Today, I have a very special guest with me on the channel. He is an internationally known polyglot who has learned over 20 languages. He’s a fellow YouTuber and one of the co-founders of LingQ, the online language learning platform. His name is Steve Kaufmann.
I had a chance to sit down with him via video conference and talk about language learning, the educational system with regards to language learning, and of course, learning German. If you want to know how he learned 20 languages and what his methods can teach you about learning a language as well, you are going to want to watch this interview.
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Who is Steve Kaufmann (AKA LingoSteve)?
Thank you for taking the time out of your day to come and talk to me today. Could you first give us kind of a quick elevator pitch of who you are and what you do?
I’m here in Vancouver, British Columbia. I have a great interest in languages during my professional career. I’m retired now, I’m 75, but when I was working, I was initially a Canadian government trade commissioner, so I learned Chinese and Japanese with them. And then I was in the wood business for about 40 years and I had occasion to learn other languages, Swedish and so forth and so on.
I was always interested in languages, but in the last 15 years, I’ve been particularly interested. Learned, 9 or 10 languages, set up LingQ with my son, Mark. I have a channel at YouTube, where I try to encourage people to learn languages because I think it’s a great thing to do, and it’s a lot more fun than people realize.
How Steve Kaufmann went from monolingual to hyperpolyglot
Yeah, absolutely. I certainly enjoy it. And I have been following your career, your YouTube channel, and other places that I’ve found you online for quite a while now. I’m personally a fan.
I actually had a chance this weekend to read your book, The Way of the Linguist: A Language Learning Odyssey. There’s a link in the description, if anybody’s interested in that. I have to admit, I’m actually a little jealous of your language learning journey. The way that you traveled the world and you were kind of a linguistic nomad for quite a while of your early life in a way of learning languages.
So, you have a very impressive resume. Would you mind sharing with us how you went from being monolingual into being a hyperpolyglot? Kind of what were the steps there?
From Monolingual to Hyperpolyglot: Steve Kaufmann’s Journey
You know, I like to say that at the age of 16, I could only really speak or carry on a conversation in English. However, in Montreal, Montreal in those days was what they called “The Two Solitudes.” You had a million English speakers and two million French speakers, and there wasn’t much mingling. So, we had French at school. I had learned the grammar and all those kind of stuff, but I couldn’t speak.
So then I got very much turned on to French because I had a professor at McGill University who was very stimulating, got us interested in French civilization. Eventually, I ended up going off to Europe, to France, where I did my university, completed my university training there for three years. I then worked for the Canadian government. Initially, I was sent to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin Chinese. Thereafter, I was transferred to Japan, so I learned Japanese. From that point on, it was more a matter of learning because I was interested and because I knew I could do it.
On one occasion, I was between jobs, so I decided to really go after German. Now I had had exposure to German, I had worked on a German ship. Actually, I sort of hitchhiked on a boat to get across to Europe. It was on a German boat.
Starting to Learn German
In fact, it’s interesting because we’re going to talk about German. One of the things I discovered with German was that as long as I tried to learn the tables, the Declension Tables, der, dem, das, des, hopeless, I just couldn’t retain any of that stuff. And I still don’t have any sense of any of that.
But when I said, forget that, in this period when I was between jobs, and I said, you know… I went to all the secondhand bookstores in Vancouver and bought all the sort of readers that people had with glossaries in them, and they’d all been marked up in pencil and everything. And I went through all of these and I managed to find some cassette tapes of radio interviews. So I realized that once I really kind of got into the language, like listening and reading, that all of a sudden I started to improve.
Then in business, I did a fair amount of business in Germany. So, I’d be with my agent on the Autobahn and we’d be yakking away in German.
Spanish, Italian, Russian and Beyond
After that stay in Japan, most of the time I’ve learned languages away from where the language is spoken. So, that’s been whatever, Italian and… For Spanish, when I was a student in France, I used to hitchhike in Spain and the Spanish love to talk. So if you were with a truck driver for six hours, you have a lot of opportunity to speak.
Russian is something that I started when I was 60, simply because people would say that my approach to language learning, which is to go light on the grammar, wouldn’t work with Russian. So I said, “Okay, we’ll give that a try.” And of course, it does work.
But of course there is always an issue of just how accurately can you speak these languages that have finicky grammar. And so I make mistakes in German, I make mistakes in Russian, but I understand everything and I’m able to speak comfortably. When I’m in German and I ask somebody for something in a bookstore, they answer me in German.
