Interview with Steven Kaufmann ‘The Linguist’, Speaker of 20 Languages, and His Story of Learning Chinese

Interview with Steven Kaufmann ‘The Linguist’, Speaker of 20 Languages, and His Story of Learning Chinese

Steven Kaufmann is a world renown polyglot (a person who knows and is able to use several languages) who speaks 20 languages. I had the privilege to interview him for our podcast and talk about his story of learning Chinese and his perspectives on learning languages in general. Chinese is his 3rd language he learned back in the 70’s as a Canadian diplomat to China. Many people will find his unique perspective on the challenges of learning Chinese in comparison to the other languages insightful. The following is an excerpt from the interview. You can listen to the full podcast and interview here or listen on the player below.

Jared: Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk today! Could you introduce yourself?

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. My name is Steve Kaufman, I’m a grandpa, 73 years old, and I live in Vancouver, Canada. 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.

Jared: How many languages do you speak right now?

Steve: Well, I have varying sort of levels of proficiency in call it 20. But 10 or 11 of them I could 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: Steve, start at the beginning. Why did you start learning Chinese?

Steve: It started in 1967. I had just joined the Canadian diplomatic service as Canada was getting ready to recognize the People’s Republic of China. They needed to train up some people in Chinese and I had just graduated from university 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.

Jared: You went to Hong Kong to learn Chinese, right?

Steve: Yes, I was hired by the Canadian government and I then had the choice to go to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, or to Hong Kong. I couldn’t go to Taiwan because that would have been politically unacceptable to mainland China. In those days, the Cultural Revolution was going on in China and going to Taiwan was not going to work. I chose to go to Hong Kong at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Kowloon.

All the instruction was one-on-one, no classes. I’m a strong firm believer in one-on-one. We had three hours a day with three or four different teachers. They were very much into the 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: What kind of progress were you making at that time and what other things were you doing to learn Chinese?

Steve: I did a lot of reading. Initially I put a lot of effort into learning the characters, at least one hour per day. I literally put in six seven hours a day including the three hours with my teacher. But eventually, I said I didn’t want to do the drilling anymore I just wanted to talk in class and they agreed to do what I wanted to do. After 3 months I could pick my way through a newspaper, then a few months after that I read my first novel. I pushed hard.

It’s important to remember that this is before online dictionaries and before all of the wonderful resources that we have now. I would scour the bookstores for books with glossaries behind each chapter. I refused to look anything up in a Chinese dictionary because it was 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 you looked up.

Jared: How long did you have the opportunity to study Chinese in this way?

Steve: I went through it as quickly as I could. I think I put more into it than the diplomat students studying with me and I certainly read more and listened more. But in 10 months, I passed the British foreign service exam, and I had my British foreign service Mandarin Chinese certificate.

Jared: What happened after you finished your language study?

Steve: Then I went to work for the Canadian Trade Commissioner office in Hong Kong where we Canadian businessmen regularly visited on their way into China. Typically, I would help Canadian business people, sit in on their meetings, help with interpreting, and offer any background information that might be helpful to them.

The other thing that we did was to scour the Chinese press to see if we could learn anything that might be helpful. For example, we may look for information in regards to grain supplies in China which might influence Canadian wheat sales to China. We also kept track of the Cultural Revolution and other political developments. 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 had all these people trying to interpret what was going on in China at the time. You couldn’t just go into China and travel around. 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 couldn’t go anywhere without someone from the China travel department traveling with you You weren’t free to move around. If I wanted to go to Shanghai or somewhere else, 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. I remember at that time it was getting cold and the peasants would bring in their cabbages and dump them into big piles on the sidewalk to sell. That was their distribution system and people would come and pay for the cabbage. I can remember in the hotels in Beijing, you could get either red or black caviar for 1 RMB, a mountain of caviar, sturgeon caviar or salmon caviar. It was a different time and it was so cheap to eat and it was amazing. But it was during the cultural revolution and everybody was dressed drably and the average living standard was quite low.

Jared: Have you been back to China since your diplomatic days.

Steve: Yes. I traveled there quite often in the 70s. Not much changed until in 1979 when I was at the Peace Hotel in Shanghai. All of sudden, there were these older gentlemen wearing ties and playing jazz. Another time in Beijing, there was a dance with girls from a dance academy and we were allowed to dance with them. There were these little indicators that things were loosening up.

This was the beginning of the thaw. I didn’t go back to China for over 20 years until I visited in 2002 and I was absolutely amazed.  

Today you can jump on a bullet train from Beijing and there are massive factories and modern highways. There is no one in the 70s who could ever have predicted that one day China would look like this.

Jared: What do you think really helped you improve your proficiency in Chinese?

Steve: First of all, reading. I believe you need to know a lot of characters. I don’t know exactly how many characters I can recognize, but it’s enough so that I can read a book. There will be characters that I don’t know, but I’m still comfortable reading the book. Reading is a tremendous way to increase your vocabulary and to gain familiarity with the language. I’m a great believer in the power of reading.

The other is listening because the listening prepares you for speaking. It also gives you momentum for your reading because are then able to sub-vocalize. If you have listened to something a lot, you’ll be better at sub vocalizing as you’re reading. I think that the other students studying with me did as much talking as I did, but I did an awful lot more reading and listening.

I feel like my tones are not bad in Chinese, but a lot of people struggle with tones. I attribute that to the xiang sheng 相声, something one of my teachers exposed me to. I had a cassette tape from a well known performer. Although I couldn’t understand it well, there was something about it that I enjoyed. They exaggerated the tones and it’s very lively and engaging, almost like music. You have to listen the stuff that grabs you and that has high resonance.

