20 May 2005

Visualization, play acting and language learning

Language learning is a long road, but it can (or must ) be an enjoyable one. At times the progress seems slow, as Autumnsky points out in a comment to this blog. It is important to enjoy all the wonderful moments when we are communicating in another language, speaking or reading or listening in another language. It is important not to think of what we have not yet achieved, but rather to feel happy at what we have already achieved and are achieving.

When I learn a new language I try to visualize myself as a native speaker of that language. I try to put myself in the position of a Korean, or a Brazilian or a Russian or an Arab. I visualize myself as a native speaker. I imitate the native speaker, especially one whose voice and intonation I find pleasing. There is no obstacle, cultural or otherwise, which prevents me from projecting myself into the position of another person. That means that the way I emphasize my ideas, my intonation,  my facial expressions and body language start to imitate people of another culture. This is all part of acting out my visualization. It is the play acting part of language learning.

Language learning is a game. It is in some ways an escape from reality, from the reality of what I am as a speaker of my native language. This is part of the enjoyment of language learning. The fact that I am an imperfect imitation of the native speaker does not bother me. If I am playing a role in a play, I cannot completely become the person that I am playing. I still enjoy throwing myself into it.

If we can keep this visualization in front of us and enjoy trying to act it out, language learning remains a game and enjoyable one. If in addition we are dealing with subjects of learning and discussion that are interesting to us, then we are not so easily discouraged by the length of our journey.

Visualization is also an important element in the process of using your will power and determination to stimulate neurochemical changes in your brain. I will comment more on that later.

16 May 2005

More on the upside-down hockey stick

There are two stages in language learning, the intense study of a limited number of words, or the blade of the stick. Here you are learning the high frequency words and basic structures of the language. The most common 2,000 words account for between 75% to over 90% of all content. These words appear frequently and so they are easier to learn.

You should be listening and reading a lot without worrying too much whether you understand all that well. Keep listening over and over, slowly moving on to new content. The more you see words in different contexts, the more likely you are to remember them. You need to master these words. You need to do a lot of intensive reading and listening. You need to listen to the same content over and over again. You should use these common words over and over in your writing.

But at some point you move to a more extensive approach to learning in order to acquire the up to 10,000 words you need to function at a professional level. This is the long shaft of the hockey stick. A comment to this blog expressed frustration at not being able to remember new words and phrases. It can at times seem like a journey without any progress.

Nevertheless you must continue. You need to expose yourself to a lot of content. You need to listen and read a lot. Now you move on to new content more frequently. You need extensive exposure, rather than the intensive exposure of the early period. You also need to to review new words and phrases on their own. This will help you when you meet them again in new contexts. But at times it feels as if nothing sticks. But you are learning all the time.

If what you are reading and listening to is interesting, you keep going. It is your interest in the subjects of your reading and listening that keeps you going. Read widely. Read in your area of professional interest. Also read novels and literature. Gradually you start to notice these new words and phrases more and more. Naturally and ever so slowly you start to use the new words and phrases and they become a part of you.

If you are using The Linguist you should print lists of your new words and phrases and make sure you use them in your writing and speaking.

If you read and listen a lot in order to meet your “saved words” and “saved phrases” targets in The Linguist, you will train other language skills. The more you read, the better you get at reading. The faster you read the words you already know. The better you understand the meaning of what you are reading. Yes, there are still words that you do not know, or have learned and forgotten. But you overall comprehension skills improve. You understand the surrounding context better. And soon you start to master those elusive new words.

Stay positive, keep listening and reading, and all of a sudden, when you least expect it, you will feel that you have made a great deal of progress along the shaft of the hockey stick.

15 May 2005

The upside-down hockey stick

Progress in language learning is like an upside-down hockey stick. During an initial period of study you actually progress quite noticeably. From not being able to say anything, you all of a sudden can actually say something in the new language. You can even understand or read something in the new language. Wow!

That is the first steep growth period. That is the blade of the upside-down hockey stick. Most learning material is directed towards this first stage. Teach Yourself Dutch! (Korean, Swahili, Greek, etc.) You cover the usual subjects like the train station, the bank, the post office etc. However, you still cannot carry on a conversation. You still cannot function at the train station, bank or post office. In a way you have an ornament and not a useful tool.

It is the next long stage of language learning, the shaft of the hockey stick, that is the most difficult. There are so many words to learn. Many important words and phrases do not appear often enough to be easy to learn. Instead they are just easy to forget. It is during this period that you need interesting content to keep you going. You need lots of exposure to the language, listening and reading. You need a systematic way of accumulating and retaining words and phrases. You need practice in writing and speaking. This is a long road.

In a way The Linguist system was developed to help people make meaningful and constant progress on this long road.

15 May 2005

Finding the time

I was asked how I find the time to learn languages. Let’s look at my recent efforts to learn Korean. I believe that you need to go at language learning in concentrated periods of relatively intense effort. These can be two or three months long. Each one of these periods will bring you a breakthrough to a new level.

