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.

30 January 2015

Words, Why They Matter And How To Acquire Them

In language learning, the importance of reading and a large vocabulary, can’t be overstated. In response to my recent video on this subject I received comments from those who are convinced that we can converse quite comfortably with just a few hundred words. This debate is a regular feature of the discussion of language learning on the web. “We can communicate well with only a few words”,  “We need to speak right away”, say some. I don’t agree. You can communicate with a few words but you can’t say much and you understand even less, and that means a very limited form of communication.

Many Words

My views have been formed through my own experience of learning, or trying to learn, 15 languages. I constantly find my lack of words to be the greatest obstacle to enjoying the language more. Why? Because the words I am missing prevent me from understanding things that I hear and read, and want to understand.With enough vocabulary and comprehension comes confidence, the confidence that I can defend myself in the language. With this confidence to sustain me, the speaking part develops naturally, as I have more and more opportunity to speak.

I realized this with the first language I decided to learn to fluency, French. As with most English speaking school children in Montreal in the 1950’s, I had studied French at school since grade 1 but couldn’t hold a conversation. At school we had boring and bored anglophone French teachers and boring text books, and spent most of our time on grammar exercises, writing meaningless essays, and, with some difficulty, reading mostly uninteresting stories.

No doubt the instruction of French in Canada’s anglophone schools has improved since then, with more francophone teachers rather than anglophone teachers. The results, however, remain the same, dismal. This is a constant source of hand wringing by politicians, leading to reforms of the instructional system, but not to improved learning outcomes.

In my first year of university in Montreal,  I had a French Professor from France. He managed to excite my interest in French civilization. This changed my attitude completely. I started reading a lot, thumbing through the dictionary in those days before the internet. I watched movies in French, attended plays, read the newspaper, listened to the radio, and within 6 months my French just blossomed. My interest in the language drove me, but it was the exposure to the language that enabled me to learn. At first I had to look up many new words and gradually these unknown became fewer and fewer. Yet they were always there. Especially when reading novels, there were always unknown words that prevented me from enjoying the book I was reading. This was also true in films or when I was hanging out with francophone friends. I was always missing key words.

This article by Ernest Blum explains why. In a nutshell, while a few high frequency words account for most of the words used in any given context, the remaining 30-40% of any text consists of low frequency words, sometimes only appearing once or twice in the text.

Since you need 95 or even 98% coverage to enjoy reading a text, according to vocabulary researcher Paul Nation, the sad fact is that you need to know a lot of low frequency words in order to enjoy reading books. Why is this important? Because reading is one of the most effective ways of acquiring fluency in a language, especially when combined with listening.

As Blum points out, research has shown that wherever languages are taught, the students don’t acquire enough vocabulary to read interesting texts. For the French daily newspaper Le Monde, 22,000 words only gives you 94% coverage. Even a popular magazine like Time requires 14,000 words to achieve 96.9% coverage. Most school children, Blum points out based on research in a number of countries, know  at most 3,000-5,000 words. Few of these students can read longer more meaningful texts. This hinders their language development.

Teaching languages with an emphasis on grammar rather than on reading and listening, is ineffective and goes against an earlier more effective tradition, that of focusing on reading texts, and especially reading with interlinear translations.

The result is boredom for the learners. This was true over 300 years ago as this quote from John Locke illustrates.

“How is it possible that a child should be chained to the oar, seven, eight, or ten of the best years of his life, to get a language or two, which I think might be had at a great deal cheaper rate of pains and time and be learned almost in playing? “ John Locke Some Thoughts Concerning Education 1692.


James Hamilton, quoted widely by Blum in his article, was an early 19th century  proponent of reading, and especially of reading with interlinear translations, to learn languages.

According to Hamilton:

Reading,is the only real, the only effectual source of instruction. It is the pure spring of nine-tenths of our intellectual enjoyments. . . . Neither should it be sacrificed to grammar or composition, nor to getting by heart any thing whatever, because these are utterly unattainable before we have read a great deal.

theory of grammar should be taught only once pupil can read the language

Reading with interlinear texts is a great help, especially to beginners. As the learner progresses, however, the importance of interlinear texts declines. The learner is able to understand more and more of the words, and is better off staying in the target language.

The availability, on the Internet, of vast quantities of interesting language content, both audio and text, enables the learner to seek out meaningful subject matter of interest to him or her. Perhaps most importantly, online dictionaries make it possible to read and understand interesting material with a much higher level of unknown words. Thus we can acquire new vocabulary more quickly. If the learner had to rely on content with 98% known words, the vocabulary growth would be painstakingly slow.

