Travel notes

I was in Europe for much of June, in Sweden, London and then attending a conference on Language Instruction and the Corporate Sector in Duesseldorf. I also attended a wedding in Le Havre. France and then took it easy in a 500 year old house in a small village near Tours.

My wife and I drove around visiting small villages, eating four course meals with wine, tax and service included for 10-15 Euros and enjoyed the countryside. There was also a magnificent 27 hole golf course near by with nobody on it which we took advantage of.

The villages were delightful and as a result I bought an audio book of Proust’s Du Cote de Chez Swann which I enjoy listening to while driving around Vancouver. The village that figures prominently in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is located near where we stayed.

I heartily recommend audio books to language enthusiasts. Audio books can help you enjoy your reading, can allow you to access books that you find difficult, and as a result are a form of travel into an exotic world of language, history and culture of your choosing.

Audio books.

When using audio books for language improvement should you listen to the whole book?

In many cases I just listen to parts of these books. It is useful to then read these same parts and then listen again. The idea is to bathe your mind with the language. The more interesting you find the content, the more effective your listening will be. When you read it is a good idea to underline or make note of words and phrases that you really want to be able to use. Then when you listen again you will notice them.

Listening is a kind of sensual enjoyment of the language. You are following the meaning but you are also enjoying the words and phrases and getting used to them. Each time you listen you will focus on different words and phrases. It is not possible to be focused all the time.

Some books you will want to listen to from beginning to end, but very often just doing parts at a time is good enough.

I do believe, however, that one goal is to improve your reading. You should get to the stage where you can comfortably read a book, from cover to cover. If you have not done so before, when you do so you will feel a sense of achievement, like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. Thereafter you will find it easier to read.

At least these have been some of my experiences with different languages. The key is that the content is of interest to you. Good luck!

Acing the TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS: Scams?

I continue to see ads like these popping up all over the internet:


You can substitute TOEFL or IELTS in any of those ads. Indeed, one enterprising (but perhaps not the most ethical) individual has set up virtually identical sites for acing the IELTS, the TOEFL, and the TOEIC. It’s really quite amazing how he’s an expert on all three tests, all at the same time, and how basically identical strategies and ‘secrets’ will help a learner on all three different tests.

It’s really quite amusing to read all the pages, and note the similarities. For instance,

  • IELTS:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of standardized test researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the IELTS.
  • TOEIC:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of standardized test researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the TOEIC.
  • TOEFL:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of standardized test researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the TOEFL.

I’m sorry, but this does not lend itself to credibility. Especially when you do a little elementary Google searching and find all kinds of other things that Morrison Media has “put together a team of researchers” for. Such as the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certificate

  • CNA:
    In case you don’t already know me, my name is Peter Morrison and I’m the head of a team of medical field researchers who set out to find and exploit the weaknesses of the CNA hiring and school process.
  • and the PRAXIS test
  • and the USMLE

Unbelievable. This company, and this guy, really get around. But how much do they actually know about any particular subject they are selling test prep secrets to? I suspect very little.

Well, The Linguist has a different approach. Yes, we’ll help you ace the TOEFL, and the TOEIC, and the IELTS, and any other English test out there that you can find.

However, we don’t do that by teaching you to “beat the test” or cheat or cram or learn test strategies. In fact, we do it the good old fashioned way of actually teaching you English. What a concept!

It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s cost-effective to learn English with The Linguist. And it’ll help you pass any English test or certification – guaranteed.

But it will also help you to actually learn to speak, read, and write English. Which is what you really want to do in the first place!

Please note:
This was originally posted on The Linguist Community Blog

More on the dictionary

I really appreciate the interest that ESL learner has in the subject of language learning. I look forward to our cup of espresso here in Vancouver one day.

What I mean my real content is anything that the learner is genuinely interested in and that was not written especially for language learners. I mean authentic content which is meaningful to the learner. It may a cook book, a history book or anything. Yes you can Google to find additional examples of new words in use. I prefer to find these examples in my reading and listening and have designed the functionality of The Linguist to make that possible. The examples are more meaningful and the learning is reinforced if the examples come from familiar contexts.

Obviously not everyone has access to The Linguist, and it only exists for English for now. As a compromise solution by all means use the handheld electronic dictionary. The question what will you do with the word once you have looked it up. If it goes on a hand written list, the chances are that you may only review that list a few times. Worse still, most students still use the conventional dictionary and their study is so slow and painstaking that an essential ingredient of breakthrough language learning is lost. That ingredient is intensity. Efficiency leads to intensity. Intensity is needed for a breakthrough.

As for the International Phonetic Alphabet. I do not use it. I want to connect the words that I see in the language with the pronunciation. I do not want to see a third phonetic script, especially one that I do not know and have no interest in learning.

The Dictionary

“ESL Learner” defends the use of the dictionary in a comment here. Of course we need a dictionary but the less time we spend in the dictionary the better. We should read on line and use on line dictionaries like Babylon and Kingsoft. In this way we get instant explanations and translations. When reading away from the computer I simply let the unknown words go by me. Traditional dictionaries are simply too time consuming and inefficient.

But even the on line the dictionary is not enough. We need to create a dynamic database of our new words and phrases linked to real examples of these words in use from our reading and listening. The dictionary examples are not real. We need to learn from real context.

Dictionaries provide guides to pronunciation often using the phonetic alphabet. This can be a help if the learner knows the international phonetic alphabet. I have learned 10 languages and never bothered learning the IPA. To me it is just one more artificial obstacle between me and the language. The spelling of the language I am learning has to link up with the sound of the word in use. The IPA like grammar explanations is just a distraction.

