English 2.0 Podcast #27: Polyglot Steve Kaufmann On His Latest Language Learning Challenge

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Steve Kaufmann speaks 20 languages and recently challenged himself to 90 days of consistent study in Persian and Arabic on LingQ. In this video he talks about his progress 30 days in, the difficulties he has faced and the content he has been enjoying.

Elle: Hi everyone and welcome to the link podcast with me, Elle. If you would like to study the transcript to this podcast episode and all past podcast episodes as an English lesson, you can do so on LingQ. I will always pop the link to the lesson in the description.

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This week I am joined by the man, the legend LingQ co-founder and YouTube polyglot Steve Kaufman. Steve, how are you?

Steve: I’m fine Elle, how are you?

Elle: I’m good. Thank you. I’m good now that we are in 25 degree heat, as opposed to 41 degree heat that we just previously had.

Steve: Yes, we’ve had… that was extraordinary. Extraordinary how hot it was. Yeah.

Um, yeah. And, and, uh, just as an aside, of course, some people may know that the town of Lytton in the interior set a record of 49, almost 50 degrees of heat centigrade, whatever that is in Fahrenheit, 120 plus, uh, and then the whole town had to evacuate and the town basically was burned to the ground because they had this enormous forest fire. And then they showed pictures of, there’s so much heat over the interior of the province that is creating these massive and multiple lightning strikes, which of course creates more forest fires, which creates more heat. It’s just a horrendous  situation.

Elle: Scary for the season ahead.

Steve: You know, I was, I, uh, I had to, I had a few chores to do, so I went to, had to go to get some insurance at the insurance office. One of the two ladies there spoke Farsi. So I was able to practice my Farsi. Then I went to the liquor store to buy some wine and the checkout lady there spoke Farsi. So I was able to speak Farsi with her. Then I went to the supermarket and then the checkout lady there spoke Farsi.

So I spoke Farsi again, just in, it’s amazing. It’s amazing. And, and I’m reminded of that, uh, there was a gentleman standing behind me in line and we started chatting and we were chatting about, you know, we don’t need to wear the masks anymore, and some people feel more comfortable wearing masks and that’s fine too.

And, and, uh, he was from Lillooet, which is  very near Lytton. And I said, how are things up there? You know, cause they’re right in the, I call it the eye of the storm. And he said, he said he has a small business, 20 employees. He was basically, they were all waiting to see if they would also be evacuated and they could see the fire.

But the fires didn’t come their way. And apparently there was a heavy rain storm and that seems to have dampened things a little bit. Uh, but it was interesting. He’s originally from, uh, North Vancouver and we had a long chat. He’d moved up there and he runs a bakery. And so I said, you know, my wife likes making sourdough bread.

And so we talked about baking and stuff like that. So I was very… but here’s a guy he’s from he’s right on the front lines of the whole heat wave fire, forest fires situation.

Elle: It’s really scary. I live,  so I’m in North Van I can see the mountains from my street and they’re scorched, they’re brown. A lot of the trees have been scorched. And so, yeah.

Steve: Oh, I hadn’t seen that. So nearby us then.

Elle: Yeah, Grouse Mountain, up that way. Um, my husband’s lived here his whole life, on this street, and he said he’s never seen that before. So it’s kind of scary for the wildfire season.

Steve: I mean, if we get a forest fire here in Vancouver, there is no shortage of vegetation. I mean, there’s so many trees everywhere.

Elle: Yeah, it’s a scary thought for sure.

Steve: I mean, there always used to be forest fires. The, the difference is there’s a lot more people living in the forest, but the forest always used to burn regularly. It’s scary.

Elle: It is. Um, so I wanted to ask you about your challenge, um…

Steve: right.

Elle: Uh, anyone who isn’t aware, steve started a 90-Day Challenge 30 days ago now, right? So you’re a third of the way through. Anyone who doesn’t…

Steve: only 30 days? I was hoping I was further along than that.

Elle: Is it dragging, or is it tough to meet your targets?

Steve: Uh, you know, not all of our decisions are good ones.

