9 May 2016

Effective Language Learning: Listening and Reading

Effective language learning listening and reading

I want to cover the issue of input-based learning that I have spoken about in two past YouTube videos in Chinese and Japanese. It goes by different names but basically amounts to spending most of your time on listening, reading, working on your vocabulary and becoming familiar with the language rather than on output-activities or grammar-focused activities. That doesn’t mean there is no output or that people don’t look at grammar, but it means that the bulk of the time is spent on listening, reading and building up vocabulary.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.
Why do I think listening and reading is the most effective language learning method and a better way to learn languages?

I have five reasons. First of all, because it works and it works very well. If you study the methods of some of the best polyglots on the Internet, or the famous Kató Lomb, you’ll see that they generally involve a lot of reading and listening. This has also worked for me.

When I learned Czech I only listened and read, and then gradually started speaking. I stepped up the speaking prior to going to Prague and I could understand everything the locals said to me when I got there. My speaking, which was already call it a low intermediate level, stepped up to maybe a middle intermediate level while I was there. You have to continue speaking, of course, but I was able to do all of that because I had a sound basis in the language and that sound basis came from a lot of listening and reading.

Number two, it’s easy. You can do it anywhere. You can do it while driving, washing the dishes – as I do – or exercising. Similarly with reading, particularly now. There is a LingQ iPad app, so if you’re studying on LingQ you can do so on your iPad. You can also print content and read it. You don’t have to go to a classroom and spend half an hour to get there and half an hour to come back. Also, in terms of effective language learning, if you’re listening or reading, you’re 100% with the language. In a classroom, half of the time you’re having to listen to other students who may not use the language as well as you do and so, to my mind, it’s much less effective than time you spend alone with the language.

The third reason that input-based learning is effective is that you’re not making mistakes. A lot of people are afraid to make mistakes. If you’re forced to speak, you’ll make mistakes. You’re listening; you can’t make a mistake when you’re listening. You might misunderstand something or your understanding might be a little fuzzy at times. You may have the wrong interpretation when there are words you don’t understand. None of that matters. That’s part of the process and things that are unclear and fuzzy at an early stage will eventually start to become clearer. So you’re not really making mistakes, but you’re in that stage of your learning where the brain is gradually becoming more and more familiar with the language. You’re learning more and more words and, of course, things are going to be unclear to you. So that’s an advantage.

effective language learning listening and reading

A fourth advantage of listening and reading is you can choose what you want to listen to and read. Obviously, the first month or so you’re stuck with beginner material which is often not very interesting, but I encourage people to move beyond the beginner material as soon as possible to get into things of interest. I certainly find that if I find something of interest, even if there are a lot of unknown words, I’ll work hard with that text because it’s of interest to me. When I was learning Czech I was able to learn so much about Czech history, the history of Central Europe and the political situation in the Czech Republic. When I got to Prague I had all this wonderful background.

Finally, learning via an input-based approach is cheaper. You don’t have to spend anything. You can go to the library or find content on the Internet. There are systems like LingQ, which is much cheaper than going to class. It may be that someone else is paying for the class, but that doesn’t change the fact that the class is expensive. Inherently, because you have a trained professional there in front of students, someone has got to pay for that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to class, but if you do, I believe the main emphasis should be on input-based learning.

Input-based learning has a drawback, and that is for it to be effective you have to be motivated, disciplined, a self-starter. You have to be curious about things and go out and find content of interest. You have to have the confidence that you can succeed. This is often the problem with inexperienced language learners who have never really become fluent in another language. They can’t visualize themselves as fluent, so they kind of half defeat it before they start. They think they’ll never get there, and if you think that then probably you won’t. You have to be a positive, confident, motivated, independent learner. However, if you go to a class and you aren’t a confident, motivated, independent learner, you won’t learn either.

I mentioned in my Chinese video that they did a study of Chinese immigrants to Canada and found that in seven years (they followed about 3,000 immigrants who were taking ESL classes at government-sponsored schools) there was essentially no improvement, statistically no improvement. Those who spoke well when they arrived spoke well and continued to speak well, and those who didn’t speak when they arrived still couldn’t speak very well.

