My Favorite Language Learners Series: Steve Kaufmann, Founder of LingQ
The next polyglot that I discovered was Steve Kaufmann, the founder of LingQ, and I really have to say he’s become one of my biggest language learning inspirations. Originally from Montreal, Canada, and now living in Vancouver, Kaufmann now speaks 16 languages: English, French, Mandarin, Japanese, German, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Czech, Romanian, Cantonese, Swedish, Italian, Korean, Ukrainian, and most recently Polish.
In his autobiography and language learning book, it says he was born in Sweden in 1945 to Czechoslovakian parents who immigrated there and then to Canada with him and his older brother, he grew up only remembering speaking English, although he says he spoke Swedish before English and came back to Swedish gradually resurrecting his Swedish at various points in his life. Despite growing up in predominantly French-speaking Montreal, his only exposure to French at the time was in French classes, which he did well in but wasn’t able to function in French in the real world since he grew up in the enclave of English-speaking Montrealers who at the time were monolingual, but are nowadays bilingual French and English speakers.
When he went to university, his professor of French civilization was from France and got him captivated about French history, culture, and literature and got him immersed in the world of French. He was introduced to real French texts and started learning French again, although no longer with the grammar-translation-centered method he had in high school. While he didn’t have the confidence that he’d become as fluent as a native speaker at first, he put perfection aside and focused on communication and read and listened to content that interested him, which caused him to develop this principle: “Learning done in real situations is always far superior to artificial contexts such as exercises, drills, or material specially designed for learners. Time spent in genuine and interesting conversation is a better learning environment than the formal classroom.” This experience also inspired him to develop another principle: “The learner has to be in charge, seeking out the language, the people, the content. As the learner, I have to discover the words and phrases that I am going to need. All too often it is the teacher or textbooks who decide which words you should learn. These words have no importance, and as a consequence are quickly forgotten.”
After succeeding in learning French in Montreal, Kaufmann went to Europe in 1962 to work and study and spent much of his time in France, immersing himself in the French culture and working many jobs when he wasn’t studying in university his first year there. His second two years in France were in Paris studying at L’Institut d’Études Politiques (The Institute of Political Studies). While he was studying there he also took several part-time jobs again, one of them being offering English language exchange with French families. He also spent time in Spain, where he studied, learned, and practiced his Spanish while hitchhiking through Europe.
After returning from Europe Kaufmann received a letter from the Canadian Foreign Trade Service and after applying for the job months earlier he was accepted, and in Ottawa, he became an assistant trade commissioner. Most of the commissioners were assigned to Cleveland or Buffalo, and when they appointed an officer to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin Chinese, Kaufmann seized the chance. Initially taking lessons from an elderly Chinese man in Ottawa, Kaufmann became committed to mastering Chinese to go to the Mandarin-speaking émigré community in Hong Kong as Mainland China was swept in the Cultural Revolution and Taiwan was politically off-limits to Canadian diplomats. After settling there, while expected to go to Hong Kong University by Stanley and Repulse Bay which was a European/Western enclave where all previous diplomatic language students had studied, he only stayed there a few months and then went to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Kowloon. From there he immersed himself completely in Chinese culture in order to learn Chinese just as he did with French culture to learn French.
The Chinese language school there was extremely effective for Kaufmann, whose director emphasized hard work from the learners and was flexible, friendly, and encouraging. He also met his future wife Carmen while he was in Hong Kong. He had a difficult time at first with the three hour classes with some teachers giving explanations in English and others emphasizing drills, which were boring and annoying to Kaufmann. When the teachers talked about an interesting subject in Mandarin for informal conversation lessons, Kaufmann did well, and he also studied intensely in his spare time, and used texts from the Yale-in-China series (including texts such as Chinese Dialogues and Twenty Lectures on Chinese Culture). After only a few months he began reading only authentic Chinese content using readers with vocabulary lists, worked through Chinese character exercise books, starting with ten characters a day and moving to thirty a day eventually. In nine months time after intense study every day, Kaufmann wrote and passed the British Government Foreign Service Examination in Mandarin, was tested in translations, and had to write a diplomatic note in Chinese, after that he finished his study of Mandarin and achieved fluency at last, then continuing to improve his Mandarin while working at the Canadian High Commission as a Second Secretary dealing with trade between Canada and China. In 1969 he finally went to Mainland China and traveled around Guangdong Province and in 1970 after Canada established diplomatic relations with China, Kaufmann made a diplomatic visit to Beijing to help locate an Embassy building for Canada. In the 1970s while living in Japan, he went back to China to Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou on diplomatic missions.
