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Steve Kaufmann

Canadian polyglot Steve Kaufmann speaks 20 languages and counting and believes that anyone can learn a new language. You just need to be motivated, willing to put in the time[…]

STEVE KAUFMANN: The sense of starting with something that is just noise, listening to it, it's just noise. Looking at a funny script if you're learning Persian or Arabic or Russian or Chinese, and then finding that a few months later you actually understand it.

My name is Steve Kaufmann. I don't call myself a polyglot but I guess I am one. I have learned bits of 20 languages other than English, so I've developed some tips along the way so I tried to organize these. I came up with these seven tips, which I think are certainly some of the principles that I've learned from other people and I think they can be helpful.

The brain learns. The brain is a learning machine. The brain cannot do otherwise than learn. The brain always learns given stimulus, given enough exposure, but it learns slowly. And one of the biggest factors in language learning is time. How many hours or how much time you spend a day, and how long are you going to stay with it? So we have to spend the time.

The two fundamental factors in language learning are motivation and time. If you are doing what you like to do - you're motivated. If you don't like – as much as I like reading if someone doesn't like reading maybe they have to find some other way to learn. When you choose content to listen to and read, find content of interest, listen to people whose voice you enjoy. If you don't enjoy the voice or the subject matter, leave it and get on to something else. If you're doing things that you enjoy doing and if the process of language learning is enjoyable then you have a positive attitude and you're going to continue.

Many things happen in a language and some of these things we notice and some of these things we don't notice. For example, I could be listening to Russian and not notice how the cases work. I may not notice. Or maybe because it's pointed out I start to notice. Typically I find in language learning the more we listen, the more things we notice. And we want to notice. Insofar as pronunciation, for example. My father was from Czechoslovakia, so he would read words in English based on how he thought they should be pronounced. In Canada there's a province called Nova Scotia, for example. We even have a Bank of Nova Scotia. And my father can make the sound or could make the sound shuh, but he would always pronounced it Nova Sco-te-a: to him tia is sco-te-a. He didn't notice. He didn't make the effort to notice that, in fact, it's pronounced "sco-sha". So, we have to be a little bit attentive to what's happening in the language so that gradually we can develop better habits. Every time we notice something – a word, a phrase, structure, we're helping to put that into our, helping the brain create these patterns so that eventually we get the proper language habits.

To me language learning is a matter of acquiring words. Now, words and phrases, but phrases consist of words. You have to know what words mean. The larger your passive vocabulary, the more you understand. The more you understand, the more likely you are to be able to speak. Even if you only use a small subset of your passive vocabulary, the words that you understand. But all of this is much more important than grammar. Grammar if you do a lot of listening and reading which is how you acquire words so if you're motivated to learn words you're going to do a lot of listening and reading and that's, of course, what we encourage people to do at LingQ. We track the numbers of words they know and stuff because once you have a lot of words and you've listened to a lot of content, the brain starts to sort this stuff out.

There's research that shows that a toddler, a one-year-old toddler, knows which patterns belong to its native language. Even though it's not saying anything, but they do tests with the brain or whatever and they show 90 percent of the basic structures of a language the toddler has figured it out just through listening. So the grammar which attempts to explain you use it here except when it's something else and all kinds of complicated explanations of when you use would or should or could or might or ought to. We have trouble absorbing these. Whereas if we listen and read a lot, therefore acquire a lot of words, a lot of words enable us to read and listen widely, we are going to get the structures. We can occasionally look up some of the rules but the first thing is to have enough words so that we can get enough interesting content into our brains. So vocabulary over grammar.

It takes time to learn a language. For a long, long time everything remains fuzzy, foggy. You forever don't understand you're listening to something for the tenth time and still can't understand the same part of it. You're with some people who are speaking the language you are learning – say you're learning Spanish and you're with a bunch of Spanish-speaking people and they're all talking a mile a minute and you can't understand. Every time we build up frustrating thoughts, feelings of frustration or impatience, we're damaging ourselves, we're reducing our efficiency. You have to be positive. You have to give yourself credit for what you've achieved because that's good for the brain. It makes the brain happy. And just be patient. It takes time and I have had this feeling. Like right now I'm trying to learn Arabic and it just seems like sometimes it seems like I'm not getting anywhere. But, of course, I am and I know it again from looking at my page on LingQ because there are fewer and fewer unknown words, fewer and fewer blue words as we call them. But you don't necessarily sense that all the time so it's very important to be patient. And it gets back to enjoying the process and being impatient is not going to help you enjoy the process.

Nowadays it's such a wonderful time to be learning languages. Obviously, you need some kind of an mp3 player. I mean the smartphones today are unbelievable. I have on my little iPhone and I can read, I can work on LingQ, I can listen. I can go through flashcards. So the amount of stuff I can do on that little device, and occasionally I use it as a telephone, is amazing. But by the same token I would include under tools all of the resources that are available on the internet. So audiobooks, eBooks, Netflix, YouTube. YouTube is phenomenal because in many languages they have the subtitles and here again at LingQ we have a browser extension so that either on my iPad or on the computer I can bring in YouTube videos, Netflix movies with the subtitles as text that I can then study and work. So there's another tool. The tool includes different apps that you can use. Invest in the tools, so that your language learning becomes more efficient.

Even if you're at a school, if you're not self-motivated, if you don't leave the classroom wanting to do more, wanting to listen more and read more, you're not going to learn. So you have to take responsibility for your learning. You should decide what you want to listen to. Don't let the teacher tell you what you're going to listen to or what you're going to read. You have to search that out. A teacher can recommend or on the internet you get on a different form and people say this is a good source of content or something else is a good source of content. But you have to be independent. Sometimes if I'm searching for something on YouTube, maybe I'll go to Google Translate to make sure I get it correct in Arabic and then I put it in the search field there at YouTube and I'll get something. So you have to take the initiative.

Grammar the same way. The idea that the teacher comes in and says okay, today we're going to do the subjunctive. Well maybe I'm not ready to learn the subjunctive or I'm not interested. It's much better if you're going through this content and you keep on coming across this verb form and you kind of think it's the subjunctive but you're not sure. Then you Google, then you search. So you're the one who is searching out the grammar rules and explanations. If you're taking the initiative, you're going to learn. If you're waiting for someone to push the language at you, it's going to take a lot longer.

Language learning is something we can all do. The sense of achievement we have when we learn another language, even if we learn it imperfectly, is tremendous. We're able to learn about other cultures. We're able to connect with people all over the world or from all over the world. We're able to access bits of their culture, literature, movies, music all over the world so it's a tremendously positive thing to do. And I think people should do more of it and they shouldn't allow themselves to be trapped in the conventional grammar, remembering the (inaudible) tables, the conjugation tables, the rules. That's the least effective way of learning and it's the highest frustration way of learning for most people. Some people like grammar, but for most people that's, in fact, not how the brain works. The brain has more trouble with these theoretical explanations and, in fact, has an easier time gradually getting used to something through massive exposure.