11 June 2015

The Importance of Grammar

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. Today I want to talk a little bit about grammar. By the way, you notice I don’t have my glasses on. I had this eye operated on so I can see. If I look at the screen now and close my bad eye, I can see very, very clearly. If I close this eye, it’s a blur. Eventually, I’ll have the other eye done and then I’ll see far away. I’ll still need glasses for reading, but that’s great.

Grammar, the importance of grammar and how we should deal with grammar, there’s this constant debate. Some people say grammar is a waste of time. Other people say that you have to first learn the basics. It’s a theme that I’ve dealt with before, but I thought I would go into it again.

Very quickly on the subject of videos in different languages, we want to take our time doing them because we want to develop subtitles in English. I’ve got the list here:

{Steve speaking various languages}

I don’t think I’ll be able to handle Polish yet.

{Steve speaking various languages}

Anyway, just to say, I’ll be going through those, but I want to wait until we’re able to provide subtitles.

Grammar, a big debate on our forum at LingQ, my view is this. I think traditional language instruction places far too much emphasis on grammar and it does it the wrong way. It introduces complicated explanations, complicated rules and then a bunch of exercises where you’re forced to try to practice what you’ve just, presumably, learned. The trouble is you don’t learn it because many of these correct usage patterns take a while to assimilate.

Most language books you buy are going to have 70% grammar explanations, exercises and a small amount of text. I think you should have far more interesting text with a vocabulary list and some focus on the basic patterns that show up in this text and then they should be introduced again in subsequent lessons. Here again is this pattern that we’ve seen before, here are five more examples and here are two that show up in the lesson, so you’re getting a chance to review the basic patterns without worrying too much about explanations.

Grammar Granny

You can have some explanations, but without the drills and the exercises and focus mostly on content and the reason is this. A language that you have had lots of exposure in, that you’ve spoken a lot in, you start to sense instinctively what is correct and what isn’t. Correct not only insofar as grammar rule endings or whatever, but also in terms of word usage. This is just a matter of getting used to the language and when you are used to the language you naturally say it correctly.

If you are relying on your recollection of the rule, you will always doubt yourself. Even when you got it right, even when you have a sense of how it’s used correctly, you will doubt yourself. You’ll want to look it up, you’ll want to check against the rule and that’s not good for developing fluency. Focus more on comprehension, vocabulary, input, getting used to the language, with a little bit of help by way of review of basic grammar patterns. Grammar has its place, but that’s how I would go about it.

I’m trying to keep these videos short. We can have more discussion on the subject, if there’s interest. Bye for now.

4 June 2015

What Do You Believe? The Placebo Effect 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 here again to talk about language learning.

And I want to talk about something that I often think of and that I have been meaning to do a video on and that is what I would call the placebo effect in language learning. Placebo P L A C E B O that’s what they call the sort of; hen they test a new medicine, they typically give, say, half the people they are testing the new medicine and another half the placebo, which looks like the medicine, but in fact doesn’t have any medicinal ingredients.

And when they test people they find that if there are three groups. Let’s say; those who took the medicine, those who took the placebo, which is an imitation medicine and those who took nothing. That if the medicine is effective then the people who took the medicine will do better. The people who took the placebo will do next best and the people who did nothing, will do less well. So even those who think they have the medicine are going to do better, because our belief in the power of, say, a pill or something influences us because everything inside us is influenced by how we feel and what we think.

Whatever Works For You

And in language learning it is exactly the same way. I know that I am a better language learner today in my 70th year than I was at the age of 16 because I know I can do it and I am confident that I going to succeed. But it is not only that. I know that the method I am using is effective. I know that reading is very good for my language learning. Right now I am reading a long novel in Spanish, it is called “Dime quién soy” and it’s a very interesting spy thriller that takes place in the historical – you know – civil war in Spain and Second World War and stuff, but I know that just the fact of reading this book is going to do so much for my Spanish. Improve it. I am exposing myself to certain patterns, to words and stuff. But if I don’t believe that reading is good for my Spanish, and right now I am not really working on Spanish. It is just that I happened to come across this book and I am reading it.

Believe - Book
Image by Simon Cocks

But it was the same when I was learning Czech. Very early on I started reading this book on Czech history and even though there were a lot of words that I didn’t know and which I didn’t look up, but I know from experience that – and because I have some sense of the history – so as I read through this thing it is not only enjoyable, but it makes me feel good because I know that it is going to improve my Czech.

Believe In The Method

So some of you may not like to read. I happen to believe that reading and then listening when you don’t have the ability to focus on just the one task, but I happen to know that that is very effective and I believe it is very effective. If you believe other things are effective. If you believe that Pimsleur is effective, if you believe that assimil is effective, if you believe that Anki is effective. Whatever it is, if you believe it that is going to help you learn. Our attitude towards the task, as I have said so many times, you know that we like the language, that we’re confident and stuff. But even to the extent that you have to believe in the method – the learning method.

And one of the difficulties we have at LingQ is to persuade people that just by doing the things that we ask them to do, just by reading and listening and saving words and reviewing these words and then eventually talking to people that that’s going to improve their language skills. If they don’t believe that: A. they won’t stick with it but B. it’s that placebo effect, just as with these tests of the effectiveness of medicine. If you believe in the medicine, if you believe in the method, you will do better. So whatever your favourite method is believe in it and stay with it and you will learn better.

