Patterns and Language Learning

Patterns and Language Learning has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  The original video was published on May 29th, 2013



Listen to the audio and don’t forget to check out Steve’s podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. I’m going to talk about patterns and language learning and I think this is a very, very important point. It was sort of triggered by the fact that I read an article and I will leave a link to it here. I go into more detail at my blog and I’ll leave a link to my blog as well in the description here. The article was based on some research in Israel which showed that people who are good at recognizing patterns in mathematics will also be good in learning languages; in other words, the ability to recognize patterns. Not specifically language-related patterns, but the ability to recognize patterns is what makes people good language learners.


I was very happy to read this because this is something that I have felt intuitively for a long, long time and I think this is very important for language learning. Some of you who have followed my YouTube channel for a while have heard me express great skepticism with regard to Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar. I don’t believe that we are born with some universal grammar and no amount of explanation from linguistic majors nor anything that I have read has persuaded me otherwise.


I believed all along that our brains are conceived or have been developed to recognize patterns. That’s the main function of the brain, to recognize patterns, to get used to patterns, so that we can lead our lives more efficiently. That the experience that the brain has causes the brain to establish certain patterns, certain linkages, so that it’s easier for us to understand the world around us and learning languages is no different. Now this research seems to confirm that. It’s our ability to recognize patterns. It’s the ability of the brain to recognize patterns. So what does this mean for language learning?


I have also felt when it comes to language learning that reading explanations of grammar had a minor influence on my ability to learn the language and to get used to the patterns. Whereas if I started to notice these patterns more and more in my listening and reading, then my ability to understand the language and also, eventually, to produce the language improved, but the key was this ability to notice. I’ve talked a lot about noticing, how at first everything is very fuzzy and as we nail down a few things that we notice then we’re able to focus more on other things and start to notice them as well, but one has to want to do it.


I’ve often mentioned that people who live in an environment, like immigrants to Canada, who aren’t very motivated to learn, who don’t make an effort to try to notice the patterns in the language, notice patterns of pronunciation, patterns of word usage, therefore, continue to make the mistakes over and over again. I’ve talked about how having other people correct you, again, in my opinion, has a minor impact on our ability to learn because, mostly, we have to train ourselves to recognize patterns. Normally I would have waited until Friday to make another video, but I was so pleased to see this article that I just had to make this video here now.


Steve Kaufmann


Just further on the subject of patterns, I want to expand on the experiment that I’ve had now with Romanian where I wrote up about, I don’t know, 150 or so sentences which I sort of divided into different subject categories, sentences with ‘what’ and ‘when’ and ‘why’ and ‘it seems’. There are large numbers of these potential subjects where you can come up with 10, 15 or more sample sentences that correspond either to cause and effect, purpose or probability, any of these general concepts that we need to express in all languages.


In the case of Romanian, I had these translated into Romanian and had them recorded and I have listened to them many, many times. As my ability to understand Romanian improves and increases and as my vocabulary increases and I can listen to interesting content on history and the news and so forth from Radio Romania, I still regularly go back and listen to these basic phrases because I think it is important to have a mixture or rich, interesting, stimulating content which has resonance which you’re emotionally connected with as you’re listening and some repetition of these basic patterns so that, again, you notice them more when you’re listening and reading.


What I’m going to do at LingQ now, because we’re encouraging more interaction and mutual help amongst our members and, in fact, facilitating this, I’m going to try to encourage our members to do the same, to come in there and create basic pattern sentences. Whether it be in Japanese, Russian, French, Spanish, whatever language, a great long list of these divided by category. You know, ‘why’, ‘because’, ‘since’, ‘when’, ‘where’, all these situations that you find yourself in so that people can take the ones they’re interested in and read them at LingQ, link the words they need, listen to them while they’re doing the dishes and so forth and so on.


I wonder if those of you out there are interested in helping out. So, again, at my blog I will publish a list of the categories. I’m not going to put up all the sentences. You can go and find them at LingQ. The library at LingQ is free for anyone to go in and download whatever they want. We have these pattern sentences now in English, Romanian, Dutch and Portuguese, to my knowledge, and our members are continuing to add to them. You can go into LingQ and download these and use them as you wish.


