A New Age for Language Students, Teachers and Schools
Steve: Hi, Lindsay. I’ll let you have a glass of water because you’re going to be doing a lot of talking. I’m very happy to be able to talk to Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages and maybe you can start by explaining what it is that you do.
Lindsay: Okay. Thank you very much, Steve. Hello, I’m Lindsay, as Steve said. What I do is quite a mixture of things. I teach languages, I teach English, French and Spanish, but I also learn them myself. That’s my main passion, the learning side of things. Right now, I’m learning Korean and trying to keep up a little bit of Japanese, as well. I recently finished Esperanto, which is quite interesting because I started it a lot later than those languages, yet I feel so much more advanced already, which goes to show the whole ‘no language is created equal’ theory. Also, in each of those languages I blog, I make videos about language. It’s pretty much everything in my life, language, language, language.
Steve: Okay, we’ll leave a link in the description box here to the video so people can come and visit you. Now, question. First of all, let me say that having learned a bunch of languages that languages are not equal in term of their level of difficulty, as you say. It all depends on the language we start from, but I’m finding Korean a challenge. Even though I speak Chinese and I speak Japanese, Korean is difficult. We can get into that later on, perhaps, in the discussion — what makes a language difficult. No question that after Russian and Czech then Ukrainian becomes easier. For French speakers, Spanish is easier. So they’re not all equally difficult, no question, but my question is this.
I think we have a tendency to think of English-speaking countries, that includes, of course, the UK, Canada and so forth, as countries where people are less interested in learning other languages either because they’re less intelligent, which is probably not the case, most people are equally intelligent, on average, or because they just don’t feel the need. And, typically, people from smaller countries, smaller languages feel a greater need to learn. If you go to Japan, Russia or Spain, mind you, the Germans are pretty good. So the question is this. How keen are people in the UK on learning languages, is a big part of your job trying to motivate them or are there a lot of motivated people who just need your help?
Lindsay: That’s a very good question. Before I did Lindsay Does Languages, I worked in a secondary school. I was a Learning Support Assistant primarily in the Language Department and I would take out small groups to teach them. If they wouldn’t pick up as much in the class, I’d teach them at a slower rate myself and it was always a challenge within the main language classroom in secondary school.
Bear in mind, a lot of the time this was the first exposure people had had to languages. When I was working in schools it wasn’t compulsory. I think it was in 2014 they actually made it compulsory to learn a language in primary school and a very interesting thing is that it’s actually very open. They say any language living or dead. They have to learn a language, a different language to English within primary school, which is really interesting because it then creates this difference that you have when people then go to secondary school and they start, generally, with French or Spanish, occasionally German, maybe something else.
It was the same problem when I was that age, as well. I had had French back in primary school as a kind of extracurricular thing, but then going to secondary you start from the beginning. You’re coming from all these different schools and no one knows where you’re at and so the teachers then have this quite difficult job, granted, of trying to bring everyone to the same point. What happens there is you’re 11 years old and your teachers are talking to you as if you’re four. You know, dog, cat, green, blue, all of that stuff and it’s taught in a very primary manner, very simplistic. You go into maths lessons and you’re learning trigonometry for the first time and then in French you’re still learning I like football.
I think a big reason sort of on the official education side of things is that it’s not very inspiring, perhaps. That’s by no means most teachers. There are some fantastic language teachers out there. But then, also, as you say, coming from an English-speaking country where the need is seen as less.
Steve: A couple of reactions. If you’re in Sweden, most kids by the time they reach secondary school already speak English because they’ve been watching English-language television programs, English-language movies, listening to English pop music and so forth. Another thing, too, I often question the relative importance of the classroom versus other factors.
I’ll give you another example. My grandchildren are in French immersion. French immersion in Canada is a situation where English-speaking kids in a place like Vancouver where there are no French speakers to speak of do all their schooling in French. The late immersion kids who start in grade 7 or grade 8, they catch up right away. So they’re in a classroom studying history, chemistry, whatever it might be, maybe getting a little extra help, but they’re doing it in French. They’re in there with a group of kids who started doing this from grade 1 and they catch up right away. It’s interesting.
It gets back to your point. Maybe in high school in Britain instead of teaching them this is a dog, if they actually gave them something that was more challenging to do and more interesting they might advance more quickly.
