16 September 2015

Steve’s Answers on Your Language Learning Questions – Part 2

Steve: Hi, there. Steve again and…

Kiran: Hello. Kiran.

Steve: We’re going to go over your questions, which we’ve collected. Now, I can’t answer all the questions, but I’ve collected them to some extent and we’re going to, hopefully, answer most of the questions. So go ahead. Shoot, Kiran.

Kiran: Okay. The first one: Writing systems cause problems in language learning. How do you deal with different writing systems in Chinese and Russian, etc.?

Steve: Etc. exactly, Korean. I remember the question was like Chinese, how do you start listening and reading when you can’t read anything? What I did when I learned Chinese is I spent the first month only listening and using Pinyin. In those days, it was a different system for using a Roman or a Latin alphabet. So I listened and I read in the Romanization system that we used at that time and then, after a month, I went heavy-duty into learning the characters.

I learned the first 1,000 most frequently-used characters as a deliberate exercise. I would study 10 and, eventually, 30 a day, forget them, relearn them, separate from my reading and listening. After about 1,000 characters, I just learned the characters as I went. With a character-based writing system, you have to make a deliberate effort to learn the characters.

Once you get to a phonetic writing system, like Cyrillic script for Russian is really not very difficult because it’s kind of almost parallel to the Latin alphabet with a few other symbols. Basically, you learn it, you don’t really understand it. You start reading, it’s difficult to read. You continue reading and listening and, gradually, it becomes more and more comfortable.

The same is true for say the Korean script or the Kana script in Japanese. Those are easier to get used to and you get used to them as you read, but where you have characters to learn that’s a big chore. You have to do it and you have to do it every day consistently for a good few months.

Kiran: Okay. The next one: In English the spelling is so irregular that pronunciation becomes a problem. How do you deal with that?

Steve: Yes. In English that’s almost another situation where the writing system is different from the way the language is pronounced. Someone asked do you use the International Phonetic Alphabet. I don’t. My approach to language learning is whatever works for you. I’m not interested in learning another writing system because I have to get used to how those symbols are used to represent those sounds. So I listen to the sounds and I see how it’s represented in that language and I try to get used to it.

So, yes, with English you just have to get used to the fact that ‘ough’ can be ‘though’, ‘tough’, ‘rough’, ‘through’. You just have to get used to it. Personally, I don’t use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), but some people love it. It’s just a matter of choice.

Q&A

Kiran: All right. Here’s another good one: I’m learning English in Vancouver. Most graded readers use the British accent. Is this a problem if I want to learn to speak with a North American accent?

Steve: Okay. The issue of accents comes up all the time not only in English, but in Spanish, in Portuguese. There are many languages where the pronunciation can vary from region to region, that is to say the native-speaking pronunciation. Personally, I don’t worry about it. My main job when I start learning a language is to make sure I can understand and that I accumulate a large vocabulary.

For Spanish, for example, I want to make sure that I can understand someone from Mexico, from Argentina, from Spain; in Portuguese, someone from Brazil and from Portugal. However, I then decide which pronunciation is the most useful to me.

Kiran: I see.

Steve: If I’m going to be working in Quebec, I want to learn the Quebec pronunciation. If I’m going to be working in Brazil, I want to learn Brazilian Portuguese. For the purposes of imitating the accent I focus on those sources that speak the way I want to speak and I try to imitate them, but I don’t limit myself to that. I actually will deal with a large variety of content. Typically, the vocabulary is extremely similar between Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Spain; Quebec, France. It’s largely the same vocabulary.

Kiran: Okay. Someone here who is using LingQ says: How many times should I study a lesson question? Should I focus on grammar, vocabulary, structure, how do I proceed?

Steve: Okay. In LingQ or if you’re not using LingQ, I believe that listening and reading is the most powerful way to learn the language to bring it in subconsciously. This is what I’m doing with Polish with the wonderful material that Piotr has developed. I don’t focus on should I learn the conjugation, should I learn the structure. While I’m listening, though, like what I’m doing with Polish, I’ll often use the sentence view in our iLink on my iPad and then I can really look at the structures to remind myself, to help my brain learn.

