Interview with Polyglot Steve Kaufmann

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Picture of polyglot Steve Kaufmann

If we follow our interests we will gradually get better as language learners.

-Steve Kaufmann

If you’ve browsed the internet language scene for more than 5 minutes, then you’ve probably heard of Steve Kaufmann.

He’s a Canadian polyglot who speaks an incredible 17 languages… and counting.

Steve has been learning languages for more than 55 years and is also the co-founder of LingQ, a popular language-learning app.

Notably, he’s learned most of his languages later in life, thereby busting the myth that language learning is only for young people.

Here’s a video of Steve talking about ‘the biggest mistake people make’ when learning a language:

In the language learning community, Steve is somewhat of a legend, and rightly so.

Not only does he share his best language learning advice freely online, but he’s also honest about what, and how long it takes to learn a language.

Needless to say, Steve is quite an inspirational figure, and it’s a pleasure to interview him here on Smart Language Learner.

Before we get to the interview:

Here are some great quotes of wisdom from Steve I found on his website and social media channels:

Don’t try and remember anything when you’re learning a second language.

You can’t force it. Let the language come to you and react to the opportunities that present themselves. Be realistic about your goals and achievements. That way you will enjoy the process and succeed.

More than specific language learning techniques, it is the ability to enjoy the journey that matters the most.

So you have to decide, where do you like to spend your time? Do you like to spend your time reviewing flashcards? Do you like to spend your time reviewing grammar rules? Do you like to spend your time reading, listening, writing, speaking? You decide how to spend the time. The key thing is to spend time with the language because when you’re spending time with the language that gives your brain a chance to get used to this new language and to develop the neural networks, the connections between neurons.

I think your emotional relationship to the language is extremely important to learning it. You’ve got to be confident about your own ability. You’ve got to like the task. You don’t want to get frustrated at yourself. All of these attitude factors are extremely important.

I would think for a motivated person the time spent in the classroom is actually a waste of time because you’re in there listening to 10, 15, 20 other people struggle with the language, whereas if you are genuinely motivated you could learn using resources on the Internet.

I’m not studying the language so much as I’m gaining this experience and interacting with the language and doing interesting things in the language in the knowledge that, as a result, my skills in the language will improve.

And here’s the Interview with Steve Kaufmann

You speak 17 languages and counting, which is quite an achievement. But in how many of those languages are you able to take phone calls comfortably? I.e., someone calls you, and you’re immediately able to hold a decent conversation. In what languages could you do this right now, if necessary?

Steve Kaufmann: I could take phone calls and converse comfortably, albeit with mistakes, in 12 languages. I would struggle in a few more and probably couldn’t do it in others. The total of languages where I have some knowledge is 21.

How did LingQ come about? And was it inspired by how you think languages should be learned?

Steve Kaufmann: LingQ reflects how I learn languages. It was started because we had an employee in my lumber company, a recent immigrant from China, who struggled with English. We developed it for him. We then decided to make it into a multi-language platform. We started 13 years ago.

Apart from LingQ, what are your favorite language learning tools and resources, and why?

Steve Kaufmann: Aside from LingQ, I mostly look for sources of content. Of course, we also use a number of online dictionaries for each language, usually ones that have been recommended or requested by our members. I also typically buy a starter book for each language, Teach Yourself, or Colloquial. I also like the Assimil series because there is no English in the audio

You’re a proponent of speaking when you’re ready, instead of speaking from day one. But do you make a distinction between speaking and conversing? I believe in speaking from the get-go, i.e., on your own with your learning resources, but I feel that conversing from day one is a huge waste of time. In fact, it could actually hurt you in the long run because of the number of fossilized errors that creep into your speaking if you don’t work on your new language outside of conversations. I know quite a few people who have learned a new language as an adult mainly through conversing. They all speak with a lot of mistakes; Tarzan-like. Yet, those that started out “studying” and later went out to converse, speak much better. What’s your position on all this?

Steve Kaufmann: I make no distinction between speaking and conversing. The biggest advantage of speaking in the early stages is that you trigger more input. I like to speak with tutors online, in the early stages, who will give me a report with 10 or 15 sentences or phrases, which they also record. I can import this into LingQ as a lesson. I don’t think when you start speaking has much impact on how well you speak in the end, as long as you continue intensive input activities, listening and reading, using enjoyable material eventually, but starting out with repetitive material like our mini-stories.

If you could, what advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting to learn languages, and why?

Steve Kaufmann: My advice to my younger self would be to take it easy and enjoy the process. That is essentially what my approach has been all along. It was only when I sat in French class at school that I didn’t enjoy the process. Once I started seeking out listening and reading content and exploring the language and its culture, I have always learned easily and enjoyably.

There’s a lot of debate as to how to think in a foreign language. From my experience, this happens automatically once you become very proficient in a language. With enough exposure and usage of the language, your mind follows suit, and you start to think in the new language. Do you agree? And if not, what can people do to start thinking in a foreign language?

Steve Kaufmann: I agree that the whole discussion about when we start thinking in our own language and start thinking in a foreign language is not that useful. I think it’s a gradual process.

