17 August 2015

Travel and Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Here I am in our little yard. We’re in Palm Springs, my wife and I, so I want to talk about travel and language learning. People have asked me to present my conclusions at the front so they don’t have to listen to my ramble. Three questions:

1. Is travel a major motivator for language learning?
Yes, absolutely.

2. Is it necessary to travel to the country in order to learn a language?

3. If you travel to the country where the language is spoken, will that help your language learning?
Not necessarily.

So those are the conclusions, now let’s get into detail.

For me, travel has always been one of the main motivators in language learning, but there are other motivators. I’m motivated to learn about a country’s history. Having a friend in the language can be a major motivator or a relative. So there could be many motivations or motivating factors; however, travel is a major motivator. Having a goal, in my case when I learned Czech, I wanted to study it for a year and then, after a year, go to Prague and speak. So that was a major motivator. It made it very concrete. I had a specific goal so, to that extent, wanting to travel to the country.

Even if you can’t travel – this is the other thing – if you’re located somewhere where you have perhaps only a slight possibility of traveling to a Spanish-speaking country or to China, still the thought that one day you might travel there can become a motivator because motivation is so important to language learning. So travel can be a major motivator, but it needn’t be the only one. As I say, it can be an interest in the culture, in say anime for people. I’m not interested in anime at all, but some people are. I’m interested in history. So travel can be a great motivator.

Now, the second question is do you need to travel to the country in order to learn the language. There the answer is no and I’ll give you a number of examples.

First of all, in my own experience I learned Mandarin Chinese in Hong Kong. Hong Kong in the ‘60s was not a Mandarin-speaking environment, so I was not surrounded by Mandarin. I didn’t hear Mandarin on the radio. I couldn’t go out and talk to shopkeepers or passersby in Mandarin. The only people with whom I spoke Mandarin were my teachers and a very limited number of Mandarin-speaking friends whom we met. I might just as well have been in New York, Paris or Tokyo. For me, I didn’t need to be in a Mandarin-speaking environment and after nine months I learned a lot of Mandarin, but I was motivated by my interest in the history and the literature, my reading, my listening, all of the things that kept me going at my Mandarin studies.

I’ll give another example. Even with regard to Czech, I spent a year listening to Czech radio, an hour, hour and a half a day, studying at LingQ with the goal of going to Prague. But in the end, I spent five days in Prague. I spent a year working on my Czech, so the five days in Prague were an opportunity for me to sort of convert my somewhat passive learning into more active learning. In terms of the amount of time that I spent, I spent a whole year studying Czech on my own in Canada and five days in Prague. So being in Prague, per se, was not the condition for learning. That’s the second question.

The third question is does going to the country insure that you learn the language. There, again, the answer is no. Most people, if they have an opportunity to travel to Mexico, Spain, Italy, Prague, China, probably are only going to spend a week or two weeks there. They can’t learn the language in one or two weeks. Even if they spend two or three months there it may not be enough. It’s the amount of study you do beforehand that will determine how well you can take advantage of your stay. Even living in the country doesn’t insure you’re going to learn the language.

When I lived in Japan very few foreigners learned Japanese and, for that matter, even if you’re in the country where the language is spoken. I went to Japan speaking, essentially, no Japanese. I was surrounded by Japanese people, but most of my learning activity was listening and reading to things of interest to me. I had to build up my capability in the language before I could actually interact with people. So regardless of whether you’re in the country or not, the strategy has to be – I mention this in my book – to build up your own language world of things that are of interest to you. Things you can read and listen to and build up your vocabulary allow your brain to become sort of accustomed to the language and start speaking with people, which we can do.

This is another point. Today with the Internet, access to people via Skype, access to tremendous resources on the Internet, you can build and create your own language world wherever you are. That’s the major sort of activity. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to the country where the language you’re learning is spoken so much the better. That can be a major motivator as you prepare yourself for that opportunity and, eventually, if you do go there, obviously, the more time you spend there, the more you’re interacting with people, the better you’re going to get. But the foundation can be built at home and then when you get the opportunity you can really take advantage.

That’s kind of a summary of this whole issue of travel and language. Yes, it’s great to travel and I love going to countries where I can speak the language. It’s a major benefit, bonus and reward for learning the language, but it’s not a condition. You can learn the language very well at home. Even if you do go to the country where the language is spoken, if you haven’t put that effort into preparing yourself using your own language world you won’t be able to take advantage of it. So there you have it.

Unfortunately, we are going to have to leave sunny California in a few days and go back to Canada where the weather is not as nice. Thanks for listening. I look forward to your comments and I want to hear about your experiences. Thank you.

14 August 2015

Patience In Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. As you know, I like to talk about language learning. If you enjoy my channel, please subscribe. I try to put out a video at least once a week on tips or experience that I have had in learning up to 15 languages. Today, I’m going to talk about what I think is a very important quality in any language learner and that is patience. Patience and, unfortunately, most language learners don’t have patience, they want quick results.