Videos In Your Language

By the way, one final thing, I am happy to do some of these in other languages. Which languages would you like hear me speak in? Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, German, Swedish whatever. Let me know. I will try my best even if in fact if I happen to stumble while speaking in those languages.

Bye for now.

1 June 2015

Why we need language teachers

Many people, at some time or another, say they want to learn another language. Few manage to get beyond a beginner level. Most of these unsuccessful learners have language teachers explaining the language to them, drilling them and correcting them. Successful language learners don’t need anyone to explain the language to them, correct them, nor drill them in the language.

This, then,  begs the question. Do we really need language teachers?

The Quiet Revolution

Montreal in 1961 was a society of two solitudes, of two separate societies, one French speaking and one English speaking. The “quiet revolution”, which would change the role of the French language in Quebec, and lead to a transformation of Quebec society, was just about to take place. Jean Lesage had just been elected Premier of Quebec.

I lived in Montreal at the time and was essentially unilingual, despite 12 years of French language classes at school. Just as happened with Quebec society, I experienced my own quiet revolution, and was transformed. As result I now know 15 languages. Why did that happen?


The agent of my transformation was not a politician, but a teacher, a French professor at McGill University, whose name was Maurice Rabotin. He stimulated me. He provoked me. He encouraged me, and I developed a passionate interest in French culture and civilisation. I then proceeded to learn the language on my own. He didn’t teach me the language.

The Best Kind Of Teacher

Over the past few months I have been interacting with a Spanish class at St. Andrews School in Delaware, in the United States. The high school students in this school, after 2-4 years of Spanish, are able to express themselves surprisingly eloquently, on fairly complex subjects of their own choosing. Their achievements are impressive, and far above the ordinary. Why are they so exceptional, compared to the typical results of high school language instruction?

In my view, a major reason is their teacher, Donald Duffy. He stimulates them, provokes them, and encourages them. The results speak for themselves. When his students spoke to me in Spanish, he only helped them if they ask for it. He didn’t correct them. Yet they discussed history, art and other subjects quite fluently.

Language teachers - happy studentsImage by www.audio-luci-store.it

So it seems to me that a teacher is not needed to teach the language, but can be a decisive factor in the acquisition of the language. To see why that is so it is important to review some interesting research results on language acquisition.

Language Acquisition

In my recent video entitled “The three main myths about language learning” I referred to a most interesting paper entitled:

Self-Selected Pleasure Reading and Story Listening for Foreign Language Classrooms by Beniko Mason

Some of her most incisive comments, based on her research, are as follows.

Reading books and listening to stories for acquiring a foreign language may sound like nothing new. We have been teaching reading and listening for the last 50 to 100 years in foreign language programs in schools all over the world. But the way we have been offering reading and listening classes to students has been ineffective, inefficient, and insufficient.”

What has been ineffective, inefficient, and insufficient about the way we offer reading and listening classes is that we teach in skill-based explicit ways…. Teachers have been misled to believe that conscious learning of the rules of the language is necessary, and that output practice helps consciously learned knowledge become automatic competence. What is needed is a drastic change in teachersʼ understanding.

Teachers must understand that consciously learned knowledge is fragile and easily forgotten, but unconsciously acquired language competence is permanent. Most language rules do not have to be explicitly taught. They can be acquired without teachers’ spending hours on explanation, and without studentsʼ doing hours of drill-based homework. They can be acquired through reading many books and listening to many stories”(for more research evidence of the effects of reading on language acquisition, see Krashen, 2004). Besides, when students are forced to do drills, they do not learn much. People have said that conscious learning is a short cut, but this is not the case.”(Mason, 2005, 2007; Mason & Krashen, 2004)

Language teachers - Bored students

Some late-acquired rules of grammar may have to be pointed out and taught to more advanced second language acquirers, especially for editing purposes, but the majority of foreign language students in colleges and universities seem to be beginners and low intermediates, and our immediate goal is to help them become upper intermediate or low advanced learners. Another goal in school is to help students become autonomous, so that they can keep acquiring English on their own after they finish school“(Krashen, 1998). After we help them reach the high intermediate(for example, paper and pencil TOEFL 500) and low advanced levels (for example TOEFL 550), they can continue to improve their competency on their own.

Students can reach the upper intermediate level largely from reading and listening” (Krashen, 2004) and can reach the most advanced “academic” language level only through reading. “More skill-building, more correction, and more output do not consistently result in more proficiency” (Krashen, 1994, page 48). Rather: “Reading is the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar, and the only way we become good spellers.”

Abundant listening and reading experience is missing in our language programs. Story-listening and self-selected pleasure reading are the bridge to academic language.

We have been making students speak and write too early. We make our students repeat after the teacher or a tape, have them sing songs, and make them memorize texts and dialogs. We make them do free conversation when they are not yet ready to speak easily. We make students write with correct spelling, make them write a diary, and make them translate texts in writing. We do this because we believe that speaking and writing practice causes improvement in speaking and writing. Those who listen and read do better on writing and speaking than those who do not spend as much time in reading and listening.”