That’s just to say that very often in a classroom environment if the learner is not motivated, in other words doesn’t have all the qualities required to be an independent learner and to take advantage of listening, reading and input-based learning, they won’t be successful in the classroom either. So the classroom can provide a lot of social benefits and feedback and so forth, but even if you’re in a classroom, make sure that your main emphasis is on listening and reading, as well as building up your vocabulary.

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


  1. Wojtek
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Dear Steve, I want to share a though that has occurred to me recently. Not particularly related to these videos. I’m 27 and though it is not common to respect older people these days (as it used to be), I think the other way around.You, David Allen (the creator of the GTD method), Brain Tracy (very influential business and personal couch, a millionaire if I remember correctly) are all at the age of 66-67.It is very interesting that you all have much in common: successful, happy and robust men. It must be awesome to be so energetic being 66.I want to be like you when I’m your age – not sitting in front of the telly and watching stupid soaps that make you dumb and obtuse.That’s it! Just a personal kudos!

  2. Andrew Lassota
    Posted November 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr.Kaufmann! At last I have dared to write to you! Thank you so much for your great work on demystification of the language learning process.As many of my friends I have been unsuccessfully trying to learn English all of my conscious life (for more than 20 years). For me this process was always “a long and winding road” of endless grammar rules and drills, without even a slight hope of achiving a level of fluent understanding and enjoying the language in the future.But everything changed about a year ago, when I discovered for myself Lingq and your YouTube channel. In fact it was one phrase from your book, that made a Revolution in my mind. In the beginning of the book you simply advice everybody to read it, even it would be the first serious English book in their life. I followed your advise, though I didn’t believe that I could do it. I have read the book and several times listened the audiobook. And it was like a breakthrough for me. I have suddenly felt that I CAN DO IT!Since that I have listened to all of your audios and videos, I began listen to different audiobooks and podcasts that interested me. Now I am interested in different approaches to language learning, especially in such prominent authors as M.Brown, S.Krashen, J.Asher. Especially I am fascinated by the ALG-method of Dr. J.-M.Brown. In fact it is a first practical academic application of Dr. S.Krashen’s ideas about input-based method of language learning. I think the ideas of this method is quite similar to your’s. In the past you have devoted several of your videos to the different aspects of Dr. S.Krashen’s method.Could you devote some of your future videos to the analysis of the ALG-method (www.algworld.com). By the way there is several fine YouTube videos on this topic performed by David Long (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Vg2Eh2LOSE).Thank you so much and waiting for your responseAndrew Lassota, Poland

  3. Steve Kaufmann
    Posted November 22, 2012 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Andrew,Thank you for your interesting comment. I don’t know the details of the ALG method,but a lot of what David Long says, I agree with. Understanding is the foundation, drills and exercises are boring and not necessary, and mot adults in language classes do very poorly. I also think that LingQ is an application of this approach.Cheers.Steve

  4. Posted November 22, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I generally agree, but one thing that I would add (that I suspect you may disagree with) is that I definitely encourage people to start talking with native speakers (generally via skype with people you find via language exchange sites like italki and the mixxer) as soon as possible, and I also disagree with people who claim that doing so is somehow damaging or will hurt you. Take the Spanish, for example, that you just spent the last hour learning during your first ever lesson and get on a skype call with a native speaker who’s already at a somewhat advanced level with their English (so that they’re perfectly happy with 98% of the call being in English, which it inevitably will be) and use it on them! Get feedback from them, they’ll tell you about your pronunciation, they’ll tell you about related phrases and alternate ways of saying what you said (e.g. you say "buenos dias, como estás?" because that’s all you know, and they teach you about "qué tal" and "qué onda" and "en qué andas" and "buenas tardes" and "buenas noches" etc., etc., etc.): you’ll learn all sorts of things and it’ll be fun and interesting because you’re interacting with a real life native speaker and you’re learning about their culture and their language and this little session will give you a huge reason (massive motivation, so important in language learning!) to go back and learn more Spanish before your next session so that you can impress them with what you’ve learned in the meantime and are better able to communicate with your new friend!Definitely speak from day one if possible, preferably with a native speaker, but yes most of what you’ll be doing will and probably should be input, and the more of a beginner you are the more this will be the case. I find that, as an advanced Spanish learner, at this point the great majority of my Spanish learning takes place during skype calls with language partners, not while I’m watching Spanish-language TV shows or reading an article in Spanish.Cheers,Andrew

