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Alex: Good afternoon there.
Steve: Good afternoon, Alex. How are you?
Alex: I’m doing well, thank you.
Steve: Good. Yeah, it’s time to have another podcast.
You know, one subject that comes up and we’re both, obviously, interested in languages and learning languages and many of the people who listen to this podcast, by definition, they’re interested in learning languages, whether it be English or some other language.
There was a discussion on our forum about what are your motivations.
Actually, one of our LingQ members from China said what is your motivation for learning Chinese and then there was a discussion about motivation and so forth.
Of course, most often you hear you should learn Chinese because you should.
It’s a bit like in Canada you should learn French and, of course, because in Canada we should learn French, in fact, very few people learn French because you should learn French.
So, now, it’s you should learn Chinese because the economy is growing and you might get a job.
Does that really work, you should learn?
Alex: My experience has been the exact opposite.
Whereas, when I was in elementary school I was in Canada and we had French, obviously, mandatory French lessons.
When I was in grade seven I moved to the United States and I guess grade seven and eight I didn’t do any language study.
When I hit grade nine — high school — then there was the option to take either French or Spanish.
So I thought well, I already have some background in French and I have to take a language anyway so I’ll just take French.
I’ll say, quite honestly, at that point I really had about zero interest in French.
It was just to kind of fill that requirement.
So I spent four years at school learning French and it really didn’t amount to much.
Interesting enough, when I was in my senior year that was when I started to develop an interest in Korean.
So the four plus years that I spent in French — I don’t even know.
I mean I guess we start here in like grade three or something like that – resulted in quite a small amount of actual practical knowledge and ability where four years in Korean brought me way up to what I would consider conversational fluency.
I had great comfort in the language being able to express myself freely.
That being said, I guess since about a month ago that I started going back to French I have progressed a lot more quickly than I ever did when I was in a class because that motivation is there to keep me going day after day.
Steve: Well, why are you motivated to learn French now when you weren’t motivated before?
Alex: I would say two major reasons.
One, I’ve actually now met French people, as I mentioned in a previous podcast.
Steve: Oh, you’ve got in-laws now.
Alex: Exactly. My sister’s husband is a native French speaker.
He’s from Cameroon and all of his family speaks French.
So I actually now have face-to-face encounters with French people and it makes it more real to me rather than just a textbook or just talking to my classmate next to me.
Alex: And the other thing is that I have a greater appreciation for it.
I think that because now I’ve learned Korean successfully and, obviously, there’s still more to do, but I know that it’s possible.
I have the confidence in it.
So that then gives me the ability to say I’m going to learn French and actually do it.
Steve: So, really, there are two things.
The language itself becomes more real and the act of learning a language or languages becomes more meaningful because you’ve done it once.
I totally agree with this.
That’s why, for example, in Canada where they want the kids to learn French, if they would let them choose the language that they wanted to study.
Kids, you want to learn Spanish, you want to learn Chinese, do it.
Once a person has learned one foreign language they will have an easier time learning the second one because they have more confidence.
The act, as I say in my book, of converting yourself, transforming yourself into someone who can comfortably speak another language, until people have done that they don’t believe they can do it.
But now that you’ve done it with Korean, which is more difficult than French starting from English, I mean no common vocabulary.
Steve: You’ve got to tell yourself, well French has got to be a piece of cake because I did it for Korean.
And, of course, we build on success, right?
Steve: We build on success and to be successful you need motivation, so why wouldn’t they let kids in school choose the language that they want to learn.
Now, of course, they say well we don’t have teachers.
We can’t possibly have teachers for all these languages.
You don’t need the teacher.
You need a teacher who teaches how to learn because the resources for those languages are everywhere today on the Internet.
Steve: So instead of a French teacher and a Chinese teacher and a Spanish teacher and a German teacher, they need a specialist in the art of learning languages using the resources that are available.
So then offer kids in grade two or three stories that they can pick up wherever and have them listening and make the whole learning of languages an adventure suited to the age level of the kids.
Anyway, so yeah, motivation.
So, therefore, when people say, and people often ask me on my YouTube channel, what language should I learn?
Like how do I know?
You should learn the language that you’re most motivated to learn.
That should be the number one consideration.
Alex: Yeah, I totally agree with you and I think, from my own personal experience, there’s a huge difference between them.
It’s along the same lines of should I study History or should I study Math.
Well, it’s like if you’re interested in Math then study Math.
Steve: Right. The only difference is in school you don’t have the choice.
Alex: Right, exactly.
Steve: Like in elementary school they want you to do History and Math, so you don’t have the choice.
But when it comes to languages, the vast majority of English-speaking kids in Canada don’t learn French so, obviously, it’s not necessary.
However, any kid that goes through school and actually has a second language, he or she is in a much better position.
Alex: Yeah, definitely.
Steve: So any language, it needn’t be French.
Anyway… And, of course, there’s a lot of hype now about Chinese, must learn Chinese, and I think it’s silly.
I know even in Britain that’s the case.
In fact, I was once contacted by the BBC.
They were doing a story on sort of China, Chinese fad.
I wasn’t available to talk to them, but I would have said learn whichever language you want to learn.
