25 June 2013

Vocabulary predicts success: word power equals life power

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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

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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.

5 June 2013

Cafe Spergl

Leisurely lunch and good wifi Sent from my iPhone

5 June 2013

Grey day in Vienna

At least the rains have stopped. Sent from my iPhone

4 June 2013

Grinsing and a little Romanian chit chat.

Schweighofer Prize, the dinner the night before, short video clip.

Arrived in Vienna with about 2 hours of sleep and went straight to a suburb of Vienna called Grinsing where our host, Gerald Schweighofer , held  a dinner. Tomorrow is the main event, the awarding of the Schweighofer Prize for Innovation in the Wood Industry.

Holzindusrie Schweighofer is a tremendous success story, largely due to the brilliant entrepreneurship of Gerald Schweighofer, who is speaking in the video below. He took  a family sawmilling company with 500 years of history and turned it into a major international player. Mills today are mostly in Romania. My small company buys wood from Schweighofer, and I will be visiting the operations in Romania.

This will be followed by three days of vacationing there, and that is why I have been learning Romanian these two months. I was at a table with Romanians last night and was able to converse in Romanian. One of the gentlemen in the video is the Mayor of the town of Comanesti who spoke no English. We had a great time, and he insisted that I detour via his town and sample the local goat cheese specialty. I will do that.

2 June 2013

Leaving Vancouver for Europe

This evening I fly off to Vienna, former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and then to Romania.

I have been creating Romanian Playlists in iLingQ on my iPad, so that I can open them, read them, listen to them, and study them on the plane. I have also downloaded PDF files of Austrian history, Romanian books, and Czech, Romanian, and Russian grammar books that I have emailed to my Kindle account on my iPad/iPhone. I will have access to tons of material which means there is no need to bring any books.

I did, however, bring a short German paperback called ”Denken mit Johann Wolfgang Goethe” that I have been meaning to look at.

29 May 2013

Patterns and language learning

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Language learning depends on recognizing patterns says this recent study. Yes, yes yes!!! No to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar nonsense that has occupied linguistics students and professors for so long. When it come to learning languages, we need to de-emphasize complicated grammatical explanations, as well as grammar drills and questions. We need to put more emphasis on feeding the brain lots of examples of the patterns of a language, in context, through massive input, and for reinforcement, in isolation, in the form of basic phrase patterns. Of course some explanations can also help the brain to recognize patterns, but in my view these should not be overdone.

I have started creating a list of pattern sentences for English. I have recorded them and uploaded them to the LingQ library. I have had these translated and recorded in Romanian, for my Romanian study, and added them to the LingQ Romanian library. I regularly listen to and read these patterns, and vary that activity with listening to and reading more interesting content, from Radio Romania podcasts, for example. This trains my brain to notice the patterns of the language.

I am hoping to get other members at LingQ to do the same so that we can build a vast collection of basic patterns sentences in different languages, with audio and text. As we learn a language, the brain picks up on patterns, but only gradually, and not necessarily in response to specific curriculum goals nor deliberate instruction. Perhaps some people are better at recognizing patterns in general, and therefore better at recognizing patterns of pronunciation or structure in a language. However, I also feel we can help the process along, and help learners to improve their ability to notice patterns, bu providing a rich collection of basic phrases and sentences that learners can choose from and mix in with their regular input activities.

Here is my initial list of the categories for which I will continue to develop pattern sentences for different languages and encourage others to do the same at LingQ. The list will fill itself out and grow. I encourage you all to add to it by either creating example sentences or adding to the subject headings.

Subject headings for patterns sentences:

1)Who

2)What

3)Where

4)When

5)Tenses

6)How many

7)Why

8)Because

9) Therefore

10)To, by with, of, from , for

11) Whenever, however

12) What kind

13) What if

14) Which

15) Should, must, could

16) Even if

17) Although

18) However,

19) It seems to me

20) Since when

21) Want to, plan to,hope to

22) Try to

28 May 2013

Steve’s Summer Sessions – Your Language Learning Questions Answered

During the month of June I will be putting out one video a week in a series I am calling Steve’s Summer Sessions. Each week I will upload a video in which I will answer your language learning questions.

If you have questions about language learning in general or a specific language that you are learning, please let me know. I would love to make a short video reply to any of your questions. Just drop me a line via Twitter and use the hashtags #asksteve. Looking forward to your questions.

See the intro video below: