You Can Learn Chinese

#15 Steven Kaufmann “The Linguist” Interview

Episode Summary

John and Jared discuss grammar and the best ways to learn it. Special interview with famous polyglot Steve Kaufmann “The Linguist” who speaks nearly two dozen languages including Chinese.

Episode Notes

Have you ever tried to learn grammar? In this episode, John and Jared discuss the best ways to learn grammar and things you should avoid. You’ll find out that much of the traditional methods of learning grammar are just plain out wrong.

Special interview with Steven Kaufmann “The Linguist”, a famous polyglot and speaks nearly two dozen languages including Chinese. Steve shares his story of learning Chinese and his thoughts on learning language in general. Prepare for your mind to be blown! This is an interview you won’t want to miss.

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Links referenced in this Episode.

Episode Transcription

Steve: Jared, very happy at any time to discuss learning Chinese. It's a subject that I'm fascinated by, it was major influence on my life. Steve Kaufman is my name. I'm a grandpa you know 73 years old, live in Vancouver. But throughout my professional life, I've had reason to learn various languages. Right now, I'm involved with my son in a project called Lingq which is a language learning platform.
But for most of my life I was in the lumber business, but I learned Chinese at a time when I was a diplomat with the Canadian you know Trade Commissioner service. It was the third language that I learned after French.
Jared: How many languages do you speak right now?
Steve: Well, you know I have varying sort of levels of proficiency in call it 20. But 10 or 11 of them I could you know jump right into and hold a conversation in. The others would take a bit more warming up or improving before I could do that.
Jared: That's still impressive. Well, Steve start at the beginning then. I want to hear like, why did you start learning Chinese? Well, what all happened around that time when you and when was that?
Steve: Okay, that's you know 1967, I had just joined the Canadian diplomatic service and Canada was getting ready to recognize the People's Republic of China. They figured they needed to train up some people in Chinese. I had just graduated from Lance politican in Paris which was all in French. I was quite confident that I could learn Chinese. A lot of people didn't think they could do it. I actually started taking Chinese lessons in Ottawa to demonstrate to the management at the trade commissioner service that I was their man.
If they wanted someone to speak, to learn Chinese I was the one they wanted to have because I'm already interested, and why wouldn't they. At that time, we had the Cultural Revolution in China. Someone who had learned in Taiwan wouldn't be welcome back in China in those days. The choice for me was Hong Kong or Monterey the Defense Language Institute. I chose Hong Kong which of course is a totally Cantonese speaking it or was in those days/ Purely Cantonese speaking environment but at least it was a Chinese environment. That's where I chose to go and start learning Chinese.
Jared: You went to Hong Kong to learn Chinese?
Steve: Correct, to learn Mandarin.
Jared: I mean, how did you even do that? I mean at that time well how did you find a school and make that move?
Steve: Well, of course don't forget I was employed by the Canadian government.
Jared: Sydney had already hired you at that time.
Steve: Yeah, I was hired as a trade commissioner. The other thing to remember is so I'll go say there's a group of 25 or 30 people who have been hired by the Trade Commissioner service. One-third of the postings the jobs were in the United States you know and everybody wanted to avoid being posted to Buffalo or no somewhere not very interesting. I figured if I could demonstrate an interest in Chinese, they might choose me. You know we all wanted to go to someplace exotic, then the decision was mine. Do I want to go to Monterey at the Defense Language Institute or do I want to go to Hong Kong?
It couldn't be Taiwan because that would have been politically unacceptable to mainland China. In those days in the Cultural Revolution environment in China you couldn't go there and study Chinese. You know that was just not gonna work. It was Hong Kong and there were a number of schools in Hong Kong. I ended up going to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, that had the program. But the Hong Kong University had a program and there again, I chose the Chinese University of Hong Kong located in Kowloon.
Jared: Well, tell me about then what were your classes like? Who are you studying with?
Steve: Well, again paid for by the government. I was getting a salary while studying which is pretty ideal situation right. It was all one on one no classes. I'm a strong firm believer in one on one. I would never sit in the classroom with other learners. So, we had three hours a day with you know I had three or four different teachers. They were very much into the sort of drill approach to learning languages. Then I would spend the rest day on my own. It was the rest of the day that was really important.
Jared: Well, before you get in here you said the drill approach. What do you mean by that? What was that?
Steve: The drill, they had these drills where you you know you would say, [INAUDIBLE 04:32]. They would have the basic same sentence and they change one or two words in the sentence. That's there's a lot of drill like that and particularly in the beginning. We also had a textbook called Chinese dialogues. It was audio and then this silly story, that takes place in China. But of course, in those days we couldn't go to China, it was almost like science fiction. Because we're talking about this American living in China, there's no American living in China.
In those days, you know freely traveling from Shanghai to Beijing. I think they might have even used the word Bei Ping in those days. But spoken so fast, I remember saying to myself, are they doing this on purpose to torture us. But of course, it wasn't so fast, that's just how they speak and eventually you get used to it. A lot of listening and readin, a lot of listening and reading I mean I literally put in six seven hours a day. I have three hours with my teacher whatever they forced me to do which is kind of like a bit of an imposition.
Then I would go home and I would listen, in those days we had these sort of open real tape recorders. I would sit there in my little room and listen to this stuff over and over over again and read it. In those days, they didn't have pinyin, they had the Yale system which is actually very good. It's very good actually very good. That's what I did lots of listening and reading and then sit in class and get drilled. But eventually, I said I didn't want to do the drilling anymore I just wanted to talk in class. You know they were very happy to have the Canadian government pay for one on one lesson. They basically agreed to do what I wanted to do.
Jared: Oh, that's well that is nice, that is nice. What kind of progress were you making at that time? You also kind of hinted at maybe you did some things out of the classroom. Was there anything besides listening? I know you're in Hong Kong so I'm and maybe opportunities are limited.
Steve: Yeah, you essentially you might have a few words with someone running a sort of a Shandong restaurant in Hong Kong. But it says he no one spoke Mandarin. It was hard to hear Mandarin on the radio and I wouldn't have understood it anyway. No, I did a lot of reading I worked obviously initially you got to put a lot of effort into the character. I would put an hour at least an hour a day into my characters. But after 3 months I could pick my way through a newspaper.
Then I remember, after or months I read my first novel, which was “Lotha Shianza”.
Jared: Wow.
Steve: I pushed you know and I would scour the bookstores. Like it's important to remember that this is before the online dictionary, before all of the wonderful resources that we have now. So, all you had was books with glossaries behind each chapter. I refused to look anything up in a Chinese dictionary. Because it's so time-consuming and as with any dictionary no sooner have you looked up the word and closed the dictionary you've already forgotten what was there.
I would only deal with readers where a glossary was attached. I would just go through you know lesson after lesson after lesson. There were a number of good you know graded materials like this 20 lectures in Chinese culture. Then there was another one called intermediate reader in Chinese. Then Yale has a whole series of Chinese literature, Chinese communist writings, Chinese political writings all kinds of stuff.
There was a lot of material and there would be new books show up in these bookstores in Hong Kong. I would be just as I scour the internet now to find good stuff for Turkish or Persian, in those days I would scour the bookstores of Hong Kong to find readers with glossaries that I could actually use to learn. If they had audio that was great, but that was not as common in those days.
Jared: Well, how long did you have the opportunity to study Chinese in this way?
Steve: Well, I mean I went through it as quickly as I could. There were a bunch of diplomat students, Japanese, British, American, Canadian. I think I put more into it than the others I certainly read more listened more. I was done like I after 10 months, I wrote the British foreign service exam. We had to right a diplomatic note in Chinese.
Jared: Hand right I presume.
Steve: Hand right oh yeah. However, no computer word processors in those days. You had the handwrite everything. Translate newspaper editorials from English to Chinese, from Chinese into English. It was quite a demanding exam and there were other questions on it and yeah. 10 months and I had my British foreign service Mandarin Chinese certificate or whatever.
Jared: I assumed this was all in traditional characters at the time?
Steve: No, we started in traditional and after I don't know a couple of months, we switched which wasn't a big deal. Because the simplified characters do resemble the cursive script and we had to learn the cursive script. It wasn't that big a deal. I'm able to read both I don't even notice which one I'm reading. It's not a big deal.
Jared: Well, as impressed I still can't read cursive.
Steve: Yeah, well I have, I can't say that I'm tremendous at cursive. But that was one of the things we we we did was cursive and of course some of the simplified characters do resemble the cursive strokes.
Jared: What happened after classes then after you finished the, I guess your language study?
Steve: Well, then I went to work for the Canadian Trade Commissioner office in Hong Kong. One of the major activities, first of all we had a bunch of Canadian businessmen regularly visit Hong Kong on their way into China. China also had this Canton trade fair twice a year. The trade for itself was about a month long and I might go up there for two-week stints. Typically, I would help Canadian business people they are sit in on their meetings help with the interpreting. If I had any background information that might be helpful to them.
The other thing that we did is we tried to scour the Chinese press to see if we could learn anything that might be helpful. Say in regards to grain supplies in China. which might influence our wheat sales to China. We also kept track of the whole Cultural Revolution, what was happening politically. I did a lot of reading of the Chinese press. just to stay on top of what we could learn about the situation in China.
Jared: That sounds like it was a very interesting time to be in and around China?
Steve: Oh, yeah it was very interesting. People don't realize that you know you had all these so-called China hands, trying to interpret what's going on there. I mean you couldn't just go into China and travel around. Like it's amazing to me now that I can just go into China, go to any hotel, talk to anybody I want, jump in a train. In those days you I didn't go anywhere without someone from loosing show you know from there China travel with me. You weren't free to move around.
Although, I did I would rent a subtler, you know a pedicab and I toured cities and I did talk to some people.
Jared: Well, how did you get into China at the time? Because it was, I guess if it's still the closed door if you will.
Steve: Yeah, well I was a diplomat. We had the right to sent someone to the Canton trade fair and me had to request. I would say request, I want to go to Shanghai or then it was a big deal when they gave you permission. Once we established diplomatic relations, I was with the first group that went to Beijing in October 1970, which was quite extraordinary. Because he was getting cold and the peasants would bring in their cabbage and just dump these mountains of cabbage on the sidewalk. That was their distribution system.
Pople who come and presumably pay for the cabbage, I don't know. But it was amazing. I can remember in the hotels in Beijing, you could get either red or black caviar for like one Yuan, a mountain of caviar, sturgeon caviar or salmon caviar. It was a different time and it was so cheap to eat and and it was amazing actually. But cultural revolution, everybody was dressed very drably. The average living standard was quite low.
Jared: Have you been back to China, I guess since your diplomatic days.
Steve: Oh, yeah I mean I traveled there quite often in the 70s. Not much change although in 1979 all of a sudden in this bar and the peace hotel in Shanghai. These older gentlemen all wearing ties were playing jazz in the bar. That was amazing, like you looked at these little in the caters that things were loosening up a bit. Also, I was once in Beijing and maybe in the mid-70s, remember was the early 80s. These girls from this dance academy came over and there was a dance. We were all allowed to dance with these girls and they were very nice-looking girls, I'll tell you.
That was kinda nice. This was the thaw right, but then I didn't go back to China for over 20 years. Then when I visited in 2002, I was absolutely amazed and I've been back three or four times since I'm amazed every time.
Jared: How would you describe the change that you've seen in China from, I guess the 70s till even more the present day?
Steve: Well, there at various levels, first of all the level that you are free to talk to anybody you want. Second of all that, whereas in those days everyone looked poor and the infrastructure was shabby. Now some people look rich and some people look poor. They have amazing infrastructure. In those days, I mean there was nothing you didn't, the factories looked very primitive and you sat in the train or even as you walked around. The city you'd be hearing a sort of stirring, revolutionary music and there were slogans on the walls and stuff.
Today the only ideology is there's two right now. One is make money and the second is nationalists you know. But there's no other ideology you know. You know to jump on a bullet train from Beijing where there's 15 tracks or more. Modern train stations 4 or 5 cities along the way and as you approach pseudo or Shanghai. Those massive factories everywhere and you know modern highways. It's absolutely, there is no who in the 70s would ever have predicted that one day China would look like that.
Jared: I recall once, it was in Shenzhen with a classmate. We went out to dinner in this big kind of open food area and there's a restaurant everywhere. He says, “hey you know when I was growing up, it's not that nobody could even you know afford something like this is this didn't even exist. You know if you just wanted to go out you know it's just it wasn't even there”.
Steve: Schengen when I went across in 1969, was a very small fishing village. With I don't know how many people and a few dogs and it was like a sleepy little place. You walked across the border, there was no train or traffic that took you into Shenzhen. We were staying in the donphan hotel which was the only hotel for foreign. Like they would all, “if you were a Western or you stayed in this hotel, if you were a Japanese you stayed in this other hotel. If you were an overseas Chinese you stayed in this other hotel”.
They you know everything was segregated, but then we'd go out to there about 4 or 5 Chinese restaurants. You know obviously Chinese like restaurants in Guangzhou very good food. They all had a special section for their foreigners and it was very elegant. You walked through an area which was kind of dirty where the locals ate. Then you came to this place and you ate the most fabulous meal for 3 Yuan ahead.
Jared: Wow. Well, thinking back on some of those times and when you were learning Chinese and it sounds like even when you got into your profession there. What do you think really helped you improve your proficiency in the language?
Steve: First of all reading, because I believe you have to have a lot of characters. You know I don't know how many characters I can recognize three or four thousand, enough so that I can read a book. There will be characters that I don't know but I'm comfortable reading the book. Reading is a tremendous way to increase your vocabulary and to gain familiarity with the language. I find that as you read you tend to sub vocalize, I'm a great believer in the power of reading that be one.
The other is listening, because the listening again it prepares you for speaking. It also gives you momentum for your reading because you want to be able to sub vocalize. If you have listened to something a lot, you'll be better at sort of sub vocalizing as you're reading. I think that probably the other students did a you know as much talking as I did. But I did an awful lot more reading and listening. I listened to stuff we had this history of the Second World War for example which I listen to over and over and over then always the same parts I couldn't understand.
But you're getting the rhythm of the language into you. It was the same with Si Armstrong I used to my, one of my teachers gave me this Yung-chun cassette tape, Ahobowlin, who is a very well-known Yuang Chun performer. She thought, oh it's so funny so funny and I listened to it and people were laughing. I basically couldn't understand that well but there was something about it that I enjoyed. It was almost like music and I listened to it over and over and over again.
I feel like my tones are not bad in Chinese, a lot of people struggle with tones. I attribute that to the Yuan chun, because they exaggerate the tones you know and it's very lively it's very engaging. You have to listen the stuff that grabs you that has high resonance. These Yuang Chun tapes that I listen to over and over and over again, while exercising whatever you know I just listened.
I wrote the British service exam after one year and most people struggle to do it after two. I attributed that to the sort of you know focus on listening and reading. Like I have a massive library of Chinese readers that I would buy. If I saw one and the book store in Hong Kong, I'd buy it. If there was any audio material, I'd get it. Of course, all of this has become so much easier today because you can find it all online you can download it.
Then there's online dictionaries there's just so many things. It's just much easier today than it was in those days.
Jared: What do you think spurred you like onwards? Because I mean a lot of people will learn a language, but maybe they don't work as hard at it or maybe they don't put as much time into it. Sounds like, you were really motivated. What do you think it was really that source of motivation for you?
Steve: Well, I think there's two things. First of all, I was being paid like a full salary. I owed my employer eight hours a day. You know I couldn't just go to school for three hours and then go off and play tennis or something you know, that was one thing. The second thing is that language learning either the language either grabs you or it doesn't grab you. Chinese, I mean I was attracted by the idea of going to learn Chinese. Because it's it's such an exotic it was to me at that time. I don't consider it so exotic now, but in those days it was like exotic like wow China.
As I got into it and I got into the history of China, not only the sort of history of 2000 years ago but also modern history. 1911, the Ching dynasty now becomes the Republic of China, then they have the warlords and you have these intellectuals grappling with what should be China's rolled. I enjoyed the 20th century you know novelists, Lucien and all these people. I just found it fascinating. You know it's like if you're at a feast and you can eat all you want and you're not gonna get in digestion you just keep eating. What's gonna prevent me, just keep going keep going keep going?