  5. Steve Kaufmann
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    I prefer meaningful activities with any language.I do not enjoy talking to people in a language where I have very limited vocabulary and very limited ability to say anything or understand anything. Once I have a sound basis in the language my ability to speak will improve with speaking. Until that point these painful attempts at discussion are largely a waste of time for me.Even at an intermediate level, I prefer reading and listening to speaking unless the conversation is meaningful to me. In other words I like meaningful activities, in my own language and in the language that I am learning.

  6. Posted November 23, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Oh I completely agree that it should be meaningful, I guess we just disagree on what qualifies as "meaningful", I personally think that everything I detailed above qualifies, specifically:"Get feedback from them, they’ll tell you about your pronunciation, they’ll tell you about related phrases and alternate ways of saying what you said (e.g. you say "buenos dias, como estás?" because that’s all you know, and they teach you about "qué tal" and "qué onda" and "en qué andas" and "buenas tardes" and "buenas noches" etc., etc., etc.): you’ll learn all sorts of things and it’ll be fun and interesting because you’re interacting with a real life native speaker and you’re learning about their culture and their language"Not only that but I personally enjoy helping people out with their English, not only is it satisfying to know I’ve helped someone learn a foreign language but I also get the added benefit of learning how to <i>teach</i> a language and learning about how other people learn foreign languages, it gives me an outsiders perspective on that. Sometimes I’ll just tell my partner that I want to just do English for the entire call, usually because I’m tired and dealing with my native language requires less energy and effort than dealing with any other one. That’s me, though, and like you said, you don’t enjoy talking to people in a language that you’re still a beginner in, which is perfectly fine–something I emphasize to people is that different things work to differing degrees for different people and the best method for one person isn’t necessarily the best for another, you kind of just have to experiment and see what’s best for you.I personally advocate speaking very early on, but I’ll be one of the first person’s to tell people that for some people this is not the best method and that they may very well be better served by doing input-only for the first 2 or 4 or 6 months a la Steve Kaufman or Ramses (Spanish Only / Language Dojo) or Iversen (HTLAL forums). Different things work for different people, and one of the most valuable qualities of a teacher is realizing this and encouraging students to find out what works best for them instead of trying to force everyone into the same mold.Cheers,Andrew

  7. Posted November 28, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I am proof that the input method works extremely well. My first language was German and when I moved to the states, my mother had me watching Sesame Street to learn English.Even though I was still speaking German for a little while, pretty soon – I was outperforming other students in school when it came to reading and grammar. You have to put the information in first in order to be able to use that information later. This approach is much better than just parroting phrases.Thanks for the post!

  8. Colibri
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Steve !Have you read The Word Brain (A short guide on language learning) ?It supports your views on language learning.You can download it on http://www.thewordbrain.comThe micro edition (1 page) says it all but more information is given in the 70-page edition. I am a fan, keep up the good work.

  9. Steve Kaufmann
    Posted December 8, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Colibri, fascinating reading, and certainly in line with what I believe.

  10. Posted January 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    @ SteveALG "Automatic Language Growth" is a language teaching and learning method that was (AFAIK) developed by some expats in Thailand; it is taught by pairs of teachers to a class of students, all in the target language. At the beginning, students just watch and listen to the teachers interact. Soon, they can answer teacher requests like "put your hands up" and later "arrange yourselves in order from shortest to tallest", without producing speech at the beginner level. The people that follow this method say it produces very native-like speakers. To me the disadvantage is I need to take that class; I prefer to surround myself with the right input.re: 华东师大 我对那边英语系的人没什么深刻影响,不像特别强的英语能力。华师大听说有全国最强的对外汉语系,但这是他们培养的师资,而不是那些人外语厉害的问题。

  11. Hamilcar
    Posted March 11, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    HAHA! 我真喜欢你的中文视频!我的中国老婆也喜欢!你的视频说得对!

