what the teacher is covering . This diminishes the learner’s curiosity, enthusiasm and independence.

Albert Einstein wisely said “ I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”. Create your own conditions for learning!

2. Work on becoming an effective reader and listener.

Reading and listening on our own are not only efficient ways of learning, they help us improve our communication skills. The top four skills employers are looking for in the modern workplace are: oral communication skills, listening skills, writing skills and presentation skills.These skills require high literacy and are most easily acquired through broad based reading and listening.

The better our reading and listening skills, the more knowledge we can acquire on. The broader our general knowledge, the more we can understand when we read and listen. When it comes to literacy and words, and general knowledge, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is either a virtuous circle or a vicious circle. This is true for conventional reading, and for listening to podcasts and the other sources of information and knowledge that we can find on the Internet.

In today’s job market, we have to constantly learn new technical skills. Technical material, manuals and the like, have some of the highest literacy requirements of any reading material, higher than for newspapers or popular literature, for example.

Be like Musk, equip yourself to learn on your own, rather than waiting for a teacher to download information to you in a classroom. Start reading and listening. The more you read and listen, the better you get at it.

3. Stop wasting money on ineffective learning methods.

Educational institutions are both ineffective and expensive. Public expenditure on education represents 5-7 percent of GDP in most developed countries, close to the amount expended on health care. In addition, many students graduate from university deeply in debt.

We often hear appeals for more money to be spent on education, more money for teachers, textbooks, and stakeholders in the present education system. Research on education assumes that learning is centred around a teacher in a classroom.

Yet today the teacher is only one of many resources available. The Internet has created a new paradigm. We are able to find not only books that can help us in our learning, but all kinds of resources, including online university courses, podcasts and more. Much of this is free. It is for the learner to decide how much of the learning should come happen in a classroom.

Learn on your own, and limit your exposure to a system that may saddle you with a large debt.

4. Even if you have trouble reading or listening, take charge of your future.

Some people have reading disabilities which prevent them from becoming powerful readers and independent learners. This is true whether the learner is in a traditional classroom or not.

If you are dyslexic, find out about the causes and what you can do for yourself. It appears that dyslexia is related to our ability to hear and process sounds and words.This is not surprising since when learning a new language, it is important to combine listening and reading, in order to understand what is at first incomprehensible. Combining reading with listening, and repetitive listening if necessary, is an important strategy, not only in language learning, but in improving literacy and overcoming dyslexia.

All learners, and especially people with reading problems, should actively search for the tools that can help them become effective listeners and readers. Poor readers are usually poor listeners as well. There is no shame in having these learning problems. They are widespread. However, there is no reason to be dependent on other people to overcome these problems. There are vast resources and systems available on the Internet to help people develop their learning skills.

Everyone should take charge of their own learning. Go for it now!

31 January 2016

The Importance of Making Mistakes

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Making mistakes when speaking or writing a new language is not the same as making certain other kinds of mistakes, at least to me. Making mistakes in language learning is not only necessary, it is a good sign. If you are not making mistakes you are not trying hard enough to use the language.

If you are trying to master English, or any other new language, there are certain things that you are not going to remember, or get right, until your brain is ready. All you can do is to continue to use the language as much as possible, to read, to listen and to speak and write. Eventually that elusive word, or that difficult phrase, will start to become natural.

Each time you make a mistake, in writing or speaking, or are aware that you didn’t use the language as well as you would have liked, is an opportunity to improve. It means you are noticing aspects of the language. You don’t have to get everything right, but you need to focus on noticing how the language works. You might get something right one time and get it wrong the next time. That is all good. You now may start noticing these things when you listen and read. As long as you are trying to notice the language and not allowing yourself to get upset over mistakes, you will improve. The mistakes will correct themselves eventually with enough exposure, but only when your brain is ready.

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So just keep enjoying the language and remember these points:

1) You should not be afraid to speak for fear of making mistakes. Your main goal has to be to communicate. You should communicate whenever you have the opportunity, without fear. But you have to build up your ability to communicate, and just communicating, by itself, will not do that. You need to make an effort to notice your mistakes, and to be happy when you notice them.

2) If you only communicate in the language without putting an effort into improving, you will not improve. Focus on noticing, noticing when you use the language, and then noticing again when you listen and read. This will you train your brain develop better language habits.

