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.

21 March 2016

A Language Learner’s Manifesto

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Have you been studying a language for a while? Are you still afraid to speak ? Follow the Language Learner’s Manifesto and become confident and FLUENT in your chosen language.

Repeat the following mantra daily:

“I can be FLUENT. My goal is to be FLUENT. My goal is not to be perfect. My goal is to be FLUENT. I can be FLUENT and still make mistakes.”

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First I must forget what I learned in school. I will make a fresh start. I will forget the rules of grammar. I will forget the quizzes and tests. I will forget all the times I made mistakes. I will forget what my teachers taught me. I will forget my native language. I will forget who I am. I am a new person. I will make a fresh start. I will have fun! I will focus on things that are fun and interesting. I will learn.

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I will learn how to learn. I will listen a lot. I will let myself go. I will listen and let the English language enter my mind. I will listen often. I will listen every day. At first I will listen to the same content many times. Soon I will move on to meaningful content, subjects that interest me, things I love to listen to. I will listen to the meaning. I will listen to hear the words and phrases. I will listen early in the morning. I will listen late at night.

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I will understand the language. I will understand what I hear and read. Only if I can understand what I hear and read will I be able to speak and write. Until I can understand what I hear and read, I will not be able to speak and write well. But there is no hurry. I will work on understanding. I will read a lot and especially, listen a lot. I want to understand the meaning.

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Every day is a learning day. Every day the language is entering my brain. I enjoy reading and listening every day. I study with energy and enthusiasm. I study interesting things and enjoy the language. If I enjoy the language I will improve. Let the language enter my mind. There is no need to push myself. I am getting better every day.

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I will never say that I am no good. When I read and listen I will tell myself “nice job”! I will learn naturally and easily. I will be nice to myself. I will not be nervous.  If I make a mistake I will say “never mind”. If I cannot understand something I will say “never mind.” If I forget a word I will say “never mind.” If I have trouble saying what I want to say , “no problem”. I will continue.

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I will Trust myself. I will be confident. Confident learners improve quickly. I will treat myself with respect. I will tell myself that I am doing well. I just need to keep going, no matter what. The more I listen and read using LingQ, the more I will understand. The more words and phrases I save the more I will know.  Soon I will be ready to speak and write well. I will take it easy. I know I will succeed. I will trust myself and trust LingQ.

16 March 2016

Come to Vancouver and Learn With Me!

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Don’t go to language school, join me at LingQ.

I have an idea for a different approach to achieving a breakthrough in English.

I have always felt that it is best to not just learn a language, but to learn something else through the language. That way we learn the language better, and broaden our knowledge.

I became aware of an offer from marketing guru Seth Godin, and thought it would be fun to do something similar.

So here it is. Join me in Vancouver, at our LingQ headquarters, for three months to do the following:

  • Spend two hours a day studying English with LingQ under my personal guidance.
  • Spend up to five hours a day of interacting with our LingQ team in English.
  • Spend the rest of your time taking advantage of living in an English speaking environment.

At the end of three months, you will get a letter of reference and a LingQ Certificate you can frame!

To ensure your English breakthrough, and to help other LingQ members, you will use the LingQ system every day:

  • Recorded and transcribed conversations with me and LingQ staff will be studied.
  • Incoming emails and messages will be studied.
  • Outgoing emails and messages will be corrected on the Exchange.
  • Relevant articles on subjects related to our work day, such as user onboarding, ux design, conversion rate optimization, search engine optimization, social media marketing and more will be studied.

Requirements

  • You will need to find your own way to and from Vancouver, Canada.
  • You will have to find a place to stay within a reasonable commute time from our office in West Vancouver (we can help you with this).
  • You will need to come with your own laptop and either a tablet or smartphone or both.
  • You must provide strong references.

English Native Speakers Welcome

Although we are looking for mostly non-native English speakers from different language groups, we will also take one native English speaker who is learning another language. As an English speaker you will not benefit from the immersive, native speaking environment in our office. Nevertheless, we will arrange virtual discussions in your target language with tutors with experience in relevant fields. We will also make sure one of your co-learners is from your target language group so you can have real conversations with him or her.