Elle: It’s intense, right? A 90-Day Challenge is intense. For anyone who doesn’t know, a 90-Day Challenge is 90 days of consistent study every day on LingQ, uh, hitting your targets. So reading, listening, Creating LingQs, which are words and phrases that you don’t know that you’ve translate and saved to your database. You’ve also, you’re also in a Streak with Steve Challenge, which is meeting your daily LingQs target, and which keeps you in a streak for, for 90 days.

That’s an intense one, also. So you’re being sufficiently challenged right now on LingQ. How’s it going?

Steve: Um, well, I saw that Streak with Steve didn’t fully understand what it entailed, but I thought that what I would try to do is force myself to study both Farsi and Arabic. So I’ll do two languages and set myself lower goals, like only create 13 LingQs. In other words, look up and save 13 new words initially in each language. And I think I kept that up for a while, but that’s too difficult to do. Uh, I, I find myself wanting to spend at least one week on one language and then one week on the other language, um, I find it’s a bit confusing to do two languages like that.

Uh, I’m committed to doing it. Uh, otherwise I think I would just go back to saying work on one for three months, really get into it, then work on the other because I find that I don’t slip that much. I can go back and do my mini stories again and it’ll come back to me, right? So I find that it’s a little bit confusing now to be in one in the other back to the first one, again, not, not an ideal situation, but this depends.

Some people do that. Some people study three languages at the same time and they’re happy doing it. I think I’m, um, I prefer to stay focused on one at a time. That’s kind of my conclusion, but I’m committed to doing this. So I’m gonna.

Elle: Had you ever previously studied two languages like this? You hadn’t done two languages in a challenge before, I know that, but…

Steve: No, I went, I once went at three and I was more ambitious and maybe I was just more, um, had more energy then or something. I was trying to do a hundred LingQs a day in three languages: Arabic Farsi, and Turkish. But when you’re starting up in a language, it’s so easy to create LingQs because every lesson has a whole bunch of unknown words in it.

But now in those languages, I’ve, I’ve been at it so long that I have a lot of yellow sort of saved LingQs. Words that I have looked up, but I don’t yet know. So, you know, if you just want to crank up the number of new LingQs, you just go into new material. And if the page is full of blue, unknown words, you have very quickly reached your goal.

But now even if I bring in new material in Farsi or Arabic, there aren’t that many blue words, but it doesn’t mean that I know the yellow words. I don’t know them very often. I haven’t seen them often enough to, to know. Uh, I do have the sense that certainly I understand a lot better than I did before.

And, um, so in order to create those 13 LingQs a day, I have to go out and get new material every day, which again, it’s easier in Farsi because Sahra who’s our  collaborator in Iran is constantly creating good content for me, uh, Iranian filmmakers or Iranian food or Iranian history. So that part of it is easy.

The Arabic is a little more difficult. But I’ve even started branching off into Egyptian Arabic and, and, uh, you know, because, because the Arabic world is so different. So if I had a Ted Talk in Levantine Arabic, then I want to try to understand that and look up the words there. Uh, my tutor is from Cairo and we’ve been going through some Egyptian, Arabic texts.

And so I’m just playing around. Like, I’m not, I’m not going to write a test in any of this stuff. So I’m just doing, I’m sort of exploring and enjoying. And, um, the challenge is not, you know, it’s not what motivates me. What motivates me is my interest in what I’m listening to and reading. But I know that for many people, these challenges, uh, become a major motivator.

People don’t have much time and they need that extra, basically a nudge to make sure they do something every day. And it’s so important to do something every day. So I think it’s a good idea to, to have these challenges, but I’m kind of not living up to my commitments.

Elle: Okay.

Well thank you for being so honest. That’s great. Um, are you speaking, you are speaking in the languages too, as part of the challenge or just as part of your weekly study for Persian and Arabic?

Steve: Yeah.

I’ve uh, so I’ll have say maybe three sessions in Farsi with Sahra and then three sessions with Mohammed in Egyptian. I really enjoy my time with both of them because they’re very nice.

