How to Prepare for the TOEFL® or TOEIC® test – Interview with Steve Kaufmann

In this short interview, Steve Kaufmann, noted polyglot and co-founder of Lingq sits down with Josh MacPherson from TST Prep to discuss his philosophy in terms of language learning and how students can use this information to help them prepare for high-stakes exams like the TOEFL, TOEIC, or IELTS.

Who is Steve Kaufmann?

Steve Kaufman is the co-founder of Lingq, a learning online learning language community. He speaks and understands nearly 20 languages and is the author of “The Linguist: A Personal Guide to Language Learning”. Before his work in the language learning space, Steve worked as a Canadian diplomat and forest industry executive, which required him to travel extensively through Asia.

Steve Kaufmann’s Learning Philosophy


“Kaufmann has been studying languages for over 50 years. He advocates total immersion in the learning process. He places great emphasis on absorbing the language by reading text and not worrying too much about unfamiliar words, believing that they will gradually be acquired through repeated reading. Though he advocates using techniques such as flashcards to memorize difficult words, most of his learning time goes into listening to native speakers and reading texts. He is particularly fond of reading books on the history of the country or region of the language he is learning in the native language. He is an advocate for older people learning, and states that age is not necessarily an impediment to learning a language. He also recognizes mistakes as a natural part of the learning process, and believes that people can still be considered fluent even with some mistakes.”

“Steve Kaufmann” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 September 2021,

Here are the notes to our interview about the TOEFL ITP Plus in China:


Steve: If you’ve done three sample tests, in my opinion, you’re okay. In fact, I think the Japanese model of everyone taking TOEIC tests every year is not, it’s not a good way to spend your time. That’s why Japan has such low scores.

Josh: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to sit down with Steve Kaufman. Now, if you don’t know who Steve Kaufman is, he’s an infamous polyglot, YouTuber, entrepreneur, the list goes on and on, but basically, he is best known for being a polyglot and he can speak up to 20 languages.

So, he knows quite a bit about language learning. Now, Steve does a lot of interviews. So, I thought it would be nice to have his perspective on advanced language learners, people who are not beginning or even at the intermediate, but at an advanced level of English, and also students like you, who are preparing for tests like the TOEFL or TOEIC. So, I’ve edited this video down to me not talking so much and mostly Steve. And this is what we’re going to cover. These are the nine points that we’re going to go over.

  • How to succeed in learning English
  • How to improve your English for advanced English language learners
  • How to use basic English skills to improve your speaking
  • How to prepare for the TOEFL or TOEIC with TED Talks
  • How to stay motivated at an advanced English level
  • How reading helps you speak English at an advanced level
  • How to practice speaking English with a teacher
  • How teachers should correct students
  • How many TOEFL or TOEIC practice tests should you take

You’ll find timestamps in the links below to jump around, but that’s it. So, without further ado, here’s Steve.

How to succeed in learning English

Steve: I always refer back to when I went to a language teacher’s conference in San Diego and there was a lady there who was the head of San Diego State Language Department or whatever and she said, “There are three, only three things in language. There’s the attitude of the learner, which means likes the language, is confident, wants to…, all that stuff. Attitude. The second thing is time. You have to put in the time with the language, not listening to someone explaining in English or, if you’re a Japanese person, explaining the English language in Japanese, that doesn’t count, it’s time with the language.

And then, the third thing is developing that ability to notice, to notice what’s happening in the language which normally comes if you have enough. And the three are related because if you like the language if you want to be doing it, you’re more attentive to what’s happening, you’re going to put in the time. The more time you spend with the language, the more things you notice. So, those three things are very much connected.

How to improve your English for advanced language learners

Steve: When you are at an advanced level, you need to do more reading and listening for a number of reasons. First of all, if I look at TOEIC or TOEFL, and I have seen people with good scores in TOEIC and good scores in TOEFL who don’t understand very well when you speak to them. You can tell that they don’t really understand very well, don’t use the language very well, don’t use words very well.

So, to me, the advanced people need to get better, need to have a broader vocabulary, and when we look at the frequency of words. The most frequent 1000 words show up frequently, that’s why they’re high-frequency, but the frequency declines very very very quickly. And so, to get these other words that you need, that the native speaker has in any language, native speaker of Japanese, of French, of English, whatever native speaker has been at his or her own language for 20, 30, 40 years, they have a large vocabulary because they’ve heard so much of the language and they’ve read so much in the language. And, in order to acquire that vocabulary, you won’t get it from lists, you have to get it through exposure. And so, therefore, an advanced person needs to be, even more, you know, motivated towards this extensive listening and reading.

