10 May 2015

Meaningful Context in Language Learning

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I’m going to talk about the importance of context in language learning. As is usually the case with these, I don’t have them written out in advance so my thoughts are going to be a little disjointed. Bear with me here. Let’s start with what sort of triggered this thought in my mind.

I met this morning with a family; again, Chinese immigrants, father, mother and their daughter. They’ve been here for 12 years. The daughter speaks fluent English, of course, has been here since the age of four, she’s 16 and both parents struggle with their English. The mother there said yes, you know I find it very difficult when I go to study a list of words. I can’t seem to remember them and it’s very frustrating. She’s been here 12 years and she really can’t speak English very well at all. I thought to myself well, I can’t learn from a list of words because a list of words has no meaning for me. It has no resonance. There’s nothing there for me to grab on to.

Context In Daily Dialogue

Both the parents have lived here for 12 years and don’t speak English very well. Obviously, English is not very important to them. That’s another context that’s not there. They don’t have a strong sense of wanting to participate in an English-speaking society so there isn’t that context of wanting to participate in the language, but context goes beyond that. In my experience, if I learn from some content it has resonance for me. It’s interesting to me when I’m listening to some of my Czech material about the history of Czechoslovakia or whatever it might be. That’s of interest to me. Other people are interested in other things. It might be music, it might be whatever, but whatever you’re learning from has to be relevant, has to be meaningful, has to have resonance, it has to have credibility.

This is another problem. Very often if we’re learning from the typical sort of beginner text, we’re not entirely sure that that’s how people speak, at least I’m not. I’m not entirely sure that this is authentic and credible because, in fact, it’s scripted for me and I know that some of the words they’re teaching are not very important. Most beginner texts have you going through Customs. I wonder how many people have ever used the language they’re learning while going through Customs, I know I haven’t. You start to question the relevance of this context. It’s low resonance.

Reading Content

Obviously, reading a list of words has very little resonance. I think it’s so important that we get engaged emotionally with the language and the context that we’re learning from. That context is not only the subject matter we might be reading or listening to, it’s also the people we associate with. It’s our desire to be part of that community that gives resonance, that creates a meaningful context, makes it real, credible, authentic. I think one of the difficulties very often that immigrants from Asia have is that they seem to be less willing to inject themselves into the local scene and, therefore, English becomes less relevant to them. It’s not a meaningful context for them.

I don’t know if this makes sense, but I think it’s extremely important. The brain is not just some kind of a machine that you throw some stuff in, turn a handle and out comes language ability. It’s not just the so-called left-side of your brain, which is good at dealing with rational explanations or whatever. I think there’s ample evidence that it’s the whole of the brain that gets involved and that emotion is a big part of it and if the learning environment or the living environment or the learning materials, the context in which we are learning in every sense of the word, if that context is not rich, is not authentic, credible, vibrant, if it doesn’t grab us, then we’ll have a lot tougher time learning.

That’s really all I wanted to say. I don’t know what we can do about it, other than trying to find or create meaningful context. In other words, learning from material that we like and find interesting where the voice has resonance, where the subject matter has resonance. I can still remember a text that I listened to in Italian, I Promessi Sposi or Anna Karenina in Russian or some of the material I’m listening to now in Czech. It creates an attachment and that’s going to help you learn.

Content In Conversation

Also, in terms of interacting with the language, as you know my preference is to wait until I have enough of a vocabulary that I can actually have a meaningful, again, interaction, one that’s authentic and real and we’re actually communicating meaning so that I am driven by the desire to communicate my meaning and understand the meaning of the other person. I’m not displaying my ability to use the subjunctive or worrying about whether I say everything correctly or not because I’ve got a meaningful context and it’s meaningful because I have enough of a vocabulary that I can actually have a meaningful conversation and have a chance of understanding what the other person is saying. That makes that whole context meaningful.

Do with this idea what you want, but I think those people who are able to create meaningful, rich, authentic, credible learning content are generally more successful language learners. So, I look forward to your comments. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

Posted in 90-Day Challenge, Learning Languages, Learning Techniques, Online Learning | 3 Responses

6 May 2015

How to Hack Chinese: Six Tips For Learning Faster

I am going to talk to you about six hacks for mastering Chinese. Basically based on my experience when 40 odd years ago within a nine month period I went from scratch to where I could read novels and translate diplomatic documents in Chinese. Both English into Chinese and Chinese into English.

Chinese Hack #1

Hack number 1. The first month or maybe two, FOCUS ON LISTENING TO PINYIN. Pinyin is the Romanisation. Just get used to the sounds. It’s too difficult in my view to start learning characters when you don’t even have words. It’s easier to learn things when you have something meaningful that you can refer it to – so you listen to stuff, you read the pinyin and by this time you’re getting more and more keen to attack the characters. The characters for the words that you have now already learned. So hack number one is focus on pinyin for the first month or two.

Chinese Hack #2

The second thing is, once you decide to STUDY CHARACTERS, this is the second hack, go at them full-time. Full time meaning half an hour a day at least and develop your own memory system. You may use anki, I had a system where I used these flashcards, these are now well over 40 years old and I developed my own sort of space repetition system writing, which I can explain to people if they want, but learn those first 1000 characters. Thereafter you will find that you will be able to pick them up because so many elements repeat and it becomes easier to learn them through your normal reading activities. But the first 1000 characters. The second hack is make a deliberate effort – almost as a separate activity to learn those characters. That is hack number 2.

