Book excerpt: Creating your own language world

Exploring Languages at Home

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window,
you may see the ways of heaven.
?? ???? ???? ???? ???? ?? ??? Laozi

It is always easiest to learn a language when you are living in a society that speaks that language if you take advantage of the opportunities that surround you. However, a new language in the real world can be difficult to understand. People may talk too quickly or use words that even the intermediate non-native speaker does not understand. You may feel hesitant in certain situations because you are not fluent. This can be stressful.

In these cases I have always found it useful to create my own world of language, a world of meaningful language content for me to listen to or read without pressure. Until I mastered Japanese, and even as I was living and working in Japanese, I still sought out advanced Japanese readers with meaningful content and vocabulary lists to read. I also listened repetitively to interesting tapes to gain greater confidence in using certain phrases and words.

I still listen to interesting material in languages that I speak fluently. I take advantage of time that is available while driving or exercising or doing chores around the house. There is an increasing availability of high quality audio books which can be easily enjoyed using the latest in portable listening technology.

In situations where you are studying a new language away from the native speaking environment, it becomes essential to create this personal language world. This is what I have done in


over the last twenty years as I sought to improve my knowledge of languages that I had been exposed to earlier but could not speak.

A World Apart

When I lived in

Hong Kong

I was not in a Mandarin speaking environment, but I listened to and read a limited number of texts: history and cultural books, modern literature, and tapes of comic dialogues. These became like old friends and provided the core of the vocabulary and phrasing that I needed to use in my communication.

Communicating with this imaginary world was easier than communicating with the real world, since it was readily available and under my control. This friendly world of my own exploration was a great source of strength in preparation for the real test of communicating with native speakers.

In 1512, Niccolo Machiavelli was briefly imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, then withdrew to a simple country house outside


. During the day he talked and played cards with the local people, but at night he changed into formal clothes and withdrew into his study. There he communicated with the ancient historians through books, and wrote one of the classics of Western literature, The Prince. Machiavelli is an example of how we can communicate with a culture through reading or listening, even if we do not have daily personal contact with the people.

While living in


well past the age of forty, I was able to make great advances on the learning I had begun in German, Swedish and Italian. I had some previous exposure, but certainly did not have fluency or confidence. For each language I had to commit myself to a concentrated period of listening to comprehensible audio material and reading texts with vocabulary lists.

At my home, I have at least fifty readers for German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. I purchased these readers because they all have vocabulary lists so that I could avoid using dictionaries. Unfortunately much of the content of these readers was uninteresting to me, but it was the only content that I could find.

What I was only able to do through great effort is made easier and more effective today. Using modern technology, vast amounts of content can be turned into accessible learning material. You can seek out content that is of interest to you, and learn the language from it. The independent learner is more independent than ever before.

The Linguist book: Excerpt

I am going to post a few random excerpts from my book over the next few days. This book is entitled ” The Linguist, A Personal Guide to Language Learning.” The book is available in print form in English and Chinese and in e-book version in French, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

Fish traps exist to capture fish.?? ???? ???? ??
Once you’ve got the fish you can forget the trap.?? ???? ???? ??
Rabbit snares exist to capture rabbits. ?? ???? ???? ???? ??
Once you’ve got the rabbit you can forget the snare.?? ??
Words exist to capture meaning. ?? ???? ??
Once you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words.?? ???? ???? ???? ??
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? ?? ???? ??
I’d like to have a word with him!?? ???? ????
??? Zhuangzi, 4th century BC


Just Communicate

Our ancestors created language in order to communicate. What a glorious invention. The ability to express our thoughts through language is what distinguishes us from animals. These great ancestors of ours did not have grammar or perfection in mind when they developed the first language, just the desire to get their meaning across. It may seem obvious, but to become a successful linguist you have to want to communicate in another language. People who are good at learning another language have a goal in mind, to communicate. That means to get to know people of another culture, not just to learn the rules of a new language as an academic subject .Unfortunately the emphasis on second language education in our school systems has caused many language learners to lose sight of this essential reason for language learning. In my own case, it was only when I became motivated to connect with a new culture and people that I was on my way to becoming a linguist.

Not all people are interested in meeting people of another culture and language. My wife Carmen and I were recently on holiday in California. When swimming in the hotel pool we heard the unmistakable sounds of people speaking Canadian English. There were two couples from Ottawa staying at the same resort. We joined them for a drink that evening. Interestingly both the wives spoke French and Spanish as well as English, but one of the husbands, an apparently successful businessman, was adamant that learning to speak languages was unnecessary. To him the important thing was to have good ideas. ???You can always find a translator??? he maintained.