3) You need to continue to focus on input even while speaking and writing. You need to deliberately save new words and phrases. You need to be conscious of which words and concepts you were unable to express when you spoke, and go back to your input to look for them. Input should be 75% of your time spent studying the language, as we say at LingQ. Some immigrants to Canada seem to think that if they only get a job in an English speaking environment they will achieve English fluency. This is not true. Those people never achieve their English language potential.

4) You should work on pronunciation, deliberately and consistently but without worrying unduly. When listening, you should every so often focus on pronunciation and try to notice how your pronunciation differs from the pronunciation of the native. But don’t force it. Don’t become self-conscious about your pronunciation. The more you listen and notice native pronunciation, the clearer yours will become. The key thing is to communicate. Most speakers of foreign languages retain an accent, and that is not an obstacle to communication and may even be charming.

Try to do as much as possible on your own, and that means noticing your own mistakes. This is the approach we use at LingQ and it is efficient and cost effective.

24 January 2016

Want to Achieve a Language Learning Breakthrough?

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What constitutes the essence of achieving a breakthrough in language learning? I think that the key lies in the word “linking”.

First of all learners must form emotional links with the language they are learning. They must be interested in the language, in the people and in some aspects of the culture. They don’t need to like all the people, nor all aspects of the culture, just some. Learners need emotional links to the language and, as much as possible, to the content being studied.

Second, the study must be constant and ongoing, linked from day to day. There should be no lengthy breaks in the chain, at leasts for periods of committed and intensive study of several months at a time. This is most easily achieved by daily listening to selected content of interest, content that is at the appropriate level of difficulty.

When I study a language on LingQ I try to get in at least one hour a day, every day. Most of this is listening to things that I find interesting. When I start in a language I do intensive listening, in other words repetitive listening to the same short bits of beginner content. As I progress I listen less often to the same material, but am driven by my interest, emotional and intellectual connection to what I am listening to and reading. I am hooked by the content, and that pulls me along.

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I always read the transcripts for what I am listening to in order to “link” the written words to the sounds I am hearing. I do that by saving unknown words and key phrases to my personal database at LingQ, in other words I “LingQ” these words and phrases.

The words and phrases that I learn in this way are linked in my mind, and even subconsciously to the content where I came across them. In saving phrases I am linking words to other words in the same phrases, words that are meant to be used together. This creates a natural sense of how words are normally used.

I believe that this activity of reading, listening and LingQing, is helping to forge new neural links in my brain. These neural connections will become a new language network, my neural command centre for the new language, eventually enabling me to understand and speak the language naturally, without having to think about grammar rules.

Once I have enough vocabulary and listening practice to enable me to understand much of what native speakers are saying, I link up with an online tutor. My tutor at LingQ sends me a report with the words and phrases that gave me trouble. I study these as lessons. In this way I link the conversation to my listening, reading and vocabulary learning activities. The stimulus and feedback loop from a native speaking instructor is a powerful interactive link.

When I study at LingQ, the best measure of my activity level, and therefore of my progress in the language, is the number of LingQs I have created. The more LingQs I create from my active listening and reading, the more words and phrases I save, the more intensively I am building up the linkages that will bring me to fluency in the new language.

18 January 2016

The Two Stages of Language Learning: The Upside Down Hockey Stick

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There are two stages in language learning: the initial intense study of a limited number of words, and the later more extensive approach to learning in order to acquire the up to 10,000 words needed to function at a professional level. These two stages make up the upside down hockey stick.

During the initial growth period – the blade of the hockey stick – progress is quick. Here you are learning the high frequency words and basic structures of the language. The most common 2,000 words account for between 75% to over 90% of all content. These words appear frequently and so they are easier to learn.

You should be listening and reading a lot, and repetitively to the same content, without worrying too much whether you understand all that well. Keep listening over and over, slowly moving on to new content. The more you hear and see words, in the same content and then in different contexts, the more likely you are to remember them. You need to do a lot of intensive reading and listening. You need to listen to the same content over and over again. You may start to use some of these words in limited situations.

If you do this you will experience a sense of elation, and early sense of achievement. From not being able to understand or say anything, you all of a sudden can actually understand something and be able to say a few phrases in the new language. Wow! But you still can’t carry on a conversation. You still can’t function at the train station, bank or post office even though you have studied dialogues based on these scenarios. In a way, you have an ornament and not a useful tool.