If it weren't for the fact that I want to get to know more about other languages and cultures. I got into rush and I get into you know whatever Korean. Now the Middle Eastern, Turkish Arabic, Persian. If I weren't chasing these other languages to get a bit of a taste of what those cultures are all about, I would want to get deeper into Chinese. Because it's endless get into the history get into so many different things that I would love to get into in more depth. But obviously there's only so much time in today.
Jared: Well, I'm also interested to hear about Chinese here, you learned the language. It sounds like you developed a very good and proficiency in the language. Now how did that impact your life going forward? Obviousl, I think that for our listeners here who may not know much about you. You are proficient in many languages.
Steve: I think kind of talk about that I think first of all the fact that I became very fluent in French. This experience of converting yourself from basically someone who only speaks one language to actually being fluent, like genuinely fluent in a second language. It gives you that confidence that you can do it. Therefore, I went and learned Chinese and then for a variety of reasons I ended up going to Japan. I had no doubt that I could learn Japanese, so I learned Japanese entirely on my own with the benefit of being able to recognize the characters.
The pronunciation certainly is different, the meaning sometimes it's different in Japanese. I knew that I could do it I knew how to do it to do a lot of listening and reading. Having learned Chinese helped me learn Japanese. The fact that I learned Japanese opened up opportunities for me in the wood industry. Because on two different occasions, major Canadian lumber exporting companies hired me to run their operation in Tokyo. Then I got to know the Japanese timber trade very well and eventually set up my own company in 1987 aimed at the Japanese market.
I still have that company yeah, but you never know what's gonna lead to what, I always say that. You've gotta do something, you have to get off your rear end and do something. You never know quite what it might lead to. Now my company's main business in the lumber business is importing wood from Europe which we sell to the US. East Coast. We have an office in Florida. Lumber being an international commodity prices change. Europe became more competitive initially we were supplying Japan from Europe and now we're supplying the US East Coast from Europe.
yYu know one thing led to another.
Jared: Well, how did you get into learning all of these other languages and and maybe you could rattle off what some of these are?
Steve: Yeah, well I mean if I go in order more or less in order of proficiency although. In some languages I'm better at speaking, in some I'm better at reading. But English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, then probably German, Swedish. Swedish was very important for my lumber business. Because we for a long time we were buying a lot of wood in Sweden. German, Italian, Cantonese, Portuguese which I don't really speak that well. But if you have Spanish with a minimum of effort you can learn Portuguese. Then Russian which was so if I look at my language learning so the languages that I learned sort of during my professional career.
Then starting 10 say 12, 13 years ago as we started lLingq then I get into the sort of second wave of languages. Korean and hen Russian and I learned Russian because you know my approach to language learning is to focus on immersing sort of listening and reading. Acquiring vocabulary and then visiting the grammar. Particularly with Japanese and Chinese, I don't know of any grammar terms for those languages, other than I know noun verb adjective. But any of the other when I pick up some of the books that people use today. It's full of all these complicated explanations I never referred to those.
The basic four parts of speech noun pronoun okay I understand that beyond that I don't use grammar. However, I do at times like in Chinese you know there are patterns you know [INAUDIBLE 24:48] right. There are these patterns and so these are the patterns used in say Chinese. This is how we say it in English, this is how we say it in Chinese. That's the extent of my sort of reference to grammar. I was explaining this to someone I said ah yeah that's fine for Asian languages which are not that grammar heavy. Some people disagree with that but you couldn't do that for Russian.
I said, “oh yeah”, then I decided to learn Russian. When I was 16, I started learning Russian and then having learned Russian. Then I went and learned Check, Ukrainian and polish, some extent Slavic. Obviously, there's some lower hanging fruit stuff happening there. Then I because we buy a lot of wood in Romania had to go visit Romania, so then I learned Romanian which is not that difficult. Because a lot of the vocabulary is identifiable from other Romance languages.
Then we, my wife and I were gonna be in Crete so I decided to learn Greek. Then I said, you know I don't know much about the Middle East, so why not learn Arabic. Then I said, “geez if I've learned the Arabic script there's so many Iranians here in Vancouver”. I should really learn Persian because I can, there's no one I don't run into people who speak Arabic here, but I run into people who speak Persian. Then my wife started watching Turkish serials on Netflix, so I got interested in. Like anything can trigger the interest it doesn't matter that.
