6 June 2016

Understanding Russia to help you learn Russian

understanding Russia to help you learn Russian

Today I’m going to talk about my experience with understanding Russia, and about how I started to learn Russian. I’m going to begin by explaining a bit about Russia and Russian culture as I perceive it. I had mentioned in my video about learning French, that the French like to be very logical, at least that’s what they teach at school, they’d like to be very precise in how they explain themselves and so forth. The Japanese are not at all that way. Also, there’s a lot of understatement in Japanese. They don’t say no. They say we’re going to certainly consider your suggestion, which means no. The Russians aren’t like that. The Russians say no. If it’s no, they say no.

Now, the good news, Russian is fascinating. It’s a beautiful language. The country is fascinating. The culture and history are fascinating. The people who appear somewhat stoic are, in fact, very warm. They tend to speak their minds, say what they think and not worry too much about the details, but that’s what makes them so fun to be around. I would say, too, that in Russia there’s no compromise. I think that’s how they approach even artistic creation or sports. That’s why we see a lot of artistic creation in Russia, outstanding ballerinas, musicians and scientists. Certainly in hockey I find the Russians are just magicians. They’re artists and so they have a tendency to really commit themselves in one direction.

All people generalize, but in Russia there’s no political correctness there are just generalizations. They’ll say anything.”что угодно” as they say in Russian. They’ll say anything based on knowing the subject, not knowing the subject, getting the facts wrong. I hear this all the time on Echo Moskvy — the most amazing statements, but with tremendous drama and conviction. So I’m going to do the same, I’m going to make very generalized statements about Russia and Russians without worrying too much about my facts.

So, how did I start to learn Russian?

Well, I was about 60 and I had really two reasons for getting into Russian. One was that I had read books by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy when I was 17-18 and I thought it would be really cool to read those books in the original language they were written in. The second thing was that my approach to language learning is to de-emphasize grammar. Not to ignore grammar, but to not put it up front and to focus on exposing one’s self to the language through lots of listening and reading, noticing patterns, rather than complicated grammar rules, explanations and so forth. I was sort of challenged and said you can’t do that with learning Russian because the grammar is too complicated.

Okay. The grammar is very complicated, Russian is a difficult language. To some extent, some people say no language is more difficult, blah, blah, blah. In fact, some languages are more difficult than others. It all depends on the language you’re starting from, of course, but for people without any background in Slavic languages Russian is difficult and I’m going to explain why. Before that, I’ll talk a little bit about Russia.

Russia is a phenomenal country. I mean the scale; the size of Russia is mind boggling. If we go back in history, we’ll see that the Dukedom of Moscovy was this little area up in northern Russia where a mixture of Slavic, Finnish-type people and Baltic-type people and so forth were up there doing their thing. I can’t remember whether they were actually conquered by the Mongol Tartar Hordes that dominated Russia for 300 years. I think they were, but I can’t remember. Whatever it was, the prince up there eventually defeated them.

So, really, the growth of Russia, even though the people in the area of what’s now the Ukraine were also Russians, Kiev is called the Mother of All Russian Cities and so forth, was very much under the rule of the Mongols for 300 years. This Moscovy was up there interacting with Baltic countries, Germans, Swedes and stuff like that. Not very different perhaps, other than they spoke a different language, but culturally very much in that sphere and from that it expanded to the Pacific. From the moment they defeated the Mongols, within a few hundred years they had expanded south right down to the Caspian Sea. I think they reached the Pacific in the late sixteen hundreds and they overthrew the Mongol Yoke, as it’s called, in the mid fifteen hundreds. Again, with history, you read it, you forget it, but roughly. It has become this tremendous continental country and you’re very much aware of this. Of course, subsequent to that under Catherine the Great and other Czar’s they consolidated their hold on these central Asian areas and Caucasus.

There was a significant expansion in the nineteenth century south and east. Russia was very much an imperialist power, an imperialist power on somewhat weak legs because they expanded too quickly and they were defeated by the Japanese in 1905. From that, largely because of the First World War, the czarist empire collapsed and they had their revolution and became the Soviet Union.

All of that is still very international with people from central Asia, Turkish-type people, the Caucasus with all of their different languages and culture, some Islamic, some very early Christian and so forth and, of course, they were always meddling on the western side of their border participating in the partition of Poland and chipping away at Romania. It’s kind of been involved in all these different areas, so it’s absolutely fascinating.

