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

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.




1 May 2015

Experience Is The Best Teacher

In language learning, it is the experience of the learner that is the teacher.
(From a presentation to a group of language teachers via Skype)

I am delighted to be here to speak to a group of dedicated language teachers. I will use my own experience to explain why language learning success is dependent on the learner’s experience.

Let me say first of all that I am a learner of languages, not a teacher. Since the age of 16, I have been interested in learning languages, and during my career as a diplomat and business executive, I learned eight or nine of them.

The Language Learning Revolution
At the age of 55, I decided to learn Cantonese. I had studied Mandarin and could read Chinese characters, but I needed to develop the ability to understand how Chinese characters were pronounced in Cantonese. I went through a period of six months of intensive listening. That was when I discovered the minidisk player. For the first time, I experienced the power of small portable learning devices that would evolve into mp3 players, iPods, iPads, and the like.

Experience Ipod Ipad Iphone

To me this was the beginning of the language learning revolution. As someone who learned Mandarin listening to open-reel tape recorders, the power of the minidisk was a new and powerful experience which rekindled my interest in language learning. I not only listened to the languages I was learning, but was also able to easily record casual and natural interviews in English for learners of English. Wow! Language labs were going to go the way of the dodo bird.

At the age of 62, I wrote a book about language learning, and in particular about my experience learning nine languages. Now, eight years later, I speak 13 languages and I’m working on two more. In other words, I added six more languages during this period.

Experience is the Best Teacher
When I think about my learning activities, what I remember most is the pleasant experience of reading and listening to interesting content, stories, interviews, books, and more, all of which introduced me to worlds that were previously unknown to me. This is what Stephen Krashen calls “compelling content.” With compelling content, the very experience of learning a language becomes compelling.

Experience - Stephen Krashen

It is not just that an enjoyable experience with the language helps learning, but this experience is at the essence of our learning. Any attempt to understand, or even master grammar or pronunciation, in fact, requires considerable prior experience with the language. These new explanations and rules need to relate to something we have already experienced. If we follow a natural approach to language learning, relying on exposure and experience with the language, a lot of things fall naturally into place.

The Three Keys to Language Learning
Some years ago when I participated in the ACTFL conference in San Diego, I heard Dr. Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, Head of the Language Acquisition Resource Center at San Diego State University, say that there are only three things that matter in language learning: the attitude of the learner, the time spent with the language, and the ability to notice. I agree.

Attitude: Successful language learners just throw themselves into learning the language. However, the vast majority of language learners resist the process. At some level they don’t want to learn the language, they don’t think they can learn, they don’t like learning it, and they find it hard. They haven’t yet experienced success in language learning. As a result, they resist learning the language. I believe a major task for teachers is to overcome this resistance, to provide learners with a meaningful and positive experience with the language, and with language learning as a process.

AAA_Three Keys - Experience

Time: Dr. Lyman-Hager referred not necessarily to time in a classroom or instructional hours. Her reference was to time spent with the language, reading, listening, writing, and speaking. As we all know, it takes time to learn a language.

The ability to notice: Experienced language learners notice things in the language, how words are pronounced, how ideas are expressed, and what new patterns look like; poor language learners don’t notice these things. Teachers can help point out these things in the language, but ultimately learners need to develop the ability to notice them themselves. Grammar review, making mistakes, and becoming aware of one’s gaps in the language all help us to notice what’s happening in the language. However, I think the main prerequisite to developing this ability to notice is a lot of enjoyable experience with the language. We need the experience, and we need to know the language at some level, before we can learn it.

Krashen’s Meaningful Input
This brings us to Stephen Krashen’s brilliant input hypothesis. As Professor Krashen says, “if you understand the message, you are learning.” I would go further and say “if you enjoy the experience of learning, you are learning.”
My learning has always been built around interesting content which resonated with me and which I enjoyed. More than any specific conversations or situations where I used the language, I find myself remembering enjoyable experiences with content that captivated me while listening and reading.

I remember the impact on my French learning that my fascination with French civilization and culture had on me once I took my learning out of the classroom as a 16 year old. More recently, I remember how Proust came alive in audiobook form, as did Balzac and Marguerite Yourcenar and other authors. Listening to them was not only an enjoyable experience and  a deep journey into French language and culture, but it also improved my French.

