4 July 2016

How I Went About Learning French and Spanish

learning french and spanish

How I went about learning French and Spanish

I’m going to combine how I went about learning French and Spanish because they both came at me at the same time in my life and were really quite instrumental to me getting involved with language learning.

I was in Montreal in the 1950s at a time when the city was what they called the two solitudes. You had a million English-speaking people and two million French-speaking people. The workplace was English. In the stores everything was English. So as an English-speaking person growing up in Montreal it was really not very different from living in Toronto or Chicago, as far as languages were concerned. Of course we had French in school starting in grade two and we had the 16 verbs that take ‘et’. We studied it to pass the exam and I did well, even though I wasn’t very interested in the topic. Everything they did in school made it uninteresting.

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After school I went to McGill University in Montreal and had an excellent professor who made French civilization and French culture interesting. As a teacher you have only one job, to turn on the student – easier said than done. Once the student is turned on you don’t need the teacher. Whether it was that professor, the university environment or the textbook – I still remember it had these lovely pictures of paintings by Watteau and the different eras of French culture and civilization – but all of a sudden it became interesting. At the same time I became interested in the Nouvelle Vague movies.

So I didn’t only enjoy what I was studying in class. I was just fascinated by the discovery of Voltaire, Rousseau, Manon Lescaut etc. Then I started reading the local newspaper Le Devoir. In Quebec at that time there was fervor over Quebec wanting to be “maitre chez nous” because the economy was controlled by the English. Even though the Quebecois were the largest group and controlled the provincial politics, there was a lot of corruption and the church had tremendous influence. Quebec was the only province in Canada that didn’t have a provincial Ministry of Education. Instead they let the church run the education, so there were lots of notaries and priests.

This was all changed by politicians like Jean LeSage, René Levesque and, of course, Pierre Trudeau (although he ended up being more interested in federal politics). All this stuff was going on, so it was very interesting to read about it in the newspaper and go and see French theatre, even if I didn’t understand it. It was my French period, so I got totally into it. As I say, once you’re motivated it’s easy enough to learn.

I ended up going to the L’Institut d’études Politiques in Paris. I got my diploma there and had three wonderful years in France as a student. I lived in Paris. I had a bicycle. I lived on the fifth floor of a building that was built in 1789, so the toilet was on the third floor. I had a big aluminum basin I bought that I would fill with water and sit in to wash myself. It was very cold in the winter, but I had a great time living there.

That was obviously very good for learning French because everything I had to do I had to do in French. It convinced me that I could transform myself into someone that could comfortably speak another language. Part of the problem language learners have is they can’t really visualize themselves fluently speaking another language. It’s like climbing a mountain but you don’t know where the peak is and so you don’t think you can reach it. That’s a major problem that many language learners have who have never ever learned a second language. So French was a big deal for me.

I was first introduced to Spanish at McGill where I took a course in my first year. It was one of the electives I took and, fortunately, the professor got us into reading stories right away. We didn’t spend our time in class role playing, talking to each other, playing games, making slideshows and all this stuff that they seem to do now. It was “here’s a book, it has a glossary, read it.” I can’t remember the names of these stories, but they took place in places like Valencia. We read them and accumulated vocabulary. It was painstaking, but that was the course and I passed it.

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There were a lot of people living in Montreal who had fought on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War at that time. They would sit at a local cafe playing dominos and I’d wander in. I thought I was a really cool guy at 18 years old. I’d order a drink and watch all these Spanish guys play domino and hear them swearing in Spanish.

When I first arrived in France, I used to hitchhike every holiday. My favorite destination was Spain, so I’d go into what was then Francois Spain any chance I got. Spain was unbelievable in those days. People were so friendly and foreigners were a rarity. The first night I arrived in Barcelona, I was on a bus going out to the youth hostel and I started talking to people, bumbling in my Spanish. I would sit around with locals pouring wine out of this container that had a great big spout. The hitchhiking and hours and hours of sitting with truck drivers and other people who picked me up gave me lots of chances to speak Spanish.

I always think when you’re learning any language a major point is when you have read your first book. I’m not talking about reading on the computer with online dictionaries; I mean reading it. Ignoring the words you don’t know and reading it. The first book I read in Spanish was about the myths of origin of different peoples in Europe. It’s a subject that fascinates me. I believe a lot of this idea of ethnic identity is largely imaginary and elective, and you can choose to belong to whichever group you want to belong to. It was a fascinating book.

Check out my 10 tips for learning Spanish!