That’s one of the things you sense with Russia, that the scale is just huge. Even now if I listen to Echo Moskvy, there are a lot of people there with Georgian names that are no longer Georgian. So even with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, you’re aware of these influences. There are issues with all the different minorities within Russia, plus immigration from countries in the former Soviet Union. That’s the world, it’s very much a Eurasian world and we have to understand that they’re not just some European country that speaks a Slavic language.


2 June 2016

Useful Language Learning Techniques – Conversation Exchange

Useful Language learning techniques Conversation exchange

When I think back 50 years ago when I was studying Chinese, the idea that I could just get online and talk to someone through some magic computer was inconceivable. Nowadays there are a number of sites that offer the opportunity to connect with teachers. Some are free; in other words, just a pure language or conversation exchange. On some sites you hire a teacher or someone to speak to. If I can find a tutor on LingQ, I use LingQ for my conversation exchange, but when I can’t I’ll go to italki, which I find to be a great resource.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

In order to take part in language or a conversation exchange, you need to be at a certain level in the language. Until I have reached that level in the language, I don’t enjoy the conversation exchange. Very often I’ll start at 15 minutes or half an hour and then as I progress in the language I’ll get up to an hour. I want to make sure I understand what the person is saying. That’s absolutely number one. Even if I can’t express myself well, I want to understand what the other person is talking about. I also want to be able to express myself well in the language because it’s actually quite stressful to talk over Skype. Even when we’re speaking well, it’s a more stressful way to communicate with someone than sitting with them across a table; It’s more stressful and I find that it’s a little bit more exhausting, too.

How do I go about having a conversation exchange:

I’ve started speaking with a Ukrainian tutor twice a week and I still speak to my Russian tutor, and at the end of an hour I’m kind of exhausted. Even though I’m a proponent of input-based learning and that’s how I spend most of my time. For example, with my Ukrainian I speak two hours a week, but I’m constantly reading. I’m reading about and listening to Ukrainian history, and I often listen to Hora Más Que radio. So input is king, but the output is necessary. These language and conversation exchange sites like italki and what we have at LingQ are a very good way of getting that output experience.

As an example of how that works, I spoke to Deni from Russia who commented on one of my YouTube videos asking if we could talk a bit about learning Japanese. It was quite a long discussion because it’s very difficult to keep these things short, but we spoke in three languages: English, Russian and Japanese. We talked mostly about learning Japanese, first in English, then in Russian and eventually in Japanese.

What’s very interesting in this video, if you have the patience to follow it, is that I couldn’t get my brain out of Russian. I’ve been speaking and listening to mostly Ukrainian, then I had an hour of Russian with my tutor and after that I spoke with to Deni in Moscow. Even though my Japanese is stronger than my Russian, I really struggled to switch over to Japanese. It’s the first time I’ve had that difficulty. Normally, I can move over quite easily. Maybe it’s because I’d just had that hour of Russian beforehand and because I find the language exchange via Skype on the computer a little more stressful than just a casual conversation.

Do you ever find it difficult to switch your brain over to a different language?

30 May 2016

How to Memorize Vocabulary – Is It Even Necessary?

how to memorize vocabulary

How to Memorize Vocabulary — Is It Even Necessary?

A little while ago I wrote a post, “How to Learn Vocabulary” and that the best way to acquire vocabulary is through lots of exposure and meeting vocabulary items in different contexts. But I frequently am asked, “How to memorize vocabulary?” or if it’s even necessary.

In my opinion, the best way how to memorize vocabulary is NOT to memorize vocabulary. I have always found that trying to memorize vocabulary is an extremely low-efficiency activity. No matter how hard you try, some words are going to stick and some words will not stick until much, much later.

The more content you consume through listening and reading, the more likely you are to encounter vocabulary items again, and every time you encounter them, you encounter them in different contexts. This makes the whole scope of the words’ meanings clearer each time. You get a better sense of which words they are used with. You really start to experience these words in live settings, and in settings that are high resonance.

I always get the feeling when I’m devoting time to studying a list of vocabulary that I’m stealing time away from meaningful interaction with the language. I could be listening, reading and/or speaking. Speaking is also important. I don’t want to underestimate speaking. Perhaps I have given the impression that I only work on input. I don’t. It’s just that input is easier to arrange.

