This and all episodes of this podcast are available to study as a lesson on LingQ. Try it here.
Steve is interviewed on C’est La Vie, a radio program on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).
Announcer: This week on the program we’re going to meet a Vancouver man who thinks that the conventional way of teaching language is all wrong.
Steve: I think one of the major problems we have in language instruction — and this is certainly true in our school system – is that we try to get people to produce the language too early and they’re bound to fail.
Announcer: Steve Kaufmann has developed an alternative way of learning languages and it sure has worked for him.
He speaks French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Swedish.
He’s also fluent in German, Italian and Cantonese and these days he’s working on his Russian, he’s reading Pushkin.
Steve Kaufmann is a former diplomat, he owns a lumber company in B.C., but his real passion is a Website that he’s created for language learning, it’s called LingQ.com.
You spell it l-i-n-g-q.com.
I reached Steve Kaufmann in Vancouver.
Steve Kaufmann, hello.
Announcer: So tell me, you came to Montreal from Sweden when you were a small child.
Announcer: What was it like experiencing another language?
Steve: Well, you know, I was five years old and so I have no recollection of moving from Swedish to English.
I went to school in grade one, I had my friends, I probably had an accent, I wasn’t aware of it and within two years or so I couldn’t speak any Swedish.
My parents said, we’re in Canada now and you’re going to learn English.
I mean we were in the English part of Montreal and so I became a Montreal Anglophone painlessly.
I have no recollection of speaking Swedish, although I did for the first five years of my life.
Announcer: And in the house what language did your parents speak?
Steve: Well they spoke English with my brother and me, but they were originally from Czechoslovakia, so they actually spoke mostly German to each other, German and Czech, because we’re a Jewish family.
I mean you have to remember my grandparents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Announcer: Ha, so there was no attempt at all to maintain a sense of family tradition or language and culture.
Announcer: You were coming to Canada and that was it.
Steve: And bear in mind that they had left Czechoslovakia to go to Sweden and so then in Sweden we spoke Swedish.
I must say in my family, including my uncle who lives in Sweden, the approach has always been if you’re in Sweden you speak Swedish, if you’re in Canada you speak English or perhaps today it would have been French, but basically.
This is quite topical in Quebec these days, but yeah, you fit in, you’re here now.
Announcer: That’s it.
Announcer: Okay, so now you’ve learned English, how did you come to learn French?
Steve: Well, as I say, I was a typical, you know, Anglophone.
We had French at school, I wasn’t very interested, I couldn’t speak it, but we had a professor – I went to McGill – and he had a course in French Civilization and, of course, French Civilization is attractive in itself, but he was an excellent professor.
I’ve always said that the key role of a teacher is to turn on the student.
Steve: And he turned me on.
Announcer: Oh great. What was the key element that made it possible for you to learn?
Steve: My enthusiasm.
Steve: Because, you know, if you’re in Montreal you can learn French.
So once I was turned on I would go and read Le Devoir and I would listen to French radio and I went around trying to meet Francophones and try to speak French.
Announcer: Okay, so let’s continue the progress, how did you come to learn the next language?
Steve: Well, you know, what happened was I got so keen on French that I went to France and I studied there for three years and then at the L’Institut D’Etudes Politiques in Paris.
I took the Foreign Service Exam, which was offered at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, I was accepted as a Trade Commissioner and I got wind of the fact that they were looking for someone to learn Chinese.
Having learnt French and, you know, once you’ve transformed yourself from someone who doesn’t just dabble in another language, but actually speaks it comfortably, then you feel confident that you can do it again.
So I said they’re going to send someone to learn Chinese and that’s going to be me.
So I started taking lessons on my own, didn’t learn very much, but then I announced to the management there that I had been learning Chinese on my own, so why not send me, you know?
And they said yeah, that makes sense, so they sent me to Hong Kong where I studied Mandarin Chinese.
Announcer: Okay, and the other languages?
Steve: Well, after my stint in Hong Kong and in and out of China then I was posted to Japan, so I learnt Japanese largely in Japan.
Then once you discover that you’re good at doing something then, of course, you want to do more of it.
So, you know, my bookshelves are lined with books for learning and CDs and, of course, in the old days, cassette tapes in German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, you name it and most recently Cantonese, Russian, Korean and Portuguese.
Announcer: So that will make a total of …?
Steve: Yeah, once I get to Korean.
I’ve dropped it because I’m doing Russian right now, but it would make 12 eventually, but I say 10 right now.
Announcer: Okay, so when you go about learning a new language what’s your approach?
Steve: I am…you know, my approach…let’s take the most recent language, which is Russian.
