9 May 2016

Effective Language Learning: Listening and Reading

Effective_language_learning-_just_listen_and_read

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 this is 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 effectiveness, 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.

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 vs. 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.

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.

An extrovert may want to get out there and speak right away. They’re perhaps more likely to be unphased 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.

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.

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

Have a Language Immersion Strategy

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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 language immersion 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

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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.

21 April 2016

Levels of Proficiency in a Foreign Language

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I recently watched a video which features polyglots Luca Lampariello and Anthony Lauder. In it they make the point that you don’t need to have a large vocabulary in order to be fluent. Anthony has said in the past that even with a few hundred words you can be fluent, or you can be fluent at a relatively low level of proficiency in a language. I don’t agree at all.

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

First of all, let’s look at this word ‘fluency’. Fluency is a bit like the word ‘good’ or ‘well’. If you say ‘I’m fluent in a language’, that actually means you are very fluent. If you say ‘I speak a language well’, it means that you speak it well. If you say ‘I speak the language quite well’ or ‘I’m quite fluent’, that actually suggests something less than fluency. You might even suggest ‘I’m fairly fluent in the language’. To my mind, that’s less than fluent. In the video, they both talk about how Anthony can go around town in Prague and doesn’t need many words to exchange pleasantries with shopkeepers or whatever, but is this really fluency? I don’t think so.

There are different ways of measuring levels of proficiency in a language. There’s the European Common Framework of Reference which divides proficiency into six levels from A1 A2, B1 B2, C1 C2. In my view, B2 is where you are fluent, so that’s actually fairly far along. In order to be fluent, you have to be able to do certain things. I think you have to be able to read a newspaper. Now, in Chinese that might cause some difficulty because the writing system isn’t phonetic. So, conceivably, you could be fluent and not be able to read a newspaper, but in most situations someone who is fluent in a language should be able to read a newspaper.

I know in English the difficulty level is roughly grade seven, grade eight and that the biggest factor in the difficulty level of any content is the vocabulary level. Granted, you could have complex sentences and complex structures, but I think the main difference, particularly if we’re talking about levels of fluency, is how many relatively less frequent words are used. In order to be able to call yourself fluent, you needn’t be able to read esoteric literature or scientific papers. You should, however, be able to read the newspaper and to do that you do need at least the vocabulary of someone in grade seven. That’s a fair number of words; it’s got to be 7,000 to 10,000 words in English.

Of course if we’re talking about levels of proficiency in a foreign language or levels of fluency, then I also think the biggest indicator is the number of words you know. So if you are very fluent, I mean if you are at university level, you are going to know a lot more words than someone who can only read at a grade three level. Now, you could argue that someone could be fluent with a limited vocabulary. It’s possible that someone could be fluent with a grade three level of vocabulary, but if you are an adult and you can only communicate with children, to my mind you’re less than fluent. If you can only talk about the weather and very basic things, even if you do so fluently, to my mind you’re not fluent.

Most adult native speakers have a large vocabulary – a large active vocabulary. Certainly, the people that I would like to communicate with have large active vocabularies; therefore, I have to have a fairly large passive vocabulary in order to understand what they’re saying. I think that fluency implies two-way communication. You can learn a bunch of sentences, you can use Anki or whatever to express yourself fairly quickly, but the trick is to understand what other people are saying. That is why I put so much emphasis on listening and reading.

Much of this issue of fluency also depends on what your needs are. If you have a need to communicate right away because you’re in the country and you’re going to the stores, there’s going to be more pressure on you to speak. In my case, as let’s call it a “dilettante language learner”, I’m quite content to let my vocabulary accumulate and my ability to understand develop until I have a need or opportunity to speak a lot, and then my speaking develops quite quickly.

Now, there are people who understand well and who are too shy or inhibited to speak. I think those people are the minority. Once people have acquired a good understanding of the language, they generally have the vocabulary and therefore the confidence that they can start to develop the ability to speak.

So that’s my view on Luca and Anthony’s video. I don’t agree with them. I think if we’re talking about not quite or somewhat fluent, if we’re talking about really fluent, then that requires a large vocabulary. What do you think?

17 April 2016

Google Translate “Doesn’t Work”

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I hear all the time that Google Translate doesn’t work. It’s not accurate. It’s this and that. I think Google Translate is a tremendous resource and not only for language learners. If I get a text in a language that I don’t understand, then I can quickly put it into Google Translate and get a sense of what the meaning is, something in Finnish, Hungarian, whatever it might be. It’s not 100% and it’s better for some languages than others, but I find it extremely useful.