I was at an event the other night here in Vancouver. There was a Russian language meetup and there’s no question that after sitting for two hours and speaking Russian left, right and centre, the quality of my Russian and my attentiveness to Russian went up. I especially noticed this the next time I listened and read in the language. So you do need to also speak, but meaningful speaking, meaningful listening and reading. That’s all meaningful interaction with the language. It’s high resonance. Hearing, seeing and using words eventually in contexts like a meetup is a better use of time than trying to memorize lists of words. Exposure is key.

I don’t just mean exposure to the language you’re studying. Exposure to language learning and to different languages, structures and sounds seems to make you more attentive to the language. I lived in Japan for nine years and didn’t touch Mandarin Chinese, hardly spoke it at all. Then when I came back to Mandarin Chinese, I was better. I decided to spend some time on Swedish listening to Swedish audio books. But I came back to that language, I understood it better.

As you’ll remember, I firmly believe that language learning really revolves around three issues:

1. Your attitude

2. The time you give the language

3. Your ability to notice

It’s not that I never study vocabulary; I very often whip through my flashcards. But I don’t worry or try to figure out how to memorize vocabulary from the lessons or content I’m reading or listening to.

At LingQ, before studying a new lesson, I’ll review the saved links — the words that I have already encountered before in the process of learning, some of which I have not learned — and review them in flashcards. Often if I have 5–10 minutes to kill while waiting somewhere I’ll review my flashcards, but I always have the hint (the definition saved in LingQ) on the front.

how to memorize vocabulary

So, again, it’s exposure. I’m not wracking my brain trying to remember what this term meant because I personally find that inefficient, tiring, stressful and boring. So I always say how to memorize vocabulary is give yourself more exposure mostly in interesting content.

If you are going to review words of course you don’t have to do it my way, I’m just telling you what I do. So even when I review words, say in flashcards, it’s more of an exposure activity, going through them quickly to give myself more exposure and occasionally reviewing the saved phrases on LingQ.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

23 May 2016

The New World of Language Learning


Our three LingQ Academy Live students, Hanna, Emily and Tamás, are finally here in Vancouver. I had a short meeting with them and I explained my vision that, basically, we’re in a new world of language learning where learners are teachers, teachers are learners and we learn from the world around us. That’s essentially what we’re going to be doing over the next three months, learning from our environment and from each other.

Read the full article here on Medium…

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

16 May 2016

Language Exercises – It’s All About The Gains


I want to talk about fitness and language learning and, particularly, CrossFit and language learning. We need to be fit in order to engage in physical activity. The fitter we are, normally, the better we do in sports, for example, in skiing or tennis, or whatever it might be. I think the same is true in language learning. We need to develop our stamina and physical ability to learn languages.

Read the full article here on Medium…

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

9 May 2016

Effective Language Learning: Listening and Reading

Effective language learning listening and reading

I want to cover the issue of input-based learning that I have spoken about in two past YouTube videos in Chinese and Japanese. It goes by different names but basically amounts to spending most of your time on listening, reading, working on your vocabulary and becoming familiar with the language rather than on output-activities or grammar-focused activities. That doesn’t mean there is no output or that people don’t look at grammar, but it means that the bulk of the time is spent on listening, reading and building up vocabulary.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.
Why do I think listening and reading is the most effective language learning method and a better way to learn languages?

I have five reasons. First of all, because it works and it works very well. If you study the methods of some of the best polyglots on the Internet, or the famous Kató Lomb, you’ll see that they generally involve a lot of reading and listening. This has also worked for me.

When I learned Czech I only listened and read, and then gradually started speaking. I stepped up the speaking prior to going to Prague and I could understand everything the locals said to me when I got there. My speaking, which was already call it a low intermediate level, stepped up to maybe a middle intermediate level while I was there. You have to continue speaking, of course, but I was able to do all of that because I had a sound basis in the language and that sound basis came from a lot of listening and reading.

