EP18. Three steps to learning a new language with Jon knebel.


INTRO: Bienvenido a Amigos Learning Languages. Este es un podcast hecho por amigos, para amigos que aprenden lenguajes. Podrás escuchar a nativos hablando de su cultura, experiencias y consejos. In addition, you will be able to listen to people who are already on this path of learning, and how they managed to get where they are. Enjoy this journey with us! 

JOFFRE: Hola, amigo Jon. Bienvenido a este episodio de Amigos Learning Languages. Muchas gracias por aceptar la invitación. 

JOHN: My pleasure, Joffre. Glad to be here. 

JOFFRE: Gracias, amigo, ¿Podrías contarnos un poco tu experiencia en cuanto a aprender lenguajes? ¿Qué has venido haciendo hasta esta fecha? Por favor. 

JOHN: Yeah, well. I’ve been interested in learning languages since I was kid. And I’ve been an Italki teacher for a couple of years, I’ve given over 400 lessons. And I ended up starting a language school in Mexico City, which I’ve now handed over to somebody else. And I’ve been developing a new method of learning language for over a decade. And I’ve published a book about that, too. 

JOFFRE: Es muy bueno tener personas que están muy inmiscuidas en el aprendizaje de un lenguaje y por eso te he hecho esta invitación. ¿Podrías compartir con nuestros amigos tus consejos para aprender español e inglés? ¿Cuáles crees que serían los pasos que deberían dar las personas que aprenden un nuevo idioma? 

JOHN: Well, my theory is that it’s very important… There are three major stages in learning a language. First stage, it’s very important to learn the basics of pronunciation so that you learn good habits and you do not develop bad habits, cause it’s very difficult to break later on. Around that stage, you might wanna learn a little bit of basic grammar as well. But generally, it’s becoming more widely accepted that a more vocabulary-based method tends to be more effective than focusing too much on grammar.

So that’s why I talk about the second phase of language acquisition, which I would advocate learning a lot of vocabulary, especially through reading to begin with. Because you can learn vocabulary very quickly and at your own pace. And that’s what a lot of polyglots do, they use what I call “brute force method” where they just read books that they’re interested in. And they’ll like, look up every word they don’t know, so they use an interest-based approach which is very good as well, because when you are interested in the content, you’re going to be that much more engaged in the learning. However, Stephen Krashen talks about how the language should also be comprehensible. And so that’s kind of a challenge if you’re reading adult level texts. So, I’ve really focused my method on this second stage of basically taking adult level texts that might be interesting to adults, and making them comprehensible. So, getting the best of both worlds.

The third stage would be some sort of immersion. So, in order to really learn a language for most people, you do have to immerse yourself at some point by going to a country that speaks it or engaging in a lot of conversations with native speakers online. But yeah, that’s my general advice.

JOFFRE: Okay, gracias, amigo. Concentrémonos en la segunda etapa, leer muchos libros. Pero ¿Qué palabras van a llamar más nuestra atención? ¿En qué palabras deberíamos concentrarnos? Porque cuando yo leo un libro, hay cientos, miles de palabras y no es posible memorizar todas esas palabras.

JOHN: That’s a great question. Well, something people don’t realize. I really love reading classic English literature as old as from the 1800s, early 1900s. And I did a test on myself with a book from one of my favorite authors, George MacDonald. He was a writer from the 1800s from Scotland. And I read the book and I understood everything I was reading. And I… there was no doubt in my mind, I never stopped and was like, “Oh, I don’t understand what this is”. I just flew, I flew, I float with the reading.

After reading, I went and I did a test and I looked at the words and I basically did a word mapping to figure out what words do I already know, and looking word for word, what words do I not know yet. It turned out there are thousands of words in this book that, just looking at the word on its own, I had no idea what it meant. So, that’s one thing that people might not realize is that there’s all kinds of words you don’t even know in your own native language. But you don’t necessarily need to know that word to understand the context. And you don’t even… you automatically filter that word in such a way that it doesn’t cause any kind of mental block for you.

So that’s another thing when you’re learning another language as well, you don’t know what words are not that important. And which ones are. So, it’s important to try to find ways to be able to prioritize the words. And generally, generally speaking, it’s paid by frequency. So, you want to learn the words that are the most frequent words that you don’t know yet. Which when you’re very… in the very beginning stages, it’s going to be pronouns, articles, prepositions, obviously the most common verbs. There’s also a theory that states that you know, with just a list of about 50 verbs, you can… those can create a kind of a vehicle for a lot of sentences. Whereas like when it comes to nouns and adjectives, there’s like limitless vocabulary. So, but of course, you’re gonna want to learn the most common nouns and adjectives as well. And once you’ve learned that step, then you want to learn the next most common words that you don’t yet know. And you always want to try to avoid allowing the words that you don’t know that you don’t need to know yet from distracting you because an uncommon word is not something that you should learn now, because it’s only going to cause distraction, and you’re not going to get enough reinforcement to really truly learn it either.

JOFFRE: Básicamente mantenerlo simple. Al inicio, simple, las palabras que más se repiten, los pronombres que más puedes usar o que usan más a lo largo del libro. No tratar de memorizar cada una de las palabras. Exacto, y ¿qué opinas acerca de los cognados, acerca de las palabras que se parecen mucho entre español e inglés? ¿vale la pena trabajar en esas, son esas fáciles de aprender? Porque tenemos los cognados y los falsos amigos.  ¿Cuál es tu opinión acerca de falsos amigos y de cognados? 