How to Apply

LingQ Academy starts May 16, 2016, which doesn’t give a lot of time. We need to receive all applications by April 5, 2016 at the latest. We will be conducting Skype interviews for those who get through to the second stage. We are hoping to find three to six learners to take part in the course who will be notified by April 15, 2016. That will give you a month to prepare for the trip. I realize the timeline is short, but that’s the way it is.

You should be passionate about learning, whether it be learning languages or learning about web and mobile marketing, optimization etc. Tell us what you’re interested in! A genuine interest in technology and technology related fields is a must. Experience in these activities can be an asset but is by no means a requirement.

As part of your application, prepare an imported lesson on LingQ. Explain why we should include you in this program. It can be in any language. Include a video, audio and transcript of course. Include the lesson url in your application email.

Don’t worry, it won’t all be studying! We will find lots of opportunity to enjoy and explore the fantastic summers here on the west coast of Canada.

If you are interested, please submit an email to LingQAcademy@lingq.com answering the following questions. No prior experience is required, all levels of English speakers should feel free to apply.

Please answer the following questions:

What do you do now?
Why do you do it?
Why do you want to learn English?
Which language do you want to learn and why? (For native English speakers)
What is your current level in (English)?
What other languages do you speak?
What are you hoping to learn?
After you learn it, what are you going to do with it?
What are some of the things that you have done in your life that you are most proud of?
If you could do anything in your life, what would that be?
What else should I know about you?

For those of you who aren’t able to apply, we’ll also be making the learning materials from the course available on LingQ so you will be able to follow along and study the same program. We’ll provide more details when the time comes.

Give Yourself an Edge

When applying, let us know how many others you directed to this opportunity or how you were able to spread the word. This will demonstrate your creativity and willingness to help us out, even if it might hurt your odds of becoming a successful applicant.

What’s more, by spreading the word you can help guarantee that we will offer this program – to be honest, if we don’t get the level of interest we are hoping for, we won’t be able to offer it.

What’s in it for us?

What’s our goal in all of this? First and foremost, we intend to document the whole process both through video and on the blog. By running our own “reality show”, we are confident the results will speak for themselves while at the same time showing what is realistic to achieve in a three month period. Yes, we have never done this before so are just as curious to see the results…should be interesting!

At the end of this process, we hope to have generated some PR, have documented a “case study” of LingQ in action for future marketing efforts, improved our products and had some fun doing it. Whether you are an applicant or just want to watch from afar and enjoy the ride, we hope you will join us!

Key dates

Deadline for applications: April 5, 2016
Participants finalized by: April 15, 2016
Start date: May 16, 2016

13 March 2016

The Seven Secrets to Language Learning Success: Part 2

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Last week I wrote about the first four secrets to language learning success: spend the time, do what you like to do, learn to notice and words over grammar. Today’s post reveals the last three secrets.

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5. Be patient

I see many frustrated language learners who get upset because they forget words. They get upset because they don’t understand. Even after listening many, many times to the same content, certain parts remain difficult to understand…that is absolutely normal. What’s more, you will continue to have times when you find it difficult to say what you want to say.

It’s important to realize that the brain is constantly learning. It will constantly learn, change and renew itself. However, it does so on its own schedule. So just because you’ve studied something doesn’t mean you’re going to learn it. You have to accept that it’s not going to happen overnight. It may take six months for certain things to sink in, but all of a sudden they do. Almost without realizing it (and I’ve had this feeling), I’ll go back to a text that I struggled with months earlier and all of a sudden it’s crystal clear to me.

Similarly, in speaking you have these moments of great triumph when you are in a discussion and you are able to express your ideas just the way you wanted to. Maybe the next day you won’t be so successful, but it’s a very gradual process. It’s not obvious which words or which structures in the language the brain is going to learn first or later, so you just have to be patient and believe that what you’re doing is going to lead to the desired result.

Negative thoughts, like the ones you get when you forgot something, or didn’t understand something, are very damaging to the learning process. I’m not a neuroscientist, but there is so much emotion involved in how the brain learns, that it’s very important not to get negative and to be patient. Realize that it’s a long road, hopefully an enjoyable road, but one that will definitely lead to fluency in that language. Fluency need not mean perfection, so if you don’t expect perfection but you do except to constantly improve, you can afford to be patient.

