28 August 2016

What is the hardest language to learn? Advice for the adventurous language learner

what is the hardest language to learn - LingQ

What is the hardest language to learn? Advice for the adventurous language learner.

What is the hardest language to learn? It’s a question I’m asked often. Here I reveal the answer from my experience and give advice and tips on how to get the most out of your language learning, even if that language is a tough one.

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


Does learning a similar language affect a language being labeled as “the hardest language to learn”? Is there any point?

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

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

To me, learning about another country and another language is an advantage which outweighs the disadvantage of not being able to spend enough time with those languages that I already have learned to some degree. The more motivated you are to learn the language will change the status of the hardest language to learn.

You can even learn two languages at once. If you want to. That’s ok. Insofar as what I like to do when I study languages, I like to concentrate on one at a time, but that is me.


What is the biggest mistake when learning a difficult language?

The biggest thing that prevents people from succeeding and becoming fluent is that people stay with the beginner material for too long. You can read the blog post I wrote on the topic.

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

As soon as I get to where I can start to understand more I tend to move on, even if I don’t fully understand, because, in fact, I am reviewing all of the vocabulary. It just shows up in different contexts, but it’s very often the same words. I see them because once I’ve saved them they’re in yellow at LingQ. I read quite quickly now because of the new LingQ reader! It actually goes quite quickly and I’m motivated then by my interest in the subject, which right now is Polish history.


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

Well, what’s a dialect? Is Portuguese a dialect of Spanish? Is Cantonese a dialect of Mandarin? You could argue that Cantonese has many more speakers certainly than in Portugal. Now, of course, in Brazil they have many more speakers. I think it enriches your hold on the language; you’re covering some of the same vocabulary. Even now from Russian then I do Czech and Ukrainian, I’m reinforcing my grasp on sort of the fundamental way Slavic languages operate. 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, well, if I don’t get the politeness level right I might offend someone. I find that you can’t offend people and anyone who is offended because you, as a foreigner, don’t use their language correctly isn’t worth worrying about. I don’t worry about cultural barriers at all. Of course you want to be sensitive to how different cultures operate.


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

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

The advantage is not that someone is going to correct it. The advantage is that you write and the more you write the better. The corrections, it’s fine if people correct you, if they don’t correct you that’s fine, too, you’ll eventually start to notice most of your mistakes.


There is an importance of knowing 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 1 word a day or even 100 words a day till you reach your goals. But just going from experience. It’s best to just enjoy reading and I enjoy 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 movie, what’s lacking, typically, is the words. So I don’t understand why some people say you only need a few words, it has not been my experience. My experience has been that you need a lot of words. Now, other people may have a different experience.

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

14 August 2016

The best way to learn a new language

best way to learn a new language

The best way to learn a new language

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 and what is the best way to learn a new language?

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.

The best way to learn a new language and that I find is more enjoyable, is 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. Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated, but listening is an important skill when learning a new language. That is what you should drive for first of all. Here’s an article I wrote on the importance of listening comprehension

best way to learn a new language

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.

best way to learn a new language

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. 

best way to learn a new language

4) Use the language is the best way to learn a new 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. Trying to speak may not be the best way to learn a new language.

best way to learn a new language

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.

best way to learn a new language

So to recap, the 5 tips for the best ways to learn a new language are:

  1. Repetitive listening  Listen to content of interest more than once.
  2. Fast and slow – Listen to content at normal speed, and then again in a slowed down version.
  3. Points of view listening – Listen and read content with one element changed each time.
  4. Use the language is the best way to learn a new language – Don’t be scared to use what you’ve learned.
  5. Mark up your books – mark up books and newspapers when reading and make lots of LingQs.

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 a new language. Remember, the best way to learn a new language is to start!

8 August 2016

A New Age for Language Students, Teachers and Schools


Hello everyone, a few weeks ago I had a great conversation via Skype with Lindsay Dow. I wanted to share the transcript from that video here:

Steve: Hi, Lindsay. I’ll let you have a glass of water because you’re going to be doing a lot of talking. I’m very happy to be able to talk to Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages and maybe you can start by explaining what it is that you do.

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

Lindsay: Okay. Thank you very much, Steve. Hello, I’m Lindsay, as Steve said. What I do is quite a mixture of things. I teach languages, I teach English, French and Spanish, but I also learn them myself. That’s my main passion, the learning side of things. Right now, I’m learning Korean and trying to keep up a little bit of Japanese, as well. I recently finished Esperanto, which is quite interesting because I started it a lot later than those languages, yet I feel so much more advanced already, which goes to show the whole ‘no language is created equal’ theory. Also, in each of those languages I blog, I make videos about language. It’s pretty much everything in my life, language, language, language.

Steve: Okay, we’ll leave a link in the description box here to the video so people can come and visit you. Now, question. First of all, let me say that having learned a bunch of languages that languages are not equal in term of their level of difficulty, as you say. It all depends on the language we start from, but I’m finding Korean a challenge. Even though I speak Chinese and I speak Japanese, Korean is difficult. We can get into that later on, perhaps, in the discussion — what makes a language difficult. No question that after Russian and Czech then Ukrainian becomes easier. For French speakers, Spanish is easier. So they’re not all equally difficult, no question, but my question is this.

I think we have a tendency to think of English-speaking countries, that includes, of course, the UK, Canada and so forth, as countries where people are less interested in learning other languages either because they’re less intelligent, which is probably not the case, most people are equally intelligent, on average, or because they just don’t feel the need. And, typically, people from smaller countries, smaller languages feel a greater need to learn. If you go to Japan, Russia or Spain, mind you, the Germans are pretty good. So the question is this. How keen are people in the UK on learning languages, is a big part of your job trying to motivate them or are there a lot of motivated people who just need your help?

Lindsay: That’s a very good question. Before I did Lindsay Does Languages, I worked in a secondary school. I was a Learning Support Assistant primarily in the Language Department and I would take out small groups to teach them. If they wouldn’t pick up as much in the class, I’d teach them at a slower rate myself and it was always a challenge within the main language classroom in secondary school.

Bear in mind, a lot of the time this was the first exposure people had had to languages. When I was working in schools it wasn’t compulsory. I think it was in 2014 they actually made it compulsory to learn a language in primary school and a very interesting thing is that it’s actually very open. They say any language living or dead. They have to learn a language, a different language to English within primary school, which is really interesting because it then creates this difference that you have when people then go to secondary school and they start, generally, with French or Spanish, occasionally German, maybe something else.

It was the same problem when I was that age, as well. I had had French back in primary school as a kind of extracurricular thing, but then going to secondary you start from the beginning. You’re coming from all these different schools and no one knows where you’re at and so the teachers then have this quite difficult job, granted, of trying to bring everyone to the same point. What happens there is you’re 11 years old and your teachers are talking to you as if you’re four. You know, dog, cat, green, blue, all of that stuff and it’s taught in a very primary manner, very simplistic. You go into maths lessons and you’re learning trigonometry for the first time and then in French you’re still learning I like football.