I can’t improve on what Ms. Mason has written here. I can only confirm that this has been my experience.

My Language Learning “Secret”

Why have I often learned faster than other learners? Because I read so much more than most other language learners. I also engage in massive pleasure listening to subjects of interest. Where I am unable to find interesting content in both audio and text format, my learning suffers.

Why do I not tend to forget the languages that I learn? Because I learned them through massive listening and reading using material of interest to me. If I were to learn them using grammar explanations then my knowledge of these languages would be “fragile” as Mason says.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Krashen over lunch in Riverside, California. He gave me a remarkable paper which I hope will bring about a  “quiet revolution” in language instruction.

language teachers Krashen and Steve

Can second language acquirers reach high levels of proficiency through self-selected reading? An attempt to confirm Nation’s (2014) results.

Stephen Krashen
University of Southern California (Emeritus)

Beniko Mason
Shitennoji University Junior College
Osaka, Japan

An analysis done by Nation (2014) leads to the conclusion that readers in English as a foreign language can gain about one-half a point on the TOEIC test for every hour of independent English reading. A statistical analysis of progress made by seven adult acquirers of English living in Japan was performed to confirm this conclusion: All were intermediates, but there was considerable variation, with TOEIC scores ranging from 220 to 705. All engaged in self-selected reading, and took pre and post TOEIC tests. Hours spent reading was an excellent predictor of gains on the TOEIC and the rate of improvement was nearly exactly the same as that reported by Nation.

On the basis of a corpus analysis, Nation (2014) estimated that readers can move from elementary levels of vocabulary knowledge in a second language (knowledge of 2000 word families) to a very high level (knowledge of 9000 word families) after a total 1,223 hours of reading, about one hour a day over three years. Nation concluded that a “vocabulary size of 9,000 words or more is a sensible long-term goal for unassisted reading of simplified texts” as it will “provide coverage of over 98% of the running words in a wide range of texts.”

Some may argue that this sample is too small, and perhaps from a methodology perspective this is a valid criticism. However, the validation of these results is all around me.

Passing The Tests

I can confirm that a high level of vocabulary is needed to understand normal adult material in a language, whether listening or reading. This is essentially what TOEIC is all about.I can also confirm that reading is the most effective, and least expensive, way to acquire this vocabulary. Even for specific tasks, like working at the reception desk of a hotel, or going to the bank, we can’t just learn the “task based “ language. We need a broader grounding in the language which is best acquired through pleasurable listening and reading.

language teachers A plusImage by Bman2011

I enjoy listening,  as a convenient way to get used to the sounds and intonation of a language, and to prepare for speaking. But to acquire a word, I usually want to see it. The image that I retain of a word is its written form, rather than a picture. I visualize the letters “R” “E” “D” and not the colour red when I hear the word “red”.

Why Do We Need Language Teachers?

So again, we have the question. If reading and listening are the most effective ways to learn a language, why do we need a teacher? The answer is simple. Most of us need to be stimulated, encouraged and provoked.

I have likened language learning to grazing, wandering over vast areas of content, reading a bit here, listening to a bit there. The role of the teacher is that of shepherd, prodding us to go in search of greener pastures, steering us in the right direction, rounding up the stragglers, but letting us munch away at our own pace and to our hearts’ content.

28 May 2015

Three Myths About Language Learning

I want to talk about what I consider to be the three myths about language learning – the biggest myths. That…

  1. You have to practice speaking and focus on grammar.
  2. You have to go to school.
  3. It’s difficult.

I’m still excited about having had lunch with Stephen Krashen in Riverside, California last week. At that time, he gave me a paper which is called “Can Second Language Acquired Reach High Levels of Proficiency through Self-Selected Reading”. In this paper, he confirms that the more we read, the better we learn and the higher our score is on tests like TOEIC. There is research to show how many hours of reading will give you what result on TOEIC and I’m going to analyze this in more detail.

In doing research for this, because this paper was produced by Stephen Krashen and Beniko Mason, who is an English teacher in Japan, I also Googled Beniko Mason and here there was a very interesting paper called ‘Self-Selected Pleasure Reading and Story Listening for Foreign Language Classroom’.

Myths About Language Learning

Both these papers stress the basic fact that in order to acquire a language, more than anything else, you need to read and it identifies how much you need to read and, of course, listening is also powerful. I happen to be a great fan of listening because it helps prepare me to speak and because it’s something I can do while doing other tasks, but I know that I need a lot of reading in order to acquire vocabulary.

There are a number of gems in both of these articles about how at the early stages most learners of language never get past the beginner or early intermediate stage. So whether those people speak absolutely correctly, whether we hound them on points of grammar, in any case, it’s going to take a lot of exposure and practice before it’s going to click in. Maybe the main thing is to get those people to where they can communicate a little bit without worrying about how correctly they speak. That’s just one example, there are many more.

Read And Listen

This is so fundamental, so important, read and listen. Therefore, you don’t need to be instructed, you don’t need to be corrected. Once you get to an intermediate level, the other goal of language teaching should be to make you an autonomous independent learner. So once you reach that intermediate level through lots of reading and listening, you will more and more correct yourself or you’ll seek out some grammar explanations. Wherever you feel there are gaps or mistakes that you keep making, you’ll start to notice those, if you are an autonomous and motivated learner. To get to that stage, rather than overwhelming you with rules, if we can get people to choose things of interest, stories, whatever they’re interested in, to read and listen.