Who are some of the modern polyglots you are impressed with, and why?

Steve Kaufmann: I have great respect for many of the polyglots who are present on the Internet, including Luca Lampariello, Richard Simcott, Olly Richards, and others.

You seem to really enjoy learning languages. This obviously helps a lot with motivation. But what do you recommend to people who don’t like language learning but still want to speak in a new language?

Steve Kaufmann: Someone who doesn’t like language learning but still wants to learn the language doesn’t really want to learn the language. Pretty much hopeless.

You are an advocate of varying language learning content. I.e.: If you get bored or if it gets too difficult, quickly grab something else and continue with that. But if we do this all the time, isn’t there a danger that we will continue to evade what we should actually learn?

Steve Kaufmann: I don’t think there is such a thing as content that we should learn. It’s like reading. If we follow our interests, we will gradually get better as readers and as language learners. We will consume the content that is of interest to us at a given moment in time.

Many language bloggers advocate the no-English method of language learning, in which someone who learns a language can’t use his native tongue for translations. In your opinion, does this accelerate learning, or are they actually shooting themselves in the foot?

Steve Kaufmann: I like to have English translations in so far as the dictionary is concerned. If I am confused about a phrase even after looking up the words, I will look for a Google translate English translation. I find reference to English helpful in my language learning. I have never understood this desire to be only in the target language. When you are at a stage when you can actually do that, you usually have already learned the language.

What’s the first thing you do when you know you have to study but don’t feel like it?

Steve Kaufmann: When I don’t feel like it, I usually stop. Otherwise, I may try to vary the kind of activity that I’m doing. I might do some flashcards instead of reading. But most of my learning time is actually listening while doing other tasks. If I don’t feel like listening to the language I am learning, I might listen to a language that I learned previously, or I might listen to something totally unrelated like music.

What’s the most amazing intercultural experience you’ve had because of speaking another language?

Steve Kaufmann: I enjoy all the intercultural exchanges that my language learning affords me. They are all rewarding, enriching, exciting, fun, and positive. I can’t really isolate a most amazing experience.

Do you have a fixed schedule when it comes to language learning? Or do you try to fit your language learning time around your other commitments?

Steve Kaufmann: I have no fixed schedule when it comes to language learning. I listen when I’m in the car or doing the dishes. I try to find a half-hour or so to do some reading and LingQing on my iPad. I do it when I feel like it.

What are your language goals for the coming years?

Steve Kaufmann: Right now, I’m focussed on three Middle Eastern languages, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. I think that will keep me busy for quite a while. I will be traveling to Croatia in September and therefore, will try to do a crash exercise in Croatian on LingQ. We now have mini-stories for Serbo-Croatian, and that is what I will use. In the future, I might tackle Hindi. I might go back to Hebrew. I would also like to improve some of my weaker languages. We will see what I feel like doing at that time.

Where to Find Steve Kaufmann

You can find Steve at:

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One comment

  1. I agree with so much of what you are saying! I only speak about 6 or 7 languages myself — working on a few as hobbies all the time though, and maintaining the languages I studied at school is a way of life.

    I am an English teacher, and students will actually say to me, “I hate English!” It’s my native language but I am not offended. Most of them have to study it for their careers and as some kind of magic key to success or hurdle to jump. It is a confusing and contradictory mess of irregularity. I tell them, find something to like about it, do what you enjoy but do it in English, have fun with it. If they make the language they study a part of their lives, they tend to do much better in class. I have had students who were indifferent to English, somewhat hostile even, but were found to be studying French or Korean (!!) on their own because they liked French films or K-pop.

    Good luck with Arabic, Turkish and Persian — I am working on those also. I live in Turkey so I speak fairly adequate Turkish for most situations — it could be better, I think, but I am always pushing and challenging myself. I wanted to learn Persian, but in Turkey there are not a lot of Persian speakers. I had the chance to learn Kurdish (Kurmanji), which is related, so I figured if I ever studied Persian I would have a jump on it. That is a fascinating sidetrack; Kurmanji is arguably one of the least immediately “useful” languages I have ever studied, but one of the most personally rewarding. (I am finding now that it’s not nearly as close to Persian as I was told, but a lot of words and expressions are the same)

    You mentioned forming connections — this is one of the keys to becoming a mad polyglot IME. It’s really obvious with Romance and Slavic languages, but just the overarching Indo-European connection can be reassuring to an English speaker in languages one might think had nothing in common — Persian, for example. The more associations with what you already know that you can find in the target language, the more connections you can make among them, the easier it gets. With Turkish the biggest bridge to English is a pretty large number of borrowed French words. Arabic is a major vocabulary builder in many Middle Eastern languages; also once you get used to reading and writing right to left Persian is far less intimidating. The Middle Eastern languages, I find, have a lot of common vocabulary despite not being linguistically related in many cases.

    It would be interesting to have some insight into how one goes from restaurant and grocery store proficiency to reading news stories and academic papers, as there is often a huge difference between spoken and written languages.

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