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You're never too old to learn a new language

By Chris Betros

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

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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So much for Lenneberg's critical period hypothesis...

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I shall have to have a look at this - I need to kickstart my Russian studies again. I know they say that if you want to learn a language, date a native speaker, but my spoken Russian hasn't improved a vast amount in 4 years of living with Mr Zaichik (on the other hand, his English has improved tremendously)!

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I agree that you can learn a new language at an advanced age.

Myself studying Mandarin now and I am 42, this will be the 4th language that I am fluent in. Know a few others(maybe 15) to get by on travels.

Also agree that you need top be immersed to a certain degree but I found that relying on family as teachers/language partners DON'T work.

Example: For Japanese Kanji studies I found that Heisig worked for me, wasted many years and lots of monies on other systems.


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Oops, forgot to mention adults need a different system/learning method than kids. Yet, most language schools still copy the system of kids for adults.

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If japanese learn korean language and koreans learn japanese. It will do whole lot of good for both koreans and japanese, in bridging the divide in communications improvements and reduce communication breakdowns.

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Actually lots of japanese(wife included) can speak korean(easy to learn)and thus was a common study. My Wife like myself is fluent in a few languages. Her TOEIC score is 98% and she whines about her poor english (only traveled the globe for 8yrs).

Focus now has shifted from korean to chinese though.

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I found the transition to learn Japanese to be quite easy after I have mastered both Chinese and Englsih. Vice versa I guess for any of these languages, because Japanese is easier to pronounce with English, and have similar kanji to Chinese characters. Guess the next goal is Korean for me, have to check that website out, FREE service, you say?

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Russian is very easy for me. Japanese is easier. i wonder why some of you guys have problems.

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Some of you may find the following article of interest.


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All languages are so easy for me, you guys really are not that good at languages if it took you so long to master these languages. I mean I hear something once and I use it like native speaker. On my 12th language now, English. How am I doing?!

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Didn't a former Indian PM or president master all 15 (or so) official languages?

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If English is good enough for me, by golly it's good enough for the rest of the world!

Tee hee!

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Russian is very easy for me. Japanese is easier. i wonder why some of you guys have problems

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StudMuffin - Some of us have language disability.

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What is the definition of fluent? I read in an article Lucy Liu of Charlie's Angels fame is suppose to speak three languages. In my mind being able to say "konichi wa" does not qualify as "speaking" a language.

I don't think anyone can be "fluent" in 4 or more languages. Unless it's French, Italian or Spanish or mabye Norweigian, Swedish or Danish.

There is a difference in being fluent and proficient in a language. I am fluent in 2 and proficent in a third.

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With regard to how fluent you may refer to the following youtubes 1) English Mandarin Spanish and French http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=wSK9P5dmHFk 2) Portuguese Russian and German http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=B6QVONxkdsE&feature=related 3) Swedish Cantonese and Italian http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=AGp0rfvvk7U&feature=related

There are more youtubes as well. I think it is quite possible to be fluent in ten or more languages if you set that as your goal. I did not have the luxury of spend as much time as I would like on language learning. Now that I am getting older, I want to do more of it.

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Speaking many languages, does not make you any richer but it can make you, very professor like in look. Once met a dutch person, working with EEC, who could speak 12 languages, the person was not very rich but the dutch citizen, sure had a professor look with thick spectacles and all.

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Now I feel bad for only being fluent in 17.6 languages (don't want to be the only one not tactfully advertising their language prowess).

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The program is definitely worth a look. I tried it and really enjoyed it. It's very systematic. My study habits are so weak. I think I need something like this to get organized.

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I think some people are mixing up being fluent and being proficient?

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Yes. Even if you are fluent today, you will soon lose that fluency if you don't constantly work at it. When people say they are fluent in a zillion languages, can you believe them??

But learning languages is great fun and great brain exercise.

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Great to find this thread. I'm 48 and living in Guangzhou, China. Although I must admit I have the fullest confidence in my ability to learn Mandarin, I've let the old wives' tale of being too old scare me from time to time. Nonsense.

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