Lindsay: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I completely agree with that. Like I mentioned briefly, now it’s compulsory in primary school and it’s very open. They’ll say you learn a language. Primarily, it’s going to be French, it’s going to be Spanish.
There’s one company, I think they’re called Springboard to Languages, they teach Esperanto and their whole kind of ethos is, well, in primary school kids learn the recorder. Not to create a nation of recorder players, but to create kids who understand the basics of music. They teach Esperanto with that mindset of this isn’t so that everyone speaks Esperanto, it’s so that people are exposed from a young age to other languages. I think that is what’s needed and that, hopefully, is now beginning to change in the last couple of years with that introduction.
Steve: Now, question. I’m in favor of giving kids choice. I’m against the idea that in Canada, say in Vancouver, everyone has to learn French. Even though French is an official language, the reality is they will probably not have much use for French and if they were more motivated to learn Chinese or Spanish why wouldn’t they be able to learn that language. The counter argument from the schools always is we don’t have qualified, accredited teachers in that language. My answer always is there are so many resources available it doesn’t matter, if you have a motivated language coach who knows how to help kids access all this stuff.
So what do they do in Britain, how would they deal with this fact? The kid says, okay, I want to learn Japanese and the school says we don’t have a Japanese teacher, then what?
Lindsay: That’s pretty much what happens, so then the kids won’t get schooled in Japanese. For example, my partner is a primary school teacher and they have French at their school. They have a French teacher who comes in I think one day a week and teaches each class one by one their French lesson for the week and that’s the way it goes. It may be that a teacher that already works at a school studied Latin, for example, when they were at school 30-40 years ago and they’re like, oh, I’ve got some Latin, then they might teach Latin if the school can’t find an external teacher to come in and do it. So there are occasions where it would vary like that, but it’s very rare I think that the child would get the choice. Again, like you say, because of that lack of teachers.
Steve: But you said they were allowed to choose whatever they wanted.
Lindsay: Oh, no, the school is allowed to choose.
Steve: Oh, the school is allowed to choose. Again, it always annoys me that everything that happens in language learning is dictated by the teacher. Let’s say you had a skill, within the teaching profession you had people who knew where to find resources on the internet, let’s say Japanese. There are going to be children in the UK who are interested in anime, who are interested in some aspect of Japanese culture. Even at the age of 10 those people exist.
Let’s say that the initial course was to start to show them some of the things they can do in different languages, which might be Swahili, Japanese, Russian, whatever, and then the kid says I’m interested in Japanese. Then the teacher chooses to say, well, here are some resources you can use that you can listen to, that you can do stuff with.
Maybe you have to pool the human resources within the teaching community. So a teacher at school A is a coordinator, coach, motivator, but she’s able to access some other more specific resources, Japanese language resources that are available in Yorkshire or somewhere. I come across this here. Again, if we don’t have a teacher in our school who can teach Japanese you can’t have Japanese, which in today’s day and age strikes me as very backward looking.
Lindsay: I think that’s a fantastic point and I love that idea of having someone who gives the child the resources because everything now is so much easier. Like you say, with the internet and everything it’s so easy, as well, for a child. A child picks up an iPad and they know exactly what to do with it, so if you’ve got a Japanese app installed on the iPad the child is going to know exactly what to do and they’re going to learn Japanese.
Yeah, it is so easy. It should be the case that the child can say I want to learn this language. I’m intrigue by that. I love this aspect of that culture or I love that food. Just something small that they’ve picked up on, even from a young age, that they can then drawn on and learn a language from. I would like to think that that is something that will change. You asked at the beginning is it a case of the students in the UK already there or am I kind of having to motivate and I’ve always felt very passionate about that idea of inspiring language learning with what I do and I hope that comes across. I hope that I do inspire people.
Steve: Well, you know, there’s always this sort of dilemma. On the one hand, sort of the learner-centered approach says that the learner, not just kids, should have the freedom to choose what to learn, how to learn, but the reality is most people don’t want that degree of freedom. Most people like to be directed. I always find as a learner that the teacher is like, here, you have to read this story and then you have to answer my questions on this story, so we’re dancing to the tune that’s dictated by the teacher.