I know I sound like a bit of a broken record, but it’s so overwhelmingly true. Not everybody likes to read when they don’t know the words and, basically, that’s what’s behind LingQ. I was the same way. I had all kinds of books in different languages, there were too many words that I didn’t know, I didn’t like looking them up in a dictionary, therefore, we developed LingQ as sort of an assist, but the fundamental activity is reading and listening. That will get you to where you have a sufficient base in the language so you can then work on the areas you’re weak in, including pronunciation. At least you have a feel for the language, you have some vocabulary and you’re not discouraged.

Motivation Is All You Need

Again, the three major mistakes that people make are they think they need lots of instruction. They’ve got to worry about grammar. They’ve got to worry about output. Not true. Second of all, they need to go to a classroom. They don’t. It can help if you don’t have the motivation, but it’s not necessary. The third thing is that it’s complicated. It’s not complicated. It requires time and motivation.

So there you go. I kind of say the same thing over and over again, but it’s so important and so few people really grasp it.


21 May 2015

The Importance of Compelling Content

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, again, I want to talk about communicating in language learning, it’s so important. We communicate when we speak, obviously, but we also communicate when we listen and read.

The other day on our forum at LingQ, someone said they had been working at LingQ listening and reading and felt as if they weren’t making any progress. They didn’t feel they understood any better than three months earlier. They had done a 90-day challenge at LingQ.

I’m going to ask that person: Are you listening to and reading things that you’re really interested in. In other words, is this compelling content?

Stephen Krashen on compelling content

This is something that Stephen Krashen refers to all the time – compelling content. If what you are reading and listening to is of great interest to you and, I might add, if you’re listening to something where you enjoy the voice and the subject is of interest and possibly the subject is familiar to you, I don’t see how you can’t understand more and more.

If, on the other hand, you’re listening to something that’s not interesting and you’re listening over and over again, yes, you are going to basically stop progressing because the brain requires things that are stimulating. Even in terms of learning content it has to be stimulating in some way.

I have made reference in previous videos to this interleaving, that it’s a good idea sometimes to leave something you’re working on. Go and do something else, study some other subject and then come back to it. All of this refreshes the brain and the brain learns better, rather than trying to learn a block of something or force yourself to learn something that’s not very interesting to you.

Communication is the way to go

Communicating is the best way to learn. Communication, whether it be listening and reading, which I consider to be communicating, or speaking, this is the key to learning, but it has to be compelling. It has to be of interest and the more compelling, the nicer the voice in your ears, the more you are attracted to the subject, the better you’re going to learn.

Compelling Content - communication
Image by Rick & Brenda Beerhorst

So remember Stephen Krashen with his compelling content, it has to be compelling. If it’s very compelling content it can be very difficult for you, but you’ll work your way through it. So, communicating, but meaningful, compelling communication.

Thanks for listening.

Learn from this transcript on LingQ

17 May 2015

Active And Passive Vocabulary 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, talking to all of you who want to learn languages. I’m very happy to share with you my experience, my views, and I think my views should count for something because I have learned 12 languages to varying degrees, I have another two that I’m working on, yet my views I think are very much in the minority. Okay? I’m going to talk today about active and passive vocabulary and I’m going to say that there is far too much emphasis placed, both in terms of how we teach languages and the things that people worry about when they learn languages.

There’s too much emphasis on active vocabulary. It’s this old question of developing an ability to speak or, rather, focusing on building up your understanding of the language. It is impossible to be fluent if you can’t understand. It is impossible to claim that you are at some level. They have all these numbers B-1, B-2, C-1. Whatever you claim, you can’t claim that you speak at that level if you don’t understand at a much higher level because the native speaker with whom you’re going to speak is always going to have a bigger vocabulary than you do. You have to understand what that person is saying. What’s more, in any language, even our own, we usually spend more time listening than we do speaking. You’ve got to understand what people are saying around you.

What do they do in classrooms? They try to force people to speak correctly. I read something recently about how anything that we cram will only stay in our short-term memory. Anything that we learn against the grain is only going to stay in our short-term memory. Things that we acquire through regular and enjoyable repetition is going to stay with us and that is why a language-learning method that is based on lots of listening and reading – I know I’m a bit repetitious on this – is going to stay with you. You’re going to be able to revive and refresh those languages easily as I have done with my Italian, which I haven’t touched for the longest time. Then a couple of weeks of listening and reading, talking a little bit with our tutors at LingQ and it comes back stronger than ever before. It’s in there soundly because it’s built up based on this very large passive vocabulary.

There was a talk at TED that showed up on my YouTube channel, you know how they recommend things for you to watch. Maybe I’ll put a link here, but there was this linguistics person saying things which I considered simply to be untrue. He said the biggest obstacle people have in language learning is their fear of not being able to speak and the way around that is you don’t need so many words, you just need a few key words and then you can speak. But you won’t understand anything, that’s an even worse situation. To me, the biggest fear I have is not understanding what people are saying to me.

