It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of the attitude of the learner. It is the deciding factor. Do you like the language? Do you think you can succeed? Can you see yourself as a speaker of the new language? Are you an independent-minded learner? These are the most important considerations in language learning success.

A talent for language learning

Some people learn faster than others. Some people pronounce better than others. Why is this? I am more and more convinced that it is a matter of attitude rather than talent. There is something that good language learners have in common. They can let themselves go. They are not afraid. They achieve that independence from their mother tongue. They do not ask questions about why the new language is this way or that way.

I do not know if you can you teach this attitude. I think that a teacher can inspire this attitude. It happened to me. Once the switch is turned on, everything else becomes easier. Of course it is stil important to learn in an efficient way.


Stephen Krashen, who has had a major influence on my approach to language learning, once said that the main goal of a language teacher is to create the conditions whereby the student can become an autonomous learner. The more independent the learner, the better he or she wil realize that freedom is key!

Freedom can mean many things. First the learner must strive to be as independent as possible of the teacher, of any explanations the teacher might have to provide, independent of the textbook and independent of the classroom. Of course the teacher has a role, as a guide, for feedback, for encouragement, for the occasional explanation etc.. But that role should be as smal as possible.

The learner should be free to choose content to learn from, to choose words and phrases to learn, and to choose the kind of learning activity that suits his or her mood.

The learner needs to be free of prejudice. I remember when I started learning Chinese, I had another Canadian learning with me. When he discovered that in Chinese the structure for saying “Are you going?” is “You go not go?”. His reaction was “that is sil y.” Yesterday I bought some Russian books and chatted with the Russian owner of the bookstore. He said that he gets mad at English because it is so il ogical. In Russian “This book” is enough, in English we need to say “This is a book.” This makes him mad.

We need to be free of the assumption that there is anything universal y logical about grammar, nor anything superior about the structures of our own language. Every language has its own “logic”, or way of saying things. Double negatives work in some languages and not in others. Some languages require the constant use of pronouns and articles, and others do not, etc.

Learning techniques that provide the maximum freedom for the learner are the most effective. These techniques are reading and listening. The book and the MP3 player are smal and amazingly powerful language learning tools. We can carry them and use them anywhere.

We are not dependent on finding native speakers to talk to. Even if we have native speakers around us, they may or may not be interested in talking to us and therefore we are dependent on them. If we can talk to native speakers and enjoy it, fine, but it is not necessary. It is not always available to us. Not so with our books and MP3 players. We can choose what to read and listen to, when to read and listen, and even re-read and re-listen. This immersion in the words, phrases, and sounds of the language are always available to us. It makes us free.

Good language learners

Who is good at languages?

? People who are motivated to learn languages.

? People who put enough time into learning languages.

? People who are not afraid to make mistakes.

? People who are good at simplifying tasks.

? People who are wil ing to imitate the behaviour of another culture.

? People who do not resist the new language and just accept it.

Make sure you have fun

I often see people who feel they have to learn a language, for work or for a test. Somehow these people often have trouble. They run into a wal . They stagnate. They just seem unable to achieve the kind of fluency they want or need.

People who enjoy the language do better. They do not even have to be surrounded by the language. These are people who enjoy listening and reading, who enjoy exploring the language, the history, the culture and the romance of the language. These people do wel , no matter where they live.

No learning without motivation

I remember one French company we approached about using our language system. They wil only pay for English language instruction for those employees who have demonstrated an ability and wil ingness to study English on their own, using some self-study method. Should we not expect the same of any language student, whether corporate, immigrant or university student, in other words whenever the cost of study is being covered by someone else?

Someone once said that to ensure that a person shows up to study, you either have to pay them or make them pay. That is not always true. The intrinsic motivation of a personal interest is the strongest of al , but sometimes we need to see the proof!