Chinese Hack #3

Hack number 3 is; FOCUS ON PATTERNS. If you are – whatever book it is that you are using – don’t get caught up in complicated grammar explanations, focus on patterns. When I was studying we had a wonderful book by Harriet Mills and P.S. Ni. It was called Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese, A Pattern Approach. Every single lesson they introduced were patterns and to me that’s how I sort of got a sense of how the language worked and developed these patterns, which became almost like the frames around which I could build (my) whatever I wanted to say, so focus on patterns. That is number 3.

Chinese Hack #4

Number 4 – READ A LOT. Read a lot and in my case – and find interesting things that you want to read. In my case, very soon after we got passed our initial sound only, pinyin only text called ‘Chinese Dialogues’, we graduated to something called ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’. ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ is very interesting historically, it consists only of texts and a glossary, no complicated explanations, no quizzes and when I look at this – and this was a sort of lower intermediate book ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ and today. Like the last time I was in China, I bought this ______________ which is an advanced book in Chinese, OK? It is full of the most boring content about so and so, who went to school and met his friend and went to the barber and they went skating and I don’t know what and it’s full of questions and stuff like that. There’s only one thing to do with this kind of book in my opinion, throw it away. I don’t like it. Unless you are interested in that kind of stuff, so and so went skating. I graduated from ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ to this ‘Reader in Modern Chinese’ which was fascinating and introduced the patterns, and then I went on to novels like ____________. So read. Read a lot. Much easier to do today because the internet provides so much content, you can use online dictionaries, you can study at LingQ, so read.

Chinese Hack #5

Next FOCUS ON LISTENING TO THINGS THAT YOU LIKE in my case I listened to a lot of ______________ but nowadays you can get online, you can go to Beijing and buy, you can buy elsewhere CDs, the classics of Chinese, of history, novels, you name it. _____________ is available, if you look at my latest blog post you’ll see a link to a site where you can download an audio version free of charge. So FOCUS ON SOUNDS.

Chinese Hack #6

And one last hack that flows from this focusing on sounds, and this is something I am going to admit. I have tended to not being a great fan of shadowing because I didn’t really do it, but I am saying to myself. Chinese with this intonations, with the music of the language. I think you should shadow and I must admit I am going to try and do more shadowing now with my Korean and even though, while you are trying to speak while you listen and you miss stuff and you don’t understand it as well and it can affect trying to really enjoy the content – so I wouldn’t suggest you do it all the time – but as a process of getting used to the music of the language. Give it a try, and let me know how it works. It may be that plus a lot of listening to real lively Chinese that you like, is going to help your brain get used to the tones. A better solution than trying to memorize the tone for each word.

So there you have it – those are my 6 hacks on learning Chinese. Bye for now.




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Responses

1 May 2015

Experience Is The Best Teacher

In language learning, it is the experience of the learner that is the teacher.
(From a presentation to a group of language teachers via Skype)

I am delighted to be here to speak to a group of dedicated language teachers. I will use my own experience to explain why language learning success is dependent on the learner’s experience.

Let me say first of all that I am a learner of languages, not a teacher. Since the age of 16, I have been interested in learning languages, and during my career as a diplomat and business executive, I learned eight or nine of them.

The Language Learning Revolution
At the age of 55, I decided to learn Cantonese. I had studied Mandarin and could read Chinese characters, but I needed to develop the ability to understand how Chinese characters were pronounced in Cantonese. I went through a period of six months of intensive listening. That was when I discovered the minidisk player. For the first time, I experienced the power of small portable learning devices that would evolve into mp3 players, iPods, iPads, and the like.

Experience Ipod Ipad Iphone

To me this was the beginning of the language learning revolution. As someone who learned Mandarin listening to open-reel tape recorders, the power of the minidisk was a new and powerful experience which rekindled my interest in language learning. I not only listened to the languages I was learning, but was also able to easily record casual and natural interviews in English for learners of English. Wow! Language labs were going to go the way of the dodo bird.

At the age of 62, I wrote a book about language learning, and in particular about my experience learning nine languages. Now, eight years later, I speak 13 languages and I’m working on two more. In other words, I added six more languages during this period.

Experience is the Best Teacher
When I think about my learning activities, what I remember most is the pleasant experience of reading and listening to interesting content, stories, interviews, books, and more, all of which introduced me to worlds that were previously unknown to me. This is what Stephen Krashen calls “compelling content.” With compelling content, the very experience of learning a language becomes compelling.

Experience - Stephen Krashen

It is not just that an enjoyable experience with the language helps learning, but this experience is at the essence of our learning. Any attempt to understand, or even master grammar or pronunciation, in fact, requires considerable prior experience with the language. These new explanations and rules need to relate to something we have already experienced. If we follow a natural approach to language learning, relying on exposure and experience with the language, a lot of things fall naturally into place.

