What Matters the Most in Language Learning has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I’m going to talk about what really matters in language learning. This thought came to me as I was having lunch just now. I’ve been involved now in this language-learning activity I guess probably about eight or nine years. It all started when I was 55, so 11 years ago, when I decided to really go after learning Cantonese. Since that time, I’ve spent more time and effort on language learning than just about any other equivalent 10-year period.


I wrote a book on the subject of language learning and I think my ideas about what works were much more definite before than they are now. I was much more inclined to say, do this because this is good and this works and I know it works because it works for me. I think now I’ve kind of backed off that a little bit. I still believe in the things that I think work because they work for me, but I recognize that when it comes to language learning the most important thing, what really matters, is you, the learner.


I had someone on my YouTube channel here come at me and say the only way to learn is at the military and diplomat language schools run by I guess the U.S. Army or whomever and any other way doesn’t work or something. I said no, I don’t think so. I said I think it depends on the individual. If you have a motivated learner they will learn anywhere and if the learner is not motivated they won’t learn. Then they came back, you don’t know what you’re talking about, blah, blah, blah.


Actually, I studied with a number of diplomats and military people 40 years ago, I don’t think the teaching methods have improved that much. I’ve seen the products of those systems. I’ve seen the incredible money that the Canadian Federal Government wastes on sending bureaucrats to language school. I heard of one guy who was in the Canadian Aid Agency and spent a whole year on French and then decided he felt he wasn’t quite fluent enough to be sent to a Francophone country so he was sent to an Anglophone country as an aid officer. A fairly senior guy, I presume, so a full year’s salary, full-time study, didn’t learn French in a bilingual country like Canada, didn’t learn it well enough to go and work in a Francophone country. So it all depends on the individual.


I’m sure that at these schools they impose discipline on you, so if you’re not discipline you need to go to a school. I’m sure they do a lot of drilling, but I don’t want to sit in a class and be drilled. It might be good, but the problem with all of those schools is that it takes away your own initiative. Why are we learning the language? Of course, if you’re paid by the Army and they say you shall go and learn a language, then you do whatever they tell you to do. That’s understandable.


If I look at my Czech, for example, I’m sitting there today reading on my iPad. I finished reading an article about the Austro-Hungarian Empire and learning a lot of stuff about Czech history and different personalities in that period. Then I read an interview from Czech radio with someone who heads up the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in the Czech Republic and talked about a number of issues. I’m reading it, understanding it and I’m happy. I still can’t speak very well. I haven’t spoken much, but I’m happy so my goals are satisfied. I’m not learning for someone else, I’m learning for me. It gets back to this whole issue of when you’re in a classroom and you read something, they ask you to prove that you understood it.


Anyone that’s into Portuguese, I recommend that you Google for Rubem Alves, find his text and buy his audio books from whoever has them on sale. It will really propel your Portuguese forward, Brazilian-Portuguese, of course. He’s full of wisdom and a very good attitude on education. But, as he says, nothing destroys the pleasure of reading as much as having to analyze, answer questions about the text. It’s my text. I read it. I’ll form my understanding of it. I don’t need to answer to you. That’s how I feel. Other people may like to do that, so that’s fine and dandy, too.


It’s a bit like this issue of pronunciation. Again, someone sent me a video response to my video where I said it’s futile to think that you’re going to sound like a native. It’s fine to use a native variant of the language that you find most attractive or most useful or most prestigious, whatever, and use that as your model and try to imitate it. That’s fine, but don’t think you’re going to sound like a native. It’s highly unlikely and don’t worry about it.


I also made the point that, in my experience, people I meet who speak English well and who have an accent don’t bother me in the slightest. People who have little accent but misuse the language are a much, much bigger problem. But the point again there is it’s up to you. If I’m learning the language for myself I don’t care. My goal is to communicate and to understand. If people understand me, I can communicate, I can read, I can connect with the culture, I’m happy. So I think it’s very important that everyone identify what their goal is. What is it they want to do with this language?


If I live in Vancouver, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking to Czech people. I may meet some people, but I’m not going to make all my friends Czech just so that I can speak Czech. I have my friends. I have a lot of activities with people, some of whom speak foreign languages. I don’t choose my friends based on whether they’re useful to me in the language that I’m learning, but I can watch Czech movies, read Czech books, I can go visit Prague or other places in the Czech Republic.


In fact, I’m kind of thinking now that I’d like to do the other languages that were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Austrian Empire. Maybe learn some Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Croatian and Slovakian, but I guess that’s pretty close to Czech. These were all languages that were part of that Austro-Hungarian Empire. But I may go back to Korean first, why? Because I play golf with Mr. Choy, a very nice guy who stumbles a bit in his English and would probably humor me if I spoke to him in Korean. So that’s a motivation and there my motivation would be to talk to Mr. Choy.


It all depends on what our motivation is so that we learn languages for ourselves and our success depends on ourselves. I know Michel Thomas in his tape says that there’s no bad student, there’s only a bad teacher. I don’t believe that. I just don’t believe that, other than it may be that a very good teacher can stimulate a learner, can turn the learner on to becoming motivated. The motivated learner learns and the unmotivated learner struggles and I think that’s regardless of the school you go to, the teacher or anything else.


What really matters in language learning is you, so I think people should sit down and say why am I learning this language? What do I want to achieve in this language and, also, what do I like doing in this language. There’s no point in subjecting yourself to a method of learning that you don’t like, so find a method of learning that suits your taste. I firmly believe that we learn the same way, that our brains, essentially, learn the same way, but we do have different tastes.


Some people like to read grammar explanation, others don’t. Some people only want to watch TV, I, personally, don’t. I prefer to listen and read because I find it more dense in terms of words. It gets my imagination thinking about what is meaning in all of this. I do watch movies, but it’s more as a reward or entertainment not as a main language-learning tool. But that’s me, so other people who like to watch TV that’s what they should do.


So I think it’s very important what really matters in language learning is you, the learner. Why am I learning this language, what do I like doing in the language, am I motivated and how do I make myself more motivated. When it comes to being motivated it’s important to stay motivated and, therefore, it’s important to be satisfied with what you have achieved.


Like I’m reading Czech, I’m happy. If I speak to Yarda I stumble and can hardly make myself understood, I don’t let that discourage me. It’s very important once you have achieved something to continue to enjoy that and to give yourself credit for what you have achieved rather than worrying about what you have yet to achieve. The fact that there are things you can still strive for is a good thing, but when you fail or in your own mind you’ve failed or you forgot a word or you didn’t communicate as well as you would have liked, not a problem.


The more you’re sort of unhappy about what you are unable to do in the language, the less well you will learn. If you feel good about your language studies, if you feel confident, if you feel that you’re achieving something, even in terms of how they measure what goes on in the brain, the brain is happy. If the brain achieves a little better than what it expected to achieve, it is motivated to learn more.


So don’t put obstacles in front of yourself by being frustrated that you don’t speak like a native or that you forget words or that you continue to have trouble with certain structures or certain passages remain unclear to you. That doesn’t matter.  Focus rather on what you have achieved, it will make you happier and you will learn better. So, here again, in terms of attitude, in terms of choosing what to study, in terms of motivating yourself, the key, what matters most in language learning is you, the learner.


Thank you for listening, bye for now.


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