This video was first published on January, 30th 2012


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here again at my blog The Linguist on Language and, of course, the website Today, I want to talk about something that has been on my mind and it has to do with the importance of good language content. Content is king in language learning. It comes to mind because of some discussions we’ve had on our forum at LingQ and elsewhere or even on my blog. 


For example, people studying Portuguese say I only want European Portuguese or I only want Brazilian Portuguese. Some said they were studying using Pimsleur for Chinese, but it seems to them that the Chinese in Pimsleur is not the way people speak in the street. Of course, I say, if I remember my own learning, it doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that the content somehow be interesting because when you’re starting out in the language, it’s very hard for me at the beginning to tell the difference between someone from Portugal and someone from Brazil. I’m very happy if I can see one, but I’m not entirely sure. What’s more important is that the content be interesting.


I see language learning content as being in two stages. You have the beginner content, which is the Assimil and the Teach Yourself or any kind of beginner content which is necessarily simplified and not so interesting, and then you have most of the time you spend on languages and language learning, which should be with authentic interesting content that you chose because you find it interesting. That beginner period, the best kind of language learning content is interesting stories. Russian Assimil, for example, is much better than Teach Yourself. They have no English on their recordings and the stories are kind of funny for a while. The Korean Assimil was hopeless, I bought it and I didn’t use it because it was just too boring.


A lot of the beginner text they start with phrases, disjointed phrases to illustrate a point of grammar or something or phrases telling you what to say at the post office, the train station and so forth. To me, that’s wrong. That comes later. First, you have to build up an overall level of familiarity with the language, vocabulary and so forth, then you can go back and deal with certain phrase patterns and, hopefully, they will give you a concentrated dose of this type of situation, that type of situation. That can then include wording that you might use in the barber shop, post office and so forth, but until you have built up this general familiarity with the language all of these sorts of specialized targeted-types of scenarios or phrases are very difficult to digest, in my opinion.

Steve Kaufmann

I’m going to talk about what works for me. You can come on here and say everything you want, criticizing me and saying I’m wrong, I don’t mind. I’m happy to have all the different points of view. I won’t block anyone as long as they don’t swear at me, but this is my feeling. 


When I start the ideal is a story, a detective story, a historical story, a love story, anything that has a little bit of interest to it that goes from episode to episode, 30 seconds long, relatively simple language and the sooner you get off that, the better. Another good example was my Brazilian tutor prepared a little diary of her and her kids when they went to the zoo and stuff like that. Simple stuff prepared deliberately using simple language. It doesn’t have to be too slow, but it shouldn’t be too fast and everything you listen to many times. That’s the beginner content, but as soon as you possibly can, get out of that and get into real content, interesting content. 


Now, some people think that the content has to be graded, graded readers gradually more and more difficult. I don’t believe that at all. I think there are two kinds of reading and listening, there is the simple stuff, which might be graded readers, or you might be reviewing simple stuff that you did before and that’s what I would almost call the aerobic part. That’s building up your general aerobic capacity, your fluency in the language, but you also need to do the heavy lifting. Going to stuff where there’s a lot of unknown words, but you’re driven because you’re interested.


That’s what I did very early on in Russian when I was reading Tolstoy. On LingQ I was looking up every second or third word, but I had the audio books so I could fight my way through the chapter and listen to it, read it again, listen to it. I sort of alternated the easy stuff with the difficult stuff. I think you need to do both. It’s good for the brain, in my opinion.


Also, on this whole Brazil versus Portugal, I listen to both. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m trying to build up my ability to understand the language, but if you have some excellent content. Let’s say I’m more interested in European Portuguese because I’m going off to Portugal on a holiday. There is a person called Rubem Alves — I’ll put the name somewhere in the comments here – who is a Brazilian educator. He has put out fabulous audio lectures and I found the text on the Internet which I was able to import into LingQ. He’s tremendous and I’m going to deny myself listening to him because I’m focused on European Portuguese? It doesn’t matter. What matters is how interesting is the content. 


If there were an expert, say in English, on a subject that you were very interested in and that person spoke with an Australian accent, I think you would be foolish not to listen to them if you were interested in that subject because you’ll build up a lot of vocabulary. It’s not going to change how you speak because the bulk of your listening is probably going to still be from whatever accent you found the most attractive, interesting or useful for you. Interest in the content is so key.


It’s a pity, I should have some quotes from Rubem Alves, but one of the things he said was nothing destroys the pleasure of reading as much as having to answer questions about what was in what you read, why someone did something, analyzing the text. Any of those things just destroy the pleasure of reading and they do it all the time. They do it in schools, they do it in literary programs and they do it in language learning. 