The Three Keys to Language Learning
Some years ago when I participated in the ACTFL conference in San Diego, I heard Dr. Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, Head of the Language Acquisition Resource Center at San Diego State University, say that there are only three things that matter in language learning: the attitude of the learner, the time spent with the language, and the ability to notice. I agree.

Attitude: Successful language learners just throw themselves into learning the language. However, the vast majority of language learners resist the process. At some level they don’t want to learn the language, they don’t think they can learn, they don’t like learning it, and they find it hard. They haven’t yet experienced success in language learning. As a result, they resist learning the language. I believe a major task for teachers is to overcome this resistance, to provide learners with a meaningful and positive experience with the language, and with language learning as a process.

AAA_Three Keys - Experience

Time: Dr. Lyman-Hager referred not necessarily to time in a classroom or instructional hours. Her reference was to time spent with the language, reading, listening, writing, and speaking. As we all know, it takes time to learn a language.

The ability to notice: Experienced language learners notice things in the language, how words are pronounced, how ideas are expressed, and what new patterns look like; poor language learners don’t notice these things. Teachers can help point out these things in the language, but ultimately learners need to develop the ability to notice them themselves. Grammar review, making mistakes, and becoming aware of one’s gaps in the language all help us to notice what’s happening in the language. However, I think the main prerequisite to developing this ability to notice is a lot of enjoyable experience with the language. We need the experience, and we need to know the language at some level, before we can learn it.

Krashen’s Meaningful Input
This brings us to Stephen Krashen’s brilliant input hypothesis. As Professor Krashen says, “if you understand the message, you are learning.” I would go further and say “if you enjoy the experience of learning, you are learning.”
My learning has always been built around interesting content which resonated with me and which I enjoyed. More than any specific conversations or situations where I used the language, I find myself remembering enjoyable experiences with content that captivated me while listening and reading.

I remember the impact on my French learning that my fascination with French civilization and culture had on me once I took my learning out of the classroom as a 16 year old. More recently, I remember how Proust came alive in audiobook form, as did Balzac and Marguerite Yourcenar and other authors. Listening to them was not only an enjoyable experience and  a deep journey into French language and culture, but it also improved my French.

Proust - Experience

While learning Mandarin, I remember listening over and over to Chinese 相声 (xiang sheng comic dialogues), and to artists like 侯宝林, even when I didn’t really understand them all that well. I remember my sense of satisfaction at reading 骆驼祥子 (The Rickshaw Boy) by 老舍 (Lao She). I remember listening over and over to the NHK radio special on the history of the Showa Era in Japan, 昭和の記録, while driving around in Tokyo.

I know exactly where I was when struggling, as a beginner in Russian, to understand while listening to the “Who is She” beginner course in Russian at LingQ. Soon after, I was able to move on to Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, both in audiobook form and by reading it at LingQ. I remember standing in the airport customs line-up listening to it in audiobook format and going over the text at night on my computer. I can still picture myself jogging around the park while listening to a wonderful radio drama version of Turgenev’s Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons). I did the same with Il Narratore’s wonderful audiobook versions of Pinocchio and I Promessi Sposi. I could go on and on recounting my experience as a beginner, intermediate, or advanced learner in most of the languages that I have learned and enjoyed. These are lively experiences that have shaped my involvement with these languages.

Language Learning Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata Experience

Our first uncertain experience with a language is with simple texts that are not always clear, but which provide some context to help us get a sense of the structure and pronunciation of the language. At first we have trouble understanding these,  but as we persevere these texts become clearer. Only with a lot of input do we start to get a good sense of how the new language works. As an intermediate or advanced learner, we progress away from learner texts and deal with more meaningful content. Now the learning process becomes its own reward, as we immerse ourselves in subjects of interest, even though often without full comprehension. The adventure continues, and so does our learning.

How to Study Compelling Content
Compelling content is often difficult. Given that relatively rare words that appear only once or twice may account for 15% of the words in meaningful context, we obviously need to deal with material that has a fair number of unknown words in order to read and listen to content that is of interest.

That is why there are a number of conditions that make accessing this kind of content much easier today. In my experience, I prefer to have audio with whatever text I’m reading, at least until I’m a strong intermediate. I want an ability to look up words and phrases immediately by using electronic dictionaries. I want an ability to save words and phrases that I have looked up because I usually forget the meaning of words that I look up in a dictionary. I even forget that I have even seen them before. I need a way to highlight words that I have met before in order to help me notice them in the future.

AAA - Books - Experience

I want to be able to highlight phrases that contain patterns and grammar structures that cause me problems. I want to be able to tag them into different categories for later review.

In other words, I want to be able to interact with the text that I’m learning from and to interact with the words and phrases that I’m learning in a way that has not been possible with traditional learning material. More than that, I want to be able to choose content of interest to me from which to learn.  All of this makes the language learning experience more intense and ensures that I will stay with it. This experience, the accumulation of many years of language learning, is what led me to the creation of LingQ.

What About Output?
I have only talked about input because to me, input, vocabulary, and comprehension are the foundational skills for progress in language learning.

However, what about the role of output in all of this? What about what we might call “GPS” (grammar, pronunciation, and speaking)?

Of course, all three are important. What’s more is that teachers and learners typically attach a lot of importance to GPS. The question is how much emphasis should be put on GPS and at what stage in our learning.