There has to be some kind of balance between freedom and people being motivated by what interests them. The fact is the teacher is like a shepherd. You have the lagers, so they need be herded along with the others. So some kind of more of a role of a motivator, coordinator, providing some guidance and direction, but where possible allowing people to do what they want to do rather than forcing them, which gets me to the subject of Esperanto.
Some people say if you learn Latin, then you can learn the other romance languages. I always say why not start with Spanish because it’s more interesting than Latin, for most people, unless you’re interested in ancient Rome. Personally, because I have yet to meet a resident of Esperantia, I’m more motivated to learn another language and with every language you learn, of course, you get better at learning languages. Maybe Esperanto is faster, but the effort you put into learning Spanish, Russian and Korean is also going to prepare you for then learning other languages. So I think Esperanto should be part of the mix, but I would not like to see a situation where the school says, okay, in primary school everyone does Esperanto because we think that’s good. I would not be in favor of that.
Lindsay: That’s very interesting. The only reason I learnt Esperanto is I met some friends, probably last year, who spoke Esperanto. I then found a book last year and I thought, oh, this is kind of falling into my lap. It was on Duolingo and I was like let’s get Duolingo again, let’s see how this goes. That was it.
As I was going through the course there were things like I would like to order a pizza or whatever and you’re thinking I would never be in a situation where I’m in a restaurant, me, a waiter or waitress and the only common language we’d have is Esperanto. Where’s that going to happen because, like you say, you have yet to meet a native speaker of Esperanto. Of course, there are native speakers now, well, probably not just now, probably over the past few decades even.
But, yeah, I did find that as I was working I’m thinking this is cool and it’s very interesting that I’m picking this up. It’s a new language and it’s happening so fast, but I couldn’t see an opportunity in my life when I would use it, which was curious.
Steve: For example, it depends how we’re motivated. If I hear a foreign language around me, my ears prick up and I want to go over there and see if I can talk to them. If I’m on an airplane, I’m always hoping the person sitting beside me with be a speaker of some other language.
Now, for example, with my Ukrainian I’ve been listening to some really interesting stuff about Ukrainian history in Ukrainian and I do the same with Polish, it doesn’t matter, Chinese. When I started learning Chinese, you get involved in this whole phenomenal world of China, its history and stuff like that. To that extent it may be that I could learn Esperanto very quickly, but I’m just not motivated. However, for those who are motivated that’s fine. All I’m saying is to impose that as sort of all kids shall learn Esperanto in the primary school, personally, I wouldn’t think that would be such a great idea.
Lindsay: I can see that. I can see why.
Steve: By the way, you have experienced Duolingo. You should get on LingQ sometime and work on your Korean, for example.
Steve: Although, Korean is a tough one on LingQ. What I find so difficult in Korean is there are so many words that have so many different meanings. I look them up in my Naver Dictionary and I’m no further ahead. In fact, we have a Korean girl in the office. For three months here we had this LingQ Academy Live where we got a learner from Taiwan, a learner from Korea and a learner from Hungary and we’re interacting with them and working on their English and stuff. She’s going to help me with my Korean and I’ve got a list of words that I’ve saved in LingQ where the Naver, which is an excellent dictionary, provides no clue at all as to what the meaning is.
Lindsay: Oh, wow!
Steve: I find that in other languages the dictionary is pretty good. Depending on which language, you’ll find the dictionary that you like the best and we link up to it at LingQ and I’m working my way through the text and I understand it. But Korean, to that extent, is more difficult.
Lindsay: It is because you do feel that kind of, well, I’ve learnt this language so now it’s going to be easy from here on. I’ve learnt X number of languages, so I know what I’m doing now. But, yet, Korean has been interesting. I don’t know. I’m wary to say it’s the hardest language I’ve ever learnt. I always kind of hold that to German because at the time when I learnt German, everything before had been a romance language. Then all of a sudden it was cases and I’m thinking hang on a minute, what is a case. It really took a long time for me to get my head around that concept, but once I got it it was easy. So maybe in that sense Korean is now taking over German as that title for me as the hardest one I’ve looked at.
Steve: Can I ask what your motivation was to learn Korean.
Lindsay: To learn Korean?
