Being Excited about Textbooks & Dictionaries (And, a Run-down of the Resources I Use to Study Chinese)

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But, you know something has changed in life when you are excited about new textbooks and dictionaries coming out. Seriously.

I’m excited about the new, updated edition of the Routledge: Comprehensive Chinese Grammar, which just came out in a few months ago – in October. I recently ordered it, just waiting on it to show up in the mail. I’m also super excited about the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters coming out in May this year. These guys raised over $90k on Kickstarter last year. I’ve pre-ordered mine already.

That said, I thought I’d give a quick run-down of everything I use (or have used) to study Mandarin.

What I use now, on an almost daily basis:


    • Pleco – mobile app. Pleco is probably my number one/ go-to Chinese app. On the surface its a Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary, or really a dictionary portal, where you can add various other supported dictionaries to it (and search multiple dictionaries at once). It has many good free dictionaries, but also several paid add-on dictionaries as well. (Soon to be including the Outlier Dictionary mentioned above, coming in May) It also has a lot of add-ons, some free and some paid, including a pretty comprehensive and customizable flashcard section, an OCR image reader, document and web reader, male and female audio pronunciation, etc. It’s just a great resource for looking up new vocabulary very quickly. I recently made the Taiwan Ministry of Education dictionary my main dictionary on Pleco, which is actually a Chinese-Chinese dictionary. I did this both get away from Chinese-English dictionaries a bit and delve more into Chinese definitions for Chinese words, but also because I trust the Taiwan Ministry of Eduction more on characters, tones, and word choice when it comes to usage in Taiwan than I do some of the other dictionaries which may tend to favor Mainland China usage (There are some noticeable variations here – think British English vs. American English).


    • ChinesePod – I’ve used ChinesePod before, but I’ve ramped up my ChinesePod usage this time since being back in Taiwan. This is mainly due to a recommendation from my friend Sia – who recommends ChinesePod heavily both on his website and in his book. It’s about $30 a month for full access, but it’s worth it, especially if you can find the time to listen to it everyday. I mainly use the mobile app – which allows you to quickly and easily listen to all of the lessons. Every lesson centers around one short conversation in Mandarin, and then a much longer explanation of the words, grammar, and usage in that conversation. For the first three levels (Newbie, Elementary, and Intermediate) these explanations are mainly in English, with more an more Mandarin being used as you move up in level. By the time you get to Upper Intermediate, the explanations are almost all in Mandarin.


    • iTalki – iTalki is my favorite resource for easily finding one-on-one language tutors. The site also has a language exchange partner section – but I don’t really use it for that. I use it only for the paid teachers (basically I just don’t feel like teaching English, in exchange for someone teaching me Mandarin – I’d rather just pay money and only speak in Mandarin). All of the lesson from iTalki teachers are done over Skype – so I can wake up and have a Chinese class while I’m still in my pajamas. You just can’t beat that kind of convenience. The biggest downside for me is there aren’t really any full-time Taiwanese teachers on the site, so I have to use Mainland China-based teachers and then double-check all the new vocabulary I learned afterwards with Taiwanese friends to see if that word is actually used in Taiwan, or used in the same way. This could actually be a positive though, as I’m getting a deeper understanding of the language, by getting better glimpse at usage and differences on both sides of the Straight. I also use iTalki for the journal feature – where I can write a journal entry in Mandarin and native speakers can help me by correcting my grammar and word usage.


  • HelloTalk – HelloTalk is an mobile app for finding language exchange partners. I like it because it seems to have a lot of Taiwanese users, so its a good resource for quickly picking up new and useful vocabulary that is actually in common usage. But, mainly I just like the features around the app – you easily translate words or convert characters to Pinyin, and you can easily correct your language partner’s sentences. Mainly because of this sentence correction feature, my girlfriend (who is a native-Mandarin speaker) and I have actually moved to using HelloTalk as our main messaging app (instead of Facebook Messenger, LINE, or WhatsApp), because I can easily correct her English words/grammar and she can easily correct my Mandarin words/grammar right there in the app and doing so doesn’t impede on the conversation at all.