Learning a language is actually changing habits in your brain, it takes time. I sometimes think these techniques that people use like spaced repetition systems or studying long vocabulary lists, even to some extent this focus on grammar, is an attempt to short circuit a process which actually takes a long time. It takes a lot of exposure, a lot of reading and listening and, eventually, speaking in order to create new habits and it is a matter of habits.

I was talking to an American who has been teaching English in China and I asked, what are the main difficulties that Chinese people have in English and he said three. First of all, the third person singular in the present tense, like “he goes” instead of “he go”. That’s common not only for Chinese speakers, but for lots of people. Particularly if it’s “the car that was parked beside the school is?” You have to remember that, in fact, it’s the only call it ending with an ‘s’. In other words, “I go”, “you go”, “he goes”, “we go”, “they go”, “you go”. Even though that’s easy to explain, it takes so long to get used to.

The second difficulty Chinese people had was “he” and “she” because in spoken Chinese there’s no difference between “he” and “she”, you just pick it up from the context, but in English there is. Easy concept, easily explained, everybody understands it and after five-10 years Chinese people will still get about a 50% success rate. “My husband, she.” No, “my husband he” because you have to create that habit.

The other difficulty Chinese people had was with plurals because they don’t really have plurals in their nouns, but it’s the same for English speakers speaking languages where they have gender. We don’t have gender in English, so it takes a long time to get used to getting the gender right. We just default to _____ in French. People who have gender in their own languages have an easier time learning the gender of nouns in other languages where they have gender. People who speak languages where they have no articles, they have all kinds of trouble with articles in English or in French or Spanish, languages which have articles. It just takes time.

In fact, I put a link. There was a Russian program called Easy Russian, where the teacher there says throw away the grammar book. I wouldn’t go that far, but don’t rely on the ability to kind of deduce the grammar as a shortcut to learning the language. Even if you understand the explanation, which is not always a given, you still have to put in the time of listening and reading to create some new habits so that, gradually, the brain starts to create these patterns, which enable the brain then on the fly while you’re speaking to product the language correctly.

The same is true for people who say I still don’t understand. I don’t understand movies. I don’t understand this. I was with a group of people last night and I didn’t feel that I spoke as well as I should, all this kind of stuff. It takes time, the language remains fuzzy. You’re still stuck in old habits and it’s only through a lot of exposure that you’re going to form new habits.

There’s nothing wrong with some of these other aids to learning if you enjoy doing them, but if you think that’s going to short circuit the system and enable you to suddenly speak well or understand well I don’t think so. Perhaps some people, but that’s certainly not my experience. So I recommend that people be patient when they learn languages. Keep at it and you will eventually improve.

If you enjoy hearing about language learning, please subscribe to my channel. Bye and thanks for listening.

1 August 2015

Meaningful Language Learning Goals

The goal of fluency in a foreign language can often seem vague and elusive. It is not always clear what fluency means. Those who have not experienced the feeling of achieving fluency in another language doubt they can get there, and doubt they would know if they did. Learners often feel they are not making progress in the language they are studying. These circumstances can make language learning a frustrating activity.

How To Deal With Frustrations

I deal with these frustrations in two ways. First of all,  I try to focus most of my language learning activity on enjoyable tasks. This means that my time is largely spent listening to and reading content that is of interest to me, learning about  new cultures, and acquiring new information and experience. I know from experience that I will improve my language skills as long as I continue merrily listening and reading, exploring things of interest to me.

Language Learning Goals - Frustration

Image by Andy Blackledge

However there are situations where this is not enough. This occurs when the easy material in the language is now too boring and the interesting, authentic  material is just a little too difficult. There are too many unknown words, the meaning is a little vague or fuzzy, and I have great trouble understanding when I listen. I need to force myself to persevere.

I am at this stage in my Korean learning. What should be enjoyable and interesting content, podcasts that I have found and had transcribed for our library at LingQ, like well-known artists Kim Youngha’s literary podcast,  is still a chore and a challenge for me. The intermediate content in our LingQ library is more accessible, but of little interest. The result is that I sort of start and stop in my Korean learning, and have not achieved my goal of fluency.

That is where I believe measurable short-term goals and targets can be important to keeping  me on task. Let’s look at some examples from other areas of activity.

Reaching Goals While Exercising Body And Mind

I like to exercise. When I lift weights or do push-ups, I do a specific number. I do 20 push-ups, or three sets of 10 repetitions of a certain exercise. I do this a specific number of times a week. I don’t just do an indefinite number of exercises whenever I feel like it. If I am swimming in the ocean and want a good workout, I will pick a buoy or something in the distance and swim to it and back, once or several times. I know that these exercises will contribute to maintaining or improving my physical condition.

I don’t think about how much more fit I am becoming. I am not really thinking about my long term goal, which is, in fact, quite vague. I just focus on the immediate tasks. I know that doing these exercises, reaching measurable and immediate goals, will have the desired effect of keeping me fit in the long term.