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6. Get the tools

If you’re fixing something up around the house, you need the proper tools. Any job is easier if you have the proper tools. So you need to have some kind of listening device, whether that be an mp3 player, an iPod, smartphone or whatever you prefer.

Also, I think you should buy books. Obviously, we at LingQ feel that we have a wonderful platform for language learning, but I would be surprised if most of our members don’t also buy books. A book will last you a long time. It’s not a big investment, whereas language learning is a major investment of your time. So I would suggest anyone beginning in a language should buy one of these beginner series.

If you’re an English speaker, there is the Teach Yourself Series or the Colloquial Series. There’s Assimil, which is available for French speakers and English speakers. There are a number of these starter books. Get one. I will often buy one or two. While my main interest is listening and reading to the dialogue, I also flip through for some of the explanations, never expecting to remember them but as sort of a gradual refresher that helps me notice.

I’ll also buy a quality audio book rather than rely on LibriVox which is free, but where the quality can be uncertain. I use the LingQ app on my iPad, but not everyone is going to spend the money on an iPad. My point is that I don’t think you can do everything for free. You may end up spending more time by using less than satisfactory tools, and that could cost you a lot of time in the long run. So whatever your budget is, make sure you have the proper tools.

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7. Become an independent language learner

It’s maybe the most difficult thing to achieve: taking charge of your own language learning.

I believe that only independent language learners are successful and convert themselves into fluent speakers of another language. There are millions of people who go to language class and most of them don’t achieve success. The only way to truly succeed is to take your learning out of the classroom. Spend time alone with the language, pursuing things of interest, listening and reading, interacting with the language in ways that you like, developing the ability to notice, making sure you have the right tools and being patient. All these things that I’ve described in these two posts are the attributes of an independent learner. You have to become independent.

I hear people all the time saying “Why does this language go this way?”, “Is this right or is that right?”, “What does this mean?”. I consider myself an independent language learner having learned 15 and now working on my 16th language, but I never ask myself those questions. Either I can figure it out by looking words up in an online dictionary, or I let it go and don’t worry about it. I know that eventually this pattern or these words will start to make sense to me.

If I want to look up something to do with grammar, it’s easy enough to do today. Just by Googling I can see verb tables or noun declension tables in any language. I have a little grammar book that I occasionally leaf through in the different languages, but I don’t expect that any teacher has to teach it to me. I can access the language, learn from it and explore it on my own, I don’t need structure. Many people prefer to attend class, however, and that is fine. But even as a classroom learner, make sure you take control of your learning.

 

Click here to read Part 1!

10 March 2016

The Yin and Yang of Language Learning

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Language learning is about communicating. It’s about meaning. It’s about substance. Therefore, we want to learn the language from content that’s of interest to us and when we talk we want to communicate things that make sense. We want to have meaningful conversations and, yet, we do need a certain amount of exercising, of overworking certain muscles, overworking certain patterns in the language. We sometimes refer to it as the big picture and the nuts and bolts or sort of top down, bottom up, but we kind of need both.

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

Someone pointed out to me that when Mark Zuckerberg made his Chinese speech to those university students in Beijing, who were an elite group of students and he spoke to them in Chinese, many of the students there were not very impressed. They wanted to hear something of substance from Mark Zuckerberg and his Chinese is not really good enough to actually have a meaningful exchange with these students, all of whom speak English much better than he speaks Chinese. So in the interest of communication, he should have spoken in English after perhaps a brief introduction in Chinese because the authenticity, the substance of the communication is so important. That’s why I like to listen to things that relate to history and so forth and so on, but some degree of exercise we also need.

I was thinking about this as I went off to my 24-Hour Fitness, which is not too far from me here in Indio, California. Not only do they have a room full of all this exercise equipment, but then they have individual rooms where twice last week I went to a thing called bootcamp where this lovely lady just pushed us through our paces. I was just exhausted between jumping and stretching and pushups and God knows what.