Other resources I use occasionally, or have used before:

Video-based material:


  • FluentU – I’ve always been a big fan of FluentU and the concept behind it. They use Youtube videos in the native language to teach you the language – this starts with commercials mainly at the lower levels, some segments from shows aimed at children like Sesame Streets, and then moves up to music videos and later into News programs and TED talks. Great idea. And, great resource. I used to really use it heavily – and still remember a lot a words and phrases because of it. I don’t use it so much anymore, mainly just because I do a lot of my Chinese studying on the go now (on my mobile) – they have a mobile app and it works well – but, honestly, because their platform is based around streaming YouTube videos, it’s really just a battery killer for me. This is also because I have a really old phone. I plan to upgrade to a newer phone soon and when I do so, I hope to be able take another look at the FluentU app and use it more. The other downside to FluentU for me is that they built their platform using simplified characters first, and then somehow converted to traditional for the users who would rather use traditional characters. Because of this, there a lot of errors in the traditional character set. They are good about responding and fixing these errors when you point them out, and I’ve personally helped them fix dozens of them already, but it still is a downside knowing that the traditional character set is not to be trusted and any new word learned must be double-checked using other resources.


Spaced-repition Flashcard programs and apps:


    • Anki – Anki is the popular open-source space repetition flashcard program. I used it initially when I first got to Taiwan. SRS has its uses in language learning – but I’ll get to that more in another post. Anki is great for what it is, but personally I prefer Pleco’s built-in SRS flashcard system more, just because of the easy integration with searching the Pleco dictionary.


    • Skritter – Skritter is another popular spaced-repition app that I’ve used on and off again over the past couple of years. It focuses on writing Chinese characters particularly, but also has modes for testing for character recognition, definition, and tones as well. I like it, because it really just feels like a game when you use it – they’ve really kind of gamified the writing character experience. It’s also nice because it has a lot of useful vocabulary decks already available – including decks for all of the ChinesePod lessons if you have ChinesePod account. I don’t use it currently, because I’m both pushing myself to get away from SRS and flashcard systems and also because its fairly steep at $14.99 a month, especially if you are not focused on learning to write characters at the moment.


  • Memrise – Memrise was really my first love when it came to spaced-repition programs. I used it very heavily when I studied Japanese a few years ago. I like it because it combines a game-experience with spaced-repition with mnemonics – and the idea behind it is really heavily on the mnemonics, such that you can use mnemonics created by other users to help you remember things. I used it heavily when I studied Japanese – but with Chinese I really only used it to learn Bopomofo, as I never really liked any of the Chinese vocabulary lists that are already on the platform.



AV Chinese.jpg

    • Practical Audio Visual Chinese series This is a five-part textbook series for learning Mandarin used heavily in Taiwan. I went through the first two books in the series with a Chinese tutor a couple of years ago. It was a good foundation. After that, I tried to go through book 3 on my own, but quickly got bored of slogging through a textbook on my own and didn’t get very far. I would recommend the first two books for the basics – they do a great job at introducing basic important vocabulary and grammar. But, after that, I’m not neccassirly sure going through all 5 books is worth the time and investment of slogging through a textbook series.


  • Remembering the Traditional Hanzi – This is a method of learning Chinese characters, originally introduced by James Heisig for learning Japanese actually, and the Remembering the Kanji books are very popular amongst Japanese students. I of course, first heard about the books when I studied Japanese. The Mandarin version is a two-part series, with book one meant to introduce the most common 1,500 characters and book 2 meant to get you up to 3,000. I made it through book 1 and the first couple of chapters of book 2 a couple of years ago (while using Skitter to supplement). It’s a decent system for what it is – but is has its limitations. For one, the focus is around mapping the characters to an English keyword to understand their meaning. Personally though, as I know more about Chinese and how the language works, I’m actually against this approach. Yes, it may be useful for creating mnemonics and some memorization, but it actually overlooks sound components totally and misses out on a lot of the logic already built-in to the Chinese language by forcing these sometimes rather obscure English keywords onto them. Personally, if you’re looking to get into learning Characters – I’d recommend holding out until May for the Outlier dictionary mentioned above. I think that will ultimately prove to be the much better system.