Right. You got to ask yourself, like, what is your actual goal in learning the language? Do you want to be able to say, “I have this proficiency test?” Or, do you want to be able to say, “I can actually communicate with native speakers on the street whenever I need to?”
How many languages is enough?
Do you ever think there’s going to be a time when you’re like, “Okay, I’ve learned enough languages. I’ve got… ” What? 20 under your belt now. And you’re just like, “Okay, I can stop now. I’m good for a while.”
It all comes back to your motivation. My motivation isn’t necessarily to have 20 languages. Like the proverbial juggler who’s got 5 or 10 plates that he’s spinning around and throws up another plate and eventually they’re all going to crash, right?
My top 12 languages, I can turn them on at will. The others are in varying degrees of rustiness. But my motivation is not to have all these languages that I can just speak.
Right now, I’m doing Persian and Arabic and Turkish. And so I’m very interested now in the Middle East. And so not only am I learning these languages and I have been talking to an Arabic tutor and I’m learning a little bit about Egypt, but then I find myself reading books, even in English, about the history of the Arab world or the history of Egypt or whatever it might be.
To me, it’s just an interest. It’s just a passion. And so I think I’ll be at the Middle Eastern languages for another couple of years, and then I might move into the Indian sub-continent or somewhere else. It’s just discovering the world. So, I don’t see where I would slow down.
And I know that if I leave my Arabic such as it is, it won’t improve until I get back to it, right? So, there is this risk that the language is that you haven’t really brought beyond the sort of level where they sustain themselves, yeah, you’re going to start losing them. But, so what? Discovering them is what’s fun for me.
Should you speak a few languages well or many at a lower level?
Do you think it’s better to speak a bunch of languages with just a little bit, or just to have a few languages that you can do really, really well? Which would you prefer?
I don’t really see it that way. Each language has its own set of parameters. My main thing is to understand how these languages work, to access material in these languages, to listen to them, to maybe be able to watch a movie. It’s more of that kind of thing.
How well I speak, that’s going to come. It’s going to come if I have enough input and if I have an opportunity to use it. And then when I have less opportunity to use it, then I’ll speak that language less well.
I only spent two months with Romanian. I was in Romania, I was speaking Romanian. I was in Czech Republic, I was speaking Czech. I was in Greece, I was speaking Greek. I couldn’t do that now. It was fun while I did it. I can go back and refresh if I go to Greece again, or if I go to Poland.
I think any polyglot is probably going to tell you that they can’t be really good at more than a handful of languages and they can be moderately good at another handful. Beyond that, it’s just so much work to maintain them that there’s going to be major gaps in what you can do, and you’re going to forget and stuff like that. So, that’s okay.
Which language is the most difficult to learn?
I have enough trouble trying to keep German and English straight in my head. And then I tried to learn Spanish in college and it just… The languages didn’t stick in my head the same way. We’ll get to classroom teaching here in a little bit, but yeah, it’s definitely a little difficult to juggle them all at once. Which language would you say was the most difficult for you to learn and why?
Well, in a way, the biggest difficulty is lack of compelling and interesting content. Content that’s interesting and yet accessible to you. So, I think people who are learning English have an easy time with it because there’s so much content available on the internet that you can import. Like in the case of using LingQ, you can import it into LingQ. There’s lots of it. Arabic, more difficult. Korean, more difficult.
This sort of intrinsic difficulty of the language doesn’t bother me. I enjoy doing them. Obviously, learning Chinese characters is tremendously time consuming. I read my Arabic script, but I’m still… It’s so foreign to me that it’s very difficult to do. Whereas, I’d say Turkish, even though possibly the language is more different than… Or it’s an equally difficult, but it’s written in the Latin alphabet, so it’s easier.
But when I get onto Turkish, like right now, I’m on Arabic, I’m just motivated and happy and I do whatever I do and I achieve whatever I achieve. I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what’s easier, but obviously where there’s a lot of common vocabulary. Like Romanian with my knowledge of Italian, Romanian was easy. There’s no question that it’s easy. Whereas, when you get into Greek, there’s not so many common vocabulary items. And the further away you get from languages that you know in terms of vocabulary, the harder it gets.
Which language is your favorite?
Would you say you have a favorite language, one that you kind of just go back to just because it’s fun to speak?
Obviously, I studied in France for three years. I really do enjoy French. So, I’ll say that. And then I’ll be watching an Italian movie and I’ll say, “Boy, I love Italian.” Every language has its charm, so I can’t say that I have a favorite language really.