Linguists, unijambistes and diplomatists.

The proponents of the position that “linguist” should mean student of linguistics, and not speaker of several languages, are continuing to defend their position after my recent video,

“The joy of being a linguist and the power of input.”

But for most people who do not know what the term “linguistics” means, an accomplished linguist is just someone who speaks more than one language. This is neither logical or illogical. It is just how the word is used. After all we have pessimists, violinists, and in French “unijambistes” (one-legged people), and the British even have diplomatists, none of whom need to have university degrees in any social science, and none of this is illogical or even disputed.

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Language and culture

Language and culture are at the core of education, or should be. With all the debate about language learning methods, the definition of “linguist”, input versus output versus grammar, the role of the Internet etc. it is sometimes useful to take step back.

What is the most useful thing we learn at school and in life? Language and culture. If we have a deep understanding of our own language and culture we feel secure. If we read well, and are good listeners, with a wide range of vocabulary and general knowledge, and if we express ourselves confidenty, in our own language, we will do well in the tasks that we face as life long learners.

If we can do the same in one or more foreign language and culture, we expand our range of experience,  increase our knowledge of the human condition, and make friends of people from many more backgrounds and origins.

So it is not a matter of technology or method. It is a matter of acquiring advanced skills in language and culture. Like so many other things, this boils down to interest and motivation.

I have never been that interested in learning Arabic, or learning about Arab history. I mean we can only do so many things. I have acquired skills in the language and culture of China, Japan, Russia and various European countries. But I have just finished a very interesting book called The Great Arab Conquests by Hugh Kennedy. Fascinating. I had a sense of the Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, the development of China, the modern history of Europe, but I had little exposure to the storied saga of Arab expansion and the development of this international cultural space. Now I have a start. Can the language be far behind?

 

Long before Krashen it was understood that languages are best learned through input.

Krashen’s ideas about the primacy of input and reading are not new, according to this fascinating article, that should be the subject of ongoing discussion. Here are a few choice paragraphs.

John Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692), wrote: “How . . . is it possible that a child should be chained to the oar, seven, eight, or ten of the best years of his life, to get a language or two, which, I think, might be had at a great deal cheaper rate of pains and time, and be learned almost in playing?”

By the early 19th century an obscure, peripatetic businessman by the name of James Hamilton had the following to say;

“Mankind are thirsty for real knowledge and will not long put up with the shadow of it. Either the teacher will find out a mode of communicating a knowledge of the learned languages in a shorter time and more efficaciously than has been hitherto done, or the study of these languages will be relinquished altogether.”

“Reading,” he writes, “is the only real, the only effectual source of instruction. It is the pure spring of nine-tenths of our intellectual enjoyments. . . . Neither should it be sacrificed to grammar or composition, nor to getting by heart any thing whatever, because these are utterly unobtainable before we have read a great deal.”

Hamilton goes on, “As reading is the source of all real instruction, so it is also the sole, the only means by which the words of a language can be acquired. . . . The man who has not learned to read knows only those words which he has learned in conversation; his vocabulary is smaller than can well be imagined.” Nevertheless, Hamilton did not oppose the study of grammar, only its timing. “The theory of grammar should be taught only when the pupil can read the language, and understand at least an easy book in it,” Hamilton wrote, in agreement with Locke. Contemporary corpora studies have also identified vocabulary recognition as the main variable in reading success.

Hamilton’s method is one of the historical ancestors of LingQ. Check out our new Blue Popup which offers instant information about the words we are reading. It makes difficult texts even more accessible.

Are you a linguist?

Who is a linguist? I am reading my book “The Linguist, a Language Learning Odyssey”, in Russian. Here is what I wrote in the introduction to the book 8 years ago.

Note: The book has been translated into 8 or 9 languages.

As I see it, everyone is a potential linguist. By that, I mean that everyone can be fluent in another language. You do not have to be an intellectual or an academic. After all, a linguist is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary in very simple terms:

Linguist: n. Person skilled in foreign languages.

Even speaking one foreign language qualifies a person as a linguist. To become a linguist is a matter of choice, and requires a certain state of mind. A linguist enjoys foreign languages and appreciates the different ways that ideas are organized and expressed in different cultures. A linguist is at ease with people of another language and confident when learning new languages.

The first step towards becoming a linguist, towards learning a second language, is to realize that success depends not on the teacher but on the learner. Each learner must discover the language gradually in his or her own way. The teacher can only stimulate and inspire. Enrolling in a language school or taking a course will not ensure fluency. If the learner does not accept this simple fact, time and money spent on language programs will be wasted. Language schools and language learning systems may teach, but only the learner can learn.

Growing up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, a predominantly French-speaking city, I remember that until the age of seventeen, I only spoke English. I was not interested in learning another language, although I had been taught French at school from the second grade and was surrounded by the French language. Yet today I can speak nine languages and have derived immense satisfaction and reward from being able to speak Mandarin Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish, German, Swedish, Cantonese and Italian.