After Kaufmann finished his assignment to China, he requested to his employer to be assigned to Tokyo if he could learn Japanese fluently. So he worked very hard on learning Japanese intensively and fluently within 6 months. He utilized the same methods he used to learn French and Chinese for Japanese. He and his wife both moved to Japan in 1971 and raised two children while there and initially while he was working at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo he had to surround himself with a Japanese language environment to keep improving his Japanese in because his work at the embassy was mostly in English. Lacking the ability to study Japanese in school and to study it for his employer at his employer’s expense, Kaufmann learned Japanese completely on his own while working full time. Because most foreigners in Japan lived and worked in an English bubble, Kaufmann really took the initiative from the beginning to live and work in Japanese as soon as possible and spent his first six months on the language in his spare time, going to bookstores and buying resources and trying out as many as he could to create a good study regimen. He listened repeatedly to tapes in Japanese and worked through readers in Japanese and as his Japanese improved, he varied the content as much as he could listening to audio books and NHK tapes. Kaufmann states “while reading and repetitive listening are effective in becoming familiar with a new language, genuine interaction with native speakers is always the greatest stimulus and training ground for the learner.” His closest colleague at the embassy was the Japanese Commercial Officer, who helped and supported him tremendously with his efforts to learn Japanese, until Kaufmann could begin to express himself clearly and simply in the language. Kaufmann, however, had the advantage of already knowing Chinese characters when learning Japanese, enabling him to learn the Japanese kanji much quicker. He eventually was able to read newspapers in Japanese and follow along, and became fluent in Japanese. His first four years in Japan were as First Secretary at the Canadian Embassy and introduced the North American platform frame wood building system in Japan. Then he was recruited by Seaboard Lumber Sales and worked in the forest industry in Japan from 1974 to 1977, then went to Vancouver with his family, then returned to Japan from 1981 to 1982 to work for MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., exporting large amounts of manufactured lumber goods. He eventually settled in Vancouver where he currently lives with his wife after nine years in Japan.
Now settled back in Vancouver, Kaufmann then advanced in German, Swedish, Spanish, and Italian, four languages he had previous exposure to and improved his fluency and confidence in them, concentrating on comprehensive audio material and reading texts with vocabulary lists. He then learned Cantonese, which is the first language of his wife and family. After that he learned Portuguese, Russian, Romanian, Czech, Korean, Ukrainian, and Polish.
Kaufmann had since continued to trade lumber with various international companies. He has also founded the successful language e-learning company LingQ (pronounced “link”). How LingQ actually works will be described in a future post.
The philosophy of LingQ is described as follows:
“LingQ breaks down the barriers that prevent people from learning languages. We LingQ (“link”) you to a world of authentic content and an online community of learners and native speaker tutors. We LingQ you to our powerful tools and resources. (We don’t LingQ you to classrooms, text books and grammar rules.)”
Kaufmann on his website describes the way he learns languages thus:
“Steve says that before you try to communicate in your target language, you should spend time on listening, repeating out loud, learning words and phrases, reading, writing, and practicing proper pronunciation.”
“To express yourself in a new language you must first absorb the language by listening, reading and learning vocabulary… These activities will always account for about three quarters of your effort while you are working to achieve a basic level of fluency. But from the beginning you also have to work on your skills of expression: pronunciation, writing and conversation. Developing these skills requires a conscious commitment to regular and patient practice.”
Kaufmann also describes in his book and YouTube channel the attitude of a successful language learner: In his YouTube playlist The Seven Secrets of Language Learning, he states his secrets in this order:
- Spend the time
- Do what you like to do
- Learn to notice
- Words over grammar
- Be patient
- Get the tools
- Become an independent language learner
How Kaufmann has inspired me first of all is with his sheer sense of knowledge about the world and its events, I’d say it’s encyclopedic. He also has this air of a worldly cosmopolitan and a sense of global citizenry. He is quite charismatic and he seems from his videos to be a really interesting person to talk to and be around. I also enjoy hearing his stories in many of his videos. Due to his specialized focus on history and politics he makes his political insights very clear (while I don’t always agree with his politics, I do find he makes some good observations on an international political scale). I also admire his sheer sense of positivity and optimism for the future in an age where there is overwhelming negativity about the world, as I share such a spirit with him. Kaufmann, of course, has greatly influenced the way I learn languages, as I utilize much of his intensive listening and reading techniques. Overall, I greatly respect him.
When I get the chance to go to Vancouver and/or to a polyglot gathering and/or conference, I would love to have the chance to arrange a meeting with him.
LingQ website: https://www.lingq.com/