  12. Spencer
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink


  13. Posted March 3, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Language learning is really very complex, it’s one of the reasons I love it so much. We deal with four separate, yet linked skills reading, writing, listening and speaking which are in turn linked to thousands of separate, yet linked facts, grammar rules, vocabulary words, pronunciation rules, etc.

  14. Stera Gutnick
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Hi Steve . Do you agree that when one can translate the text from one’s native language to the target language, this is the ultimate achievement ? It is painstaking and difficult, but should we as learners and teachers be aiming for this?
    Still seeking the ultimate learning /teaching methodology

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      I do not do much of that. I prefer to do things in the language that give me pleasure. That keeps me going.


  15. Stera Gutnick
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Hi again Steve. What is your opinon about teaching children grammar rules and also some groups of vocabulary through song ,with native and target languages together in a linear fashion? Perhaps this has a chance of staying in the long term memory ?
    Do you think drama in the classroom is the way to go for long term memory? I am not sure that learning by heart helps for communicating. It may help for other things?
    Thanks once again

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      I have never taught in a classroom, and have not taught children. More than anything, I am a learner.


  16. Stera Gutnick
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    And lastly…
    I have been advised for my own progress in language, to listen to news reports and to watch movies in the target language , with sub titles (not sure if the subtitles should be in the native or target language) . I find this difficult and frustrating since it all goes too fast for me to think and absorb. Maybe I am better off working on some literature at my own pace?
    Thankyou for your patience

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      I prefer to work with comprehensible material, or material where I have access to a transcript, the way we do things at LingQ. Reading is powerful for vocabulary acquisition. Movies, video and TV much less so, I believe.


  17. Miguel Angel Ponze
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Steve!
    It is so amazing what you are doing with this website. I like that idea that language can be self-taught and the student is in complete command of their own learning progress and today with that great avalanche of apps, moocs and devices to help people learn, learning a language is becoming increasingly fast and easy.

    Right now, I am working on a project to teach 3 languages simultaneously in one class. My target public are Spanish speakers and the languages I decided to include to teach are Italian-Portuguese-Romanian due to their high similarity in pronunciation lexis and structures. I am still having some problems when teaching these languages to speakers of English or Japanese because they are from a different language group because they have lots of problems when trying to relate these languages to their own. They find little or no connections at all. Can you give some advise on your own experience?

    Thanks so much! =)

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      It is really easy to learn these languages once we have one of them. They key is to focus on understanding first, and then to start speaking, without inhibitions. The greatest obstacle is the desire to stay in the language that one knows the best and not to venture out and try to imitate the new language, so near and yet not the same. Good luck. Give LingQ a try.


  18. Erich
    Posted May 11, 2016 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Steve,

    I picked up again my German learning after a 22 year break having studied it as a major in college. I am now approaching my 2 year anniversary of German practice whereby I have averaged 3 hours of listening practice each day (I had the goal of 1000 hours per year of listening). So, 2000 hours later, I can listen to native speaker podcasts and understand 70-95% of the content, depending on complexity of the subject.

    My Question: My spoken skills are still well below where I want them to be. I have been considering taking skype “lessons” with a native speaker where I basically speak almost the entire time in a sort of “interview” format and the native speaker can make corrections, help me formulate better and/or alternate ways of expressing, etc. What do you think of this approach? Or would you advise something else? (At this time, I am unable to spend time in a German speaking country, which would idea.)

    Thanks in advance for your response.

    • Posted June 15, 2016 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Eventually we have to speak, and we have to speak a lot to really improve. Yes us Skype. Have the tutor send you a file of the words and phrases that you had trouble with. Continue you listening and reading but by all means speak more. It will get better.

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