Proust - Experience

While learning Mandarin, I remember listening over and over to Chinese 相声 (xiang sheng comic dialogues), and to artists like 侯宝林, even when I didn’t really understand them all that well. I remember my sense of satisfaction at reading 骆驼祥子 (The Rickshaw Boy) by 老舍 (Lao She). I remember listening over and over to the NHK radio special on the history of the Showa Era in Japan, 昭和の記録, while driving around in Tokyo.

I know exactly where I was when struggling, as a beginner in Russian, to understand while listening to the “Who is She” beginner course in Russian at LingQ. Soon after, I was able to move on to Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, both in audiobook form and by reading it at LingQ. I remember standing in the airport customs line-up listening to it in audiobook format and going over the text at night on my computer. I can still picture myself jogging around the park while listening to a wonderful radio drama version of Turgenev’s Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons). I did the same with Il Narratore’s wonderful audiobook versions of Pinocchio and I Promessi Sposi. I could go on and on recounting my experience as a beginner, intermediate, or advanced learner in most of the languages that I have learned and enjoyed. These are lively experiences that have shaped my involvement with these languages.

Language Learning Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata Experience

Our first uncertain experience with a language is with simple texts that are not always clear, but which provide some context to help us get a sense of the structure and pronunciation of the language. At first we have trouble understanding these,  but as we persevere these texts become clearer. Only with a lot of input do we start to get a good sense of how the new language works. As an intermediate or advanced learner, we progress away from learner texts and deal with more meaningful content. Now the learning process becomes its own reward, as we immerse ourselves in subjects of interest, even though often without full comprehension. The adventure continues, and so does our learning.

How to Study Compelling Content
Compelling content is often difficult. Given that relatively rare words that appear only once or twice may account for 15% of the words in meaningful context, we obviously need to deal with material that has a fair number of unknown words in order to read and listen to content that is of interest.

That is why there are a number of conditions that make accessing this kind of content much easier today. In my experience, I prefer to have audio with whatever text I’m reading, at least until I’m a strong intermediate. I want an ability to look up words and phrases immediately by using electronic dictionaries. I want an ability to save words and phrases that I have looked up because I usually forget the meaning of words that I look up in a dictionary. I even forget that I have even seen them before. I need a way to highlight words that I have met before in order to help me notice them in the future.

AAA - Books - Experience

I want to be able to highlight phrases that contain patterns and grammar structures that cause me problems. I want to be able to tag them into different categories for later review.

In other words, I want to be able to interact with the text that I’m learning from and to interact with the words and phrases that I’m learning in a way that has not been possible with traditional learning material. More than that, I want to be able to choose content of interest to me from which to learn.  All of this makes the language learning experience more intense and ensures that I will stay with it. This experience, the accumulation of many years of language learning, is what led me to the creation of LingQ.

What About Output?
I have only talked about input because to me, input, vocabulary, and comprehension are the foundational skills for progress in language learning.

However, what about the role of output in all of this? What about what we might call “GPS” (grammar, pronunciation, and speaking)?

Of course, all three are important. What’s more is that teachers and learners typically attach a lot of importance to GPS. The question is how much emphasis should be put on GPS and at what stage in our learning.

Again, I refer to my own experience. I typically start a new language with one or two starter books, perhaps something from the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series, and try to get an overview of how different thoughts and concepts are expressed in the new language. However, I don’t expect to remember any of this and I don’t try to force myself to learn it.


I don’t do the questions or drills in these books. Instead, I often look at the answers to these exercises, where typically I can see the same pattern repeated many times. I don’t try to force my brain to answer the drills or questions because I find it an unpleasant experience, and because I am not convinced it helps very much. I prefer to focus on listening and reading, as I described above.

This activity may seem passive, but in my experience, it builds up my vocabulary and familiarity with the language, preparing me for the stage when I can start speaking.

It’s somewhat the same with pronunciation. I don’t attempt to nail down pronunciation at the beginning because I have found it too difficult to do so. On the other hand, after listening to hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio, I find that my ability to notice the pronunciation and intonation of the language improves, and thus my ability to reproduce these improves. I delay any major effort at pronunciation until later.