I think a big reason sort of on the official education side of things is that it’s not very inspiring, perhaps. That’s by no means most teachers. There are some fantastic language teachers out there. But then, also, as you say, coming from an English-speaking country where the need is seen as less.

Steve: A couple of reactions. If you’re in Sweden, most kids by the time they reach secondary school already speak English because they’ve been watching English-language television programs, English-language movies, listening to English pop music and so forth. Another thing, too, I often question the relative importance of the classroom versus other factors.

I’ll give you another example. My grandchildren are in French immersion. French immersion in Canada is a situation where English-speaking kids in a place like Vancouver where there are no French speakers to speak of do all their schooling in French. The late immersion kids who start in grade 7 or grade 8, they catch up right away. So they’re in a classroom studying history, chemistry, whatever it might be, maybe getting a little extra help, but they’re doing it in French. They’re in there with a group of kids who started doing this from grade 1 and they catch up right away. It’s interesting.

It gets back to your point. Maybe in high school in Britain instead of teaching them this is a dog, if they actually gave them something that was more challenging to do and more interesting they might advance more quickly.

Lindsay: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I completely agree with that. Like I mentioned briefly, now it’s compulsory in primary school and it’s very open. They’ll say you learn a language. Primarily, it’s going to be French, it’s going to be Spanish.

There’s one company, I think they’re called Springboard to Languages, they teach Esperanto and their whole kind of ethos is, well, in primary school kids learn the recorder. Not to create a nation of recorder players, but to create kids who understand the basics of music. They teach Esperanto with that mindset of this isn’t so that everyone speaks Esperanto, it’s so that people are exposed from a young age to other languages. I think that is what’s needed and that, hopefully, is now beginning to change in the last couple of years with that introduction.

Steve: Now, question. I’m in favor of giving kids choice. I’m against the idea that in Canada, say in Vancouver, everyone has to learn French. Even though French is an official language, the reality is they will probably not have much use for French and if they were more motivated to learn Chinese or Spanish why wouldn’t they be able to learn that language. The counter argument from the schools always is we don’t have qualified, accredited teachers in that language. My answer always is there are so many resources available it doesn’t matter, if you have a motivated language coach who knows how to help kids access all this stuff.

So what do they do in Britain, how would they deal with this fact? The kid says, okay, I want to learn Japanese and the school says we don’t have a Japanese teacher, then what?

Lindsay: That’s pretty much what happens, so then the kids won’t get schooled in Japanese. For example, my partner is a primary school teacher and they have French at their school. They have a French teacher who comes in I think one day a week and teaches each class one by one their French lesson for the week and that’s the way it goes. It may be that a teacher that already works at a school studied Latin, for example, when they were at school 30-40 years ago and they’re like, oh, I’ve got some Latin, then they might teach Latin if the school can’t find an external teacher to come in and do it. So there are occasions where it would vary like that, but it’s very rare I think that the child would get the choice. Again, like you say, because of that lack of teachers.

Steve: But you said they were allowed to choose whatever they wanted.

Lindsay: Oh, no, the school is allowed to choose.

Steve: Oh, the school is allowed to choose. Again, it always annoys me that everything that happens in language learning is dictated by the teacher. Let’s say you had a skill, within the teaching profession you had people who knew where to find resources on the internet, let’s say Japanese. There are going to be children in the UK who are interested in anime, who are interested in some aspect of Japanese culture. Even at the age of 10 those people exist.

Let’s say that the initial course was to start to show them some of the things they can do in different languages, which might be Swahili, Japanese, Russian, whatever, and then the kid says I’m interested in Japanese. Then the teacher chooses to say, well, here are some resources you can use that you can listen to, that you can do stuff with.

Maybe you have to pool the human resources within the teaching community. So a teacher at school A is a coordinator, coach, motivator, but she’s able to access some other more specific resources, Japanese language resources that are available in Yorkshire or somewhere. I come across this here. Again, if we don’t have a teacher in our school who can teach Japanese you can’t have Japanese, which in today’s day and age strikes me as very backward looking.

Lindsay: I think that’s a fantastic point and I love that idea of having someone who gives the child the resources because everything now is so much easier. Like you say, with the internet and everything it’s so easy, as well, for a child. A child picks up an iPad and they know exactly what to do with it, so if you’ve got a Japanese app installed on the iPad the child is going to know exactly what to do and they’re going to learn Japanese.

Yeah, it is so easy. It should be the case that the child can say I want to learn this language. I’m intrigue by that. I love this aspect of that culture or I love that food. Just something small that they’ve picked up on, even from a young age, that they can then drawn on and learn a language from. I would like to think that that is something that will change. You asked at the beginning is it a case of the students in the UK already there or am I kind of having to motivate and I’ve always felt very passionate about that idea of inspiring language learning with what I do and I hope that comes across. I hope that I do inspire people.

Steve: Well, you know, there’s always this sort of dilemma. On the one hand, sort of the learner-centered approach says that the learner, not just kids, should have the freedom to choose what to learn, how to learn, but the reality is most people don’t want that degree of freedom. Most people like to be directed. I always find as a learner that the teacher is like, here, you have to read this story and then you have to answer my questions on this story, so we’re dancing to the tune that’s dictated by the teacher.

There has to be some kind of balance between freedom and people being motivated by what interests them. The fact is the teacher is like a shepherd. You have the lagers, so they need be herded along with the others. So some kind of more of a role of a motivator, coordinator, providing some guidance and direction, but where possible allowing people to do what they want to do rather than forcing them, which gets me to the subject of Esperanto.

Some people say if you learn Latin, then you can learn the other romance languages. I always say why not start with Spanish because it’s more interesting than Latin, for most people, unless you’re interested in ancient Rome. Personally, because I have yet to meet a resident of Esperantia, I’m more motivated to learn another language and with every language you learn, of course, you get better at learning languages. Maybe Esperanto is faster, but the effort you put into learning Spanish, Russian and Korean is also going to prepare you for then learning other languages. So I think Esperanto should be part of the mix, but I would not like to see a situation where the school says, okay, in primary school everyone does Esperanto because we think that’s good. I would not be in favor of that.

Lindsay: That’s very interesting. The only reason I learnt Esperanto is I met some friends, probably last year, who spoke Esperanto. I then found a book last year and I thought, oh, this is kind of falling into my lap. It was on Duolingo and I was like let’s get Duolingo again, let’s see how this goes. That was it.

As I was going through the course there were things like I would like to order a pizza or whatever and you’re thinking I would never be in a situation where I’m in a restaurant, me, a waiter or waitress and the only common language we’d have is Esperanto.  Where’s that going to happen because, like you say, you have yet to meet a native speaker of Esperanto. Of course, there are native speakers now, well, probably not just now, probably over the past few decades even.

But, yeah, I did find that as I was working I’m thinking this is cool and it’s very interesting that I’m picking this up. It’s a new language and it’s happening so fast, but I couldn’t see an opportunity in my life when I would use it, which was curious.

Steve: For example, it depends how we’re motivated. If I hear a foreign language around me, my ears prick up and I want to go over there and see if I can talk to them. If I’m on an airplane, I’m always hoping the person sitting beside me with be a speaker of some other language.