I’ve been learning it on my own for two years an hour a day when I have time and I hardly ever speak.
My belief is that you have to first take in the language and you have to take in a lot of the language, so I’m now at the stage where I can read…you know I’m reading and listening to Pushkin right now, you know, The Captain’s Daughter, which is a great story.
So I am enjoying the language, I’m doing what I want to do with the language, I don’t feel any pressure to speak, but when I…
Announcer: But how do you know…
Announcer: I’m sorry, but I’m just wondering, how do you know that you’re pronouncing the words properly?
Steve: Oh, I know.
Because, first of all, I have YouTubes of myself speaking Russian and I get complimented on my Russian.
But having spent such a long time listening to Russian, when I go to make the sounds of Russian, I do a better job than if I’d tried too hard at the beginning.
I think one of the major problems we have in language instruction — and this is certainly true in our school system – is that we try to get people to produce the language too early and they’re bound to fail.
Announcer: Oh, so then you look at the words and where do you go from there?
How do you acquire the ability to read the words?
Steve: Well, I mean in the case of Russian, obviously, you’ve got to spend a little time understanding their alphabet, but it’s not that different.
It’s not like when I learned Chinese, alright, so if I use our system LingQ, for example, which is what I’ve used for Russian, we have very simple content that’s 30 seconds long, so I can listen to it.
We have that same content available in English, so I could even listen to the Russian and read in English.
I have a sense of what it’s about, then I listen again and I read along and then I save words that I look up again on the computer.
You can immediately see the meaning and then I save that to a database of words and phrases, which then I review using flashcards.
I might listen to that first 30 second content 30 times, so I do what I call intensive listening, in other words, frequently listening to the same content for the beginning stage.
Then as you get better you don’t have to listen 30 times you listen six or seven times and read and save words and then review the words and flashcard them and so forth.
Okay, I’m sure there are people listening in and saying yeah, okay, that’s fine for this guy.
I mean he can speak 12 languages; he’s got a special gift.
I’d never be able to do that.
What do you think?
Steve: Well, I think just about anyone can.
I think the key is listening, you’ve got to hear what people are saying, how they’re pronouncing it.
I mean I know unilingual English people here in Vancouver who went to Japan and spent a lot of time with Japanese people.
I mean we have a girl who works in our office, she speak with an Osaka accent.
If people are willing to listen, if they like the language, if they can visualize themselves as a speaker of that language, they can do it.
Announcer: Where did you get the idea to create a Website?
Steve: You know it’s a combination of two things, one is I had all these books at home that were full of words that I didn’t know and when you look up in a dictionary no sooner do you close the dictionary then you’ve forgotten what the dictionary definition was, so I said I need a more efficient way to improve my languages.
It’s a combination really then of discovering the wealth of audio books that are out there, the convenience of MP3 technology, the convenience of the online instant dictionary and all the things you can do with e-Text and sound files.
So we said we can create a much better way of learning, so that was one part of it like the selfish, I want to do it for myself.
The other part was that we had an immigrant from China who had high scores on the test of English proficiency, etc., but his English…we had an employee and his English was very poor.
I realized that a lot of the professional immigrants, in fact, have a lot of trouble with English and that the established ESL instruction, you know, classroom-based system doesn’t serve them very well, so I said hey, you know, I want it for myself, plus this could be useful to this group of people, so why don’t we try and do something and that was about six years ago.
Announcer: Okay, so what makes your approach different from others?
Steve: Well I think, first of all, we put the learner at the center, you know.
People choose the content that they want to listen to, so we basically fill up our content with a range of material, always sound and text.
I mean you should never work on something where you don’t have the sound.
And then the learner chooses the words and phrases that they want to learn and it’s just very efficient, because we keep statistics on the words you’re learning.
You set goals, you can flashcard these and largely it’s fun.
People enjoy doing it and we don’t demand any sort of standards of performance and people just learn more quickly.
Announcer: At the beginning you said that when you were starting teaching yourself Russian you might look at something and do it over 30 times.
I’m wondering, how much time does one, for example, someone wanting to learn French here in Canada, how much time would one have to use the program to be able to acquire the language?
Now the average person going at French in Canada probably had some French in school, so they would be at a bit of an advantage over me going into Russian, but I think 45 minutes to an hour a day.
But let’s look at where I do my studying, I do my studying when I’m gardening, when I’m doing the dishes, when I go for a run, when I’m in my car.
The portability of the MP3 Player just makes learning languages so convenient.
I don’t sit down in my chair at home and say I’m going to listen to Russian for an hour now, I don’t do that.
