Steve Kaufmann: ‘Language learning with the internet is endless’

Steve Kaufmann – LingQ co-founder, hyperpolyglot, and speaker of 20 languages – talks language learning in the digital age

“English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, German, Russian, Portuguese, Cantonese, Italian, Ukrainian, Korean, Greek, Romanian, Polish – right now I’m working on Persian and Arabic,” Steve Kaufmann told Education Technology of his backlog of languages. 

76-year-old Kaufmann is a multi-lingual language enthusiast who has been studying language for over 50 years, and who co-founded the language learning app LingQ. 

Global travels and a passion for learning granted him an understanding of 20 languages, knowledge which he now teaches to others online via his YouTube channel.

We chatted to Kaufmann to explore his understanding of languages in the digital-learning era.

With 20 languages in your pocket, what was the first one that you decided to pursue learning? 

I was born in Sweden, and then at the age of five my family moved to Canada. I promptly forgot Swedish – we all spoke English at home. Although we learned French at school, I wasn’t very keen on it. 

Then I become very motivated through a professor at university who turned me on to French civilization and culture. The main role of a teacher is to motivate the learner. The teacher doesn’t have to teach the language – the teacher has to motivate the learner. Because once the learner is motivated, there’s no holding him or her back. 

Once you know you can learn a language – you have the confidence that you can do it, you know how to do it – then it becomes easier and easier. The brain becomes a little more flexible. 

Do you have any secrets to language learning? 

The secret to language learning is to be able to access content that is somewhat comprehensible and interesting to you. Consume a lot of it – focus on comprehension, focus on letting your brain get used to the new language and the new patterns. Don’t worry about what you forget, don’t worry about what you can’t do – just keep going. The brain will get used to it. 

It’s not easy – it’s enjoyable. It takes a long time. I’m studying Arabic and Persian right now, and I’ve been at it for three years. Discovering the language is fun. I think it takes you about three to six months, depending on the language, to get to a level where you can start exploring things that are genuinely interesting and fun – which you need them to be, because getting to fluency takes a long time. Getting to where you can say and understand a few things doesn’t take so long. 

People often teach languages with a lot of emphasis on the fine points of grammar – you’ve got to get the subjunctive, and you’ve got to hit the gender right every time. That’s just not going to happen. That will come after lots of exposure, once the brain is used to the language. 

There is an expectation of producing the language, and producing it right, whereas the emphasis should be on comprehension. If you get to a level where you understand some of the language, you’re now in a position to go after things that are more interesting. You can enjoy the language. Maybe you can watch a soap opera on Netflix in Spanish. 

There’s ways of enjoying the process without demanding that you score eight out of ten on some exam. 

A recent study showed culture to be one of the main motivators for people learning languages in the UK – do you think this has influenced people’s passion for language learning? 

Culture can be a big motivator, certainly for certain languages like anime for Japanese or Squid Game for Korean. 

There’s so many different reasons that motivate people, but I think the biggest thing is that if you can give people a sense of success, they want to continue. You can’t start off listening to dialogue or reading subtitles – it’s just too difficult. You need to have some level of understanding of how the language works, some basic vocabulary, before you can access that material. 

But once you’re close enough, then that material will take you a long way. Typically in school, we have a textbook. Once you finish that textbook, it’s over. Nowadays with the internet, it’s endless. 

One of the main ways people learn languages today is through digital tools. How does your app, LingQ, go about the language learning process? 

In every language, let’s say Spanish or French, we have X amount of material in the library for that language. Lessons always consist of audio and text – I think it’s very important to combine audio with reading, as they reinforce each other. 

Typically, at first, you may not understand very much. So, you read the text, and there’s flashcards if you want to review certain words. As you do this, the system finds out what you look up – the things you don’t look up, the system assumes that you know, and so after a while the system understands what your vocabulary level is. If you bring in new material, it’ll then tell you there are 15% new words there for you, for example. 

We have mini stories you can use to get to grips with the language, but then you can also import dialogue from Netflix, YouTube videos, newspaper articles, songs – you can import whatever you want. In terms of the content, it’s open ended. You can go forever. 

We also have tutors, so if you want to actually talk to someone you can. 

If you could give any top tips to anyone out there struggling to get to grips with a language, what would they be? 

Language learning should be fun. Find a way to make it fun. If you enjoy the process, you will continue. 

There’s two elements to language learning – your attitude, and the time you spent. That’s it. If you’re motivated, if you’re interested, if you’re confident, if you’re glad you’re doing it, if you think it’s worthwhile – these positive attitude elements are number one. Number two is spending the time doing it. Obviously, if you’re motivated, you’re going to spend that time. 

I remember when I was trying to learn German, I was looking at these declension tables and I wasn’t getting anywhere, because I was never going to remember them. We have to realise that we can’t remember these things. The focus should be on doing things that you enjoy doing. 

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