Language Learning Goals - Exercise
Image by Abd Basith

The same applies to language learning. When we are faced with the vague sense that we’re not sure how proficient we can become in a new language nor if we are improving, it becomes important to carry out short-term and measurable tasks. It is easier to force ourselves to perform these specific tasks, than to just “study the language”.

A Push To Korean Fluency

I am determined to improve my Korean, a language that I have studied off and on for quite some time. I went through a 90 day challenge in Korean a while back. You can check out the youtube videos that I posted during this challenge here.

I have made considerable progress, but I am not yet at the stage where I comfortably understand the kind of material that I want to listen to and read, the kind of material that would really enable me to connect with Korean culture and Korean people.

This is going to change. Starting in the month of September I will embark on a new 90-Day Challenge for Korean, at the end of which I want to be comfortably fluent. In order to do that I will have to significantly increase my vocabulary and my familiarity with the language and my ability to comprehend native speaking Koreans on a wide variety of subjects.

Language Learning Goals - Korea

Image by Republic of Korea

This is an ambitious goal and to some extent a vague onel. To make sure I achieve it,  I am going to set myself very specific targets for the 90 days, using the statistics that we keep at LingQ. I am going to read 450,000 words of Korean or 5,000 words each day. I am going to listen to at least 135 hours of Korean or 90 minutes per day, in my car, exercising, washing the dishes or while reading on my iPad. I will mostly be listening to  the same content as I read, in other words the podcasts with transcripts that we have in our library at LingQ. From these lessons, I am going to save 18,000 words and phrases to my personal database, in other words create 200 LingQs each day. The number of my “known words” in Korean should double, from 30,000 to 60,000. adding an average of more than 300 words a day to the words I know at least passively. At LingQ, knowing the word simply means that you understand its meaning in a given context. I know from experience that I learn most of my vocabulary incidentally, in other words not through deliberate study of them. These are all measurable indicators of my activity that are automatically recorded at LingQ. Let’s see what happens.

Expressing myself

Language Learning Goals - Confidence
Image by Chris & Karen Highland

I will also commit to speaking and writing in Korean, but I will probably not start speaking and writing until the third month. I want to achieve a higher level of comprehension and vocabulary and a greater sense of confidence in the language before I start speaking and writing. But once I do start speaking with native speakers, and writing, I plan to set clear goals for how much time I will spend on  these output activities as well.


This statistics at LingQ are not really  a  measurement of  progress in the language, but rather a measurement of activity level. I will have specific tasks to complete and activity levels to maintain. I am confident that if I stay on track and meet my short term targets, the progress in the language will take care of itself. I know that being active in one’s language learning, spending quality time with the language, is guaranteed to produce results. I am hoping that pursuing these clearly defined tasks will ensure that I don’t slacken off until I achieve my ultimate language learning goals.

How successful I will be, time will tell. I plan to start these activities on September 1. This means that for now I can spend the rest of this glorious summer dabbling in other languages, while maintaining my exercise routine and swimming in the ocean. But come September the first I will buckle down and commit to making a breakthrough in Korean.

30 July 2015

Learning Japanese Is Not Difficult

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Today, I want to give you a very brief introduction to Japanese. I was asked to do this in Chinese from one of my Chinese-speaking viewers, so I thought I would do it first in English just to see what I have to say on the subject.

Japanese is perceived as difficult.  Japanese is not difficult. The biggest obstacle, to my mind, is the writing system. You, first of all, have to learn the two syllable-based writing systems Hiragana and Katakana, which are parallel, 50 symbols and relatively easy to learn, but you also have to learn at least 2,000 Chinese characters in order to be able to read adult, call it newspapers, books and so forth in the language. And, as you know, I very much believe in lots of listening and reading in order to get used to the language, but on the plus side in Japanese there are no verb endings to worry about, no noun declensions to worry about.

Once you get over that initial hurdle it’s relatively straightforward, other than the fact that it’s different and you have to get used to the way it’s different. You have to get used to the fact that they have these little, call them dividers, call them markers, call them post-position words. Like “I go to Tokyo with you” __________ “with you” ___________ “with you” Tokyo ____, Tokyo ____, _______. You have these little dividers so you have to get used to them, but once you get used to it it’s a pretty good concept. It functions. It’s not that difficult. You don’t have to remember too many things, there’s only a few of them ____, ____, ____.

I’m going to leave a link here to an excellent Japanese grammar which covers most of what you need to know very simply with no typical useless drills and unnecessary explanations. Very much to the point, so check that one out.

So you get used to that. ________ “to you”, ________, the “o” designates ________ as the object. Like I’m going to give you a book ______ ______ ______ is “book” ________, “give”. So that’s the first thing you’ve got to remember. The second thing you have to get used to is the verbs come at the end, so in all of those sentences I gave you the verb came at the end. It’s difficult to get used to.


