Interview with A.J. Hoge of Effortless English

Successful language learning doesn’t depend on the study and grammar nor writing tests like TOEIC and TOEFL, although these are popular in Japan. What is needed is sustained engagement with compelling and comprehensible input, as well as a little encouragement. This is what A.J. Hoge of Effortless English provides. Here is an interview I did with him on my recent trip to Osaka



Steve: Well, here we are in Osaka, Japan with A.J. Hoge. Hi, A.J. You go by the name A.J.?


A.J.: Yeah, yeah.


Steve: It’s not Anthony or Albert or anything else?


A.J.: No. My real name is Allan, but A.J.


Steve: All right. We’ve never met, but we’ve known each other for what, 10 years?


A.J.: It’s been longer than that. I think it is 13 or 14.


Steve: Thirteen or 14 years.


A.J.: Aha.


Steve: Effortless English.


A.J.: Yes.


Steve: Is it still Effortless English?


A.J.: Yes, it’s still Effortless English.


Steve: All right. So A.J. and I, we share a lot of views on language learning.


A.J.: Hum…


Steve: It’s, of course, not effortless.


A.J.: No.


Steve: But if you enjoy it you’re not forcing yourself to do something.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: You’re looking for ways to enjoy it and, particularly, when you actually go to use the language you’re not worried about what you get wrong or what you forget.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: That way, you’re enjoying it. You’re engaging with the language and stuff.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: And A.J. is a user of LingQ.


A.J.: Absolutely. Yes, big fan.

Steve Kaufmann

Steve: Thank you. And you have a channel on YouTube.


A.J.: Yes, just my name.


Steve: Just your name.


A.J.: A.J. Hoge.


Steve: A.J. Hoge.


A.J.: Aha.


Steve: Do you have other activities like a blog?


A.J.: I do. is my main website, but really YouTube and then the audio part is a podcast. It’s the same show.


Steve: It’s the same show, but it’s a podcast.


A.J.: Yeah.


Steve: Okay. You help your English learners (A) with English because, first of all, it’s spoken in English?


A.J.: Yes.


Steve: It’s spoken very clearly without being, you know, deliberately sort of slowed down. But you enunciate clearly, which not all native speakers do.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: To say the least. So the message there is both that they get sort of key vocabulary and structure, but also a lot of encouragement.


A.J.: Yes.


Steve: And you’re very popular.


A.J.: Yes, oh thank you.


Steve: And a number of your followers were very happy to hear that we were going to get together.


A.J.: Yes, indeed. I think there’s a lot of like cross-pollination between the two, yes.


Steve: Can you explain? So you are going to be living in Japan now for the foreseeable future?


A.J.: Yes. My wife is Japanese, so we’ve been doing long visits here 


Steve: Right.


A.J.: And we’ve just had two babies and we’ve decided we’re going to raise them up here.


Steve: Okay.


A.J.: So now I’m in Japan, yeah. We have an apartment here in Osaka and we’re going to stay.


Steve: We were commenting on how nice it is here.


A.J.: It’s wonderful.


Steve: The level of service, the politeness. How gentle, in a way. It’s very, very pleasant up here. I mean, every country has its pluses and minuses and I’m sure there are minuses in Japan too, but there are many, many pluses. It’s a very pleasant place to live, despite how crowded it is everywhere.


A.J.: Yeah, right.


Steve: So what is the A.J. philosophy when it comes to language learning?


A.J.: The idea, the name Effortless English.


Steve: Right.


A.J.: Actually, it’s kind of similar to your book.


Steve: Right.


A.J.: It was also inspired by the Taoist idea.


Steve: Right.


A.J.: The rue way kind of. The idea was effortless effort, but it was kind of a clunky name, so I just thought Effortless English.


Steve: Right.


A.J.: But the idea is that, of course, on one hand it’s a lot of effort, a lot of time to learn English or any language. But the idea is you can be something, spending a lot of effort, for example, exercising. People who love exercising, on one hand, they’re physically working very hard, but it can be something that feels very enjoyable. It’s that kind of flow state where you feel like, well, this is enjoyable. It feels effortless, in a way.


Steve: Right. Explain again the flow concept.


A.J.: So the flow idea being that you’re enjoying what you’re doing. You’re so focused on what you’re doing. It’s a feeling of almost forgetting time a little bit and you don’t feel that you’re making this tortuous, difficult, painful effort, right?


Steve: Right.


A.J.: Which is what school feels like. 


Steve: Right. I’ve looked a little bit at this flow theory and there’s a Hungarian with an unpronounceable name.