I keep emphasizing reading. Now, some people don’t like to read, they like to watch TV. Fine. You’ve got to do what you like and I always emphasize that in language learning. If you want to be successful with learning French and Spanish, you’ve got to like the language. You’ve got to like what you’re doing. You’ve got to put in the time. Reading is still the most effective way of building up your vocabulary, and then when you are confronted with the need to speak, as was the case with me in Spain, slowly, slowly, slowly the words start to come out. You hear them and you relate to what you read, so you build up your vocabulary. If you have a vocabulary, if you’re attentive to the language and try to listen to how things are pronounced, you will learn to speak.

As I’ve said many times, it’s the same with literacy in your own language. Reading is key. I look at my grandchildren and if they’re reading a lot, which they are, I’m happy. Whatever else happens in their school work, if they read well they’ll do fine and the same is true in language learning.

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27 June 2016

How I Went About Learning Russian and Czech


About nine years ago I started learning Russian and if it has proven anything, it is that learning a language is a long, long road. It’s also an enjoyable road because you never get to the end of it. If it ended I’d be unhappy, so I’ve been at it a long time. Let’s trace why I even started with Russian.

When I started studying Russian I spoke eight or so languages. I had had a brief fling with Korean, but I discontinued because the content that I could find wasn’t very interesting. (But I will go back to Korean one day.) So I bought Teach Yourself, Living Language, and whatever I could find down at the bookstore and just went through them. As I’ve said before, listening, reading, and acquiring vocabulary is the best and most effective way to learn a new language.

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That was about the time we made Russian available at LingQ. We have a series of stories like ‘Who Is She?’, which is 26 episodes long, in all the different languages we offer. At that time, I had two Russian employees, so I had two Russian versions of ‘Who Is She?’ made. The original recording sound quality wasn’t all that good, so I had it done again. I listened to that so many times and I painstakingly went through the texts at LingQ. My aim was to get to a Tolstoy within about two or three months.

There were two reasons why I decided to learn Russian. One was because everyone said you can’t learn Russian with your approach, my approach being one of not ignoring the grammar, but treating the grammar lightly: grammar light, words heavy. You can’t do that with Russian I was told, so that was a challenge. The other thing was I have always enjoyed reading Tolstoy, particularly in English, so I wanted to read a Tolstoy in Russian. I thought that would be an amazing thing to be able to do. The first novel I went at was The Kreutzer Sonata. It’s shorter, not like War and Peace which is two huge volumes.

The other reason I began studying Russian was that we had business in Riga, Latvia. So when I went to Riga, I went to find a Russian bookstore and bought a lot of of audiobooks, including an audio book of The Kreutzer Sonata.

I can remember in those days LingQ didn’t work as well as now. It would take three or four seconds to save each word, everything was clunky and more difficult. But I still did it. I found more and more audio books and, typically classics. I can remember reading The Stationmaster’s Daughter by Pushkin. I must have listened to that 10 times. At that time, I was training for a ski race in Sweden called the Vasaloppet where I would have to run 90 kilometers. I trained I don’t know how many hours, but I put in about 400 kilometers of training of cross-country skiing. A lot of that was done listening to Russian.

I read many other audiobooks: Yama by Kuprin, which is just a phenomenal story, Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak. One of my absolute favorites was a radio presentation of Fathers and Sons by Turgenev as well as The Master and Margarita, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I read this book by Edward Radzinsky on Stalin, which is amazing.

There’s a store here in Vancouver called Russkiy Mir where you can buy Russian DVDs, so I bought a bunch of those. I watched Ирония Судьбы (The Irony of Fate) and Жестокий Романс, which is a lovely movie. Those are some of my favorites, I still have them. To me, videos, I’ll only watch them once, maybe twice, so it doesn’t have the value of the book that I might read and go back and read again or audio books, for that matter.

So that was the first year or two. I made a couple of YouTube videos, you can still find them, of me speaking Russian after six months, after a couple of years and so forth. Then I remember around August 8, 2008, I discovered Ekho Moskvy and it just happened to coincide with the Russian-Georgian War. So at Ekho Moskvy, as I’ve mentioned many times, every day you can find 10 or more new interviews. Both audio and text are downloadable, so I take the audio and the text and import them into LingQ. I still make mistakes when I speak Russian, but I understand most things.

Once I hit Ekho Moskvy, basically, I was listening and reading articles every day. Throughout that period, LingQ became a little smoother and so I was able to cover more ground more quickly. But, I’ve been at it for nine years and I still make mistakes. There are still some things I don’t understand. But, by and large, I understand most of what they’re saying in any interview on Ekho Moskvy. There might be five percent words there that I don’t know. So that’s kind of where my Russian is.