Now, for example, with my Ukrainian I’ve been listening to some really interesting stuff about Ukrainian history in Ukrainian and I do the same with Polish, it doesn’t matter, Chinese. When I started learning Chinese, you get involved in this whole phenomenal world of China, its history and stuff like that. To that extent it may be that I could learn Esperanto very quickly, but I’m just not motivated. However, for those who are motivated that’s fine. All I’m saying is to impose that as sort of all kids shall learn Esperanto in the primary school, personally, I wouldn’t think that would be such a great idea.

Lindsay: I can see that. I can see why.

Steve: By the way, you have experienced Duolingo. You should get on LingQ sometime and work on your Korean, for example.

Lindsay: Yes.

Steve: Although, Korean is a tough one on LingQ. What I find so difficult in Korean is there are so many words that have so many different meanings. I look them up in my Naver Dictionary and I’m no further ahead. In fact, we have a Korean girl in the office. For three months here we had this LingQ Academy Live where we got a learner from Taiwan, a learner from Korea and a learner from Hungary and we’re interacting with them and working on their English and stuff. She’s going to help me with my Korean and I’ve got a list of words that I’ve saved in LingQ where the Naver, which is an excellent dictionary, provides no clue at all as to what the meaning is.

Lindsay: Oh, wow!

Steve: I find that in other languages the dictionary is pretty good. Depending on which language, you’ll find the dictionary that you like the best and we link up to it at LingQ and I’m working my way through the text and I understand it. But Korean, to that extent, is more difficult.

Lindsay: It is because you do feel that kind of, well, I’ve learnt this language so now it’s going to be easy from here on. I’ve learnt X number of languages, so I know what I’m doing now. But, yet, Korean has been interesting. I don’t know. I’m wary to say it’s the hardest language I’ve ever learnt. I always kind of hold that to German because at the time when I learnt German, everything before had been a romance language. Then all of a sudden it was cases and I’m thinking hang on a minute, what is a case. It really took a long time for me to get my head around that concept, but once I got it it was easy. So maybe in that sense Korean is now taking over German as that title for me as the hardest one I’ve looked at.

Steve: Can I ask what your motivation was to learn Korean.

Lindsay: To learn Korean?

Steve: Yes.

Lindsay: I have a friend, Shannon, who has a language blog and we wanted to learn a language together. She had some resources for Korean, I have nothing. I’m going completely from sort of free resources that are available, whereas she’s got some books and dictionaries and all of this stuff. There’s kind of this interesting contrast, so we wanted to learn it together. She lives in California on the other side of the world, so it’s a nice way that we can connect and study together in that sense.

Steve: Right, right. In the case of Korean, we have some beginner material at LingQ and then I went to the Talk to Me in Korean material available. Are you familiar with Talk to Me in Korean?

Lindsay: Yes, it’s very good.

Steve: So I used a bunch of that. Now, a lot of members have contributed content in our library in Korean and then as I advanced in Korean I needed something with more substance, so I found two podcasts which I paid a lady to transcribe. So I’m now learning from those, but they’re just a little difficult for me. I struggle to find something that’s kind of intermediate, even slightly advanced intermediate, yet interesting.

Like with Ukrainian, I found all this interesting stuff about Ukrainian history and the same with Russian, Czech and so forth. So part of it is finding interesting material because that will motivate you to fight your way through all the vagueness and uncertainty and stuff like that.

Lindsay: Definitely. I think one of the big mistakes I made was when I started Japanese I started with a tutor straightaway and it was a fantastic tutor. I learnt so much, I was able to put together really kind of basic sentences and then questions and it expanded.

So with Korean I thought I’ll do the same thing, I’ll get a tutor early on. I’ll get speaking, it will work. We spent about seven-eight lessons on pronunciation and I was bored to tears. I’m not someone that can study pronunciation for a prolonged period of time. I made that mistake and from the beginning it became not as fun, so I had to then kind of almost shake things up, restart, make it fun and find things that did work for me. I think I’m getting there now in that sense.

Steve: See, that’s interesting. My approach is I’m going to have so much trouble pronouncing at the beginning that I don’t worry about trying to pronounce or trying to say anything until my brain has become much more familiar with the language. The fact of the matter is we don’t hear the pronunciation. We don’t hear it, how can we reproduce it if we can’t hear it. It’s interesting.

The reason I know we don’t hear it is one of the functions we have at LingQ is dictation, where if you save a bunch of phrases you can then review these phrases one by one in sort of cards and there’s text to speech. So you hear it and then you’ve got to type it out in Polish and what I thought I heard and what was actually said were two different things. We really have to train ourselves to actually hear what’s said, in my view, before we can hope to be able to pronounce it. Once we hear it better, then we have a better chance of pronouncing it correctly.

Normally, I don’t even worry about pronunciation until several months. I don’t really worry that much about output until I have built up a certain amount of vocabulary. To that extent even the cases, say with German or Russian, normally there’s sort of a redundancy of words so that, in most situations, you can figure out the meaning like 70-80% clearly, somewhat vaguely, without really being able to nail the cases. So you can read stuff, it has meaning, it’s interesting, more or less, then once you become familiar with certain patterns, you then go back in and really try to understand how the cases work. You now have some experience, something to refer to. Otherwise, you start from ground zero and you’re trying to remember case endings and stuff like that.

To my mind, I think the emphasis on output, pronunciation, all those things too early, for me at any rate, is unnecessary pressure. I prefer to sort of get it in, get it in and now I’m really ready to go for output and pronunciation.

Lindsay: Yeah, it is a pressure and I think it’s a pressure easily can flow you. If you’re really trying and you just can’t because, like you say, you can’t hear it in those early stages, then why would you carry on. I do prefer that idea of almost the input, sort of absorbing the language and kind of getting familiar and then gaining confidence with that. It’s quite refreshing to hear someone else.

Steve: People underestimate the difficulty of remembering things. People think because I learned how to say buenos dias, como estas that I’m going to remember. I can say it once or twice, then when I’m all of a sudden confronted with someone where I have to say even the most basic things like buenos dias, como estas all of a sudden I’m frozen and that’s just something very simple like hello, how are you. It’s so difficult to remember things. In fact, my view is that we don’t remember them, we gradually get used to them.

I see so many people, say friends of mine, who have been studying Spanish and they still can’t get past the most basic phrases and expressions because all they’re trying to do is to train themselves to produce these phrases, whereas if they devoted the same amount of time and effort into initially getting to a stage where they actually could read a novel in Spanish.

We use LingQ to access the text, but they can use online dictionaries, import these as eBooks. There are so many different ways that you can engage with the content and just have this very pleasant involvement with the language and at a certain point you say, okay, now I’m going to go after speaking. Then you’ve got some point of reference, some experience, some confidence, comprehension.

How can you even talk to someone if you don’t understand what they’re saying? That’s why I’m kind of that way oriented rather than hoping in a short time… Like Korean, you can go at Korean for a year before you start speaking. I find it very difficult to understand people with far less effort in Ukrainian. I can listen to a Ukrainian history professor talk about what happened a million years ago and in Korean people are saying stuff that I know and I can’t pick it out.