A.J.: Yes, that’s right. 


Steve: Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly or something like that.


A.J.: Yeah.


Steve: But the idea is you’re doing something that is a little difficult.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: It’s not too easy. People stay with simple stories all the time. If never push themselves to harder stories, for example in language learning, then they won’t achieve that sense of flow. They’ll keep a sense of boredom.


A.J.: Right, then you get bored. There’s the stress on the one side and kind of boredom on the other.


Steve: Exactly. It’s finding that sweet spot where it’s a little bit difficult, but you feel you can do it.


A.J.: Yeah.


Steve: And then you find that you are doing it. You’ve climbed the mountain. One of the problems that sort of first language learners have is they don’t have the confidence that they’re going to get there.


A.J.: Yeah.


Steve: So they’re climbing this mountain and all they feel is the hard work and the sweat without any real confidence that they’re going to reach the top of the mountain.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: I think what you do is you give a lot of them that sense of confidence that they can make it and that they shouldn’t worry. You know, they’re climbing the mountain and a few rocks fall on their head. Don’t worry about it, keep climbing.


A.J.: Exactly. Exactly that, yes. So many people, especially with English because around the world people are mostly learning English in schools, they’ve had all these years of bad tests and grades and memorizing. It’s all kind of stressful and it creates a mindset that is so focused on, oh, what level am I right now.


Steve: Yeah, what level am I, B1, B2.


A.J.: Right and then getting all stressed out about it and totally forgetting that I can just enjoy this language. I can listen to things that are interesting. One thing I’m doing, we have a book club and a movie club and so once a week I’ll do a video. We choose a book and we all read the chapter and then I talk about it and discuss it. The idea is to get people interested in and fascinated with the book that maybe before they thought, oh, it’s too hard to read. We did Brave New World.


Steve: Wow.


A.J.: Which is fairly tough.


Steve: Right.


A.J.: For some people if it’s too tough they can just watch our videos and get a lot of the ideas of it.


Steve: So you talk about this on your YouTube channel and in your podcast, which is the same. Where do you then go through the book?


A.J.: Well, I’m doing it very generally. Like I said, like a book club where you’d get together. I’m not going through word by word, so what I encourage people to do is to maybe watch the video first.


Steve: Right.


A.J.: I give an overview of the chapter and I’ll pick out some of the vocab a little bit and then I’ll say go try to read it.


Steve: Oh, okay. So you encourage them to go off and do it. They aren’t necessarily interacting with each other.


A.J.: Right. Well, there’s a live chat so they can ask questions.


Steve: During the video.


A.J.: Yeah, like a live stream.


Steve: Yeah. Okay, very good.


A.J.: So they’ll ask questions about different things or they just want to have a discussion about the ideas of the book.


Steve: That’s really good. I mean, the thing about language is it’s a form of exploration.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: So they’re exploring whatever movie or book you’re exploring with them or helping them explore.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: You did some Spanish, then you went and did the Camino in Spain as a form of exploration. You were living in Japan learning Japanese and exploring.


A.J.: Yes.


Steve: So we shouldn’t get too hung up about what our level is, but just to kind of keep exploring. 


A.J.: Yes, indeed. Absolutely. That’s what makes it enjoyable. As I was telling you before, my experience in Spain with the Camino was so much more rich. If we have to talk about level, B1 I’d say was probably where I was at. But so what? It was so wonderful just to chat with people and it was a great feeling. You know, call up and get reservations and function in Spanish there, even at a low level.


Steve: But you have a sense of achievement. 


A.J.: I have a sense of achievement and now we’re planning on going to Spain again, maybe in a year or two with the family and I’ll keep going with it.


Steve: A question. What is the sort of age of the members of your group; call it people who follow you on YouTube?


A.J.: It’s kind of similar to what you were talking about. I have a few younger folks, but it is more I’d say in the thirties and forties. 


Steve: Thirties and forties.


A.J.: Yeah.


Steve: That’s what we find as well at LingQ, thirties and forties.


A.J.: Yeah.


Steve: We will end on that note. I’m beginning to feel that this whole idea of life-long learning, the people who do LingQ are in that age group and 50, 60 and 70. 


A.J.: Sure.


Steve: Life-long learning is where it is. I mean, language learning doesn’t have to be language learning. My wife likes piano, for example. Learning doesn’t end at university.


A.J.: Right.


Steve: It’s something we want to be doing all our lives. So on that note, we’re about to go off to dinner. Mark is coming down from Tokyo. So I’m very happy to have finally had a chance to see you.


A.J.: Finally.


Steve: Bye for now. 

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