How does that relate to language learning? I was thinking of the tremendous cost of university education, a very poor return on the money invested. The professors are not that interested in teaching, they’re more interested in doing research for their peers, which is of very little interest to anyone. It’s a bloated bureaucracy. It costs a fortune. Whether it’s paid for by the student or the taxpayer, it is very expensive. Now, if we had a 24-hour intellectual fitness, language fitness place. I pay $25 a month to belong to 24 Hour Fitness and I can use all their equipment and I can go to all these sessions of Zumba, U-Jam, and a whole schedule of stuff and I can drop in to all of them if I want all for $25.

I do a lot of my language learning while exercising, so if we had a class where we worked on the subjunctive in French or Spanish, verbs of motion in Russian or Polish, whatever it might be and so if someone was up there leading us through these exercises and we were repeating certain phrases or answering questions and repeating them for an hour focusing on let’s say five basic patterns in a language because, after all, there’s not an unlimited number of these patterns. There are a limited number of them, so you could choose to go to a boot camp or Zumba where the emphasis would be on the subjunctive in Spanish or something. It may be an unrealistic idea, but I’ll throw it out there.

Similarly, you could get on a treadmill and you could switch to different languages. They would make sure that they have content on there that was at your level and you would pay $25 a month to go down there and access exercise their equipment and participate in their classes. You could either be watching movies on your stepper for half an hour or you could be working on the subjunctive, so you would be combining both the substantial content-based authentic interesting stuff while exercising or you would be focusing on exercising certain aspects of the language.

6 March 2016

The Seven Secrets to Language Learning Success: Part 1

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People often ask me how I learned 15 languages. I will tell you what works for me; you’ll have to decide if this can work for you. Here are the first four secrets to language learning success:

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1. Spend the time

The first secret to successful language learning is spending the time. When I study a language, I spend at least an hour a day trying to learn that language, and I know that it’s going to take me months and months of continuous studying. But when I say study, I don’t mean sit in a classroom, I don’t mean answer questions or drills, review grammar rules or lists of words. What I mean is spend time with the language, listen to the language, read things that are written in the language or listen to songs that are sung in the language, even watch movies if you can. If you have friends who speak the language, spend time with them, even if most of the time you’re just listening because you don’t speak well enough to say very much.

The classroom can be very important as a place for you to meet with your friends, to find stimulus from a teacher, but in the classroom you’re listening to the teacher half the time or you’re listening to your classmates. What matters is how much time do you spend away from the classroom with the language. Spend that time with the language. Do it month after month after month and don’t let too many days go by where you don’t spend time with the language. Depending how difficult the language is – that means how different it is from your native language or from a language you already speak – the amount of time required might be years. If you can only spend an hour a day, it could be six months to a year to two years. If you can spend three hours a day, then it might be less than a year, but it does take time. There is no shortcut to fluency.

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2. Do what you like to do

If you don’t enjoy studying the language, you won’t put in the time, so it’s important that you do the things that you like doing.

What I like doing – and something that has proved extremely effective for me – is listening and reading. When you are listening and reading you are relying entirely on your imagination to convert words into meaning. To me, that is a more intense learning environment than say watching videos, but there are other people who find success in watching videos and will watch videos over and over again.

When I start out with a language I will quite often listen to a short piece of content until I understand 50-70%, then I’ll move on to the next item. I always want to read whatever I listen to and I want to listen to whatever I read, certainly in the beginning. I listen to things that I like, where I like the voice and where I’m interested in the topic.

I think to be a successful language learner you have to enjoy the process, so you have to decide what it is you like doing. Do you like listening and reading? Do you like watching videos? Do you like just hanging out with people if that opportunity is available to you?

So it is important to do what you like to do, that’s going to be a major condition for success because if you like doing it then all of a sudden it’s the process of language learning that becomes its own reward. As a friend once said, “In language learning there is no finish line. If we do what we like to do, it’s the process itself that is the reward”.

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3. Learn to notice

This is extremely important. The ability to notice is probably the most significant difference between people who are good at language learning and people who are not good at language learning. So how do you develop the ability to notice? There are a number of things you can do.

First of all, you need to make sure you get a lot of exposure to the language through listening, reading or, if you prefer, watching videos. You can’t notice something until you’ve actually consciously and subconsciously experienced it at some level. So you need to first absorb a lot of the language.

