On the 23rd April, Chatterbug hosted Chatterconf, a virtual conference all about learning languages! Over the course of one day we virtually brought together language enthusiasts from all around the world to learn about the world of online language learning.

Below is a video of Steve Kaufmann, founder of LingQ, and his presentation on how best to learn languages at home. We’ve included a transcript underneath the video.

Video – Learning Languages at Home


Edited for readability

Hello. Good morning. 

I want to talk about learning languages at home because I think that’s very topical right now because a lot of people are forced to be at home and so I’m going to start with a quotation that I often use from a German neuroscientist by the name of Manfred Spitzer. 

Manfred Spitzer said in a book called Learning, which is a book that I often refer to, “We learn in our brains, not in the classroom,”. So whatever our brains are, that’s where we’re learning. So if our brains are in the classroom, we might be learning there. If we are at home with no classroom, the brain is always learning. The brain is responding to stimulus. It’s responding to experience, creating patterns to deal with what the brain sees. That’s how the brain learns. The brain can only learn. That’s what the brain is there to do, to learn. 

Now, in my case, when it comes to language learning, I learn at home. Other than English, I have learned to varying degrees of proficiency, 20 languages. For only two of those languages did I attend a classroom or a school. For only two of those languages was I in my country where the language is spoken. So for most of those languages, I learned them on my own at home. I think even if you attend a classroom, ideally most of the learning activity takes place at home. If you attend a classroom and the only time you’re ever learning is while you’re sitting in class, you are not going to. If you don’t go home and listen and read and do things on your own at home, you’re not going to do very well. That’s been my experience. 

And it reminds me, well back in 2003, I wrote a book. I was very proud of myself. I spoke nine languages. I had been a diplomat for seven years, I had been a businessman in the lumber business for 40 years and I had learned nine languages. So I wrote about my experience in learning these languages. 

Well, that was 17 years ago. Today it’s 20 languages, or 21 actually, including English. But in that book I quoted a famous Taoist philosopher, Chinese philosopher, over 2,500 years ago. And he said, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world. Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.” Now he was well before his time because of course back 2,500 years ago, 500 BC, they didn’t know much of the world, but he said, I can sit without going out, looking out my window, I can know the whole world. If we think of the age of exploration, when the Portuguese first started exploring the Atlantic Ocean past the coast of Africa and so forth, they knew very little of the world. And for most of history people have basically known their little village. And yet today we can sit in our room and we can have access to everywhere. I’m talking to you now, wherever you all are, I don’t know where you all are. We can access language content of course, that’s what’s relevant to language learning. We can connect immediately in a way that was not possible when Laozi wrote those words. So that’s the kind of world that we live in. We are connected. We are connected to people, we are connected to language content and I have taken advantage of that to learn languages. 

I’m going to talk specifically about my experience since the age of 60, I’m 74 right now, because I have learned 10 languages over that period. And typically what I do, first of all, I just say that I use LingQ, which is a site that I created with my son because I’m used to using it. So I find that that’s a convenient place for me to learn. That’s where I do all my learning. That’s my learning environment, not a classroom. And basically in order to learn at home, I think you do have to have a strategy. We are surrounded by a tremendous amount of language content. How do we use it?

Mini stories – listening (05:10)

Well, in my case, I always begin with these simple stories that we have at LingQ called mini-stories, 60 of them where we use high frequency verbs. We use a lot of the key conjunctions. However, on the other hand, because, whatever, although, and in each story, the vocabulary repeats about five times. And I use these for the first three, four months and I relisten to them. I’ll end up listening to them 30, 40 times each, although I don’t listen to them 30 times in a row. I listened to lesson one, two, three, four, five back to one, two, three, four, five. 

Reading (05:47)

When I read, I look at words. So I start right into the language. I don’t start into things that are exotic because I think it’s important that we, as much as possible, deal with things that are familiar. So these are simple stories, so-and-so got up, had a cup of coffee, went to work, familiar situations. And then we learn very common familiar vocabulary for familiar situations because I always personally find it very annoying in the first or second or third chapter to be told that in Korea they have three different names for ‘sister’ and all kinds of culturally specific things that are all very strange for me and very difficult to absorb. Whereas familiar surroundings, high-frequency verbs, lots of repetition, within three months I gained a toehold in the language all at home, no teacher. 