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It is at this point that you move to the more extensive approach to learning. This is the long shaft of the hockey stick. It is the most difficult stage of the language learning process because it takes so long, and the sense of achievement is more elusive. It can at times seem like a journey without any progress. Nevertheless, you must continue. You need to expose yourself to a lot of content. You need to listen and read a lot, moving on to new content more frequently. You need extensive exposure, rather than the intensive exposure of the early period. At times it feels as if nothing sticks. But you are learning all the time.

If what you are reading and listening to is interesting, you keep going. It is your interest in the subjects of your reading and listening that keeps you going. Read widely. Read first in your area of personal or professional interest. Try also try to broaden your base by reading novels and other literature. Gradually you will start to notice words and phrases more and more clearly, and even remember them. Naturally and ever so slowly you will start to use these new words and phrases and they become a part of you.

The more you read, the better you get at reading. The faster you read the words you already know, the better you understand the meaning of content that you are reading, even if it contains unknown words. Your range of comprehension expands and your vocabulary starts to snowball. Yes, there are still words that you do not know, or have learned and forgotten. But your overall comprehension skills improve. You understand the surrounding context better. And soon you start to master those elusive lower frequency words that are so important to your understanding of more difficult content. Soon you even start to use more and more of your gradually accumulating vocabulary in speaking and writing.

Stay positive, keep listening and reading. Gradually start using the language more and more. All of a sudden, when you least expect it, you will feel that you have made a great deal of progress. The shaft of the hockey stick is longer and less steep than the blade. At times it almost seems flat. If you persevere you will find that the end result makes all of your effort it worthwhile.

10 January 2016

Do You Dream of Speaking Like a Native?

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Speaking like a native is the ultimate goal of language learning. It is a goal that is almost never achieved. However, that is no reason not to aspire to this lofty goal, even in the knowledge that we will not get there. It is like wanting to play golf like Tiger Woods or play the piano like Charles Richard-Hamelin.

To pursue this dream we need to immerse ourselves in the new language, listening, reading, speaking, writing, and savouring the language. We need to commit ourselves emotionally to the language. We need to like the language, and at least some parts of the culture, in order to want to imitate the behaviour of the native speaker. The native speaker is the model, the unattainable goal that we want to emulate. We want to imitate how they pronounce, their intonation, their use of words. This means we really want to be like them, even to be them.

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If you have not already experienced this phenomenon of transforming yourself into a fluent speaker of another language, you probably doubt you can do it. But I know you can. Once you have done it for one language, the doors open up to doing it for other languages as well. I have done it more than a few times. It is a wonderful experience, and yet I don’t speak like a native in any of the foreign languages I speak.

3 January 2016

5 Benefits of Speaking Multiple Languages

Need more motivation to make learning a language your New Year’s resolution? Here are 5 benefits of being bilingual or multilingual.

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Imagine the scene: you walk into a bar in rural Japan. The bar owner looks nervous. He’s no doubt wondering how he will go about expressing the menu in body language. Then, to his surprise and delight, you start chatting in fluent Japanese. Yay! Or as the Japanese say, yatta!

So, instead of making the usual “I will join a gym, eat salad every day and hate myself after approximately 48 hours” resolution, make it your goal to start a language learning journey in 2016. Your brain will thank you for it.

27 December 2015

All the English Grammar You Need to Know

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How do we make grammar work for us? Most of us can’t remember the rules of 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 only 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 grammar explanations or grammar terms, the less I am able to understand and remember. So in my language learning I prefer to keep it simple.

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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) 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” and “difficulty”. So 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” “the more I eat, the fatter I get” 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.

Choose 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 and 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.

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 which you can see in the REVIEW section. Soon you will get better at noticing which words normally go together, in which form and in what order.

20 December 2015

Tips for Learning Russian

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Today I’m going to talk about Russian, my experience with Russian, about how I learned the language, some comments about the language. I’m going to begin by explaining a bit about Russia and Russian culture as I perceive it. I had mentioned in my video about learning French that the French like to be very logical, at least that’s what they teach at school, they’d like to be very precise in how they explain themselves and so forth. The Japanese are not at all that way. Also, there’s a lot of understatement in Japanese. They don’t say no. They say we’re going to certainly consider your suggestion, which means no. The Russians aren’t like that. The Russians say no. If it’s no, they say no.

All people generalize, but in Russia there’s no political correctness there are just generalizations. They’ll say anything.”что угодно” as they say in Russian. They’ll say anything based on knowing the subject, not knowing the subject, getting the facts wrong. I hear this all the time on Echo Moskvy — the most amazing statements, but with tremendous drama and conviction. So I’m going to do the same, I’m going to make very generalized statements about Russia and Russians without worrying too much about my facts.

