Knowledge Ain’t Nothing

I've been studying Russian and Polish language for about four years now. It has been a great experience for me. I discovered that not only do I love learning languages, but I seem to be pretty OK at it. During that time, my thoughts on how one should learn a foreign language have been constantly evolving.

In the beginning, I was largely focused on grammar. This was primarily because the class I was taking focused on grammar. This agrees with a general trend in modern American education, which emphasizes understanding the ideas rather than memorizing the facts. In general, this is good thing. Language courses of the past focused on memorizing vocabulary. Now understanding grammar is the main focus.

Also grammar was easily interesting to me in its own right. Its like math with words. My programmer brain liked it. And it was comfortable. I didn't have to go out on a limb and risk personal embarrassment like with speaking.

Yet largely, all that grammar instruction yielded very little in the way of actual ability to communicate in the language. I have managed to become proficient in Russian and I'm well on my way to being proficient in Polish. But nearly all that progress has stemmed from experience reading and writing letters, listening to music and actually traveling to Russia and Poland.

Of course, having knowledge of grammar helped a bit. But thats the where the disconnect is. Its only knowledge.

I've come to realize that speaking and understanding a language (even your native one) has nothing to do with knowledge. When you read or hear your native language, you don't think about the words or the grammar, you think about the meaning. To use pure knowledge to understand, you have to hear the words, dissect the grammar and then translate the meaning, rather than just short-cutting straight to the meaning.

On Thursday, I discovered The Way of the Linguist by Steve Kaufman, which you can read online for free or buy in paper form. I just finished reading it today. It is a fascinating book. Steve has been learning languages for the past 40 years or so, and his ideas largely confirm what I've just been starting to realize in my own study.

He describes language learning as being more like exercising a muscle, than learning knowledge. I like to think of it like training karate. You can see the teacher doing the movements in front of you. You can understand them on a logical level. First the foot moves like that, then the hand comes out like that, etc...

Then you attempt to do it yourself. At first your movements are wild and imprecise. There are so many details to get at once! The feet, the posture, the breathing, your hands. But you practice and you train and slowly the specific movements and postures of karate become more familiar to you. After some time you are able to mimic the teachers movements closer and closer.

Do you now understand karate better on logical level? Yes, probably. But the logical understanding isn't what allows you to do it now when you couldn't before. Even if you had watched the teacher do it a thousand times, took detailed notes, memorized his every movement, passed a hundred written tests on the subject, you wouldn't be able to do it yourself from that alone.

You have to learn by doing. You have to train your mind rather than learn knowledge. There are many different techniques for doing this. Steve discusses many of them. It can be hard but it isn't a matter of intelligence either. A whole different set of values are important if you really want to be become fluent. And anyone can do it. In future blog posts I plan to address these values and techniques in detail.

But for now that's what I have to say: Knowledge ain't nothing.


David, Thanks for commenting


Thanks for commenting on my blog to let me know about the audio books available at I have two audio book versions of Anna Karenina, one, a woman narrator which I like but which is just extracts of the book, and one, a male narrator where I am not so fond of the voice, but which is complete and unabridged.
I notice that Anna Karenina at is нет в продаже мы сообщим вам по e-mail, когда товар появится в продаже.

I have been studying Russian off and on on my own for one year and a half, mostly using our own language learning website, LingQ ( where I have accumulated a vocabulary of over 20,000 known words. (Granted we count every form of a word as a different word so that number is inflated.)
There are still many words in Tolstoi that I need to learn. LingQ tells me how many unknown words there are in a given text, and right now I am running around 20% for new chapters in Anna Karenina. The words that I have already looked up are highlighted in yellow for me.
I have no trouble listening to Russian audio books and I bought a stack during a recent visit to Riga.
I have paid essentially no attention to Russian grammar since it is too confusing to try to remember. I am gradually, through observation and repeated listening and reading, coming to understand how the language works. Meanwhile I am enjoying my regime of a lot of listening, reading and vocabulary review.As we treat each form of a word as a different word and automatically capture phrases with each saved word, when I review the different words I am able to compare these forms and to review the phrases in which they appear. This all helps me to notice the structure of the language in a consistent and helpful way.
You are welcome to join LingQ, it is free of charge as long as you do not need tutors. You can import e-text of your classical audio books, and then listen to the audio files separately if they are copyrighted.
On the other hand much of our content does include audio, for Russian and for other languages, and covers from beginner to advanced.Our learners load content in their native languages and share, as long as there are no copyright issues.

By the way LingQ is being developed in Python.

David, I posted a longer


I posted a longer comment earlier but it seems to have disappeared. Thanks for commenting on my blog. I went to but Anna Karenina offered there is not available right now. I have two versions of audio books for Anna Karenina, one is by a woman narrator and one by a man. Only the latter is complete.

I have no trouble listening to the audio books except for the vocabulary that I am still missing. I am using LingQ for my Russian studies which I have been doing for 18 months off and on, mostly listening and reading and review words. Please feel free to use LingQ ( it is free unless you need a tutor.

I find Russian grammar too complicated to remembers and prefer to gradually get better at observing and noticing the language, and enjoying my listening and reading. We could talk about our language learning on skype some time if you want.skypename lingosteve.