They just keep me going. I don’t have to worry about what we’re going to talk about. I think we have a good rapport. So it’s just like sitting down with a friend and, uh, speaking. So, and then I get a report back with my mistakes and the recording. And so the whole thing works very well, but three a week is enough because I have to fit this in with all of the other things that I, commitments that I might have, you know?

Elle: Right. And so the what, so then Sahra, and is it Mohammed? Your, um…

Steve: Mohammed, yeah. Mohammed in Cairo and I Sahra she’s in Northern Iran.

Elle: Okay.

And so they prepare, do they give you reading or talk to you about things they know that you’ve read?

Steve: No, no, no, no. If I want to, then I can, but normally we just show up. They’re not prepared. I’m not prepared. Um, because we’re venturing into Egyptian Arabic, so with Mohammed, we did some reading of the mini stories in Egyptian Arabic. Uh, I found also in our library at LingQ a series of, uh, interviews with people in Egypt, in Arabic.

And because these are not scripted, they’re sort of more natural, you know, you know, people using the equivalent of, “you know”, “like”, “I mean”, you know? So you got a lot of this sort of filler words stuff. So it’s very conversational, sort of Egyptian Arabic. And I’m reading through this with Mohammed and typically we’ll have maybe even half of the time will be spent reading, and then half of the time speaking, I think my Farsi is better than my Arabic. Now it used to be the other way around and that’s because, uh, Farsi is just so much easier.

Elle: Okay.

Steve: So much easier. Yeah.

And it doesn’t have this complication of different forms of… I mean, there may be different forms of Farsi, but basically there’s two forms of Farsi.

There’s a more formal form, which is, which has sort of the written form. And then the form that people use to speak, not very different, essentially the same words, some different endings, some slightly different vowels is not a big deal. So, whereas with, with Arabic, you know, Egypt, uh, Gulf Arabic, uh, Lebanese, Arabic, Moroccan, Arabic, they’re all there.

Elle: What do you, what… so you mentioned that you were out today and you spoke to three people in Farsi. How, how are you received when you start chatting to them?

Steve: Uh, you know, the, the different sort of national groups react differently. Like if you were to generalize, the Farsi speakers are so pleased when they hear you speak Farsi and they’re so encouraging and accommodating. And it’s funny, I was out swimming in the ocean the other night, and there was a couple swimming and they started had some kind of, I don’t know, small boat or inflatable boat, and they were both in the water and splashing around. And there were a couple in their fifties or early sixties. And, uh, I heard them speaking Farsi.

So I spoke to them in Farsi. Now you can imagine their surprise, they’re swimming here in West Van and all of a sudden, some guy, some old geezer speaks to them and, uh, and, uh, so they reply. You’re speaking. Are you, are you speaking Farsi? Yeah, guess what, I’m speaking Farsi. So we had a bit of a chat, uh, but generally, I mean the, the one, the one lady at the supermarket I’ve spoken to her before.

She’s always very nice. She speaks to me in Farsi. Sometimes the inclination is for them to come back in uh, you know, to prove like, well, you know, I’ve been in Canada for 10 years, so I speak English very well, you know, so they need to demonstrate that, you know, but this lady at the supermarket, she’s always very nice.

Oh, I haven’t seen you in awhile. How are you? And we went back and forth in Farsi. Yeah.

Be careful because there’s a lineup at the checkout, you know, I can’t just sit, stand there and talk to her while people are waiting to pay for their groceries. But, um, yeah if I see someone see their name hear in their accent, I know you’re not supposed to do this, but if I figured that they’re Farsi speakers, I say, do you speak Farsi?

And then normally react very well.

Elle: I don’t know that you’re not supposed to do that. I don’t think that’s…

Steve: Well there’s this whole idea, like, especially like, so the, the people who seem to be the most sensitive sometimes are people who are Asian. So if a person looks Asian, In fact, you can’t assume that they speak an Asian language.

Elle: Right. I see.

Steve: In other words, if you have someone who has a Polish name like in Canada, now we have people from all over, right? So you can find Italian names, Polish names, German names, Dutch names, whatever. You can assume that they speak that language. Like my name is Kaufmann. People come up “Ah Steve Kaufman ya…”.