If you want to learn Chinese, I mean there are a lot of reasons to learn Chinese, obviously.
It’s a fascinating language.
It’s a fascinating culture.
It’s one of the major cultures of the world.
Not that you should only learn major cultures.
If you’re interested in Estonian or whatever, Armenian or Mongolian, then go for it.
But if I’m in Britain and you want my advice on what you should get kids to do, I would go for a European language because you’re far more likely to have a chance to use that language.
Steve: But if you’re interested in Chinese, go for it.
That’s fine, but certainly don’t promote Chinese at the expense of other languages.
Have them all equally available and let people choose.
But if I were living in Britain, I wouldn’t begin with Chinese.
I would begin with French or German or Spanish and then once I have this confidence then I could move on to Chinese.
Now, you are proof of the reverse.
You chose not to bother with French.
Although, French is an official language in Canada, you took on a much more difficult language for you as an English speaker, Korean.
You achieved a very high level in Korean.
So, let people do what they want to do, but we shouldn’t be saying kids must learn Chinese, must learn French.
I’m totally against that.
Alex: Well, it’s counterproductive too.
Alex: Because as soon as you say you must then there’s resistance from people.
Steve: I know that from the experience of my own kids where I tried to get them to learn languages.
That was the kiss of death.
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: It’s like these immigrants who desperately want their children to speak their own language.
Often they feel guilty and they certainly make their kids feel guilty if they don’t learn the language.
Some kids want to and some kids don’t, but for the parents to make the kids learn the language for the parents’ sake, I think that’s ridiculous.
Now, some kids say gee, I wish my parents had insisted that I learn Chinese when I was a kid and stuff like that.
Yeah, maybe, but, in fact, if you were fighting it — it’s like piano lessons – if you were fighting it the whole way, there’s a reason why they gave up.
So, I still get back to this idea that anyone can learn at any age once they’re motivated.
Steve: So, if you’re of Chinese background and you want your kids to learn Chinese and they don’t want to learn Chinese they want to learn Spanish, let them learn Spanish and one day they’ll learn Chinese, maybe.
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: But yeah, no, this motivation.
Of course, in my own case with Chinese, it’s not like I all of a sudden woke up and said I wanted to learn Chinese.
It was part of my job.
I was assigned to learn Chinese because Canada was about to recognize the Peoples Republic of China and the government needed Chinese speakers.
So the trigger was work related, but I saw people around me who didn’t like studying Chinese.
They were Chinese language students like me.
They were resisting it at every step of the way.
In Chinese to say “are you going”, the Chinese “you go not go.” That’s the structure, “you go not go.” “Tomorrow you go not go?” It’s very basic.
These guys were saying why do they say it that way?
Isn’t that stupid?
How can you react to a language?
That’s how they do it.
Maybe the way we do it in English is stupid.
In fact, neither is stupid.
That’s just how it is.
Steve: So the trigger can be professional reasons, but if you don’t develop a motivation beyond the necessities, the sort of practical need, if you aren’t able to cultivate some interest, some enjoyment, you aren’t going to succeed.
So it may be that the trigger is job related, but you need more motivation than that in order to succeed.
And that brings up an interesting question then, too, of there are a lot of companies in foreign countries who want their employees to learn English.
From what I know, like I have some friends in Korea who are kind of in the situation where their companies are providing tutoring sessions for them and all sorts of different classes and the funny thing is that those friends that I have their English level is consistently declining because they simply don’t have that passion for it or that interest in it.
So it all comes down to something that you put before them that nobody really genuinely wants.
Steve: But then the question is, I mean, obviously, teachers would like to succeed.
I’m sure this is the thing that all teachers look for is how can I turn on, how can I motivate, how can I stimulate, how can I excite my students.
What’s the answer there?
I mean that’s the problem, really.
Alex: Yeah, it is, absolutely.
Steve: And particularly in a professional situation where you have employees who know they should improve their English for work and they maybe even get a bonus if they achieve a certain level in English, which is all very artificial because these levels are quite artificial, and still they can’t force themselves to do it.
I know English teachers, Canadians, who have gone to Japan and taught corporate learners and these guys can barely stay awake in the classroom.
If they stay awake in the classroom, guaranteed they don’t do anything on their own, so they’re not going to learn.
What do you do?
How do you get around that?
Alex: Yeah and that’s the interesting question, too.
I mean I think you bring up a good point of the teachers who really do want to motivate their students.
Those are really the best kinds of teachers, but it’s something that’s so much easier said than done.
I guess for my friends when they ask me what can I do to improve my English or whatever, my main suggestion is to find something that you find interesting.
What I found with Korean was as soon as I went away from the typical textbook where it’s just the same thing over and over again that doesn’t really apply to me to then putting it in a context of something that I’m actually interested in in English and kind of slowing switching that over to Korean that’s when it became interesting for me.
So I really like music, so when I started to not just listen to Korean music, but actually look at the lyrics, read through it, learn it through that, that was motivating for me as well.
When I actually picked up books on similar topics that I like, like technology stuff, I’ll read that stuff all day in English and so in Korean it was a bit more of a struggle, but at the same time it’s like well I want to know about this.