Skiing and words

The last three days I have been skiing at Whistler. There was not a cloud in the sky for two days and today is a little overcast. The snow conditions are not ideal but not bad. A little ice in spots and some bare patches. You kind of have to pick your spots.

I brought along three books on vocabulary learning that I ordered from Amazon. I have read two of them now. I was looking for insights that could help us at The Linguist. I picked up a few ideas although much of what is written is simply too academic. There is research on the different ways people learn words, what it means to learn a word, whether we learn by direct instruction or by osmosis when reading, how many words we need to learn and which ones, the importance of lexical phrases and how to use new research to make learning more efficient and on and on. Every second paragraph had to refer to the work of some famous scholar on the subject.

Over the next few posts I will be giving my opinions on vocabulary learning with some reference to what some of these experts are saying and based on our experience at The Linguist and my own experience.

I agree with the experts who say that vocabulary acquisition is the key to learning and improving in a language. I agree that a great deal of reading is necessary. I agree that deliberate learning of vocabulary can help, but only if the words are first encountered in a natural context.

In all of these books there was no reference to the power of audio in combination with reading. In other words you can remember words better if you also hear them. Furthermore it is the combination of audio, reading and deliberate study of words that will help the learner to increase vocabulary the fastest.

Nowhere in these books on vocabulary was there mention of e-text. It is postulated by Nation and others that a person needs to read text with at least 95% known words in order to be able to read comfortably and infer the meaning of the missing words. But what if the learner can choose what to read so that the content is of interest and familiar? What if an audio file of the content is available?
And finally what if instant explanation and translation of any new word is available via an on line dictionary? What if new words and phrases are automatically stored in a data base for future study?

I believe that by incorporating these and more features, as we have done in The Linguist, vocabulary learning can be greatly accelerated. More on this later.

I should probably refrain from kicking the university establishment. However, my belief that too much power and privilege is attributed to universities in our societies has nothing to do with grievances as Lizz suggests. I and my two sons all went to fine universities. Learning needs to be made available to all. I believe this will happen. The iPod/Internet revolution is an indicator of how.

Free up education, more random thoughts.

I guess I got a little carried away on my last post. I was hoping to create some controversy but only got one comment, and that seemed to agree with me.

There are many dedicated teachers and university professors. However, most of the insitutions where they work enjoy a variety of monopolies. They issue tickets called degrees or diplomas. They have the inside track on funding from government and foundations. With that have come inefficiencies and unfairness.

Somehow the issuing of tickets or diplomas should be handled by other institutions, not the universities and colleges themselves. We should have testing organizations that develop in depth tests of peoples’ abilities and knowledge, in depth and not multiple choice. These tests should include evaluating the ability of people to express what they know and relevant ideas, clearly and persuasively.

The learners should accumulate portfolios of what they have done in a particular field, whether in work or in study, whether at school A or school B or with professor C or via self-study. Then they should submit to an intense review of what they claim to know to have it confirmed by the testing organization. If confirmed, they get their ticket.

No need to attend any particular school for 4 years, cram into crowded lecture halls, or listen to poor teachers. The learner can develop his/her own strategy. The learner can hire coaches or get the help of friends. Courses should be offered on the Internet in a variety of media for download to computer, hand held or iPod. Government support for education should go to the learners directly, not via the schools. The education sector will develop the products and services to help the learners.

But I am dreaming. Can technology break the monopoly of organized education? Why should people who did not have the marks or the money be excluded from learning what is taught at university? If they learn on their own, why should they not get the ticket? Why should the university have a monopoly on the issuing of diplomas?

Caleb Gattegno

Apparently this gentleman is the founder of a school of education known as the silent approach. The gist of this school is that the teacher cannot teach but can only hope to awaken the learner’s desire to learn. Gattegno is a wise man, especially where language instruction is concerned. I will try to learn more from him.

Power to the learners! Overthrow the teachers! Overthrow the educational establishment. The most inexcusable is the university. Anything taught at a university should be available to everyone in a free market place of knowledge, ideas and thnking. And whatever is of no interest should be abolished (and that would be a good portion of tenured professors and what they try to teach.)


In Canada there is a system for evaluating the language skills of second language speakers called the Canadian Benchmark system. This program is no doubt the result of a lot of work by many people working in committees. According to this system language learning skills are divided into 12 different levels, all carefully defined in ways that most laymen would have trouble understanding.

I cannot see much practical benefit from these benchmarks other than the need to classify people for the benefit of classrooms and teachers. However, if a person is really motivated classrooms are not that useful. If a person wants to learn a language they need to find content of interest to listen to and read and people to talk to. There is enough content available in stores, libraries and on the Internet. There are tutors advertizing themselves or they can attend a class. If they are motivated they will soon outpace the other learners in the classroom. If they are not motivated they will not learn much no matter where they are.

So the benchmarks and other similar testing really sidestep the fundamental problem of how to motivate the learner. If the learner cannot be motivated it is almost not worthwhile trying to teach him or her, benchmark or no.

Today there are ways to make a vast corpus of content accessible to learners in such a way that learners can choose content of interest, at their level, and systematically learn the words and phrases they need. Of course this assumes that the learner is motivated.


I think adults get more frustrated than young learners when they seem unable to remember things. They probably have poorer short term memory than younger students. Even high school and university students probably have an ability to cram information into their heads for exams that adult learners have lost.

So I believe you should not rely on memory to learn languages. Expect to forget most of what you learn. That is why consistent and intensive exposure through listening and reading to meaningful content is so important. Through the process of ingesting the language, often the same content, over and over again, you gradually improve your ability to deal with the new language.

Of course it is also important to make the effort to learn the bits and pieces, the words and phrases. Flash cards or similar systems are very effective. Working on the words and seeing them again in different sentences that you have heard or listened to (as we do in The Linguist) is a good exercise for the brain. It also helps you learn how to use them.

But when you seem unable to remember these words and phrases, do not worry. You are still training the brain to process the new language. The effect of all of this is cumulative even if at times you feel you are just not improving. We all have a tendency to overestimate the possibilities of short term change and to underestimate the opportunities for long term change.

Dealing with uncertainty

To be a successful language learner you have to deal with uncertainty. You have to accept that there will always be words that you do not understand, and words that you pronounce wrong. There will always be times when you do not really 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 actually enjoy the experience, the challenge of overcoming these difficulties and seeing them gradually become smaller, then you will enjoy learning. If you enjoy learning you will improve.

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

More on adult learners

I have been reading “The Mind and the Brain, Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force”?? by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley. What becomes clear is that the brain constantly responds to stimulus to adjust and create neural networks. Language learning is a form of training of the brain which can take place at any age.

It is clear from research that adults retain brain plasticity and can continue to learn languages all their lives. It is more their anxieties rather than any inability that holds them back. However, they should not be treated like children in the classroom. Ideally the adult is more self-directed. Certainly the self-directed adult learner is the target of The Linguist system