At any rate, the main thing is to motivate people. So a quick question here because it’s very topical — Brexit. Sitting here in Canada, we have this impression of a country that’s basically split down the middle.

Lindsay: That would be correct.

Steve: You hear that so and so is having buyer’s remorse and they were lied to and stuff, I don’t believe that. I think that the majority of those people who voted to leave want to leave. Even though there might be a million people in Trafalgar Square and five million people who signed a petition, basically, if there are however many, 60 million people in the UK, they don’t all vote, but 30 million people want to leave and 30 million people want to stay. To what extent does any of this effect interest in language learning?

Lindsay: That’s a very good question. It’s difficult because for me in my kind of social sphere, if you like, I guess I was in this bubble before it happened. Most of my friends and acquaintances are quite language-oriented and quite internationally-oriented, so I was seeing all of this huge support for Remain and then the very occasion of seeing a news story related to the Leave Party like they’re bus and all the lies on their bus.

All of these silly stories and you think, oh my goodness, this is ridiculous. They’re never going to win. Then you see the polls coming out, they’re close and you think, ooh, hang on a minute. Surely not this many people can disagree. You do feel very strongly about the idea that I’m right and they’re wrong. Of course that’s not necessarily the case, but it built this huge tension that I think is still present after the result, definitely, and it made me realize something about myself and my own language learning that I’d like to mention.

First, if someone said to me name one reason why you learn languages it would be tolerance. It would be to understand people, to understand other people that are different to me and it gives me a level of tolerance towards them. This whole Brexit thing has made me realize that, which I’m grateful for. Obviously, this vote is representative of how our country feels. Whether or not, like you say, people are having buyer’s remorse and they’re feeling I should have voted to remain and I voted to leave, I didn’t think this would happen, it is representative that there is a percentage of this country that does feel a strong desire to “make Britain great again” and take our country back.

I think by that there is a feeling of English, English is the language. Of course this alone in itself isn’t true, even if you take immigration out of the question. The British Isles is a multilingual nation. We have multiple languages that are spoken natively to this land, but again I think that’s unrecognized. Cornwall and Wales received a lot of EU funding, a lot of support, as well, in terms of language rights, what happens now to those languages that were getting support from the EU. That’s one side of the language effects of Brexit.

The other side that’s now beginning to come out is will English be an official language within the EU if Britain leaves and I think the answer to that is yes because you’ve got countries like Ireland and Malta where English is quite prominent, but this has been questioned. So it will have an effect on a wide scale, but in terms of individual language learning I would like to think that it would encourage people to learn languages. Perhaps not even as a result of Brexit, but as a result of the even more recent kind of racial tensions that seem to have appeared since the result, which I think is horrific.

Maybe people are now beginning to feel we need to be united as native Brits, as people that are immigrants to this land that live alongside us and contribute to our society, we need to unite with people. Maybe that will have a positive effect and it will inspire people to pick up languages and to learn community languages even more so, perhaps. Then, of course, as I said, there is a percentage of Leave supporters that I believe don’t feel that way and very, very strongly don’t feel that way, but I don’t think that Brexit has impacted their thoughts. I think, possibly for a long time, they have felt that same way and felt English only. This is our land, speak English.

Steve: There are some interesting contradictions. You mentioned Cornwall and Wales, I’ve been following it and both Cornwall and Wales, if I’m not mistaken, voted quite heavily in favor of Leave.

Lindsay: Yeah and within a day, two days, were saying we still want our funding. It was like hang on a minute.

Steve: Well, yeah, they want their funding, but for a variety of things not necessarily just for language. It’s interesting. The votes are two areas of the UK, more so in Wales than in Cornwall, with a still surviving, call it regional language, they voted to leave. Another interesting thing is there are over a million Brits who live on the continent, retired or otherwise or who have homes there, and a very small minority of those actually bother learning French or Spanish. Those are people who actually have an opportunity, day-to-day exposure to the language that surrounds them and they still live in their little island.

Lindsay: I would say that’s where the attitude comes in of, oh well, if I’m going to live in Spain then I’ll pick it up.

Steve: Right.

Lindsay: I feel like there’s a certain level of that, especially if people aren’t used to language learning and they’re not kind of obsessed like we are.

Steve: Like we are, yeah.

Lindsay: It might be a case of, oh well, if I go and live in a country I’m going to learn the language, I wouldn’t need to make an effort, which of course is incorrect.

Steve: I think that’s a very important point. Something that maybe in a subsequent discussion we could get into is that people underestimate how much I wouldn’t say effort, it’s effort, yes, it’s time, it’s commitment, but how much is involved in learning a language. We have the same here amongst immigrants. In many cases, whatever level of English they arrive with that’s about what they’ll have after three, four or five years, especially within certain groups where there are a lot of them, like the Chinese for example.

Obviously, if you are Albanian there are not too many Albanians here so you’re going to have to learn English, but if you’re Chinese, you can live in Chinese. So then the attitude is, well, once I get a job then I’ll learn. But, in fact, (A) they don’t get a very good job because they can’t speak English very well and then, in fact, their language basically plateaus. I’ve seen this. I know people, not only Brits, Swedes and others who live in Spain or in France, and they kind of half sort of feel they should try to learn, but then they go off and play golf and don’t worry about it. They think they can kind of pick it up. They can order food in a restaurant, so they’re happy.

The thing is it does take a lot of deliberate effort. It takes a strategy. You have to find out what resources are there. Again, I get back to this idea of language coaches not only in school, but even for lifelong learners, people like you who can advise people, direct them to the appropriate resources, motivate them. That’s almost more important than finding a tutor in Toulouse or Malaga. You’ll go a few times and then you’ll lose interest and you won’t learn much. So I’m a big believer in this language coach familiar with resources who could recommend a strategy, keep people motivated and then people have to go and do it, basically.

Lindsay: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, I teach online and a huge part I see of my job is also, look, we’re together for one hour a week, you’re not going to learn Spanish, you’re not going to learn French in a year. You need to also put in your own time and your own effort. Sometimes it works. Sometimes a student will be committed and they will make real progress, but sometimes it doesn’t. You can generally tell quite early on because it’s a level of motivation that you can sense.

I’ll often work with students in guidance and say here are some great resources you can use in the week. We’ve got some vocab we’ve learned today, put this into sentences in your own time. Set some time aside each day so that you’re keeping this up. I think the risk and I’ve definitely been guilty of this, too, is when you get a tutor you’re almost like I’ve logged on to Skype, I’ve pressed call, teach me.

Steve: Exactly.

Lindsay: You sort of almost sit back and expect them to just tell you and absorb. No, not going to happen.

Steve: No. Worse than that, not only does the learner become passive saying teach me, the learner says, okay, I’ve spent the money, I’ve devoted an hour a week. I’ve done my thing, so I can tick that off.

Lindsay: Here are the results, yes.