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

Second of all, Google Translate is an excellent dictionary. It normally gives you a lot of information about the word, some synonyms, the pronunciation, text to speech, so it’s a very good dictionary and quite accurate. This depends on the language. It doesn’t work as well in Korean as in let’s say German or Russian, but by and large it’s a very good dictionary. Not only does it do words, it does phrases and that’s very useful.

Often, if I’m working at LingQ and I look up some individual words and I don’t have a good sense of the meaning of these words in combination, I can highlight the phrase, put it into Google Translate (we’re connected to it) and I can see the meaning. Not only that, but you can also work the other way with phrases. ‘In other words’, there’s a phrase, how do we say that in Czech. There it is jinými slovy. So if you want to improve your language level by having some handy phrases like ‘in other words’, ‘in my opinion’ or ‘by the way’, then you just put it into Google Translate and you get that phrase. So that’s its function as a dictionary.

It also helps me when I have to write in a language which uses an alphabet other than the Latin alphabet. For me, to write in Russian I can do it, but it’s much faster for me to simply type quickly in English and translate it into Russian. I can go into the Russian and fix up those parts that are not correct and voila, my Russian text, if I have to comment on a forum or something of that nature. It also ensures that my spelling is correct. Now, it works better for some languages than others. It doesn’t work so well for Asian languages, but it works very well for European languages, in my experience.

The last thing I will say is that I find it very useful sometimes if I want to focus on a particular area of vocabulary, let’s say having to do with forestry or something. I can plunk in a text in English on one side at Google Translate, translate it into Russian, Chinese or whatever language, then I can import that into LingQ and I study saving words and phrases. Overall, the text that Google Translate produces is somewhat unnatural and has errors, but in terms of acquiring the vocabulary I find it tremendously useful.

To me, Google Translate is not going to replace translators that are required for legal work or business documents, but it does facilitate people working across different languages and makes it easier for us to learn languages and I don’t see that it will replace the need for learning languages. If I’m in a foreign country like China or Brazil and I want to communicate with the locals, I’m not going to do it through some device that translates it back and forth. I want to speak the local language, learn about the culture, learn about the history and so forth.

So Google Translate is a tremendous boon. It’s one of the many sort of technological advances that have made language learning so much easier today than it ever was.

11 April 2016

Tips and Tricks for Learning Spanish

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As I’ve said so many times, the big thing in language learning is motivation. I keep on repeating it because it’s not about talent, it’s not about classes or teachers or methods, it’s primarily about motivation. The amount of time you spend on the task and noticing – noticing what’s going on in the language. I think the good language learners have become better at noticing. They’ve become more aware, more alert to what’s happening in the language.

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

I think Spanish is one of the most attractive languages to learn. We can all be motivated to learn a specific language like Mongolian or Finnish because we have a friend or a particular interest. Maybe we want to learn Korean to be able to watch Korean dramas or Japanese for amine or business, all kinds of reasons. Spanish is different: there are a number of real big advantages to learning Spanish.

First of all, a lot of people speak Spanish. You have all of Latin America, except Brazil and Haiti, and of course Spain. All these countries are quite different. When I think of Spain, which I know much better than Latin America, I think about color and music. It’s a world where people have fun.

I still remember sitting in Marbella in southern Spain. They had closed down the street and the restaurant had their tables out there. It was 11:00 o’clock at night and we were sitting under the starlit sky. We could smell jasmine around us. We were having dinner at 11:00 o’clock at night. You don’t do that at home. It’s like time stands still. We were eating this wonderful meal and nothing mattered. I think the Spanish have an ability to live in the moment and enjoy it and so those are the kinds of things you enjoy there.

I can still remember being there in the ‘60s and going to a bullfight. Now, granted, there are animal lovers who don’t think that’s a great thing to do, but the music and colors and the powerful sun left a lasting impression. I also remember hitchhiking into Valencia and seeing the green and orange of the orange fields. Driving into Cordoba and Sevilla and smelling the lemon blossoms, and the music, of course, not only Flamingo, but all of the music. Spain is powerful that way.

Recently, I visited Mexico with my wife. We were in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Mexico City and, again, powerful colors, friendly people, music. I am sure that Peru, Argentina and Central America are different. Even other cultures like the Mayan or Aztec cultures now come to us through Spanish. There’s a whole world there, so that makes Spanish attractive and I think it should motivate people to want to learn it. Those are also very popular tourist destinations.

