11 July 2013

Quantity over quality in vocabulary learning

students-safety

Yet another thread at LingQ on vocabulary learning.

I am quoted as having said the following:

“To me a word is like a person you get to know and who is going to help you learn the language. You know lots of people without knowing them in detail. The more often you meet them in different situations, the better you get to know them. It is the same with words. The task in language learning is not only meeting words or friends for the first time but also getting to know them through frequent exposure. If you focus your efforts on trying to know a few words very throughly, then you won’t have the time to expose yourself to the words you have already met. We constantly need to see and hear even the most basic words that we are always getting to know better and better.”

I believe that reading and listening, and LingQing as much as possible, is the fastest way to accumulate a large vocabulary. Some people agree and some people don’t. Here is a comment on one of my YouTube videos from a person who understands what I’m talking about:

“In my mind, at least, the more my comprehension grows, the more naturally I can speak. If I was focused on speaking, however, sure, I could say a hundred sentences from a phrasebook, but if I can’t understand the response, what good is it? In my experience, focusing on output slows down the development of my comprehension, whereas focusing on input increases both my speaking and comprehension ability simultaneously.”

But these are the comments of language learners. For an in-depth look at what Paul Nation, a leading vocabulary learning expert, has to say, check out the following article.

9 July 2013

How many words you can learn a day?

What is the average number of words you can learn a day?

This is the title of an interesting thread at our LingQ Forum. I also did a video on this subject that keeps on coming up.

There are many different points of view. I thought this comment from an English teacher was quite interesting.

“During my CELTA certification I was taught to plan for 7+/-2 new words in any 90 minute lesson – call it 5 words per hour. The focus was not on building a large passive vocabulary but in being able to produce this new language quickly. If the latter is your own goal for a foreign language then I’d argue that this is a reasonable benchmark.

Do you want to be able to USE a vocabulary of 5000 words or word families? Expect 1000 hours of study.”

In other words, the position of this commenter is that you can only learn what the teacher doles out to you in the classroom. Needless to say I disagree. You have to reach out and find what interests you and learn the words that interest you.

8 July 2013

Donald Trump, Mouton Rothschild 2006 and other subjects

donald_trump (1)

Donald Trump has successfully sued a woman $5 million for saying nasty things about him, or rather about a beauty pageant that he organized. I don’t think Donald Trump’s reputation, nor the good name of beauty pageants, is worth $5 million. In my mind neither has much honor. I don’t understand how a judge could award such a ridiculous amount. It’s not as if Trump needs the money, nor is held in high regard by most people. To me this action by Trump just confirms him as a dishonorable person.

While on the subject of money and what things are worth, an interesting thing happened to me two evenings ago. A dear friend and his wife came to dinner. He had recently celebrated his 80th birthday. A friend of his, whom he had known forty years ago, when they were both teachers, had sent him a birthday gift. This friend of his had become very wealthy. The gift was a bottle of wine. My friend brought the bottle to our place and told us it was a special bottle. He didn’t tell us the price of this bottle of wine. It tasted very nice but to our minds it was nothing special. After dinner we looked up the price of this Mouton Rothschild 2006 Pauillac wine.  The price tag was $1200 per bottle. To me it tasted marginally better then my normal wine, which I pay $15-$20 a bottle for.

wine

What are things really worth? What is Donald Trump’s reputation worth? What is a nice bottle of wine worth? What, for that matter, is learning a language worth? I guess it is all in the eye of the beholder. I’ll take learning a language over an expensive bottle of wine or Donald Trump’s reputation anytime.

While on the subject of language learning and what things cost, here is another example of strange values. The Canadian government spent $16 million to put up a website called the Canadian language portal. Mind-boggling, and they are probably continuing to spend lots on this silly project.. But then the Canadian government spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on English language training for immigrants. This ESL training is largely irrelevant to the language success of immigrants. Those immigrants who want to learn do so mostly on their own. Those immigrants who rely on government funded ESL schools tend not to improve their language skills very much, according to this recent study.

6 July 2013

Why do some people struggle to learn languages?

The main reason is simply because they haven’t done it before. Anyone can learn, regardless of age, nationality, or “talent.”

4 July 2013

“Ser” or “Estar” in Spanish, which one should we use?