It’s not as if I’m sort of block studying conjugation tables. I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of time, but it’s limited in what it can do for you. Occasionally, I’ll refer to these and quickly forget it and so the bulk of my time is spent listening, reading and, of course, creating links saving words and phrases on LingQ. You’re just following the content, reading or listening to the content. You’re learning about other things and subconsciously absorbing the language.

As to how many times, again, it’s up to you. Typically, when I start I listen often to the same material because I don’t understand it very well. As I progress in the language I listen less frequently to the same lesson and, basically, I move on at LingQ when I’m bored. I don’t have to understand 70 or 80%, when I’m tired of the lesson I move on, but it’s all exposure.

Kiran: So when you are reading, do you ignore words and phrases that you find difficult to understand?

Steve: Absolutely. I’ll look up the word. I might look up three or four words. It still doesn’t make sense. I can’t make sense of this sentence. I can’t make sense of the lesson. I don’t worry about it. I’m confident and my experience tells me three months from now that will all make sense. Right now it doesn’t make sense. There’s no use beating your head against a brick wall, I just move on.

Kiran: One person is asking: I have online discussions with a Spanish-speaking language partner, his English is much better than my Spanish. I’m too embarrassed to speak Spanish, what should I do?

Steve: You know, when we speak a foreign language we are embarrassed and we don’t speak as well as in our own language. If you want to be totally comfortable, sound intelligent and all the rest of it, stay with your native language. When you speak a foreign language you’re going to sound dumb. You’re going to sound like a child. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s part of the package you just have to do it. I’m sure your language partner is quite content to patiently talk to you in Spanish and then you’ll, of course, help him or her with their English and that’s the deal.

What can I say? You have to break through that initial sense of embarrassment. Once you get comfortable using your new language and congratulating yourself for what you’re able to do rather than worrying about the mistakes that you made, you’ll find that you’ll develop this new habit of speaking with mistakes and enjoying it.

Kiran: Okay. The last one here: How do you get motivated to learn a new language? Related to that, what about learning two languages at the same time and what about learning dead languages like Latin, for example?

Steve: Or Ancient Greek.

Kiran: Or Ancient Greek, yes.

Steve: All right. The motivation is your interest, so if I’m interested in Ancient Greek and Latin I’m going to go after them. We have Latin at LingQ, we don’t have Ancient Greek, but the learning process is the same. I don’t know if there’s audio available for Ancient Greek, there is audio available for Latin and we’re using it at LingQ.

Learning two languages at the same time, if you’re learning them both from scratch, is difficult. I don’t do it because I find once I get motivated to learn a language I’m so motivated that I want to spend all my time on that language, so I really don’t have much time for a second language.

I don’t think it’s bad for you to learn two languages at the same time, in fact, to some extent, it may help you. It might be very good for the brain to keep things fresh. Because motivation is such a big part of language learning, in fact, if I’m motivated, like now to do Polish, I find it very difficult to take time away to spend on my Korea, for example.

Kiran: Okay. Well, that was it for this week.

Steve: That’s it? Okay. I hope we answered every question and continue on your 90-Day Challenge.

Kiran: See you guys next time.

8 September 2015

Why Content is King

One of the most important ingredients for language learning success is interesting, captivating and meaningful content. I am rediscovering this truth as I proceed in my 90-Day Challenge in Polish. The discovery of Real Polish has been a major turning point in my Polish studies. The material that Piotr has created is outstanding, especially the beginner stories. The way in which the same material is repeated from different points of view and in different tenses is highly effective in helping us get used to the language. Piotr’s pleasant voice and narrating style makes it all interesting and captivating. Well done Piotr!

Learn Languages Through Interesting Content

As Piotr says, we acquire languages almost subconsciously. The deliberate study of grammar rules is difficult because there are not just a few rules, there are many rules. There are more and more rules and exceptions and pretty soon it’s a great jumble of confusing instructions about something that we know very little about. Something we have had little experience with, a new language. That is why his approach to teaching grammar through simple but captivating stories with lots of questions allows us to discover the language, until we are so curious about some points of grammar that we go and look up some of the grammar rules. And when I do look up grammar tables, as I stare at a table of verb or noun endings, I still have trouble absorbing this material. So I go back to letting the language flowing into me through interesting content. Granted for this to work best, we need to have access to a glossary or better still, a system like LingQ in order to be able to make sense of it.