However, you know, it depends. If it’s just the sort of listening and reading part of TOEIC, not the speaking part, then, to my mind, the emphasis has to be on vocabulary, a broad vocabulary. Again, if you do a lot of listening and reading, you have a sense of what’s correct and not correct. So, a lot of spots in TOEIC, they ask you is this correct or that correct. You don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about it, going through rules in your brain, it’s got to be automatic. And a native speaker doesn’t have to think about it. A native speaker knows what’s correct. And so the learner has to get close to that kind of an instinctive sense because they’ve seen it so often, heard it so often, this is correct.

The other thing is, in my experience with TOEIC and TOEFL is you have to be a good reader. You have to read fast. Because you have a certain amount of text to go through and then answer questions. So, if you read that quickly, and, if you have an instinctive sense of what’s right, and if you understand it well if you have good listening comprehension, you go through it quickly. If you don’t read well, if you don’t have good listening comprehension, if you don’t have a broad vocabulary, every question is a struggle. And you don’t want to be in that situation. You want to be in a situation where you’re breezing through it, you’ve got an extra 15 minutes to go back.

How to use basic English skills to improve your speaking

Steve: This is not sort of a method that we developed. It was actually developed in the States, this Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling or something, TPRS. And the idea is that you have the same story told with two different points of view. So, it could be two different people.

First, it’s, you know, Josh did this, and then Josh says, “I did this”. Or it could be a different tense, you know. “I did this yesterday, tomorrow I’m going to”, but it’s all the same verbs, it’s all the same stuff, and so you’re getting it twice. And then we ask questions. He said so you’ll hear the statement, “Josh went to the library”. Then the question is, “Did Josh go to the grocery store? No, Josh didn’t go to the grocery store. He went to the library”. So, the same vocabulary repeats three more times. And you’re getting, you know, question, you’re getting negative, you’re getting all kinds of stuff. And you’re able to focus in on structure and on verbs because the content, by the time you listen to it 10 times, you know the content, but it’s just very good training.

So, it’s not only a great place to start, it’s great for intermediate learners, but even for advanced learners who don’t speak well, maybe who understand well, but don’t speak well, it’s a great place to train. And verbs are very important. I’m sure you’ve had that experience. If you want to talk about something, you need, you know, “want”, “need”, “go”, “come”, “hope”, these are all the kinds of verbs that you have. “I think”, you know, and basic structures like “or even”, “in my opinion”, “on the other hand”, “although”, these all come up all the time. So, those are the mini-stories.

How to prepare for the TOEFL® or TOEIC® with TED talks

Steve: What I would do, first of all, TED Talks is a tremendous resource because once you’re on one TED Talks on YouTube, they’re going to recommend a whole bunch more TED Talks on related subjects. So, a big struggle I always have as a language learner learning less popular languages is the amount of time I have to put into trying to find content.

People who are learning English are so fortunate because there’s so much stuff out there right now. Now, with the TED Talks, again, what I would recommend is that if the person is linked in LingQ, then use our browser extension to import that whole TED Talks into LingQ. TED Talks has a number of things that are very good. The subtitles are good because, actually manually inserted subtitles, they’re not automatically generated, so they’re very reliable. Second of all, TED Talks comes into LingQ timestamped, so we have a function of at LingQ which is sentence view. So, you can go through that whole TED Talks sentence by sentence, have the sentence sitting there in front of you. If there are words you don’t know or you want to review again, or phrases that you think are important, that you want to use, you save them and you analyze it in that sentence. You can then hear the audio, the natural audio, not text-to-speech, the natural audio for that sentence. And you go through, the TED Talks is 20 minutes long, it might take you half an hour or longer to go through sentence by sentence, but you can hear each sentence. And I would do that because I would think for the average learner there’s going to be words and phrases in that TED Talks that they don’t understand or that they would like to be able to use.

And so, I would go through it once, mining it so to speak for words and phrases which then become flashcards in our system, which become, you know, highlighted in different colors in our system. But then, I go away and I listen to the TED Talks without the text. And of course, my comprehension goes down, which is fine, you know, and then read it again. And then listen to it again. I wouldn’t listen to the same TED Talks more than three times. Because when you’re at the early stages, like with the mini-stores, you can listen 20-30 times, but when you’re that advanced, you have to maintain that level of interest.