Learning Tones


  • The Mimic Method: The Flow of Mandarin – tones are best learned through hearing and mimicking native speakers. Idahosa’s Mimic Method course covers all of the ones and all of the sounds in Mandarin and gives a great solid introduction to the flow of the Mandarin language. Coupled with one-on-one feedback and always focusing on the sounds and tones giving you the most trouble: one of the best things I probably ever did for my Mandarin was starting with this course first when I got to Taiwan back in 2013.



That’s pretty much all of the resources I use or have used for learning Chinese. I’m still looking for a good resource for reading native material (i.e.: not a textbook), and I’m currently experimenting with reading books by English authors translated into Chinese, and reading both the Chinese book and the English book at the same time. Let me know if you know of anything good for reading Chinese material – preferably something mobile based. If I don’t find anything I like, I may just be forced to create a new app myself.

Being Busy, Daily Practice, and 750 Words

Sometimes I get “so busy” that I forget my own personal goals or habits. I’ll look back and realize I haven’t read a book in months, or I haven’t been to the gym in a couple of weeks.

For me, my personal goals are simple and straight forward, its really the habits I want to build and foster, which there are really 4:

1. Read everyday 
(Always be reading a book. I’m trying to mix in more fiction – I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, ie: authors like Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis)

2. Write everyday
(I try to have a goal to write ‘Morning Pages’ every morning. 3 pages, stream of consciousness, popularized by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way. But, I don’t always do it.)

3. Exercise 
(Mainly Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, with occasional yoga to supplement BJJ for flexibility and injuries)

4. Study something
(Whether it’s Mandarin Chinese, coding Python or Swift, or just some random history or philosophy class from HarvardX, I try to always have one skill or something to be working on)

On the writing goal, I just recently found out about this website called 750words. Apparently 750 words = 3 pages. So, it’s just an environment to actually do the ‘Morning Pages’ in. I tried it this morning. What’s cool about is the stats it gives you about your writing as soon as your finished.

It only took me 12 minutes. I really should do this more often.

Prioritize Your Fears

I remember a long time ago when I started my record label and started selling CDs. One of the first things my “mentor” at the time told me was:

Just go out there and talk to people, it’s the only way you’re going to get sales. You can’t be scared of the word “no”.

He used to say that all of the time:

You can’t be scared of the word “no”.

It hit home with me, and I excelled. I had no worries about approaching people to make sales and therefore, I sold a lot. I outsold all of my peers, my teammates, and when I looked around at them, they just weren’t doing it – they weren’t talking to people. They made excuses.

They’re scared of the word “no”.

Is what my mentor said about them. Maybe it was true.

I never understood why, or what they were scared of, why they didn’t just do it.

When I was in China, I saw something similar with learning Chinese. I was studying ad-hoc, downloading Chinese character apps, talking to random Chinese girls I met in the street and really just trying to pick up as much of the language as I could…. for free.

I knew another Westerner who was in town. She was paying a shit ton of money for a private tutor to learn Chinese. She was learning “all the right things”, but I never heard her.

I never heard her speak the language. Not once. I know she had a private tutor and went to lessons everyday. But she wouldn’t speak the language. Not in front of me anyway.

We would go somewhere – even in the taxi cab, I would look at her and say, “”tell them where we’re going.”

She’d look at me with fear in her eyes, “Nooo!” she’d say, “you tell them.”

So I would. In my butchering awful Chinese I would tell them. Sometimes the taxicab drivers would laugh at me and repeat what I said laughing hysterically. Then guess what they would do?

They would pronounce it correctly and try to get me to repeat it.

They would help me say it correctly.

They would help me learn.

