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. steve@thelinguist.com

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.

Another week

I promised to start a diary last week. Since then I have not written anything in the diary. Today I am sitting in the same room at my computer. I am looking out at the same sailing boats in the harbour. Today the sky is grey.

Three of our grandchildren came over to stay last night. It was Saturday night. We had a fine time. My oldest granddaughter played piano. All three children drew pictures. We read stories. We had a nice dinner Saturday night and a nice breakfast Sunday morning. We laughed and had a good time.

Soon my oldest son from London will phone. We will have a conversation via the Internet. We will use a web cam so we can see each other. I have two grandchildren in London. That makes five grandchildren in all.

I am writing an article on how to write better English. This will be put in our library at The Linguist. This will keep me busy today. I have highlighted some trigger words here. If these are saved in The Linguist that should create a lot of example sentences. Look at the trigger words and see the phrases that they trigger.

Written and spoken contexts

In trying to copy from the Writing correction area of The Linguist web site I ran into problems with HTML text. The result looks a little messy. I am sorry. However, this text is interesting in that it deals with the issue of grammar based learning as opposed to context based learning.

Context based learning means reading and listening to interesting input and studying meaningful words and phrases, regularly writing and reviewing one’s writing, and speaking. This will lead to better results than studying grammar, defining parts of speech, trying to remember rules, deliberately preparing for standardized tests etc.??

Writing can be particularly useful since it forces the learner to think and to review what he or she has expressed in the new language. Until the learner is quite fluent, the written and spoken language should be as similar as possible. Only at a later stage should they diverge, with the written language becoming more sophisticated and the spoken language becoming more casual. That has been my experience.

Context and learning

The following message was received at The Linguist from one of our Newsletter subscribers. I am taking the liberty of reproducing it here both in the original form and after correction in The Linguist system. I also attach my comments.

I agree with you that for learning a foering languageForget your grammar rules. You will not remember them in time to use them, or you will remember them incorrectly, or you will not even understand them in the first place. Instead you should practice writing. Note your mistakes and then become more observant when you read. When you have had enough exposure to the language, and enough practice writing, your grammar will naturally start to be correct. Then you will also speak better and with more confidence. Then you will be less nervous when speaking to a foreigner, you will enjoy it more and you will just continue to improve.

By and from

Prepositions cause a lot of trouble for learners. Only a lot of exposure to prepositions in different situations will give learners the feel for which one to use. Sometimes different contexts give different answers. An example is the following question asked by Tamaki on The Linguist Forum.

Tamaki asked on Mar 3:

My question this time is the preposition which comes after “is given”.

I believe there is a slight difference between below two sentences.

a) I was given this book by my parents.
b) I was given this book from my parents.

I think (a) sentence sounds a bit more focused on WHO gave it to you, but I’m not so sure about this.
Is there any difference, or does either of them sound odd to you?


Posts: 6
From: Vancouver
Registered: Oct 19, 2004

Re: given -by- or -from-?
Posted: Mar 4, 2005 12:06 AM

Thank you Steve!
I searched for the sentences including “given from” on Google and here are some examples I’ve got.
(Yes, the number of hit is quite small compared to the “given by” sentences.)
Could you please clarify the idea when to use “given from”?
(Some of the sentences might not have beem written by a native English speaker, though.)

– Once again the wood was given from government reources.
– A short report was given from the World Show Committee.
– The organ was given from memorial funds in memory of Peg Reid.
– The greatest gift I’ve ever known is the love that was given from one unknown.
– What is fundamental in all of this is the support Ben was given from his school.


Posts: 59
Registered: Sep 24, 2004

Re: given -by- or -from-?
Posted: Mar 4, 2005 7:58 AM


I would recommend that you use “given by” in all situations.

“Given from” seems to be used when the giver is not what one might call an agent or a possible agent. From your examples

– Once again the wood was given from government resources

We would probably use “given by government” but “from government resources” because resources can not act, while government can. Someone else gave and took from the resources.

A short report was given from the World Show Committee.

This should by “given by” unless a report was given by someone who took the report from the Committee or representend them so that the Committee is not the agent,

– The organ was given from memorial funds in memory of Peg Reid.

Again the agent or giver was not the funds, someone gave and took from the funds.

– The greatest gift I’ve ever known is the love that was given from one unknown.

I think this should be “by”.

– What is fundamental in all of this is the support Ben
was given from his school.

I would have said “by” or “received from his school.”

I guess when the meaning places more emphasis on the one receiving rather the one acting, there might be a tendency to use “given from”. I would avoid it.


Posts: 59
Registered: Sep 24, 2004

Re: given -by- or -from-?
Posted: Mar 3, 2005 6:31 PM

Given by. I cannot think of a sentence with given from. You can try it on Google or in The Linguist. “I hear from my parents”, “I received from my parents”, “I was told by my parents”.