Why You Didn’t Learn German in School: An Interview with Steve Kaufmann

How did Steve Kaufmann learn German?

Herr Antrim:
You did a video back in 2012, it’s been a little while, but it was explaining kind of why you learned German, how you learned German and that kind of thing. But could you give us a quick refresher here?

Steve Kaufmann:
First of all, I should say that I heard German in my home. I didn’t speak it, but my parents were born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and which then became Czechoslovakia. They were part of a Jewish community in this small town in Moravia and the language they spoke the best was German, but they spoke both German and Czech. So, I would hear both German and Czech at home.

And I was born in Sweden because my parents got out before the war and they came over to Canada in 1951. My parents said, “We’re in Canada now. This is your country. We’re only going to speak English.” And we only ever spoke English at home, but I would hear German, so I had a bit of a sense of German.

When I went to Europe, I went down to the Port of Montreal. In those days, it was possible to sort of hitchhike across to Europe by offering your services as a sailor and see if you could work your way across to Europe. I found a boat and it turned out it was a German boat, so for 10 days, maybe 12 days, I was on this boat and had to somehow communicate with the German speakers there.

And then I’d be in my little cabin after eating this disgusting meal I made myself, potatoes and heavy, greasy gravy and sausage and stuff. And then I would sit there and try to ace my der, dem, des, das, die, hopeless. That was one situation. I was also in Vienna and I worked on construction there for a couple of weeks and had some exposure to German. And that was it.

The Real Learning Begins

But then as I say, between jobs for a month, I said, “I got enough of a sense of German. I really want to learn this language.” And I had a month with nothing to do between jobs, so I was spending every day just listening and reading, listening and reading, listening and reading, and I got somewhere in my German.

And then when I started my own business exporting wood to Europe and to Japan, and so we had customers in Germany and we had an agent and I just… It’s a bit like my travels in Spain, we would be driving around the German countryside, staying in these little inns and we’d get stuck in traffic on the Autobahn, and so I did a lot of speaking. And of course, speaking with the customers. And so I’d go there over say, two or three years, a couple of times a year. That really helped me with my German.

Language Learning Milestone: Read a Book in a New Language

I always feel you have to read a book in any language. And so I took it upon myself, I’m going to read a book in German as I’ve done with Spanish. Once you actually take a book and read it from cover to cover, that’s kind of like a milestone.

Part of the motivation for LingQ actually is that I had books here in German and Spanish full of underlined words that I had the intention of sometime where I’m going to look it up in a dictionary. And whenever I looked them up in the dictionary, I would very quickly forget the meaning. So that was discouraging, and so I stopped doing it.

And so that’s kind of the idea for LingQ is somehow if you look something up, you should be able to retain the fact that you looked it up and be quickly able to access that word again in some fashion. With the advent of online dictionaries and MP3 files, all of that became much easier.

How does Steve Kaufmann learn languages? What is his study routine?

Herr Antrim:
So, what is a typical language learning day look like for you? How much time do you spend on it? What exactly do you do during that time? Just kind of walk us through that.

Steve Kaufmann:
I’ll get up before my wife and I’ll make breakfast, which means I cut up some fruit and make muesli or set the table and a whole bunch of stuff. So there’s 15, 20 minutes there, I’m listening. We have our breakfast. Afterwards, I clean up, I’m listening. There’s another 15 minutes. So I’ve already had 30, 40 minutes of listening.

Listening leads to reading

If I have to do any work around the house, I’ll be listening. And then the listening triggers then reading on the iPad, reading with LingQ, looking up words. Because when I listen… Right now, I’m using podcast from Al Jazeera, I actually drop these MP3 files onto a website called HappyScribe, which generates transcripts. I download the transcript with timestamps.

What that does is, because in link, we have a thing called sentence view, where you can go through the lesson, maybe a 25-minute podcast in chunks of text, more or less corresponding to sentences. The audio for that is captured.

Sometime in the day, I’ll want to sit down and read the transcript on LingQ and I’ll look up the words that I don’t know. In doing that, I will also come across the words that I have previously looked up. Because on the LingQ system, the new words are blue, words that you’ve previously met are yellow.

If I have say, three or four lines of text, I will turn on the Google translate, I will listen to the audio for that and read it in English. Then I go in and go through the text in Arabic, looking up the words that I need, read it, and then I might listen to it again, again, reading in English.

And it’s surprisingly effective because you know some of the words, but you’re not picking up on them when you’re listening, but when you actually see it in English and then you are connecting the words and then when you read through it in Arabic, it reinforces it. So, I tend to do that. But that’s where I am now in Arabic. When I started, I stuck to the mini stories. We have these many stories with a lot of repetition that are a lot easier. These podcasts from Al Jazeera on politics and so forth are much more difficult.

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Summary of How Steve Kaufmann Learns Languages

So typically, my day would be, I manage to get in an hour of listening. That triggers my curiosity. Like, I want to know what I was listening to. I got half of it, say. So then I’ll spend another half hour or so reading on the iPad typically. And that’s it. And maybe… because I have my 90-day challenge on Arabic, two, three times a week, I’ve had tutoring sessions with an Arabic tutor from Cairo. That’s basically it.

Where to Find Language Tutors Online

Herr Antrim:
Where do you find tutors for any of the languages? Do you have a particular place you go for that?

Steve Kaufmann:
If we have tutors available on LingQ, then I’ll use our tutors. But I have to admit that italki has such a tremendous range of tutors and they offer different prices. If you don’t like the first one, you go to the second one. So, I have had good success with finding tutors for Turkish, for Persian, for Arabic, for Greek. You got to find someone with a good internet connection, who is good conversationalist. So that seems to work. italki is pretty good.

What to Do with Your Language Tutor

Herr Antrim:
When you’re with your tutor, are you just having a conversation? Is there a particular topic that you pick out, or what’s your structure?

Steve Kaufmann:
With the Arabic script, in both Persian and Arabic, I did initially read with them because I was having trouble reading, but that’s no longer the case. So, typically the routine is we speak for an hour. That’s why I want a tutor who is a good conservationist so that I don’t have to think about things to talk about. He or she keeps me talking.

At the end of that, I get a report which has 15 or 20 items on it, words and phrases that I struggled with. Usually they’ll give me an audio file with that. So that then becomes a lesson on LingQ. I have, for each of these languages.

I have a record of all my tutor reports, conversation reports going back however many… Like a year, two years, three years. So I can review what we talked about back in February. That’s basically, that’s the routine. Occasionally, the tutor would volunteer some bits of grammar or I’ll ask a question of grammar, but that’s relatively rare. Mostly, we just speak.

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