It’s also difficult for Japanese people who speak English who have a tendency to say “It is a beautiful day, just I think”. So the “just I think” comes at the end, whereas we say “I think it’s a beautiful day.” So in Japanese the verb comes at the end.

Also, in Japanese they have what I think are very elegant ways of giving and receiving things. So ______ is “to do it for you”, ________ again, _______ is “to do”, _______ is “to give”, _____ is “to receive”. So “I give”, ________, “I do give, do receive”. You have to get used to it. You also have to get used to a lot of stuff is left out in Japanese because it’s understood. So if I say ______, it can mean “I’m going”, it can mean “tomorrow” ________. If I say ______, the _____ indicates a question, but you’ll notice that the pronoun is left out and we know from the context who we’re talking about. There are so many things like that that are contextual. As I say, “Good things come after”, so ________, “if we go”, _______ “probably go”, _________ “We have to go”.

So a lot of these things you just have to get used to and some of the things may seem, at first, a little clumsy. Like “We have to go, we cannot” ________, “cannot” _______. Like “It’s not acceptable not to go” means “we have to go”. At first, these things seem difficult, but they’re not difficult in the sense of trying to remember verb endings, to my mind at least. They’re difficult in terms of getting used to them.

So my recommendation in Japanese is to, first of all, invest the time in the writing system, do a lot of reading and listening, that’s what I did when I learnt Japanese. Don’t convince yourself that it’s difficult, it isn’t, but like any language it requires a lot of exposure, a lot of getting used to before you’re comfortable, before you can understand it when you hear it and before you’re able to speak it.

So that’s just touching a broad brush, including that link to that excellent grammar. If there are specific aspects of Japanese that you would like me to talk about from the perspective of my experience, I’ll be happy to do that. Japanese is not difficult to learn at all.

So thank you for listening, bye for now.

23 July 2015

Output – When You Can’t Wait To Talk

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Today I want to talk about getting to output. Now, obviously, you know that I’m a believer in input, developing comprehension, developing vocabulary, specifically passive vocabulary, at least initially, but eventually you want to speak well. Well, eventually to speak well, you have to speak a lot. Until you understand well it’s difficult speak a lot, but there are things you can do. Of course there are language exchange sites. You can find language partners. At LingQ we have an exchange where you can talk to native speakers. There are many opportunities on the Internet to meet people, even if you aren’t in the country where the language is spoken. I would just like to touch on a few tips, some of the things that I find useful to do at LingQ.

First of all, when I read a text where we have the audio and we have the text, I save words and I save phrases. Now, one thing we can do to liven it up, because we want to mine this material for words and phrases that we can use, is to record ourselves speaking, pronouncing these phrases, particularly phrases, if you save some good phrases.

Now, on the LingQ page on the right-hand side there’s a list of all the words and phrases that you have saved, but to isolate the phrases you need to go to the vocabulary page and then there’s a little button you can click on which says ‘Only Phrases’, something like that, ‘Phrases Only’. That will bring up all the phrases you have ever saved, but there’s also a filter there that allows you to filter by creation date. So if you then click on ‘By Creation Date’, the most recent phrases that you have saved will show up there

So then you can record these. I use Wiretap Studios, but there’s lot of software out there for recording and then you can take away and listen to these phrases on your mp3 player. So you are reinforcing these phrases in your mind, you’re practicing pronouncing these phrases and then you can review them in flashcards and in the flashcards they have text to speech for each of these phrases at LingQ in most of our languages. I find that for individual words and phrases text to speech is very helpful. You might be able to correct your pronunciation. You might even want to redo your recording of them. So that’s one thing you can do.

While we’re on the subject, sometimes you have things you want to express or you want to develop vocabulary in a particular area, another thing you can do is to find say material in your own language on the Internet. Put it into Google Translate, that will translate it into the target language. You can then import that as a lesson into LingQ. You can do the same thing saving phrases.

Now, there will be aspects of the Google translation that are not accurate, there will be mistakes. However, I find that it’s quite good enough in order to acquire a specific vocabulary, specific phrasing for a particular area. So if it’s medical terms, economic terms or simply how to express ‘why’, ‘therefore’, ‘because’, ‘from my point of view’, if you put all of those in some text that you grab from the Internet or even which you create yourself in your own language, translate into Google Translate, bring it into LingQ and then go through and do the same thing as I suggested. Collect out the phrases, identify the phrases, record them, listen to it, then do it again in flash cards comparing to the text to speech. All of this is an ability to mine that content for useful words and phrases that, over time, you’re gradually going to be able to use in your conversation.

So I hope that’s useful, I look forward to your comments. Bye for now.

16 July 2015

Language Learning Efficiency and Duolingo

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Efficiency in language learning is extremely important. I learned that when studying Chinese 45 or 48 years ago. Because there’s so much time involved, even a 50% increase in efficiency has a big impact. And the faster you can learn the language, the more efficient and the more intense, the better you’re going to learn. That was my experience 48 years ago.