During my first spurt of Korean learning I would make sure that I always had audio content in my car CD, or in my MP3 player. I would get in 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there. I would try to get in a minimum of 60 minutes every day. In the evenings I would spend 30 minutes reading and reviewing the new words. I think you need to work 90 minutes a day almost every day for a period of 3 months to achieve a breakthrough.

Unfortunately the Korean learning content was very boring. If I had had interesting and authentic real Korean content (as opposed to textbook content) I would have done better. I would have done a second and third spurt. I did not, because I kind of lost interest in the same old boring Korean content. This brings me to the upside-down hockey stick theory of language learning which I will cover in the next post.

15 May 2005

The frustration of not understanding

Attitude is key in language learning. I say it accounts for 70% of a person’s success in learning a new language. I discuss the many different aspects of a successful language learner’s attitude in my book, The Linguist, available form our website www.thelinguist.com.

I was asked in the comments to talk a bit more about my experience as I went through the stages of language acquisition. One thing that all learners have in common is the feeling that there are always situations where they do not understand what is going on, or words they do not understand. I often hear people complain of frustration that they are not doing better.

” I have been studying English for 8 years and I use it in my work, and yet when I go out for a drink with my colleagues I cannot follow their conversation very well, or I do not feel confident enough to really jump in with my own comments.” I hear this kind of comment often.

I never felt this way. As I struggled to understand and express myself, often the language was just flying by me and I did not understand most of it. This never bothered me. There will always be situations in another language when you have trouble following the conversation. It still  happens to me, even for languages that I speak quite well. It still happens. It does not matter. I participate to the extent I can and feel happy that I am able to do so.

The more familiar you are with a certain context, the better you will be able to communicate. Maybe you can talk about your work, but you cannot talk about sports or politics. I lived in Japan for years, did all my business in Japanese, and yet for a long time could not understand television dramas.

You learn to recognize that even when you are having difficulty understanding, just hanging in there and listening is helping to train your mind to some extent. To improve in a certain context you need to expose yourself to it, and even to “overload” in this context area. Read up on politics, listen to the news more, learn the key words and phrases  and then you will be able to discuss politics. This only works if you are interested in the subject. A deliberate effort to “overload” a particular type of context will help you but in the meantime do not worry about it. Relax and give yourself credit for the success you already have achieved.

A positive and relaxed attitude will only help your learning.

13 May 2005


It might be because I enjoy so many different languages and cultures, that I am against the modern ideology of multiculturalism. If every country became multicultural, all cultures would disappear or blend into one. I think that each country should defend its culture in its home territory. Nowadays, with so many people emigrating and moving around, I think immigrants to a country should respect the culture of their new society and seek to integrate into that culture as much as possible. The refusal to do so is as much an example of cultural colonialism as the spread of Coca Cola, MacDonald’s and terrible modern pop culture. Maybe I am just old fashioned. Here is my most recent post on this subject on a Chinese language Forum Westca, ) www.westca.com, where I sometimes post in both English and Chinese.

Three points.

1) Culture and race are not the same. I repeat, just because a person looks Asian does not mean they are of Asian culture. Kevin Chong (who was born in Hong Kong) is one of our leading writers in Vancouver and he writes about Canadian culture. He is preparing a book on Canadian pop star Neil Simon. He once said he does not want to write books with “bamboo lettering on the cover”. British writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-seller “The Remains of the Day” , could not be more English.

2) I am against multiculturalism because of the money spent by Heritage Canada, and the ideology spouted by teachers and other elites to encourage people to stay in their cultural enclaves. I am against the multiculturalists claim that a Canadian core culture does not exist. I am against the idea that multiculturalism defines Canada. I am against the “anti-racism” industry that feeds off multiculturalism. I am against the confusing message this all gives newcomers and the next generation about their identity. I am in favour of Canadian identity. To judge by the census information, despite the overwhelming propaganda barrage in favour of multiculturalism,more and more people of all origins just want to be Canadian.

3) Effective English is not about TOEFL or GRE results. It is about developing the right habits so that you naturally express yourself correctly. Words have to be learned in context. To speak and write well in any language you need a lot of exposure to the language, and a systematic way of accumulating the natural phrases of the language. 俺穷俺傻 your brain is programmed to put words together in a way that at times is not English. You need to train new neural networks in your brain. This needs to be done in a systematic way. It is not a matter of explanation or intelligence. It is just a matter of training, like training the body. That is what we do at The Linguist. You can read more on my blog.

“Man does not belong to his language or to his race, he belongs to himself alone, for he is a free being, a moral being.” Ernest Renan, Sorbonne 1881


12 May 2005

What interests people?

First of all thanks to the blog reader who pointed out an error in one of my posts. Running a blog is a new experience for me. In a way it is a lonely experience. There is very little interaction with the readers. I do not know what kind of posts are of interest.