JOHN: Yeah, well, I think cognates are really, really useful. I’ve done some research on this and found that around 8 to 25% of the language is similar between the two languages, at least 8% of the language is extremely similar between the two languages. And the nice thing about learning those words is they provide context for learning the rest of the language. So, I think that’s a great place to start.

JOFFRE: Cuando tú tienes una palabra que se parece en español y en inglés, también tienes todas las que se usan antes y después de esa misma palabra, como pronombres, adjetivos, sustantivos, que se usan junto con eso. Exacto, y tú me comentabas acerca de un libro que has desarrollado una estrategia para aprender español e inglés. Cuéntanos un poco en detalle, ¿de qué se trata?

 JOHN: Well, so imagine taking an adult level text in Spanish, and be able to read it even as an absolute beginner. The way that you can do that is through… the only way that I’ve found that you can do that is through a concept known as mixed text, or materials, which have to be created by somebody like me or another developer. In fact, I’m not the only one who’s been working with this concept. It’s a brand-new industry in language education. Well, it’s actually not completely brand new. But it’s an emerging industry, because of new technology making it easier to create these materials in an effective way. But basically, what happens is you start reading the book in mostly English with just a few words in Spanish.

There is the Pareto principle. Some people know about the Pareto principle, I believe it’s 80-20 rule or sometimes 95. Yeah, but in reality, there’s a professor out of New Zealand that talks about it when it comes to language acquisition, you want to adapt the Pareto rule principle to being more like 98-2. So, you should learn in such a way where 98% of the language is comprehensible. 2% is new. And so that’s the ideal. But you know, sometimes you can, you know, mix with that a little bit. So, imagine 95% English, 5% Spanish that you don’t yet know; and then once you’ve learned that 5%, then we add another 5%. And now you’re reading in 90% English, 10% Spanish and we keep adding words in Spanish as you read along, until finally, eventually, at some point, you’re reading entirely in Spanish. So, the entire time you’re enjoying the book, and you’re understanding it completely, by using a mixture of English and Spanish. And the Spanish words that you’re being introduced to are prioritized primarily by frequency, but also some other factors. So that you learn in an order that really makes sense, where you’re not being distracted by uncommon words, you’re focusing on the most common words that you really need to know. And those words are going to get a lot of reinforcement, and they’re going to provide the greatest amount of context for you to learn the next set of words. 

JOFFRE: Excelente, me parece una idea genial. Para resumir, tú lees un libro completo con pocas palabras en español y a medida que lo vuelves a leer añades más palabras, más palabras, más palabras en español hasta que tu vocabulario sea suficiente para que sea fluido en español o en inglés, ¿es así? 

JOHN: Yes, exactly. In fact, the one book that I have published, it’s called “Learn Spanish through Spanglish: Stories de la Jungle”, and I hope to publish another one soon for learning English through Spanglish and eventually… it’s a very complicated process to develop these materials. So, I’m constantly improving the process and hopefully we’ll be launching an app in the next few years with this process as well and more and more books, but maybe in the next few months even I’ll be able to launch that English book hopefully. If you want to get your hands on the book, just search for “Learn Spanish through Spanglish: Stories de la Jungle” on Amazon, and you’ll find it there. It’s 14 different versions of the same eight short stories written by Horacio Quiroga all compiled into a single book. So, you’re getting a lot of value out of that one purchase. But I have a free sample of Level 1 of the book, which is an 86-page book. It’s all eight short stories, but in Level 1 starts in 92% English, 8% Spanish, and by the time you finish reading it, you’re in 50-50. And that will be included as a link in the description of the podcast episode.

JOFFRE: Genial, amigo. Muchísimas gracias. En conclusión, tu recomendación sería, las tres etapas, ¿podrías repetir, en resumen? Las tres etapas para aprender un nuevo idioma.


JOHN: Yeah. Number one is focusing on learning the basics of pronunciation especially and possibly a little bit of the basics of grammar. Second stage is learning a lot of vocabulary. Of course, through reading, because when you get to the immersion step, then it’s going to be much easier to identify the words that you’re hearing, and to also be able to pronounce the words that you want to pronounce. Once you already have a firm grasp on those words, just at least the concept of those words and how they’re spelled and everything just having a visualization of the words because you’ve read them and you’ve built that vocabulary basis. So that’s the second step and then the third step is some kind of immersion experience and in reality, you’re doing all of these steps all at once, but I’m kind of talking about focuses. So, focusing on pronunciation and grammar, moving to vocabulary, moving to an immersion experience. 

JOFFRE: Hay que primero trabajar en pronunciación, en leer y luego en una inmersión en el idioma. Genial. ¡Gracias, amigo! 

JON: Yeah, my pleasure! 

JOFFRE: Que tengas una buena tarde y espero pronto tenerte de nuevo acá, cuando tu libro en inglés esté disponible.

JOHN: That’d be great! Thanks for having me.

JOFFRE: Okay, bye!           

OUTRO: Muchas gracias por haber escuchado este episodio. Si te gustó, por favor compártelo. Recuerda, nuevos episodios cada semana. ¡Chau!

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