I spent most of time listening over and over to the content I was learning from. I developed my pronunciation skills by repeatedly listening to interesting content. Then when I read that content I would pronounce these words to myself. Occasionally I would read the texts out loud.

The point is that whenever you take your learning away from real context, as in when you are studying the dictionary, you are taking time away from the most efficient activities, reading, listening and speaking. You will learn to be fluent by training your brain, not by trying to understand or deliberately gain knowledge.

In answer to Cliff; boring content

The boring nature of most learner content is a real problem in language learning. Going after interesting content is often too difficult because there are too many new words and phrases. What can we do?

While some learners like dictionaries, I do not. Using them is like one-way love. You put a lot of effort into looking words up, you think things are fine when you are in the dictionary, but in fact very little remains. The dictionary does not do it for you. You are left empty.

For this reason, when I learned I had to begin by relying on whatever content I could find with word lists attached.This often meant boring content. It meant word lists that distracted you from your reading. It meant that often the words you wanted to know where not on the list. I might add that all the grammatical explanations in these text books was for me just so much filler put there for the gratification of the editor of the text book. I just ignored them. In the case of Chinese, fortunately, there were some books on history, politics, literature etc. with real , not learner content. Unfortunately most of this content did not have audio to go with it.

As I got better I went to content of my choice, books, newspapers, magazines. At times I would look words up, but mostly I just the let the unknown words go by. Reading, exposure, washing brain in the new language, getting used to how words come together in the new language was what I was looking for. The problem is bridging the gap from your beginner and intermediate stage until you get to the advanced stage. And if there were a better way to handle advanced reading of your choice, so that you could systematicall learn the unknown words, that would be a big plus.

It was my frustration over conventional learning material that caused me to develop The Linguist. At The Linguist we are constantly asking the learner to link new words and phrases and put them into a personal database for later study. The link also provides an explanation and translation. The learner can ask his/her tutor if he/she gets stuck. These links create examples of the words and phrases from the learners’ listening and reading. The learner is asked to use these new words and phrases in their writing and reading. This all works.

For other languages like Japanese or Swedish or whatever ( I am looking forward to doing Korean and Portuguese, and then Arabic, Russian and Hindi) you will just have to wait another six months until we launch The Linguist for other languages.

A rose by any other name

What’s in a name?

Someone asked if Chinese people should adopt Western names if they live in a Western country like


, and how to choose the name. I think it is like asking what colour shirt to wear. It depends on the person and the circumstances.

My simple answer is, probably, on balance, Chinese people living in


are better off with an English (or French) name, but it is not necessary. The advantage of the new name is that it is easier for English (or French) speakers to remember. Canadians will feel more comfortable with a name they recognize.

The same is true in reverse. Chinese are always asking me what my Chinese name is, as if the simple transliteration of my name into 考夫曼

, which appears on my name card, just does not quite do it for them. I was once given a Chinese name in

Hong Kong

some 40 years ago. It is 

高思祖 for Kaufmann Steve Joseph. (My wife does not like it since it was chosen for me by a girl I knew before I knew my wife).

If you ask what I would like to be called, however, I would answer “Steve”. But then when I am asked to write my name in Chinese characters I go back to高思祖 since I know how to write those characters quite easily,



it is different. There a foreign name is a foreign name unless you come from a country that uses Chinese characters. Mao Zidong becomes Mo Takto. Other foreigners names are written in Katakana in a close approximation of the sound. Interestingly, George Tanaka, a second generation Nissei American gets his name, Tanaka, written in Katakana just like any other foreigner.

The Chinese transliterate all foreign names into Chinese characters based on what they consider a close approximation of the sound. Khruschev was Heluxiaofu and I do not even want to think of what that works out to in Cantonese. The exception is Japanese or Korean names which are pronounced a la Chinoise. It usually takes me a while to figure out whom they are talking about when they say Tianzhong for Tanaka or Zuoteng for Sato or Xiaoquan for their favourite Japanese Prime Minister.


, of course is Dongjing to the Chinese and so on.

Many countries retain their own names for foreign countries and cities. Mailand (German)


(French and English) instead of Milano( Italian), Londres( Spanish) instead of


and so on. Yet somehow it has become politically incorrect to say


and Peking or





The Japanese are inconsistent with Chinese place names , such that Beijing is still Peking, Shanghai is Shanghai but Hangzhou is Koushuu, as are Guangzhou and a host of other cities with similar sounds.

As for Japanese people I find that I mostly use Tanaka-san or Suzuki-san. I think that Chinese are more likely to use first names than Japanese people, but I could be wrong. Often Japanese people shorten their Japanese first names giving rise to the common occurrence of Ted (Tetsuo, Tetsusaburo etc.) Tak (Takeshi, etc.) Tad (Tadao), Mas (for whatever) or use the first volley of their double-barrelled names like Nori for Noriyuki, Shin for Shinsuke etc. These are also options for the Chinese.

However, if a Chinese person has a first name that contains the Chinese pinyin sounds like “Xi”, “Qu”, “Zhi” “Ci” “Si” etc.I would think that a new name is a must. Those pinyin syllables will simply not be comprehensible to a person not familiar with Chinese.

In any case we are only talking about the first encounter. Once someone knows you, they know what kind of a person you are. “A rose by any other name is still a rose” as they say. But first impressions can be important. If you are applying for a job, a triple-barreled Chinese name, especially one with unpronounceable syllables will not create as favourable an impression as George or Nancy.