Lindsay: I have a friend, Shannon, who has a language blog and we wanted to learn a language together. She had some resources for Korean, I have nothing. I’m going completely from sort of free resources that are available, whereas she’s got some books and dictionaries and all of this stuff. There’s kind of this interesting contrast, so we wanted to learn it together. She lives in California on the other side of the world, so it’s a nice way that we can connect and study together in that sense.
Steve: Right, right. In the case of Korean, we have some beginner material at LingQ and then I went to the Talk to Me in Korean material available. Are you familiar with Talk to Me in Korean?
Lindsay: Yes, it’s very good.
Steve: So I used a bunch of that. Now, a lot of members have contributed content in our library in Korean and then as I advanced in Korean I needed something with more substance, so I found two podcasts which I paid a lady to transcribe. So I’m now learning from those, but they’re just a little difficult for me. I struggle to find something that’s kind of intermediate, even slightly advanced intermediate, yet interesting.
Like with Ukrainian, I found all this interesting stuff about Ukrainian history and the same with Russian, Czech and so forth. So part of it is finding interesting material because that will motivate you to fight your way through all the vagueness and uncertainty and stuff like that.
Lindsay: Definitely. I think one of the big mistakes I made was when I started Japanese I started with a tutor straightaway and it was a fantastic tutor. I learnt so much, I was able to put together really kind of basic sentences and then questions and it expanded.
So with Korean I thought I’ll do the same thing, I’ll get a tutor early on. I’ll get speaking, it will work. We spent about seven-eight lessons on pronunciation and I was bored to tears. I’m not someone that can study pronunciation for a prolonged period of time. I made that mistake and from the beginning it became not as fun, so I had to then kind of almost shake things up, restart, make it fun and find things that did work for me. I think I’m getting there now in that sense.
Steve: See, that’s interesting. My approach is I’m going to have so much trouble pronouncing at the beginning that I don’t worry about trying to pronounce or trying to say anything until my brain has become much more familiar with the language. The fact of the matter is we don’t hear the pronunciation. We don’t hear it, how can we reproduce it if we can’t hear it. It’s interesting.
The reason I know we don’t hear it is one of the functions we have at LingQ is dictation, where if you save a bunch of phrases you can then review these phrases one by one in sort of cards and there’s text to speech. So you hear it and then you’ve got to type it out in Polish and what I thought I heard and what was actually said were two different things. We really have to train ourselves to actually hear what’s said, in my view, before we can hope to be able to pronounce it. Once we hear it better, then we have a better chance of pronouncing it correctly.
Normally, I don’t even worry about pronunciation until several months. I don’t really worry that much about output until I have built up a certain amount of vocabulary. To that extent even the cases, say with German or Russian, normally there’s sort of a redundancy of words so that, in most situations, you can figure out the meaning like 70-80% clearly, somewhat vaguely, without really being able to nail the cases. So you can read stuff, it has meaning, it’s interesting, more or less, then once you become familiar with certain patterns, you then go back in and really try to understand how the cases work. You now have some experience, something to refer to. Otherwise, you start from ground zero and you’re trying to remember case endings and stuff like that.
To my mind, I think the emphasis on output, pronunciation, all those things too early, for me at any rate, is unnecessary pressure. I prefer to sort of get it in, get it in and now I’m really ready to go for output and pronunciation.
Lindsay: Yeah, it is a pressure and I think it’s a pressure easily can flow you. If you’re really trying and you just can’t because, like you say, you can’t hear it in those early stages, then why would you carry on. I do prefer that idea of almost the input, sort of absorbing the language and kind of getting familiar and then gaining confidence with that. It’s quite refreshing to hear someone else.
Steve: People underestimate the difficulty of remembering things. People think because I learned how to say buenos dias, como estas that I’m going to remember. I can say it once or twice, then when I’m all of a sudden confronted with someone where I have to say even the most basic things like buenos dias, como estas all of a sudden I’m frozen and that’s just something very simple like hello, how are you. It’s so difficult to remember things. In fact, my view is that we don’t remember them, we gradually get used to them.
I see so many people, say friends of mine, who have been studying Spanish and they still can’t get past the most basic phrases and expressions because all they’re trying to do is to train themselves to produce these phrases, whereas if they devoted the same amount of time and effort into initially getting to a stage where they actually could read a novel in Spanish.