This motivated me tremendously and I tried speaking Chinese to plenty of more people in China… with similar results. Yes, a lot of times they laughed – but that never bothered me.

Should it? I don’t see why. It’s not my native language and I’d only been looking at it for a few weeks… plus, it’s a language everybody considers to be fairly difficult. The fact that I said things that were funny to native speakers didn’t bother me a bit or make me feel stupid. It actually made me laugh as well, cuz I knew that shit must be funny, especially with my accent.

When I look at it, a lot of people have similar fears. Across platforms. In various fields/interests. If you get past it easily, you look at other people who struggle with it and think “dude, what is wrong with you? Just do it!”

But fears are real and everybody has them. You don’t get through them just through willpower alone. You have to find ways around them, tricks to help you out.. and most importantly you have to prioritize them.

I’ve been studying a lot on focus and energy lately. If there’s something stopping you because of a fear, I honestly think you have to determine how bad you want to overcome it. If you do decide you want to overcome this fear – prioritize it.

Make it your main focus. Your main priority.

Put everything else aside. 

I mean it.

Too many focuses will stretch you thin and you’ll never do it. If it is your main focus, act like it. Make it your only focus for a set period of time and tackle it.

Or don’t, but then don’t be surprised that you never beat it.

no fear

Face the world with NO FEAR…



From Groundhogs Day to Constant Flux; And 2014 Resolutions

In October, I was a robot.

I was focused on building two new habits: training BJJ, and studying Mandarin Chinese. While continuing to read everyday.

I did all three of them… almost everyday in October.

I was settled in Taipei, and I was grinding. Day in. Day out. The same thing.

Every day is the same day

Every day is the same day

Then, November came and everything changed.

November started off with a visa run out of Taipei: one week in Bangkok and one week in Manila.

Quick backstory on Bangkok, because I think it’s funny:

In November 2012, I was in Malaysia with plans to head up to Bangkok by train. I paid for an apartment in Bangkok for two weeks and had everything planned. Then, at the last minute, I cancelled the trip, saying “two weeks in Bangkok isn’t enough. I’ll have to go back there early next year when I can spend more time there.” And, I flew straight to Tokyo. Of course… I never made it to Bangkok in early 2013. Actually, it took a whole year before I finally made it there: November again. 2013. This time, I only spent one week there.

Funny how things change.


Bangkok, November 2013

Anyway, back on topic.

In addition to the two-week trip to start off November, work picked up, and I started an online course at HarvardX on the history of China.

Now, plenty of more things occupied my time.

Needless to say, in the first two weeks of November, I didn’t study Chinese or make it to BJJ at all. (I did still read everyday though – that’s easy to do while traveling)

I even took my gi with me, with plans to hit a BJJ gym in Manila. But, I never made it out there. Too busy.

Funny how things change.

Now, I’ve been back in Taipei for about a month, and I’ve been trying to get back to habits of Mandarin and BJJ daily. The Mandarin I’ve done well with. BJJ has been more difficult, with both the additional work schedule and I’ve encountered a nagging shoulder injury all month. It’s been annoying.

Because, of the shoulder injury, I’ve added a new daily habit into the mix: 10 minutes of Yoga every morning. It’s actually really helped my nagging shoulder and neck problems. But, I’m still not 100%.

Actually, the Yoga habit was one I started in Tokyo, but fell out of touch with once I moved back to Taipei.

I think its a good one to have, so it’s back in the mix.

Also, I’ve decided to drop reading as a daily habit in favor of studying more Chinese. (i.e.: read Chinese textbooks on the MRT to practice reading Chinese characters, rather than reading books in English).

So, I definitely won’t hit the 30 books in 6 months target.

So, right now the three habits I’m trying to do daily are: Yoga, BJJ, and studying Mandarin.

Add in work and social activities, and my time is well accounted for.

Yet, I’m still trying to do more.