The first stage of language learning (06:40)

Now I see language learning as divided into three stages. An initial stage is the stage I described where you have to gain some familiarity with the language, you have to get some vocabulary. You cannot have a conversation with someone if you don’t understand what they’re saying and if you don’t have at least some vocabulary and some phrases that you can use. If it’s a language written in the Latin alphabet where there’s a lot of vocabulary, similar vocabulary to other languages you know, three months is ample. Getting into Arabic now that I’m learning, and Persian is easier, but Arabic or even Turkish, it takes a little longer to get that toehold in the language. 

The second stage of language learning (07:25)

The goal and my goal always is to get to what I would call past B2. In other words, get to a stage where I can get a podcast from Al Jazeera or France24 in Arabic, or I was for the longest time with Russian listening to эхо москвы, (echo of moscow), which annoys some Russians, but you just pick up that podcast, downloaded or whatever, three or four different interviews, you’re listening, you’re enjoying, you’re learning, you’re improving.

The third stage of language learning (07:59)

That’s where you’re starting to glide down the other side of the mountain. That’s phase three. That’s where you’re B2 plus working towards C1. But the most frustrating period is going from A2 or B1 to B2 because you’re no longer all excited because you can now say a few things in the language and you can now understand some things.

Learning frequent words (08:19)

Whereas it was all noise before, now you’re discovering that frequency, word frequency, the most frequent words in the language, they show up a lot. That’s why they’re frequent. And so it’s relatively easy to learn them because they’re coming up all the time. But word frequency declines dramatically and so that once you’re past a thousand words, the words that you need to learn, the words that represent 20, 30% of the meaning of context, they don’t show up very often.

Some very key words might show up three times in a book. So how are you going to learn them? You have to continue reading and listening. You have to continue exposing yourself to the language. And you know with the beginner material, there’s a lot of beginner material out there. You can listen to them 20, 30 times. It’s still okay because you’re discovering the language. It’s not very interesting, but it’s okay. But once you get tired of doing that, now you’ve got to deal with real authentic content. And it’s too difficult because there’s too many unknown words. 

How to overcome the learning plateau (09:28)

Now at LingQ, we have a system where you can look these words up. They’re highlighted in different ways and create flashcards and you’ve got statistics telling you that you’re learning more. And I noticed that if I read my Arabic or whatever, the screen is increasingly white, which means there’s more and more words that I know. So I have the sense that I’m doing better, but still I can’t understand the Arabic podcasts that I listen to. I understand bits and pieces, then I lose it and so forth. So that period, which is sometimes called the plateau, sometimes called the doldrums, sometimes called the desert, that is in a way the longest, most frustrating period because once you get over the other side and now you’re only missing a few words, you’re occasionally noticing key structures that you want to be able to use better. But it’s all fun now. And so you’re down that other side and you can continue for a long time. So that middle stage is tough. 

But there, what I think what has to happen and what we’re trying to create is more interesting middle level content. So I have a collaborator in Iran who has created for LingQ a history of Iran in simple language. And we’ve got 20 lessons there and I listen to that so that I’m not conscious of learning the language. I am conscious of learning about the history of Iran. Again, like Laozi who sees the whole world without going looking out the window, so I see Cyrus the Great or I see the Battle of Marathon or I see the Arabic invasions. And so I get a sense of the history of Iran while I’m learning Persian. So that’s ideal. Or we have people talking about themselves and then transcribing it. So here again, it’s natural, interesting content and then subsequently transcribed. But my learning activity is simply listening and reading. Now people may say, well, what about output? How do you get to talking? Well, when you start to speak, of course you’re going to struggle. But the bigger your vocabulary, the better your level of comprehension, the better you’re going to do in talking and the more quickly you’re going to improve.

Learning with a tutor (11:44)

So at some point, and I use a typically at LingQ, before we had the mini-stories, I would wait until I had 8,000, 10,000 words known words. Now with the mini-stories, after 3,000 words, I start to engage with an Italki or if we have a tutor in that language at LingQ engaged with one of our tutors once or twice a week, and that’s all the output I need because I believe ultimately to speak really well, to become fluent, to be C1 or whatever, you have to speak a lot and you can’t speak enough on Italki to make a big difference. So the tutor is more a chance to speak a little bit, it’s motivating, connect with the teacher. The tutor typically will not correct me much while we speak and then send me a list of 15 phrases that I had trouble with, record that for me, now I have a record of that interaction. I listen to it many times plus I have a record going back six months so I can go back and relive those interactions. And I find that that’s sufficient in terms of output.