So, once you’ve kind of got a sense of what that TED Talks is about, you should push yourself to the next TED Talks. So, I would do each of them about two or three times. The words and phrases in there that you want, they’ll show up again, they’re in your database. You needn’t worry about that. If they show up in another TED Talks, they’ll be highlighted for you already. This is something you’ve seen before, this phrase. And in any case, you can review them in your LingQs, as we call it. So, that’s what I would do. I would go, I would, if I were preparing for a TOEIC and it was important to me, I would go through 10 or 20 TED Talks, and listen to them in your car, listen to them on the train, listen to them wherever you are. And then, every so often go in there and look for the things that you didn’t quite get, that you didn’t quite understand. And I would do them sentence by sentence.

How to stay motivated at an advanced English level

Steve: Well, I can tell you what I feel. So when I started LingQ, all the words are unknown to me. Now, if I’m starting a language, say Portuguese, where probably a lot of the words I will know what they are, even if I’m new to the language because it’s similar to Spanish or French or whatever. But, if a Japanese person who has been studying English goes on to LingQ, the system LingQ considers all these words unknown because it’s the first time that that learner is on a lesson. But in fact, that learner will read a lesson and know if there are 600 words in the lesson, they may know 550 of the words or 580 of the words. So, what happens then is when he’s finished that lesson, or she, then the system says, “Okay, these are now 500 words that you have learned”.

When they bring in another lesson, which could be a TED Talks, now that second lesson will be sort of, there’ll be white, in other words, known words sort of scattered throughout it as well as yellow words. Yellow words are words that you have saved, words that you looked up in the online dictionary, you’ve saved them. And so, as you progress in the system, you see fewer and fewer blue words, more and more yellow words, more and more white words. And we also tell you the percentage of new words. So, when I start to see that I’m bringing a newspaper article in from or something, from the Al Jazeera website in Arabic, and there is only 10 percent of new words for me whereas it used to be 40 percent new words, I know that I’m making progress. And when I see that I have 20, 000 known words in Arabic, I know that I didn’t have 20, 000 words, known words a year ago, so I am making progress. And I know that it’s easier for me now to read those articles and to listen to them and understand them.

So, we have statistics that track, and you can track right back to the beginning, month by month what you were doing, and you see that the sort of cumulative, you know, increase of known words, a number of hours of listening from month to month. So, you’re able to track your level of activity, the number of words you’ve read, the number of words you’ve saved, the number of words you have moved to known because, in the system, you might see a yellow word, three, four, five, seven times, and now you, I know, it moves to known. So, these statistics give you a sense that you are improving. Because what you said is quite correct.

When we start in a new language, I often call this the upside-down hockey stick. So, you know, at an early stage, you go up quite steeply, and you have a sense of achievement and you can say a few things, and you think, “Wow, look at me”, but in fact, the road from there to genuine fluency is a long long long road. And so, in order to give yourself that sense that you are in fact improving, you have more and more known words, in fact, you do understand more. The more you understand, the better you can speak. So, if you get more opportunity to speak, you will be activating more and more of that passive knowledge.

So, what we do at LingQ, at any rate, is we track the sort of statistical, you know, evolution of the learner. That’s not always, sometimes the person may still feel frustrated, but at least you can say, “I did this, I did this. This month I did, I listened so many hours”. So, I think part of it in language learning is to say, “As long as I’m active, if I spend the time, I’m going to improve”. The brain improves. We have to trust the brain. If I give my brain enough exposure to say English, I will improve. So, if I see that I’m putting all this time which LingQ tracks and I’m accumulating all these words, I am getting better.

How reading helps you speak English at an advanced level

Steve: Well, first of all, when I was correcting people in English, especially Japanese people, they don’t so much make grammatical mistakes as they don’t use the words correctly. They don’t use words with each other that belong with each other. And I still think that lots of listening and reading gives you a better sense of which words belong with which words. And I have seen many Japanese people who say, “I can, you know, I understand, I have good comprehension”, but they haven’t listened enough and read enough to the point where the natural phrasing, the words that belong together, are second nature to them. So, I still think they have to continue with the listening and reading activity. However, to speak well you have to speak a lot.

Like, if a Japanese person went to the US or Canada, or England and had nothing but English-speaking friends and if they went into that experience with a solid base in comprehension, so that they could go out with four or five native English speakers and everybody’s talking a mile a minute in five different directions, and they totally understand that, you know, conversation. And they speak in the first couple of nights, they’re struggling, and they’re afraid to say something because they think they can’t speak fast enough to really participate, and they work their way through that. But within a couple of weeks, they do they’d be speaking very very well.

