Learning a Language Means Acquiring Words
People often say to me, “Steve, you’ve obviously got a talent for languages, that’s why you’ve learned so many. Good for you, but I could never do it.”
To which I say, to myself at least, why don’t you try doing it the way I do it? Maybe, rather than a question of talent, it’s a matter of the method that I use. What is my method? It’s really quite simple. It’s the relentless pursuit of words – words that I glean through content that is of interest to me. That’s basically what it boils down to.
My First Three Languages
If I look at the languages that I have learned, I would have to start with French. I had French through school yet couldn’t really speak at the age of 17, when I entered McGill University. There I was turned on to French and ended up going to France. I studied Political Science in French at L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques, so eventually I was immersed in the language.
These were ideal conditions that haven’t existed for the other languages I have learned. The significance of learning French was, for me, that I experienced becoming fluent in another language. I knew this was something I could do. I just needed enough exposure to the language.
Mandarin Chinese came next. I studied at a school in Hong Kong, in 1968. Hong Kong was not a Mandarin speaking environment. You didn’t hear Mandarin in the streets, on the radio, nor on TV. I would scour the bookstores looking for reading material. Typically this meant readers on Chinese literature, politics, history, anything I could find that had some kind of content with a glossary so I wouldn’t have to use a dictionary.
Audio material was much harder to find in those days, other than the tapes for some of our text books. But I did find some. A far cry from the modern world of MP3 files, podcasts and audiobooks on the Internet.
I didn’t limit myself to the textbooks from my Chinese language school, instead choosing to read and listen widely, devouring books in the language. I listened and I read, for nine months. Occasionally I reviewed the basic patterns of the language, but mostly I wanted to increase my vocabulary so I could understand more and more in my reading and listening. I spent very little time with grammatical terms and explanations, instead getting used to the patterns through massive exposure.
This was the approach I used for Japanese, my next language, and for every languages since, for a total of 15 today.
Chase Words and Speaking Will Follow
This concept that language learning is a matter of the relentless pursuit of words simplifies things. Yes we have to occasionally review grammar. Yes, we eventually have to speak. But, in my view, we don’t need to do drills or exercises. We don’t need artificial conversations, nor to work in pairs. We just need to chase words as our major preoccupation.
The more words you know, the better you will be able to understand and eventually speak. You will naturally acquire a sense of how words are used especially if you also learn groups of words as phrases. That is the essence of language learning, in my view, and that is what we have put into LingQ, the language system that I co-founded and where I have learned seven languages in the past 10 years.
Unfortunately, in my view, a lot of people, including a lot of our members at LingQ, don’t seem to buy into my approach. At LingQ, you read, listen and create “LingQs”, in other words save words and phrases to your personal database. The more LingQs you create, the faster you will learn. But too many people are focused on mastering what they learn, or trying to remember everything. It doesn’t work that way. It bothers me, sometimes, that at LingQ, I do more saving of words and phrases than most of our members.
We keep statistics on people’s activity levels, and I am near the top in whichever language I am learning. I am sure that the people who create the most LingQs are also the ones who learn the fastest. To create a lot of LingQs, we need to be reading a lot. We need to be paying attention to words and phrases. If we are doing this properly, we should be listening to the content that we are reading.
Creating My Own Vocabulary Database
When I am learning, I am driven to create LingQs and increase my vocabulary as quickly as possible. I remember that after I had been at Czech for not quite two months I had already created over 10,000 LingQs. This surprised some people at LingQ. “How can you learn so many words?” they asked. I didn’t necessarily deliberately learn them.
I was just reading interesting content with lots of unknown words and “mining” this material for words and phrases to add to my vocabulary database. Of course, I forgot many of these words and phrases right away, but they showed up again and again, and I reviewed them occasionally. Then lo and behold, these difficult texts became easier and easier to understand, and my vocabulary grew without me even realizing it.
Just to explain, when I “create a LingQ” this provides me with a dictionary definition, which I save to my database. The word or phrase is now highlighted in yellow, and will be highlighted whenever it appears again in subsequent content. When I read and see these words highlighted in yellow, I am reminded that I looked them up before, although I may have already forgotten the meaning.