Steve: I’m learning Spanish, okay, now I can go on and do something else. I was once at a conference in Germany called [Insert German], Language and Professions, and there was a survey done of people who were studying English, let’s say, in German companies because the German employer, they spend a lot of money on language learning. They found that, on average, the amount of time per week that the professional sort of employee learner spends on language learning outside the hour of instruction was one and a half hours a week.

Now, in my experience of learning languages, one and a half hours a week is not enough to really make any progress whatsoever. So I guess your job and mine is to motivate people to put in more than an hour and a half a week into learning new languages, if they want to get there.

Lindsay: Absolutely, yeah.

Steve: We could probably talk for hours, but we’re already at 36 minutes and I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. So I’m going to shut off the recorder and we can have a few more minutes of discussion, if you wouldn’t mind.

Lindsay: Okay. Thank you very much, Steve.

Steve: Thank you and thank you for all those listening and I will leave a link to Lindsay Does Languages in the description box. Bye.

Lindsay: Bye, thank you.

1 August 2016

Discussion with Benny Lewis


Last week I spoke with Benny Lewis the Irish Polyglot, famous globetrotter linguist and general cheerleader for language learning around the world who has touched many people with his enthusiasm.

We talked about the Polyglot Conference in Montreal that we both attended and gave talks at, as well as language learning in general. I had never been to one of these polyglot symposiums before. I prefer to call it the Language Festival “Festival des Langues”.

Benny Lewis told me that he has attended various Polyglot Gatherings and Polyglot Conferences, and that they are not just get togethers for people who speak multiple languages. “If somebody does not speak four languages, five languages or more, they don’t have to think, okay, I’m not good enough to attend. There are a lot of people who are aspiring language learners and they go to meet people that they know from YouTube and get to know them in person.”

Benny sees these events are more of an opportunity to get to know the language learning community face-to-face. There might be picnics, game shows, movie screenings but the best thing is just getting to talk to the people who engage with him online and share his passion for languages.

The language learning community is truly extraordinary. I had never met Benny, I’d never even shaken his hand, but we were always very much aware of each other, as we were of other people on the internet who talk about language learning. I sometimes get concerned that we are this little ghetto of people. I wonder what the hundreds of millions of people who, at some level, want to learn another language and, yet, for a variety of reasons, hang back, feel uncertain or lack confidence can get out of an event like this.

The first thing they come away with, Benny explained, is the actual talks that take place because they are about the process of learning languages or sometimes specific languages. If someone has a passion for a lesser studied language like Welsh or Scottish, they might find a talk on that language. It’s an opportunity to learn about those things and also meet others with the same interests. These people can get a lot of inspiration from others like themselves who have that special interest.

The meet ups that I have tend to attract language keeners. Not necessarily people who have an internet presence or following, but people who speak three, four, five languages. I think part of the LingQ mission is to get the monolingual or unilingual person to take the jump because it’s such a wonderful thing to be able to speak other languages and connect with people.

There’s something about this language learning world where we’re connected. It’s that warmth of other people trying to do the same thing as you. It just generates that level of enthusiasm and energy that a person needs to take on a language. It’s a long haul, so you meet people that you might be friends with going forward and they will keep you motivated, energized and can be an inspiration. Plus, you might pick up some tips that work for you. Those tips can help you a great deal, but at the end of the day it comes down to the work you’re willing to put in. It’s amazing how much hard work will do for you. It’s easy enough to say, “he’s talented. I could not do that”, but in fact you can.

Benny has found the most success with two tools: italki and Teach Yourself courses. In fact, he’s been busy over the past year making new language courses with Teach Yourself. “The kind of stuff I focus on, because I generally like helping people, as you said monolinguals, is for absolute beginners and those are going to be coming out in September. We’re starting with Spanish, French, German and Italian, so the four big languages. After that, when the series is established, I’m going to be able to start titles for languages that have been neglected in language learning courses. So I’m going to be able to make an Irish language learning course that can go around the world. I can work with translators to make these courses work well for immigrant communities. So we can translate the German course to Kurdish and make it dialect friendly for Arabic for the Syrian immigrants in Germany, for instance.”

I have used Teach Yourself to get started on a number of languages, and I’ve used italki when we didn’t have tutors at LingQ, for example for Polish. The idea that a person has bought this Teach Yourself and it’s chapter five and now they actually have to go and use it so they can connect with someone, I think that’s a very good use of the internet. I’ve certainly found those local resources very, very good, so I’m sure it will be successful.

We also encourage people to speak at LingQ. We don’t necessarily push them to speak right away, although the opportunity is there. We are working on a new version right now, which I am using. It seems a significant improvement over what we now have, in particular the mobile app.

I think it is becoming easier and easier to learn languages. An example is my discussion with Benny, and the way he’s working with Teach Yourself. They found out about him through the internet, and Benny connected italki with what they’re doing and what he has been doing on his blog. This is the new world, so people can learn languages a lot more easily than 50 years ago.

So the message at an event like the North American Polyglot Symposium, or the Festival des Langues, is it’s easier than ever to learn languages. All you really need is the inspiration and the motivation, and that you can get big time by attending a language event like this.

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

24 July 2016

Inspirational Quotes – The Tao of Language Learning


Language learning is an endurance sport, and we all need a little encouragement along the way.

If you’re in a rut, struggling to move to the next level or just need a gentle push to start your study session for the day, let my Tao of Language Learning set you on your way. “A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving.” – Laozi

If you are learning a language, listen to it, observe it, quietly, until you notice the patterns, phrases and words.



The language is like a forest, with trees, branches and leaves. These are the patterns, phrases and words of the language.



If you are in a forest, stop to hear the branches move, listen to the rustling of the leaves, and observe them, quietly.

Do not talk while you are observing the forest or you will miss something. At first you cannot discern the subtlety of the language, you do not hear, you do not notice.

But you must continue, not resisting, but patiently waiting until the branches, twigs and leaves become clearer and clearer, until the language reveals itself to you.



You do not need to rely on teachers. Your experiences as a learner will teach you all you need to know.



Before you can speak, you must listen, and you must listen a lot, without resisting.



Absorb the language. Feel its essence, its rhythm and flow.

Feel the power of the language, more and more, limitless in its ability to express the grandest or the most sublime meaning.



We are small compared to the forest, and small compared to the language. We are just visitors. We should be humble.

Do not be in a hurry or you will never reach your goal.

Do not seek to hack the language. You cannot.



Do not seek to master the language. Do not fight the language or it will defeat you. If you devote yourself to the language, you will be rewarded.

Just enjoy feeling its wisdom and expressive power grow, the power of ages.



If you hurry you will be delayed. If you tarry you will reach your goal. You will know when you are ready to speak. There is no need to rush.

If you are in a hurry to speak, a few days will seem too long. If you respect the language, three years will be too short.

The fewer ambitions and fears you have, the sooner you will learn.



Forget who you are and where you came from, the language does not care. Let the language sink into your mind, in all of its variety and richness.



Do not try to speak until you are ready. You will know when you are ready. The language will tell you.

When you speak,take pride in the language and just let it come out.

Only a vain fool strives for perfection.



