English: Quick and Easy

Online ESL

By Joanne Milner

You’re new to Canada. Improving your English or French is likely high on your list. But you’re also busy setting up your new life.

There’s an online service called LingQ (www.lingq.com) that is helping people around the world learn languages more readily than traditional methods. In addition to English and French you can learn nine other languages. Many of its users say it’s fun and easy and you can do it on your own time. Better yet, most people use it for free, although you can pay for additional services.

LingQ was started by Steve Kaufmann, a former Canadian diplomat and a businessman, who speaks 11 languages fluently plus a smattering of others. You can view him on the web.

Kaufmann has used his experiences with language learning to design a program that many describe as more natural and motivating than traditional school programs. Many school courses require memorizing grammar rules and word lists, reading uninspiring texts and being pressured to speak before you’re comfortable. What’s more, many people are not comfortable using these languages in the real world.

We all know how to learn languages, says Kaufmann, having learned our own, and it didn’t initially include memorizing grammar rules. As infants and youngsters we first listened a lot. And when we were comfortable, we talked. Then later we read, usually topics that interested us. That’s essentially what Kaufmann advocates with LingQ: listening and reading a lot then eventually communicating.

Kaufmann says people can learn languages at any age, but we need to understand how the brain learns. While the brain has trouble absorbing theoretical rules of a language, it will start recognizing patterns with enough pleasurable exposure.

When you do start to speak, your goal is fluency. And you can be fluent and still make mistakes. You need to get rid of the idea of speaking perfectly, he says.

Here in a nutshell is how LingQ works. To use LingQ you’ll need a computer with Internet access and a browser (Internet Explorer 7, Firefox 2, or Safari 3 versions and above.) You should also have an iPod or MP3 player and a headset with a microphone for taking part in online voice chats.

First, you choose lessons on topics of interest, at your level. LingQ has a vast library of real life articles, interviews, radio shows and novels, for instance. If you’re interested in what you’re learning, you’ll be motivated to understand it, says Kaufmann.

When you read, you’ll come across words and phrases you’d like to learn. You will want to “LingQ” these terms, he says. This means you’ll look up translations and examples and save them to your personal database for later review. One of the milestones on the road to fl uency is the number of words you know, he says. LingQ also has electronic flashcards to help you remember words and phrases.
New vocabulary and content can be downloaded to your iPod and listened to during “dead time” while doing chores, exercising or waiting in line, says Kaufmann. LingQ member, Robbie Thuyns, downloads audio clips to his MP3 player. By listening to them a few times, Thuyns says he picks up words and phrases without even trying.

Another LingQ learner from Toronto, Edwin Law says he did a few years of high school French. Although he got “Bs,” he couldn’t conduct a basic conversation. He later joined LingQ and after only a few months, his French improved significantly. Then on a trip to Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, Law was amazed that he could understand and participate in conversations. “What I found most astonishing is that I did not achieve this by memorizing lines from phrase books, but the conversations came out quite naturally from my mouth.”

Mikael Hägglund has been studying Spanish and Russian on LingQ for eight months. While he enjoys it, Hägglund says the major challenge he’s had with LingQ is learning how to learn: how often he needs a new lesson, how much of it he needs to learn, how often to use the flashcards? “The suggestions in the forum have been valuable, but it’s still taken time for me to experiment and figure out what works for me.”

LingQ subscriber, Ana Lopes, who is learning English and French, says on LingQ her progress has been “Amazing!” She said in Brazil she studied English at school for seven years but did not learn much. And those who attended well-known private language courses, often weren’t able to carry on English conversations. After about 18 months learning English on LingQ she could read novels, understand movies and speak English with confidence. And her PhD thesis is being written and will be presented in English.

Michael Newnham, of Peterborough, Ontario, says he’s been learning French on LingQ for a little over a year. A conductor for Symphony New Brunswick, among others, Newnham, says he wanted to speak French to the audience. Initially, he had to script his sentences. Now after a year on LingQ he can express himself confidently, carry on conversations, and make speeches to donors and subscribers in French, off-the-cuff. Newnham says he’s even started dreaming in French.

While French and English are well stocked on LingQ, in terms of content, as are Spanish, German, Japanese and Russian, Kaufmann says the Korean section especially could use more content as could Chinese, Portuguese and Swedish. We rely on our members for content and as our membership grows, these areas improve, he says.

In addition to working on improving content, Kaufmann says LingQ is constantly being refined in response to user reactions. While most subscribers find the site user-friendly, some say it’s confusing. Over the next month, Kauffman says they’re making the site easier for all users and are also targeting beginning language learners.

With LingQ you can also have live conversations online using Skype, get help from a personal tutor, make friends through the LingQ community, and get your writing corrected. And Kaufmann has a blog featuring interesting topics and tips for language learners.

Kaufmann says if you are able to study on LingQ fulltime for six to seven hours a day, in three months you’ll achieve a significant breakthrough. For instance, in this amount of time, it’s possible to go from scratch to basic fluency, or go from a beginner to an intermediate level.
Often when learning a new language, it’s hard to tell if you’re improving, says Kaufmann. That’s why LingQ measures and provides users with a running total of words learned, hours listened, number of words read and written, and hours spent speaking.

Here are some cost-saving tips for LingQ users. If you exceed 100 LingQs, you can either pay $10 per month or delete LingQs to stay below 100. In order to talk to a tutor, or have one’s writing corrected, one has to spend points. These can be bought, or earned. One can earn points by referring friends, or by tutoring, correcting texts or contributing content in one’s language of fluency.

Kaufmann says the 11 languages he has learned have helped him professionally. But, he says, these rewards are small compared to the personal, social and cultural enrichments. “It’s like being at a banquet and having more and more dishes to enjoy, without getting full.” Indeed, it appears that for many people, Kaufmann has made language learning appetizing.