10194947_m

One of the fine points of Spanish is deciding when to use “ser” or “estar” . Both verbs mean “to be”. If you Google “ser or estar” you will find 350 million pages in .29 seconds.

At this one site you will find the definition that I have copied below as well as lots of examples. You you can also check out the other sites for similar definitions and examples. In fact you can find abundant sources of information about grammatical issues, in most commonly studied languages, in less than a second, just by googling. But does it really matter.

Of course it does matter. We would all like to speak correctly. However if you confuse the two verbs,  ”ser” and “estar”, you will still be perfectly well understood. On the other hand if you have a limited vocabulary, you won’t understand much of what people are saying and you won’t be able to say very much.

When I have a choice between perfection in grammar and a large vocabulary, I always  choose vocabulary. This does not mean that I don’t want to speak correctly and accurately, I do. I know that I can eventually achieve a high level of grammatical accuracy in the language that I’m studying. But I am in no hurry to get there. On the other hand I am usually driven to increase my vocabulary as fast as possible so that I can understand more interesting things that I want to listen to and read.

Ser is used with:

Elements pertinent to your or others’ identity

physical description, personality and character, nationality, race, gender, profession, origin, What things are made of

Things which “Take Place” or “Occur” in Time:

Dates, days, seasons, time, events, concerts, parties

Possession

Click here to Review Ser and to see more examples

Estar is used for States of Being

Emotional, physical & mental states of (our bodies’) being:

  • Feelings/moods/emotions, physical conditions or appearances, civil state (married, single, divorced, dead)

Placement State of Being:

  • Location of things and people (but not events)

Motion State of Being

Click here to Review Estar and to see more examples

3 July 2013

Language Learning and ugh! Money

Should language learning be free? I don’t understand this tremendous aversion to commercialism in education. The greater the variety of educational services available the better in my mind.

25 June 2013

Vocabulary predicts success: word power equals life power

6586861_s
The size of your vocabulary will usually determine the size of your bank account. Robert Kiyosaki, author of the popular book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, wrote, “If you want to be rich, you have to have a rich man’s vocabulary. Words can make you rich, or can make you poor.”

Or as Ed Hirsch, Jr. wrote in a recent article entitled A Wealth of Words, “the key to increasing upward mobility is expanding vocabulary.”  He further elaborated,

“The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts.”

The number of words you know is also the best predictor of language ability in second language acquisition. That is why at LingQ we have made the known words total such an important statistical feature.

To be clear, I refer to the passive knowledge of words, the ability to understand the meaning of words when you hear them or read them. The more words you understand, the more complex content you can listen to and read. This means that you can learn about more complex subject matter while at the same time increasing your vocabulary even further, without deliberately studying these words.

As Hirsch points out,

“If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process.”

Unfortunately schools in general — and language instructors in particular — are less concerned with word power and more concerned with vainly trying to develop certain specific skills arbitarily chosen by the teaching establishment. In the case of language instruction this usually means an impractical early focus on grammar and correct output from a limited vocabulary base. In the general education system, it often means trying to teach politically loaded concepts such as critical thinking, anti-bullying, or environmental activism.

While there is nothing wrong with these concepts, it is a matter of priority. Students first need to learn how to read better, whether in their own language or in a foreign language. If they can read widely and understand, their other language skills will naturally develop. They will also be in a better position to form their own opinions on those issues where the teacher is trying to inculcate teacher-centered values.

When I was at school we always had books, starting from the earliest grades. Now my grandchildren get a variety of printed sheets instead of books. Their learning is scattered.The result is described by Hirsch in his article:

“And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.”

The economic cost of poor literacy in the US is enormous. This is true for native speakers and even more so for people whose first language is not English, as pointed out in this study financed by the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation. One of the solutions that this study proposes is increased use of mobile technology, especially cell phones. However, the learning programs proposed for these mobile devices are based on the same old ESL concepts of teaching grammar, and output in a narrow range of work-relevant subjects. I believe that this will not significantly increase the learners’ word power, and will condemn them to low paying jobs or unemployment.

The most effective mobile learning device is the book. The next most effective moblie learning device is the MP3 player, especially if the audio matches the reading material. A combination of text and audio can help struggling readers increase their word power. For those who have access to computers, a well structured system like LingQ, which combines text, audio and vocabulary acquisition functionality, can be one way of helping low literacy citizens improve their employment prospects. I would love to see LingQ used in this way, one day I hope.