We use LingQ to access the text, but they can use online dictionaries, import these as eBooks. There are so many different ways that you can engage with the content and just have this very pleasant involvement with the language and at a certain point you say, okay, now I’m going to go after speaking. Then you’ve got some point of reference, some experience, some confidence, comprehension.
How can you even talk to someone if you don’t understand what they’re saying? That’s why I’m kind of that way oriented rather than hoping in a short time… Like Korean, you can go at Korean for a year before you start speaking. I find it very difficult to understand people with far less effort in Ukrainian. I can listen to a Ukrainian history professor talk about what happened a million years ago and in Korean people are saying stuff that I know and I can’t pick it out.
At any rate, the main thing is to motivate people. So a quick question here because it’s very topical — Brexit. Sitting here in Canada, we have this impression of a country that’s basically split down the middle.
Lindsay: That would be correct.
Steve: You hear that so and so is having buyer’s remorse and they were lied to and stuff, I don’t believe that. I think that the majority of those people who voted to leave want to leave. Even though there might be a million people in Trafalgar Square and five million people who signed a petition, basically, if there are however many, 60 million people in the UK, they don’t all vote, but 30 million people want to leave and 30 million people want to stay. To what extent does any of this effect interest in language learning?
Lindsay: That’s a very good question. It’s difficult because for me in my kind of social sphere, if you like, I guess I was in this bubble before it happened. Most of my friends and acquaintances are quite language-oriented and quite internationally-oriented, so I was seeing all of this huge support for Remain and then the very occasion of seeing a news story related to the Leave Party like they’re bus and all the lies on their bus.
All of these silly stories and you think, oh my goodness, this is ridiculous. They’re never going to win. Then you see the polls coming out, they’re close and you think, ooh, hang on a minute. Surely not this many people can disagree. You do feel very strongly about the idea that I’m right and they’re wrong. Of course that’s not necessarily the case, but it built this huge tension that I think is still present after the result, definitely, and it made me realize something about myself and my own language learning that I’d like to mention.
First, if someone said to me name one reason why you learn languages it would be tolerance. It would be to understand people, to understand other people that are different to me and it gives me a level of tolerance towards them. This whole Brexit thing has made me realize that, which I’m grateful for. Obviously, this vote is representative of how our country feels. Whether or not, like you say, people are having buyer’s remorse and they’re feeling I should have voted to remain and I voted to leave, I didn’t think this would happen, it is representative that there is a percentage of this country that does feel a strong desire to “make Britain great again” and take our country back.
I think by that there is a feeling of English, English is the language. Of course this alone in itself isn’t true, even if you take immigration out of the question. The British Isles is a multilingual nation. We have multiple languages that are spoken natively to this land, but again I think that’s unrecognized. Cornwall and Wales received a lot of EU funding, a lot of support, as well, in terms of language rights, what happens now to those languages that were getting support from the EU. That’s one side of the language effects of Brexit.
The other side that’s now beginning to come out is will English be an official language within the EU if Britain leaves and I think the answer to that is yes because you’ve got countries like Ireland and Malta where English is quite prominent, but this has been questioned. So it will have an effect on a wide scale, but in terms of individual language learning I would like to think that it would encourage people to learn languages. Perhaps not even as a result of Brexit, but as a result of the even more recent kind of racial tensions that seem to have appeared since the result, which I think is horrific.
Maybe people are now beginning to feel we need to be united as native Brits, as people that are immigrants to this land that live alongside us and contribute to our society, we need to unite with people. Maybe that will have a positive effect and it will inspire people to pick up languages and to learn community languages even more so, perhaps. Then, of course, as I said, there is a percentage of Leave supporters that I believe don’t feel that way and very, very strongly don’t feel that way, but I don’t think that Brexit has impacted their thoughts. I think, possibly for a long time, they have felt that same way and felt English only. This is our land, speak English.
Steve: There are some interesting contradictions. You mentioned Cornwall and Wales, I’ve been following it and both Cornwall and Wales, if I’m not mistaken, voted quite heavily in favor of Leave.
Lindsay: Yeah and within a day, two days, were saying we still want our funding. It was like hang on a minute.