This means that I usually delay speaking whenever I am learning languages and am not in a location where the language is spoken, which is usually the case. However, this was not the case when I lived in Japan because I was surrounded by people speaking Japanese. However my main learning activity, even in Japan, was listening and reading.

Language Learning Listening - Experience

I always advocate starting to speak when the learner feels like it or has the need or the opportunity to speak. I don’t think learners should be encouraged or forced to speak if they are not ready to do so or don’t want to.

But there comes a point when we have to speak, and speak a lot. At that time, we have to throw ourselves into it, without worrying about how we sound, or about whatever mistakes we make. We want the experience of speaking to be enjoyable. The more we understand, the more words we have, the faster we will improve, and the more pleasant our speaking experience will be. But it won’t be easy, and especially not at first. However, our experience with the language and the wealth of compelling content that we have already absorbed will sustain us if we have the right attitude.

In summary, if we follow the three keys as put forward by Dr. Lyman-Hager, language teaching and language learning depends on experience. A positive experience ensures a positive attitude. This will usually ensure that learners put in enough time, and that they are not reluctant to spend the time with the language that is needed; in other words, the learning process becomes its own rewarding experience.

Helping to create an enjoyable experience for learners by providing timely guidance, assistance, encouragement, stimulus, and the teacher’s own enthusiasm are more important than the teaching of the nuts and bolts of a language. At least that has been my experience.
Good luck!

29 April 2015

Can You Hack Language Learning?

Learn English from this video as a lesson on LingQ

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann.
Today, I want to talk about language hacks, hacking language learning. It’s very fashionable to talk about hacking things. There’s a self-help site called Life Hacks, a form of advice on how to tie your shoelaces faster and stuff. What do I think about language hacks, hacking language learning? I should say that you do see articles on how to hack the subjunctive or hack the imperfect or hack Chinese characters.

I don’t like the word ‘hack’ because the word suggests to me something destructive, somebody coming in and destroying my computer. I don’t really believe in shortcuts, but if we just take the word to mean tips. I think every language learner develops his or her own habits and some of us like to share them here on the Internet, as I do, so perhaps they’re hacks.

If I look at my three sort of ‘golden keys’ of language learning, we could call them hacks. So hack number one is to have a positive attitude, to enjoy the process and to do things that you enjoying doing. So, one hack might be to stop going over the same boring learner content that you’re not really interested in, just in the hope that somehow it’s helping your language learning. Do things that you find interesting, get on to compelling content, as Stephen Krashen says. So, in a sense, that’s a hack. It gets you to enjoy the process and makes you more positive.

The second key, of course, is to spend enough time. Here again, the hack or the shortcut is that there is no shortcut. It’s going to take you a long time, but if you follow the first hack and do things that are enjoyable then you don’t mind spending the time. You’re not anxious to have a shortcut of a process that you find enjoyable, so try to make it enjoyable and then you’ll spend the time.

The third hack would have to do with my third key, which is developing that attentiveness, the ability to notice and here there are different things we can do. Obviously, just massive exposure makes you more attentive to the language, if you’re paying attention. Occasionally, reviewing the grammar makes you more attentive. But the main focus, again, is on this massive input, in my view.

When I read and listen I try to notice. I underline when I read. I save links in LingQ. If I review some grammar rules or some examples I don’t expect to remember all of that, but I do believe that it makes me a little more attentive. When I’m learning if the text is difficult for me, then I’m focused mostly on understanding it, saving words in LingQ and trying to understand what’s being said. Sometimes I don’t fully understand it, but if I’m motivated to get through that content I’ll continue to plow through it, even though there are a lot of new words to me.

On the other hand, when I’m reading something that’s easier for me then I’ll make a conscious effort to try to notice certain constructions that I know I have a problem with because that increases my ability to notice, my attentiveness. If you notice again and again, eventually, you develop new habits and start to sort of ingest the language and develop the language habits you want.

So there you have it, my take on language hacks. I don’t think there are real language hacks; I think we have to develop our own special activities that we enjoy doing.
Thank you for listening, bye for now.