If I were to take the time then I would read, so it’s the convenience of the MP3 Player and the quality of the sound and the availability of good content.
Announcer: So when you’re in your car with your MP3 Player you’re listening and you’re repeating the sounds?
Steve: I may, occasionally, especially in the early stages repeat along.
On our site we’re going to have little phrases that you can click on and hear and repeat, but I tend not to do that.
It’s probably not a bad thing to do, but, you know, I guess I’m lazy to some extent.
Announcer: It’s just basically listening I guess.
Steve: I’m just basically listening and, initially, they’re short stories that I’m listening over and over to.
Now I’m at the stage where I’m looking forward to the next chapter in whatever story I’m listening to.
Announcer: So 45 minutes a day?
For how long a period of time?
Steve: Well, you know, in the case of Russian I’ve been at it for two years.
Steve: But, you know, I have no immediate need to go out and speak, so I’m happy doing it; it’s something that I enjoy doing.
I’ve gone from Tolstoy to Turgenev to Pushkin, so I am doing what I want to do in the language.
Steve: Now for someone say with French, if they have a specific goal, then I would recommend, certainly if they were at LingQ, that they do take on a tutor so that they can speak to the tutor via Skype.
In fact, I was speaking to a lady from Montreal this morning in English; she’s learning English with us.
I would also recommend writing, so if you’re in a hurry to produce the language then it’s probably a good idea to have a tutor and to do more writing and speaking, but still the bulk of the time is listening.
I think with French, given the fact that we’ve all had some exposure to it and the fact that there is more common vocabulary with English than is the case with Russian, I think six months you would start to see some really significant improvement.
Announcer: Why do you think that your approach is more effective than the way it’s taught in schools, for example?
Steve: Well, my feeling is that if…okay, why I think mine is better is because it’s based on enjoying the language.
If you say to kids who probably aren’t that motivated, you’re going to have to learn this, you know, parts of speech and these rules and then we’re going to test you on it, I don’t think that gets too many people interested.
It’s like myself when I was at school.
Even my kids, I tried to get them to learn French, they weren’t interested until my son ended up playing professional hockey in Europe.
So he was playing in Germany and Italy and he started to see some benefit in learning another language, now he’s interested in French.
I think the problem in school is they don’t put enough emphasis on what I said at the beginning, the need to turn people on to the language.
I think our approach…if we can find content that’s of interest and if we allow people to choose things that are of interest and we just encourage them to listen and read and to build up their vocabulary and in our system you can actually see the statistics as your vocabulary is growing, that gives people a sense of satisfaction.
All of that I think is more positive than trying to force them to remember rules of grammar or to produce the language correctly, which just takes a lot of time and a lot of input and is better done, I believe, through a process of getting used to the language rather than a process of trying to logically explain the language.
Announcer: And visualizing yourself as a speaker of the language.
Steve: Well that’s right, the motivation is the beginning.
Until you say I want to be a French speaker and even visualizing yourself.
When I speak Chinese or learnt Chinese or Japanese or French I was one of them.
You know you can’t see yourself as an Anglophone timidly trying to learn to say a few words in another language; you’ve got to say I’m going to be part of their group.
Announcer: Now you’ve been a diplomat, you have a lumber company in British Columbia, why is it important for you to start this Website and language training?
Steve: It’s not, but it’s become an all-consuming passion.
We had this employee from China, we started out developing something that would serve the needs of this sort of immigrant community, in fact, that has not been our market.
What has happened because we’re on the Internet we, in fact, have more people in Japan, Brazil, Europe, Latin-America joining us than immigrants here.
Announcer: How many clients to you have so far?
Steve: Well, part of the thing to get this going we offer the bulk of our functionality free, so we have about 24,000 free members.
It’s really only if you need a tutor that you have to pay, so we have a much smaller number of people who are paying for the use of a tutor.
But at this stage that’s fine with us, we’re hoping to expand and hoping that people will tell their friends.
We’ve got to come up with a value-added proposition that people are also willing to pay for.
I think the model on the Internet is that a small number of premium users sort of pay for a large number of free-riders.
Announcer: That’s the new trend, that’s how you make money on the Internet.
Steve: I don’t know about the making money part yet, but that’s what you do, in any case.
Announcer: Right. Hey Mr. Kaufmann it’s been great speaking with you.
Thank you very much.
Steve: I’ve enjoyed it, thank you.
Announcer: Steve Kaufmann is the founder of a language-learning Website called LingQ.com, that’s l-i-n-g-q.com.
There’s a link to it on our Website and our Website is CBC.CA/Cestlavie.