So how do we want to spend our time? I checked out Duolingo. Duolingo is extremely well designed, it’s fun, it’s like a game, so you’re playing a game and at the same time you’re discovering a language. You’re discovering the word for bread, eat, drink and cow, things like this. So is that an efficient way to learn a language? In my view, it has a big advantage in that it’s a gamified approach, it is fun and you do learn something. In terms of time efficiency, it’s not something that I would spend a lot of time with because my feeling is that efficient language learning consists of exposing yourself to word-dense material. The greater the density of words, the better, therefore, I prefer listening audio material to visual videos.

Whenever I’ve listened to a story or a novel in an audio book format and then watched the movie, I find the audio book format, especially if the text is available to me, much more intense and much more effective in terms of building vocabulary because building vocabulary is key. As I’ve said before, you don’t need one or two thousand words in order to speak a language, you need 10,000 words. You need lots of words. Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve gone to a country with a thousand words and I got nowhere. Couldn’t understand what they were saying and they quickly switched to English on me or didn’t have the patience to stay with me.

So Duolingo, by all means, you should try it and I’d be interested in hearing other people’s impressions. I think it’s a good way to get started in a language, but also inefficient. It’s not only that the high word density material that I listen to and read is more efficient in terms of acquiring the language and getting used to the language, it’s also that it’s so much easier to organize. Duolingo, I have to sit in front of either my iPhone or computer and play that game, as enjoyable as it may be.

However, I have a visitor coming from the Czech Republic and I’ve been reviewing my Czech. I go on the Internet and download __________, some new episodes. I can read them on LingQ. I can listen to them while walking the dog, while driving. It’s a better use of my time. I can do it while doing other things. If I couldn’t simply listen for an hour or more a day, I couldn’t learn all these languages. It’s just the portability of listening that’s so powerful and then you couple it with reading. Here again, all of the material that I’ve downloaded from the Internet in Czech, I’ve now got it ready to go on my iPad so that I can do my LingQ offline on the plane. I should mention I have to fly to Edmonton tonight.

So in terms of efficiency, I see Duolingo as a great introduction to the language. I think the simple fact that books, reading and listing is just the most efficient way and when you have the opportunity you speak, but in the meantime you are able to spend free time, dead time, in a very efficient way simply by listening and reading.

I would look forward to your comments on Duolingo. I’ve only spent an hour on it. I checked some reviews on the Internet, there are people who have been on it for years and have much more in-depth things to say and you can check those out on the Internet, as well.

Thank you for listening, bye.

9 July 2015

The Golden Age Of Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann.

Today my subject is; The Golden Age of Language Learning. It is something that has dawned on me that we live in The Golden Age of Language Learning, now and things may improve, but compared to 50 years ago, 30 years ago, or hundreds of years ago. And I will give you some reasons why. I decided, or I said or there was a request that I would do videos in other languages, so I have started doing that.

French Is Easy For Me – Spanish Not So Much

Now some languages it is easier for me than in another. French is quite easy, Spanish is not so easy. Why? Because I have spoken an awful lot of French, I lived there for three years, I studied there, and I’ve read lots. Spanish – I would say – when I first went there in 1964 and hitchhiked around and I spoke a lot of French and I was listening to truck drivers and, excuse me not French, but Spanish, listening to truck drivers, heard a lot of Spanish and that was kind of the level of my Spanish until about 15-20 years ago when I started trying to read books and at first it was very difficult and the more books I read, the better I got at it. Now I have read so many books in Spanish that I can read it almost like English. But I don’t speak very often, like now I might speak once or twice a year, so it is more difficult for in Spanish. So I said: ‘OK, in order for me to do my video in Spanish I better kind of refresh my Spanish, so what can I do?’

So I can download the e-book, while I have been looking for some books to read, I find this “Dime Quien Soy”, I have mentioned it before. I download it, it’s like 900 pages, great long book, and I’ve got it on my Kindle. So I thought I’d get a Spanish book, and I googled – and I don’t know how I end up with this book, but I think it was recommended. I buy it, it’s on my Kindle. I have got it with me, I am reading it. Then I say: ‘You know what, reading isn’t enough, I need to be hearing Spanish’.