31 March 2015


Independent learning is the most important issue in education today, and in many ways the most elusive or difficult issue to deal with.  More than class size, teacher accreditation, or the latest innovations in teaching methodology, developing independent learning habits, in other words, self-learning, in students, and teachers, should be the main preoccupation of educators, and of learners themselves.

How do we become a society of successful independent learners? I have developed approaches that work for me as an independent learner of languages.

Independent learning_Steve

I wonder what other people do?

The Importance Of Independent Learning
First let’s look at why independent learning is so important. Governments are spending larger and larger portions of their budgets on education. As pointed out in this article , in the United States education budgets have grown 350% after inflation since 1970, but education outcomes have not improved. The incarceration rate in the United States has ballooned during the same period. Similar problems exist in most countries. Educated and literate people are far less likely to end up in jail and have many other advantages. However, existing educational institutions  may not be the most cost effective way to educate our society.


Most schools cost too much and deliver too little.To the extent that learners have to pay the cost of their own education, there is increasing realization that the benefits of the present education system are not commensurate with the costs. University students in many countries are complaining that they graduate with large student loans and yet have poor job prospects, creating a high rate of default on student loans.

Finally, the pace of technological change forces people in the work force to constantly update their skills or acquire new skills. Learning has become more of a life long pursuit. This does not even account for the rewards of pursuing personal improvement learning throughout life.

Independent learning, or self-learning, is an obvious solution to these problems. Even within the institutional education system, getting learners to take responsibility for their own learning is recognized as vital to learning success.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Forced Learning Is Ineffective
As long as the teacher or educational institution is forcing a curriculum on passive or unwilling learners, the results will continue to be poor. Teachers know that the more motivated learners there are in a classroom, the easier it is to teach the class.  An independent or motivated learner is driven by curiosity, by the desire to explore, to discover and to learn. The reluctant learner, the majority in the present system, lacks this curiosity and desire to learn.

The Internet has made available a vast array of learning resources in many fields. These range from the popular Khan Academy which offers free downloadable high school lectures on difficult subjects, to universities like MIT, Stanford and others offering courses online. Smartphones and Tablets offer not only a mobile way to connect to these resources but a host of educational applications for independent learners. Last but not least are the many excellent educational videos on a variety of subjects that are available on youtube.


How should the independent learner interact with these resources to ensure better results whether in the classroom or as a self-learner?

What Is Grazing Learning?
It has been shown that variation is the key to deeper learning, rather than a “block” effort to deliberately learn an array of facts of information, which is typical of existing teaching methods. This is sometimes referred to as interleaved learning, and Robert Bjork has researched how we learn and has many informative videos on this subject on youtube. Furthermore, knowledge is not finite or static, but often requires us to engage in “grazing learning”, covering a vast amount of material, without expecting to remember it all, but rather to familiarize ourselves with a subject, and then to go into greater depth as required. As Bjork points out about how we learn, we end up with a deeper knowledge of the subject if we take this approach.


However, not all learners  have the curiosity to explore a subject by grazing. Many require specific goals or tasks that they can aim for, or tick of as completed, regardless whether these tasks are interesting to them or not.  What is more, as Manfred Spitzer, the German neuroscientist pointed out in his book The Human Brain and the School for Life, or in this shorter article, the brain always learns, but it needs both novelty and repetition.

So while independent learners need to be encouraged to explore subjects, they benefit from the discipline of more mundane tasks, repetitive tasks, such as reviewing facts or lists of information.

Curiosity Is Key
I consider myself an independent language learner. I have learned 14 languages other than English, 6 of them in the last 10 years, in my 60’s. Most of my time is spent listening and reading, using content of interest to me, which I study on LingQ either at the computer, on my iPad or on my iPhone. In other words, I spend most of my time grazing in the languages that I am learning, driven by my curiosity about the culture or history behind these languages.


There are moments when this is not satisfying, moments when I feel my grasp of the language is not moving forward. Then I assign myself more mundane tasks. I often listen to repetitive recordings of the basic phrases of the language. These phrases can be disconnected from any real meaning. I don’t really want artificial dialogues, which try to provide meaning. I just want rote repetition. This is a small part of my learning, but it is an important part. It helps me to notice patterns in the language. It is also in line with Spitzer’s observations about novelty and repetition. It also brings some discipline and task completion satisfaction into my independent learning.