By the same token if people do create these sample patterns and record them in different languages, I would be interested in hearing about it because I also want to make these available to our community at LingQ so that somehow, collectively, we can create this great corpus, as they like to say, of sample sentences that are relatively easy but represent examples of the basic patterns in different languages. I think that’s a great way to begin in a language, with these basic patterns, and also a great way to regularly review the grammar, the basic structure.


Yes, I do find myself reviewing some of the rules and tables, but I find it even more useful to regularly review these basic patterns by listening to them and reading them. The key is to develop a broad range of these basic patterns in different languages. I hope some of you will be interested enough to go to my blog and have a look and even contribute some of these sentences in your own language.


So there you have it. Recognizing patterns, as I’ve always felt intuitively, would seem to be the key to language learning, if I understand correctly the significance of this research in the Hebrew University in Israel. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

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15 comments on “Patterns and Language Learning

Great Idea Steve!

When reading and listening (I almost exclusively study dialogues), I add sentences with a new word or interesting structure into my Anki deck for review. I figure it allows maximum exposure to new concepts, as the stuff I know is ‘filtered out’ by virtue of not being added to my Anki deck. Sometimes, as I know you do, I just enjoy reading for pleasure, though.

I know you use LingQ’s flashcard system – but do you use Anki at all? What about Cloze sentences? I haven’t heard you talk much about sentences, actually.

    Daniel, I am not a great user of SRS systems, Anki or others. I mostly read and listen. Reading at LingQ at the computer, or on my iPad/iPhone, I am reminded of all the words I have looked up. They are highlighted in yellow. Eventually they stick.


      I definitely think the unique feature of LingQ of being able to create ‘LingQ”s that show up yellow in texts is highly effective. It seems to increase the importance of the word in your subconscious mind, and does seem to make it stick a little easier.

      I don’t have Twitter, but for your #asksteve summer series, I was wondering whether you would consider giving your opinion of ‘shadowing’, or repeating individual sentences/recording and comparing yourself to native speakers. I know you are not an advocate of output from Day 1 – but do you think there are benefits to be had in imitating in such a way, even from the start?

Emma Tsai

Hi Steve,

It’s fabulous. This is exactly the material that I have been looking for. Thank you so much for what you have done for us.

There are more students going to join my LingQ class this coming July. I am so excited. Allison has been helping me a lot and Jason as well.

It’s been a long time that I didn’t have any chance to talk to you. Hope to talk to you soon.

Best regards,


Hi Steve

A.S.Hornby spent decades studying sentence patterns in English and his work might give you a few ideas. Like you he was a diplomat in Japan. He was there in the 1920s. Judging by your photo he might have been a contemporary of yours. Only joking. You are an inspiration to eager but backward language students like myself. Here is a link to his work :

Hornby lecture


Hi Steve, Have you seen “50 languages” already?

They have 100 categories of sample sentences recorded in many different languages.
You pick out the language you know, and then the language you’re trying to learn.
Really cool endeavor.

You can download free audios of all the sentences for any language pairs. You can get exposed to a lot of patterns that way.


As someone who has studied French, Russian and German, I looked for so long for dual-language reading material…even now with the internet, they’re difficult to find…so I ended up creating a (free) dual-language website as a hobby. For the content I write in English, I’m very conscious of repeating words and phrases, even within a short article, to help readers learn through repetition. I’m a big believer in: more input through the eyes and ears makes the target language flow out of your mouth a little easier.

The Foreign Language Library Online

Jay Allen

Steve, if you’ve never seen it before check out JAPANESE SENTENCE PATTERNS FOR EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION (aka JSPEC) by by Kamiya Taeko.

It contains the types of categories to which you refer. It’s one of my favorite non-grammar grammar books, and an indispensable guide for many of us Japanese learners who have decided we’re ready to start speaking.

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