Spanish, I think, is an easy language to learn and it’s kind of like the door to the romance language world. If you learn Spanish, you can learn Portuguese; 200 million people in Brazil. You can learn Italian, which is a phenomenal language and has so much history behind it, and French. Spanish kind of leads you into this world.

So I think there’s tremendous motivation – there should be – for a lot of people to learn Spanish. Not just because if you’re an American there are more and more Hispanic people and you might one day need Spanish to find a job. I think these are minor issues. Language learning is a long road. It is not enough to need the language for a job; you need a deeper level of motivation.

Once you realize that it’s actually a very long haul to get to genuine fluency, that’s where you need that intrinsic motivation. You have to like the language and like the people, at least some of them. There has to be that personal desire and commitment to the language, and I think Spanish is an easy language to get committed to. Let’s move on from commitment to some tips and tricks for learning Spanish.

Spanish is an easy language to learn for a number of reasons. First of all, like all romance languages, for English speakers there’s a lot of common vocabulary – lots. Spanish has the advantage that the spelling is extremely consistent, unlike French, for example. The vowels are pure, there are no diphthongs.

Accents: I always find accents a little bit annoying because I have to change my keypad in order to accommodate them, but the system is quite consistent as to when we use accents in Spanish and when we don’t. Look at the rule and you’ll forget it the first few times, but eventually it will stick.

Masculine and feminine: Almost all words that end in ‘o’ are masculine. Almost all words that end in ‘a’ are feminine, with a few exceptions.

Spanish masculine and feminine words

To that extent, it’s easier to tell the gender of verbs and nouns than in French or some other languages.

Verbs: Like all romance languages, you have to come to terms with the verb issue. There is a very good website called Verbix and there you can find conjugation tables for I don’t know how many languages, including Spanish. Refer to it from time to time. It’s difficult, I find, to try and concentrate on memorizing those tables. You just have to look at the conjugation tables from time to time and start noticing as you’re doing your listening and reading.

What else is there? There’s this “ser” and “estar”. Spanish has two words for ‘is’. Something that you are permanently is “ser,” something that are now but may not be later, like happy, is “estar”.

tips and tricks for learning Spanish

A difficult concept at first. You’ll continue to make mistakes, but it doesn’t prevent you from understanding. It doesn’t prevent people from understanding you either. It’s something that you kind of work away at.

Also, Spanish has two words for ‘for’: ‘por’ and ‘para’. Here again, you’ll read the explanation and you won’t understand it, then slowly and with enough exposure and practice it will gradually sink in. Getting it wrong won’t prevent you from communicating and understanding.

learn-how-to-ask-questions-in-spanish

Spanish has funny little features. It has upside down exclamation marks and question marks at the front of the sentence in addition to the regular one at the end of the sentence. It’s the only language that I’m aware of that does that. I don’t know why they do it. Everybody else manages fine without that. We know when there’s a question or an exclamation. I’m sure Spanish people who read other languages don’t miss them. At any rate, that’s a little idiosyncrasy of the Spanish language.

I won’t go into the subjunctive since you needn’t worry about it until you are well on your way to understanding Spanish and communicating in the language. Focus on listening and reading, on building up your vocabulary, and enjoying the language. Get started now, and you will thank yourself a year from now.

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4 April 2016

How to Have Motivation in Language Learning

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Maintaining motivation is absolutely key. I think many people start with some motivation to learn a language and, for various reasons, get frustrated and they are unable to maintain their motivation.

In my own case, I am usually quite motivated to learn a language, but it wasn’t always the case. When I was 16, I wasn’t very motivated to learn languages and I spoke only one. Today, I speak 16 languages to varying degrees of fluency.

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

Most of my professional life I have been in business, in particular the lumber business. In a way, I want to compare the undertaking or the enterprise of running a business (I’ve had my own company for 30 years) and the activity or the undertaking of trying to learn a language. There are similarities and there are differences.

Seven or eight years ago, I was in China and I met a Canadian there who was building homes. He made this comment: “In China nothing is easy, but everything is possible.” He referred to the fact that, of course, the business environment in China was different from what he was used to, so he found it quite complicated. Nothing is easy, but in China there’s always a way to get things done, he sort of said, therefore everything is possible.