A lot of language instruction seems to focus on output or communicating. For example the task-based language teaching approach which tries to get the students to act out different roles. It seems that the rationale here is that if someone is going to be the retail clerk then they should pretend to be a retail clerk, act out the role, and that this will help them speak the language. I have quite a different approach. I feel that the most important thing is to get that language into the learner, through captivating input. Without this input, lots of it, through appropriate content, it is very hard to act out anything. Nor can any scenario which limits the language to what a retail clerk might hear be successful. The retail clerk may face a fairly wide range of language situations, and so a broader base in the language is necessary.

Another school of language instruction is called the communicative approach. This again is based on the idea that we learn by communicating. Of course eventually we want to communicate, but my experience is that the easiest way to acquire the language subconsciously and without stress is to allow language to flow in to your brain through content that captivates you. Once your brain has gotten used to the new language to some extent you’re now in a much better position to start communicating. At that point the specific technical vocabulary or type of language that you required for specific tasks can be quite easily acquired.

So we get back to the importance of content. One trend in language instruction is to teach subjects other than the language itself, in the target language. This is known as CLIL or Content and Language Integrated Learning. Unfortunately much of the use of this approach is focused on English which is perceived as the most important language to learn both for professional and academic purposes. However the same approach can be used for other languages. I know that I progress most rapidly in the languages that I’m learning, when I can read and listen to content of interest to me and in particular when the voice of the narrator is natural and pleasant.

To get started, though, we need an approach like Piotr’s beginner stories. This is an approached that I would like to see applied to other languages too. Now back to my Polish challenge.

7 September 2015

Steve’s Answers on Your Language Learning Questions – Part 1

Steve: Hi, this is Steve. You may not know Kiran, he’s part of the LingQ team. You can’t see Sam, but he’s the cameraman. We’re going to try to answer some of the questions that you’ve sent us on our 90-Day Challenge and I hope that you are all working hard on the 90-Day Challenge.

We gathered some of the questions and there were a lot of questions. Some of them we kind of grouped together and thought it would be interesting if we had a question and answer, so Kiran here is going to ask. By the way, Kiran is working on Spanish and so is Sam. What were some of the questions?

Kiran: Okay. The first one here was: How do you learn vocabulary so you don’t get overwhelmed and forget the original vocabulary that you learned?

Steve: Okay. First of all, you do forget the vocabulary that you learn. That’s a given. In fact, it’s good to forget the vocabulary. If you forget it and relearn it, forget it and relearn it, forget it again and relearn it, that’s how you’re going to retain it. So I read and listen and, of course, the first time I come across a new word I link it, it’s now converted to yellow and then I’ll see it again. Not only do I forget the meaning, I forget that I ever saw the word before. It’s this process of engaging with the content, forgetting, relearning, forgetting and that’s how you learn. So that’s really not a problem. That’s how I see that.

Kiran: All right. So the second one is: Where do you find really good starting content for Polish, Japanese, Mandarin, German and Korean?

Steve: Okay. Obviously, these are five different questions that I received, it started with Polish. A number of Polish people told me that I shouldn’t do this Mendel Gdański. That it’s a 19th century novel and it’s not very good. I must admit it was very difficult, so I was happy to get off that.

I discovered in our library that we had some content from Real Polish, so I started doing that and the material there is phenomenal. I’ve been in touch with Piotr and I will talk more about that in my next video. Japanese, Mandarin, German, I’m not studying them. I’m studying Korean right now.

Everyone has to look. You have to look for your own content, things that are of interest to you. I can’t give you any answers. Korean, I searched some podcasts which I had transcribed. Part of language learning is being an explorer and you have to find your own resources.

Other than that, you can come on LingQ. We have content in our library (audio and text) and you can use those. They’re available for a free download if you don’t use all of the LingQ functionality which, of course, I recommend you do, it’s more effective. And you can ask on our forum, but you’ve got to look for it. Sorry.