Find the time

There is a lot of money spent on English training in large and smal corporations. From what I can gather it can consist of a limited amount of contact with an English language instructor, often a native English speaker. This contact can be as seldom as once a week and often in a group. In the period between these English learning sessions the employee-students often do very little, because they are either too busy or not very interested. I suspect that people who are interested manage to find the time.


To be a successful language learner you have to deal with uncertainty. You have to accept that there wil always be words that you do not understand, and words that you pronounce wrong. There wil always be times when you do not real y get your meaning across as clearly or elegantly as you would like. You may meet someone or phone someone and the communication is more difficult than you would like. There can even be rejection.

Once you accept this as part of the adventure of language learning you are on your way. If you can actual y enjoy the experience, the chal enge of overcoming these difficulties and seeing them gradual y become smal er, then you wil enjoy learning. If you enjoy learning you wil improve.

Language improvement is so gradual and so uneven that it is easy to get discouraged.

Therefore, especial y for adult learners, it is important to just enjoy the process. The more you can learn from interesting and meaningful content, the more enjoyable the experience can be.

The less you are forced to be accurate or correct, the better.

So I always say. Do not expect perfection from yourself, but constantly work to improve.

And learn to accept uncertainty—it is one of the charms of language learning.

Speak when you feel like it

So when is the best time to start speaking? Some say we should start speaking from the beginning. I prefer to build up some knowledge and familiarity with the language first by listening and reading. Who is right? The answer, to me, is obvious.

You do what you want to do. The overwhelming principle for the self -directed language learner is that it should be fun. If it is fun you wil keep doing it. If you feel like speaking right away, speak. If you do not want to, don’t. If you speak, do not worry about your mistakes—you wil eventual y make fewer mistakes.

Passive learning

Language skil s are unlike most of the skil s we acquire in life. This is for two reasons. First because language is so important to everything we do, and second, because we learn language largely passively. We learn more by listening and reading than by speaking. This is true for our first language, and it is also true for any other language we learn.

Unless we have a physical disability, we al learn to talk. Some of us start talking earlier than others, but all children learn to speak their first language. We do this without any dril s or explanations, and largely without correction. We do not need a textbook to learn to speak. We just imitate what we hear, noticing words and phrases and patterns. In fact we learn as we listen passively, and then start talking when we feel like it. Some children, like Einstein, do not start talking until quite late, but they are learning al the time they are listening. How wel we learn to use the language wil depend on our exposure to the language, not when we start talking.

If we hear people around us talking about a wide variety of subjects as children, we natural y and passively pick up the words and phrases they use. If we pick up a lot of words, we wil have an advantage when we start school. If we read a lot in school, driven by what interests us, we wil acquire a larger and larger vocabulary and achieve a high level of literacy.

This wil give us an advantage in our education and in our professional life.

If we are exposed to a limited vocabulary as children growing up, and if we do not develop the habit of reading a lot, we wil not learn so many words, and we will have fewer phrases and ways of expressing ourselves. We wil do less wel in school and professional y. In general, remedial reading or grammar instruction wil not help the poor reader catch up. What wil help is increased exposure to the language, reading and listening to more and more stimulating and chal enging content. The earlier this starts the better, but it is never too late.

The same is true when we learn a second language. We mostly need to hear it and read it.

We do not need to be taught how to speak. It is something we do natural y. We can even take advantage of our knowledge of a first language to learn words in the new language faster. We do not need to experience everything in life over again. When we notice words, phrases and patterns in the new language, we at first relate them to our own language. Gradual y we get used to the strange patterns of the new language, and they start to seem natural. They become natural, not because they were explained to us, but because we have come across them so often in different interesting contexts.

We do not need instruction in pronunciation any more than we need instruction to imitate regional accents in our own language. We just need to let ourselves go, observe and imitate.

Unfortunately, we are often more self-conscious when pronouncing a new language because we take ourselves too seriously. We often are more relaxed when we try to imitate different accents in our own language, which is only playacting. This is not the case with the child who simply imitates without inhibition.