I passed the British service exam after one year and most people struggle to do it after two. I attributed that to the sort of focus on listening and reading. I have a library of Chinese readers that I would buy. If I saw one and the book store, I’d buy it. If there was any audio material, I’d get it.

I was attracted by the idea of learning Chinese because it’s was so exotic to me at that time. As I got into the language, the history of China just grabbed a hold of me. I just found it fascinating. It’s like if you’re at a feast and you can eat all you want and you’re not going to get indigestion, you just keep eating. What’s going to prevent me from just keep going?

If I weren’t chasing other languages to get a bit of a taste of what those cultures are all about, I would want to get deeper into Chinese. I got a rush when I started learning Korean. Now I’m into Middle Eastern languages like Turkish Arabic, and Persian. It’s endless. I get into the history and there are so many different things that I would love to get into in more depth but there’s only so much time in the day.

Jared: You developed a high level of proficiency in Chinese. How did that impact your life going forward?

Steve: I think it’s important to note that I first became very fluent in French. The experience of converting yourself from someone who only speaks one language to becoming genuinely fluent in a second language, gives you confidence that you can do it. Later, 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 many of the characters.

Learning Japanese opened up opportunities for me in the wood industry. 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. You never know what’s gonna lead to what, I always say that.

Jared: How did you get into learning all of these other languages and what are some of those languages?

Steve: In some languages I’m better at speaking, in some I’m better at reading. If I go in order of proficiency, it would be English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, then Swedish. Swedish was very important for my lumber business because for a long time we would buy wood in Sweden. I also have German, Italian, Cantonese, Portuguese which I don’t really speak as well. However, if you speak Spanish, with a minimum of effort you can learn Portuguese. These are the languages I learned during my professional career.

Then starting13 years ago as we started LingQ, I got into the second wave of languages. Korean and Russian were next. My approach to language learning is to focus on immersing in listening and reading, acquiring vocabulary and then visiting the grammar.

When I pick up some of the books that people use today, it’s full of all these complicated grammar explanations, but I never refer to those. The basic parts of speech, noun, verb, adjective, I understand those, but beyond that I don’t use grammar. However, there are patterns.

The idea that you have to first learn the basics of grammar is completely wrong. I don’t care who tells me that they learned the basics of grammar first; I don’t believe it. It’s impossible to learn the basics by seeing 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 that needn’t be completely brain-dead stuff. It needn’t be “hello, how are you?” or situations where a lot of books start you out at the airport going through customs which are totally unrealistic scenarios. It can be anything, such as I went and had a cup of coffee, I met Joe we talked about this. It can be anything almost, but shorter with an emphasis on the most common verbs.

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? At that point you can look up a grammar points. 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.

Some people disagree with this and someone once said “Yeah, but you couldn’t do that for Russian!”

I said, “Oh yeah!”, then I decided to learn Russian when I was 60. After having learned Russian, I went and learned Check, Ukrainian and Polish, and to some extent Slovak. Then because we buy a lot of wood in Romania, I 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 my wife and I were going to visit Crete so I decided to learn Greek. Then I said, 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 and there are so many Iranians here in Vancouver, I should really learn Persian because I run into people who speak Persian”. Then my wife started watching Turkish serials on Netflix, so I got interested in Turkish.

Anything can trigger the interest and once the interest is triggered, then the language itself becomes the attraction and you just want to get into more and more of the language.

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. There’s a whole world there to discover. It’s 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. Once you overcome the obstacle of actually learning the characters your vocabulary can grow quite quickly.

Then the other big stumbling block in Chinese is the tones. You can look at the individual tones for each individual character, but it’s hard to remember that when you’re speaking. You have to learn in phrases, chunks of phrases.

You have to listen a lot. Then you have to trust yourself when you speak and don’t try to second guess what-tone-is-this and what-tone-is-that, just let yourself go. That would be those three things.

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 of the 20 languages I’ve learned. It’s very difficult to make a grammatical mistake in Chinese. It’s the polar opposite of the Slavic languages. I don’t know any more complicated grammars than Georgian or Finnish, but Chinese is very easy.

Jared: You have a very good knowledge of many languages. From your perspective and not just difficulty for you, what is the difficulty of Chinese in comparison to other languages.

Steve: Every language has its difficulty. In the case of Chinese, you have to learn all the vocabulary because there is no common vocabulary. 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 more-or-less already known to you.

Learning Chinese is more of a question of time. You have to work at it every day and put in the time, but if you get a toehold on characters, then you start reading things of interest and see these characters over and over again until it’s like anything else. We have to trust the fact that our brains, with enough exposure and with enough stimulus, will do what the brain is set up to do; learn.

Chinese has so many homonyms that comprehension can be a problem. But on the other hand, the grammar is very easy and straightforward.

I would say that tones are a problem, but for any language you speak, you have got to get a feel for the intonation of the language, so the real obstacle is the characters, which is really a matter of time. Other than that, I don’t think Chinese is particularly difficult.

For instance, I’m never concerned that I’m gonna make a mistake when I speak Chinese. Whereas when you’re speaking, for example, a Slavic language, you’re forever second-guessing yourself on the case endings. Even in speaking a Romance language, you’re second-guessing yourself on the gender. Whereas in Chinese you can’t get go wrong with that, you can say it in 5 different ways and it’s still okay.

Jared: Steve I really appreciate you talking with us. If people want to find out more about you, where can they find you?

Steve: I have a YouTube channel called, “Lingo Steve” and I have a blog which is www.thelinguist.com. Together with my son Mark, we created a language learning platform community website called Lingq.com. I hang out there on the forum and I’m busy learning languages like Turkish, Persian and so forth. We offer some 33 languages including Mandarin, of course and Cantonese.

For the full interview, listen to the “You Can Learn Chinese Podcast Episode #15 “Steven Kaufmann “The Linguist” Interview”.

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