Next you have to hone your ability to notice. If I’m reading, I’ll often underline certain expressions or words. If I’m reading online I will save words and phrases to my personal database. Just the act of saving them helps me to notice. When I review these words as flashcards that again helps me notice. Some words I’ll remember, some I won’t, but it all slowly builds up this ability to notice.

If I’m corrected it may help me notice, it may not, but it certainly won’t necessarily correct me. Maybe an explanation from a teacher or an explanation in a grammar book will help me notice. That’s why I often review grammar books very quickly, again, not with the intention or in the hope that I’ll remember a particular rule or a particular verb ending, but because it’s part of the process, that continuous cumulative process of getting me to notice certain things.

Once I notice something, let’s say it was a correction in my writing, and then I look for it when I’m reading or when I hear the language, all of a sudden I start to notice it everywhere. As we notice things in the language they become a part of us, and pretty soon, because we’ve noticed it here and there, we suddenly automatically start using these words, phrases and patterns of the language correctly.

Now, the same is true with pronunciation. You can’t pronounce what you can’t hear, so you have to pay attention to how the language is pronounced. It’s not just the individual sounds you need to pay attention to, it’s the intonation, too. It can also be very useful to listen and imitate because that helps you to notice.

So whether it be pronunciation, correct usage, or the accumulation of words and phrases, it’s very important to hone that ability to notice. It starts with a desire to notice, the conscious determination or will to say “I’m going to try to notice the language’’.

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4. Words over grammar

Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. In fact, if you learn words, if you have lots of words and if you learn these words naturally through lots of listening and reading, the grammar will eventually fall into place. Nothing prevents you from occasionally reviewing grammar rules in a small grammar book. It’s probably a good thing to do. I do it, but my major emphasis is accumulating words. That’s why at LingQ our number one measurable is how many words you know.

Now, some people say that the emphasis should be on learning chunks of words in the form of phrases that we can easily reproduce. Certainly this is a good thing to do, but the phrases themselves consist of words, so you still have to know what words mean and you can’t learn them in isolation. You have to learn them from meaningful content and that’s why when I save a word to my personal database at LingQ, not only does LingQ capture all the phrases where that word occurs, but the next time that word appears in any new context at LingQ it will be highlighted in yellow. In this way I’m constantly increasing my known words total, and my sense of how words are used.

Grammar, which is nothing other than a description of correct usage, is something that we can only learn gradually. Even if you memorize the rules of grammar, which can be very difficult to do without a sufficient amount of input, without enough of a vocabulary to follow a conversation or express your ideas, you would not be able to say very much. On the other hand, if you have a large vocabulary you will be surprised at how much you can say, especially if you’ve seen these words in different contexts. You’ll notice how easily you start to speak, often as not with the words in the correct order and in the correct form.

So, once again, focus your efforts on words and there are a number of strategies that can help you. Some people like to use flashcards, but my preference is to do a lot of listening and reading. I will also focus on one author during a particular period or on one subject area, which might be politics, history or economics.

What this does is ensure that a certain range of words appear more frequently. Because I’m staying with one author, Tolstoy for example in Russian, then I become familiar with his vocabulary. If I am listening to current event interviews, then I become very familiar with that vocabulary. So, occasionally, I’ll change my emphasis, change the author, change the subject area, but always try to focus for a certain period of time on one particular area of interest to get enough repetition so that I can steadily increase my vocabulary.

 

Click here to read Part 2!

28 February 2016

Forget the Dictionary! Create Your Own Dictionary

create your own dictionary

When it comes to learning a new language, some learners like dictionaries. They read them. They treasure them. They worry about getting the best possible dictionary. Some people even like monolingual dictionaries, in other words dictionaries that explain the meaning of a foreign language word in the language that they are learning.

Not me. I don’t like using dictionaries. Using them is like one-way love. I put a lot of effort into looking words up. I think things are fine when looking at the meaning in the dictionary, but as soon as I close the dictionary very little remains. I’ve already forgotten what I just read. I’m left feeling empty.