Again, I refer to my own experience. I typically start a new language with one or two starter books, perhaps something from the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series, and try to get an overview of how different thoughts and concepts are expressed in the new language. However, I don’t expect to remember any of this and I don’t try to force myself to learn it.


I don’t do the questions or drills in these books. Instead, I often look at the answers to these exercises, where typically I can see the same pattern repeated many times. I don’t try to force my brain to answer the drills or questions because I find it an unpleasant experience, and because I am not convinced it helps very much. I prefer to focus on listening and reading, as I described above.

This activity may seem passive, but in my experience, it builds up my vocabulary and familiarity with the language, preparing me for the stage when I can start speaking.

It’s somewhat the same with pronunciation. I don’t attempt to nail down pronunciation at the beginning because I have found it too difficult to do so. On the other hand, after listening to hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio, I find that my ability to notice the pronunciation and intonation of the language improves, and thus my ability to reproduce these improves. I delay any major effort at pronunciation until later.

This means that I usually delay speaking whenever I am learning languages and am not in a location where the language is spoken, which is usually the case. However, this was not the case when I lived in Japan because I was surrounded by people speaking Japanese. However my main learning activity, even in Japan, was listening and reading.

Language Learning Listening - Experience

I always advocate starting to speak when the learner feels like it or has the need or the opportunity to speak. I don’t think learners should be encouraged or forced to speak if they are not ready to do so or don’t want to.

But there comes a point when we have to speak, and speak a lot. At that time, we have to throw ourselves into it, without worrying about how we sound, or about whatever mistakes we make. We want the experience of speaking to be enjoyable. The more we understand, the more words we have, the faster we will improve, and the more pleasant our speaking experience will be. But it won’t be easy, and especially not at first. However, our experience with the language and the wealth of compelling content that we have already absorbed will sustain us if we have the right attitude.

In summary, if we follow the three keys as put forward by Dr. Lyman-Hager, language teaching and language learning depends on experience. A positive experience ensures a positive attitude. This will usually ensure that learners put in enough time, and that they are not reluctant to spend the time with the language that is needed; in other words, the learning process becomes its own rewarding experience.

Helping to create an enjoyable experience for learners by providing timely guidance, assistance, encouragement, stimulus, and the teacher’s own enthusiasm are more important than the teaching of the nuts and bolts of a language. At least that has been my experience.
Good luck!

Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

29 April 2015

Can You Hack Language Learning?

Learn English from this video as a lesson on LingQ

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann.
Today, I want to talk about language hacks, hacking language learning. It’s very fashionable to talk about hacking things. There’s a self-help site called Life Hacks, a form of advice on how to tie your shoelaces faster and stuff. What do I think about language hacks, hacking language learning? I should say that you do see articles on how to hack the subjunctive or hack the imperfect or hack Chinese characters.

I don’t like the word ‘hack’ because the word suggests to me something destructive, somebody coming in and destroying my computer. I don’t really believe in shortcuts, but if we just take the word to mean tips. I think every language learner develops his or her own habits and some of us like to share them here on the Internet, as I do, so perhaps they’re hacks.

If I look at my three sort of ‘golden keys’ of language learning, we could call them hacks. So hack number one is to have a positive attitude, to enjoy the process and to do things that you enjoying doing. So, one hack might be to stop going over the same boring learner content that you’re not really interested in, just in the hope that somehow it’s helping your language learning. Do things that you find interesting, get on to compelling content, as Stephen Krashen says. So, in a sense, that’s a hack. It gets you to enjoy the process and makes you more positive.

The second key, of course, is to spend enough time. Here again, the hack or the shortcut is that there is no shortcut. It’s going to take you a long time, but if you follow the first hack and do things that are enjoyable then you don’t mind spending the time. You’re not anxious to have a shortcut of a process that you find enjoyable, so try to make it enjoyable and then you’ll spend the time.

The third hack would have to do with my third key, which is developing that attentiveness, the ability to notice and here there are different things we can do. Obviously, just massive exposure makes you more attentive to the language, if you’re paying attention. Occasionally, reviewing the grammar makes you more attentive. But the main focus, again, is on this massive input, in my view.

When I read and listen I try to notice. I underline when I read. I save links in LingQ. If I review some grammar rules or some examples I don’t expect to remember all of that, but I do believe that it makes me a little more attentive. When I’m learning if the text is difficult for me, then I’m focused mostly on understanding it, saving words in LingQ and trying to understand what’s being said. Sometimes I don’t fully understand it, but if I’m motivated to get through that content I’ll continue to plow through it, even though there are a lot of new words to me.

On the other hand, when I’m reading something that’s easier for me then I’ll make a conscious effort to try to notice certain constructions that I know I have a problem with because that increases my ability to notice, my attentiveness. If you notice again and again, eventually, you develop new habits and start to sort of ingest the language and develop the language habits you want.

So there you have it, my take on language hacks. I don’t think there are real language hacks; I think we have to develop our own special activities that we enjoy doing.
Thank you for listening, bye for now.

