11 July 2005

Entrepreneurship…some thoughts

Entrepreneurship…some thoughts.

I am unlikely entrepreneur. I was always more interested in books, ideas, travel, history, food, conversation and languages. Nevertheless a person has to make a living. When I started my first real job at the age of twenty one I found it so boring I wondered how I could possible continue working for the rest of my life.

I was lucky that I had been accepted into the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service. A government job is in many ways less demanding than a private sector job. They probably won’t fire you, at least not for a while. In some ways it is more frustrating since it is not always clear that what you are doing is of any use outside the bureaucracy. I hung on there for seven years before moving to the private sector.

The private sector is different. Unlike the government service, the private sector does not require you to demonstrate that you are working by staying late, for example. You just have to get the job done. You are no longer looking for some ideal solution, or writing reports full of POLICY recommendations. The grand theories are of no interest. You just have to act. No longer do you put things off, you do things right away. At least that was my experience. What a change.

Not everybody in business is a genius. Most, in fact, are not that effective. One of the early lessons is that there are lots of people regularly screwing things up. I worked at a major lumber exporting consortium in the 1970s. Whenever one of my colleagues complained about one of our suppliers or customers screwing things up, our boss would say “ This would be a great job if we had no suppliers or customers!”. Another of his sayings was “It is a long road that has not turns”. So, I learned to expect the unexpected and just deal with it as best I could. No theories.

I formed my own company in 1987. I already had product knowledge, market knowledge and contacts. However, I succeeded largely because of people that I met AFTER I started my company. These were people who had skills and capabilities that complemented mine, both within my company and outside as customers and suppliers. I did not do it on my own. I was able to offer value to these people and they in turn offered me value. We all achieved a new level of success because we worked together.

The point is that to succeed in business you need to meet people and to give them something. If you have something to give, chances are you will get something back. So the ability to relate to others and create these value connections is key.

One other thing. I had a meeting the other evening and went to the wrong place at first.  I had supper at a restaurant nearby. I had an excellent bowl of lentil soup, an outstanding lamb souvlaki and a glass of wine. It was all very inexpensive. One of the best Greek meals I have had in


. If I had not gone to the wrong place, I would never have found this restaurant.

Remember the law of unintended consequences. Remember, you never now what will lead to what. The main thing is to get out and do something.

8 July 2005

Body language

Don asks if we deal with body language and if we use videos. We do not address the issue of body language nor do we use videos.

If you are surrounded by native speakers you may pick up some of their body language. I do not think this is something that is necessary nor is it something that can be taught over the Internet. We have decided to use the web as our classroom. We concentrate on things that are easily delivered via the web.

We offer interesting content for intensive listening and reading. We offer a systematic way to learn new vocabulary. We offer writing correction and on line discussion. We offer the chance to interact with native speaking tutors and other learners from different cultures. All of this prepares the learner for encounters with native speakers.

We have stayed away from videos for several reasons. First, they are not as language intensive as the spoken or written word. Second, they require the learners to sit in front of a TV or computer. We want the learners to listen and read a lot wherever and whenever they are. We want the learner to achieve up to two hours per day of interaction with the language, every day.  This is hard to achieve with video. Video, movies, TV , radio, newspapers etc, are all additional activities that are no doubt beneficial, but not central to the program we offer.

As to the issue of a neutral accent, I think this is quite subjective. I personally feel that the Canadian or General American accent is quite neutral and the most universally useful accent to learn. But I recognize that I am prejudiced by the fact that I speak that way. Learners living in Australia would want to learn the Australian accent. One of the weaknesses of our system is that our content is mostly in Canadian or General American. Even though most people find this easy to understand, we do intend to add more regional variants of English to our system. People should be able to imitate the accent they find the most useful or appealing.

8 July 2005


The other day someone asked me if we had scenarios at The Linguist. He meant do we have scripted scenarios of dialogues at the bank, at the train station etc.. I said no.

The scenario approach is like so much else in language training; a vain attempt to find a short cut. It does not work. Even if you learn a scenario for the bank, when you go to the bank the conversation will be different. Sure you need to learn the words for bank book and bank account and deposit etc. These should be taught through natural and interesting content and not through artificial scenarios.

But even if you know some of the words that you need, you still need the language knowledge. The real dialogue at the bank will not be the same as the scenario you study in your book or CD. Every scenario in real life is unique. You need real language competence to deal with what awaits you at the real bank. To achieve that competence there is no substitute to a lot of exposure to the language.

