Book Review: “The Way of the Linguist”

“The Way of the Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey”
By Steve Kaufmann

I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again, Steve Kaufmann is one of my language learning heroes. I’ve always wanted to learn a second language but never really knew how. A few years ago when I turned 50 I found Steve Kaufmann’s videos on YouTube. I found his fresh and supportive approach to language learning very helpful and encouraging and he is an excellent role model.

Steve knows someplace between 9 and 15 languages. (Depending on which Youtube videos you watch as he is always learning more.) He may be up to 16 or 17 by now. It’s hard to tell.

Anyway, I am currently reading his book, “The Way of the Linguist”. It is very well written. I guess if you are going to speak 15 plus languages you know how to get your point across with as few words as possible. The book is very tightly written with just the right amount of detail about his travels to different countries around the world to make it interesting. I’m sure he could have written a book about just his travels and another about the food he’s eaten and anther about doing business in foreign lands, but this book is focused on language.

After college, Kaufmann was work with the Canadian Foreign diplomatic Service.  His first government posting was in Paris where he learned to speak French properly, studying the language under a native speaker. Kaufmann studied in Paris for two years.

His next post was to Hong Kong and also mainland China where he learned Chinese. Next Kaufmann was posted to Japan where he undertook to teach himself Japanese, and so on.

Kaufmann ended up with enough contacts overseas that he was able to set up his own export business in the private sector in Canada. It wasn’t until I read Kaufmann’s book that I realized what a good investment it is for a government to train its diplomats in foreign languages. Even if the diplomats don’t continue to work for the government.

Steve Kaufmann’s language learning website; LingQ.com

Kaufmann took his language training and his overseas contacts and set up a successful export business in Canada. Thus improving Canada’s exports and GDP. Canada got it’s investment back from him.  Kaufmann, whom I believe is in the lumber business, says that he has done business with a number of clients from different countries around the world in the client’s own language. That has to be helpful to a private business owner.

America has a Foreign Service Institute (FSI) that trains Americans with overseas postings on foreign languages. I hope with all the budget cuts and the attacks against so-called “big government” the recently elected party realizes the long-term value of the FSI is to America.

Kaufmann learned his languages one at a time over a period of time, by a combination of;

  • Study of interesting written content
  • Talking to native speakers of his target language
  • and “living in the language”

Living in the Language

For me, Steve Kaufmann was really the first Linguist that I ever heard about that made language learning accessible. Prior to Kaufmann most polyglots I read about or saw interviewed seemed to have some sort of chip on their shoulder. They knew all these other languages and I didn’t blah blah blah. And they never encouraged anyone to emulate them. They were part of an elite group that didn’t seem to want any new members.

Kaufmann shares my frustration with how foreign languages are taught in school. Kaufmann being Canadian was required to take two years of French. He passed the test but. However, he quickly found that he was unable to speak French after he was finished with school.

Kaufmann points out that there are a number of reasons for this. He also talks about this in a few of his videos. Basically, in school, you are taught what you need to know to pass a standardized test. But that test has little to do with fluency or practical use of the language.

To really learn a language, Kaufmann points out, one has to “live in the language”. This doesn’t mean one has to go to France to speak French. But one needs to set aside time, each day (consistency is important) to read and study a language. He also said that it is important to meet and talk with native speakers of that language. This can be done by seeking out native speakers of your target language in your neighborhood, and or via Skype.

Kaufmann says that language is more about food and culture than it is about words and grammar.

In his early days of studying German on his own. Kaufmann went to the second-hand bookstore and bought about nine or ten German books. Many of these books were formally owned by other students of the language so they had helpful notes scribbled on the pages. Now days, we have it easy, with the internet and iPads and iPhone we have a world of books in all languages at our fingertips. Not to mention google translate and other such sites.

The Way of the Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey

2017 is here at last! Time to Set New Goals.

It seems like the New Year has crept up on me rather fast. So it is the First of a New Year. Time to start all over again.

I’ve recently read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. I highly recommend it along with the book, “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

Talent is Overrated” takes a look at the science behind getting things done. It looks at people like Mozart and Tiger Woods whom everyone assumes to be born talented but were in fact born into families with fathers who were really good coaches. Geoff Colvin looks at different groups of high achievers and how often it is the case that the Highest achievers are just the ones that practice more while also practicing on their weakest areas. The full name of the book is; “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else“.

It is a kind of feel good book. I never really thought that I was gifted. But now knowing that all it takes is practice and focusing on my weakest areas I am given new hope.

The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg is all about the power of setting up regular habits for greater achievement. The full name of the book is; “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“. (Wow all these self-improvement books have such long titles these days.)

These books were recommended to me by the very successful self-publishing author Chris Fox. I wasn’t really going to write about self-improvement in this blog, as this is a French language learning blog, however, these are the things that I am thinking about on the first day of 2017.

My daily dose of French.

This time last year I was interested in setting up new and better habits but didn’t know where to start. I did make myself type out the page from my French Living Language Calendar and do a daily session on Duolingo.com. I am currently on day 362 on Duolingo. So habits do work. However, I realize now that I was just doing fun habits, which is an important way to start, but do really reach French fluency I need to start working on my weaker areas. Grammar rules.

I hated Grammar rules in English (as invented by Grammar-Nazis) however I need to mix them into my regular learning. I can really feel that I am not too far from fluency.

I found the video that I posted of Carrie Fisher speaking French very helpful. I could mostly understand her, although the subtitles helped. But it was also nice to see a fellow American struggling and succeeding with the language. It just goes to show that she was a real princess as princesses were often expected to understand a number of different languages.

I had a boss at one time who was German, her father had been a Count but her mother was Jewish and the family was forced to flee, leaving her families title and castle behind. She always told me that it was important when traveling to at least try and start the conversation in the local language.

My goals for 2017
(Subject to Change)

Learn French Grammar: I will work on the how later.

Speak more French. I know a number of French-owned cafes and restaurants in my area. I am going to go in and make my orders in French. I’ve been a bit shy about this in the past. Put I’m really going to push it. What have I got to lose?

Steve Kaufman creator of the LingQ.com website.

Read more French books. – an Hour a day. Polyglot – Steve Kaufmann recommends reading in a new language. Even if it means going over and over again on the same page.

Rocket French: – I am currently working my way through the Rocket French website. I am going to do a lesson a day.

Duolingo: I ran out of new French content in October last year. But I am just going to continue to do review lessons every day until the language becomes second nature.

Goal: I want to be able to watch French movies and or French TV programs and understand the content. (I’m at a strange point right now where I can kind of follow bits of the conversation and pick up a word or a phrase here and there.)

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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business