That’s not on. So, and the Asians are particularly, or some of them are a little sensitive, but you know, like I’m Canadian, you know, just because I look Asian, you kind of assume that I can speak English. Right. So you have to be very careful. So you got to pick, you know, you got to sense if this person, you know, you can’t sort of imply that they can’t speak English.

So I, I normally will say, uh, You know, you’re not even like according to the real die-hards, you’re not even supposed to have any curiosity about where this person is originally from. Even though they look non-Caucasian like that’s a no, no. Okay.

Uh, people have no difficulty asking me if I’m German, just by looking at my name and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

I’m not German, but they can ask me because they’re curious. Oh, you got… It’s like, so, so I just have to be a little bit aware of that. So I typically say, do you speak an Asian language? It’s still a little bit dicey because just because of location, why should I have to speak an Asian language? And I agree with that.

I agree with that.

Like a person has been here for three, four generations, no more likely to speak an Asian language than somebody who has someone who has, um, you know, Polish name is expected to speak Polish or who has a Dutch name is expected to speak Dutch. So I agree with them, but I nevertheless enjoy speaking these languages.

And most of them react quite pleasantly. I haven’t had any negative interactions, but it sometimes becomes an issue. You know, the sort of politically correct people say you shouldn’t. So yeah.

Elle: So, uh, setting out 30 days ago on these challenges, 90-Day Challenge in Arabic and in Persian, did you have any goals, anything you would you wanted to have achieved by the end, in terms of not necessarily, you know, known words or hours of listening, but, uh, content that you would then be able to approach maybe movies or something?

Steve: Well, yeah, I find that my goals have changed. When I started out, I said, I want to be able to understand like a large part of my diet content has been these political partners, which typically I, uh, you know, I extract the MP3 file, convert that to text on an automatic transcription website, bring it into link, uh, and, uh, study it.

So I said, I want to get to where I can really understand these podcasts. But I found that my motivation to do that has declined because they’re kind of boring after a while. It’s always the same, the different groups and Yemen fighting each other there and Libya or whatever. I just get tired of it all.

So, uh, with Arabic, I’ve decided no, I’d rather get to where I can understand Egyptian movies. So then I said, well, then I better learn more Egyptian Arabic because I don’t understand them very well. And there are Egyptian movies and series on Netflix. So I decided with Arabic, I want to start moving more into the spoken Arabic. Uh, with the, um, with the Farsi…

um, I had been basically following the diet that Sahra fed me. So it was the history of Iran. It was food of Iran. It was minority peoples in Iran, all this stuff, which I found very interesting. So that was great. And all of a sudden she sends me these descriptions of famous Iranian, um, film directors, uh, more than a few of them have won international acclaim even in the last 10 years or so.

Uh, Oscar’s uh, awards at the Cannes uh, film festival, Berlin film festival and so forth. So she sends these through and the way she does, she talks about a certain film director, and then she has these circling questions about that same film director. And then she sends me a link to that movie or a movie by that director, uh, on YouTube.

Uh, so I’m able to watch it. So all of that, it has been very interesting. I tried to extract the MP3 file and transcribe it, but, you know, uh, audio from, um, from a movie is a bit disappointing as language learning content, because there’s so many, you know, your car noise, the doors slamming, birds chirping. It’s not dense language.

So I don’t do that. I just, whatever she sends me, I read it and I try to learn it, learn about the movie, the film, a director, and then I watch the movie a while and I’ve enjoyed that. So in a way, I’ve moved more in the direction of enjoying movies, uh, in both, uh, Arabic heavy to Egyptian, Arabic, and, uh, in Farsi.

And trying to talk to three times a week with both Mohammed and, uh, Sahra.

Elle: Excellent. And you watched a movie, is it Asmaa? You recently  mentioned n one of yourivideos.

Steve: Asmaa, that was the Egyptian movie. It was very interesting movie, actually, Egyptian movie. Uh, it it’s, it’s sort of a, it’s about the stigma of AIDS in Egypt, uh, about, uh, uh, and I would say even the Iranian movies, this whole honor that the men seem to feel, uh, you know, basically, and, and an important component of their honor is being able to tell women what to do. So these are themes that come up in those movies.