Things are even worse with a monolingual dictionary, since the explanation of the meaning of the word I am looking up often contains words that I don’t know. I would have to look up those other words in order to understand the explanation, and that explanation may also have words that I don’t know. I don’t want to spend my study time leafing through a dictionary. I just want to go in and out, as fast as possible.

Of course I need a dictionary to help me read new and difficult texts in another language, especially at the beginning. I often have to look up the same word more than once since I forget the translation so quickly. So, in my view, the less time you spend to looking things up in a traditional dictionary the better. You can create your own dictionary.

So what I do, at least at the early stages of learning a language, is to just read online and use online dictionaries. In this way I get instant explanations and translations that help me through the text I’m reading. I can just stay focused on the meaning of what I’m reading, and not focused on the traditional dictionaries.

When reading away from the computer I simply let the unknown words go by me. I ignore them with the knowledge that if I continue reading, mostly online, I will eventually come across these words again and either understand them, or look them up online. Traditional dictionaries are simply too time consuming and inefficient. You need to create your own dictionary.

But even reading online and using an online dictionary is not enough. I want the feeling that that the words I looked up are not lost. I may want to be able to review them occasionally. I even want to be reminded that I have seen them before. What I need is a dynamic database of my new words and phrases, linked to real examples of these words in use, related to my reading and listening, hopefully consisting of real or authentic content.

What I mean by real content is anything that I’m genuinely interested in, not just learner content, written for language learners. By staying engrossed in meaningful content, I learn languages, and new vocabulary, faster than by focusing on the dictionary. The dictionary is just a tool to enable me to learn from my listening and reading.

It was my frustration over conventional learning material, with relatively uninteresting content, that caused me to develop LingQ. I was faced with a choice. If I used learner material, I had access to a glossary or word list. But referring to the word list, often on another page, was a distraction from my reading. It seemed that many of the words I wanted to know were not on the list, while words that I knew were there. On the other hand, reading things of interest to me was usually too difficult.

You can create your own dictionary!

At LingQ I can either find something of interest in the LingQ library or import something of interest from another source. I can save new words and phrases to my personal database for later study. The saved words or phrases, called LingQs, provide an explanation and translation. These LingQs are then highlighted for me when they appear in other texts later on. I can use Flash Cards and other tools to review them. Furthermore, these LingQs help create the statistics that track my learning activity and progress while I just focus on listening to and reading content of interest.

I like my language learning to be efficient. I really don’t have a lot of time to devote to the language, maybe an hour or so a day.I want that time to be spent enjoyably, so that I will stay with it, and efficiently. I feel that whenever I take time away from listening, reading or speaking, such as when I am reading the dictionary, I’m not using my time efficiently, and certainly not enjoyably. But that’s just me, and it is up to each person to find their own way. On the other hand, I have learned 15 languages, including 7 since the age of 60.

22 February 2016

Input, Output, and “ Language Hacking Techniques ”

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In my view, there are three divergent approaches to language learning, divergent in terms of their emphasis or principal focus. This is true whether we learn in the classroom, online or on the street. One approach focuses on input, another on output, and a third on what I would call shortcuts and some people call language hacking techniques. These techniques include grammar study, studying vocab lists and phrase books, heavy use of Flash Cards,”deconstructing the language”, memory techniques and so forth.

Any successful language learning program uses some of all three approaches. Where proponents of different approaches disagree is on the emphasis.

As many of you know, I favour an emphasis on input. The input should be interesting and meaningful for the learner, although this is harder to do for beginners. I believe that the preponderance of input based activities is just natural to the way we use language, even our own. In any conversation, especially if there are more than two people involved, we mostly listen. If we add to that our listening to radio, and television or classroom lectures, and then toss in reading, that wonderful human invention that enables us to communicate with the thoughts and ideas of people we do not know, in places, cultures and even eras, that are removed from our own little world, we are mostly consumers of input, not producers of output. This is the same when we learn a language.

I see three circles. One is large and represents input. This is where we acquire familiarity with a language, get to know its words and structure naturally. We prepare our brain for the language, so that the bits and pieces, grammar rules, or words and phrases can stick, eventually. We acquire this input from reading and listening to things that matter to us. These can be a novel, a newspaper article, a story, or a short content item from a beginner’s book. Talking to native speakers is a great source of meaningful input. It has relevance and credibility. It is, however, usually harder to arrange as a beginner, unless it is with a teacher, since we are not able to say much. On the other hand input activities are easy and inexpensive to do. We can listen or read while on a train, or listen while doing the dishes or going for a run. We can use dead time for our learning.