Number two, it’s easy. You can do it anywhere. You can do it while driving, washing the dishes – as I do – or exercising. Similarly with reading, particularly now. There is a LingQ iPad app, so if you’re studying on LingQ you can do so on your iPad. You can also print content and read it. You don’t have to go to a classroom and spend half an hour to get there and half an hour to come back. Also, in terms of effective language learning, if you’re listening or reading, you’re 100% with the language. In a classroom, half of the time you’re having to listen to other students who may not use the language as well as you do and so, to my mind, it’s much less effective than time you spend alone with the language.

The third reason that input-based learning is effective is that you’re not making mistakes. A lot of people are afraid to make mistakes. If you’re forced to speak, you’ll make mistakes. You’re listening; you can’t make a mistake when you’re listening. You might misunderstand something or your understanding might be a little fuzzy at times. You may have the wrong interpretation when there are words you don’t understand. None of that matters. That’s part of the process and things that are unclear and fuzzy at an early stage will eventually start to become clearer. So you’re not really making mistakes, but you’re in that stage of your learning where the brain is gradually becoming more and more familiar with the language. You’re learning more and more words and, of course, things are going to be unclear to you. So that’s an advantage.

effective language learning listening and reading

A fourth advantage of listening and reading is you can choose what you want to listen to and read. Obviously, the first month or so you’re stuck with beginner material which is often not very interesting, but I encourage people to move beyond the beginner material as soon as possible to get into things of interest. I certainly find that if I find something of interest, even if there are a lot of unknown words, I’ll work hard with that text because it’s of interest to me. When I was learning Czech I was able to learn so much about Czech history, the history of Central Europe and the political situation in the Czech Republic. When I got to Prague I had all this wonderful background.

Finally, learning via an input-based approach is cheaper. You don’t have to spend anything. You can go to the library or find content on the Internet. There are systems like LingQ, which is much cheaper than going to class. It may be that someone else is paying for the class, but that doesn’t change the fact that the class is expensive. Inherently, because you have a trained professional there in front of students, someone has got to pay for that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to class, but if you do, I believe the main emphasis should be on input-based learning.

Input-based learning has a drawback, and that is for it to be effective you have to be motivated, disciplined, a self-starter. You have to be curious about things and go out and find content of interest. You have to have the confidence that you can succeed. This is often the problem with inexperienced language learners who have never really become fluent in another language. They can’t visualize themselves as fluent, so they kind of half defeat it before they start. They think they’ll never get there, and if you think that then probably you won’t. You have to be a positive, confident, motivated, independent learner. However, if you go to a class and you aren’t a confident, motivated, independent learner, you won’t learn either.

I mentioned in my Chinese video that they did a study of Chinese immigrants to Canada and found that in seven years (they followed about 3,000 immigrants who were taking ESL classes at government-sponsored schools) there was essentially no improvement, statistically no improvement. Those who spoke well when they arrived spoke well and continued to speak well, and those who didn’t speak when they arrived still couldn’t speak very well.

That’s just to say that very often in a classroom environment if the learner is not motivated, in other words doesn’t have all the qualities required to be an independent learner and to take advantage of listening, reading and input-based learning, they won’t be successful in the classroom either. So the classroom can provide a lot of social benefits and feedback and so forth, but even if you’re in a classroom, make sure that your main emphasis is on listening and reading, as well as building up your vocabulary.

I just learned Polish and Russian at LingQ. Join us at LingQ.com to power up your language learning.

3 May 2016

Introverts and Extroverts in Language Learning

Introverts and extroverts in language learning

There are so many myths surrounding language learning. You need to do this. You need to be that. You have to be musical. You have to have an ear for music. Some people have a talent. I don’t have a talent. I don’t believe any of that. One of these myths is that there exists a battle in language learning, introverts v.s. extroverts, and that extroverts are the better language learners. I do not believe at all that you need to be an extrovert to learn a language.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

So who is a better language learner? – Introverts v.s. Extroverts

Language learning comes down to the three keys: number one, attitude. You have to be interested in the language. You have to like the language. You have to believe you’re going to achieve your goal. If you’re looking for something around the house and you go looking in a closet or through your different pants pockets, if you’re convinced that the item you’re looking for is there you’ll find it, in many cases. But if you’re not really sure that it’s there, you kind of half-heartedly look and in the end you don’t find it. Your belief that you can achieve your goal is very important and I think the first-time language learner has a problem: they’ve never done it before. But that’s one part of attitude — enthusiasm, interest, dedication and so forth. Attitude is 70% of the battle.