Steve: Well, yeah, they want their funding, but for a variety of things not necessarily just for language. It’s interesting. The votes are two areas of the UK, more so in Wales than in Cornwall, with a still surviving, call it regional language, they voted to leave. Another interesting thing is there are over a million Brits who live on the continent, retired or otherwise or who have homes there, and a very small minority of those actually bother learning French or Spanish. Those are people who actually have an opportunity, day-to-day exposure to the language that surrounds them and they still live in their little island.
Lindsay: I would say that’s where the attitude comes in of, oh well, if I’m going to live in Spain then I’ll pick it up.
Lindsay: I feel like there’s a certain level of that, especially if people aren’t used to language learning and they’re not kind of obsessed like we are.
Steve: Like we are, yeah.
Lindsay: It might be a case of, oh well, if I go and live in a country I’m going to learn the language, I wouldn’t need to make an effort, which of course is incorrect.
Steve: I think that’s a very important point. Something that maybe in a subsequent discussion we could get into is that people underestimate how much I wouldn’t say effort, it’s effort, yes, it’s time, it’s commitment, but how much is involved in learning a language. We have the same here amongst immigrants. In many cases, whatever level of English they arrive with that’s about what they’ll have after three, four or five years, especially within certain groups where there are a lot of them, like the Chinese for example.
Obviously, if you are Albanian there are not too many Albanians here so you’re going to have to learn English, but if you’re Chinese, you can live in Chinese. So then the attitude is, well, once I get a job then I’ll learn. But, in fact, (A) they don’t get a very good job because they can’t speak English very well and then, in fact, their language basically plateaus. I’ve seen this. I know people, not only Brits, Swedes and others who live in Spain or in France, and they kind of half sort of feel they should try to learn, but then they go off and play golf and don’t worry about it. They think they can kind of pick it up. They can order food in a restaurant, so they’re happy.
The thing is it does take a lot of deliberate effort. It takes a strategy. You have to find out what resources are there. Again, I get back to this idea of language coaches not only in school, but even for lifelong learners, people like you who can advise people, direct them to the appropriate resources, motivate them. That’s almost more important than finding a tutor in Toulouse or Malaga. You’ll go a few times and then you’ll lose interest and you won’t learn much. So I’m a big believer in this language coach familiar with resources who could recommend a strategy, keep people motivated and then people have to go and do it, basically.
Lindsay: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, I teach online and a huge part I see of my job is also, look, we’re together for one hour a week, you’re not going to learn Spanish, you’re not going to learn French in a year. You need to also put in your own time and your own effort. Sometimes it works. Sometimes a student will be committed and they will make real progress, but sometimes it doesn’t. You can generally tell quite early on because it’s a level of motivation that you can sense.
I’ll often work with students in guidance and say here are some great resources you can use in the week. We’ve got some vocab we’ve learned today, put this into sentences in your own time. Set some time aside each day so that you’re keeping this up. I think the risk and I’ve definitely been guilty of this, too, is when you get a tutor you’re almost like I’ve logged on to Skype, I’ve pressed call, teach me.
Lindsay: You sort of almost sit back and expect them to just tell you and absorb. No, not going to happen.
Steve: No. Worse than that, not only does the learner become passive saying teach me, the learner says, okay, I’ve spent the money, I’ve devoted an hour a week. I’ve done my thing, so I can tick that off.
Lindsay: Here are the results, yes.
Steve: I’m learning Spanish, okay, now I can go on and do something else. I was once at a conference in Germany called [Insert German], Language and Professions, and there was a survey done of people who were studying English, let’s say, in German companies because the German employer, they spend a lot of money on language learning. They found that, on average, the amount of time per week that the professional sort of employee learner spends on language learning outside the hour of instruction was one and a half hours a week.
Now, in my experience of learning languages, one and a half hours a week is not enough to really make any progress whatsoever. So I guess your job and mine is to motivate people to put in more than an hour and a half a week into learning new languages, if they want to get there.
Lindsay: Absolutely, yeah.
Steve: We could probably talk for hours, but we’re already at 36 minutes and I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. So I’m going to shut off the recorder and we can have a few more minutes of discussion, if you wouldn’t mind.
Lindsay: Okay. Thank you very much, Steve.
Steve: Thank you and thank you for all those listening and I will leave a link to Lindsay Does Languages in the description box. Bye.
Lindsay: Bye, thank you.