So I return to my battle cry. Listen to and read things that matter to you. Stay with it. Put in the time.  And use a systematic method to really learn the new words and phrases that you encounter. Go the language itself and figure out how can make your listening and reading and talking and writing as efficient and enjoyable a learning experience as possible. I may be prejudiced but I think that The Linguist system offers that.

8 July 2005


I still think back to our holiday in France. France is a wonderful country. We stayed in a little village called Brulons. We travelled by car and visited other small villages in the area of the Sarthe river. All the villages were charming.

We stopped in one small town, the name of which escapes me. There was a market in the central square. I chatted with a fellow selling cheese. He was from the Basque country. He had three cheese stalls in the Southwest of France and was now expanding to the Sarthe. He had great plans to cover the whole country. He liked selling in country markets because there was little overhead and good profits. A young businessman!

A group of four workers were doing some repairs to the road. Like municipal work teams all over the world, one man was working and four were watching. My wife and I went to the local restaurant and the work crew was there. We had a starter (in my case herring in a salad with warm potatoes and onions), a main course (fish on a bed of ratatouille), cheese and desert, with as much wine or cider as you wanted. Price, wine, service and tax included was only 10.50 Euros per head!

A river ran through the town. I guess it was the Sarthe. Old buildings, an old cathedral, narrow streets and a slow pace. Wonderful. Just before noon we saw people going to their homes with their french bread (baguette) under their arm. It was a lovely change of pace.

30 June 2005

Travel notes

I was in Europe for much of June, in Sweden, London and then attending a conference on Language Instruction and the Corporate Sector in Duesseldorf. I also attended a wedding in Le Havre. France and then took it easy in a 500 year old house in a small village near Tours.

My wife and I drove around visiting small villages, eating four course meals with wine, tax and service included for 10-15 Euros and enjoyed the countryside. There was also a magnificent 27 hole golf course near by with nobody on it which we took advantage of.

The villages were delightful and as a result I bought an audio book of Proust’s Du Cote de Chez Swann which I enjoy listening to while driving around Vancouver. The village that figures prominently in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is located near where we stayed.

I heartily recommend audio books to language enthusiasts. Audio books can help you enjoy your reading, can allow you to access books that you find difficult, and as a result are a form of travel into an exotic world of language, history and culture of your choosing.

30 June 2005

Audio books.

When using audio books for language improvement should you listen to the whole book?

In many cases I just listen to parts of these books. It is useful to then read these same parts and then listen again. The idea is to bathe your mind with the language. The more interesting you find the content, the more effective your listening will be. When you read it is a good idea to underline or make note of words and phrases that you really want to be able to use. Then when you listen again you will notice them.

Listening is a kind of sensual enjoyment of the language. You are following the meaning but you are also enjoying the words and phrases and getting used to them. Each time you listen you will focus on different words and phrases. It is not possible to be focused all the time.

Some books you will want to listen to from beginning to end, but very often just doing parts at a time is good enough.

I do believe, however, that one goal is to improve your reading. You should get to the stage where you can comfortably read a book, from cover to cover. If you have not done so before, when you do so you will feel a sense of achievement, like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. Thereafter you will find it easier to read.

At least these have been some of my experiences with different languages. The key is that the content is of interest to you. Good luck!

30 June 2005

Acing the TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS: Scams?

I continue to see ads like these popping up all over the internet:


You can substitute TOEFL or IELTS in any of those ads. Indeed, one enterprising (but perhaps not the most ethical) individual has set up virtually identical sites for acing the IELTS, the TOEFL, and the TOEIC. It’s really quite amazing how he’s an expert on all three tests, all at the same time, and how basically identical strategies and ‘secrets’ will help a learner on all three different tests.

It’s really quite amusing to read all the pages, and note the similarities. For instance,

  • IELTS:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of standardized test researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the IELTS.
  • TOEIC:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of standardized test researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the TOEIC.
  • TOEFL:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of standardized test researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the TOEFL.

I’m sorry, but this does not lend itself to credibility. Especially when you do a little elementary Google searching and find all kinds of other things that Morrison Media has “put together a team of researchers” for. Such as the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certificate

  • CNA:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of medical field researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the CNA hiring and school process.
  • and the PRAXIS test
  • and the USMLE

Unbelievable. This company, and this guy, really get around. But how much do they actually know about any particular subject they are selling test prep secrets to? I suspect very little.

Well, The Linguist has a different approach. Yes, we’ll help you ace the TOEFL, and the TOEIC, and the IELTS, and any other English test out there that you can find.

However, we don’t do that by teaching you to “beat the test” or cheat or cram or learn test strategies. In fact, we do it the good old fashioned way of actually teaching you English. What a concept!

