Steve Kaufmann started learning Russian – his 9th language – when he was 60, and Portuguese at 62. He figures if he can do it, so can anyone. But they need a more effective method than the usual classroom milieu of endless repeating and exams.
To that end, Kaufmann and his son founded The Linguist Institute five years ago to teach languages online. The institute’s primary language learning method is LingQ (www.LingQ.com), which breaks down the barriers that prevent people from learning languages. LingQ offers English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese, Swedish, Chinese and Japanese. All you need is a computer with an Internet connection and Internet Explorer 6 and above or Firefox 2.0, as your browser. You should also have an iPod or equivalent MP3 player and a headset/microphone for taking part in online voice chats
Based in Vancouver, Kaufman was born in Sweden after his parents left Czechoslovakia in 1939. In 1951, he and his family moved to Montreal. He became a Canadian trade commissioner in Hong Kong where he learned Chinese. Then he was with the Canadian embassy in Tokyo from 1971-74. After that, Kaufmann joined a major Canadian lumber exporting company to set up their office in Tokyo. In 1987, he set up his own wood company, which is still his main business.
LingQ, however, is his passion, and Japan Today editor Chris Betros caught up with Kaufmann during a recent visit to Tokyo.
Why did you get into the language-learning business?
Partly because I wanted to start learning languages again. I realized just how much conditions for language learning had improved through modern technology like MP3 players, for example. I used to use a big open-reel tape recorder. But now the ease with which you can access content and online dictionaries has made a big difference to learning languages. I knew there were many people not being helped by the ESL industry, so I formed this company, The Linguist. The website is called LingQ.com. It was primarily for learning English and we did that for awhile before deciding to make it multilingual.
How many languages does LingQ offer?
Right now we have 10 languages -- English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese, Swedish, Chinese and Japanese -- but potentially we could have any language as long as our members give us content. We can apply our methodology to making any content accessible as learning material.
What are LingQ’s strengths?
For one thing, it liberates the language learner from the tyranny of the teacher. Teachers impose their agenda, telling you what you are going to learn today. When I study a language, I don’t need the grammatical explanations. All I want is content and I’ll figure it out.
How does it work?
We have a growing library of content. It could be podcasts, radio programs, content that our members create. You can choose something of interest to listen to, and we help you find your level. The system helps grade the content to your vocabulary level by finding out which words you know. When you select something new, it tells you how many unknown words there are, so you don’t go after something too hard. So you listen and you read. For every audio content, there is a transcript. With the transcript, there is a whole range of functionality about saving words, capturing phrases. The whole idea is you have the opportunity to choose something of interest, listen to it several times, and figure out what it means. Plus you can talk to our tutors online and have your writing corrected.
Suppose I want to learn Russian and I don’t know a word. How do I start from scratch?
Actually, I started Russian, which has very complicated grammar, because I wanted to prove to myself that even in a grammar-heavy language like Russian, you don’t need grammar explanations.
But to answer your question, we have a number of content items that exist in certain languages. If your native language is Japanese or English, for example, and you want to learn Russian, then you’ll pick some of these items where it exists in your language. I took one called “The Power of the Linguist,” consisting of 26 episodes, some up to 1 minute long. I read it in English, listened to it in Russian, then read it in Russian. Then I looked up the words. If you get stuck, you can ask a tutor.
When I started Russian, I listened to the simple content items 30 times. You have to expose yourself to this very repetitive intense listening process and as you get better, then the frequency with which you listen to content goes down. At a certain point, you will want to express yourself. Whenever that happens for you, you can make an appointment with one of our tutors. When you write, you get the corrections back, or you can talk to them.
How do you earn revenue from LingQ?
All memberships fees are charged monthly. There are no set-up fees, no long-term contracts and no cancellation fees. There are four membership levels, FREE, $10, $39 and $79 a month. Points are used for services like writing correction, live conversation and premium content. With these points, you can sign up for discussions, you get your own personal tutor, and every time you do something that involves a tutor, you pay per discussion
Are there any limitations in the learning method?
Some of the functionality doesn’t work yet for Asian languages because our system relies on capturing fragments of sentences, such as spaces between the words, which Japanese and Chinese do not have. This is one of the many things we have to fix. Probably by fall, I think we’ll have full functionality for Japanese and Chinese and we’ll put on Korean, too. There is demand for Arabic, Hindi, Turkish, you name it. But we can only do so many things at once. Our programmers are so busy.
Where are your learners?
I would guess 15% are in Japan, 10% Brazil, 10% U.S., then Europe, Middle East and Latin America.
How do you market LingQ?
We rely very much on the web. Our members blog about us. We put most of our effort into developing and improving the site so that people will talk about us. I was on national radio in Canada recently and immediately after, we had 550 people sign up. As we go forward, I’ve got to be more aggressive in terms of creating publicity.
How many languages do you speak?
I speak English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Swedish, Spanish, German, Italian, Cantonese and I manage quite well in Russian and Portuguese. I can stumble along in Korean.
Do you have to be young to start learning a language?
I started learning Russian when I was 60 and Portuguese at 62. After two years, I can read Russian literature. People think it is difficult to learn a new language and they can’t do it. I firmly believe that adults are better language learners than children. Kids are less inhibited but adults know so much more. Unfortunately, most people are conditioned by what they did at school. For most people, learning a foreign language was an unpleasant and unsuccessful experience. You don’t have to be exposed to another language as a child to be able to learn it. It is more a matter of attitude and how you go about it.
Which languages would you like to learn next?
I want to go back to Korean. Then I want to knock off Arabic, Hindi and Turkish.
How do you divide your time between LingQ and your lumber business?
About 80% of my time is on LingQ. It’s a labor of love but I have never worked so hard. I am up at 7, talking to our learners. I am also a tutor. I do podcasts, webcam for YouTube. I comment on other people’s blogs, so we can create some name recognition on the web.
For further information, visit www.thelinguist.com and www.LingQ.com.© Japan Today