And I have had the experience then of at some point being able to go to the country. I did it for Russia and I did for Czech, I did it for Greek, I did it for Romanian. We had more or less success in, in Morocco with Arabic. So then I go to a country and I look for opportunities to use the language, which you know in some countries like when I was in Latin America and Brazil or Argentina, the taxi drivers are happy to talk, just go for a ride in a taxi. But in any situation, in any case, you need to set up opportunities then to use the language a lot and once or twice a week with Italki doesn’t do it. 

Take home (13:28)

So I’m going to end it here. I just wanted to sort of share with you how I learn languages at home, how I take advantage of (life at home). Oh and I should have mentioned that nowadays not only can we access an amazing array of content for when we’re sort of past the peak and we’re now enjoying the language and even earlier, even as we’re in the desert, we can start to access Netflix and we have a browser extension at LingQ. We can import the dialogue from Netflix, YouTube and YouTube is great because it’s timestamped. So my Arabic tutor sent me a TED Talk in Arabic and it had subtitles in a standard Arabic which are timestamped and therefore I can actually follow on LingQ the audio matched to the subtitles so you can access that.

There are audio book sites, eBook sites and again, as we start to approach that B2 level or even earlier, if the languages, even Polish at least, written in the Latin alphabet and with others Slavic languages very early, I can go and get an audio book and then find the corresponding eBook, import the eBook into LingQ, listen to the audio book while I’m doing whatever I’m doing. And of course, my major learning activity is because I can listen while I’m making breakfast, I can listen while exercising, I can listen while I’m on transportation of some kind. I can’t listen if I just sit there and listen. I lose focus. But if I’m doing something else, I listen and then I don’t fully understand it. And then I read it and on LingQ I look up the words. So there is that process of engaging with meaningful content at different levels.

Final thoughts (15:14)

And maybe I’ll leave with this thought that again, Manfred Spitzer says that in order to learn something, and not specifically language, we need repetition and we need novelty. The brain likes new things. And that’s why here again at LingQ, if I go to our lesson feed, I can see what other people are learning. And so maybe I’ve been struggling with my history of Iran, bored with history of Iran. I look at what some other people are doing.

It’s always interesting to go to new things, yet we do need the repetition, but the repetition will come because we will be coming across the words and phrases in different contexts. So only at the beginning do I have a strategy of deliberately repeating things because I’ve got nothing. I need to get a toehold. But after that, through massive input, we get enough exposure to the various words and phrases and structures, and if I’m ever curious about grammar, I look it up.

There’s no difficulty finding conjugations and there are conjugating dictionaries. If I want to look up Persian verbs, whatever I want to look up, it’s available to me. It’s not a major point of focus. It’s only there when I’m curious about something because if confronted with the fact that in Arabic there’s seven kinds of verbs, I probably would quit. So I leave that till I’m really curious about it, when I have had enough exposure to the language that I might look up the fine point of the grammar. So I think that we live in an age of unprecedented opportunity for language learning because we’re so connected. I think that the current coronavirus work at home, study at home thing is going to change the way we live and we’re going to realize that there are more efficient, more effective ways, less expensive ways of doing a lot of things including how we learn languages. 

Q&A (17:18)

What I would actually like to know though is you’ve learned a lot of languages in the past few years. How do you know when to move on? How do you choose a time to sort of start a new language and how do you choose one?

I mean it’s just a matter of what interests me. So when I was 60, I said, “Geez, I’d really like to learn Russian because when I was young I had read certain Russian novels in English and I want to read them in Russian.” Plus, the other thing was I always had this approach of not putting too much emphasis on grammar, certainly not upfront. And people said, “Well with Russian you have to, you have to work on your grammar, you have to spend all your time on grammar.” So I said, “Okay, we’ll see if that’s the case or not.” So that was a motivation. Then once I had Russian, then another Slavic language. There’s also this motivation of learning, the sort of the low hanging fruit theory. I speak Chinese and Japanese, so I’ll give Korean a shot for the fun of it. 