I review these terms mostly in new and interesting context in my reading. I just keep going, pursuing words without worrying about what I remember, as I have always done. LingQ just makes my learning method, the relentless pursuit of words, more efficient.
Many people are unwilling to learn the way I do. If they save 10-20 words at LingQ, they think they have to learn them, memorize them and make sure they know them. “Do I really know this word?” “I know this word in context, but that is only passive vocabulary. How do I make it active?”
I don’t worry about these things. I just pile the words up. Every so often I go through them, but not with the goal of memorizing them. I look at them, review them, expose myself to them in flashcards, dictation or one of the four vocabulary activities we have at LingQ. I may tag these LingQs for a concentrated review later, in whatever “tag” categories I have chosen. Tags could be parts of speech, or technical terms or whatever. The concentrated review of tagged words or phrases helps me to concentrate on a particular pattern and thus to notice them better in my reading and listening.
But I don’t memorize. I do a lot of listening, and these words and phrases start ringing in my mind. When I start to speak, these terms will slowly activate. When I search for words to use, and can’t find them in time in conversation, this makes me more attentive to these terms when I listen and read. Eventually enough of my passive vocabulary will become active to enable me to speak quite well.
Noticing and Reviewing
Language learning is a matter of attitude, time with the language and attentiveness. We need to help our brains to notice what is happening in the language. Grammar review can help, noticing our mistakes when we speak can help, and reviewing our saved words and phrases, especially if grouped in categories, can help. If we are better at noticing, we derive even more benefit from our reading, listening and LingQing.
LingQ generates statistics on each individual learner. These statistics include how many LingQs our members have created, but also how many words our members “know”. In new texts, any word that a member doesn’t save is assumed to be known by that user. That is how the known words statistic is generated. It is, of course, possible that, amongst the so-called known words, there are words that the learner skipped over and doesn’t know.
A learner may “know” a word in one context, but not in another. Many people seem concerned about the accuracy of this known words number. In my method of learning, the accuracy of this number doesn’t matter. If I skipped a word, I can save it the next time I meet it.
The known words total is simply a measurement of my activity level, much like the LingQ total. These are indications that I have been actively reading and acquiring words, even if these words are often acquired subconsciously, or learned and forgotten. As I continue reading, new texts have fewer and fewer unknown words, and are easier and easier to understand.
In this way, plowing through content that is interesting to me, my vocabulary grows quite rapidly, both statistically and in reality. Soon I have 10,000 known words and 10,000 saved LingQs. Because I only have an hour, or an hour and a half, a day to spend on language learning, I can’t review all my saved words and phrases. So I review them randomly.
I don’t want to spend three hours or more a day with an Anki flashcard deck of 10,000 words. I prefer to discover new content in the language, read it to get some idea of what the content is all about, and then go away and listen in the car, while exercising or doing the dishes or wherever I am. All the while, my comprehension is growing, and my vocabulary is increasing, enjoyably.
Method Over Talent
I can’t impose my way of learning on other people who may feel strongly about their own way of language learning. Some people think you can talk your way to fluency. Some people think they can start by “learning the basics of the grammar”. I can’t learn that way. I can’t speak when I can’t understand. I can’t master the basics until I have had a lot of exposure to the language. However, people should learn in the way that they enjoy. For success in learning a language, it’s attitude, time with the language and attentiveness that matter the most.
On the other hand, when people attribute my success at language learning just to talent, perhaps they should at least try doing it my way. I think the number of words you know is the best indicator of how well you know the language. Of course that is not all there is. But it is a simple, “Gordian knot” measurement of where you are. It is also a goal. I have compared our known word count at LingQ to the mechanical rabbit that racing dogs chase. To build your word count the right way, you will read and listen and LingQ your way to fluency, chasing your word count, like the greyhounds at the race track.
I speak when I have the chance. I review grammar from time to time, constantly going back to the same rules and tables. But that is not my main activity. My main activity is the relentless pursuit of words using interesting content, content that becomes more and more interesting as my vocabulary increases, and my sense of the language improves. That, and the time I put in, rather than talent, is why I can speak 15 languages, having learned seven of them since the age of 60.