Number two is time. You have to spend the time. You have to spend a lot of time. Language learning takes time. It’s not three months to fluency. It takes a lot of time every day for many, many months or longer.

The third thing you have to do is develop this ability to notice. So often people are stuck with the way words are written in their own language and they don’t listen to how it’s pronounced in the new language. They’ll constantly translate expressions from their own language into the new language and don’t pay attention to how things are said in the new language. Alertness and attentiveness are extremely important.

Neither your attitude, willingness to spend the time and your attentiveness to the language require you to be an extrovert. Introverts can just as easily have those qualities. If I look, for example, at some of our members in our wonderful LingQ community, many of whom speak several languages, many of whom I’ve spoken to in a variety of languages, some might be extroverts, but a lot are introverts. It’s irrelevant. Both introverts and extroverts are capable of learning a language and even going all the way to fluency.

An extrovert may want to get out there and speak right away. They’re perhaps more likely to be unfazed about not understanding and want to show-off the few phrases they have. That’s all good. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not really an introvert, but I don’t do that. That’s not a necessary condition of language learning. I derive immense enjoyment from listening and reading and building up my vocabulary, building up my familiarity with the language, activities which are so enjoyable to me.

So both introverts and extroverts can learn a new language fluently.

For the last two weeks I’ve been listening to Polish. I’ve been listening to podcasts and audiobooks, reading and really getting into the language. Doing these things doesn’t require me to be an extrovert. These are all introverted activities, if you want. I’m communicating with the language and through the language with the culture, but I’m not required to be an extrovert to do that.

My goal, eventually, is to speak and I know that these activities improve my ability to speak. Now, an introverted person may be more included to be afraid to expose their shortcomings in the language and make mistakes in front of others. Maybe they’re more afraid that they’re going to sound less educated than they are, less intelligent than they are. It’s possible. The solution, nevertheless, is to engage in these input-based activities and build up their familiarity of their vocabulary and their comprehension skills. That way, when they go to speak they will feel more comfortable. But this is the case with both introverts and extroverts.

I see no evidence that introverts are less capable in their own language. I see no evidence that they have a smaller vocabulary, that they read less, that they understand less, that they’re interested in fewer things. So if that’s true of their own language, I think it will be equally of a foreign or second language. They may behave differently in the new language or speak less at some gathering, but introverts typically have a lot to say when they are comfortable; a lot of things of substance to say.

If you’re an introvert, devoting yourself to input-based activities such as we do at LingQ, lots of listening and reading and building up your vocabulary, this is going to make you more comfortable because when you go speak you will have better listening comprehension, a bigger vocabulary. You’ll be better able to defend yourself and that’s going to make you more confident.

I think that very often the idea is that people who are extroverts and love to talk are going to do better. I think, initially, it’s a bit of a tortoise and hare situation. I think they’d be more like the hare, off the bat they’re speaking more quickly. But in the long run, in terms of all of the language skills that we normally talk about, listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary, accuracy, all of these things, I don’t think the extroverts have an advantage.

So that’s my take on introverts and extroverts in language learning. Being an introvert is not an obstacle. I’m interested in hearing your opinion.

Join us at LingQ to power up your language learning!

1 May 2016

Do you have a language immersion strategy?


I think we all know that language immersion is an ideal way to improve in a language. What do we mean by language immersion strategy? Obviously, it means being immersed in the language. In other words, hearing the language, reading the language, speaking the language, being covered head to foot, so to speak. Normally, this can be the situation if you live where the language is spoken. If you live surrounded by the language, you’re immersed in the language.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

Being where the language is spoken is no guarantee. In other words, you may in fact be immersed in the language, but don’t take advantage of it. We have many examples here in Canada of immigrants who live here for many years and don’t improve in English because they don’t take advantage of that environment. Part of the reason why they don’t is because, let’s face it, it’s not that easy. You have to have a language immersion strategy. You have to prepare yourself. You can’t just go there and expect somehow by magic that you’re going to pick up the language. When I went to Japan I didn’t go to school, but I learned Japanese. I spent a lot of time listening, reading and building up my vocabulary so I could understand what people were saying so I could interact with them. So you still have to have a strategy, even if you are immersed in the language.