I have learned 10 languages. I always found passive learning enjoyable. I just listen, read, review and observe. As long as I am exposed to the language, I am learning passively and it does not matter when I start to use the language. I start using it when I feel like it. In fact I study what I want, on my own schedule. I do not need to start anywhere or finish anywhere. I can have several books or audio books going at the same time.

I fol ow my inclinations. Sometimes I am more motivated to review new words and phrases, sometimes I am more motivated to listen and read. I never know when I wil learn a word or language pattern. My brain seems to just learn them on its own schedule, not on a schedule set out by a teacher or a text book.

Whenever I was asked questions about my reading, questioned on my vocabulary, asked to fil in the blanks, or had to do tests, it disrupted my enjoyment of passive learning. It interrupted my learning. It annoyed me and my learning energy would fizzle.

Learning a language does require effort. But it is the effort of the learner pushing on a slightly open door, pursuing things of interest. It is the pleasant effort of passive learning.

Rubem Alves, a wonderful educator

Rubem Alves is a Brazilian educator whom I discovered as part of my Portuguese studies. I enjoy reading his comments and listening to his wonderful audio books.

Here is what Rubem Alves says about grammar.

“If the scientific knowledge of anatomy were a condition for making love, professors of anatomy would be unrivaled lovers. If the academic knowledge of grammar were a condition for making literature, grammarians would be unrivaled writers. But this is not the case…..Grammar is made with words that are dead. Literature is made with words that are alive.”

I had a post earlier about how learning a language is like fal ing in love. I real y feel that way. Now, it is possible that some people may fal in love with the grammar of a language. I do not deny that. Most people, however, do not. They fal in love with other things in the language: the sounds, the music, the rhythm, the words and phrases, the content, the literature, the culture, the people they can now reach out and touch. This can al be done with no knowledge of grammatical terms.

Alves goes on to say;

“There is a complete incompatibility between the pleasant experience of reading, a vagabond experience, and the experience of reading for the purpose of answering questions of meaning and understanding.?

And he goes on to say about students in a typical classroom:

“They were forced to learn so many things about the texts, grammar, analysis of syntax, that there was no time to be initiated into the only thing that mattered: the musical beauty of the literary text.”

And yes, learning a language is first and foremost about listening and reading and, if possible, loving the language. That comes first. If you can manage that, and if you can encourage learners to do that, the rest is easy.

The language teacher’s role should be to make the learner independent according to Krashen. Rubem Alves talks of encouraging students to fly, of helping them learn things that become a part of their bodies so they do not have to think of them. He quotes the parable of the centipede.

“Once a centipede was asked how he could operate al of his numerous feet in such an orderly manner without getting them confused. The centipede shook his head, shrugged, and said that he had never given it a thought. From that time on, the centipede became unable to move, the legs al got in the way of one another.”

Alves wants teachers to create hunger, so that students wil find their own way. He wants the learners to fal in love with what they are reading, so that they wil love reading. He disparages grammar and the other useless dictates of the curriculum. You cannot learn music just from the notes, he says, you first have to hear the song.

You cannot push on a rope

Recently I had a conversation at a local sushi bar. The person beside me was original y from Japan and had lived in Canada for over 30 years. His English was OK but not great. He commented that Canadians who go to Japan learn the language faster than Japanese who come to Canada. Of course this is not always true but it is often the case, even though Japanese people have up 10 years of English in school.

Most English-Canadians take French in school and cannot speak French. Tens of thousands of Canadian public employees have been sent to language school and did not become fluent in French. I have former col eagues in the Diplomatic Service who studied Chinese or Japanese and are unable to use the language. Yet Canadians who go to Japan to teach English often come back fluent in Japanese. I have two of them working for me in my lumber business (we export lumber to Japan).