20 June 2013

English will remain the international language

15639432_m

The dominant position of English as an international language seems to create controversy in certain circles. Some French people for example, resent the increasing importance of English in the European community, and Claude Hagège is but one spokesman for this point of view. French used to be the language of diplomacy and the preferred language of international exchange. Educated people in Europe, as well as the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East were proud to speak French. This is much less so the case today.

The Chinese government is promoting the teaching of Mandarin around the world, through its Confucius Institute network, in order to establish Chinese as the new international language. Yet the difficulty of writing Chinese characters, and the tonal nature of the language, make it unlikely the Chinese will become a preferred language of exchange for people who are not native speakers of Chinese.

To some, the widespread use of English is seen as advancing the political agenda of the English-speaking world. Esperanto, is offered up as an alternative, as a politically neutral international language. It also has the advantage of being quite rationally constructed and easy to learn, apparently.

Often, when I read or hear French or Mandarin or Russian or some other language I have learned, I reflect on the natural elegance and power of that language. Each language is a master-piece of human creativity, having evolved naturally during the course of centuries. In that sense, all are equally valuable and sophisticated in my view. Some are less useful than others, however.

The use of English as a highly convenient means of international communication is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. The relative power and influence of the United States and Britain will continue to decline. This will not, however, make English less useful. It will just make the political argument against English less relevant.

At the same time, in a shrinking world, I expect to see an increasing interest in learning languages, major regional languages, minor languages, threatened languages, artificial languages, all languages. The recent Polyglot Conference in Budapest is but one example of this.

The Internet makes it easier to learn languages, in ways that were not possible before. It makes it easier to connect with people who speak different languages. The future of language learning is bright, but the role of English as the main international language is unlikely to change.

17 June 2013

Real and meaningful language acquisition

When we are put into real learning situations we have a big opportunity to improve. My recent visit to Romania was just such a real life language situation. I was forced to use the language for real communication. Romanian ceased to be a subject of study and became a real life necessity. I spoke Romanian with business associates, taxidrivers, shop keepers, waiters and others. Being thrust into real meaningful language situations can be very beneficial to language acquisition.

We do, however, have to prepare for this opportunity. My two months of intensive study, mostly listening and reading and building up my vocabulary, enabled me to take advantage of these real-life situations. If we are thrust into these situations too early then we are often unable to participate in meaningful communication. Of course, I also had my five hours a week skype discussion with my online tutors. These were invaluable. I don’t know if I learned more Romanian when speaking to my tutors compared to when I was listening and reading. However my human contact with speakers of the language kept me going and introduced an element of the real, even before I arrived in Romania.

But these were tutors whom I paid. They were kind to me. They spoke slowly. They were sympathetic. The people you meet in real life situations will not necessarily behave the same way. The broad vocabulary base that I was able to achieve by spending most of my time listening and reading, served me in good stead. Had I relied more on speaking with my tutors, then I would not have learned as many words and would not have been able to understand as well as I did once on the ground in Romania.

That is why I think that some of the modern language teaching techniques such as role-playing and task based language learning, do not provide the best form of preparation for real life language situations. These activities are not real and the likelihood is that the way in which the language comes at you in a real life situation will be quite different from these artificial classroom scenarios. So I prefer free-flowing conversations with my tutor on whatever interest us. This kind of interaction is more meaningful and real then “pretend” role-playing and or “task-based” classroom activities.

In a few days I will put up a video of a discussion with one of my Romanian tutors. I will put up a translation in the form of subtitles. This will enable you to learn a bit about Romania, as well as get a sense of what can be achieved in two months of input-based activity, some online conversation, followed by a brief visit to the country where the languages is spoken.

13 June 2013

When are we fluent?

This comes up all the time. In my view, if we feel that we are fluent, we are fluent. If we are comfortable communicating on most subjects. If we understand most of what is said, and can, with errors and the occasional awkwardness, get our meaning across,  we are fluent.

Some people have suggested that we need to be able to say ” I am tying my shoe laces”, or some such obscure phrase. I say nonsense. If you can communicate on familiar subjects you can quickly learn to communicate on less familiar subjects, if and when the necessity arises, with a little help at first.