The Golden Age of Language Learning - Spanish Civil War

So I go to audible.com – first of all I Google Spanish audio books, I find some sites where they have some kind of very unpleasant to listen to – text to speech – which is alright for a word or a phrase, but you can’t listen to a whole book in text to speech. But then I find that they have “Dime Quien Soy” in Spanish and audio book on audible.com, which I discover also belongs to Amazon. OK, I have an account there, I buy the audio book, immediately download it. I put an app on my IPhone, which is an audible.com app, so while I am at it, I also buy another audio book on the history of the Spanish Civil War, so those two are plugged right into my IPhone, wherever I go now I can switch. Listen for a while to the history of the Spanish Civil War or I can listen to the audio version of the book that I have already read. Which is fun for a while but after all I know the story so it is kind of fun because you are listening to some of the early parts of the book where you didn’t quite understand who was doing what to whom. And now you hear it again so it kind of fills in some of the blanks, but mostly I listen to this audio book on the history of the Spanish Civil War, which is just fascinating. I never really understood how within the national side and the republican side, there were all these fractions and fighting and stuff going on. And not to mention the cruelty of the war and the number of people who were killed and so forth and so on, but it is just so easy to do. I’ve got this on my IPhone, again, sometimes I have to walk the dog in the afternoon and I am listening to this stuff that I have downloaded off a site and listening to a novel, I am listening to history.

Audible Dot Com

Now I look forward to making more videos and so I can now, with audible you can select the language: Japanese, Swedish. Subject: history, fiction, or whatever I want: German, Italian. I am going to be able to access this material. And now you say: ‘Yes, but that costs money’. Yes, well sure it costs money I mean but compared to a teacher?! You know, if I had had to learn Romanian or any of the languages that I have learned recently; Czech. You know, if I had to engage a teacher and go there once or twice a week and then they decide: ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to study today’. I wouldn’t get anywhere. Whereas this way, now granted you can’t start from scratch and start reading an audio book on audible.com. But there again, as I have mentioned before for Romanian, I just wrote up, sort of basic patterns of commonly used concepts that we like to express; why, because, if, therefore. Whatever it may be; how, when, how many. 200 phrases I put it up on Odesk.com. Please translate and record. Back it comes! OK, it costs me a bit of money, but I put it up on LingQ so other people can enjoy it and I get frequent comments from people thanking me for having put those contents up on LingQ.

The Golden Age of Language Learning - logos

I mean there is more to it than that, I mean, there’s the ITalkies you can get on the internet or you can talk to other people if you want. I don’t do a lot of that myself. It is just so easy. I remember when some years ago I was approached by the local community college to donate money to their language lab and I said: ‘Why would you have a language lab?’ There is so much stuff available now.

The Golden Age of Language Learning

So, I am just so much looking forward to getting back into my Swedish and Japanese and all these other languages to prepare for my talk. I don’t know if it improves my quality of the video, but it gives me a motivation and remember motivation is key. It gives me a motivation for doing it. It is extremely enjoyable and so I really believe that we live in a The Golden Age of Language Learning. And in fact in many ways we live in a golden age. It is so easy to get discouraged by all the bad news that we hear, but then when I listen to the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War, then not that that’s a standard but. Yes, there are issues, but I think that we are solving them. I am quite convinced that within 20 or 30 years the main source of energy will be solar, we’ll have massive batteries and we will have resolved some of these issues that’s around energy and you know fossil fuels and so on. So as I have said many, many times before I am an optimist and I am very happy to live in the The Golden Age of Language Learning. So that should encourage you to go out there and do more language learning.

30 June 2015

How do we achieve fluency in a foreign language?

The quick answer on how to achieve fluency in a language is that it is a matter of motivation, of motivating oneself. Having seen a lof ot language learners, I am convinced that motivated learners achieve fluency, and unmotivated learners don’t.

I was recently approached by a person who is involved in teaching English to immigrants in the US. He asked me for advice on how to prepare learning material for them, sort of like graded readers.  I answered that there was an abundance of such material available. Probably if he could  influence the attitude or motivation of these learners he would help them more than by creating a new series of textbooks or readers.

Motivation is the driver of success in language learning. Motivation is the magic ingredient for success in any learner’s quest for fluency.  I was reminded of the recent TED video by Scott Geller, “The Psychology of Self-Motivation.” I don’t agree with all of it, but it is worth watching. It is highly relevant to the pursuit of fluency in a foreign language. In particular, the three questions that are asked in the video.

Achieve Fluency Scott_Geller_Ted_Talk
Scott Geller

Achieve Fluency – Can I do it?

If the answer to this question is no, then you are best to stop trying. If you don’t believe that you can reach the destination in your journey, why start?  On the other hand if you believe you can become fluent,  you are well on your way to achieving fluency.

if you have never learned a foreign language, you may not have the confidence that you are a competent language learner, that you can do it, that you can achieve fluency. I know that I didn’t really believe I could do it, over 50 years ago, until I did it in French. Thereafter I have never doubted my ability to learn another language and achieve fluency.

Unfortunately it is only possible to acquire this sense of confidence after having learned at least one language.  Thereafter, the more languages you learn, the more competent,  and therefore the more confident you become. I am a better language learner at age 70 then I was at age 16 because I have done it so many times.

Achieve Fluency Image by Steven Depolo

I firmly believe that we all have the innate ability to learn foreign languages. We just need to believe in ourselves, and stay with the process. We just need to develop new habits and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

There is a condition. Just as with embarking on a journey, when you decide to learn a language, you accept responsibility for reaching your target. In other words you have to take charge. You have to become and an autonomous learner.