Kiran: No, that’s good. We actually have a course on LingQ called “Who is She”, which is in Polish. One of the users was asking: How do you do the “Who is She” Course without any grammar and do we learn grammar when we have very few words?

Steve: Right. So there were two questions there. Obviously, when I’m doing Polish I’ve already done Russian, Czech, Ukrainian, so I have a sense of how Slavic languages work in terms of the grammar. I’m not too fussed about how the endings in Polish are different from endings in Czech or Russian, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t prevent me from understanding what I’m listening to.

There’ll be words that I don’t know, I look up those words and the grammar doesn’t bother me. At some point, I will go back in there and try to nail down better the specific Polish endings, but for the time being it doesn’t prevent me from understanding the story.

This other person asked me, in fact, he was studying Slovak and he said he only had a few hundred words and he can’t remember the grammar. Of course you can’t remember the grammar. I think someone else said he has trouble with the endings in German. Don’t sweat it. As Piotr of Real Polish says, we learn subconsciously and so you have to expose yourself to the language.

If you learn it subconsciously by experiencing it, you will have a much better grasp of the language than if you try to remember rules. Pretty soon there are so many rules and exceptions you forget the rules. Learn it through gradually exposing yourself to it and don’t worry about the grammar, until you’re so curious about the grammar you go back in, you look it up and then it starts to stick.

Q&A

Kiran: Yeah, that’s a great point. Next question: Do you use music to learn languages?

Steve: Often people ask me that and the answer is no. First of all, not the music, I presume they mean the words of songs. The key in language learning is content, content is king. If you’re interested in songs, that’s a great way to learn because then you start singing the songs. I just am not that interested, I’m interested in other things. So whatever you’re interested in, go for it. Content is king or queen.

Kiran: Okay. Next question: What is your daily language-learning routine and how much time does one need to spend a day learning the language?

Steve: You know there is no rule. I think if you’re serious you should spend an hour a day, at least, but there’s no upper limit. That’s what I do, but 70% of that is listening. I can listen in my car. I can listen while preparing breakfast. I can listen in all kinds of different places, so listening is 75% of it.

I don’t really have a routine. Again, I like to do what I feel like doing. I have a stepper at home, I get on with my iPad and I read through a lesson in iLingQ on my iPad. After the stepper I might lift a few weights and I’ll be listening while I’m doing that. So it all adds up, but I grab some time here, some time there. There is no routine.

Kiran: All right. What do you do when you’re de-motivated, not interested or you’re not feeling like you’re getting anywhere or making any progress?

Steve: There were a number of questions like this. One person said I’ve been living in Spain and I’m not motivated and my Spanish is no good. Another person said yeah, Japanese… A number of people have this problem. First of all, don’t tell yourself that you’re not doing well, that’s a bad message. Whatever you’re able to do in the language is good, that’s better than zero.

Lots of people are just unilingual, so if you have some knowledge of the language and you’re able to say a few things you’re already good, but you’d like to get better. Here again, in my experience, the key is content. Do stuff that is interesting and enjoyable. If you like songs, go for songs. If you like movies, go for movies.

I must say, in my Polish, as I said, I started into this Mendel Gdański. It was very difficult, very dry, a little discouraging and then I discovered Piotr’s stuff and it’s just opened up this tremendous door for me. I can’t tell you what’s good for you; you’ve got to find the content that turns you on. Once the process of learning is enjoyable, you don’t care so much about am I making progress? You’re not measuring yourself against something, I didn’t achieve that. Forget it. You’re enjoying the language. You’re enjoying the songs. You’re enjoying this. You have this sense of wow! I listened to this, I didn’t understand it three months ago, but now I understand it.

I know from experience, and you have to take my word for it, if you continue to expose yourself to the language listening and reading the brain is going to do a lot of it by itself. Over the next few weeks I’ll talk to you about things that you can do to help your brain along, but the brain is going to learn as long as you keep enjoying the language.

Kiran: That’s good, very good. All right, last question: How do you avoid translating into your own language?