Surprisingly, I have found it better not to focus my attention on learning vocabulary from lists or flash cards, although I do some of that. Instead I learn best when I am able to expose myself to as much content as possible, reading and listening, taking advantage of the technological conveniences of the age of the electronic tablet.


The result is a surprisingly rapid and enjoyable increase in my vocabulary and in my enjoyment of the language. This is quite different from the deliberate and ineffective learning process fifty years ago at school. In summary, read and listen and you will learn!



31 December 2014

The Perfect Time To Learn Languages Is Now

There has never been a greater time to learn a new language. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you do for a living, or if you are a man or a woman. If you are not already trying to learn a new language – let 2015 be the year when you do. Learning a new language has so many benefits. In the following I will reveal some of these benefits, and the best approach to language learning.

Ten years ago I was in China speaking to university students and promoting my book ‘The Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey’. In the book I drew from my personal experience in learning 9 languages to advise people on how to achieve success in learning a second language or even more. Now, ten years later, my attitude towards language learning has not changed. But other things have. First of all I am 10 years older, (in my 70th year), and secondly I have learned another 6 languages in this period, while working simultaneously.

In addition to the 9 languages that I spoke previously, I have just in the last 10 year period, achieved varying degrees of fluency and good comprehension in Russian, Korean, Portuguese, Czech, Romanian, Ukrainian, and am now starting Polish. After that I intend to learn Turkish, Farsi and Arabic.

Age Is No Excuse
Obviously – despite what many people think – age is not a barrier to language learning. Quite the contrary, there are a number of reasons why seniors, as well as people of all ages, should learn languages.


Language learning is a fascinating hobby. It connects us with worlds that we didn’t even know existed, and with people from different countries and language groups. This enriches our lives in many ways. Language learning is a voyage of discovery, fulfilling and stimulating. But that is not all; it is also very good for our mental health, increasing our intelligence, and protecting us against Alzheimer’s disease, as a number of studies have shown. Language learning is also a wonderful excuse for people of all ages to become better acquainted with the Internet and modern technology.

Endless Resources
Although the majority of people today are still trying to learn languages in various language classes, the range of resources and services available through the Internet is vastly richer and more powerful than what the traditional classroom can offer.


Here is a short list of just a few of them:
– Google translate
– Text to speech
– Podcasts on interesting subjects in the variety of languages
– iTalki
– Duolingo
Effortless English and AJ Hoge

What is Effortless English and AJ Hoge? AJ is one of the most effective language teachers in the world, with delighted students constantly writing on Twitter to express their appreciation of what AJ has given them.
AJ’s message is similar to my own. Simply relax and enjoy yourself and the rest will come naturally. Don’t get hung up on grammar rules and explanations, grammar exercises, tests and all of the other trappings of traditional language teaching.

The Three Golden Keys of Language Learning
Language learning can be boiled to three essential concepts, what I call the three golden keys.


The first golden key is the attitude of the learner. Ask yourself the following questions:

– Do you want to learn the language?
– Do you like the language you are trying to learn?
– Do you believe you can achieve fluency in the language?
– Are you happy just to communicate, without worrying about pronunciation or correct grammar?
– Are you prepared to congratulate yourself for whatever you are able to achieve in the language?
– Are you determined to succeed?
If the answer to these questions is yes then you are ready to succeed, and ready to move to the next golden key.

The second Golden key is the need to spend time with the language.
This means engaging with the language itself, not dealing with explanations about the language or exercises that test your knowledge and your patience. Spending time in the classroom with other students who don’t speak the language, or with a teacher explaining things, is not necessarily the best way to spend time with the language.

Listening to the language itself, as spoken by native speakers, whether in face-to-face conversations, or listening to an interesting podcast on an MP3 player, are more intensive language experiences. So is reading in the language.

Language learning takes time. Not only do you need to spend 45 minutes to an hour a day, but it will likely take months and possibly years to achieve your target level of competence in the language.


As long as the time you spend with the language is enjoyable, interesting, and stimulating, you don’t begrudge yourself this time. The task of language learning becomes a fascinating adventure, a rewarding hobby. As AJ and I both stress, it becomes enjoyable. Once you are able to enjoy your learning, your success is guaranteed.

If your attitude is positive and if you have found a way to commit the time necessary for success, you are ready for the third and most elusive of the three golden keys.

The third golden key, is to develop the ability to notice, to become attentive to the language.
There is a Sufi expression which says we can only learn what we already know. We have all had the experience of noticing something that we hadn’t noticed before, and then suddenly this phenomenon seems present everywhere.