If you are not where the language is spoken, then I think you could have kind of a related strategy, which is what I do. Right now I’m working on Polish, and I would like one day to go to Poland. I hope I do go. I don’t know when I will go, but I have that as a goal – to eventually put myself in a situation where I will be immersed and experiencing language immersion. So I spend a lot of time reading on the internet. At LingQ I use our Chrome extension to quickly import articles from Polish newspapers, while maintaining my Ukrainian and Russian.

So I listen and once a week or so I may speak. In other words, I’m preparing myself with the thought that one day I will be in that language immersion environment and I’ll be ready to hit the ground running. So you do need to have a strategy, whether you’re in the immersion environment or whether you’re trying to create an artificial immersion environment and, of course, that’s much easier to do today than it ever was in the past.

Also, when I think of a language immersion strategy I think of French immersion. Here in Canada, Anglophone students do all of their schooling for the first seven, eight, nine years in French. By Grade 10 and 11 it tapers off a bit, but at least half their subjects are in French, even in those final years. Apparently – I know because I have three grandchildren who went through the program – the first six-seven years or so the kids speak to each other in French and then they are less and less inclined to do so, so the immersion experience becomes less of a full language immersion experience. Also, they read in class, but they don’t have any handy tools to make that reading easier for them, and it is hard to read on science, history, math, whatever it might be, in another language.

I think that LingQ, including the Chrome Extension, would be very useful in this immersion environment because it adds another dimension. So they’re not just reading, they can listen to the text, they can save words and phrases. Also, I think the audio helps give some momentum. Reading in French as a 17-year-old was difficult for me. But if you have the audio, if you can easily look up new words and see the words you previously looked up and so forth, it just gives you more momentum and makes it a more complete language immersion experience.

25 April 2016

Tips for Learning Spanish Verbs


Looking around at what I have in my room here I see a book called Portuguese Verbs. In it I can read about commands, imperatives, affirmative, imperative verbs ending in this, that and the other, pages and pages of irregular verbs, conjunctions, verbs expressing desire, doubt and volition. It’s very intimidating, all those different endings. In fact, when studying the romance languages, I think verbs are the biggest bugbear.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

Having spent a lot of time trying to learn verb tables, I’m convinced that it can’t be done. At the very best, you can have a book like this on Spanish verbs and keep it in your bathroom to leaf through while you’re on the john, but it’s impossible to memorize, in my opinion. What should you do? I poked into LingQ, because I haven’t been studying Spanish recently. I saved a few verbs and, low and behold, amongst the dictionaries we have access to is one called SpanishDict.com and it’s amazing. Click on any verb and you will see the conjugation, you will see examples, you’ll see a little video and, of course, you’ll see the meaning.

If you do enough reading and listening in Spanish, you’re attentive to the language and you occasionally review this kind of explanation, (but rely largely on repeated exposure in different contexts), you will eventually be able to get that natural sense for Spanish verbs and you can master them. I shouldn’t use the word ‘master’ because I don’t believe that’s a word that applies in language learning, but the more familiar you become with Spanish verbs, the better your Spanish will become. You won’t have to worry what the form of the third-person singular past tense is and so forth when you use the verb; it will start to come out naturally.

So my advice on Spanish verbs is lots of reading and listening, and if you happen to be at LingQ, select SpanishDict as your dictionary of choice. Even if you get a quick explanation of the verb via our User Hints or via Google Translate, open up SpanishDict and every time you come across a verb quickly review the different conjugation endings. Don’t try to memorize them, just go back to enjoying whatever content you’re reading and, of course, listen to it.

24 April 2016

Listening Comprehension – An Important Language Skill

listening comprehension is an important skill in language learning

Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated and I’m going to explain why. I meet a lot of people who tell me they are frustrated because they can’t speak the language as well as they would like to, so that there is frustration at not being able to speak well. I meet people who tell me that they can understand well, but they can’t speak well. Normally, in my experience, that is not the case.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

There are people who read well and who can’t speak, but I don’t really recollect having met many people who understand the spoken language well and are totally comfortable listening and understanding, but who have trouble speaking. I have met a lot of people who seem to be able to speak the language but don’t understand when you speak to them at a normal speed.