Will it work?

Will the learning method that you are using enable you to achieve your goal? If you want to travel somewhere,  you have to be confident that the mode of transportation you are using will take you to the destination. By the same token you have to believe in the learning strategy that you have chosen. if you believe that the learning method you are using doesn’t work, then you should change that method.

If you don’t believe in the method you’re using, it will not work for you. If you believe in the method, you are more likely to put in the time and effort necessary for success and your belief in the process will actually increase the effectiveness of the method. I referred to this as the placebo effect in in a recent a video.

In my view, the most effective learning strategy is one devoted to massive input, listening and reading, using interesting content you have chosen. Of course we need start with beginner material that may not be so interesting, but we can move to authentic and interesting material surprisingly quickly using tools like LingQ.

This means that you seek first to acquire a large vocabulary and a high level of comprehension as the base upon which to build other language skills. I am convinced of the effectiveness of this approach both from my own experience and from reading research on the subject of language acquisition. The fact that this approach has worked for me in the acquisition of over a dozen languages, has only reinforced my belief in this approach. I know that reading interesting language content on my iPad, or listening to an interesting audio book while walking my dog, or driving, is not only enjoyable but constantly improving my language skills.

AAA - Books

If we are familiar with the language, with the way of thinking of the new culture, and if we have lots of words, the ability to express ourselves naturally and clearly in the new language can easily develop. On the other hand, starting with a concern about grammar  and hoping to speak meaningfully when we have trouble understanding what people are saying, seems like putting the cart before the horse.

There are many people, however, who believe that we should speak from day 1.  If they believe in this approach and enjoy it, and if they stay with it, I am sure it works for them. Make sure you find a method that you believe in and one that you find enjoyable, so that you answer “yes” to the question, “will it work?”

Is it worth it?

Do we want to learn the language? Do we like the language? Do we like to be with people of that language group? Do we want to access some aspect of that culture, such as books, movies, music etc.? Do we want to travel to the country where the language is spoken? Do we need the language for our work or to communicate with friends or loved ones? The more times we answer “yes” to these questions the stronger our motivation will be.

Achieve Fluency - Yes
Image by Alexandre Dulaunoy

Aside from these obvious advantages of being able to communicate in another language, learning a language is a healthy habit. Research has shown that learning and speaking another language is good for our brains, strengthens our cognitive skills, keeps us young, and helps stave off dementia when we are older.

Language learning requires a commitment, and therefore it is important that we feel the effort is worth it. When I start out in a language, I struggle with language content that is not very interesting, and yet difficult to understand. Usually within a few months I can access content of interest to me, but which is still difficult, certainly more difficult than reading in my own language. When I start to speak in the language I struggle to understand and to find the words I want. Is this self-inflicted pain really worth it?

For me it is. I know that eventually I will  be able to enjoy books, movies, and friendships in the language. I feel fortunate to be able to speak 15 languages. I can’t begin to describe the enjoyment and benefit that the ability to communicate in each of my languages has given me. My only regret is that I don’t have the time to focus more on each one of them. Each language is a window to a new world, a new expression of what it is to be a human being.

So if you want to become fluent in a language but your motivation is flagging, ask yourself these three questions. If the answer to all three is “yes” , you are on your way. If the answer is no to any of them, you should either abandon the goal of fluency, or else try find new reasons to say “yes”. It is all a matter of the mind over the brain.

25 June 2015

Motivation in Language Learning

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel. This one will help you find your motivation in language learning.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I want to talk about motivation in language learning. You know, I have bought lots of books about language instruction, language acquisition. I have them on my shelves, I’ve read them. Some of them have influenced me, some of them I find totally contradicting my experience, but very little, I have found, has been written on the subject of motivating people.

Yet, I believe that motivation is the most important factor in language learning, so I want a talk a bit today about it. Maybe I’ll do a few videos on the subject of what motivates me from my experience and then I’d like to hear from you and then I have some other ideas about how in language instruction we could do a better job of trying to find those trigger points, those hooks that are going to motivate people and different people are motivated in different ways.

I thought of this today because I was cleaning out my garage. We changed our telephone system, got rid of our old TV, great, big, heavy TV, we even changed our central vacuum cleaner. I’ve got to get rid of all this stuff, so I look up the recycle centers here and find out where I go to take this stuff. I take it there and there’s some free recycling run by the city and adjacent to it and part of this complex is this company that takes in all these electrical or electronic goods, old hi-fi’s and everything else. Whatever they’re able to salvage out of them, they salvage. It’s a business, which is good.