In order to try to understand why this happened, I began writing down the history of my own language learning. I realized that it was only when I had a genuine desire to communicate or learn something meaningful in a new language that I was able to learn. When the subject of study was based on the details of the language itself, I resisted. When teachers tried to impose abstract principles of grammar and then test me on them, I remained passive. But once I decided that I needed the language to connect with real people or a new culture, I would throw myself into the study of the language with passion and commitment. And I needed passion, because for me language learning was very hard work.

It was while learning Cantonese at the age of fifty-five that I became aware that language learning had become easier. Modern electronic technology and the Internet have revolutionized language study. First of all, the Internet provides a vast range of interesting and authentic second language content for learners to choose from, in both audio and electronic text formats. Second, content in electronic format allows the reader to access instant dictionary software and link to new context based learning systems. Finally, the Internet can serve as the hub for a community of learners and native speakers.

As I wrote my own story, I decided that I should try to develop a new approach to language learning based on the principles that worked for me, but taking advantage of modern technology to ensure that a new generation of language learners can learn more easily than I did. Under my direction, a small group of language learners and computer programmers immediately started developing these ideas into a comprehensive new language learning system. The more we worked on this project, the more excited we became about our potential to increase the number of real linguists worldwide, by making language learning affordable, enjoyable and effective.

The word “globalization” is commonly used to describe the intensity of international exchange that we are experiencing today. Some people declare themselves in favour of globalization, and others are against it. To me, globalization is an irresistible trend, an inevitable direction of the evolution of our world. It is somewhat pointless to be “for” or “against” something that is inevitable. It is more useful to invest time and energy in being able to enjoy and profit from globalization, by becoming a linguist.

I do not think globalization needs to lead to the domination of one language, such as English. Rather I see it as an opportunity for all people, including English speakers, to become better acquainted with other cultures. Paradoxically, now that the world seems a much smaller place, we are seeing a general renewal of interest in regional languages and identities. There is an increasing demand for effective methods of language learning, not only for dominant languages like English, but also for languages spoken by fewer people. The cost of preparing learning materials for these languages and the effort needed to learn them can be dramatically reduced by using The Linguist (LingQ)approach.

I am confident that this book and the methods described in it can help people to become linguists. I will be working hard to make it happen.

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Language politics again

A law has been proposed in, where else, California, making it illegal to insist on a specific language of work!!

“SB 111, authored by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would make it a violation of the state’s civil rights law for a company to require that a specific language be spoken at the business unless it has a narrowly defined business necessity.”

Why can’t people just be responsible for their own lives. I speak a language, you speak a language. If I don’t speak any language you speak, I don’t work for you and don’t do business with you. No work for lawyers.

Or I don’t speak your language but I want your business so I hire someone who speaks both our languages. No work for lawyers.

Or I want to work for you but don’t speak your language, or the language of your workplace, so I learn your language. No work for lawyers.

What is going on here? How do these people think?

Funding, the biggest obstacle to education reform and initiative.

Cornell University officials are complaining that funding cuts will mean shutting down programs in  “lesser-known languages that hold national importance, like Khmer and Burmese”,

“What these grants do is allow us to offer languages that may not have huge numbers of students learning them, but are very important … If you cut these programs, it becomes very difficult for the University to offer them,” Alice Pell, vice provost for international relations, said.

If these languages are so important to certain students, why do they not study them on their own? Why don’t various universities pool their resources to offer resources for these languages?

It is as if the goal of teaching institutions is to attract funding. Education has done a far better job of obtaining government funding than of delivering education results over the last 30 years as the amount of public spending on education has ballooned without any corresponding improvement in education results. Maybe it is time to cut funding and see whether this does not generate some more effective solutions to education needs.

In praise of “hanging thoughts” that inspire us.

Reading and listening are great ways to bring thoughts into your brain that will be of use later. I often remember words and phrases from the first texts that I listened to so often in Russian a few years ago. Six months ago I listened to the audio book “Ulisse. Il mare color del vino”, produced by Il Narratore, a wonderful rendition of the Odyssey in Italian.  Today I was contacted by the daughter of close friends, a couple that we have skied with in Japan and Canada, traveled with, and laughed with. She wanted me to write a paragraph for a book she is preparing with her sister and brother to celebrate her parents’ 45th wedding anniversary. The first thing that came to mind was “Ulisse, Il mare color del vino”, and I wrote the following.

Dear ………

I cannot believe you have only been married 45 years. Your marriage seems to us to be a union that predates confederation. There are clear antecedents in Greek mythology. I think of J… waiting like Penelope for I… to return from the clutches of the Hokkaido avalanche, or some other adventure. In his absence she was always surrounded by handsome suitors but she spurned them and stuck to her knitting. Likewise, the various Calypsos and Sirens that sought to entrap I… were just ignored, with utmost graciousness and charm, of course That is how a marriage survives, through adventure, excitement and love. On the other hand, those of us who have been caught in the slipstream of your whirlwind feel like Ulysses’ crew members, and we are still recovering from eating lotuses, and hanging on to the rear ends of sheep.