Steve Kaufmann is a linguist and internet polyglot.
You may be wondering how many languages does Steve Kaufmann speak?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. This post will go into detail on what languages Steve Kaufmann speaks, how fluent he is in them and how he learnt them.
Table of Contents
What Languages Does Steve Kaufmann Speak?
Steve Kaufmann speaks 20 languages to varying levels.
Steve Kaufmann speaks English, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Swedish, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Czech, Polish, Romanian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Persian.
English is his first language as he mostly grew up in Canada, attending English-speaking schools and his parents only spoke English to him.
Steve Kaufmann Languages – His Journey
Kaufmann was born in Sweden in 1945 to Jewish parents who were originally from the Czech Republic.
At the age of 5 in 1951, the family moved to Montreal, Canada and Kaufmann spent his childhood growing up there in the English-speaking area of the city.
Even though his parents spoke Czech, German & Swedish, Kaufmann himself has said that up until the age of 17, he only spoke English.
He mentions that he has ‘no recollection of having spoken any language other than English as a child’ although he knows that he spoke Swedish first.
The decision to speak English was made by Kaufmann’s parents. To show their commitment to Canada, they decided they would only speak English to Kaufmann and his brother.
He attended an English-speaking school, had English-speaking friends, listened to English radio and only watched English TV.
In his book ‘The Linguist’, Kaufmann noted that, despite growing up in a predominantly French-speaking city, he had no interest in learning another language.
He mentions that he was taught French in school and was surrounded by the French language but never managed to learn it and definitely couldn’t use it in the real world.
How Steve Kaufmann Learnt French & Spanish
The first language that Kaufmann learnt, after English, was French.
He became interested in the language after studying a French Civilization course at McGill University in Canada.
Kaufmann said it made him fall in love with French literature, theater, music, food and French culture in general.
He started trying to learn French by attending French theater, making French-speaking friends, reading French newspapers and listening to French radio. Through all this, his French skills improved naturally.
After his success at learning French in Montreal, Kaufmann really wanted to master the language so he decided to go to France.
In 1962, he quit his summer construction job and went to the Montreal docks to try and get a job on a boat.
He asked around for 3 days, offering to work on the ship in exchange for passage to Europe. On his third day, he got lucky and was offered a job on a small ship that had recently lost a sailor.
After arriving in London, he took a ferry over to Belgium then hitchhiked into France.
Kaufmann spent the next 3 years in France, making French friends, studying, working various different jobs and immersing himself in the French language.
He also noted that there were a large number of Swedish girls at the university he played hockey at and he was able to recover a lot of the Swedish that he had learnt and forgotten as a young child.
After his first year in France, Kaufmann was able to secure a scholarship from the French government so he moved to Paris to study politics at L’Institut d’Études Politiques.
This course was entirely in French and as part of it, Kaufmann would have to write essays and give oral presentations in French.
After studying in France, Kaufmann continued his travels of Europe, hitchhiking across the continent visiting Spain, Sweden, Italy and Germany.
He picked up basic language skills in the languages of these countries as he went.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking French in the video below:
The second language that Kaufmann tackled after French was Spanish.
He found that as the grammar and structure was similar to French, he could bring his Spanish to a reasonable level fairly quickly.
He learnt Spanish mainly by chatting to locals on his travels through Spain and a little bit of studying.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking Spanish in the video below:
How Steve Kaufmann Learnt Mandarin
In 1967, Kaufmann left Europe after he was offered a job by the Canadian Diplomatic Service. He returned to Canada and took up a position in Ottawa as an Assistant Trade Commissioner.
By 1968 at age 22, Kaufmann was sent to Hong Kong. The Canadian Diplomatic Service sent him there to learn Chinese in preparation for the expected establishment of diplomatic relations with China.
Before he left, he started taking Mandarin Chinese lessons from an elderly Chinese man in Ottawa but didn’t feel like he was learning much.
When he arrived in Hong Kong, Kaufmann enrolled himself into a Mandarin course at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Although Hong Kong is primarily a Cantonese-speaking city, Kaufmann was actually learning Mandarin there.
To practice Mandarin outside of the classroom, Kaufmann would have lunch with his teachers and chat to them in Mandarin.
Kaufmann went to a 3 hour Mandarin class every morning (which he generally didn’t find useful), took part in informal conversations, read books in Mandarin and studied intensely at home.
Kaufmann said he worked hard to learn the Chinese characters, writing them down and reviewing them everyday.
He read as much authentic Chinese material as possible, often rereading the same books to improve his abilities at reading.
One difficulty that he faced was that Hong Kong isn’t a Mandarin speaking city. You couldn’t easily just go outside and chat to locals.
He had to find other ways to improve his listening skills such as listening to tapes.
Kaufmann said that within 8 months of starting to learn Mandarin, he could already read essays by intellectuals and novels by Chinese writers.
Whilst he didn’t understand every word that he read, he was able to work out the meaning and it was a great way to absorb the language and learn more.
In 1969, a year after he’d started, Kaufmann crossed into China to live in Guangzhou.
As a foreign diplomat, he was assigned a Chinese guide and the pair chatted only in Mandarin discussing their views on a range of topics.
Over the next year, Kaufmann worked in China as a Trade Commissioner, attending trade shows and presentations to talk with Chinese companies.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking Mandarin Chinese in the video below:
How Steve Kaufmann Learnt Japanese
In 1970, Kaufmann was assigned to Beijing as an Assistant Trade Commissioner but he refused to go as he didn’t like his boss.
Instead he asked to be assigned to Tokyo and promised that he would learn Japanese on his own if they agreed (which they did).
Kaufmann ended up living in Tokyo for 9 years.