Elle: Okay.

I’ll have to, I’m always looking for movie recommendations. So if you say that’s good I’ll check that out.

Steve: Uh, yeah, it’s, I’m trying to hear the Arabic. I mean, it is to get a bit of a, of a, of an insight into, uh, Egyptian society. I, I recommend it. Yeah, Asmaa, definitely.

Elle: Okay.

Steve: And, uh, the same with Iranian movies, um, The Separation, it was quite an interesting, quite an interesting movie. Very interesting. And it won some awards, it’s an Iranian movie.

Elle: Is that, I think I’ve seen that one. Is it about the mother who. She had children, they don’t know who she is. She’s… she was…

Steve: No

Elle: Okay, I’m thinking of something else.

Steve: It’s about, um, a couple in Iran and they have a daughter and, uh, they were preparing to leave Iran, to immigrate. And the wife was very keen on doing that, but then the husband decided he wouldn’t go because his father now has Alzheimer’s and can’t look after himself.

And so then she wants to divorce and then it gets very complicated. So I can’t, I won’t get into the whole plot, but it’s quite good. And it’s apparently quite a psychological study on, um, Iranians. And the one thing that comes through when you watch Iranian movies, and there’s another one called Ellie as well, is that while there’s this sub-sense of the sort of, um, you know, male, call it male dominant, uh, you know, uh, you know, honor.

And yet, at least on the surface, the Iranians, they live very much like we do, you know, they’re very modern, European, North American. We have this image that they’re all wandering around the women shrouded in black and very backward and stuff. And no, it’s not. I mean, there’s, there’s social differences in Iran, uh, like everywhere, but maybe more marked over there.

And, uh, but the, there is a middle-class that lives, you know, like Europeans. So, and that comes through in these movies.

Elle: The Separation. Okay.

I’ll check that out too. I was thinking of a completely different movie. Okay.

Um, so Steve, you have, you have a mere 60 days left  in your 90-Day Challenge. I wish you the best of luck and, um, yeah, I think it’s, it’s amazing to me, you’re speaking three times a week.

So I’m… so you alternate then I assume you spend one week on Arabic one week on Persian?

Steve: One week on each. Yeah.

But you have to be flexible. Um, Mohammed told me that and he was gonna be without his internet for a week or so. So then I went two weeks on, on Farsi and now he’s back, uh, up and running again.

So I was spending more time with him. I don’t follow my, to be honest, I don’t follow my streak that closely. It’s just that I feel a commitment. I feel that I have an obligation to, to work on those languages, which is no big deal. Cause I enjoy doing it. Uh, but I, I made this commitment to do both. At the end of my 90 days, I’m going to do just Farsi because Farsi is the biggest opportunity here in Vancouver to use the language.

Although, you know, uh, internationally of course there are far more, uh, Arabic speakers than Farsi speakers.

Elle: That’s good to… it must. It’s nice though I’m sure, to be able to speak to people, as you say, at the supermarket and wherever you are.

Steve: Yeah.

Elle: Well, anyone who’s interested in joining a challenge, I will pop the link in the description to the 90-Day Challenge the Streak with Steve as well.

Thank you so much for joining me, Steve. It’s been great, as always.

Steve: I should say too, Elle, I’ve watched your interviews with your various guests. I think they are excellent. Absolutely excellent. Very interesting. And of course, not only are they interesting, but I think they’re an opportunity for people to work on their English because they’re all lessons at LingQ.

Elle: They are.

Steve: And you normally have guests on there who speak very clearly. You speak clearly. So I think they’re excellent. Uh, interesting and excellent learning methods. Uh, have a sort of an intermediate, uh, less, they’re not overly difficult. So I think it meets a need a real need.

Elle: Well thank you so much. And as you mentioned, I will always pop the link to the transcript of this video as a lesson in the description.

And there’s a full course of all past interviews and episodes there for anyone who’s learning English. So, uh, thank you so much, Steve. I, like I said, best of luck with your challenges.

Steve: Thank you. Bye.

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