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