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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Linguistics and lumber strike chord

Emotion, not intellect, key to language prowess


Checking out of his hotel in Shimbashi, with time to spare before a flight back to Vancouver, Steve Kaufmann stops to read a sign in the lobby, which reads: "I have refused the entrance into a room of these other than the visitor of stay. Please give me a meeting in the lobby. Thank you."

Steve Kaufmann
From the heart: Steve Kaufmann, co-developer of the online language-learning business LingQ. Kaufmann urges new English learners not to waste time taking tests but rather work toward achieving a decent level in English and then, only when likely to do well, take an exam.ANGELA JEFFS

Interestingly, he is more amused than upset by the translation. "You can understand what they are getting at, right?" Well, yes, maybe, but is that good enough? As a linguist, he thinks so. "Language is primarily about communication, not grammatical accuracy. If the message gets across, then it's made its point." Born of Jewish parents who escaped to Sweden from Czechoslovakia in 1939, and then emigrated to Canada when he was 5 years old, Kaufmann has never had a problem with languages.

"One of my earliest memories was of my mother pointing out the names of flowers in English on the boat coming over to Canada, and then speaking English with new friends, so I guess the transition was pretty seamless.

"Interesting, though, that I became unilingual in English so fast," he adds, "because French was the main language in Montreal, but not in the western part where we lived. My Swedish? Effectively gone."

Swedish may have flown, but today he speaks three Asian and six European languages, with Russian a work in progress. Additional ingredients to this cultural melting pot: Kaufmann's father-in-law is Chinese, his mother-in-law is from Costa Rica, and he first met their daughter, Carmen, in Hong Kong.

The first language he studied seriously was French, at McGill University in Montreal, and from there in Paris in 1962. Returning one night by bike from a late night bowl of onion soup in Les Halles, he found a letter saying he had been accepted into the Canadian Foreign Trade Service.

"Little did I know that this would lead to my immersion in the cultures of Japan and China. My first overseas assignment in 1968 was to Hong Kong, which is where I met my wife, learned Mandarin, and made regular forays into Canton in my capacity as trade commissioner."

Assigned to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo in 1971, he didn't know what to expect. Despite his work being mainly in English, he made the first six months a make-or-break period for learning nihongo.

With few educational tools available, he had to seek out learning materials and develop his own methodologies and strategies. Nowadays, with electronic dictionaries, the Internet, and systems like LingQ, the motivated learner can move fast.

The Linguist is the company that started LingQ, an online language learning business he is developing with his son, Mark, in Vancouver, and the title of a self-published book subtitled "A Personal Guide to Language Learning" aand first published in 2003. At the end of his embassy posting three decades ago ("the job title diplomat sounds glamorous but it's not a great way to save money, though there is a lot of free booze") life took an interesting turn. He was recruited by a leading Canadian forest products company seeking to establish an office in Tokyo — a job he would never have been offered if his Japanese had not been fluent.

Returning to Vancouver with his family in 1977, he was later recruited by a similar rival company and so enjoyed an additional two-year stint in Japan.

Now he has his own lumber company, KP Wood Ltd, with a small sawmill 600 km north of Alberta's Edmonton. Kaufmann and his staff also develop software for the lumber industry, from a head office in Vancouver and a branch in Sweden.

"People like me in the lumber industry are perceived as the bad guys, with environmentalists thinking, 'Poor little moose!' But we are responsible, encouraging sustainability, controlling habitats, planting as much spruce and aspen as we cut." The truth, he says, is that there is a glut of lumber in the world today. A monster sawmill in Germany sawing imported Russian logs is flooding world markets. Many small sawmills like Kaufmann's own are running at a loss, or only just breaking even. Also consumption is declining. Yet still he remains bullish on wood.

"My philosophy is that wood is the most environmentally benign building material on the planet. It consumes little energy, captures CO2 while growing, stores CO2 while in use, and although it eventually naturally decomposes or is burned, returns the CO2 to nature. But it does not add to the CO2 cycle.

"Also, wood is beautiful and can also be amazingly strong, especially if laminated, which helps distribute any weaknesses throughout a section."

These days, however, a relatively small amount of his energy goes into that side of his business, ticking over as it does. Instead, he and his son spend 80 percent of their time developing LingQ.

Mark Kaufmann, who played professional hockey for 10 years (including four years for the Nikko Bucks) is keen to promote the Internet as a teaching instrument and is busy developing the basic model of his father's methodology.

"It's a lot of work," says his father. "Last week in Tokyo I was busy with lumber. For the rest of the time I've been seeing what I can do to help LingQ along."

He has strong feelings about the emphasis here on TOEIC as a measuring tool of language proficiency. (TOEFL is more academically inclined.)

"The manuals sold in the stores on how to ace TOEIC are 70 percent in Japanese. Sorry, but if you are learning English most of the text needs to be in English!" Two million Japanese sit TOEIC every year and, Kaufmann says that is too many, and "any score below 400 is meaningless." He advises new language learners not to waste time taking tests, but rather to work toward achieving a decent level in English and then, only when they are ready, and likely to do well, take the exam.

Online since August 2007, LingQ is in its infancy, developing community and making language easier to understand.

Kaufmann believes that any language learned artificially as an intellectual exercise is hard to maintain. "It has to be based on a personal interest in order to grab you emotionally."

Which is why his reading matter for the flight home is a novelist who satisfies linguistic needs of the moment: Aleksandr Pushkin.

In Russian, of course.

Web site: www.lingq.com


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