But it can be other things like my wife and I were going to Crete. So I said I’m going to learn Greek and then we were also going to go to Israel, so I tried Hebrew. I found that quite difficult. But then while we were there, we walked into Jordan and went to Petra and I said, “I’m going to learn Arabic.” So that was sort of a like a bit of a false start with Hebrew. The Greek was there just for eight months. And then I went to Crete and I was able to use it and then I started into Arabic and then Arabic is tough and then you invest in all this time and learning the writing system. And here in Vancouver, we don’t have many Arabic speakers, but we got lots of Iranians. So I said, “Geez, I can read this writing system, I should learn Persian.” So I started learning person and my wife was watching Turkish soap operas on Netflix. So I started learning Turkish. And in fact, we watched this Belgian series on Netflix and I think, geez, I should be able to understand this language. So I just opened up Dutch in LingQ. And of course Dutch is just a breeze after Persian and Arabic. It felt like I learned the language in two weeks. Anyway, whatever moves me. I mean I’m retired. I do what I want, you know?

So you talked a lot about LingQ. There was a question in here of what types of tools or resources have you found lacking when you’re learning languages?

So I just use the resources at LingQ because I’m very much input based and the thing that I need is there. The lack is intermediate content. Okay? That’s in every language. I mentioned the desert, right? So you’re going from that first period, any kind of beginner material, it’s all good, preferably without English in the audio. That’s my biggest beef with Teach Yourself and all these others is there’s always English in the audio, which is a nuisance because you have to listen more than once. And so the first time, okay, maybe the English helps you, but the second or third or fourth time, you can’t stand listening to that English. So the beginning material is there, but it’s that middle material and that’s what we’re trying to create now with the stories or the history of Iran. To me, that’s the biggest lack. That’s the only thing I lack. Everything else is there. You want to look up grammar, you can look it up. Netflix is great, YouTube, audio books, there’s all kinds of stuff at that other end, the real authentic stuff. It’s that intermediate stuff that’s not stupid, not childish, authentic and yet more accessible.

And how often do you find yourself sort of going back to languages that you studied five years ago or something? It must be hard to kind of keep them all in practice.

Yeah. I don’t really worry about it. If you have absorbed the language through lots of input and the brain has formed these sort of patterns and so forth, it’s not really a concern. If I have to use it for some reason, then I might go back and listen for a couple of hours. It doesn’t bother me that I will have forgotten some words. I think anybody who’s a language learner has to be prepared to accept the fact that there are things that you’ll forget. There are things that you won’t be able to do. If anyone tries to snare you on the fact that you don’t know the word for teacup in whatever language. Okay, fine. I’m not bothered by that at all.

Just out of personal curiosity, is there a language that you’ve studied that you feel that you’ve gotten a lot out of culturally or in life? Is there a favorite language that you have?

No. All of them. All of them. Every one of them. Czech, it’s only 10 million people, but I gravitate towards things having to do with history. So they had this wonderful history series. And so you’re learning about the Austria-Hungarian empire. Well, you’re learning about stuff going back further, the Austria-Hungarian empire. Every language is attractive and its own way. So yeah, China is like, wow, China. But even Czech, whatever, it’s all interesting. And Ukrainian, I mean to discover. People don’t know that Ukraine actually has its own history. It’s not like some appendage to Russia. So no, they’re all interesting.

And just the last question, do you have a language that you’re working on right now at a lower level?

Oh yeah, I’m working on and had been for a while and it’s going to take awhile, Persian, Arabic. I was doing three, Persian, Arabic and Turkish, but I put the Turkish aside because I wanted to focus on that Arabic writing system because as people who have learned another script, no, it’s one thing to decipher that script. It’s a completely different matter to get so used to it that you can comfortably read in it. And that takes a lot of reading. So I said I’m going to put Turkish in a way as a language might be more difficult, but it’s written in a Latin alphabet so it’s easier. So I’m focusing on Persian and Arabic right now.

And out of curiosity, when you’re starting to learn a writing system, are you using it with sort of like a different writing system underneath it that helps you figure out what the sounds are or are you just trying to individually memorize?

Yeah, I mean this is of course a real issue with Arabic and Persian, which are not truly phonetic. They’re sort of semi-phonetic. Well they’re phonetic, but there’s lots of pieces missing and letters that can be pronounced in different ways. No, fortunately we have text to speech, so I read. I read on the iPad or on the computer for the first long while in a new language so I can look up words, I can hear them pronounced. And then of course, I hear the natural voice when I listen to the lesson and the lesson might be three minutes long to start with. So I listen to that and then I don’t quite get it, I text to speech. I’ve never used the international phonetic alphabet. I think a lot of times that your transliterations can be a bit misleading. So I try to rely on the text to speech and the natural voice.