1.Diagram

The next circle is much smaller and sits inside the first circle. It is the output circle, speaking and writing. That is where we train ourselves to use the words and phrases of the language that we learn passively from input. This is also a great way to discover our gaps, and start to notice them better when we listen and read. Our volume of output grows as we acquire more words and phrases from our input activities. At the beginner stage, is difficult to engage native speakers in conversation unless they are good friends or teachers. It is often easier to start by writing, but that requires a lot of discipline. Our desire to produce output usually grows as we acquire more familiarity with the language, more words and phrases, and want to try these things out with other people. We usually know when we want to produce output.

The third circle sits inside the second circle and is a little smaller than the output circle. We spend less time here, but check in every now and then. Books with lists of words and phrases, or grammar rules, are, to me, hard to understand and remember until we have had enough input. I have tried learning from phrasebooks as a beginner and I could not remember them, because I had no context. The same is true of grammar rules. However, once I have had a lot of exposure to the language through interesting and meaningful input activities, these phrasebooks and grammar rules are easier to use. They can help me fill in gaps in my knowledge.

Language learning is still largely a matter of finding a way to enjoy the process. The golden trinity of Attitude, Time on task, and Attentiveness are the keys. Obviously if we enjoy learning, we will have a good attitude, put in the time and remain alert to the language. Different people enjoy different ways of learning.2What I have outlined here is how I like to learn, and this approach is at the core of LingQ.

15 February 2016

Can Reading And Listening Help Your Career?

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Recently, there is a lot of discussion about the primaries, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders or our new Prime Minister in Canada. One thing that comes out in all of this is that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with conventional politicians, but also there’s a lot of uneasiness because so many people who used to be in the middle class no longer feel that they’re in the middle class. It used to be that if you had a good job in the local factory, perhaps your wife had a job in the factory, maybe your kids had a job in the factory. You were wealthy and you didn’t necessarily have a very high level of education. Many of those jobs no longer exist and they’re not likely to come back, so what can a person do?

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

Well, that’s where I believe that reading and listening, the same things that are so powerful for language learning, are extremely important in order for people to be competitive in the new economy. Of course there’s no guarantee that every educated person will get a good job, or even a job. However, there are all kinds of statistics that show that the degree of literacy of a person, in other words how well they read, how many words they know, all the things that are important in learning languages, are also the things that will determine how well you do in society, how well you do at school, how well you do in your job. Even technical jobs, the level of literacy required to read instructional manuals is very, very high.

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Yes, there are problems with people who have reading disabilities and I think these people have to help themselves as much as possible. Other people may help them. We know, for example, that listening and reading are very closely connected. People who don’t read well also have trouble discerning sounds, to some extent, so these are things we have to work on, in other words, if we spend the time.

Again, just as in language learning, if you have an attitude that says I am going to improve my reading and listening skills, I’m going to improve my vocabulary. If you have that kind of attitude, you’re convinced that you’re going to succeed and you put the time into it. So you won’t be watching the football game on TV. You won’t be going to the bar to drink beer or whatever else it is that you do that might be wonderful. It might even mean taking time away from your family, but you’re going to devote that time to improving your reading and listening skills. This, in itself, will have a major impact on flattening out that widening disparity between the wealthy, who are mostly have a high rate of literacy, and the poor, who by and large don’t.

Now, there are always exceptions. There are very well educated people who have poor jobs. There are uneducated people who have good jobs. I’ve worked with people who have serious reading disabilities and who are excellent at what they do in very demanding managerial positions. There are athletes and singers. There are all kinds of exceptions. However, by and large, statistically, the better you read and listen, the better your vocabulary, the broader your knowledge, the better you do. In order to become better as a reader and a listener, you have to work at it, much the same way as we work at our language-learning skills.