Posted in Learning Languages | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Response

31 March 2015


Independent learning is the most important issue in education today, and in many ways the most elusive or difficult issue to deal with.  More than class size, teacher accreditation, or the latest innovations in teaching methodology, developing independent learning habits, in other words, self-learning, in students, and teachers, should be the main preoccupation of educators, and of learners themselves.

How do we become a society of successful independent learners? I have developed approaches that work for me as an independent learner of languages.

Independent learning_Steve

I wonder what other people do?

The Importance Of Independent Learning
First let’s look at why independent learning is so important. Governments are spending larger and larger portions of their budgets on education. As pointed out in this article , in the United States education budgets have grown 350% after inflation since 1970, but education outcomes have not improved. The incarceration rate in the United States has ballooned during the same period. Similar problems exist in most countries. Educated and literate people are far less likely to end up in jail and have many other advantages. However, existing educational institutions  may not be the most cost effective way to educate our society.


Most schools cost too much and deliver too little.To the extent that learners have to pay the cost of their own education, there is increasing realization that the benefits of the present education system are not commensurate with the costs. University students in many countries are complaining that they graduate with large student loans and yet have poor job prospects, creating a high rate of default on student loans.

Finally, the pace of technological change forces people in the work force to constantly update their skills or acquire new skills. Learning has become more of a life long pursuit. This does not even account for the rewards of pursuing personal improvement learning throughout life.

Independent learning, or self-learning, is an obvious solution to these problems. Even within the institutional education system, getting learners to take responsibility for their own learning is recognized as vital to learning success.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Forced Learning Is Ineffective
As long as the teacher or educational institution is forcing a curriculum on passive or unwilling learners, the results will continue to be poor. Teachers know that the more motivated learners there are in a classroom, the easier it is to teach the class.  An independent or motivated learner is driven by curiosity, by the desire to explore, to discover and to learn. The reluctant learner, the majority in the present system, lacks this curiosity and desire to learn.

The Internet has made available a vast array of learning resources in many fields. These range from the popular Khan Academy which offers free downloadable high school lectures on difficult subjects, to universities like MIT, Stanford and others offering courses online. Smartphones and Tablets offer not only a mobile way to connect to these resources but a host of educational applications for independent learners. Last but not least are the many excellent educational videos on a variety of subjects that are available on youtube.


How should the independent learner interact with these resources to ensure better results whether in the classroom or as a self-learner?

What Is Grazing Learning?
It has been shown that variation is the key to deeper learning, rather than a “block” effort to deliberately learn an array of facts of information, which is typical of existing teaching methods. This is sometimes referred to as interleaved learning, and Robert Bjork has researched how we learn and has many informative videos on this subject on youtube. Furthermore, knowledge is not finite or static, but often requires us to engage in “grazing learning”, covering a vast amount of material, without expecting to remember it all, but rather to familiarize ourselves with a subject, and then to go into greater depth as required. As Bjork points out about how we learn, we end up with a deeper knowledge of the subject if we take this approach.


However, not all learners  have the curiosity to explore a subject by grazing. Many require specific goals or tasks that they can aim for, or tick of as completed, regardless whether these tasks are interesting to them or not.  What is more, as Manfred Spitzer, the German neuroscientist pointed out in his book The Human Brain and the School for Life, or in this shorter article, the brain always learns, but it needs both novelty and repetition.

So while independent learners need to be encouraged to explore subjects, they benefit from the discipline of more mundane tasks, repetitive tasks, such as reviewing facts or lists of information.

Curiosity Is Key
I consider myself an independent language learner. I have learned 14 languages other than English, 6 of them in the last 10 years, in my 60’s. Most of my time is spent listening and reading, using content of interest to me, which I study on LingQ either at the computer, on my iPad or on my iPhone. In other words, I spend most of my time grazing in the languages that I am learning, driven by my curiosity about the culture or history behind these languages.


There are moments when this is not satisfying, moments when I feel my grasp of the language is not moving forward. Then I assign myself more mundane tasks. I often listen to repetitive recordings of the basic phrases of the language. These phrases can be disconnected from any real meaning. I don’t really want artificial dialogues, which try to provide meaning. I just want rote repetition. This is a small part of my learning, but it is an important part. It helps me to notice patterns in the language. It is also in line with Spitzer’s observations about novelty and repetition. It also brings some discipline and task completion satisfaction into my independent learning.

How Much Freedom?
Successful independent learners need to be curious and motivated. But too much freedom can be a burden.  A balance needs to be struck between the freedom to roam and graze on the one hand, and regular repetitive tasks which focus our powers of observation, and give us a sense of task completion or achievement. This is what I strive to do with my language learning. I wonder if others have a similar approach in their learning.

Posted in Learning Techniques, Online Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Responses

27 February 2015

Automatic Translation Technology – Replacing Language Learning?

I hear more and more about automatic translation technology. Skype recently announced their Skype Translator Preview – An Exciting Journey to a New Chapter in Communication.

This translation technology will make it possible for people to communicate via Skype across languages. Two people can speak two different languages, and the conversation is automatically translated for each person to hear in his or her own language.

Skype automatic translation technology

This technology is not surprising. Google translate is already quite accurate for many languages, although not for all. The more closely related the languages are in vocabulary and structure, the more accurate the translations are. Recently, text-to-speech technology has greatly improved, enabling any text to be accurately voiced for someone to listen to.