In 1971, he was assigned to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. He was committed to learning Japanese on his own within 6 months.
This was no easy feat because, at the time, he was working a full-time job at the Canadian Embassy and had to learn Japanese in his free time.
He learnt Japanese by exposing himself to as much Japanese content as possible including books and radio.
Eventually he could start having conversations with native speakers.
For the first 4 years of his stay in Japan, Kaufmann worked as the First Secretary at the Canadian Embassy.
Then in 1974, he was recruited by Seaboard Lumber Sales, a Canadian forest products company, to set up a subsidiary company in Tokyo.
He worked for this company for 3 years until he returned to Vancouver in 1977 with his wife and 2 children.
The family then returned to Japan for another 2 years in 1981 to work for a different Canadian forest products company.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking Japanese in the video below:
How Steve Kaufmann Learnt German
After living in Japan for another 2 years, Kaufmann and his family returned once again to Vancouver for good.
As Kaufmann entered his forties living in Vancouver he made great progress on other languages that he had been exposed to over the years through his travels but had never learnt to speak fluently.
He was able to greatly improve his German, Swedish and Italian by immersing himself in the languages at home in Vancouver.
He mainly focused on reading and listening as much as possible.
When speaking about German, Kaufmann said he currently has no difficulty in having a conversation or understanding radio and newspapers.
He noted that he did have exposure to German earlier in life including whilst working on a German ship and whilst working on a construction site in Vienna but couldn’t carry a conversation at the time.
In 1986, at the age of 41, Kaufmann decided to spend a month learning German.
He bought between 10 and 15 German books and several cassette tapes in German in order to immerse himself in the language.
After one month of studying these books and tapes, he was able to drastically improve his German. Later, he further improved by visiting Germany.
Kaufmann said that whilst he can speak German fluently and naturally, his grammar isn’t perfect.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking German in the video below:
How Steve Kaufmann Learnt Italian
Kaufmann has said that he found Italian fairly easy as he was already very familiar with French and Spanish.
After listening to lots of tapes and reading books in Italian, he was able to speak Italian at a conversational level.
He did note that he doesn’t get much opportunity to use his Italian but does like to watch Italian movies from time to time.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking Italian in the video below:
How Steve Kaufmann Learnt Cantonese
At the age of 50, Kaufmann decided to start learning Cantonese. His main motivating factor was that he had found many people in Vancouver that could speak it.
Additionally, Kaufmann’s wife had grown up speaking Cantonese but they had always used English to speak with each other.
When starting his Cantonese learning journey, Kaufmann enlisted the help of his Cantonese-speaking friend but found they made little progress.
He then searched Chinese bookstores in Vancouver looking for Cantonese learning materials. Eventually he found a great book which demystified the notorious Cantonese tones.
For listening practice, he asked some Cantonese speakers to tape themselves so he could listen to the recordings over and over.
He then started recording Cantonese talk shows and radio shows to improve his listening abilities.
When he was confident enough, he would phone in to the Cantonese speaking radio shows to offer his opinions on whatever they were discussing that day.
Talking about his Cantonese abilities, Kaufmann admitted that he isn’t fully fluent but is definitely able to hold a conversation.
How Steve Kaufmann Learnt More Languages
He began learning his 9th language, which was Russian, at age 60 and his 10th language, which was Portuguese at age 62.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking Russian in the video below:
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking Portuguese in the video below:
Eventually, later in life Kaufmann continued learning a range of languages, including Romanian, Czech, Polish, Korean and Ukrainian. Today he speaks 20 languages.
You can see Steve Kaufmann speaking Korean in the video below:
He also touched on Greek and Turkish, but didn’t learn these fluently.
Today, he is currently learning Arabic and Persian and has been working on these since 2019.
You can see Steve Kaufmann switching between 8 languages in the video below:
How Does Steve Kaufmann Learn Languages?
Steve Kaufmann doesn’t follow a traditional approach to learning languages.
Kaufmann’s key principle to language learning is that it should be done in real situations rather than spending hours doing exercises, drills and reading textbooks.
Kaufmann learns languages using an immersion technique. He spends most of his study time reading texts and listening to recordings in his target language.
He doesn’t worry too much about learning new words and instead believes that he will gradually acquire them as he comes across them again.
He has mentioned that he does use flashcards for remembering difficult words but most of his vocabulary acquisition just comes from reading and listening to native speakers.
Another aspect of his learning approach is that he always uses meaningful content.
Essentially this just means that he only reads texts or listens to material that he is genuinely interested in.
Kaufmann particularly enjoys reading books about the history of the country or region that the language is spoken in.
He also tries to listen to as much content as possible, often whilst completing other tasks.
Additionally, he is not afraid of making mistakes. He thinks that you can still be fluent in a language whilst making some mistakes.
How Long Does it Take Steve Kaufmann to Learn a Language?
Kaufmann has been able to learn languages in a very short amount of time.
Whilst studying Mandarin full-time in Hong Kong, he was able to become fairly fluent within a year.
For easier languages that he has had prior exposure to, like German, he was able to become fluent in a matter of months.
Kaufmann doesn’t think that age is an impediment to learning a language as he has successfully learnt many languages later in life.
In fact, most of the languages he speaks, he learnt after the age of 55.
Today, Kaufmann is well into his seventies and is still learning new languages. He’s currently working on Arabic and Persian.
It may surprise you that Steve Kaufmann speaks 20 languages. It surprised us too!
We think it’s great that he learnt to speak most of these languages later in life.
He definitely serves as an inspiration to people around the world who think they are too old to learn a language.
Thanks for reading this post which answers the question ‘how many languages does Steve Kaufmann speak?’.
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Sources: The Linguist by Steve Kaufmann