How Much Freedom?
Successful independent learners need to be curious and motivated. But too much freedom can be a burden.  A balance needs to be struck between the freedom to roam and graze on the one hand, and regular repetitive tasks which focus our powers of observation, and give us a sense of task completion or achievement. This is what I strive to do with my language learning. I wonder if others have a similar approach in their learning.

27 February 2015

Automatic Translation Technology – Replacing Language Learning?

I hear more and more about automatic translation technology. Skype recently announced their Skype Translator Preview – An Exciting Journey to a New Chapter in Communication.

This translation technology will make it possible for people to communicate via Skype across languages. Two people can speak two different languages, and the conversation is automatically translated for each person to hear in his or her own language.

Skype automatic translation technology

This technology is not surprising. Google translate is already quite accurate for many languages, although not for all. The more closely related the languages are in vocabulary and structure, the more accurate the translations are. Recently, text-to-speech technology has greatly improved, enabling any text to be accurately voiced for someone to listen to.

Then there is dictation software. After all, I am now able to dictate this short article to my iPhone 6 Plus. A few minor corrections on the computer and the article is done. The thought that these translation technologies could be combined in an automatic simultaneous interpreting capability does not surprise me.

I will be traveling to Asia on Sunday. I will be visiting Korea, Myanmar and Vietnam. I am sure that I will take advantage of Google translate, at least in Vietnam. I have already tested it out for Vietnamese. I will be able to say something in English into my iPhone and Google translate will give me the Vietnamese equivalent, not only in writing, but also in text-to-speech format.

Thus I will be able to ask a Vietnamese person where a particular store is, how much something costs, where the bus stop is and so forth  I will also be able to ask the Vietnamese person to speak into my iPhone with the answer in Vietnamese. Google translate on my iPhone plus will then translate this back into English for me. Probably the translation technology on Skype works along similar principles.

Automatic translation technology on iphone6plus

How is this likely to affect language learning? I recently did a Google search for articles on the subject and came across a blog post by a Benny the Irish Polyglot where he discusses a product called Vocre. Benny points out that these translations are not always reliable. To me, this is a minor problem. The quality of these translations can only improve over time, since they are based the accumulation of context examples of ever increasing quantity, and in this way the context based-accuracy improves. I already find that Google translate is much better than it was, and usually serves my purpose.

So I don’t think that it is the accuracy of this technology that will be the main reason why it will not replace the need to learn languages.

Rather it is because language learning is not just about learning to ask for directions and ordering beer. Language learning, in my opinion, is about connecting with a different language group, getting an insight into how these people think and getting exposure to their history and culture.

This new automatic interpreting technology is helpful for situations like the ones that I will face in Myanmar and Vietnam as a tourist, where I don’t speak the language, and very specific questions that I need to have answered. It is an interim communication tool. It is not a substitute for learning the language.

On the contrary, if after visiting Vietnam and Myanmar, I find that one of these countries is sufficiently fascinating, I may very well want to learn the language in order to get closer to those people,  their history and their culture. I may simply want to be able to interact naturally with speakers of those languages, not via some interpreting device.

In those languages which I am able to speak fairly well, I have had wonderful personal interactions with people.  If I think of the interesting and fulfilling things that I have read and listened to from the history or the literature of those countries, the reward of actually learning the language is obvious. Using these translation tools does not come close.

I have trouble imagining myself sitting down in a restaurant, or beside someone in an airplane, or in a bar, or on a park bench and engaging them in a far-reaching conversation using this kind of translation technology.

The world will get even smaller with translation technology

Just as the advent of the computer increased the consumption of paper, I tend to think that the introduction of this kind of technology will increase the interest of people in language learning, and not decrease it. It is a short-term bridge or crutch which enables communication across certain language barriers, but not a longer-term resource for really getting to know people and discovering other cultures.

This  new translation technology will again make our world smaller, bring people closer together, and as a result, people will want to take the next step in getting closer to  people who share their world, and learn their language.