If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you know how incredibly difficult it can be. The endless verb conjugations, the embarrassment of pitiful pronunciation, the dreaded subjunctive (what is the subjunctive, anyway!?).
What if learning a language wasn’t so painful, what if you could become conversational in a language in just under a year? Steve Kaufmann, aka The Linguist, has found a remarkable way to do just that and he’s convinced that anyone can do the same.
Steve’s fascination with language started decades ago. He quickly became frustrated with more “conventional” methods for language learning and quickly developed an alternative leaning method that favors vocabulary over grammar, interesting content over level-appropriate content, and reading and listening over speaking.
We asked Steve to share details on his path to multilingualism and some tips for conquering a language.
Q: How many languages do you currently speak?
A: I’m comfortable with eleven. The most recent languages have been Russian, Portuguese and Czech with a smattering of Korean.
Q: How did your love of language learning arise?
A: First, I got keen on French in Montreal, and started listening to local French radio, reading newspapers, etc. Then I went to France for three years to get my university degree. Then I was accepted in the Canadian diplomatic service and was assigned to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin. Next I lived in Japan for nine years and learned Japanese on my own. So it was the time spent in foreign countries and desire to be able to communicate that initially prompted my interest.
Q: You’ve developed a very unique approach to learning language. What’s your advice for getting started?
A: First of all, you have to have the right attitude. Do you want to learn the language? Are you interested in the language? Do you have positive feelings about the language? Do you really think you can learn the language? Think about it like this: If you’re trying to climb a mountain, and you don’t know if you’re going to reach the top, and you don’t know where the top is, chances are, you’re probably not going to get there.
Q: Let’s say you’re highly motivated, you love to learn, and you can’t wait to get started. How can you stay motivated in the face of the inevitable frustrations of learning a new language?
A: Do things that you enjoy doing. If you do things that you find fun, then you’re more likely to stay with it. If you enjoy studying grammar, do it, but most don’t. For me, one of the main motivations to learn Russian was to be able to read Tolstoy in Russian. Very soon after I began learning, I reached for Tolstoy. It’s totally a matter of what you’re interested in. Today, with online dictionaries, it’s much easier to do this.
Q: How do you stay interested when you’re first starting out, before you can reach for Tolstoy?
A: It’s true, when you’re first starting, you’ll be working with a limited vocabulary and therefore won’t be able to reach for a newspaper or a novel right away. So, you have to start somewhere. On LingQ, we try to make beginning lessons as interesting as possible by posting fun stories in the language you are trying to learn. The key here is to know when to move on. I don’t stay with a lesson until I know it 100%. When I’m tired of it, I move on, even if I only know half of it.
Q: Ok, so it’s Day 1, you’re ready to start, what’s the first thing you do?
A: I always start out with a lot of listening and reading. I start out with short bits, short dialogue, short discussions. That way I can accumulate a lot of words. With Czech, I went three months before I tried to speak at all.
Q: What are some of the most common mistakes you see in new language learners?
A: Remember, the brain is designed to learn. But it takes its time, and it does it on its own schedule. A big problem in language learning is that people get frustrated too quickly because they forget, they don’t understand, they don’t know how to say what they’d like to say. But in fact, you have no control. You have to trust that if you keep studying, you will learn. So, trust the process and be patient.
Q: I’ve always heard that the only way to really learn a language is to immerse yourself. Is that true?
A: For the vast majority of language learners, this is not possible. They’re not in a situation where they can immerse themselves by say, traveling to the country where the language is spoken. Yes, immerse yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to go to the country. You just have to spend a lot of time with the language. But that could be through a newspaper or a podcast.
Q: On your blog you emphasize the primacy of reading and writing when learning a language. What kinds of reading materials are best?
A: Again, you have to seek out content that is interesting to you. That always comes first. In general, though, content that is either intended for or spoken by native speakers can be better due to its credibility. If you are only exposing yourself to a new language through learner content (textbooks, flashcards, scripted dialogues), on a sub-conscious level, you don’t believe that that’s how people speak, and therefore, you’ll be less likely to remember it.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: In the case of learning Czech, I was able to find Radio Prague on the internet. They have both audio and text available. So I download the audio and import the text into LingQ, where I can save words and phrases.
Q: One of the unique parts of your methods is the emphasis on vocabulary over grammar. Why this approach?
A: Getting a lot of the words is key. Most vocabulary you pick up will be incidental, from listening and reading. Words are much more important than grammar. If you know a lot of words, you’ll understand what people are saying and will be able to say something. If all you know is grammar, you won’t be able to say anything.
Q: What’s the best way to learn new vocabulary?
A: By reading. The key to vocabulary acquisition is reading. That’s true in your own language, and in foreign language.
Q: Another key to your method is what you call “developing attentiveness”. Can you please elaborate on that?
A: You have to be able to notice things – the words, the patterns, the phrases. That helps your brain start to assimilate the new language. With online dictionaries, it’s much easier to do this.
Q: Do you ever get frustrated when you’re learning a new language?
A: When I was studying French [in school] I wasn’t interested. Once I got interested, there was no frustration because I was reading things that were interesting for me. It never frustrates me. Never.
Q: Thank you so much for sharing all your tips with us. Can you share with our readers a few ways that being a multilingual speaker has improved your life?
A: Well, recently I went to Russia, and I met a bunch of people there and we spoke in Russian and I understood everything that was going on. I also understood the radio and the television. That’s just tremendous! The degree of understanding you have of a culture, if you can understand the language, is magnitudes greater than you can achieve if you don’t. Apparently it also helps to stave on dementia, so, you know…who knows.
For more information on Steve’s method of language learning, you can visit site, LingQ.