It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s cost-effective to learn English with The Linguist. And it’ll help you pass any English test or certification – guaranteed.

But it will also help you to actually learn to speak, read, and write English. Which is what you really want to do in the first place!

Please note:
This was originally posted on The Linguist Community Blog

23 June 2005

More on the dictionary

I really appreciate the interest that ESL learner has in the subject of language learning. I look forward to our cup of espresso here in Vancouver one day.

What I mean my real content is anything that the learner is genuinely interested in and that was not written especially for language learners. I mean authentic content which is meaningful to the learner. It may a cook book, a history book or anything. Yes you can Google to find additional examples of new words in use. I prefer to find these examples in my reading and listening and have designed the functionality of The Linguist to make that possible. The examples are more meaningful and the learning is reinforced if the examples come from familiar contexts.

Obviously not everyone has access to The Linguist, and it only exists for English for now. As a compromise solution by all means use the handheld electronic dictionary. The question what will you do with the word once you have looked it up. If it goes on a hand written list, the chances are that you may only review that list a few times. Worse still, most students still use the conventional dictionary and their study is so slow and painstaking that an essential ingredient of breakthrough language learning is lost. That ingredient is intensity. Efficiency leads to intensity. Intensity is needed for a breakthrough.

As for the International Phonetic Alphabet. I do not use it. I want to connect the words that I see in the language with the pronunciation. I do not want to see a third phonetic script, especially one that I do not know and have no interest in learning.

21 June 2005

The Dictionary

“ESL Learner” defends the use of the dictionary in a comment here. Of course we need a dictionary but the less time we spend in the dictionary the better. We should read on line and use on line dictionaries like Babylon and Kingsoft. In this way we get instant explanations and translations. When reading away from the computer I simply let the unknown words go by me. Traditional dictionaries are simply too time consuming and inefficient.

But even the on line the dictionary is not enough. We need to create a dynamic database of our new words and phrases linked to real examples of these words in use from our reading and listening. The dictionary examples are not real. We need to learn from real context.

Dictionaries provide guides to pronunciation often using the phonetic alphabet. This can be a help if the learner knows the international phonetic alphabet. I have learned 10 languages and never bothered learning the IPA. To me it is just one more artificial obstacle between me and the language. The spelling of the language I am learning has to link up with the sound of the word in use. The IPA like grammar explanations is just a distraction.

I spent most of time listening over and over to the content I was learning from. I developed my pronunciation skills by repeatedly listening to interesting content. Then when I read that content I would pronounce these words to myself. Occasionally I would read the texts out loud.

The point is that whenever you take your learning away from real context, as in when you are studying the dictionary, you are taking time away from the most efficient activities, reading, listening and speaking. You will learn to be fluent by training your brain, not by trying to understand or deliberately gain knowledge.

20 June 2005

In answer to Cliff; boring content

The boring nature of most learner content is a real problem in language learning. Going after interesting content is often too difficult because there are too many new words and phrases. What can we do?

While some learners like dictionaries, I do not. Using them is like one-way love. You put a lot of effort into looking words up, you think things are fine when you are in the dictionary, but in fact very little remains. The dictionary does not do it for you. You are left empty.

For this reason, when I learned I had to begin by relying on whatever content I could find with word lists attached.This often meant boring content. It meant word lists that distracted you from your reading. It meant that often the words you wanted to know where not on the list. I might add that all the grammatical explanations in these text books was for me just so much filler put there for the gratification of the editor of the text book. I just ignored them. In the case of Chinese, fortunately, there were some books on history, politics, literature etc. with real , not learner content. Unfortunately most of this content did not have audio to go with it.

As I got better I went to content of my choice, books, newspapers, magazines. At times I would look words up, but mostly I just the let the unknown words go by. Reading, exposure, washing brain in the new language, getting used to how words come together in the new language was what I was looking for. The problem is bridging the gap from your beginner and intermediate stage until you get to the advanced stage. And if there were a better way to handle advanced reading of your choice, so that you could systematicall learn the unknown words, that would be a big plus.

It was my frustration over conventional learning material that caused me to develop The Linguist. At The Linguist we are constantly asking the learner to link new words and phrases and put them into a personal database for later study. The link also provides an explanation and translation. The learner can ask his/her tutor if he/she gets stuck. These links create examples of the words and phrases from the learners’ listening and reading. The learner is asked to use these new words and phrases in their writing and reading. This all works.

For other languages like Japanese or Swedish or whatever ( I am looking forward to doing Korean and Portuguese, and then Arabic, Russian and Hindi) you will just have to wait another six months until we launch The Linguist for other languages.