Low and behold, everybody working there is Korean. The girl who’s there to receive me and who I asked my question of she’s Korean, so we start speaking in Korean. She was so happy and really, “Wow! You speak so well.” Of course, I don’t. So that motivated me and I said I’m going to back to Korean. I’ve got to get further along in Korean. So there was just a little spark like that. Prior to that, somebody on the YouTube channel had commented, “Looking forward to hearing you speak Polish.” I’ve been letting the Polish lag, so that was a bit of a motivator. In my own experience, those things aren’t strong enough. They’ll get me going for a while, but I have to have that good content.

I should point out, too, last week I traveled to the interior of BC and in the summer if you have the opportunity to travel by car in the interior of BC it is spectacular! So we drove across the Coast Mountains into Kelowna, this beautiful lake in the Okanagan, which is a different climate zone, different type of forest cover and stuff, drier. Visited with a couple in their mid 80s, whom we’ve known for a long time who have moved up there. The fellow, he’s 86 or 87 and he’s still learning Spanish. Then we drove down through Penticton, Okanagan Falls down to Osoyoos.

That country is so beautiful: the vineyards, the fruit orchards. We played golf and visited some vineyards where there’s free wine tasting. We bought some delicious wine. There’s a small winery called Cassini and we went in there, sampled different wines and we decided to buy two cases, like six bottles each of four different wines. We just had some this evening with dinner, a Cera, it was phenomenal! The owner showed up one day while we carting our two boxes away and he’s of Italian origin but lived in Romania, so I spoke a few words of Romanian. There’s a motivation. But, as I say, that is a small motivator. It’s not good enough, I need content of substance.

I’ve been reading this book ________ in Spanish. It’s such a fascinating book I just keep reading and I know that by reading in Spanish, I am continuing to improve my Spanish. It was only 10 years ago that I read my first whole book in Spanish. I haven’t really been working that much at Spanish, but reading more books, plus learning other languages my Spanish has improved. I was able to read the book almost as if it were English. So the big issue remains content.

I’m still attracted to my Russian and Ukrainian. I’m following the events there, so every day I listen to my Russian and Ukrainian and I don’t have the time to go after my Korean. You can get stimulated, that sort of little spark of motivation, but then I need some interesting content to keep me going.

So I’m going to stop it here, but I want to talk next time about how we can determine what motivated people and how that could be introduced into teaching. If people have ideas on that, I would love to hear from them. So thank you for listening, bye for now.

18 June 2015

Are There Different Types of Language Learners?

This is a transcript of one of my YouTube Videos – To keep up with my latest thoughts on language learning, subscribe to my YouTube Channel.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. You often hear that there are different types of language learners. There are auditory learners, visual learners and kinetic learners; people who like to learn by listening, by seeing or by doing. Books have been written on the subject, I think even pedagogy has been developed to suit different kinds of learners. Personally, I don’t believe that we learn differently. I don’t think there are purely auditory learners or purely visual learners. I think we all learn in all of these different ways. I think the basic way in which the brain learns is the same.

A professor somewhere in the United States has written on this subject, he also is of the same view and has demonstrated it. I think it’s a fad. What is true is that different learners have different interests. Different types of learners are motivated by different things, so what we should do in language instruction (this is something I alluded to in my previous video) is find out how we can test. What kind of profile can we have or testing procedure to determine where the trigger points are. Where are the things that would motivate learner A versus learner B versus learner C? Maybe there are different types of learners based on what interests them and what motivates them. Maybe there are ways that we can find out what these things are and, therefore, we can motivate learners. I think that’s the challenge.

I know in my own case, I always think of those wonderful pieces of audio or reading that really grabbed me when I was learning say Chinese. I can think of things in Chinese history or _______. I can think of a German cassette tape series where they interviewed people in different walks of life. To me, it’s always been this interesting content that grabs me. Now, some people like to do grammar, some people like to do flashcards, so how do we find out what kind of a learner the person is in terms of what motivates them.

I don’t think the issue is so much, “Are there different ways in which different people’s brains work differently to learn languages”, I think it’s basically the same. The brain, as I understand it, basically, has to get used to the stimulus that it receives and out of the disorder of all this stimulus it has to create patterns. I don’t for a minute believe in Chomsky’s universal grammar, I don’t believe that for a minute. I think the way we naturally, through listening as children and hearing the language, start to form patterns, put labels on things and then start to make sense of it. It’s the same way we deal with all the phenomena that we encounter in life. The brain has to put some order to this; otherwise, every time they encounter that situation it’s new, so they have to make rules, they make their own rules.

I think all of our brains work the same way; however, for whatever reason, we have different interests. Some people like sports. Some people like music. Some people like reading. Some people don’t like reading. So there are definitely different types of language learners. I think the key thing there and the challenge is to try to find out what makes people tick when it comes to language learning. How can you trigger people and how can you design a curriculum with 30 different people in the classroom that is going to make sure each student is motivated to the maximum. That should be the challenge in language learning, rather than grammar instruction or drills and worrying about kinetic learners and things of that nature.

Anyway, that’s the start of a good discussion, so I look forward to hearing from you. Bye for now.