I mean there’s no question that when you speak you are going to struggle, stumble. It’s embarrassing. You can’t say what you want. All of those things for sure, but if you at least understand what the person is saying, if you have a large passive vocabulary, you’re going to do better. You’re going to understand better and now you have some time with less pressure to try and use, try to activate, some of your passive vocabulary and the passive vocabulary does get activated as long as you speak. At some point you have to speak. However, it is amazing how much you can learn just through a very consistent program of listening and reading.

Someone asked as well here, do I listen repeatedly or repetitively to the same material or do I read or listen more extensively in order to acquire a large vocabulary? Well, initially, in order to become familiar with the language you have to listen to the same limited material over and over because you can’t even, at first, tell where one word begins and the next word ends. You have to get your brain used to the language, but within a month or two I move on to extensive because I want to cover lots of vocabulary with a system like LingQ.

I hate to always refer to LingQ, but it’s possible to deal with text that has 30-40% unknown words, so I very definitely move in to a more extensive pattern of listening and reading with the goal of building up my passive vocabulary. That’s why at LingQ the number one metric, the easiest thing to measure, is the passive vocabulary. How many words can you more or less recognize when you see them or hear them in a given context, even helped by the context? It doesn’t matter because all these words you’re going to see again and again. If they matter to you, if they’re important, they’ll come up again and again. If you are listening and reading in an extensive way they’ll keep coming up. You’ll see them in different contexts and you’ll gradually get a better sense of what they mean.

You don’t have to nail it down the first time you come up against it. When you are ready to speak and when you speak more and more these words will activate naturally as you speak. I will do a separate video on the kinds of things you can do to help activate your passive vocabulary to help yourself prepare for speaking. The idea that as you start into a language you’re going to try to speak the language to me is simply nonsense from a language-learning efficiency point of view. It may be what people want to do, I have no doubt about that, but most people are quite unsuccessful at language learning. When you, basically, don’t understand what the person is saying you aren’t going to have a very meaningful conversation.

If we look at motivation in language learning, I grant you that people are motivated differently. Some people simply have the motivation to be able to say hello and give the impression that they speak the language, in which case to focus on a few key sentences and phrases to be able to trot them out is probably quite useful. However, if the goal is to be able to participate comfortably in conversations or if you’re in the workplace, again, you have to understand what people are saying. If the goal is to gain that kind of comprehension then you have to focus on your passive vocabulary.

Now, I’m not saying you have to know every word in the dictionary, but you need a substantial vocabulary and it doesn’t matter whether you only count words as word families or whether you count every occurrence of the word the way we do at LingQ. It doesn’t matter. It’s arbitrary. Pursuing this passive vocabulary, I compare it to the mechanical rabbit that the dogs chase in dog races. It’s something that you pursue in order to build up that familiarity with the language, to expose yourself to the language to build up your passive vocabulary.

You know I saw a video on how to motivate people because, obviously, motivation in language learning is extremely important. There was a study done that showed that insofar as motivating people to do tasks, for very simple basic tasks the more money you give them, the more motivated they will be to do it. Move this pile of stones over there as quickly as you can and the fastest person will get the most money. Then that will work. However, if you’re dealing with more challenging tasks that involve concepts and thinking and creativity and so forth, the researched showed that giving more money, in fact, is counterproductive.

There are three things that people are looking for in these kinds of challenging tasks and I would include language learning amongst them. Number one is independence in the workplace. People want to have the feeling that they control their workplace and that they do things they want to do, number one. Number two is what’s called mastery, the sense that the challenge is something you can cope with it’s just a little bit difficult for you, that as you’re doing it you’re developing new skills. You’re becoming more powerful in terms of your abilities. You’re achieving this mastery over a set of skills, a task and so forth.

So the first one was independence, the second one was mastery and the third one was purpose. People like to do jobs they think are meaningful that serve a useful purpose. So if you can give an employee the sense that they are independent, that they can achieve mastery over the requirements of the job and that the job that they’re doing is important and useful, then that person will perform better than someone who you just simply reward with money.

Now, how does this relate back to language learning? Typically, people say well you have to learn English because you need it for your job. That’s a bit like giving them money. On the other hand, if you can devise a language-learning approach that allows you to learn from things that are of interest to you. So you’re not forced to study a specific curriculum. You’re not forced to learn parts of speech in the order that the teachers choose to give them to you.

I, personally, don’t like that approach. I like to pursue the language on my own. I learn those aspects of grammar that interest me when they interest me, when I come across them, when I have questions about them. I study things that are of interest to me, so I have that sense of independence in my language learning.

The second thing is mastery. If at a very early stage you are confronted with the task of getting your conjugations right, getting your declensions right and trying to find words and not understanding what the person is saying, all of this is frustrating, unless you’re in a situation where you don’t have that independence and the teacher is just drilling you and you’re just a robot responding to these prompts. But if you want to be independent and then you want to achieve that sense of mastery, it is easier, in fact, to achieve that sense of mastery by doing a lot of listening and reading and watching your comprehension grow.

You’re never confronted with frustration. It’s a little bit foggy at first then, gradually, following things that you have selected that are of interest to you it becomes clearer and you have that sense of achieving a higher and higher degree of comprehension, which is tremendously satisfying. And for most people, who don’t live where the language is spoken, it’s also quite easy to arrange.