When we start in the new language, everything is strange and unclear. Then as we start to notice a few words or sentence patterns that we have encountered over and over, we are better able to notice other things in the language.
The more exposure we have to the language, through listening, reading and communicating with others, the more alert we become to all aspects of the language, including how the language is pronounced.

listening  reading
Teachers, corrections from helpful native speakers, grammar books, etc. can all help us become more attentive. Ultimately, however, these are minor. We have to discover the vast majority of these things ourselves. We have to train ourselves to become attentive to the language.

Our ability to be attentive, therefore, is dependent a) on our attitude; our determination and will, our open-mindedness, and b) dependent on the amount of time we spend with the language.

In fact the three Golden keys; Attitude, Time and Attentiveness are very much interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

Let Technology Help You
In my language learning over the past 10 years, I have spent thousands of hours reading and listening to content that fascinated me. This was content that I chose and which maintained my interest in conquering the language. It is really only in the initial stages that I felt I had to learn from boring beginner content.

Modern technology makes it possible for us to move onto interesting content of our choice, at quite an early stage in our learning. Specifically, it is the availability of online dictionaries, online grammar resources and especially language learning systems like LingQ, which make it possible for us to spend most of our language learning time with content of interest, which is for me, the real driver of language learning.


The Internet offers us unlimited content in the languages we are studying. In my learning of Russian, Czech, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and other languages I have found fascinating resources, just by googling. Audio books, podcasts, radio programs and more are available for download.

I make full use of technology. Not only the Internet, but also MP3 files, iTunes, mobile apps for my iPhone, and iPad to study whenever I have a moment, wherever I am.

Reading and especially listening are not only powerful ways to learn, they are very portable. You can read whenever you want. You can listen while doing other tasks. You can use “dead time “in order to make sure you achieve a level of daily contact with your language of at least one hour.

In order to learn a language today, we simply need to start. If we follow the Three Golden Keys and take advantage of modern technology, success will feed on success and we can learn any language, and however many languages we want, and enjoy the process.

There was never a better time to start learning a new language. What are you waiting for?

Happy New Year Everyone!

3 June 2014

Being bilingual makes you smarter

Bilingual people are smarter, and it doesn’t matter when you learn a new language according to this recent study.

To quote the article, 

“Findings showed that those who spoke more than one language tested better on intelligence tests, regardless of when the second language was picked up.”

Now that should be motivation to get cracking on your language study.

learning  languages (500x333)

Here’s an extract from the article:

“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” said lead study author Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.

27 May 2014

When to Start Speaking a New Language?

One of the liveliest discussions within the language learning community is on the subject of when to start speaking. I am a proponent of letting the learner choose when to start, and my personal preference is to delay speaking. I prefer to invest a fair amount of time in listening and reading, in order to gain some familiarity with the language and acquire a decent level of vocabulary. Then when I start speaking, I have something to say, and I can understand what others are saying.

To me, speaking from day one, in other words forcing people to speak right away, is  like asking people to sing who have never heard a song, play tennis who have never seen a tennis game, or swim who have never seen a person swim. What’s the hurry? It is much easier to start speaking when we are somewhat familiar with the language. Focusing on comprehension is less stressful and more pleasant than forcing oneself to speak.

Here is a discussion on the subject with Martin Weiss, American polyglot, who has a different point of view. What is your personal opinion? Feel free to share in the comments!

27 May 2014

Can English speakers learn languages?

Of course English speakers can learn languages, but mostly  they don’t. Why? Here is a guest article I wrote on the subject recently for an interesting new blog on language learning called Lingholic. 

This blog belongs to Sam, a fellow Canadian polyglot who lives in Ottawa. He manages to combine his passion for learning languages, his blog and a full time job. With this growing army of language bloggers, the world is slowly becoming more open to the joys of learning languages, or at least I hope so!

learning_headphones (500x334)

29 April 2014

Interleaved learning, or learning without pressure

Interleaved learning is an approach to learning that departs from the traditional block or focused approach to learning. Interleaved learning and the research behind it, is based on the idea that if we should not focus on learning or mastering one skill or set of information, such as a limited group of words in a foreign language.  Instead , we should move on to other skills and bits of information, and then come back to the first group of skills or information later.

Research shows that, in the short term, the block learner does better. In the long run, the interleaved learner retains more. See some interesting examples. 

Here are a couple of videos on this and how this relates to learning languages at LingQ.

17 April 2014

The 90-Day Challenge: A Final Review

My 90-Day Challenge has come to an end! A period of increased learning intensity brought me new momentum in my Korean, and taught me some new learning habits. I can’t say I am fluent, but I feel confident I can become fluent if I keep going. In that sense I achieved my most important goal. It was worth the effort.

Congratulations to all the participants who shared this great learning journey with me and made a breakthrough in their languages!