I have read that graduates of French immersion in Canada do not become bilingual, and that it makes no difference whether they start in grade 1 or grade 7. Certainly the many ESL schools funded by government to teach immigrants English here in Canada, do not produce fluent speakers, and in fact, seem to have very little real impact.

It is impossible to teach an unmotivated learner. I do not mean motivated to get a better job or pass a test, but motivated to speak the language wel . I doubt it. Maybe we should stop trying.


Many people attribute language learning success to talent. Of course, the talent for language learning may vary from person to person. The important question is whether talent is the most important factor in determining language learning success. I do not think it is. Wel , then what is?

One has to be open. It helps to be outgoing and unafraid of making mistakes. Al of that is true, but it is also true that learning and speaking a foreign language is stressful and tiring. Why would people deliberately impose this stress on themselves?

Perhaps it is necessity. But then there are many examples of people who have a strong need to improve their language skil s, who can earn more money if they improve their language skil s, and yet they do not learn. Often they real y do not try very hard, or if they do try, they do not succeed.

If I think about the good language learners that I have known, who exist in every language and cultural group, what they al had in common was curiosity. They were curious about another culture. They were interested in another language. That was what enabled them to accept the stress of learning and speaking a foreign language, and to overcome the obstacles.

So, for a teacher, stimulating that curiosity and maintaining it is the number one responsibility.

We all have our price

An old man approached an attractive young socialite at a party. “For one mil ion dol ars, would you sleep with me?? he asked her. ?I might consider it,? replied the girl. ?Wel how about for $20 then,? said the old man. ?What do you think I am, a prostitute?? exclaimed the girl, her feelings hurt. ?We have already established that,? said the old man. ?We are just negotiating the price.?

I like to ask “if I gave you a million dollars to learn the language in six months, do you think you could learn?” Then the answer is yes. I guess like in the story about the old man and the pretty young socialite at the cocktail party, everyone has their price.

We are different

In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote ?al happy families are happy in the same way but unhappy families find their own individual ways to be unhappy ,” or words to that effect.

Al good language learners, of whatever national origin, are in some ways the same. What about those who struggle? Does it depend on their nationality? Here I am fol owing up on Hiroshi’s comment on Swedes speaking so wel .

I know Japanese people who speak English very well. Yet it is true that most Japanese people I meet in business, or who are living and working in Canada, struggle with their English.

There is much hand-wringing in Japan over their poor average TOEIC scores and other indicators that even in Asia, the Japanese do more poorly than other countries.

In my view the Japanese face a few unique obstacles and share other problems with other larger language groups. These problems do not affect those language learners who manage to liberate themselves from these obstacles. These are the good Japanese language learners who are in the same category as the Swedes we are talking about, and al other good language learners whether from Asia, Africa, Europe or wherever.

A major problem is the “language or cultural ego” that Hiroshi referred to. ?We are unique.

Our language is unique. Our culture/language is uniquely refined, difficult, exp ressive. I do not want to lose my uniqueness.

How can I possibly become a fluent speaker of another language when I am so unique?”

This attitude is strong in Japan and East Asia, but also exists to varying degrees among other people everywhere.

If you cannot believe in, and look forward to, the idea that you wil become a natural speaker of another language; if you cannot make another language and some of the behaviour of another culture your model to imitate and emulate; if you resist this process; if you think this process is a big serious deal, rather than an entertaining adventure; you wil always be on the outside of the language looking in.

Let’s look at other factors. It is certainly true that the sentence structure, vocabulary and pronunciation of Swedish are very close to English. This is not the case with Japanese.

Japanese has relatively few sounds compared to many other languages. This wil make it more difficult for Japanese learners to acquire new sounds, since they are not familiar with as many sounds as, say, the Swedes. The Japanese would have an easier time with Spanish where the vowels are similar to Japanese. They would stil face the problems of sentence structure and vocabulary and lack of confidence.