The third issue is purpose. Obviously, you have to want to learn that language. If you are not interested in learning the language, again, you won’t have that sense of purpose. But if you are interested in learning the language for whatever reason, which could include for your job, but might be because of a partner, wife, husband, friend, interest in literature, culture, history, whatever it might be. So if you have that purpose, if you have an independent approach to your learning and if you have a sense that you are gradually increasing your mastery, these three things are going to keep you motivated.

So those three elements, I guess for the person who is largely motivated to get into that active vocabulary early, could also apply. I just feel in my experience that you will never be in a situation where your active vocabulary exceeds your passive vocabulary. You will always be in a position where your passive vocabulary exceeds your active vocabulary. Now, there could be situations where you have this passive vocabulary. It’s so passive and your listening skills are so poor that you don’t understand it when someone uses the word in speech; although, you may be able to understand that if you read it.

I mean there are people who read very well and can’t speak, but people who understand very well and not just vaguely what it’s all about, but who genuinely understand clearly what’s being said when the language is spoken, people who understand that well and who have that kind of a passive grasp on the language are going to speak well. If they don’t speak well yet it’s because they haven’t spoken enough. But if they decide to go and speak with that kind of a grasp of the language based on passive vocabulary, they will very quickly become good active users of the language.

So, a bit of a long rant here on this whole issue of active and passive vocabulary. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

14 May 2015

Listening And Reading IS Communicating Effectively

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 again in Palm Springs. My wife and I bought a little house here so that we can come here in the winter. We have to come down now to fix it up.

I want to talk about communicating, communicating and language learning. I read somewhere that they think language ability in humans was developed so that humans could collaborate in a hunt or whatever it was that primitive human beings did. The ability to communicate effectively, in other words the language skill, gave them a tremendous advantage as a species.

When we learn a language, communicating effectively is what it’s all about. We learn in order to communicate and we learn by communicating. To me, communicating includes listening. When we’re listening, we’re communicating effectively. When we’re reading, we’re communicating. When we’re reading grammar rules, we’re not communicating effectively. That’s not to say that we don’t have to look at grammar rules to try to remind ourselves of how things work in the language, but the main way we learn is through communicating. In my own case, as you know, I put a lot of emphasis on input.

I had an opportunity, two nights ago, to spend an evening with a delightful Russian couple who live in Palo Alto. To me, it was almost like a reward for the years I’ve spent listening and reading in Russian. They invited me for a wonderful Russian meal and I’m going to post a link to the post that I made on Facebook showing a picture of the meal and a picture of the couple, Alyona and Anna Toile. I’m also going to post a link to a post on Facebook that Alyona made about my visit. Mulbahar Project in Russian

Communicating Effectively - Alyona and Anatoly
Lovely Russian couple – Alyona and Anatoly

I was visiting with them because, particularly Alyona, is part of a project called Mulbabar, which is a Russian project whereby journalists, including a very famous Russian journalist called Dmitry Yakovlev, want to create a new media which takes some of the tension and hype out of the present atmosphere of – I would even say hate – that seems to be prevailing in Russia; the hate and antagonism, specifically between Russia and Ukraine, but in a broader sense. I very much support that initiative, but beyond that for me to spend an evening talking in Russian, eating Russian food, experiencing that Russian atmosphere that I so much enjoy was a reward.

Just a final note: Communicating of course includes speaking, but it’s not only speaking. Just out of curiosity, I looked at my statistics at LingQ and I have read well over a million words in Russian, according to my statistics at LingQ, so I have read much more than that. Every day, just about, I download from Ekho Moskvy two, three or four interviews and each interview is 30-40 minutes long. I’m sure I’ve listened to six-seven thousand hours of Russian over the last nine-10 years.

How much have I spoken? Again, mostly I’ve spoken with our tutors at LingQ. We keep those statistics, I’ve spoken 150 hours. Throw in another 10 or 15 hours where I’ve met people like the other evening and spoken. So I have listened 50 times more than I have spoken. That’s not because I don’t want to speak, I just haven’t had the opportunity, whereas there’s ample opportunity to listen and read.

Listening and reading IS communicating. It’s a wonderful way to communicate, it prepares you for those great opportunities when you can actually talk and use the language. And, of course, the more you talk the better you get at speaking, but listening and reading is also communicating effectively.

That’s kind of the point I wanted to make tonight and I’m going to make another video on the subject of communicating and listening and what we should listen to and what we should read to make it meaningful.

Thanks very much, bye for now.

13 May 2015

Should More Money Be Spent On Language Education?

More money should be spent on language instruction says this article from The Atlantic. Yet many of the arguments strike me, a language learning enthusiast, as out of date.

Educators from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., this past Thursday to lobby in the interest of world languages. It was Language Advocacy Day, an annual event on Capitol Hill that is aimed at garnering more federal support for language education.” and it the argument continues; Each year as national budget priorities are determined, language education is losing out—cuts have been made to funding for such instruction, including Title VI grants and the Foreign Language Assistance Program. And the number of language enrollments in higher education in the U.S. declined by more than 111,000 spots between 2009 and 2013—the first drop since 1995. Translation? Only 7 percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.