I believe that listening comprehension is an important skill in language learning. That is what you should drive for first of all. If you develop good listening comprehension, the other skills will come, the speaking will come, even your grammar, your accuracy. All of these things will come if you have had so much exposure to the language that you understand it when it is spoken by a native speaker.

Listening has a number of other advantages: it’s very easy to organize. I just finished doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. I have two different mp3 players and I have different content in each one of them. I have a variety of earphones. I have Bluetooth earphones so that I don’t snare the wires on anything. I’ve got other ones for when I go jogging or exercise. I listen a lot. I can do it all the time.

When I’m listening it’s not just that I’m listening to the language, I’m either enjoying a novel or I’m learning about history and this is true in all languages. There are so many resources available now; podcasts in German, Czech, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, any of the languages that I’ve been dealing with. The only language I haven’t found anything I wanted really was in Korean, but there’s lots of stuff out there to listen to. I could not have hired a tutor to sit beside me in the car driving to speak to me in Italian. I can’t have someone standing by to speak to me in Italian while I’m doing the dishes.

So it’s not that I don’t speak, I do speak. I’ve been speaking probably three or four hours a week, three hours a week with our tutors at LingQ. It’s great to do that. I’m not saying one shouldn’t speak. I speak a lot better this week than I did last week. The speaking and the listening reinforce each other because when I speak I’m made aware of my problems, where my hesitations and doubts are, where I don’t know if I’m speaking Spanish or Italian. I get my corrections back from my tutor and it’s amazing how that makes me more observant of things when I’m listening and reading, especially reading.

I should say reading, in a way, is a form of listening because when we read in a foreign language we tend to subvocalize to start with. Second of all, reading, in other words the written language, is just another form of recording the spoken language. We originally had no way of recording the spoken language so everything was from memory, then we had writing to record the spoken language and nowadays we have various ways of recording the audio so that we can listen to it. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I think, to some extent, the brain is processing the language the same way and getting used to the language by this exposure to it.

I think there’s too much emphasis on speaking at the beginning, too much emphasis on speaking correctly. There’s too much pressure on people to produce the language correctly at a stage in their learning where they’re unlikely to do so because they haven’t had enough exposure. Then they become overly sensitive to the need to produce the language correctly. They second guess themselves. They’re hesitant to speak. I would say that the emphasis should be on comprehension.

In Canada, where kids are taught French for 10 years in the English-speaking school system, not even five percent of those kids are able to speak French when they graduate. That is a colossal failure, even though those same kids pass their tests every year. As in all subjects, a few of them fail, the bulk of them pass. Theoretically, they answer grammar questions and at the end they still can’t speak. They don’t speak grammatically correctly. They have no vocabulary. They don’t understand what people are saying. In the spoken language, they probably are able to read to some extent:a colossal failure.

If, instead, the focus was entirely on helping those kids understand the language, then the emphasis would be on finding things that interest them. They could perhaps work on vocabulary, watch movies, do a lot of things that appear to be passive. Allowing kids to read in the classroom rather than taking turns reading from a book where they all mangle the language has to be more efficient. If those kids graduated with the ability to understand the language, that was the only objective, then any speaking activity is only there in order to make them more aware of certain things in the language, but not to test them on their ability to speak.

By all means, speak, I think speaking is good. It helps to stimulate the brain to notice the language better, but the objective of the speaking is not to be tested on the speaking. The speaking is just an exercise in improving your comprehension ability, and if at the end of this people graduate being able to understand the language well, if they then want to learn to speak they’ll be able to learn to speak very quickly.

If someone graduates from say French in a Canadian school and goes off to Quebec or France and they fully understand what people are saying, they will learn to speak very quickly. They’ll have much more confidence going into that. If, on the other hand, they have some vague notions about gender, have a limited vocabulary and don’t really understand, they will go to France and they will be lost and it will take them a long, long time to improve.

Of course, in language learning you have to get past that initial stage where you’re listening to silly things for beginners. Not, by the way, kiddy stories, which I find are more difficult because they use more strange vocabulary than simple stories designed for the learner. You can’t get away from it for the first month or two, but as soon as possible move into the real stuff. Try to have text available so that you can look up the words and increase your vocabulary, much as we do at LingQ, and then get on to things that are of interest. Then it just becomes so fascinating you’re hardly aware that you’re learning a language.