I argued with him that human achievement, including business success, depended on communication. No matter how brilliant an idea, it needs to be communicated effectively in order to influence people. Surveys of employers consistently show the ability to communicate to be the most sought after characteristic in new employees. But remembering Zhuangzi I did not try too hard to enlighten this man. Obviously learning languages was not in his nature.??

More on making mistakes

We now have another comment on making mistakes supporting Pako’s view that we should not make mistakes. I suspect we are not really in disagreement.

The important points are:

1) You should not be afraid to speak for fear of making mistakes. Your main goal has to be to communicate. You should communicate whenever you have the opportunity, without fear. But you have to build up your ability to communicate, and just communicating, by itself, will not do that. You need to practice. You need to train, just like in sports.

2) If you only communicate in the language without training, in other words without putting effort into improving (like ESL Learner’s brother in the comment below), you will not improve. The conversation club approach to language learning does not work.

3) You need to focus on input. You need to deliberately save new words and phrases. You need to be conscious of what words and concepts you were unable to express when you spoke, and go back to your input to acquire them. Input should be 75% of your time spent studying the language, as we say at The Linguist website. Some immigrants to Canada seem to think that if they only get a job in an English speaking environment they will achieve English fluency. This is not true. Those people never achieve their English language potential.

4) You should work on pronunciation, deliberately and consistently. Yet you should avoid being self-conscious about your pronunciation.

5) You should write and have your writing corrected.

6) You should meet with a native speaker coach or tutor around once a week. This and the writing will be enough to identify key errors in structure, use of words, and pronunciation.

The rest you need to do on your own. This is the approach we use at The Linguist and it is efficient and cost effective.

Why you should make mistakes

Pako writes in his comment here that we should avoid making mistakes in our English learning. He also encourages English learners to spend more effort on input rather than on output, and on that point I do agree. The more you prepare yourself with a lot work on your own, listening, reading, and learning words and phrases, the better you will do when you try to express yourself.

However, you will still make mistakes and should not worry about it. I say that because there are aspects of the new language, structures, phrases, words etc., that you will not get right until “it clicks” in your brain. You can read, you can study the rules, you can practice….. and you will still get them wrong quite often.?? Eventually, with enough work, however, the correct way of speaking will become natural, but it will on your brain’s timetable. You can control your effort and how you study. You cannot control how quickly the brain will develop the right kind of neural network to make these new forms of expression natural. If you stay with it, though, it will come.

It does not matter how many times I look at verb conjugations or noun declensions in Spanish or German, or how often I try to remember which nouns are masculine or feminine, or how often I read that a word in Mandarin is third tone or fourth tone, I will continue to make mistakes for a long time and only improve gradually.

It is hard for me to get used to saying these things correctly, even though I understand the concepts. It is like Chinese people always getting “he” and “she” wrong , even after they are quite fluent in English. It is not because they do not understand the difference. In language learning we need to develop the ability to do “naturally” something that is not “natural”. This takes time. It requires us to create new abilities in our brain.Some aspects of the language are learned faster than others. In many ways these things are outside of our control.

In meantime the learner needs to communicate, to use the language, to enjoy communicating and to improve his or her feel. Worrying about making mistakes is not productive. I sense that Pako does not disagree with this and that much of his argumentation amounts to splitting hairs. Yes we need input. But surely we are not to prevent learners from communicating until they are error free and totally fluent!

Making mistakes

I am happy to receive comments and this morning there are three, two from Pako and one from Blinger. Blinger recognizes the need to make mistakes in learning a language. Blinger points out that language learning can be like playing the piano. Blinger points out that we need to challenge ourselves with more and more difficult pieces on the piano so that we can gradually raise our level. Language learning is like that says Blinger, and Blinger is right.

Pako claims that we have to avoid mistakes when learning languages, He feels that language learning is different from learning the piano.

In my view, language learning has a lot of similarity with playing the piano. First of all, if you do not enjoy playing the piano, you will probably not do well. If you can play pieces that you like yo will learn faster than by playing pieces yo do not like. Both require repetitive practice. In both cases, most of the work needs to be done by the learner on his or her own. The improvement, in both, is gradual. And in both cases,most learners are best to avoid theory.

Yet language learning is also different.One difference is the large quantity of new vocabulary, words and phrases, that has to be learned. The only way to learn new vocabulary is to constantly read and listen to new content. Yet to retain the words and phrases and to get a feel of the language you need to repetitively read and listen to things you have already covered before, especially in the early stages.