So, how did I get started? Well, I was about 60 and I had really two reasons for getting into Russian. One was that I had read books by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy when I was 17-18 and I thought it would be really cool to read those books in the original. The second thing was that my approach to language learning is to de-emphasize grammar. Not to ignore grammar, but to not put it up front and to focus on exposing one’s self to the language through lots of listening and reading, noticing patterns, rather than complicated grammar rules, explanations and so forth. I was sort of challenged and said you can’t do that with Russian because the grammar is too complicated.

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Okay. The grammar is very complicated, Russian is a difficult language. To some extent, some people say no language is more difficult, blah, blah, blah. In fact, some languages are more difficult than others. It all depends on the language you’re starting from, of course, but for people without any background in Slavic languages Russian is difficult and I’m going to explain why. Before that, I’ll talk a little bit about Russia.

Russia is a phenomenal country. I mean the scale; the size of Russia is mindboggling. If we go back in history, we’ll see that the Dukedom of Moscovy was this little area up in northern Russia where a mixture of Slavic, Finnish-type people and Baltic-type people and so forth were up there doing their thing. I can’t remember whether they were actually conquered by the Mongol Tartar Hordes that dominated Russia for 300 years. I think they were, but I can’t remember. Whatever it was, the prince up there eventually defeated them.

So, really, the growth of Russia, even though the people in the area of what’s now the Ukraine were also Russians, Kiev is called the Mother of All Russian Cities and so forth, was very much under the rule of the Mongols for 300 years. This Moscovy was up there interacting with Baltic countries, Germans, Swedes and stuff like that. Not very different perhaps, other than they spoke a different language, but culturally very much in that sphere and from that it expanded to the Pacific. From the moment they defeated the Mongols, within a few hundred years they had expanded south right down to the Caspian Sea. I think they reached the Pacific in the late sixteen hundreds and they overthrew the Mongol Yoke, as it’s called, in the mid fifteen hundreds. Again, my history, you read it, you forget it, but roughly.

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It has become this tremendous continental country and you’re very much aware of this. Of course, subsequent to that under Catherine the Great and other czars they consolidated their hold on these central Asian areas and Caucasus. There was a significant expansion in the nineteenth century south and east. Russia was very much an imperialist power, an imperialist power on somewhat weak legs because they expanded too quickly and they were defeated by the Japanese in 1905. From that, largely because of the First World War, the czarist empire collapsed and they had their revolution and became the Soviet Union.

All of that is still very international with people from central Asia, Turkish-type people, the Caucasus with all of their different languages and culture, some Islamic, some very early Christian and so forth and, of course, they were always meddling on the western side of their border participating in the partition of Poland and chipping away at Romania. It’s kind of been involved in all these different areas, so it’s absolutely fascinating.

That’s one of the things you sense with Russia, that the scale is just huge. Even now if I listen to Echo Moskvy, there are a lot of people there with Georgian names that are no longer Georgian. So even with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, you’re aware of these influences. There are issues with all the different minorities within Russia, plus immigration from countries in the former Soviet Union. That’s the world, it’s very much a Eurasian world and we have to understand that they’re not just some European country that speaks a Slavic language.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

15 December 2015

Want to Improve your English Fluency?

Want to be understood in English? New research shows you should focus on fluency over pronunciation.

Speaking fluently means your listener is more able to keep track of what you’re saying, then they have more time to figure out the sounds you are trying to produce.

In other words, your ability to put words together accurately, smoothly and fluently is much more important than trying to pronounce like a native.

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So next time you’re talking in English remember to slow down, correct yourself, use what you know and be comfortable with making mistakes sometimes.

13 December 2015

5 Ways to Learn a New Language Better

 

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

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

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

1) Repetitive listening:

Listen to content of interest more than once. When I start in a language I can listen to the same content ten or more times, since there are always bits and pieces that I just do not get, despite having read the text, and looked up all the words. The effort to try to “get” these fuzzy parts, keeps me focused and trying to notice. I gradually notice the fuzzy parts, and also reinforce the parts that I already understood. I notice more and more clearly.

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2) Fast and slow:

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

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3) Points of view listening:

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

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4) Use the language:

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

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5) Mark up your books:

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

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With enough noticing, the brain will start to form new patterns for the language, and our performance and understanding will improve.

Try these things to improve your ability to notice, and your ability to learn languages.