Whatever language you are learning, it is everywhere. You can find it without going outside your door. You can bring your language with you wherever you are.

You do not need to ask others how you look. Don’t wait for others to correct you.

Continue to learn with the intensity of a child at play.

Accept what you have achieved and you will achieve more.

18 July 2016

Benefits of learning a second language for my career

benefits of learning a second language

As someone who speaks 16 languages and has had a successful business career, language learners often ask me: if I learn another language, what can I do with it? What are the benefits of learning a second language for my career? What is the relationship between languages and work or a career?

What was the biggest benefits of learning a second language for my career?

It increased the opportunities that came my way. You do have to have other things working for you too, of course. You have to have other skills, like knowledge of a specific sector or market, the ability to do business and the ability to be a reliable, energetic person in any number of fields.

In my own case, there’s no question that leaving Montreal as an Anglophone, studying in France for three years then writing my Canadian Diplomatic or Foreign Service Exam in French helped me be selected into the Canadian Diplomatic Service. So here’s a profession where languages count. They want people who are fluent, at the very least, in the two official languages of Canada. Writing the Foreign Service Exam in French as an Anglophone probably put me in a select group, so I had a better chance of being selected.

Start learning a second language today!

When I was in Ottawa in my year-end training with the Trade Commissioner Service, I heard that the government was preparing to send someone to learn Chinese for a position in Hong Kong.

I wanted to be selected for the role, so I started taking Chinese lessons on my own. My aim was to go to the director of personnel and say: I hear you want to send someone to learn Chinese because Canada is about to recognize the People’s Republic of China. I’ve already started; I just want you to know that.

I wrote the English Foreign Service exam after a year of study from 1968 to 1969, and then worked in Hong Kong and China promoting Canada’s trade interests and helping Canadian business people. I first visited Beijing in October of 1970. I am glad I did. It was a different place than now.

I was subsequently posted to Japan, where I picked up Japanese quite quickly. I made a lot of contacts in the forest product sector while working at the Embassy in Tokyo, so when a Canadian company needed someone to set up their representative subsidiary, I was given the job. Obviously, my knowledge of Japanese enabled me to communicate at various levels in the Japanese lumber trade sector, and not just those trading company people who spoke English, but a wide variety of people.

Start learning Japanese today!

The next major language learning spurt for me was 1987. I had been hired by a company that did business in Europe and I so I decided to learn German. I spent a month scouring the secondhand book stores in Vancouver finding books that had text and vocabulary lists for each chapter because I just didn’t want to look every word up in the dictionary. There were no online dictionaries, so I found a whole pile of excellent books and audio cassettes for learning German and did a lot of listening and reading.

Well, it turned out that in the 1990s I did a fair amount of business in Germany. We were selling wood from Canada into Germany and so I had visitors from Germany and I traveled in the country. Once you got past the main lumber agents, a lot of the consumers, wood processors and different customers for our products were much more comfortable speaking German than speaking English. I think it helped me do business there.

Thereafter, we started doing business in Sweden, which became a big supplying country for us, and so I again started learning Swedish. I had some background in the language because I was born there and lived there for five years. I had forgotten Swedish, but then I spent a summer there as a 16-year-old and decided I’m really going to learn this language. Again, I got lots of audio books and textbooks.

I ended up doing a fair amount of business in Sweden, and I think I had better relations and developed a better relationship of trust with my suppliers because I spoke Swedish. When we had meetings and they wanted me to explain the Japanese market to them in front of their production people, the fact that I was able to explain what the customers’ requirements were, the market and how it was structured in Swedish definitely helped.

When I set up my own company in Vancouver, we did some business in Spain in the early days. I was able to contact people via the phone and had some Spanish customers come through, so being able to speak Spanish certainly helped. We have a very good customer in France with whom I speak French exclusively. My business, once I set it up, was primarily marketing to Japan, so the biggest payback was my Japanese language skills, which helped me develop a market position there.

Start learning Spanish today!

So, one of the greatest benefits of learning a second language for your career is it increases the number of opportunities that are going to come your way. It increases your opportunity to connect with people and understand them better. You never know which languages are going to come in handy and when.

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

4 July 2016

How I Went About Learning French and Spanish

learning french and spanish

How I went about learning French and Spanish

I’m going to combine how I went about learning French and Spanish because they both came at me at the same time in my life and were really quite instrumental to me getting involved with language learning.

I was in Montreal in the 1950s at a time when the city was what they called the two solitudes. You had a million English-speaking people and two million French-speaking people. The workplace was English. In the stores everything was English. So as an English-speaking person growing up in Montreal it was really not very different from living in Toronto or Chicago, as far as languages were concerned. Of course we had French in school starting in grade two and we had the 16 verbs that take ‘et’. We studied it to pass the exam and I did well, even though I wasn’t very interested in the topic. Everything they did in school made it uninteresting.

Start learning French today!

After school I went to McGill University in Montreal and had an excellent professor who made French civilization and French culture interesting. As a teacher you have only one job, to turn on the student – easier said than done. Once the student is turned on you don’t need the teacher. Whether it was that professor, the university environment or the textbook – I still remember it had these lovely pictures of paintings by Watteau and the different eras of French culture and civilization – but all of a sudden it became interesting. At the same time I became interested in the Nouvelle Vague movies.

So I didn’t only enjoy what I was studying in class. I was just fascinated by the discovery of Voltaire, Rousseau, Manon Lescaut etc. Then I started reading the local newspaper Le Devoir. In Quebec at that time there was fervor over Quebec wanting to be “maitre chez nous” because the economy was controlled by the English. Even though the Quebecois were the largest group and controlled the provincial politics, there was a lot of corruption and the church had tremendous influence. Quebec was the only province in Canada that didn’t have a provincial Ministry of Education. Instead they let the church run the education, so there were lots of notaries and priests.

This was all changed by politicians like Jean LeSage, René Levesque and, of course, Pierre Trudeau (although he ended up being more interested in federal politics). All this stuff was going on, so it was very interesting to read about it in the newspaper and go and see French theatre, even if I didn’t understand it. It was my French period, so I got totally into it. As I say, once you’re motivated it’s easy enough to learn.

I ended up going to the L’Institut d’études Politiques in Paris. I got my diploma there and had three wonderful years in France as a student. I lived in Paris. I had a bicycle. I lived on the fifth floor of a building that was built in 1789, so the toilet was on the third floor. I had a big aluminum basin I bought that I would fill with water and sit in to wash myself. It was very cold in the winter, but I had a great time living there.

That was obviously very good for learning French because everything I had to do I had to do in French. It convinced me that I could transform myself into someone that could comfortably speak another language. Part of the problem language learners have is they can’t really visualize themselves fluently speaking another language. It’s like climbing a mountain but you don’t know where the peak is and so you don’t think you can reach it. That’s a major problem that many language learners have who have never ever learned a second language. So French was a big deal for me.

