Repetition gives intensity

In strength exercises you need to work the same muscles repetitively in order to get stronger. Language learning is a little like that. Athletes in all sports do repetitive exercises to increase their strength.

I have always found repeating effective. When I listen to content, I listen to the same content repeatedly. It helps if the content is interesting and the voice pleasant to listen to. When I listen I pick out or focus on different phrases or words each time. I then read that same content repeatedly for fluency in reading. I will review new words and phrases from that same content. I have saved these words and phrases on a separate list. (This is automated in The Linguist). Then I go back to listening and reading the same content again.

This is my strength training in language learning. It can be quite passive. I can listen while walking or jogging or even driving or sitting in a bus. But it is deliberate and is done almost every day during my period of intense study.

There other things we can do repeatedly. We can read out loud repeatedly, using a passage that we have been listening to. I would read the same passage out loud five times, exaggerating the pronunciation. Then I would record myself and compare with the native speaker.

It can be particularly effective to take some writing you have had corrected and read it out loud five times or so. Then record yourself and listen. This will reinforce the corrections and help your pronunciation at the same time. You will hear your own thoughts, things you wrote incorrectly, now expressed correctly.

You can even repeat in conversation. Try to make a three minute explanation of a point of view on a subject, after taking one minute to organize your thoughts. Then try to cover the same points in two minutes, then one minute.

All of these activities are like strength training . They prepare you for the more pleasurable activities of playing the game, or in the case of language learning, communicating in the language.

Intensity is key

I enjoy learning languages and I am sure one reason is because I have had success. I certainly enjoy learning languages more now than when I was a high school student learning French in Montreal in the 1950s. In those days I had no strong desire to communicate in French with anyone. If I had to deal with French speaking Montrealers it was more comfortable for me to speak English.

Today that is different. Even for a language that I can hardly speak at all, like Korean, I prefer to struggle with my Korean than to speak English. I enjoy doing it and I do not mind appearing to be awkward. So I enjoy learning languages but I recognize that it might be an acquired taste. Language learning at first seems a daunting task in terms of the work involved and the damage to our egos.

I am convinced that to achieve anything in language learning, to overcome the obstacles, requires intensity. When I take on a language with the intention of raising my level, of achieving a breakthrough, I have to commit to doing it almost every day for a period of three months at least. I see so many people who go to class once a week, or even once a day, but do not achieve any intensity. They are passive learners, going through the motions of learning. They are not deliberate, motivated, high-intensity learners. They do not get to that feeling of weightlessness, the breathrough stage.

Now I guess you could argue that not everyone is motivated to speak a foreign language. But then if the learner is not motivated why even bother going to the language class in the first place. If you are going to spend the time, do it with intensity. Develop the habits of intensity.

A big part of intensity is the efficiency of your study methods. Much of traditional language learning is not efficient and therefore does not enable the learner to achieve the required level of intensity. When we designed The Linguist system we designed it for intensity and efficiency.

Every language is worth learning

It seems that a good part of the language learning activity in the world is aimed at learning English. English is quite a young language. It is the combination on one small and cloudy North Atlantic Island of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Scandinavian even Latin and other influences. The collision of the different writing systems of these various languages and the famous “vowel shift” in England around the time that printing became widespread (15th century) all have contributed to the notoriously inconsistent spelling of English. Who would have thought that his language would become the most common international language? Who knows how long this will last?

Every language has its history, its culture and its charm. Every language has people who speak it, whom we can get to know. In the modern world where we can travel so easily and communicate cheaply by telephone or Internet we have an opportunity that no previous generation had. We can share a part of our lives with people all over the world in their languages. We can learn their languages more easily. Of course The Linguist helps make that even easier.

I learned nine languages and would gladly learn another nine. It gets easier with each language. There is no unlearnable language. Even a language as different from English as Chinese can be learned and give immense enjoyment.

If you want to listen to a 20 minute video interview in Chinese and English on the subject of language learning please go to


Lighten up

More than most fields of learning, language learning is a matter of attitude. In a way it is an escape from reality. Reality is your native language. The new language is make believe, at least at first. You are pretending to be something you are not, a natural speaker of another language. You are imitating the behaviour of another culture. You become an actor, so you need to let go of your inhibitions.

As a university student in France 40 years ago I had to give a speech in class. Every time I went to say the word “responsable” in French, I said it wrong. I said “responsible” as in English. Every time I said it, the whole class laughed. I used that word many times. I could not understand why everyone would just burst out laughing each time. Afterwards I was told. I did not mind, but I never made that mistake again. By making mistakes, and sometimes through repeatedly making the same mistakes, we eventually learn.

When I lived and worked in Japan I was frequently in meetings where I was the only non-Japanese. Once I became fluent in Japanese, I was never conscious of not being Japanese. I felt as if I were part of the same group as I saw around the table from me. You do not just try to imitate the people of the target language, you almost try to become one of them. The barriers are removed and you leave the real world of your native language behind to join the new world of the other language.

People who resist the new language, who ask “why do they say it that way?”, these people have trouble. People who are happy joining the new group will find that they are able to absorb the new language with much less effort. So lighten up and enjoy it.

Everyone is a linguist. Everyone has their price.

When I was 17 I could only speak one language. Now I speak 9. I am convinced that most people can learn to speak many languages. We are all potential linguists.

I am astounded at how strongly people cling to the belief that they cannot learn. This belief then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I like to ask “if I gave you a million dollars to learn the language in 6 months, or if your life depended on it, 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.

Academic writing, business writing and such

There are courses on academic writing and on business writing. For people who already write correctly and well, these might be helpful. For people who lack sufficient control over the words and phrases of the English language, these courses are misleading.

There is only one kind of English prose -clear, concise and well constructed prose. If you control the words and phrases of the language it is easy to learn how to start with a “theme sentence” in every paragraph and the other little conventions of writing that are taught in these special writing courses. Without the vocabulary you do not have the resources to express yourself.

If your mind is muddled, no amount of courses on academic writing will help you.

That being said, once you have brought your vocabulary up to the required level, by all means read everything you can find on specialized writing. Start looking on the web where it is available free of charge. Or just buy a book on the subject.

Grammar or pronunciation or vocabulary?

What is the most important thing and what is the most difficult thing in learning a new language? My answer is always vocabulary.

You can express yourself with faulty grammar and less than perfect pronunciation. If you do not have the words you cannot express yourself. The constant battle to acquire enough vocabulary to read what you want to read, to say what you want to say and to understand what you want to understand, that is the hardest part.

The grammar comes as you need it with more and more exposure. Imperfect grammar and pronunciation do not prevent communication and enjoyment of the language. Lack of vocabulary does.

When I correct writing, it is overwhelmingly vocabulary, improper use of words and phrases that is the biggest problem, not grammar.

How do you accumulate words and phrases? You do so from input, from reading, and from listening to content that is of interest to you. You have to see the words and phrases often in different contexts. But then you have to use them in writing and speaking. Writing can really help because you can analyze what you are doing and which words you are using wrong.

It was the lack of a systematic method for accumulating words and phrases that motivated me to develop The Linguist.