As you acquire new words and phrases, you need to use them. “Use them or lose them” is an apt phrase for language learning. When you speak you will use these newly learned words and phrases. When speaking your concentration should be on communicating. It is like playing a game, you just want to win. You will make mistakes, but if you communicated you won.

But after the conversation or game, you can review how it went. You can identify things you need to work on. Which concepts could you not express effectively? Which words were missing? Then you go and practice these.

When you write, you have a better chance to capture your mistakes. In writing the goal is not just to communicate, but also to use the language clearly, logically, effectively, accurately and naturally. What we call the “clean” principle in The Linguist. When writing, all mistakes should be corrected. When speaking you should not worry about your mistakes at all. When writing you should expect to see some things corrected so you can learn from them.

This concept of avoiding mistakes that Pako expounds, simply goes against all the experience I have had in learning nine languages. If I had been afraid of making mistakes, or even concerned about making mistakes, I would not have learned. Language learning has to be about communicating. It is not about perfection but about constant improvement.

The bottom line

In this blog I have touched on a variety of questions that relate to language learning. I have talked about learning techniques. I have talked about the importance of choosing content of interest to learn from, about the importance of repetitive listening and reading, of focusing on words and phrases and not grammar rules. I have encouraged people to write and speak.

I have also talked about the ability of people to influence their brains, by the amount of attention and concentration they can bring to the task of language learning.

This latter point is important. Last night I went out for a bit of sushi and wine (yes red wine not sake) at the Chiyoda restaurant in downtown Vancouver, certainly one of the best Japanese restaurants in Vancouver. The people beside me turned out to be brain researchers, or rather researchers in cancer of the brain. There was one American guy, and one Japanese and one Singaporean lady. I butted in to their conversation. That is how I learned so many languages. I am not shy.

We covered a lot of ground, from feminism to cultural issues in different societies etc. But, being single minded about language learning as usual, I was able to confirm that motivation makes the language learner. The term used by the brain researchers was “forced plasticity”. The brain is not hard-wired. You can change your brain. You can change your brain into a brain that can handle a new language. You do it with motivation and concentration.

This is scientific confirmation of something that I have always felt. In language learning, the bottom line is you. Not your innate genius for language learning, but your desire, your commitment, your willingness to let go…in other words, your attitude.

Any comments? Email me at

Language mistakes

Making mistakes when speaking or writing a new language is not the same as making certain other kinds of mistakes, at least to me. Making mistakes in language learning is not only necessary, it is a good sign. If you are not making mistakes you are not trying hard enough to use the language.

If you are trying to learn to master English, there are certain things that you are not going to remember, or get right, until your brain is ready. All you can do is to continue to use the language as much as possible, to read, to listen and to speak and write. Eventually that elusive word, or that difficult phrase, will start to become natural.

Each time you make a mistake and get corrected is a chance to remember that word or phrase. This is easier in writing than in speaking. If you are corrected when speaking you are already a little tense so you do not remember too much. You are keen to say what you want to say, so the corrections are a bit of a distraction and can even discourage you a little bit. At best you can remember one or two things from each conversation.

However, if you write in English and have your writing corrected, you have time to really look at what you wrote. You have the time to think about the mistakes you made. You can look at the learning opportunities you created. If you take it the right way, your mistakes are your opportunity to improve. Some mistakes you will have to make over and over.?? The most important thing is not to be upset over mistakes. They will correct themselves eventually with enough exposure, but only when your brain is ready. So just keep enjoying the language.

Send me your comments and questions directly.

On learning many languages

The following is an exchange on The Linguist Forum.

a question from your book
Posted: Mar 12, 2005 12:22 PM

My name is Zhen-ting. I bought your book about six months ago and found your

language-learning journey fascinating! I read your book “the linguist” from cover to cover

and totally agree with your point of view. You said that one has to learn his or her target

language intensively so that he or she can master it in short time. This is exactly what I

do when I try to master a foreign language as quickly as possible.

But a question emerges. Let’s take you as an example: how can you maintain the

fluency of your already-learnt language(s) when you’re are involved and

devoted in learning your new one(s)? Since you spent most of your times learning

Chinese in Hong Kong, what did you do to prevent your French from getting rusty?

Please be so kind to reply this mail to me because I want to learn French and Italian

well without forgetting English. I thank you in advanced.