This expression has kind of stuck with me because I think it applies to a lot in life. Most things that are worthwhile doing are not easy. Starting a business and making a business successful is not easy. Learning a language is not easy, but it’s very worthwhile and, what’s more, it’s possible. Certainly, learning a language is possible. In the case of business, there are more unpredictable factors, things that are outside of our control, but I think it’s very much possible. It’s possible to be successful in business, it’s possible to learn a language and if we have tasks that are not easy but that we make them possible, this gives us a great sense of satisfaction.

This has been described in great detail in what is known as Flow Theory. If we are dealing with a task that is a little difficult for us, not so easy but we’re able to cope with it, that this is very satisfying for us, satisfying for our brains. It gives us a great sense of satisfaction. It’s one of the most enjoyable things we can do. It’s more enjoyable than doing easy tasks where there’s no sense of satisfaction and, of course, it’s more enjoyable than a task that frustrates us because it’s too difficult, therefore not possible.

If we can achieve this state of flow, like the flowing of a river, then we will not only be able to maintain our motivation. Our motivation will grow because we’ll be getting a sense of satisfaction and achievement that we’re coping with something that isn’t easy, but that we’re making possible to achieve. So how do we do this? How we get ourselves into this state of flow? Here is where we come to this issue of whatever we want to do, we have to be prepared.

When I started my own business, I had to be prepared. I had to know something about my market. I had to know people. I had to know the product. I had to be prepared, otherwise the risk was simply too great. In language learning you have to be prepared. You have to make sure you have the materials you need. Maybe a starter book in the language. You should look into resources that are available online, there’s of course LingQ.com, but other resources, grammar resources that are easily accessed online. You have to have the tools. You have to prepare yourself, otherwise the task isn’t easy.

Again, if we want to achieve this state of flow we should do two things. We should make the task as easy as it possibly can be and that means being prepared. The second thing is we want to have a method that’s going to make things that might seem impossible become more probable. That means not trying to do things that are too difficult to do, for example, trying to memorize conjugation tables. In my experience, I can’t do that. If you can do that, fine, but I find that’s not possible.

I don’t think it’s possible to learn lists of words and, in fact, there is considerable research that shows that the more time we spend on trying to learn something like lists of words, the less we retain. A far more effective method is to expose yourself to lots and lots of the language. Initially, you have to deal with rather uninteresting material, but then as soon as possible you should move into content that’s of interest so that you’re just being exposed to the language.

Going back to this idea of preparation: Part of our mental preparation has to be to recognize that in the first few months you’re learning new words, you’re learning to say things in a new language and it’s very exciting. Then, at some point, we realize that to achieve fluency is a long, long road. So we need to be mentally prepared for that, but at the same time we need to have a method of learning that enables us to stay with the task, to remain in that state of flow. As we get into authentic material, we’re reading about subjects of interest to us or watching movies that are of interest to us. We’re engaging with the language in a way that’s interesting and satisfying and we can introduce variety.

Another aspect of method is to vary listening and reading and possibly use flashcards, talk with people and so forth. Something that might seem impossible to you, like becoming fluent in another language, now becomes possible because you have a method that enables you to stay with the task over the long haul. If you can get yourself in this state of flow where you have content that’s not too difficult but is of interest to you, and you’re achieving this sense of satisfaction because you’re able to understand it, then you’re in that state of flow.

This brings me to another point: failure.

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Obviously, in business if you fail that could be quite dramatic. In my business career, I have had customers go bankrupt and not pay me what they owed me. I’ve had customers suddenly decide they no longer want to buy the product that we’ve been supplying for a long time. I’ve had a number of problems and the consequences can be quite dramatic. In language learning, a lot of the failure is in our own minds. We think we didn’t do as well as we would have liked to. We weren’t able to express ourselves as well as we would have liked to. We didn’t understand as well as we would have liked to.

I think there we have to be realistic, so one of the reasons that I focus on listening and reading is there’s less opportunity to fail. I’m just listening. I’m reading. If I don’t understand, I listen again or I read and study the words and listen again. On the other hand, if I’m forced to do tests, which I don’t like doing, then there’s a real opportunity to fail the test, to get the wrong answer. That’s why I believe in language learning we shouldn’t give people tests, drills and exercises, but rather let them enjoy the language so that we don’t confront them with failure. As they build up familiarity with the language, gradually they start to speak better and better.

Even with that, there are going to be moments when we don’t do as well as we would like or we feel we don’t pronounce as well as we would like. Very often, these things don’t really matter because, in fact, you’re able to communicate quite effectively, even with less than perfect pronunciation and less than perfect usage or grammar.