I was first introduced to Spanish at McGill where I took a course in my first year. It was one of the electives I took and, fortunately, the professor got us into reading stories right away. We didn’t spend our time in class role playing, talking to each other, playing games, making slideshows and all this stuff that they seem to do now. It was “here’s a book, it has a glossary, read it.” I can’t remember the names of these stories, but they took place in places like Valencia. We read them and accumulated vocabulary. It was painstaking, but that was the course and I passed it.

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There were a lot of people living in Montreal who had fought on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War at that time. They would sit at a local cafe playing dominos and I’d wander in. I thought I was a really cool guy at 18 years old. I’d order a drink and watch all these Spanish guys play domino and hear them swearing in Spanish.

When I first arrived in France, I used to hitchhike every holiday. My favorite destination was Spain, so I’d go into what was then Francois Spain any chance I got. Spain was unbelievable in those days. People were so friendly and foreigners were a rarity. The first night I arrived in Barcelona, I was on a bus going out to the youth hostel and I started talking to people, bumbling in my Spanish. I would sit around with locals pouring wine out of this container that had a great big spout. The hitchhiking and hours and hours of sitting with truck drivers and other people who picked me up gave me lots of chances to speak Spanish.

I always think when you’re learning any language a major point is when you have read your first book. I’m not talking about reading on the computer with online dictionaries; I mean reading it. Ignoring the words you don’t know and reading it. The first book I read in Spanish was about the myths of origin of different peoples in Europe. It’s a subject that fascinates me. I believe a lot of this idea of ethnic identity is largely imaginary and elective, and you can choose to belong to whichever group you want to belong to. It was a fascinating book.

Check out my 10 tips for learning Spanish!

I keep emphasizing reading. Now, some people don’t like to read, they like to watch TV. Fine. You’ve got to do what you like and I always emphasize that in language learning. If you want to be successful with learning French and Spanish, you’ve got to like the language. You’ve got to like what you’re doing. You’ve got to put in the time. Reading is still the most effective way of building up your vocabulary, and then when you are confronted with the need to speak, as was the case with me in Spain, slowly, slowly, slowly the words start to come out. You hear them and you relate to what you read, so you build up your vocabulary. If you have a vocabulary, if you’re attentive to the language and try to listen to how things are pronounced, you will learn to speak.

As I’ve said many times, it’s the same with literacy in your own language. Reading is key. I look at my grandchildren and if they’re reading a lot, which they are, I’m happy. Whatever else happens in their school work, if they read well they’ll do fine and the same is true in language learning.

27 June 2016

How I Went About Learning Russian and Czech


About nine years ago I started learning Russian and if it has proven anything, it is that learning a language is a long, long road. It’s also an enjoyable road because you never get to the end of it. If it ended I’d be unhappy, so I’ve been at it a long time. Let’s trace why I even started with Russian.

When I started studying Russian I spoke eight or so languages. I had had a brief fling with Korean, but I discontinued because the content that I could find wasn’t very interesting. (But I will go back to Korean one day.) So I bought Teach Yourself, Living Language, and whatever I could find down at the bookstore and just went through them. As I’ve said before, listening, reading, and acquiring vocabulary is the best and most effective way to learn a new language.

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That was about the time we made Russian available at LingQ. We have a series of stories like ‘Who Is She?’, which is 26 episodes long, in all the different languages we offer. At that time, I had two Russian employees, so I had two Russian versions of ‘Who Is She?’ made. The original recording sound quality wasn’t all that good, so I had it done again. I listened to that so many times and I painstakingly went through the texts at LingQ. My aim was to get to a Tolstoy within about two or three months.

There were two reasons why I decided to learn Russian. One was because everyone said you can’t learn Russian with your approach, my approach being one of not ignoring the grammar, but treating the grammar lightly: grammar light, words heavy. You can’t do that with Russian I was told, so that was a challenge. The other thing was I have always enjoyed reading Tolstoy, particularly in English, so I wanted to read a Tolstoy in Russian. I thought that would be an amazing thing to be able to do. The first novel I went at was The Kreutzer Sonata. It’s shorter, not like War and Peace which is two huge volumes.

The other reason I began studying Russian was that we had business in Riga, Latvia. So when I went to Riga, I went to find a Russian bookstore and bought a lot of of audiobooks, including an audio book of The Kreutzer Sonata.

I can remember in those days LingQ didn’t work as well as now. It would take three or four seconds to save each word, everything was clunky and more difficult. But I still did it. I found more and more audio books and, typically classics. I can remember reading The Stationmaster’s Daughter by Pushkin. I must have listened to that 10 times. At that time, I was training for a ski race in Sweden called the Vasaloppet where I would have to run 90 kilometers. I trained I don’t know how many hours, but I put in about 400 kilometers of training of cross-country skiing. A lot of that was done listening to Russian.

I read many other audiobooks: Yama by Kuprin, which is just a phenomenal story, Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak. One of my absolute favorites was a radio presentation of Fathers and Sons by Turgenev as well as The Master and Margarita, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I read this book by Edward Radzinsky on Stalin, which is amazing.

There’s a store here in Vancouver called Russkiy Mir where you can buy Russian DVDs, so I bought a bunch of those. I watched Ирония Судьбы (The Irony of Fate) and Жестокий Романс, which is a lovely movie. Those are some of my favorites, I still have them. To me, videos, I’ll only watch them once, maybe twice, so it doesn’t have the value of the book that I might read and go back and read again or audio books, for that matter.

So that was the first year or two. I made a couple of YouTube videos, you can still find them, of me speaking Russian after six months, after a couple of years and so forth. Then I remember around August 8, 2008, I discovered Ekho Moskvy and it just happened to coincide with the Russian-Georgian War. So at Ekho Moskvy, as I’ve mentioned many times, every day you can find 10 or more new interviews. Both audio and text are downloadable, so I take the audio and the text and import them into LingQ. I still make mistakes when I speak Russian, but I understand most things.

Once I hit Ekho Moskvy, basically, I was listening and reading articles every day. Throughout that period, LingQ became a little smoother and so I was able to cover more ground more quickly. But, I’ve been at it for nine years and I still make mistakes. There are still some things I don’t understand. But, by and large, I understand most of what they’re saying in any interview on Ekho Moskvy. There might be five percent words there that I don’t know. So that’s kind of where my Russian is.

Then I decided to go after Czech for several reasons. One is the low-hanging fruit theory of language learning. I know Spanish, therefore, I can learn Portuguese. I put a lot of effort into learning Chinese characters, so I’m going to learn Japanese and, eventually, Korean, so I figured I’d go after Czech. Surprising to me, the grammar and the structure of the language are very similar to Russian, but the vocabulary is not as similar as I thought. Apparently, only 40% of words in Czech are either the same as or recognizable as similar to Russian. So, obviously, between even Spanish and Italian, there is a much greater similarity.

So I also managed to find a Teach Yourself Czech that I had bought some years ago, and I went through that. А number of our members at LingQ had created a bunch of beginner content and I went through all of that. At first, it was all a blur, then gradually the language became clearer and clearer. Then I found Czech Radio, which is a tremendous, tremendous resource; it is my Ekho Moskvy. It’s different in nature, but they have their daily news items with audio and text for download.

