I previously wrote briefly about Steve Kaufmann incredibly speaking 9 languages fluently, English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Cantonese and Italian.

Steve speaking Cantonese (15:29min) :

Steve does not practise or actively speak Cantonese anymore.

- note: first 10 seconds have audio problems

The following presentation was conducted by Steve Kaufmann in part English and Japanese. He offers very valuable advice on learning languages. I found it quite informative and a very useful resource:

Video 1: 09:33min Video 2: 09:54min Video 3: 09:32min
Steve Kaufmann PART 1 Steve Kaufmann PART 2 Steve Kaufmann PART 3
Video 4: 08:16min Video 5: 09:35min  
Steve Kaufmann PART 4 Steve Kaufmann PART 5  

Steve emphasises gaining vocabulary, while grammar is acquired naturally through massive input. After reading and watching as much material about Steve, he states the way to gain fluency is through gaining a large amount of vocabulary. In the above videos, Steve says you need to recognise and know how to use around 10,000 words in the correct situations to be adequately fluent.

Steve says “Vocabulary is much more important than grammar, by far, not even close! You have to have a lot of words. If you have enough words, you will speak.” He states that he never does grammar exercises and prefers to listen and read the same material over-and-over.

Studying grammar is counter productive; he continues to say, “If you have to think through a grammar rule, you will slow yourself down. You have to develop a reflex, and having the grammar rules is not going to develop that natural reflex.” You cannot improve by just speaking, you need to “upgrade” by reading and listening to new words and phrases. Speaking makes up a small portion of the learning process; as you need to absorb massive amounts through the listening process.

Steve Kaufmann speaks 9 languages fluently, English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Cantonese and Italian.

Steve interviews Max, a Swede learning Mandarin (14:10mins). As I cannot understand Mandarin, I had a native speaker translate for me. It deals with Max’s study of Mandarin and Cantonese, his thoughts on Pimsleur, and how repetitive listening to the same material improved Max’s fluency. I am highly impressed with Max’s Mandarin in 1 year of serious study, and not living in China:


Why not just watch the news or TV series?

In an article written by Steve, he is asked about the benefits of repetitive listening to English content as compared to just listening to CNN or TV sitcoms. Children do not listen repetitively to the same content when learning their mother tongue.

In my view the answer depends on the level and the goals of the learner. For a beginner or low intermediate and even many intermediate learners, CNN and sitcoms are too difficult to understand.

It is true that as the learner progresses the frequency of repetition will decrease. We talk about an “intensive” period during which the first 2,000 words of the language are acquired. In this period a “strange” language gradually becomes more familiar and even predictable. The learner can acquire a sense of the language more easily by listening to content that he or she understands, and by getting a second and third and fourth chance to hear it.

The high frequency words and expressions are listened to over and over. Listening to familiar content means that the learner is able to focus on these words and phrases and acquire them. Repetitive listening is also excellent for working on pronunciation and rhythm, since the meaning is already understood. This “intensive” period may last 3-6 months.

Children listen to a limited range of content even though it is not repetitive listening to recorded content. The subject matter and vocabulary is limited. The child also takes many years to reach the level of vocabulary and the ability required to express complex ideas. The adult learner can reach that level in less than a year.

In another article by Steve, I often hear people say that they like watching movies and TV programs to learn English. I have always maintained that repetitive reading and listening is more useful for language improvement. The reason is simple. In watching movies you have lots of clues as to what is going on. The dialogue is not so concentrated unless you are watching a very intellectual movie.

When reading, or listening to an audio book, you are completely dependent on the language. The intensity of the learning experience is much greater. It is easier to repeat your reading and listening and it is easier to do, whenever and wherever you want.

Think of people speaking their own language. Who will express themselves better, whether in writing or speaking, people who watch a lot of TV and movies, or people who read a lot? I rest my case.

In my first month of learning Cantonese, I learnt a mere 100 spoken words. I calculated 100 x 12 months = 1200 words per year if I continued on this pattern. As Pimsleur moved so slowly and painfully, I didn’t think it was possible to learn any faster.

The Linguist classifies a persons speaking ability by the number of words you know: Beginner a) 2,000 b) 3,500 Intermediate a) 5,000 b) 7,500 Advanced a) 10,000 b) 12,500

I thought that it would take 10 years to become advanced. Especially Cantonese being very tonal and intonations being very important, it takes much longer to accurately learn a word correctly. Saying a word with the wrong tone more often than not gives a different meaning.

My goal is to be functional in Cantonese as fast as humanly possible without total immersion in my first year of study.

I discovered that learning from reading is not effective, I would go to the dictionary and read:
超級市場 = ciu1 kap1 si5 coeng4 = supermarket

I committed this word to memory and then attempt to use it a few days later in a conversation. Even if I can remember the pronunciation of this word, I have already forgotten the tones. I haven’t heard the word enough to automatically and accurately reproduce the tones and word. Guessing leads to a high chance of making a mistake.

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard the word enough and so I start making the same mistakes. Once a bad habit is established, its very hard to break. I found that if you don’t correct bad tones early on, your speaker eventually gets used to your bad tones and eventually won’t correct you. Practicing with another speaker will result in “Huh? I don’t understand”. The reason being that native speaker (A) has gotten used to your bad tones and can understand what you are saying within context and perhaps if they are your teacher know what you are saying by the vocabulary you have been taught. Native speaker (B) has not gotten used to your bad tones and will immediately not comprehend, and even in context may still not understand.

Pimsleur CantoneseCosting $295USD on Amazon, Pimsleur Cantonese comprises of 30 x 30min lessons teaching Cantonese solely through listening, repeating then anticipating responses.

The course claims upon completion of Pimsleur Comprehensive Level I Program (30 lessons), you will have achieved spoken-language communication skills at an Intermediate-Low Level including the ability to participate in simple, direct conversations, etc.

Here is an extract from lesson 17 (50seconds):

My Experience:

When I started to learn Cantonese, I listened to 30 lessons (each 3 times per day for a month - I could understand 100% of the course), I truly believed that I gained an Intermediate-Low level speaking ability which was exaggerated on nearly every website on the Internet.

The course is good in theory but in reality it caused my Cantonese confidence to be quickly crushed. Having learnt the 100 words that Pimsleur teached surely cannot classify my level as Intermediate-Low at that point of time.

Attempting to say something lead to abruptly stopping on every 2nd word with “What did you say? I don’t understand”. This rendered every native speaker to quickly switch to English. Even parroting one of the pre-defined sentences to a native speaker always caused me to panic when I heard a response that varied to one that was taught.

I now realise that having a conversation that won’t lead to “what does this mean?” in every response; requires thousands of words in your spoken vocabulary. There is nothing magical about a quick-fix course teaching 100 words over a 1 month period costing $3 per word.

I can honestly say don’t expect any miracles or have any functional ability from Pimsleur Cantonese.

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