As in business, we have to overcome failure and start again, very often. There are periods when we’re very depressed because things didn’t go as hoped. It’s the same in language. There are times when you are disappointed with your results, but you have to cope with that. Again, if you focus on comprehension, accumulating words and enjoying the language in this state of flow, you will be less upset over your perceived shortcomings.

Finally, I think it’s important to find people to help you in business. You can’t do business without suppliers, customers, friends, contacts, people who help you along the way. Language learning is a little more of an individual journey, but people can be so helpful. These can be native speakers, teachers, fellow students, people who can direct you to resources on the Internet where you can find reference to whatever you need to know. It could be conjugation tables in Italian. It could be audio and text content in the language you’re learning. People can help you and you can find people to talk to.

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Never has it been easier to find language companions than today. In fact, never has it been easier to find language resources than today using the Internet and all the different forms of modern technology.

Staying motivated in language learning really is a matter of getting yourself into a position where you can enjoy the process of learning, where you’re in this state of flow and therefore you don’t get frustrated. Once you’re frustrated, what do you do? Perhaps leave it for a couple of days, go back to it and study in different ways.

Ideally, I don’t get frustrated in my language learning because I do things that are enjoyable. I have realistic expectations. I sort of try to do things that are a little bit difficult for me but not impossible. I focus on listening and reading to things that are enjoyable for me and, as a result, my motivation grows. I think all of us can learn languages in a way that sees our motivation actually grow.

I believe in LingQ as an extremely effective way of learning languages and staying motivated. The LingQ system gives you access to interesting and authentic content earlier, so you aren’t stuck with what I consider to be somewhat discouraging learner material. I definitely recommend that you give LingQ a chance and see if it can help you.

28 March 2016

Similarities and Differences Between the Slavic Languages

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One of the great things about learning languages is that it’s a way of discovering the world. Of course, we create our own language worlds and we do that by finding things of interest, at least I do, whether it be in libraries on the internet or elsewhere. Through our own language world we discover things about the wider world. When I wrote my book on language learning, I referenced  Zhuangzi and Taoist philosophy, and it was Laozi who said: ‘Without stirring abroad, One can know the whole world; Without looking out of the window, One can see the way of heaven.” We have this tremendous ability to learn about so many things today without going very far.

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

Another thing that I firmly believe is that culture or language is not in any way associated with our genes or DNA, so language doesn’t equal some kind of ethnic division necessarily. Often it matches, but it doesn’t have to match.

If we look at a map of the world we see this area north of the Black Sea, this vast area of steppe land where the Proto-Slavic people apparently originated from. Today, we have a variety of Slavic languages and they differ from each other because of the different historical influences that affected their development.

The most popularly spoken Slavic languages are Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian in the east, Polish, Czech and Slovakian in the west and then the the languages of the former Yugoslavia in the south: Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Macedonian, and also Bulgarian.

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I studied Russian first and I would recommend that because Slavic language speakers are a large group of people, and the Russian speakers are the largest group. Geographically, they inhabit most of Russia, and it’s not just the ethnic Russians who are Russian speakers. Russian is sort of a lingua franca in Central Asia and other countries of the former Tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union. So it covers all of that area and even right into Eastern Europe.

I started learning Russian 10 years ago because that was the most popular of the Slavic languages. I had also been exposed to Russian literature as a teenager and wanted to read those books in the original language. Then with the development of the Ukrainian crisis, I started watching Ukrainian television and couldn’t understand what the Ukrainians were saying, only what the Russians were saying. Yet, it sounded so similar I felt as if I should understand it. There were words there that were similar, but I just didn’t quite get the gist of what they were saying.

This gets back to this idea that you can’t just have a few words. Some people say if you have a thousand words you understand 70% of any context. But, in fact, that is never true. Very often the key words are just those words that you don’t understand, so I started learning Ukrainian. I actually learned Czech before Ukrainian because my parents were born in what became Czechoslovakia. I never understood any of it and I figured with Russian it would be easier. Well, it is easier. In fact the grammar of the Slavic languages that I have studied is remarkably similar.

There are minor differences between Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and so forth, but they are remarkably similar in terms of grammar. Their grammars are at least as similar as the grammars of  French, Spanish and Italian. So they’re grammatically very similar; however, quite different when it comes to vocabulary; more different than Spanish is from Italian or from French. In a way, in terms of vocabulary, the sort of outlier, the one with the largest lexical difference or distance seems to be Russian. In other words, I found that Czech, Polish and Ukrainian in terms of their vocabulary were closer together. Although perhaps grammatically Ukrainian is closer to Russian, and certainly in the writing system they use. It is, in fact, a form of Cyrillic.