Posts: 60
Registered: Sep 24, 2004

Re: a question from your book
Posted: Mar 12, 2005 8:04 PM

Hi Zhen-ting,

The more languages you learn, the better you get at languages. If you do not read or listen in a language it will get rusty. However, when you go back to studying it again, it will come back quickly. If you have been studying other languages in the meantime, you may even find that you are better in those languages that you have been neglecting.

I always keep lots of material around in different languages, books, CDs etc. These are my language worlds for different languages. When I lived in Japan in the 1970s I never spoke Chinese. When I got back to Vancouver I started to listen to my tapes again and read my books again. Chinese came back stronger than ever.

Do not worry. Learn as many languages as you want. Create your own little language worlds in each of these languages and go back to them from time to time.

Why I am against teaching grammar

I am hoping to get some feedback on these views.

I often hear learners say that they want to know why a certain structure or sentence is wrong. They are disappointed when a native speaker cannot tell them “why”. There are all kinds of teachers who are specialized in explaining and debating English usage and the reasons why this or that is correct. Grammar is a discipline with its own rules and system, and probably quite satisfying for the practitioners of the discipline.

I am not sure if is useful for second language learners, however. I speak nine languages quite well and do not remember ever asking “why do they say it this way? Why is this wrong?”. I know that when I studied Chinese, learners around me who asked “why” did not learn the language well.

One reason is that structures in the new language that seemed strange and might occasion the “why?” question, usually started to feel normal with enough exposure. It was pointless to try to understand “why” before I was ready, and once I was ready I did not need to ask “why” anymore.

Grammar is a neat way to classify and categorize a language and is no doubt useful when there is nothing else to compare the language to. However, when I learned a new language I simply went by what the words in the new language meant. I inevitably referred to the equivalent meaning in my own language. “Oh, that is how they say ‘I would have gone’ in Chinese, Japanese or French’?? ” I said to myself. I did not need to learn terms like modal verbs, gerunds, conjunction or whatever. I just noted that in the new language certain thoughts were expressed in certain ways. It seemed strange at first but eventually, with enough exposure, it became normal. In due course I started to acquire the logic of the new language.

I believe this is the fastest and best way to learn, directly from the language. Read and listen. Focus on the functions of different words and phrases in different contexts. Slowly you will penetrate the logic of the language. You will get a natural feel for how meanings are expressed. You will not have to refer to your memory of grammar rules every time you want to express yourself.

That is why in correcting writing at The Linguist now, we emphasize what we call CLEAN English; Clarity, Logic, Effectiveness,Accuracy, Normal Usage. Whether your grammar is perfect or not, your goal should be to achieve CLEAN English. If you do, the grammar will come along.

One concession. We do track the four most common grammatical errors for statistical purposes to help the learner. These are Article, Preposition, Verb and Punctuation. We also provide trigger words but we do not get into detailed grammatical explanations.

This approach is not appreciated by all students. Many have been trained in grammar, and even though many of them cannot speak as well as they would like, they still insist on seeing what they are used to. It is a constant battle to try to get people to focus on how to communicate effectively in the language rather than grammar rules.

Those that do accept our way feel liberated from grammar, and feel more confident about speaking in English. They do more things with the language, spend more time on reading and listening and speaking and less time worrying about grammar. They improve.

Send me your comments and questions directly.

Diary – Tired

I attended a dinner two evenings ago. It was the Wood Works gala dinner. The wood products industry gave out prizes to engineers and architects who had used wood in the most creative ways. I have long been a promoter of wood, an ideal building product for the environment. Wood grows. There is more and more wood growing in the coniferous (needle leafed) forests of the world. I am in the wood business so I am perhaps prejudiced. But I firmly believe that wood is better for the environment than steel, concrete, bricks or plastic. I love wood.

The food was good, and the wine (a Merlot from the Interior of British Columbia) was just excellent. I had a lot of the good food and wine. I did not sleep so well. Tonight I just finished playing ice hockey. I play on a team in the over 55 years of age division. We were leading 5-3 but in the last three minutes the other team scored two goals to tie the game at 5-5.

Tomorrow morning at 8.00 o’clock I have a hard physical work out planned. It is my regular Wednesday morning work out with my son. It is very hard. There is a lot of leg and abdominal work. Sometimes we do kick boxing. I am tired now and I will be even more tired in the morning. Still I do not complain. I enjoy it. After the work out I go to the Cafe Artigiano in Park Royal for the best cup of Cappuccino in the world, much, much better than Starbucks. There I sit and read the newspaper and enjoy my coffee. Then I go to work. Wednesday is a good day.

Note the trigger words. If you are a Linguist user, make sure you know how these words are used. Try to save some of them and see what example sentences you create.