Empty Seats - Classroom - Language
Image by SrgPicker

Will Extra Funding Have An Impact?

Yes, fewer and fewer students are enrolling in language courses. Why is that? Maybe students just aren’t interested. Would increased funding change that? I wonder. Maybe it has to do with the methods of language instruction, and the poor results. Maybe teachers should be looking at their own methods rather than asking for more money for programs that are not in demand.

Another challenge emerges when looking at the languages these students are learning, too. In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally,193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, noted back in 2010 that the vast majority—95 percent—of all language enrollments were in a European language. This is just one indicator demonstrating the shortcomings and inequalities in language education today.

Interest And Enthusiasm

Language learning is not about equal rights for all languages. It takes a great deal of interest and enthusiasm to learn a language. Forcing people to learn languages that they are unlikely to be able to use is not a great idea. What should matter is which languages people want to learn, regardless of the reason. We should let learners choose which languages to learn, and help them.

Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. That’s noteworthy considering that in 2008 almost all high schools in the country—93 percent—offered foreign languages, according to a national survey.

Enthusiasm - Language
Image by UCFFool

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Present language instruction is largely a failure, according to this statistic. (Although I know of  brilliant teachers who are spectacularly successful). But overall it is not successful, so it is time to look at the model and see where it can be improved, rather than asking for more money to waste on something that doesn’t work very well.

More Language Teachers?

And then there’s the problem of teacher shortages. Even if schools embrace the various benefits of foreign-language instruction, finding qualified, experienced, and engaging, bilingual teachers in a crunch is tough. The language-policy analyst Rachel Hanson describes this as a big chicken-or-the-egg challenge in language education: “You can’t expand language education if you don’t have the pool of teachers to teach it,” she said. “And, if the students aren’t learning the language and becoming proficient, they won’t become teachers.

Maybe, in the world of the Internet, mobile computing, greatly expanded connections between people all over the globe, we don’t need so many qualified teachers with credentials. We need enthusiastic teachers willing to embrace newer ways to teach. Maybe those teachers can not only offer guidance and stimulus in the languages that they speak (ideal situation) but also help students who want to learn other languages, using Internet resources. If the learner is motivated enough, and if the teacher can provide the stimulus and support, a great many languages can be learned just using resources available on the Internet.

10 May 2015

Meaningful Context in Language Learning

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I’m going to talk about the importance of context in language learning. As is usually the case with these, I don’t have them written out in advance so my thoughts are going to be a little disjointed. Bear with me here. Let’s start with what sort of triggered this thought in my mind.

I met this morning with a family; again, Chinese immigrants, father, mother and their daughter. They’ve been here for 12 years. The daughter speaks fluent English, of course, has been here since the age of four, she’s 16 and both parents struggle with their English. The mother there said yes, you know I find it very difficult when I go to study a list of words. I can’t seem to remember them and it’s very frustrating. She’s been here 12 years and she really can’t speak English very well at all. I thought to myself well, I can’t learn from a list of words because a list of words has no meaning for me. It has no resonance. There’s nothing there for me to grab on to.

Context In Daily Dialogue

Both the parents have lived here for 12 years and don’t speak English very well. Obviously, English is not very important to them. That’s another context that’s not there. They don’t have a strong sense of wanting to participate in an English-speaking society so there isn’t that context of wanting to participate in the language, but context goes beyond that. In my experience, if I learn from some content it has resonance for me. It’s interesting to me when I’m listening to some of my Czech material about the history of Czechoslovakia or whatever it might be. That’s of interest to me. Other people are interested in other things. It might be music, it might be whatever, but whatever you’re learning from has to be relevant, has to be meaningful, has to have resonance, it has to have credibility.

This is another problem. Very often if we’re learning from the typical sort of beginner text, we’re not entirely sure that that’s how people speak, at least I’m not. I’m not entirely sure that this is authentic and credible because, in fact, it’s scripted for me and I know that some of the words they’re teaching are not very important. Most beginner texts have you going through Customs. I wonder how many people have ever used the language they’re learning while going through Customs, I know I haven’t. You start to question the relevance of this context. It’s low resonance.

Reading Content

Obviously, reading a list of words has very little resonance. I think it’s so important that we get engaged emotionally with the language and the context that we’re learning from. That context is not only the subject matter we might be reading or listening to, it’s also the people we associate with. It’s our desire to be part of that community that gives resonance, that creates a meaningful context, makes it real, credible, authentic. I think one of the difficulties very often that immigrants from Asia have is that they seem to be less willing to inject themselves into the local scene and, therefore, English becomes less relevant to them. It’s not a meaningful context for them.

I don’t know if this makes sense, but I think it’s extremely important. The brain is not just some kind of a machine that you throw some stuff in, turn a handle and out comes language ability. It’s not just the so-called left-side of your brain, which is good at dealing with rational explanations or whatever. I think there’s ample evidence that it’s the whole of the brain that gets involved and that emotion is a big part of it and if the learning environment or the living environment or the learning materials, the context in which we are learning in every sense of the word, if that context is not rich, is not authentic, credible, vibrant, if it doesn’t grab us, then we’ll have a lot tougher time learning.