The reasons for this, of course, are all historical. There was nothing that said over a thousand years ago when the early Slavs were breaking up wherever they were that there would be these divisions that we have today. There were influences like the Orthodox Church and Church Slavonic. There was the impact of the Mongol invasions, which meant that the original eastern Slavic nation built around Kiev, Kievan Rus’, split up and so you had Muscovy up north. Then the southern part of the Kievan Rus’ was increasingly under the influence of Poland or the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and so they developed more as part of that political entity. In fact, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had a lot more Ukrainians and Belarusians in it than Lithuanians. The Lithuanians were not numerous and the Lithuanian leadership gradually spoke more and more Polish as it became the dominant language.

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The Poles, as is often the case with societies where you have more than one language group, became quite intolerant in their approach to the Orthodox Ukrainians. That’s why at some point a portion of the Ukrainian Cossacks under the leadership of Khmelnitsky, I believe, broke away and went off to seek help from the Russians.

Over time, as part of the Ukraine came under Russian control, of course, now the Russians were less tolerant of the Ukrainians so they tried to suppress the Ukrainian language. Similarly, between the Czechs and the Poles there were a lot of kings that were common to Poland, Czech Lands and Moravia. In fact, going back a thousand years there was even a greater Moravia. Then in those lands you had the German immigrants. So lots of different influences, including the influence of the Catholic Church as the Poles and the Czechs became part of the Catholic world.

All of these things influenced the language. However, as a learner, if I were to learn those languages I would go in the following order: I would learn Russian first because it’s the biggest, biggest in terms of number of speakers, biggest in terms of, rightly or wrongly, the extent to which their writers are celebrated around the world. They’re more famous than Polish, Czech or Ukrainian writers. This might be a prejudice on my part, but I would start with Russian. With that, you’ll get the basics of how the grammar works. Although, certain minor things are different and, of course, the endings are completely different, but the principles under which these languages operate are more or less the same. Then with each language you have to learn the vocabulary of that language.

Fortunately, for each one of those four languages I have found ample resources via the internet, whether it be audiobooks and eBooks for Russian. There’s an abundance of books that you can download and import into LingQ. As I’ve said many times, I’ve found Ekho Moskvy a phenomenal resource because every day there are interviews with transcripts put up. With Czech I’ve found this history series Toulky českou minulostí and the political podcast Jak to vidí. Unfortunately, they no longer publish the transcripts for that, but that was very helpful to me. You can find eBooks and audiobooks for Czech. Similarly, with Polish I was able to find eBooks and audiobooks.

I haven’t had the same success with finding Ukrainian eBooks and audiobooks because wherever you search it’s all basically this is free, that is free. I’m not that interested in free, I’m happy to pay for a decent eBook or audiobook. So with Ukrainian I rely largely on Hromadske Radio, which is a very interesting source of podcasts daily on events in Ukraine, both in Russian and Ukrainian, and Radio Svoboda where often they will have texts with audio.

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So there are resources on the internet for those languages, and as you discover them you discover this Slavic world and there are certain characteristics in common. I was asked whether I found that there were these similarities between Slavic peoples and I must say that I find that there are some, but more than that it depends on individual people. There are the sort of intellectuals who are more worldly. There are those that are more stridently “we are the best”. There’s a whole range and I think that’s probably true for most cultures.

So I am very happy that I went after four languages within the Slavic collection of languages and I may go after Serbo-Croatian, particularly if I decide to go there on holiday. Similarly, I have my group of romance languages and it’s fun to explore the differences between Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and so forth. Of course Romanian as a bit of an outlier. The Germanic languages, between my Swedish, my English, my German and from the little bit of Dutch that I’ve looked at I don’t think it would be difficult to learn.

All I can say is it’s fun to explore these different language families. Over the course of history, different people who spoke one language were converted into speakers of another language. So there’s really no connection between genetics, genetic code or anything in language. It’s more a matter of circumstance in history, and exploring these languages is a great way to explore what we are as human beings.

I should say, also, on my Asian-language side obviously Chinese, or Mandarin, was a good base for Japanese and Korean, even though those languages – though they borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Chinese – are part of a different language family.