Once your, the interest is triggered then the language itself becomes the attraction and you just want to get into more and more of the language. I find languages fascinating, I find how Turkish works to be fascinating as was Chinese way back when.
Jared: It's nice to hear this idea that getting interest in the. To me, it sounds like that is your motivation now is the interest in actually learning and connecting.
Steve: Absolutely yeah, I have no need to learn Turkish.
Jared: Also, I'm gonna back you up a little bit on the concept of not studying grammar. That's something I always hear from you know learners or teachers might say, “oh you ain't got to learn the grammar”. But you know a lot of the more forward thinking and the research in second language acquisition says, “you don't study grammar you know you can be aware of it there may be some points. May be a you know clarification or studying up on maybe at times but teaching grammar is largely ineffective”.
That's it you get more benefit from just practicing learning and seeing those patterns again and again.
Steve: Exactly, see the idea that you got to learn the basics first is completely wrong. I don't care who tells me that, no I like learning grammar and I learned the basics first. I don't believe that I simply don't believe it. It's impossible to learn the basics first it's impossible to see this theoretical explanation of the language. All of those explanations only make sense once you have had enough experience with the language, so that you have something to refer to. To me, it begins with listening and reading simple stories simple material obviously it needn't be completely brain-dead stuff.
It needn't be hello how are you you know or a lot of these books they start out with you know you're at the train station, you're going through passport control at the airport. Like totally unrealistic scenarios. It can be anything, I went and had a cup of coffee, I met Joe we talked about this the other. It can be anything almost, but shorter and an emphasis on the most common verbs I think is very important. Start listening and reading and of course now you have you know programs like Lingq.
You can look words up you can create flashcards you can review them and you start to get a toehold in the language. Once you have experienced the language you now become curious, what does this really mean? I see all these words but I can't really make sense of it or how does this pattern work. I've seen it a few times at that point you can look up a grammar issue. You can do that if you have a beginner book and teach yourself or whatever and you're going through their material. They might offer some explanation, or google. I google Turkish verbs, find a good site, print it out sit there.
I read through a bit of a summary of turkish words forget it because i won't remember much of it. But I can refer to it again and again. Grammar is a bit a sort of a reference thing you have at your side but it's not something in my view that can be taught up front. Your brain has to get used to the language.
Jared: I would agree with that; I would absolutely agree with that. Well, Steve also I'm something I'd be interested to hear from your perspective. Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you're first starting to learn the language, what would you tell yourself?
Steve: You know what I don't think, I'd do anything very different. Because the idea of listening and reading is so obvious because certainly when I was doing Chinese very quickly, we were into interesting stuff. Whether it was politics in the mainland or ancient history of China. There was obvious interest in pursuing that approach to language learning. I just think that's the correct thing to do. The only thing that would be different today is that it's so much easier. I don't have to fight my way through, like typically in those days okay so I'm reading a lesson in this reader that I have.
Whether it's literature or history or whatever and I go through their glossary for each chapter. Of course, half the words on that list I know, half of the words that I don't know from the text are not on their glossary list. It's a very hit and miss situation, plus I have to constantly flip back and forth from the text to the glossary to see if the word that I don't know is on their list. Then it's still just a list, whereas today I can be reading text I can pull something in from a newspaper. I can look up every word in an online dictionary, if I'm on lLingq I can save that to a database which I can review.
Netflix, I'm sure there's Netflix movies in Chinese. I can get on Netflix in Turkish.
Jared: Yeah, there's a list of those.
Steve: Yeah, I can get the Turkish and English subtitles. I can go through frame by frame using my keyboard, the arrow keys on my computer. I can download the transcript, import it into Lingq. I find video songs or whatever movies on YouTube and with our Lingq browser extension I can import the whole thing in the Lingq as a lesson. Go through the text even in languages like Persian, the amount of stuff I was able to find. It's so much easier today in terms of the availability of resources, the availability of grammar resources online.
The availability of online tutors, it's just that it's so much easier to learn languages today than it was 50 years ago. But the method is essentially the same.
Jared: What kind of advice would you give to someone who's learning Chinese today?