Then there is dictation software. After all, I am now able to dictate this short article to my iPhone 6 Plus. A few minor corrections on the computer and the article is done. The thought that these translation technologies could be combined in an automatic simultaneous interpreting capability does not surprise me.

I will be traveling to Asia on Sunday. I will be visiting Korea, Myanmar and Vietnam. I am sure that I will take advantage of Google translate, at least in Vietnam. I have already tested it out for Vietnamese. I will be able to say something in English into my iPhone and Google translate will give me the Vietnamese equivalent, not only in writing, but also in text-to-speech format.

Thus I will be able to ask a Vietnamese person where a particular store is, how much something costs, where the bus stop is and so forth  I will also be able to ask the Vietnamese person to speak into my iPhone with the answer in Vietnamese. Google translate on my iPhone plus will then translate this back into English for me. Probably the translation technology on Skype works along similar principles.

Automatic translation technology on iphone6plus

How is this likely to affect language learning? I recently did a Google search for articles on the subject and came across a blog post by a Benny the Irish Polyglot where he discusses a product called Vocre. Benny points out that these translations are not always reliable. To me, this is a minor problem. The quality of these translations can only improve over time, since they are based the accumulation of context examples of ever increasing quantity, and in this way the context based-accuracy improves. I already find that Google translate is much better than it was, and usually serves my purpose.

So I don’t think that it is the accuracy of this technology that will be the main reason why it will not replace the need to learn languages.

Rather it is because language learning is not just about learning to ask for directions and ordering beer. Language learning, in my opinion, is about connecting with a different language group, getting an insight into how these people think and getting exposure to their history and culture.

This new automatic interpreting technology is helpful for situations like the ones that I will face in Myanmar and Vietnam as a tourist, where I don’t speak the language, and very specific questions that I need to have answered. It is an interim communication tool. It is not a substitute for learning the language.

On the contrary, if after visiting Vietnam and Myanmar, I find that one of these countries is sufficiently fascinating, I may very well want to learn the language in order to get closer to those people,  their history and their culture. I may simply want to be able to interact naturally with speakers of those languages, not via some interpreting device.

In those languages which I am able to speak fairly well, I have had wonderful personal interactions with people.  If I think of the interesting and fulfilling things that I have read and listened to from the history or the literature of those countries, the reward of actually learning the language is obvious. Using these translation tools does not come close.

I have trouble imagining myself sitting down in a restaurant, or beside someone in an airplane, or in a bar, or on a park bench and engaging them in a far-reaching conversation using this kind of translation technology.

The world will get even smaller with translation technology

Just as the advent of the computer increased the consumption of paper, I tend to think that the introduction of this kind of technology will increase the interest of people in language learning, and not decrease it. It is a short-term bridge or crutch which enables communication across certain language barriers, but not a longer-term resource for really getting to know people and discovering other cultures.

This  new translation technology will again make our world smaller, bring people closer together, and as a result, people will want to take the next step in getting closer to  people who share their world, and learn their language.

Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

30 January 2015

Words, Why They Matter And How To Acquire Them

In language learning, the importance of reading and a large vocabulary, can’t be overstated. In response to my recent video on this subject I received comments from those who are convinced that we can converse quite comfortably with just a few hundred words. This debate is a regular feature of the discussion of language learning on the web. “We can communicate well with only a few words”,  “We need to speak right away”, say some. I don’t agree. You can communicate with a few words but you can’t say much and you understand even less, and that means a very limited form of communication.

Many Words

My views have been formed through my own experience of learning, or trying to learn, 15 languages. I constantly find my lack of words to be the greatest obstacle to enjoying the language more. Why? Because the words I am missing prevent me from understanding things that I hear and read, and want to understand.With enough vocabulary and comprehension comes confidence, the confidence that I can defend myself in the language. With this confidence to sustain me, the speaking part develops naturally, as I have more and more opportunity to speak.

I realized this with the first language I decided to learn to fluency, French. As with most English speaking school children in Montreal in the 1950’s, I had studied French at school since grade 1 but couldn’t hold a conversation. At school we had boring and bored anglophone French teachers and boring text books, and spent most of our time on grammar exercises, writing meaningless essays, and, with some difficulty, reading mostly uninteresting stories.

No doubt the instruction of French in Canada’s anglophone schools has improved since then, with more francophone teachers rather than anglophone teachers. The results, however, remain the same, dismal. This is a constant source of hand wringing by politicians, leading to reforms of the instructional system, but not to improved learning outcomes.

In my first year of university in Montreal,  I had a French Professor from France. He managed to excite my interest in French civilization. This changed my attitude completely. I started reading a lot, thumbing through the dictionary in those days before the internet. I watched movies in French, attended plays, read the newspaper, listened to the radio, and within 6 months my French just blossomed. My interest in the language drove me, but it was the exposure to the language that enabled me to learn. At first I had to look up many new words and gradually these unknown became fewer and fewer. Yet they were always there. Especially when reading novels, there were always unknown words that prevented me from enjoying the book I was reading. This was also true in films or when I was hanging out with francophone friends. I was always missing key words.

