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!



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!

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.

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!

27 May 2014

Can English speakers learn languages?

Of course English speakers can learn languages, but mostly  they don’t. Why? Here is a guest article I wrote on the subject recently for an interesting new blog on language learning called Lingholic. 

This blog belongs to Sam, a fellow Canadian polyglot who lives in Ottawa. He manages to combine his passion for learning languages, his blog and a full time job. With this growing army of language bloggers, the world is slowly becoming more open to the joys of learning languages, or at least I hope so!

learning_headphones (500x334)

29 April 2014

Interleaved learning, or learning without pressure

Interleaved learning is an approach to learning that departs from the traditional block or focused approach to learning. Interleaved learning and the research behind it, is based on the idea that if we should not focus on learning or mastering one skill or set of information, such as a limited group of words in a foreign language.  Instead , we should move on to other skills and bits of information, and then come back to the first group of skills or information later.

Research shows that, in the short term, the block learner does better. In the long run, the interleaved learner retains more. See some interesting examples. 

Here are a couple of videos on this and how this relates to learning languages at LingQ.

17 April 2014

The 90-Day Challenge: A Final Review

My 90-Day Challenge has come to an end! A period of increased learning intensity brought me new momentum in my Korean, and taught me some new learning habits. I can’t say I am fluent, but I feel confident I can become fluent if I keep going. In that sense I achieved my most important goal. It was worth the effort.

Congratulations to all the participants who shared this great learning journey with me and made a breakthrough in their languages!

10 April 2014

Writing helps you notice the language

I wrote 250 words of Korean today on a rather difficult subject. Lots of mistakes, which were corrected by Korean member at LingQ.

I would rather be listening and reading, but I know the writing helps. It helps me to notice the language.  It is quite motivating to see your writing corrected so I hope to do some more tomorrow, if I have the time. Time, where to find the time…

9 April 2014

Really enjoying writing Korean

I am glad that my son nudged me to start writing Korean. I know writing is good for language learning, but I kept putting it off. Now with less than a week to go, I have to write to meet my obligations under the 90-Day Challenge. Using the iPad makes it a lot easier. I can touch the Hangul characters on the iPad screen without having to use a mouse, as on the computer. I can even dictate Korean using the dictation software that comes with the ipad, and then correct the mistakes. And writing does give you a better grasp of the language and makes it more fun to read.

8 April 2014

A glimpse of the Maidan

I don’t know how many people follow these events in Russian but the following exchange provides some insight into the dynamics of the Maidan and yet another example of how Russian TV deliberately edits video to spread misinformation.