Steve: First of all, realize that you are dealing with a very rich culture, history, a fascinating world that's actually quite different from ours. For the longest time, there wasn't very much contact between Rome or Europe or whatever Middle Ages and China. There's a whole world there to discover. It's also whatever it is 22% of humanity, you've got to allow that to get you excited. Then the second thing I would say is, invest a lot of time in the characters. Because reading is a big part of learning.
Now I know there are people who learn to just speak by listening and who can manage. But it's so much easier to acquire vocabulary when you can read. If you can read, then you can see how so much vocabulary in Chinese consists of different characters arranged in different ways. Actually, vocabulary acquisition in Chinese is easier than in many languages, because of the characters.
Pnce you overcome the obstacle of actually learning the characters your vocabulary can grow quite quickly. You know recognize what a fascinating world you're about to discover to invest in the characters. Then three course the other big stumbling block in Chinese is the tones. There I would say you can look at the sort of individual tone for each individual character. But it's very hard to remember that when you're speaking. You have to learn in phrases, chunks of phrases.
You have to listen a lot listen a lot and I found listening this Yuang Chung very good because they tend to exaggerate. Then you have to trust yourself and trust yourself when you speak and don't try to second-guess what's the tone of this and what's the tone of that, just let yourself go. That would be those three things, I guess. Don't spend too much on the fancy grammar terms that have been meant to confuse people about Chinese. Chinese grammar is the easiest grammar of any language that I've learned that I've been up 20 languages.
It's very difficult to make a grammatical mistake in Chinese. It's the polar opposite of the Slavic languages. I don't know Georgian or Finnish or other even more complicated grammars, but Chinese is very easy.
Jared: I also like to hear from your perspective on the difficulty of Chinese in comparison to other languages. Now I'm not just going to say difficulty for you but just in general you have a very I guess a good knowledge of many languages. How do you think Chinese is difficulty in compared to others?
Steve: Well, every language has its difficulty. In the case of Chinese, obviously you have to learn all the vocabulary because there is no common vocabulary. I mean I'm talking from the point of view of an English speaker or even a speaker of the European language. You've got to learn all the vocabulary, there's no freebies. If you're an English speaker learning French 50% of the vocabulary is already known to you more or less. That's not the case in Chinese and the characters that's a major stumbling block.
That's a question of time, you have to do it every day and and I put in an hour a day. You know I used to use these flashcards and I would write them out by hand. If I went had 30 new characters a day, I knew ahead of time that I would forget half of them by tomorrow. So, I had to keep on reshuffling these characters into my deck. That's just a lot of time and effort, but if you get sort of a toehold on it and then you start reading things of interest and you start seeing these characters over and over again it's like anything else.
We have to trust the fact that our brains. With enough exposure, with enough stimulus our brain learns that's what the brain is set up to do, learn. The characters is a major problem and the tones are a problem. Another problem in Chinese to is, when you go to China there's so many regional pronunciations and sometimes comprehension can be a problem in Chinese. So, many homonyms in Chinese so comprehension can be a problem. But on the other hand, the grammar is very easy very straightforward.
I would say that because of the characters, but even the tones you know any language you speak you got to get a feel for the intonation of that language, so really the obstacle is the characters. That's a question of time, other than that I don't think Chinese is particularly difficult.
Jared: That's actually nice to hear your perspective on that.
Steve: Yeah, like I'm never concerned that I'm gonna make a mistake when I speak Chinese. Whereas when you're speaking say a Slavic language, you're forever second-guessing yourself on the case endings. Even in speaking Romance language, you're second-guessing yourself on the gender. Whereas in Chinese you can't get a draw on that, you can say it in 5 different ways and it's still okay.
Jared: That's true, that's a good point. Well, Steve I really appreciate you being on our show. There's a Steve Kaufman, the linguist. If people want to find out more about you, where can they find you?
Steve: Well, I have a youtube channel called, “lingo Steve”. I have a blog which is www.thelinguist.com. Obviously, together with my son mark, we created a language learning platform community website called link Lingq.com. I hang out there on the forum occasionally teach English there online. I'm busy there learning languages like Turkish and Persian and so forth. We offer some 33 languages including Mandarin, of course and Cantonese by the way.
Jared: Well, Steve I really appreciate. This has been really insightful and I really appreciate you sharing your perspective with everyone.
Steve: Thank You Jared, nice talking to you.