Steve: You can’t, at least initially. But, again, because the whole process is one of the brain getting used to the language, if you do this naturally subconsciously, as Piotr says in Warsaw there, gradually the brain will start seeing the text in the target language as meaning directly. It won’t need to translate, but it’s a gradual process. Initially, you’re translating all most all of it and then certain phrases now automatically have meaning in the target language and this just becomes a larger and larger percentage of what you’re dealing with.

I think I did videos about being patient. Don’t get impatient, you know, I’m still translating. You can still translate. Keep going and you’ll translate less and less and more of it will be instant meaning in the target language.

Kiran: All right.

Steve: We went beyond the two minutes, I think, but there you go.

Kiran: Well, there are a lot of questions.

Steve: We get a lot of questions and I talked a little bit longer. Just to finish off here, keep sending your questions in. Once a week I answer questions and I’ll do another video where I will talk about my experiences and some of the things that I’m discovering on the 90-Day Challenge.

5 September 2015

Can you learn 100 words a day? Is it even possible?

I was asked, “Could you learn 100 words a day?” Just how many words could you learn in a day? After a discussion on this, I have looked over my language learning statistics and here is what I think:

can you learn 100 words a day?

 

If I look back at my own Czech studies after I had been at it about 6 months.  It was all part time, one hour a day most of the time, some days much more, and for stretches of time, nothing. The main activity with any language learning is listening, then comes reading, and saving words at LingQ (LingQing). A smaller amount of time is spent on reviewing words in flash cards, and then I move to talking with a tutor online at LingQ.

So in this period of time, 180 days, could you learn 100 words a day?

I’ll show you the statistics generated by LingQ, which is what I use to learn languages. The numbers look like this.

Known words
By this I mean only my ability to recognize the meaning, or a meaning: 25,260.

This includes non-words, numbers, names etc. How many I don’t know but let’s say 10%. So the number is really probably 23,000.

Czech is very inflected and therefore this inflates this number compared to English. This is what I thought at first, but now I am not so convinced. In fact we need to learn the different forms of the words, for tenses or cases, or person, whether in Czech or French, so each of these words does count, in my view.

LingQs created
Words I’ve saved in the system: 20,600

Of which 7,425 have been moved up in status towards varying degrees of “known”. Note that I do not do a lot of flash carding and only move words up in status sporadically.

When I look at lists of these words in the vocab section, I know most of them, but certainly not all.This number includes 1725 phrases. So perhaps I should count this as 5,000 words. Even among the other so-called status “1” words, roughly 13,000 or so, there will be words that I know. but never mind.

So maybe I know, albeit passively, 28,000 words. I had been actively learning Czech, although not every day, for 180 days. This means that I may have learned words at the rate of 155 words a day. Maybe it is a lower number, but I believe it is at least 100 words a day. Most words are learned incidentally through reading, and especially through seeing the yellow saved LingQs highlighted in our texts at LingQ.

I have now read over 250,000 words at LingQ in Czech, often more than once. This is the equivalent of 3 average length novels.

I can read the newspaper fairly well.

Apparently Czech shares 40% vocabulary with Russian, which I have studied, also in the same way at LingQ. By that I mean this is the number of words that are the same or recognizable, like zitra/ zavtra for tomorrow. English has 60% Latin based words, so I think that an English person who put the same effort into French or Spanish, could learn the same number of words in those languages and could learn 100 words a day.

learn 100 words

 

I studied Czech a few years ago so my statistics at LingQ for that language are not current. However, the statistics from my recent Polish challenge illustrate the fact that we can learn or add to our “known words” total well over 100 words a day. In fact in the case of Polish (since I know other Slavic languages) it is over 300 words a day.

The conclusion is, you can learn 100 words a day, if you are willing to put in the time.

 

3 September 2015

My First Day of the 90-Day Challenge

Well, it’s time to get busy Learning Polish!
I started by listening to and reading the series “Who is She” in our Polish library at LingQ, while working out on my stepping machine, using my iPad. I have gone through this course before so there are a lot of words that I have looked up and converted to yellow at LingQ. But a lot of them I still don’t really know. This doesn’t bother me because I’m quite convinced that learning and forgetting and relearning is one of the keys to eventually acquiring new vocabulary, or learning anything for that matter.