For example, here is one of the best sources of good content that I found after about a year or so into my Russian. I happened to find it while I was in Tucson, of all places, in their university bookstore, Advanced Russian through History. Sounds great! It’s got however many lectures, 35 mini lectures taking you from the beginning of Russian history right through to modern times. Great! They make a point of saying that the text is different from the audio, why would they possibly do that? They think that has some pedagogical value. So you read this text, but then they have another little mini lecture about this text which, in fact, is not the same as the text that’s in the book.


Then for the teachers they have here about the learning tasks, a total of 25 tasks. Pre-reading Tasks: Complete before reading the text. Pre-reading Tasks: Read and reflect before reading the text. Reading Tasks: Complete upon successive re-readings of the text. Then Post-reading Tasks: Stuff like locate important places on a map and explain why these places are important. All kinds of stuff that would just destroy, for me, any interest I would have in these texts. 


To me, I just want to read them, ideally, listen to the same as the text and then move on to the next one. Out of a book like this, if we had this at LingQ and I wrote them and said can we put this on LingQ, I would need lots of words relevant to history. They said no. Anyway, that’s one example. The other end of the spectrum was this Korean book with lots of useless grammatical explanations and very little text. So, content, if you are forced and driven by your interest in the content. 


This has been my experience with Czech. I’ve been at it now for six months. I don’t know how many hours a day I put in, maybe one, on average, one, one and a half, two, I don’t know. So let’s say that’s 180 days or hours, 200 hours, I don’t know. I can read the newspaper, depending on the subject of course. If it’s on economics or world politics I can read it, I have lots of words. Now I’m starting to speak, but I’m driven. I can’t go back to the easy stuff because I’m driven by my interest in what’s happening in the Czech Republic, what happened in Czech history, or I’m listening to The Good Soldier Svejk which takes me back to the early twentieth century and so forth and so on.


So interest, content, give people things that are interesting to listen to and read and if you can listen and read, you will learn to speak. Often in talking to Chinese people here, Chinese learners that we have here, immigrants, they say oh, we Chinese, we all read well, but we can’t speak because we don’t speak in class in China and stuff like that. So then I say well, how many of you actually enjoy reading a novel. Well, not very many, in a room of a hundred maybe one. 


So when I say that you have really progressed in terms of your reading that means you can listen to an audio book, listen to the radio, read and understand. One other thing about listening, of course, it doesn’t help to listen to stuff you don’t understand. That’s just noise and that’s why you have to have a deliberate program, which is what I’m doing with my Czech. Whatever I listen to I want the text because if I just listen to it without the text I miss too much. 


Gradually and gradually you build up that familiarity with the language that then enables you to focus on other things and those other things might be grammar. You can get yourself a little grammar book or you can find so much stuff on the Internet. If I Google ‘conjugate Czech verbs’ I get the whole picture, so I don’t even need to buy a book for that. Those are the details you go back and fill-in afterwards, but the big factor to me is content. 


Language learning should be content-driven. How do we get people in touch with things that are of interest to them that they can more or less understand and how do we help them to understand. By giving them access to glossaries, by having a system like LingQ, providing audio and text and let them choose things that are of interest to them. That’s the main thing.


I should say that I’m confirmed in that opinion by the discussion I had with Luca, who is a wonderful polyglot from Rome who now lives in Paris. He speaks extremely well. I think we spoke together in nine languages and I’m going to put it up, by the way, here on my YouTube channel. Unfortunately, the webcam wasn’t working so we’re going to put up two pictures and we’re going to run this discussion we had in English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Russian, Italian and Swedish. But he’s the same way, content. Get the language in you, interesting content. Input is key.


I should plan for these things. I had a bunch of other stuff I wanted to say and I can’t remember, but content is king. Oh, yeah, I just wanted to add that some of the good polyglots you’ll find on YouTube in the blogosphere or whatever like Luca, like Moses, like Richard, they all have their little tricks for moving from input to output and many of them are very valuable. You should look up what Luca says, look up what Moses says. I don’t what Richard says on moving to output.


In my own case, it’s just a natural transition. At a certain point, I feel I’m ready to talk. I’ve started now talking in Czech with _________, our member at LingQ. Maybe the next time I talk with him I’ll record it and put it up here so you can hear me bumble and stumble in Czech. I just keep bumbling and stumbling until I get better. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.


Thanks for listening, bye for now.