Czech Radio have a whole history collection called Toulky Ceskou Minulosty, which I’m now going through. It’s phenomenal. There you can find the audio and the text of the most recent ones and they’re extremely well done. The quality of the sound when you’re listening to a foreign language is very important. I discovered, too, that they had a free downloadable audiobook of The good Soldier Svejk. There’s a Czech bookstore, so I ordered this online. The audio doesn’t match word for word, but I’m going to try and read through the book and then listen.

It’s going much faster in Czech than in Russian. I think firstly this is because I know Russian grammar is less of a struggle; it seems less strange to me. The second thing is that it’s written in the the Latin alphabet, so that’s more comfortable. I do still listen to Russian. I’ve downloaded five interviews today. I especially like to listen to Victor Shenderovich. There are certain people I like to listen to at Ekho Moskvy too, so I have to find the time to listen to them, as well as listening Czech.

I guess the big message is, obviously, I enjoy doing it. Not everybody enjoys learning languages. I like to do it in a way that I find enjoyable and try to move from the beginner text onto authentic text as quickly as possible. I’ll go back to easier text just to give myself a little bit of confidence. At times, it seems you’ll never make sense of this language. In Czech they say things differently from Russian. I won’t go through the details, but it’s different so you’ve got to get used to it.

At times, it seems like you’re not going to get used to it, but I know from experience that you will. Having done it many, many times, I know that you will get used to it and I enjoy the process, that’s another big advantage. A lot of people don’t enjoy the process. I enjoy it and, of course, I enjoy it much more now that I can understand a lot, certainly in Russian and increasingly so in Czech.

When I go after Turkish, which I intend to do, or even going back to the Korean, it will be more work, less pleasure, in a way. Although, that pleasure of taking on a task which is difficult but which you know you’re going to be able to get through creates a great sense of satisfaction. There was this Hungarian-American who spoke of flow, in other words, there’s a great sense of satisfaction in taking on something that is difficult, but you know that you can, in fact, cope with it. Perhaps, just to finish off on that, I think that’s where a lot of language learners get frustrated. Yes, you get better at it the more languages you learn, but I think we can all learn.

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19 June 2016

French for Beginners – What You Need to Know

French for Beginners - LingQ

French was my first love when it comes to languages. In fact, there’s an expression in French: “On revient toujours a son premier amour.” It means you always go back to your first love. I love French; I love all the languages that I learn, but I have a special affection for French.

Though I studied French at school, I couldn’t speak it at the age of 16. Then I went to McGill University and had a professor who turned me on to French and to the French civilization. To learn a language you’ve got to really love the language, be committed to the language and want to be part of that community of people who speak it. That’s what happened to me. I got very keen and I ended up going to France for three years where I studied Political Science at L’institut d’études politiques in Paris.

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I highly recommend learning French for beginners. There’s a whole world that you can access so much better if you speak French. The language is spoken in other countries like Canada. It’s spoken in eastern Canada in Quebec and New Brunswick. It’s spoken in many countries in Africa. Not to mention Belgium and Switzerland. So it’s well worth the effort.

Here are some tips on French for beginners about to set off on their language learning journey:

1. Pronunciation
French is fairly difficult to pronounce. It isn’t like English, Swedish or the tonal languages. French tends to roll along in a fairly monotonous range of tones. Also, there are the nasal sounds and then the way the sound is carried on to the next word. These are things you have to get used to as a beginner.

One thing I recommend insofar as pronunciation is concerned is to get used to making the ‘ur’ sound. There are lots of ‘ur’ and ‘aw’ sounds in French, and you kind of have to pick up on that as soon as you can and have it flow through your pronunciation. It can be tough to pick up on these sounds in your listening. The French slur words together, as we do in all languages.

2. Positive statements, negative statements and questions
You have to get used to what in English we call the ‘w’ words: what, where, when, why, who, how: quoi,où , qui , quand , pourquoi , comment. You should get used to those at the beginning of your studies as they are essential for making statements and asking questions. Try google translate to see what the corresponding words and structures are in French.

You can save these on LingQ, which I very much recommend you do because the system will give you lots of examples. The examples come in two sections on LingQ, either from our library or from a lesson you have already studied. The advantage of looking at examples from lessons you have already studied is that you probably know the words. Very often, if you’re reading in a grammar book you look at examples, but you don’t know the words. That’s not so very helpful.

3. Gender and number
There are languages, like Japanese, that have no gender and no number. French has both. In French pronouns and adjectives have to agree, even verbs have to agree. This can be difficult to get used to, but we have to have the confidence that we will eventually.

4. Verbs
Very soon you’ll discover that whereas in English we say I go, you go, he goes, only the ‘he goes’ changes, in French every form of the verb changes, depending on the person. You’ve just got to get used to it. It’s very difficult to remember these conjugations. You can spend all kinds of time pouring over conjugation tables. In my experience it’s a very unsatisfying thing to do because you forget them. You might remember them for tomorrow’s test and then you forget them, so you constantly have to refer to them and see them in context. If you’re on the computer, just Google “French conjugations” or “conjugation” of any verb and you will find what you are looking for. The same is true, by the way, with pronouns, adjectives. Anything you want to look at, you just Google and it will be there.

5. Tenses
The big bugbear in French for beginners is the tenses. Like with all grammar, the key to “getting it” is to simplify. I own a series of grammar books published by Dover. None of them is longer than 100 pages; they’re very short descriptions of the grammar. That’s the kind of book you need to have so that you can refer to the grammar from time to time, because in most grammars there aren’t that many issues. In fact, I think there’s probably 10 or so.

6. Conditional
There are things like the conditional which we also have in English: “I will go tomorrow”, “I would go if…” etc. The French do the same in their conditional. You have to learn the endings by regularly reviewing them in tables, seeing them in context and so forth.

Type some “if” “then” sentences in English into Google Translate and then grab those sentences and import them into LingQ. Then you can look for them in your regular listening and reading.

7. Subjunctive
The subjunctive is also a bit of a bugbear in the romance languages. All that means is there are certain expressions that describe the speaker’s attitude, like “you have to go”, “I want you to go”, “although you went” etc. At first the subjunctive won’t make sense, but once you’ve seen enough examples, it will start to make sense and slowly you’ll develop the habit of using the subjunctive form of the verb at the appropriate time.

8. Relative clause
There are some things they do differently. The French are not hungry or cold, they have hunger and they have cold. There are a few other things like that. Largely, it’s a matter of getting used to it. Try using Google Translate and type in a few English sentences with relative clauses and you will see how it works. Google Translate is a valuable tool, especially where French for beginners is concerned. Use it!


Even though I went through very quickly some of the issues of grammar when learning French for beginners, I hope it’s a good start. The grammar can be a bit of a stumbling block. Don’t let it be, get past it. Go past the grammar, enjoy listening and reading. Enjoy the language, you’ll see that French for beginners is a wonderful journey. Build up your vocabulary using LingQ, which I recommend, and go back and visit the grammar from time to time. Once you have some experience with the language, you’ll find that gradually, with enough exposure, some of these things start to become natural.

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