Then I decided to go after Czech for several reasons. One is the low-hanging fruit theory of language learning. I know Spanish, therefore, I can learn Portuguese. I put a lot of effort into learning Chinese characters, so I’m going to learn Japanese and, eventually, Korean, so I figured I’d go after Czech. Surprising to me, the grammar and the structure of the language are very similar to Russian, but the vocabulary is not as similar as I thought. Apparently, only 40% of words in Czech are either the same as or recognizable as similar to Russian. So, obviously, between even Spanish and Italian, there is a much greater similarity.

So I also managed to find a Teach Yourself Czech that I had bought some years ago, and I went through that. А number of our members at LingQ had created a bunch of beginner content and I went through all of that. At first, it was all a blur, then gradually the language became clearer and clearer. Then I found Czech Radio, which is a tremendous, tremendous resource; it is my Ekho Moskvy. It’s different in nature, but they have their daily news items with audio and text for download.

Czech Radio have a whole history collection called Toulky Ceskou Minulosty, which I’m now going through. It’s phenomenal. There you can find the audio and the text of the most recent ones and they’re extremely well done. The quality of the sound when you’re listening to a foreign language is very important. I discovered, too, that they had a free downloadable audiobook of The good Soldier Svejk. There’s a Czech bookstore, so I ordered this online. The audio doesn’t match word for word, but I’m going to try and read through the book and then listen.

It’s going much faster in Czech than in Russian. I think firstly this is because I know Russian grammar is less of a struggle; it seems less strange to me. The second thing is that it’s written in the the Latin alphabet, so that’s more comfortable. I do still listen to Russian. I’ve downloaded five interviews today. I especially like to listen to Victor Shenderovich. There are certain people I like to listen to at Ekho Moskvy too, so I have to find the time to listen to them, as well as listening Czech.

I guess the big message is, obviously, I enjoy doing it. Not everybody enjoys learning languages. I like to do it in a way that I find enjoyable and try to move from the beginner text onto authentic text as quickly as possible. I’ll go back to easier text just to give myself a little bit of confidence. At times, it seems you’ll never make sense of this language. In Czech they say things differently from Russian. I won’t go through the details, but it’s different so you’ve got to get used to it.

At times, it seems like you’re not going to get used to it, but I know from experience that you will. Having done it many, many times, I know that you will get used to it and I enjoy the process, that’s another big advantage. A lot of people don’t enjoy the process. I enjoy it and, of course, I enjoy it much more now that I can understand a lot, certainly in Russian and increasingly so in Czech.

When I go after Turkish, which I intend to do, or even going back to the Korean, it will be more work, less pleasure, in a way. Although, that pleasure of taking on a task which is difficult but which you know you’re going to be able to get through creates a great sense of satisfaction. There was this Hungarian-American who spoke of flow, in other words, there’s a great sense of satisfaction in taking on something that is difficult, but you know that you can, in fact, cope with it. Perhaps, just to finish off on that, I think that’s where a lot of language learners get frustrated. Yes, you get better at it the more languages you learn, but I think we can all learn.

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

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19 June 2016

French for Beginners – What You Need to Know

French for Beginners - LingQ

French was my first love when it comes to languages. In fact, there’s an expression in French: “On revient toujours a son premier amour.” It means you always go back to your first love. I love French; I love all the languages that I learn, but I have a special affection for French.

Though I studied French at school, I couldn’t speak it at the age of 16. Then I went to McGill University and had a professor who turned me on to French and to the French civilization. To learn a language you’ve got to really love the language, be committed to the language and want to be part of that community of people who speak it. That’s what happened to me. I got very keen and I ended up going to France for three years where I studied Political Science at L’institut d’études politiques in Paris.

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French for beginners is something I highly recommend learning. There’s a whole world that you can access so much better if you speak French. The language is spoken in other countries like Canada. It’s spoken in eastern Canada in Quebec and New Brunswick. It’s spoken in many countries in Africa. Not to mention Belgium and Switzerland. So it’s well worth the effort.

Here are some tips on French for beginners about to set off on their language learning journey:

1. Pronunciation
French is fairly difficult to pronounce. It isn’t like English, Swedish or the tonal languages. French tends to roll along in a fairly monotonous range of tones. Also, there are the nasal sounds and then the way the sound is carried on to the next word. These are things you have to get used to as a beginner.