That’s really all I wanted to say. I don’t know what we can do about it, other than trying to find or create meaningful context. In other words, learning from material that we like and find interesting where the voice has resonance, where the subject matter has resonance. I can still remember a text that I listened to in Italian, I Promessi Sposi or Anna Karenina in Russian or some of the material I’m listening to now in Czech. It creates an attachment and that’s going to help you learn.

Content In Conversation

Also, in terms of interacting with the language, as you know my preference is to wait until I have enough of a vocabulary that I can actually have a meaningful, again, interaction, one that’s authentic and real and we’re actually communicating meaning so that I am driven by the desire to communicate my meaning and understand the meaning of the other person. I’m not displaying my ability to use the subjunctive or worrying about whether I say everything correctly or not because I’ve got a meaningful context and it’s meaningful because I have enough of a vocabulary that I can actually have a meaningful conversation and have a chance of understanding what the other person is saying. That makes that whole context meaningful.

Do with this idea what you want, but I think those people who are able to create meaningful, rich, authentic, credible learning content are generally more successful language learners. So, I look forward to your comments. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

6 May 2015

How to Hack Chinese: Six Tips For Learning Faster

I am going to talk to you about six hacks for mastering Chinese. Basically based on my experience when 40 odd years ago within a nine month period I went from scratch to where I could read novels and translate diplomatic documents in Chinese. Both English into Chinese and Chinese into English.

Chinese Hack #1

Hack number 1. The first month or maybe two, FOCUS ON LISTENING TO PINYIN. Pinyin is the Romanisation. Just get used to the sounds. It’s too difficult in my view to start learning characters when you don’t even have words. It’s easier to learn things when you have something meaningful that you can refer it to – so you listen to stuff, you read the pinyin and by this time you’re getting more and more keen to attack the characters. The characters for the words that you have now already learned. So hack number one is focus on pinyin for the first month or two.

Chinese Hack #2

The second thing is, once you decide to STUDY CHARACTERS, this is the second hack, go at them full-time. Full time meaning half an hour a day at least and develop your own memory system. You may use anki, I had a system where I used these flashcards, these are now well over 40 years old and I developed my own sort of space repetition system writing, which I can explain to people if they want, but learn those first 1000 characters. Thereafter you will find that you will be able to pick them up because so many elements repeat and it becomes easier to learn them through your normal reading activities. But the first 1000 characters. The second hack is make a deliberate effort – almost as a separate activity to learn those characters. That is hack number 2.

Chinese Hack #3

Hack number 3 is; FOCUS ON PATTERNS. If you are – whatever book it is that you are using – don’t get caught up in complicated grammar explanations, focus on patterns. When I was studying we had a wonderful book by Harriet Mills and P.S. Ni. It was called Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese, A Pattern Approach. Every single lesson they introduced were patterns and to me that’s how I sort of got a sense of how the language worked and developed these patterns, which became almost like the frames around which I could build (my) whatever I wanted to say, so focus on patterns. That is number 3.

Chinese Hack #4

Number 4 – READ A LOT. Read a lot and in my case – and find interesting things that you want to read. In my case, very soon after we got passed our initial sound only, pinyin only text called ‘Chinese Dialogues’, we graduated to something called ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’. ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ is very interesting historically, it consists only of texts and a glossary, no complicated explanations, no quizzes and when I look at this – and this was a sort of lower intermediate book ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ and today. Like the last time I was in China, I bought this ______________ which is an advanced book in Chinese, OK? It is full of the most boring content about so and so, who went to school and met his friend and went to the barber and they went skating and I don’t know what and it’s full of questions and stuff like that. There’s only one thing to do with this kind of book in my opinion, throw it away. I don’t like it. Unless you are interested in that kind of stuff, so and so went skating. I graduated from ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ to this ‘Reader in Modern Chinese’ which was fascinating and introduced the patterns, and then I went on to novels like ____________. So read. Read a lot. Much easier to do today because the internet provides so much content, you can use online dictionaries, you can study at LingQ, so read.

Chinese Hack #5

Next FOCUS ON LISTENING TO THINGS THAT YOU LIKE in my case I listened to a lot of ______________ but nowadays you can get online, you can go to Beijing and buy, you can buy elsewhere CDs, the classics of Chinese, of history, novels, you name it. _____________ is available, if you look at my latest blog post you’ll see a link to a site where you can download an audio version free of charge. So FOCUS ON SOUNDS.

Chinese Hack #6

And one last hack that flows from this focusing on sounds, and this is something I am going to admit. I have tended to not being a great fan of shadowing because I didn’t really do it, but I am saying to myself. Chinese with this intonations, with the music of the language. I think you should shadow and I must admit I am going to try and do more shadowing now with my Korean and even though, while you are trying to speak while you listen and you miss stuff and you don’t understand it as well and it can affect trying to really enjoy the content – so I wouldn’t suggest you do it all the time – but as a process of getting used to the music of the language. Give it a try, and let me know how it works. It may be that plus a lot of listening to real lively Chinese that you like, is going to help your brain get used to the tones. A better solution than trying to memorize the tone for each word.

So there you have it – those are my 6 hacks on learning Chinese. Bye for now.