9 February 2016

4 Steps to Self-Empowerment Through Learning

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Elon Musk thinks a human’s hardware is her physical body and brain and her software the way she learns to think, her value system, her habits, her personality. Learning, for Musk, is simply the process of “downloading data and algorithms into your brain.”

We are, in fact, downloading data and algorithms with every day and every new experience. Human beings are learning machines. We spend our lives learning. We can’t help but learn. The only question is what we will learn and how it will affect our lives.

Unfortunately we have been conditioned by the school system to think that learning can only take place in a classroom. We need to take charge of our own learning. Here are four steps.

1. Forget the classroom.

As the influential German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer said in his book “Learning: The Human Brain and the School of Life”, learning doesn’t take place in classrooms, it takes place in our brains.

Roman school children learned from their masters and wrote things down painstakingly on clay tablets. Today we have electronic tablets that connect us instantly with knowledge and information that no Roman could have imagined.

But classroom education hasn’t changed. Teachers are perceived as the source of knowledge. “If they don’t teach we don’t learn.” The problem with this model is that it disempowers the most dynamic performer in the learning process, the learner. When we are dependent on others for our learning, we lose out.

For Musk, the greatest frustration with formal classroom learning is the “ridiculously slow download speed” of sitting in a classroom while a teacher explains something. Musk learned mostly on his own, through reading.

Good teachers know that their role is to encourage and stimulate, not just to teach. However, many teachers prefer their students to be dependent on them. Often in school, we are told not to get ahead of what the teacher is covering . This diminishes the learner’s curiosity, enthusiasm and independence.

Albert Einstein wisely said “ I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”. Create your own conditions for learning!

2. Work on becoming an effective reader and listener.

Reading and listening on our own are not only efficient ways of learning, they help us improve our communication skills. The top four skills employers are looking for in the modern workplace are: oral communication skills, listening skills, writing skills and presentation skills.These skills require high literacy and are most easily acquired through broad based reading and listening.

The better our reading and listening skills, the more knowledge we can acquire on. The broader our general knowledge, the more we can understand when we read and listen. When it comes to literacy and words, and general knowledge, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is either a virtuous circle or a vicious circle. This is true for conventional reading, and for listening to podcasts and the other sources of information and knowledge that we can find on the Internet.

In today’s job market, we have to constantly learn new technical skills. Technical material, manuals and the like, have some of the highest literacy requirements of any reading material, higher than for newspapers or popular literature, for example.

Be like Musk, equip yourself to learn on your own, rather than waiting for a teacher to download information to you in a classroom. Start reading and listening. The more you read and listen, the better you get at it.

3. Stop wasting money on ineffective learning methods.

Educational institutions are both ineffective and expensive. Public expenditure on education represents 5-7 percent of GDP in most developed countries, close to the amount expended on health care. In addition, many students graduate from university deeply in debt.

We often hear appeals for more money to be spent on education, more money for teachers, textbooks, and stakeholders in the present education system. Research on education assumes that learning is centred around a teacher in a classroom.

Yet today the teacher is only one of many resources available. The Internet has created a new paradigm. We are able to find not only books that can help us in our learning, but all kinds of resources, including online university courses, podcasts and more. Much of this is free. It is for the learner to decide how much of the learning should come happen in a classroom.

Learn on your own, and limit your exposure to a system that may saddle you with a large debt.

4. Even if you have trouble reading or listening, take charge of your future.

Some people have reading disabilities which prevent them from becoming powerful readers and independent learners. This is true whether the learner is in a traditional classroom or not.

If you are dyslexic, find out about the causes and what you can do for yourself. It appears that dyslexia is related to our ability to hear and process sounds and words.This is not surprising since when learning a new language, it is important to combine listening and reading, in order to understand what is at first incomprehensible. Combining reading with listening, and repetitive listening if necessary, is an important strategy, not only in language learning, but in improving literacy and overcoming dyslexia.

All learners, and especially people with reading problems, should actively search for the tools that can help them become effective listeners and readers. Poor readers are usually poor listeners as well. There is no shame in having these learning problems. They are widespread. However, there is no reason to be dependent on other people to overcome these problems. There are vast resources and systems available on the Internet to help people develop their learning skills.

Everyone should take charge of their own learning. Go for it now!