One thing I recommend insofar as pronunciation is concerned is to get used to making the ‘ur’ sound. There are lots of ‘ur’ and ‘aw’ sounds in French, and you kind of have to pick up on that as soon as you can and have it flow through your pronunciation. It can be tough to pick up on these sounds in your listening. The French slur words together, as we do in all languages.

2. Positive statements, negative statements and questions
You have to get used to what in English we call the ‘w’ words: what, where, when, why, who, how: quoi,où , qui , quand , pourquoi , comment. You should get used to those at the beginning of your studies as they are essential for making statements and asking questions. Try google translate to see what the corresponding words and structures are in French.

You can save these on LingQ, which I very much recommend you do because the system will give you lots of examples. The examples come in two sections on LingQ, either from our library or from a lesson you have already studied. The advantage of looking at examples from lessons you have already studied is that you probably know the words. Very often, if you’re reading in a grammar book you look at examples, but you don’t know the words. That’s not so very helpful.

3. Gender and number
There are languages, like Japanese, that have no gender and no number. French has both. In French pronouns and adjectives have to agree, even verbs have to agree. This can be difficult to get used to, but we have to have the confidence that we will eventually.

4. Verbs
Very soon you’ll discover that whereas in English we say I go, you go, he goes, only the ‘he goes’ changes, in French every form of the verb changes, depending on the person. You’ve just got to get used to it. It’s very difficult to remember these conjugations. You can spend all kinds of time pouring over conjugation tables. In my experience it’s a very unsatisfying thing to do because you forget them. You might remember them for tomorrow’s test and then you forget them, so you constantly have to refer to them and see them in context. If you’re on the computer, just Google “French conjugations” or “conjugation” of any verb and you will find what you are looking for. The same is true, by the way, with pronouns, adjectives. Anything you want to look at, you just Google and it will be there.

5. Tenses
The big bugbear in French for beginners is the tenses. Like with all grammar, the key to “getting it” is to simplify. I own a series of grammar books published by Dover. None of them is longer than 100 pages; they’re very short descriptions of the grammar. That’s the kind of book you need to have so that you can refer to the grammar from time to time, because in most grammars there aren’t that many issues. In fact, I think there’s probably 10 or so.

6. Conditional
There are things like the conditional which we also have in English: “I will go tomorrow”, “I would go if…” etc. The French do the same in their conditional. You have to learn the endings by regularly reviewing them in tables, seeing them in context and so forth.

Type some “if” “then” sentences in English into Google Translate and then grab those sentences and import them into LingQ. Then you can look for them in your regular listening and reading.

7. Subjunctive
The subjunctive is also a bit of a bugbear in the romance languages. All that means is there are certain expressions that describe the speaker’s attitude, like “you have to go”, “I want you to go”, “although you went” etc. At first the subjunctive won’t make sense, but once you’ve seen enough examples, it will start to make sense and slowly you’ll develop the habit of using the subjunctive form of the verb at the appropriate time.

8. Relative clause
There are some things they do differently. The French are not hungry or cold, they have hunger and they have cold. There are a few other things like that. Largely, it’s a matter of getting used to it. Try using Google Translate and type in a few English sentences with relative clauses and you will see how it works. Google Translate is a valuable tool, especially where French for beginners is concerned. Use it!


Even though I went through very quickly some of the issues of grammar when learning French for beginners, I hope it’s a good start. The grammar can be a bit of a stumbling block. Don’t let it be, get past it. Go past the grammar, enjoy listening and reading. Enjoy the language, you’ll see that French for beginners is a wonderful journey. Build up your vocabulary using LingQ, which I recommend, and go back and visit the grammar from time to time. Once you have some experience with the language, you’ll find that gradually, with enough exposure, some of these things start to become natural.

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

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13 June 2016

Biggest Mistake People Make in Language Learning


The biggest mistake people make in language learning.

The biggest thing that prevents people from succeeding and becoming fluent is that people stay with the beginner material for too long. They stay with the beginner book, course or lesson and never get beyond it. This is quite unnecessary.

If you buy a beginner book, which I think is a good thing to do if you embark on learning a new language, you can use it for a year. Keep on going back to it, but don’t try to master it. You don’t have to learn or remember the dialogues, the vocabulary, the grammar rules, nothing. It’s just an initial guide; something that you go back to regularly. You have to get away from the artificial environment of the beginner textbook, or whatever your teacher has you doing in class, as soon as possible. You have to get beyond it and into real language.