This article by Ernest Blum explains why. In a nutshell, while a few high frequency words account for most of the words used in any given context, the remaining 30-40% of any text consists of low frequency words, sometimes only appearing once or twice in the text.

Since you need 95 or even 98% coverage to enjoy reading a text, according to vocabulary researcher Paul Nation, the sad fact is that you need to know a lot of low frequency words in order to enjoy reading books. Why is this important? Because reading is one of the most effective ways of acquiring fluency in a language, especially when combined with listening.

As Blum points out, research has shown that wherever languages are taught, the students don’t acquire enough vocabulary to read interesting texts. For the French daily newspaper Le Monde, 22,000 words only gives you 94% coverage. Even a popular magazine like Time requires 14,000 words to achieve 96.9% coverage. Most school children, Blum points out based on research in a number of countries, know  at most 3,000-5,000 words. Few of these students can read longer more meaningful texts. This hinders their language development.

Teaching languages with an emphasis on grammar rather than on reading and listening, is ineffective and goes against an earlier more effective tradition, that of focusing on reading texts, and especially reading with interlinear translations.

The result is boredom for the learners. This was true over 300 years ago as this quote from John Locke illustrates.

“How is it possible that a child should be chained to the oar, seven, eight, or ten of the best years of his life, to get a language or two, which I think might be had at a great deal cheaper rate of pains and time and be learned almost in playing? “ John Locke Some Thoughts Concerning Education 1692.


James Hamilton, quoted widely by Blum in his article, was an early 19th century  proponent of reading, and especially of reading with interlinear translations, to learn languages.

According to Hamilton:

Reading,is the only real, the only effectual source of instruction. It is the pure spring of nine-tenths of our intellectual enjoyments. . . . Neither should it be sacrificed to grammar or composition, nor to getting by heart any thing whatever, because these are utterly unattainable before we have read a great deal.

theory of grammar should be taught only once pupil can read the language

Reading with interlinear texts is a great help, especially to beginners. As the learner progresses, however, the importance of interlinear texts declines. The learner is able to understand more and more of the words, and is better off staying in the target language.

The availability, on the Internet, of vast quantities of interesting language content, both audio and text, enables the learner to seek out meaningful subject matter of interest to him or her. Perhaps most importantly, online dictionaries make it possible to read and understand interesting material with a much higher level of unknown words. Thus we can acquire new vocabulary more quickly. If the learner had to rely on content with 98% known words, the vocabulary growth would be painstakingly slow.

Surprisingly, I have found it better not to focus my attention on learning vocabulary from lists or flash cards, although I do some of that. Instead I learn best when I am able to expose myself to as much content as possible, reading and listening, taking advantage of the technological conveniences of the age of the electronic tablet.


The result is a surprisingly rapid and enjoyable increase in my vocabulary and in my enjoyment of the language. This is quite different from the deliberate and ineffective learning process fifty years ago at school. In summary, read and listen and you will learn!



Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Responses

31 December 2014

The Perfect Time To Learn Languages Is Now

There has never been a greater time to learn a new language. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you do for a living, or if you are a man or a woman. If you are not already trying to learn a new language – let 2015 be the year when you do. Learning a new language has so many benefits. In the following I will reveal some of these benefits, and the best approach to language learning.

Ten years ago I was in China speaking to university students and promoting my book ‘The Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey’. In the book I drew from my personal experience in learning 9 languages to advise people on how to achieve success in learning a second language or even more. Now, ten years later, my attitude towards language learning has not changed. But other things have. First of all I am 10 years older, (in my 70th year), and secondly I have learned another 6 languages in this period, while working simultaneously.

In addition to the 9 languages that I spoke previously, I have just in the last 10 year period, achieved varying degrees of fluency and good comprehension in Russian, Korean, Portuguese, Czech, Romanian, Ukrainian, and am now starting Polish. After that I intend to learn Turkish, Farsi and Arabic.

Age Is No Excuse
Obviously – despite what many people think – age is not a barrier to language learning. Quite the contrary, there are a number of reasons why seniors, as well as people of all ages, should learn languages.


Language learning is a fascinating hobby. It connects us with worlds that we didn’t even know existed, and with people from different countries and language groups. This enriches our lives in many ways. Language learning is a voyage of discovery, fulfilling and stimulating. But that is not all; it is also very good for our mental health, increasing our intelligence, and protecting us against Alzheimer’s disease, as a number of studies have shown. Language learning is also a wonderful excuse for people of all ages to become better acquainted with the Internet and modern technology.

Endless Resources
Although the majority of people today are still trying to learn languages in various language classes, the range of resources and services available through the Internet is vastly richer and more powerful than what the traditional classroom can offer.


Here is a short list of just a few of them:
– Google translate
– Text to speech
– Podcasts on interesting subjects in the variety of languages
– iTalki
– Duolingo
Effortless English and AJ Hoge

What is Effortless English and AJ Hoge? AJ is one of the most effective language teachers in the world, with delighted students constantly writing on Twitter to express their appreciation of what AJ has given them.
AJ’s message is similar to my own. Simply relax and enjoy yourself and the rest will come naturally. Don’t get hung up on grammar rules and explanations, grammar exercises, tests and all of the other trappings of traditional language teaching.

