If you ask  99 people out of 100 if they know what “collocation” means they will say no. I consider this kind of term useless for the language learner. These terms are invented by the (very often monolingual) “linguists” to amuse themselves. To me a phrase is any grouping of 2 or more (usually less than 5) words that the native speaker naturally uses.

The following is from my book. The Linguist, A Personal Guide to Language Learning, which is available at Amazon and at The Linguist site.


During the two years spent developing The Linguist language learning system I visited book stores and libraries in Canada, England, France , Germany , Japan , China and Sweden . I discovered a vast bibliography on many different aspects of linguistics, language teaching and grammar. As a person who has learned nine languages, I found the variety and complexity of this material astounding. I cannot say that most of this literature is wrong, but I found much of it not useful for language learning. I do not think that Zhuangzi would have approved. But then, as a Taoist he probably felt all science was futile.

In a recent short history of science entitled “Universe on a T-Shirt” ( Penguin Canada), the Canadian science writer Dan Falk points out the importance of simplicity in scientific discovery. When competing explanations of natural phenomena are considered, it is almost always the simplest one, with the fewest assumptions, that is correct. This concept apparently is known to the science world as Ockham’s Razor, in honour of William of Ockham a monk who taught at Oxford and Paris in the 14th century, and who first enunciated this principle. Ockham’s Razor is most relevant to uage learning where I think the basic principles are quite simple.

Constant exposure to interesting language content, if sustained for a long enough period of time will bring success. Even learners at The Linguist sometimes forget this.  One of our better learners was using The Linguist system regularly for English and was making good progress. Then she decided to stop using it to devote two months to preparing for TOEFL, practicing writing TOEFL tests and doing whatever one does to prepare for TOEFL. She did not pass TOEFL, but what was worse her English ability stopped progressing, and in fact went backwards. To continue to progress in language learning you just need to practice the “engine”; listen, read, and learn words and phrases every day. It is that simple. Do this and speak when you have the chance. Try to write once a week. You will acquire the language faster this way than by all other ingenious tests, games or drills.

There are no shortcuts to fluency. You need lots of exposure to the language. If you are not living where the language is spoken you need to work the “engine”. Rules, word lists or specially prepared texts will not help you unless you are interested in the content. You will have trouble remembering specialized terms when you really need to use them. Instead concentrate on learning the language from content that matters to you and interests you.  Listen, read and learn the words and phrases. You will soon be able to deal with any language situation that may arise. That is the Ockham’s Razor of language learning.

Another one of our regular learners, who was making good progress using our method, wanted to find a good grammar book. I told her that there were lots of good grammar books in the stores and that she should buy one as a reference. She replied that she was looking for a simpler grammar book that she could understand. I told her that if she learned enough phrases and if they became natural to her, then the grammar explanations would start to make sense. But first she had to learn the phrases.

An apology and a question

I apologize for the bold font of the second last post. I took this from another word file and the type was large and bold. I always thought that this Blog only used one font type. I was also experimenting with link certain words like The Linguist. I guess it all came across a bit too strongly. Sorry.

I received a comment to that effect in Japanese.

I am curious to know if the posts on wine etc. were of interest to you readers out there.

Steve’s tips on wine tasting

Steve’s tips for wine tasting.

Scenario 1 Group wine tasting
1) Cook a good meal
2) invite some good friends
3) Open a bottle of good wine, let it breathe
4) Toast everybody and wish them welcome
5) Start drinking, eating and talking, more or less at the same time

Scenario 2 Tete a tete wine tasting
1) Cook a good meal
2) Set the table for two
3) Dim down the lights and light some candles
4) Pour out two glasses of wine, let them breathe
5) Look her or him in the eyes for a long time
6) Have a drink of wine
7) Eat your dishes, sharing some with each other


Start thinking of what might be

Scenario 3 Solitary wine tasting
1) Cook yourself a simple meal, French bread with a little cheese, pate or ham and pickles will even do.
2) Open the bottle you were saving for yourself
3) Put some classical music on
4) Pour out the glass slowly, let it breathe
5) Sip from the glass and imagine you are Marcus Aurelius or Hadrian contemplating your life while facing the Barbarians on the front lines.

Grammar and the linguist

Most language courses teach grammar. Learning grammar is not natural. Learning grammar is not fun for most people. Learning grammar will not make you fluent in a new language. If you want to become fluent in a new language you need to slowly get used to the language, naturally. You need to get used to how words are used. You need to learn how words come together to form phrases and sentences. If you learn naturally you will speak naturally.

The Linguist can help you learn naturally. At The Linguist you choose content that you like. You enjoy listening and reading as much as you want. Our system will teach you to notice how the words are used. As you listen and read you will save words and phrases to your personal database.

