4 October 2013

Speaking in a foreign language

Listening and reading are my favourite learning activities, but the goal is to speak. How do we get to speak and speak well? We need to speak a lot. It can be a struggle at first, but we usually do better than we think. We need to interact with native speakers, preferably face to face, and in natural and meaningful situations. And we need to pay attention but we should not be too harsh on ourselves.

2 October 2013

Active and passive vocabulary

You need a lot of words to function effectively in a language because you need to understand what is said. Work on your passive vocabulary and don’t worry too much about your difficulties in speaking and using words in the early stages. If you have the passive vocabulary, if you can understand what you hear, you will eventually learn to speak well.

2 October 2013

Hacking language learning

language learning

TED or ideas worth spreading represents itself as a source of stimulating and meaningful talks on a great variety of subjects. Some of these talks are worth listening to, but many are not. TED charges a ridiculous amount of money for people to participate in their live get-togethers, $7,500 for the meeting in Vancouver next March. Ridiculous to me, but obviously not to the people who willingly spend that money to see and be seen.

Here is a presentation on hacking language learning. I don’t believe in language hacks, because I believe that language learning takes a long time. I disagree with much of what Dr. Connor Quinn has to say in this video. I don’t believe that you can simply learn a few words and then be able to speak. You won’t understand what other people are saying. You need a lot of words, which are best acquired through a lot of enjoyable listening and reading. Having learned 14 languages to varying degrees, I know what I am talking about.

I also don’t believe that the field of linguistics has much to offer the language learner.


30 September 2013

Come ho fatto per imparare l’Italiano

Non ho parlato molto in Italiano, ma ho ascoltato e letto molto, e ho imparato un mucchio di cose.

23 September 2013

Fluent Japanese in 3 months?

Fluent Japanese in three months? What is the hurry? In my experience, it takes a long time to get used to a new language, and the cultural context of that language. To me it is an enjoyable process of discovery, and one that cannot be rushed. On the other hand, Benny’s mission may encourage people to learn languages. What do you all think?

18 September 2013

Is the United States “Exceptional”

united states exceptional

Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest with his comment that the USA is not exceptional. Putin’s statement is a deliberate attempt to tease the US and garner support in his own country, but in the end probably quite banal. However, the reaction to Putin’s comments by some people in the US is hilarious. This Op Ed piece from USA Today, is a moderate example, one of many. Try googling “Putin US exceptional” and you will see examples of even more jingoistic reactions.

The writer admits that the US is not above reproach, but reaffirms the exceptional nature of the US with statements like:

“it was the U.S. military that turned the tide of the battles in World War I and World War II — and the American economic engine that fueled Europe’s recovery from the devastation wrought by Nazi Germany,”


“in fact, as exceptional nations go, the U.S. ranks right up there with the Roman Empire and England during its period of colonial dominance.”

The facts are that all of the belligerents in the two world wars were exceptional to some extent. The Balkan ambitions of the Austro-Hungarian empire started the first world war. French losses in WW I were exceptional. The losses experienced by countries like Poland and Yugoslavia in WW II were exceptional. The heroic resistance of Great Britain in that war was exceptional. The role of Germany in both wars was exceptional. The Soviet Union played a far more exceptional role in “turning the tide of battles” in WWII, at least in Europe, then the United States. For that matter the whole history of the Soviet Union starting from the revolution in 1917, was exceptional. The US was certainly a positive factor in Europe’s postwar recovery, but I think that many other exceptional factors, including Germany’s response and the creation of the European common market, were equally responsible for this remarkable resurgence.

From a historical perspective, I think it is a little early to rank the US right up there with the Roman Empire. Perhaps it is useful to consider other exceptional countries and empires in history. China, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, India, the influence of France from Louis XIV to Napoleon, and the Ottoman Empire come quickly to mind, and Egypt, Sumeria, Persia, Ancient Greece, and I am just getting started. The dramatic expansion eastward to the Pacific of Czarist Russia is another example that is quite exceptional. For that matter, the techniques developed by the Inuit to survive in the conditions of the Arctic are exceptional.

I think every nation is exceptional. When I study the languages of different countries, even smaller countries like the Czech Republic, I am always impressed by the unique and fascinating nature of their history and traditions. Some countries are large and some countries are small. Some countries are powerful and exert that power. Other countries have frequently been invaded by their neighbours. To me, they are all exceptional.

Maybe what is truly exceptional about some of these Americans (certainly not all) is that they consider themselves to be so exceptional.

17 September 2013

Can introverts learn languages?

One often hears that extroverts make better language learners then introverts. I don’t believe this is the case. Success in language learning depends on the interest and determination of the learner, the time spent with the language, and the ability to notice what’s happening in the language. These factors are not influenced by whether the learner is an introvert or an extrovert. At least that is what I think. I would be interested in your views.

15 September 2013

When grammar instruction does not help

Despite a focus on French verb instruction in the school system, after ten years in school, most English Canadians speak French using the infinitive for all verbs, if they speak French at all.

15 September 2013

Listening comprehension, the core language skill

Far too much emphasis is placed on speaking in language instruction. If the emphasis were placed on listening comprehension, people would end up speaking better.

14 September 2013

Are we learning languages the wrong way?

learning languages

We are learning languages the wrong way says this article from the New Statesman. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but there are some important points.

I have always felt that the emphasis on teaching a few basic survival sentences, or correct usage, is largely a waste of time. I believe we need to emphasize the enjoyment of the language, and increased comprehension. The present emphasis in language class on producing the language, and on correct grammar, is usually counterproductive. Students graduate with little ability to understand the language, and still can’t produce many grammatically correct sentences.

What do you think? Are we learning languages the wrong way?