The Three Golden Keys of Language Learning
Language learning can be boiled to three essential concepts, what I call the three golden keys.


The first golden key is the attitude of the learner. Ask yourself the following questions:

– Do you want to learn the language?
– Do you like the language you are trying to learn?
– Do you believe you can achieve fluency in the language?
– Are you happy just to communicate, without worrying about pronunciation or correct grammar?
– Are you prepared to congratulate yourself for whatever you are able to achieve in the language?
– Are you determined to succeed?
If the answer to these questions is yes then you are ready to succeed, and ready to move to the next golden key.

The second Golden key is the need to spend time with the language.
This means engaging with the language itself, not dealing with explanations about the language or exercises that test your knowledge and your patience. Spending time in the classroom with other students who don’t speak the language, or with a teacher explaining things, is not necessarily the best way to spend time with the language.

Listening to the language itself, as spoken by native speakers, whether in face-to-face conversations, or listening to an interesting podcast on an MP3 player, are more intensive language experiences. So is reading in the language.

Language learning takes time. Not only do you need to spend 45 minutes to an hour a day, but it will likely take months and possibly years to achieve your target level of competence in the language.


As long as the time you spend with the language is enjoyable, interesting, and stimulating, you don’t begrudge yourself this time. The task of language learning becomes a fascinating adventure, a rewarding hobby. As AJ and I both stress, it becomes enjoyable. Once you are able to enjoy your learning, your success is guaranteed.

If your attitude is positive and if you have found a way to commit the time necessary for success, you are ready for the third and most elusive of the three golden keys.

The third golden key, is to develop the ability to notice, to become attentive to the language.
There is a Sufi expression which says we can only learn what we already know. We have all had the experience of noticing something that we hadn’t noticed before, and then suddenly this phenomenon seems present everywhere.

When we start in the new language, everything is strange and unclear. Then as we start to notice a few words or sentence patterns that we have encountered over and over, we are better able to notice other things in the language.
The more exposure we have to the language, through listening, reading and communicating with others, the more alert we become to all aspects of the language, including how the language is pronounced.

listening  reading
Teachers, corrections from helpful native speakers, grammar books, etc. can all help us become more attentive. Ultimately, however, these are minor. We have to discover the vast majority of these things ourselves. We have to train ourselves to become attentive to the language.

Our ability to be attentive, therefore, is dependent a) on our attitude; our determination and will, our open-mindedness, and b) dependent on the amount of time we spend with the language.

In fact the three Golden keys; Attitude, Time and Attentiveness are very much interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

Let Technology Help You
In my language learning over the past 10 years, I have spent thousands of hours reading and listening to content that fascinated me. This was content that I chose and which maintained my interest in conquering the language. It is really only in the initial stages that I felt I had to learn from boring beginner content.

Modern technology makes it possible for us to move onto interesting content of our choice, at quite an early stage in our learning. Specifically, it is the availability of online dictionaries, online grammar resources and especially language learning systems like LingQ, which make it possible for us to spend most of our language learning time with content of interest, which is for me, the real driver of language learning.


The Internet offers us unlimited content in the languages we are studying. In my learning of Russian, Czech, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and other languages I have found fascinating resources, just by googling. Audio books, podcasts, radio programs and more are available for download.

I make full use of technology. Not only the Internet, but also MP3 files, iTunes, mobile apps for my iPhone, and iPad to study whenever I have a moment, wherever I am.

Reading and especially listening are not only powerful ways to learn, they are very portable. You can read whenever you want. You can listen while doing other tasks. You can use “dead time “in order to make sure you achieve a level of daily contact with your language of at least one hour.

In order to learn a language today, we simply need to start. If we follow the Three Golden Keys and take advantage of modern technology, success will feed on success and we can learn any language, and however many languages we want, and enjoy the process.

There was never a better time to start learning a new language. What are you waiting for?

Happy New Year Everyone!

Posted in Learning Languages, Learning Techniques, Online Learning | 9 Responses

3 June 2014

Being bilingual makes you smarter

Bilingual people are smarter, and it doesn’t matter when you learn a new language according to this recent study.

To quote the article, 

“Findings showed that those who spoke more than one language tested better on intelligence tests, regardless of when the second language was picked up.”

Now that should be motivation to get cracking on your language study.

learning  languages (500x333)

Here’s an extract from the article:

“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” said lead study author Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Responses

27 May 2014

When to Start Speaking a New Language?

One of the liveliest discussions within the language learning community is on the subject of when to start speaking. I am a proponent of letting the learner choose when to start, and my personal preference is to delay speaking. I prefer to invest a fair amount of time in listening and reading, in order to gain some familiarity with the language and acquire a decent level of vocabulary. Then when I start speaking, I have something to say, and I can understand what others are saying.

To me, speaking from day one, in other words forcing people to speak right away, is  like asking people to sing who have never heard a song, play tennis who have never seen a tennis game, or swim who have never seen a person swim. What’s the hurry? It is much easier to start speaking when we are somewhat familiar with the language. Focusing on comprehension is less stressful and more pleasant than forcing oneself to speak.

Here is a discussion on the subject with Martin Weiss, American polyglot, who has a different point of view. What is your personal opinion? Feel free to share in the comments!

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Responses