Learning languages as an adult

When you look at instructional videos, language instructors probably create more crap than instructors of all other fields combined. There is some good stuff out there, but most of it is cray cray. You’ve got this guy talking about how he started speaking Chinese after a conversation on a train, and you’ve got this guy creating a site called “Fluent in 3 months” (it’s not possible for most human beings to become fluent in any language in three or six months). There are all kinds of empty promises and snake oil from all over the web. Everyone wants the easiest path possible, which is why this stuff sells so well. In addition to the empty promises and snake oil, there’s also lots of “why would anyone do that?” videos, like the guys who learned four languages to a conversational level in one year (“Why would anyone do that?”). Anyway, today I wanted to blog about Steve Kaufmann in the video above, who is the real deal and shares some excellent advice on how to learn languages. He has a common sense method of learning through “input-based” learning.

Steve is fluent in 11 or 12 languages. Unlike most polyglots who say that one should just start speaking right away, Steve says that listening and reading are the most important skills. He advocates for not speaking too early; instead, he thinks it’s more important to get used to listening and picking up rhythm and meaning. He says that the most important thing is to study what is fun. Keeping it fun will keep you going. He also notes in one of his videos that language learning is very different than it was twenty years ago. In the past, it was hard to get one’s hands on good listening material. These days it’s free on the web. In the past, it was painful and slow to look up words in Asian languages. Now we have online dictionaries.

Steve advocates studying on one’s own for a set amount of time each day. An hour a day is a good start. He doesn’t believe in language classes because he feels it’s a waste of time to listen to your non-native fellow students butchering the target language. He also feels that each student needs to progress at his own pace and that a set curriculum could hold a student back. (He does strongly advocate for language books, but he just doesn’t like the class setting.)

I would agree with everything he says. The only area where I might disagree is what he says about drilling–I actually think drilling can be useful, especially as it relates to how people in different cultures often have an automatic response to certain cues. For example, in our culture, when someone says, “What’s up?” we say, “Not much.” Or “Hey!” “Hey, how are you doing?” If you’re learning English and you pause when someone says, “What’s up?” you can fix that problem with drilling. For more complex sentences, there aren’t automatic responses, but drilling might be able to improve one’s speed in creating sentences in the target language. When it comes to actually speaking, speed is underrated.

Anyway, check out his videos. If you lined up his videos in a single playlist, it would probably takes days or weeks to get through all of them, but all of the videos I’ve seen are highly informative. If you’re raising a bilingual or trilingual kid, you might be able to use his advice in conjunction with the book I recommended. Check it out.

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