Take my experience with learning Czech as an example. I kept track of the initial stages. I started using LingQ’s Bookmark, a quick import system, to bring in articles from Czech newspapers two weeks after I started studying. Fighting my way through these, of course, clicking on every word, saving the words to my database, not really understanding it. I kind of picked my way through maybe 30–40%, most of it unclear to me, but I kept on doing it.

I had brought in something like 161 newspaper articles over three months. I started bringing in The Good Soldier Švejk and then I discovered Radio Prague. So I’ve read the equivalent of two books in Czech of adult authentic material intended for native speakers. Do I understand it all? No. Do I know all the words there? No. But I know a lot of it because now when I bring in a new text to my account in LingQ I can see that the New Words percentage is smaller. That’s just by reading,listening and not expecting to understand it all. Even though I listen two, three, four times, read it two, three, four times I don’t understand it, but it is all helping my brain get used to Czech.

The majority of people get the beginner book (I’ve got a beginner book handy here somewhere) and they never leave it because they never feel comfortable. They don’t feel they’ve learned everything in it. The beginner book is like that step into the swimming pool and then you’ve got to start swimming. So the biggest mistake people make in language learning is that they stay with their beginner material.

It doesn’t matter whether you can use the language. It doesn’t matter whether you can speak or write yet. What matters is how much can you understand, how many words you know, how familiar you are with the language and to what extent the language is starting to become a part of your brain.

So the biggest mistake people make in language learning is they stay with the beginner book for far too long. Within a month or two or three, depending on the language, you’ve got to get into the real language and ease your way in. I use LingQ to do this. It works for me.

So there’s my advice, don’t stay with the beginner material. The sooner you get into the real stuff, the faster you will learn. The objective is not to fully understand something after one or two months. The objective is to understand a lot after eight or 10 months and in order to do that, you’ve got to push yourself past that comfort level of the beginner book.

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

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6 June 2016

Understanding Russia to help you learn Russian

understanding Russia to help you learn Russian

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

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

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

So, how did I start to learn Russian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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2 June 2016

Useful Language Learning Techniques – Conversation Exchange

Useful Language learning techniques Conversation exchange

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

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

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

How do I go about having a conversation exchange:

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

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

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

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

Posted in Learning Languages | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Responses

30 May 2016

How to Memorize Vocabulary – Is It Even Necessary?

how to memorize vocabulary

How to Memorize Vocabulary — Is It Even Necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

As you might remember from a previous article I wrote, I firmly believe that language learning really revolves around three issues:

1. Your attitude

2. The time you give the language

3. Your ability to notice

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

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

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

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

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

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23 May 2016

The New World of Language Learning


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

Read the full article here on Medium…

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

Posted in LingQ Academy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Response

16 May 2016

Language Exercises – It’s All About The Gains


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

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

I want to talk about fitness and language learning and, particularly, CrossFit and language exercises.

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

I started doing CrossFit here in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. CrossFit focuses on a limited number of exercises. They work the legs, the core and the shoulders, but always sort of in a free standing situation. You’re doing squats. You’re doing jerks or snatches. While it’s controversial, their view is that this is very good because you’re not just focusing on one muscle, whereas if you’re sitting at a machine in a gym you might just be working on your biceps or something. I have found it excellent. I find that it has improved my posture and feel very good.

Remember, however concentrated language exercises might be, we still have to do a number of other things to improve.

Varying exercises increases our alertness and ability to notice, then like fitness in sports, the more things you notice, the better you’re going to learn the language.

So what I’ve been doing in the last week or so is reading text in Polish. I’ll focus on underlining and highlighting more phrases and then I can hear the text to speech of those phrases, so I kind of hear them sounding in my mind.

Often, these are phrases with verbs in them; I think those are the most important kinds of phrases. Then, I go to the dictation section at LingQ and I hear the text to speech and have to type in what I heard in the dictation. So I’m listening to two, three, four, five words of Polish and I have to write in what I heard. It’s amazing how I mishear. You assume you’re hearing something when, in fact, what the person said was quite different. So training myself to hear what is said better and to write correctly is not only enabling me to remember these phrases, but is also increasing my alertness, my ability to notice and, therefore, my fitness.

So I think this principle of CrossFit, a limited number of exercises that are very good for you. It’s not the only thing you do, but they really improve your general fitness. I think the same might be true of this emphasis on phrases and then doing dictation. I’ll continue doing this and I’ll report back to you.

I look forward to hearing your comments.

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

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9 May 2016

Effective Language Learning: Listening and Reading

Effective language learning listening and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

effective language learning listening and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Learning Techniques | Tagged , , , , , | 28 Responses