I have some posts of life here in Vancouver. A day like today is a marvel. Sunny all afternoon and now a lovely sunset. Just over the mountains that I see as I look out over the ocean, I see a faint red or purple colour which suggests that tomorrow will be another glorious day.

But do people want to read about Vancouver, or language learning, or are excerpts from my book of interest. I do appreciate any and all feedback from the world of language enthusiasts, my kindred spirits in the blogosphere.

7 May 2005

Linking and language learning

I have been thinking about what constitutes the essence of achieving a breakthrough in language learning. I think that the key lies in the word “linking”.

First of all learners must connect with the language they are learning. They must be interested the language, in the people and in some aspects of the culture. Learners need to be interested in the content being studied. This is an essential motivational link.

Second, the study must be constant and ongoing, linked from day to day. There should be no lengthy breaks in the chain, at leasts for periods of committed and intensive study of several months at a time. This is most easily achieved by daily listening to selected content of interest that is at the appropriate level of difficulty.

At The Linguist we recommend one hour a day, every day, of intensive listening to meaningful content. Intensive listening means repetitive listening and a deliberate effort to increase vocabulary from that content. It is essential to read the content being listened to and to save or “link” key new words and phrases. This is not the same as casual listening to radio or watching TV.

Words and phrases need to be learned in a way that is linked to relevant  (emotionally linked) content chosen by the learners. What is more, new words  need to be learned in a way that links them to other words around them. This creates a natural sense for how they are normally used.

New words and phrases need to be linked to spoken and written output by learners. Learners must be encouraged to list their newly acquired words and phrases and then use them.

The correction of words used incorrectly, and this most easily done when correcting writing, needs to be linked to helping learners observe these words in use in their daily reading and listening. Corrected words need also be linked to the words that normally occur around them, their natural phrase environment.

Corrected writing can be linked to pronuncation and speaking by having learners read their corrected writing out loud 5-10 times on their own.

Learners need to be linked to each other, to share experiences and to work on common projects. The stimulus and feedback from a native speaker instructor is another form of interactive link.

The Linguist system uses modern technology to create these modern linkages for the learner. Learning based on theory, or isolated word lists, or the techniques of passing tests like TOEFL, will not bring about a breakthrough in language skills.

To achieve a drive to breakthrough learners should commit to listening one hour per day and creating 10- 15 new word links every day in our system. For a lower level learner this will mean frequent repetitive intensive study of the same content (mostly listening  and some reading). For the advanced learner it will mean more extensive study of constantly changing content in order to achive the same level of new word links.

If this daily commitment is fulfilled, a breakthrough is guaranteed. This has been our experience.

3 May 2005

Spring, joy and language learning

We have been enjoying some warm spring weather in Vancouver and it sure picks up everyone’s spirits.

The temperature does not vary dramatically from season to season in Vancouver . Winter temperatures rarely go below zero centigrade. Sometimes, even in winter, it is warm enough to play tennis or golf outside. However, we do have a lot of rain during the winter. The good thing is that this rain becomes snow in the higher elevations. It is quite possible to sail or play tennis in the morning and then just 20 minutes away, at Cypress Mountain , or Grouse Mountain , enjoy skiing in excellent Alpine conditions. Skiing at Cypress , with a panoramic view of the city of Vancouver or Howe Sound below you, is an exhilarating experience.

Our summers are never hot here. Even if the temperature climbs to 26 or 27 during the day, it will fall to 15 or 16 at night so you always can sleep comfortably. Humidity is low so that the hot weather never feels uncomfortable. We also have few mosquitoes or other annoying insects. This is in contrast to where I grew up, in Montreal , where the summers can be hot and humid.

On the other hand we miss the dramatic changes of season that other places experience. I remember as a child in Montreal that incredible feeling of lightness and joy when warm spring weather would finally come to melt the snow. We could run around without heavy coats or jackets on. We felt free and happy.

Changes in the weather and the seasons affect our moods. So do success and failure in our activities. There are times when we think we are not making progress in our language studies. But I know from experience that we always are as long as we keep exposing ourselves to the language, and enjoy the language. Even if at times you do not realize that you are improving, you probably are. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. It will encourage you and you will do better.

30 April 2005

Donald Trump

I saw Donald Trump interviewed on TV and he was asked the secret of his success. He said that there are two secrets to success.

“Whatever you do, you have to enjoy it.”

“When you have decide where you want to go, you have to go through walls to get there.”

These are also the secrets to success in language learning.

So the challenge for the teacher is the following. How do you get the student to enjoy learning? How do you get the student to put in the effort?

My answer is simple. Let learners choose content of interest to them. Give them a learning method where they can see and feel themselves succeed. Do not complicate their lives with unnecessary explanation, correction, testing and other distractions. Let them have the language in a way that makes sense and is meaningful to them.

That is what I have tried to build into The Linguist. Over 97% of Linguist members surveyed worldwide found it enjoyable to study using our methods. 78% found it more enjoyable and more effective than previous methods they had tried. These learners had studied English for an average of 8 years before trying The Linguist.