Skipping the Basics Stages of Language Acquisition 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 again. Today I want to talk about a subject that often comes up and people often challenge me on and that is this issue of learning the basics, learning the fundamentals. How do we learn the fundamentals of a language? My answer is we don’t, at least I’m not able to do so. There are people, there’s Tim Ferriss who has his How to Learn Any Language in an Hour where he deconstructs the language and there are other people. I just finished watching a video by a Russian person who lives in Sweden talking about learning languages on your own and he says that we should begin by reading a little book on linguistics or even learning Esperanto to get a sense of the grammatical terminology that’s used so we can master the grammar from the beginning. I can’t do that.


I am sure there are people who can do that who are linguistic experts who can read the rules and immediately understand how the language functions. I can’t because I have found that the rules vary so much from language to language. Very often the way things are said, some of the basic structures in a new language, which Russian was for me or Czech or Japanese, are so different from my own that the explanations of how they work don’t make much sense to me. They don’t make sense until I have had a lot of exposure to the language.


My own advice to people is not to worry about it. I learned Japanese and Chinese without being aware of a single grammatical term. With Russian I did get more involved because Russian is more complicated in terms of grammar. I know that there are these aspects of verbs, but I still don’t fully understand the difference and I’ve read the explanations many, many times. There are lots of these rules and lots of these different structures and I just find that I prefer to go on my merry way acquiring words, learning, understanding more and bit by bit some of these rules become clearer.


I don’t believe you can nail down the fundamentals, not at all, unless you are particularly gifted or have a special predilection for grammar. It’s not something that works for me and I don’t think it works for the majority of people because the majority of people that I have spoken to complain about being turned off their language studies in school because of the emphasis on grammar. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think you should learn to speak properly, but I think you learn to speak properly by paying attention to the patterns of the language.


I think that’s something we can do, looking at examples and right from the beginning making an effort to notice what is happening in the language, notice how it is different from our own language and that’s fun to do. If we struggle to identify these patterns on our own and struggle to understand text and there’s always patterns that don’t make sense to us, I think then when we eventually are familiar enough with that pattern that we can actually read an explanation of that pattern and make sense of it we learn it better.


Again, there was an article in Time Magazine about how if we bumble along and struggle on our own we learn better than if we are given a ready-made formula explanation from the teacher. It’s much better to have experienced something on your own then maybe get a little help afterwards to point you in the right direction, at least then you have some experience what is the nature of the problem. So I very much believe and I’ve said this before but it comes up time and time again, nailing the fundamentals.

Basic Stages of Language Acquisition

I was recently on a thread at this How to Learn Any Language forum and this was again one of the comments, you have to begin by learning the fundamentals. I just find this completely alien to how I have learned languages. All the more power to the people who do it that way, but I think there are a lot of people who cannot deal with these rules up front. To those people I would suggest just discover the language. Learn a few words and don’t worry if it’s a bit fuzzy. Struggling with that fuzziness is actually helping you. You do have to go back and occasionally look at the explanations, but every time you look at the explanations if you find that you don’t fully understand them or you can’t remember the rules or the ending don’t worry about it. It’s all part of that bumbling process, that struggling process that’s going to help you learn.


Another thing, again in that video by the professor from __________ University in Sweden, was the idea that every time we see a word or learn a word we should repeat it; we should try to use it. Again, I think this is just not practical because we want to have as large as possible a passive vocabulary so that we can read, so that we can understand native speakers who always have a much larger vocabulary than we have. The words we need to use are actually quite a small subset of the words we need to understand, so the idea that you would limit yourself only to vocabulary that you are able to use to me is impractical.


I am motivated to read novels. Not everybody wants to read novels, read about history, but I am motivated to have intelligent conversations with people and those people in the foreign language will all have a much larger vocabulary than I have. I need to understand them first and foremost and I need to have a subset that I can use. Now, there are ways. We do, eventually, have to work on the active vocabulary and I do that by reviewing vocabulary, as I’ve said before, reading in grammar books the answers rather than the questions or reading the examples that we create at LingQ.


In every link we’ve got five-10 examples, sometimes fewer, reading them, reading them out loud now and spending some time doing that on those words that I think are important to me and those structures that are important to me. I can only spend a limited amount of time on that because I’m still motivated to expand my vocabulary so that I can understand more, so that I can pick up a book and enjoy it.


All I’m saying is that it’s a long process and the idea that you can somehow nail down the fundamentals at the beginning, I don’t believe it. I think you can have a general overview and I always recommend that people get themselves a little starter book in a language and that’s really all you need. It could be Teach Yourself, it could be Assimil. To me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s colloquial or whatever it is, if you read through that you’ll get some sense of some of the issues in the language. A lot of this stuff just flies by you. You read it yes, but you don’t really quite know what they mean. I mean this thing is well worn because I have to go back time and time again and as I have had more experience with the language these things start to make more and more sense to me.


So the fundamentals, don’t worry about the fundamentals, learn about enjoying the language. The big decision we have to make is where to spend the time. If you have eight hours a day then you have one range of decisions to make and you have to have a variety of activities in order to keep you on task, otherwise the brain goes numb after a while. If you only have a limited amount of time then you have to fit it in. Listening obviously fits in very nicely, reading, if you have the time to watch a movie, fine, but there’s always that decision. Should I work on expanding my passive vocabulary or should I work on trying to activate more of that vocabulary.


This also depends on your needs. Now that I’m going to Prague, as I get closer and closer to that date, I will be working harder to try to prepare some of that vocabulary and make sure that I’m close to being able to activate it. When the need arises when I’m in Prague, I’m confident that a lot of those words are just going to start coming out. I know that I should write more, writing is very good, but again I don’t have the time and perhaps the motivation to do so. These are always choices we have to make.


I think this is where I disagree with a number of these other people who are focusing on activating the vocabulary up front, learning the fundamentals up front. I find it very difficult to do and I think there’s nothing wrong for those of us who don’t enjoy doing that. For those that do go for it. Those who are like me who don’t, enjoy the language, enjoy it passively, enjoy listening, enjoy reading, enjoy discovering more and more of it and when you have the need and the opportunity to use it you’ll find that a lot of it will come out, it will start to be activated. Yes, you’ll make some mistakes and as you confront your mistakes in your conversations and so forth and so on that will also help you notice, again, when you’re listening and reading.


So learning the fundamentals up front, I don’t think it’s possible to do. That’s my take on it and I look forward to your views. People often say that I think everybody learns the same way and I shouldn’t be pontificating. Well, other people can say how they like to learn languages and I’m going to say how I like to learn languages. I know from talking to many people that a lot of learners do not like to be forced to speak right up front. A lot of learners have a lot of trouble dealing with grammar up front because it’s very difficult to get a hold of without a lot of experience.


So to however many of the learners out there I offer my advice, they can take it or leave it. There is no shortage of people on the Internet offering advice on language learning and people can choose and experiment and see what works best for them. Thanks for listening.


Improve your English and study this post on LingQ!

Learn a new language on LingQ