As I start my Polish adventure, I note that my known words total on my profile at LingQ is 6340. I would like to increase that to 30,000 words during the next three months. That means about 300 words per day. As I am starting with some material I have looked at before, initially the number of new words per day will be lower than this. This will gradually increase.

I have also found some intermediate material from Piotr at Real Polish in our LingQ library. His material is excellent. Piotr’s group also did our Polish version of “Who is She”. I really want to visit him if I visit Poland. The quality of his audio and the friendly tone of his voice really encourages me to learn.

 
Sign up for the September 90-Day Challenge here.

20 August 2015

How to learn vocabulary fast

How to Learn Vocabulary - Steve Kaufmann

Language learning is one of the most enriching, rewarding, satisfying activities we can engage in. But how to learn vocabulary fast?

The most important task in language learning, in my opinion, is the acquisition of vocabulary, words. If we have enough words, we can make sense of what we’re reading or listening to and we can somehow express ourselves. Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. The grammar you acquire gradually as you become familiar with the language, with the words, but first of all you need words.

So how to learn vocabulary? How do we acquire vocabulary?

Well, I think there are two sorts of approaches. One is the deliberate study of vocabulary by reading vocabulary lists and trying to memorize them or doing flashcards, keeping handwritten lists, these kinds of things. The other is to learn through a lot of exposure. Now, the strategy that you adopt will depend on your personal preference and also, in my view, on how much time you have.

If you have a lot of time, six-seven hours a day as I did when I was studying Mandarin Chinese 45 years ago, then you can take an hour a day for the deliberate study of vocabulary. However, if you have one hour a day and two-thirds or three-quarters of that time, which I call dead time, is in your car, doing tasks around the house, walking the dog, then I suggest you don’t try to deliberately learn vocabulary.

There is significant research which shows that what they call block learning, where you take some material and try to force yourself to learn it, review it many, many times and go through.

For example, you review your list of vocabulary or your flashcards over and over in the hope of nailing that and mastering it. That is relatively inefficient and that interleaved learning. In other words, where you come across some information, then you forget it, you go look at some other information and you come back to that first information, so you’re sort of interleaving layers of different things, forgetting and relearning, actually enables you to learn things better.

Very quickly, the Law of Diminishing Returns sets in when we’re trying deliberately to learn something. It’s no longer fresh for our brain and the brain basically pushes back, whereas if you forget and come back to it you learn better. But if you have six-seven hours a day, there’s nothing wrong spending some time reviewing flashcards.

If I look at my own pattern where I consume a lot of content through listening and reading and acquiring lots and lots of words, if I had to review them all in flashcards or on lists I would spend my whole time. I have to decide. Do I want to spend my time reviewing words in flashcards or do I want to spend that time listening and reading to things of interest. I tend to do the listening and reading, I find that I acquire words very quickly and I have an enjoyable time doing it.

Of course, speaking is also helpful. What you hear the native speakers say while speaking is what I call high resonance, just as interesting content is high resonance. You notice things and learn vocabulary better if you’re engaged in a conversation and you also notice when you weren’t able to find the words yourself and then you hear someone else use them. So that’s very, very good.

However, in my own case, I prefer to delay that speaking situation unless there’s a need, if I’m living in the country where the language is spoken. Otherwise, I prefer to delay it until I have something meaningful to say and can understand what the other person is saying. Otherwise, we end up with a very limited range of language that we’re exposed to like, “How are you?” “What’s your name?” “What’s the weather like?”

Therefore, again, I prefer to give myself that significant exposure through listening and reading, quite confident that the high-frequency words will appear very often, the medium-frequency words will appear less often, but I will eventually get them, and the very low-frequency words, some will stick and some won’t. If they’re that low frequency, maybe I don’t really need them.

Ultimately, the choice is with the learner and my preference is to study in an enjoyable way. If I were in a course somewhere working five-six hours a day having to write an exam, I might take a different approach. There you have it, that’s my take on how to learn vocabulary and how to acquire it.

If you’re interested in this subject, please subscribe to my blog and also check out my YouTube channel where I talk about my experience in learning 16 languages.

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?
No.

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 Language Learning 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.

Words

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.

Japanese_Is_Not_Difficult

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.