Language Learning Progress has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  The original video was published on August 13, 2013

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I want to talk about how we can make progress. How do we progress in language learning? To me, the answer is very simple. Keep moving. Move forward, that’s what progress means. Move forward, advance. Let me explain what I mean.


We often get at LingQ learners who come on and they tell me that they’ve been listening to the same lesson 30, 40, 50 times and they’ve been doing this over a period of months. They’re trying very hard to make sure that they learn the lesson, but there’re still parts of it they don’t understand and parts of it they keep forgetting and so forth and what should they do. Well, my answer is move on to something else. Don’t stay at one lesson and listen to it 30 or 40 times. You want to advance, advance. Move forward.


When I start in a language, yes, I will listen to very simple content less than a minute long, 30 seconds long, and I’ll listen to it 10-20 times, maybe not all at once. A lot of our beginner lessons at LingQ are part of a series so there might be 20 of them. So I might listen to one of them twice, three or four times, then do the second one, the third one and the fourth one, always listening two, three, four or five times, then go back to the first one again. The immediate challenge in a language is to even pick out where one word ends and the next word begins. It’s all sort of indiscriminate noise at first, but as you progress, as you can at least tell where the words begin or a previous word ends, you are now ready to start moving a little more quickly, in my opinion.


I say in my opinion because we all have to decide how we want to learn. I can only share with you what works for me and what I think is good and if I think it’s good for me, I’m inclined to think it’s good for other people. There are lots of polyglots who are very successful and who have different methods and you should listen to them all and find those things they have in common or those things that work for you, but I only talk about what works for me and what I think is good.


Beginning language acquisition

I think it’s good to listen a lot at the beginning, maybe for a month, but not 20 times on one lesson. Maybe have a simple series of lessons which could be from a beginner series like Teach Yourself. It doesn’t have to be our program at LingQ. Listen two, three, four times to lesson one and then move on to lesson two and do the same on three and so forth. You can always go back. You should go back.


I think we have this idea in school that we kind of go from lesson one to two to three and if we don’t learn it while we’re on lesson one we’ll never learn it. That’s just not true. You have to keep on going back. In fact, it’s very difficult to learn it while you’re on that lesson. It’s difficult to learn anything no matter how hard you try. As an example, so many times I’ll think of a word in Russian that I’ve heard many times and I’ll say oh, I’ll go and look it up now because I really want to know what that word means. I’ll do that, I’ll look it up, but I’ll forget it again. How many times have I looked at the declension tables because I’m still struggling with whatever? I go and look it up and oh, yeah. Okay, now I know. Not a day or two later I’ve already forgotten it. You just need so much exposure before these things start to become natural for you, so it’s very important not to stay with one lesson.


One book I often mention which is how the brain learns, I think it’s called Learning, something to do with the brain, but the writer of this book is a neuroscientist called Manfred Spitzer from Germany and there are two quotes that I often use. The first one was “The brain, in order to learn, requires repetition, but it also requires novelty.” Once there’s no more novelty, the brain stops learning. It needs new things. It needs, basically, a mixture of repetition and novelty. If you’re staying with one lesson and trying to force these things into your brain, the novelty aspect is now gone. The Law of Diminishing Returns sets in. You’re learning less and less. You can’t force yourself in that way. Therefore, it’s far better to move along, progress, advance, move forward onto something else.


Those words that you’re trying to learn, if they’re important they will come up again. Meanwhile, you’re stimulating your brain, hopefully, with interesting content. It’s something new and fresh and the brain is now turned on again to try to learn something. It’s so normal to forget, normal not to understand. You don’t have to wait until you understand 100% of the lesson. I’ll move on when I understand 50-60%, but I always go back and it’s very nice when you go back and then you understand more.


I think it’s also a good idea to vary sort of more challenging material, often authentic material, with easy material. So if you’re driven by an interest in political events, history, literature or whatever, music, push yourself. Push the barriers to go to more and more difficult material. You should, occasionally, go back and do easier material. Because when you look at beginner material where you know all the words, you’re able to focus on those structures or problems that you have. So it’s often a good idea to give yourself a break every now and again and go back and do easier material. That was one of the quotes from Manfred Spitzer, we need repetition and we need novelty, new things.


Another quote was “Learning takes place in the brain, not in the classroom.” That’s very important because a lot of our traditional views about how we learned are conditioned by our experience in the classroom. We have to have lesson one and then lesson two and lesson three and we’re going to learn it. We’re going to learn it for the test and then we’ll have it and, of course, it doesn’t work that way. Countless generations of kids have gone through school passing their tests in French, let’s say in the English school system in Canada, they graduate and they can’t speak. So the whole process of learning all this stuff, cramming it for the exam may enable you to pass the exam, but it doesn’t enable you to learn the language.


If we look around the world, most people learn languages outside the classroom. Those countries in Europe where television programs and movies are in the original language, they are better at foreign languages, as a general rule, then those countries where they don’t do that. If you go to Sweden or Holland they all watch TV in English, but there’s no lesson one on the TV. The kid starts watching a cartoon series or whatever it might be, he’s hit with the language and that’s gradually how his familiarity with the language improves.


Of course when you’re learning, you can be a little more purposeful in that because you can listen to things that you can also read, as in our lessons at LingQ you can look up words, you can study the words, but don’t stay too long on the same material. Keep moving yourself forward. The thing about language, too, is unlike other skills, engineering, medicine, music, these are things that, in a way, we have to learn a little more deliberately. Although, my wife and my granddaughter have progressed much more in piano playing since they stopped having to sit down with a teacher once a week. In other words, they’re motivated to learn on their own. They play and they learn.


But, still, the thing about language that makes it different is that language surrounds us. We can get this access to language everywhere. We can find movies. We can find radio. We can find podcasts. Language surrounds us, so it’s not quite the same as learning a specific technique. Even there, credentials, which comes up quite regularly, I think credentials in terms of a teaching credential and so forth is quite irrelevant to language learning or even language teaching. There is no correlation between the credentials of the teacher and the teacher’s success. What matters is the teacher’s experience, ability to communicate, to convey enthusiasm, not necessarily experience, but knowledge of the subject, the ability to encourage and so forth.


So the credentials which govern how to organize a class and some of the things that are taught there are not bad, but it doesn’t necessarily determine who is in a position to help you learn because the learning is not just done in a classroom. So when you go out to try and determine how you should go about learning a language, by all means listen to what teachers have to say, but also check in on some of the other people on the Internet and there are thousands of them who are handing out advice on how to learn a language. I’m by no means the only one.


My advice for today is if you want to move forward, if you want to progress in your language, keep moving forward. Don’t get stuck. Don’t try to nail things down it’s too difficult to do. Eventually, through this exposure to more and more interesting material, to a mixture of repetition and novelty, the brain will start to acquire the language.


So there you have it on how to progress in language learning. Thank you for listening, bye for now.