So, I always say that, eventually, you have to speak a lot, but you need a good level of comprehension. And because you can’t go out with people and keep on saying, “I beg your pardon”, you know, “Sorry, what did you say there?” You’ll feel very uncomfortable. So, I feel that people overestimate their own levels of comprehension, whether it be written or spoken, you know, orally. So, but when they have some confidence in their speaking, then they should speak more. But they should also have this sense that “I have all these words and phrases in me that I want to start to use! So, that it’s almost bursting out of you because you’ve listened so often.

How to practice speaking English with a teacher

Steve: With speaking, what I do is I go one-on-one. I’m not a big fan of being, you know, in a class with five other people whose native language is the same as mine. I don’t want to hear those people, I only want to deal with the native speaker, okay, sorry. So, it’s one-on-one, online and I asked my tutor, first of all, I want my tutor to be very good at keeping me going, so I don’t have to think about what to talk about, the tutor will. And I have this excellent tutor in Iran, and I have an excellent tutor in Cairo.

She in Iran is a lady and the guy in Cairo is a guy, but they’re both excellent. I don’t have to worry that we’re not gonna be able to fill out the hour. They keep me going, and I enjoy meeting with them. And we talk about all kinds of things. And at the end of the hour, they’ll write up a list of about 15 words and phrases, or more, that I didn’t use correctly, that I struggled with, that I couldn’t remember, that I got wrong. They send me that and record it. And so, I have a record of every lesson, every conversation that I’ve had, could go back six months. I find that I make the same mistake week after week by the way. So, anybody who thinks they get corrected once and then they fixed it, that’s not the case, but, through this, through listening to it, through engaging with them slowly, I improve.

How teachers should correct students

Steve: See, I feel that most of our mistakes we’re going to correct ourselves. We have to get comfortable speaking. So, I feel rightly or wrongly that my tutor enjoys talking with me. So, I enjoy talking with my tutor. If my tutor interrupts me every sentence, then all of a sudden, my tutor obviously doesn’t enjoy talking with me, she or he is just correcting me all the time. I consider them my friends, we’re talking.

And I’ve had the experience when I was a tutor and I’d correct someone in the mid, in midstream. It had no effect on them, I mean they continued to make the same mistake. So, I would rather, they don’t even correct me, like at the end I get the list here and I can remember our conversation. I can remember two months later on as I go through this list roughly what we were talking about. And these are, this is the correct structure, this is the correct phrase, this is the word that belongs here, and that gradually. And the keyword in language learning is gradual. There’s no instant fix. There is no instant fix. You gradually get better at using the words. You get better in terms of vocabulary, in terms of speaking accurately, using words accurately. I think correcting someone in midstream is a bad idea.

How many TOEFL® or TOEIC® tests you should have

Steve: You know, I haven’t personally taken TOEIC, I’ve looked at the test. Obviously, you have to have some understanding of what the test consists of. But I think there’s a rapid sort of diminishing returns in going through sample after sample, after sample. Because what you get, you’re sampling what? You’re sampling the language. So, you’re better off to invest that time in allowing your brain to get used to the language so that your overall skill increases.

If you’ve done three sample tests, in my opinion, you’re okay. Yeah, in fact, I think the Japanese model of everyone taking TOEIC tests every year is not, is not a good way to spend your time. That’s why Japan has such low scores. Like in other countries, they take the TOEIC test at the end of several years of studying like this, “Where do I sit? Where’s my level?”. Whereas in Japan it’s kind of like, it’s like part of their learning process. And so they start off getting low scores and gradually get higher and higher scores.

I personally would rather, if I were doing it, I would say, “I want to get my, on a LingQ basis, I want to get my known words total up to 50, 000 words. 50, 000 words”, and then I’ll go in there and I’ll get 750 or 800.

You can learn more about Steve Kaufmann and his site Lingq here.

If you are short on time and need to earn your TOEFL iBT® test score as quickly and easily as possible check out our Emergency Course for the TOEFL iBT®, designed for students in a hurry who want to maximize their score.

But what do you think? Do you agree with Steve that it is better to spend most of your time reading, listening, speaking, and watching material you enjoy in your target language? Or do you feel it is better to use test preparation materials?

Let us know in the comments below.


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