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Learn the Basics in the Language First? Really?

Learn the Basics in the Language First? Really? has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  The Original video was published on January 26, 2012

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here again, I am going to continue in my series on how I learn different languages. I can’t remember, I think the order is going to be Italian, Portuguese, Russian, I might sneak Korean in there, then Czech, but today I’m going to interrupt this series and I’m going to talk about a different subject because it’s something that’s kind of been on my mind today and that is learning the basics in a language.


We often hear that it’s so important to nail down the basics, to get the pronunciation right, to learn the basic phrases, the basic structures, the basic vocabulary in a language. I am totally opposed to that idea from a number of points of view and I’m going to ramble on. I haven’t made little notes here, but I’m just going to share my thoughts on the subject and I look forward to hearing back from people on it.


First of all, I find it very difficult to learn the basics. If I look at Czech, some of the most basic phrasing around ‘I like’, you know, ________, ________, ________. ‘I like’ is pretty basic, but it’s very hard to get the hang of. It’s very hard to get the feel of that to make it feel natural. It’s only after now almost five months of listening to a variety of content that I go back and review some of those basic phrases again and they’re starting to sink in.


It’s the same with basic vocabulary. Very often people will try to teach you the colors, the days of the week, the months of the year, the numbers. These things are all considered basic. Those are extremely hard to learn. Numbers being, by far, the most difficult and I can be quite advanced in a language. It’s not for lack of trying. You try to learn those things they just don’t stick. Basic vocabulary, again, people say if you learn the most common thousand words that will be 70-80% of any context. Yes, but it won’t be the key words and if you’re into interesting content anyway all of those words are going to be there.


So my approach is what I would call almost a grazing approach. You go over the same ground from many different directions maybe using different materials, different stories. You sometimes do difficult things, you want to get ahead and you want to challenge yourself because you find it interesting.  When I start in a language, I’m mostly motivated to build up my vocabulary and expose myself to the language. So once I have a bit of a sense of the language, then I can go back and try to, again, look at some of these so-called basic structures and I’ll have a reference point.


I think our whole approach to language learning and to education, in general, is far too lineal. Typically, in school in a language classroom the teacher will tell you, you can only read this far in the book. You can’t go any further. I mean that’s ridiculous. Why wouldn’t you allow students to go further? Why wouldn’t you allow people to follow their interests and go well beyond the level where the classroom is, to come back and then do something that’s well below the level where the classroom is? Why do you always have to stay at the same level that’s dictated by the teacher?


I don’t think that just is limited to language learning, I think in many subjects. Why do we have schools where everything is divided into 30 or 40 minute segments and every 30 or 40 minutes you’ve got to go and do something else? Why don’t you let people really focus on one area that they’re interested in and take it whichever direction they want, then they can come back and maybe do some of the simple stuff again? In other words, the whole learning process should be much more, how would I put it, organic, grazing, swarming, not linear, not now I’ve got these basic concepts down, now I’ll move to the next.


You don’t really get those basics concepts down until, very often, much, much later and so you’re filling in sometimes with some advanced concepts or some advanced vocabulary that you happen to remember. Some of the most, supposedly, basic vocabulary items still escape you and they kind of fill in later. It’s not a linear process.


So I often hear about learn the basics, get the basics, the basics come when the whole has been absorbed and the brain has become more familiar with this holistic thing called the language and, slowly, some of the so-called basics start to solidify simply because you’ve been exposed to them so often. I remember again the words of Manfred Spitzer, that the brain requires novelty and repetition in order to learn something. If you don’t have novelty, if you don’t feed the interests that we have in a subject, then we get turned off.


We do need to repeat. We do need to cover the same ground again and again in order that these neurons can fire. So repetition is important, but I think we should allow much more freedom to students to explore and to push as far as they want to push and then have them come back and review again.


So I’m not a big fan of the basics. I’m not a big fan of a linear approach to education, the basic building blocks. As you know, I’m not a big fan of getting people to speak early, so nailing down the phonetics in phase one of your studies to me is not important. If you’re doing a lot of listening, you can get a lot of exposure without having to produce the sounds so that when you do start to produce the sounds you’ll have a better feel for the language.

Steve Kaufmann

So I just thought I’d throw that in there. Avoid trying to learn the basics, it’s too difficult. Rather, explore the language, explore it in the directions that you want to take it, but try to cover the same ground from different directions in different contexts. I personally prefer more of a generalized grazing approach as opposed to some kind of a linear structured approach to learning.


It’s true of history. I can read a history book, I don’t remember much. But say I’m reading a history of Russia or of Napoleon, if I read three different books or if Napoleon comes up again in my history of Russia there are more places where all of these different things interconnect, then this overlapping exposure is what’s eventually going to enable me to learn the subject so that it starts to be natural and it starts to be real knowledge to me. The linear approach may be good for passing an exam, cramming a bunch of facts in your head for the exam, but in terms of acquiring general knowledge I think it’s less useful and I do believe that applies to language learning.


So that was a bit of a digression from my tales of how I went about learning different languages. Thank you for listening and I look forward to your comments.

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1 comment on “Learn the Basics in the Language First? Really?


Hello Steve, sorry for being an anonymous, hopefully you’re quite an open-minded person to answer my question, that is, do you think it is truly beneficial for you to learn so many languages? Do you REALLY master ALL of them, I mean up to C2 level, or even “native-level” where you can describe anything, any person, orally, and in written form using the different shades, nuances and different tonalities, registers and dialects just like a native speaker of that language? (I mean you master both the passive, active and the translation/interpretation skillfully where you do not leave “any leaves” unturned?)
Or you mostly only reach B2/C1 or even lower, and as long as you understand most of your L2 language?
I apologize beforehand for this long question, because I need to know your opinion and your cognitive baseline how you acquire those ‘languages’. (Anyway, I’m also an L2 learner and researcher of English language).

Good day to you, Steve. (I posted this on your other pages as well).

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