The Kana writing system is another obstacle. In the Kana phonetic systems, each symbol stands for a syl able. Many Japanese learn other languages with Kana as a phonetic guide. Most of their teachers are Japanese and not native speakers of English. This is a formula for failure.

A combination of using Kana and a Japanese teacher’s pronunciation as phonetic guide would certainly put the Japanese learner at a disadvantage. With modern MP3 technology available, there is no excuse for this kind of education.

Young Swedes hear a lot of English on TV and radio, and even if they hardly ever speak English, they understand it, often repeat words and phrases from pop culture, and are ready to speak as soon as they need to. They pick up the natural phrases of English. This may include slang, but need not. It is just the natural phrasing. The Japanese seem to do more translating from Japanese, and their phrasing reflects this. They seem more reluctant to just attempt to use the phrases that they hear in English. Observing, identifying and learning phrases needs to be emphasized much more.

Japanese people general y have less personal exposure to English speaking culture, or any non-domestic culture, than Europeans. You need to have confidence to use a new language.

You need to just jump in and use what you heard, without worrying. Perhaps it is not fair to compare Japanese people with Swedes, when it comes to learning English. It would be interesting to compare Japanese and Swedes in learning unrelated third languages, or even languages like Chinese or Korean which have a lot of vocabulary in common with Japanese.

I think the differences that arise wil be individual differences of attitude and learning method, not of innate learning ability, nor differences of nationality. Everyone can be a linguist if the real y want to be, and if they treat it as an enjoyable adventure.

Why I decided to learn Russian

Leonid asked, in a comment, what my reasons were for choosing to learn a new language.

So let me give them here, working backwards from my most recent learning activities. I have always been interested in Russian literature, which I have read in translation. I read The Idiot by Dostoevsky in French, as one the first ful -length novels I ever read in French, at the age of seventeen.

But I had a more specific reason. Ever since I studied Chinese, I have believed that teaching and explaining and giving questions on grammar has a negative effect on language learning. In my view, occasional grammar explanations can be helpful, after the learner has absorbed a lot of the language. However, introducing theoretical explanations at the beginning, in an attempt to describe what the learner wil encounter in the language, spoils the fun and is counterproductive. I think we learn better if we just discover the language through input, lots of listening and efficient vocabulary accumulation. We train ourselves to become observant. I guess it is like the difference between just being the passenger in a car and doing the driving yourself. If you are the driver you notice things and you remember the route.

I was concerned that this approach only worked for “grammar light” languages like Chinese or Japanese. Even though I had, in my own mind, confirmed this truth when learning German and Italian, I wanted to test it again in a “grammar heavy” language like Russian.

Perhaps I am not objective, but I did find that I could not make sense of the grammar explanations of the cases etc. in Russian, but I was able to get used to how the language works through a lot of listening, reading, and vocabulary review.

Why I decided to learn Korean

We started the Linguist system with the local immigrant population in mind. I began buying infomercial time on local Chinese language radio stations . What made sense for the local Chinese community also made sense for the Koreans. There are a lot of Koreans in Vancouver.

Korea itself is also a large potential market. Speaking the language would give me credibility.

From a personal interest point of view there were other reasons. Learning Korean represented “low-hanging fruit” in the sense that I had already learned Chinese and Japanese and could get a further return on my investment by studying the language. I also enjoyed the sound of the language. I find the male Korean language quite strong and masculine and the female version elegant and feminine. I was also intrigued by the writing system, Hangul, which is unique and quite efficient. (The official transliteration system into the Latin alphabet, on the other hand, is hopeless from the point of view of the foreigner. Fortunately, as a learner, you can essentially ignore it by relying on sound and Hangul.)

Incidentally, to me language learning confirms the French adage that ?l’appetit vient en mangeant?. Even if moderately interested in a language, for a true language learner, the more you get into it, the more you like it. I thought Cantonese sounded ugly until I started learning it. I guess the same wil happen to me when I start learning Dutch.


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