When you save words and phrases to your personal database at you will also save the whole sentence. Soon you will notice which words naturally go together and how they are used. After a while you will be able to use these words and phrases naturally yourself.

Many people who study grammar for a long time do not learn to speak naturally. They are afraid to make mistakes. At The Linguist we do not want you to think so much about grammar. We want you to learn naturally. If you really want to buy a grammar book buy the smallest one you can find. 

At The Linguist you will learn how to express your thoughts well and create clear sentences. You will learn many new words and phrases. The way words are used will be different from your own language. When you first meet new words you may refer to your own language for the meaning. As soon as possible you should try to notice how the words are used in the new language and forget how these words are used in your own language.

If you have questions you may ask your tutor or post on The Linguist Forum. I hope you will ask “What does this mean?” or “How do you say this?” and not “Why is it written this way?”. It is the not the rules of grammar, but lots of listening and reading and studying of words and phrases that will train you to become fluent

More on wine

My penchant for red wine is partly because of the taste and partly because of the association in my mind with the Mediterranean going back to classical antiquity. Who knows all the complex reasons why one likes something? But I just know that I like red wine.

I do not like all red wine. Red wine should have a complex taste. To me wine should not be sour, nor sweet, nor should it be too fruity nor should it be harsh. A good red wine has many tastes. You taste it differently on the front of your tongue, on the top of your tongue, on the sides of your tongue and in your whole mouth, before it goes down.

White wine is served cold, and therefore it is harsher on the taste buds. I find it less pleasant and more sour. It can be refreshing on a warm day.

Champagne is also a form of wine. It has the unique quality of making people feel genuinely happy and social in a very short period of time. It is a good pre-dinner drink for that reason. It is very festive.

I am not a collector of wine. I have not the patience to store wine for years. I just buy wine and drink it. I find that wines around the $15-20 range give you the best value for money. Wines that are less expensive often taste harsh or sour. Wines that are more expensive are often not worth it.

There are no rules. Yo should just try different bottles from different origins. Keep a record of which areas and which grapes you liked, and which producers. Then you go back to some of your favourites, while you explore some new brands.

More on wine

Now let’s get back to wine.

First of all wine (grape wine) to me conjures up the Mediterranean. Whenever I look at the ocean here, I think of Homer who would always refer to the “wine-red sea”. That was 2.800 years ago for those of you who have not read the Illiad. Ever since then wine, olive oil and bread have represented the essential elements of Mediterranean life. That is what Homer, Heracleitus, Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo Da Vinci and Balzac, Manzoni, Cervantes, Garcia Lorca and countless others were were nourished on.

When you drink, part of what you drink is the association with another world or worlds. If I were more familiar with 山西, maybe when I drink 汾酒 I would think of 山西 bankers, who like the Lombards, or the Fuggers of Germany or the Rotschilds dominated the financial world of half a continent. Maybe I would think of various Central Asian or Northern Asian people who have come through 山西. Maybe I would think of 三国演义 and think of battles. But I do not have enough knowledge and culture to do that. But I want to visit 平遥 and soak up the local flavour.

Meanwhile I am left with red wine. I consider it the most noble drink. I drink it with any food. I drink it with fish although they say that one should rink white wine with fish. Nonsense. I do not believe that wine needs to accompany a dish. The wine stands on its own. The dish stands on its own.

I have drunk red wine with Japanese food, Chinese food and have always enjoyed it. Later I will tell the story of my encounter with a group of wine lovers in a small town on the island of Kyushu in Japan. These people had the most amazing wine collection I have ever seen, in a small little Japanese town. And they were individuals who were friends and owners of a sushi restaurant, a famous bean curd restaurant and a bar on the beach. But that story will come later.

Let me just say that wine normally refers to drinks that are between 11 and 15% in alcohol content. Stronger wine based drinks like Sherry (Jerez) or Port or Cinzano (Vermouth) are not really wine.

In my next post I will get into the differences between the different types of grapes and the different producing regions. I will get into what I like. But, let me make it clear, that in wine “de gustibus non disputandum est”. You cannot discuss taste. People like what they like.

“Man does not belong to his language or to his race, he belongs to himself alone, for he is a free being, a moral being.” Ernest Renan, Sorbonne 1881


This is from a learner at The Linguist

To learn better at The Linguist, I always explore ways to improve my English.

This week I practiced in the Pronounce section, which I hardly used in the past. I never learned phonetic symbols, so I did not think that I could work in the Pronounce section. After trying to practice in that section. however, I found that I need not know much about phonetic symbols, and the section even helped me start learning phonetic symbols.

The word pronunciation section provides vowel and consonant sounds. In this section, I do not see any of the complicated theory taught in pronunciation books. I just see some short words having the same vowels or consonants. Beginners like me can refine our pronunciation easily by pronouncing the words with the original voice at the same time and recording our own voice.