There’s a couple more habits on my radar:

    • I want to beef up my consulting grind a bit, so I need to get on that, and I think the first step to get back into consulting mode is to get back to practicing case interviews: hypothesizing, synthesizing and drilling down on client’s issues in a very timely manner. Therefore, I want to get into the habit of practicing case interviews on a daily basis again. This was a habit I had over a year ago: when I lived in Singapore I would practice cases on Skype everyday until I was good enough to run rings around the Ivy league students, but now, I’m rusty again. So, I need to get back into this habit. I think it’s just something that will help me overall in my business career.


    • In order to take steps to get to the next level in Mandarin, I need to really start doing language exchanges daily. These are troublesome, because they take so much time: generally two hours. One hour to speak English, one hour to speak your target language. But, I did this in Japan and it did wonders for my Japanese conversational ability – a mark I’m still fairly far off in Mandarin. Also, I’ve had more trouble finding good language exchange partners in Taipei, I tend to run into two kinds of language exchange partners: the ones who just want to just teach you random vocabulary words in Mandarin (which is not helpful at all, because a language is so much more than vocabulary) or girls who are just looking for foreign boyfriends and use language exchange as a means to find one. In this respect, I really miss Tokyo – the Japanese took their language exchange efforts seriously.


    • Also, I want to beef up the work out regimen. I would like to get back into the weight room and start to slowly pick up Muy Thai. My ideas for this are to basically start off with a training split of BJJ 6 days a week, Muy Thai 1 (yeah, I said, slowly – and my focus is still much more leaned to BJJ). Also, my goals for the weight room would to just get back to building strength: I wouldn’t do too much here, just a Starting Strength sort of program, focused really around bench press, dead lifts, and squats – maybe 3 days a week.

These habits are just goals right now, and nothing I’m putting much effort to building right away, but rather I’d like to add them in slowly. Maybe, one habit a month? Or something along those lines.

No New Year’s Resolutions or anything like that, because I don’t do such things. I’m more focused on building habits slowly, and changing things and adjusting always and as needed.


Have a good 2014 folks.


On Day One, I Got My Ass Kicked

Not really.

I didn’t really do anything.

But, I didn’t know anything. So, I probably looked awful. Or at least I looked like the guy who didn’t know what he was doing.

But, I don’t care.

It was wonderful.

I quoted Nick on this before – when I wrote my “slapped by reality” post. I’ll drop the exact same quote in again here:

“Our local (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) club had an horrific churn rate as new guys would come in to class and not come back. It was easy to know who would stick around – the unassuming guys who had come to learn. It was equally easy to predict the first day dropouts. They’d be wearing some tough guy clothes, perhaps insisting on wearing a coloured belt they’d picked up in a sports centre grading mill. They’d certainly have a stiff pride about them. Then one of our scrawny blue belts would wipe the mat with them. The ego death was simply too much to take. Their buffer had been overrun and their self-image could not take the real-world evidence that they simply weren’t as tough as they thought they were.”

That’s right. In case you didn’t figure it out yet – I decided to get into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Partly inspired by Nick’s and Masa’s assessments that training BJJ has given them discipline that has carried over into other ventures of their life.

Partly inspired by the inspiration of two of my best friends from my previous career Texas who are both heavily into BJJ nowadays. They’ve both gotten into much better shape than our days of sitting around an office all day and then heading to a happy hour to pound beers.

That applies to me as well. I was quite fat back then. In the worst shape of my life. At the age of 23.

I plan to keep it that way. I’ll never be that overweight again. I never have been since. And I never will be. Ever again.

The age of 23 – most people’s physical peak, is/will be my trough.

Anyway, back on topic.

Adding In New Habits Each Month

Who else inspired me?  Oh yeah, the other bloggers – Niall  has posted a lot about functional fitness : i.e.: being a man and not training for your “figure” or how you look in the mirror, but training for a functional skill set. In that sense – any martial art applies here. Any form of sports training really. Looking good should be a side benefit, not the main focus.

Niall also recently talked about focus, and how his current focus is on business and training (for him it was training Krav Manga while in Hong Kong).

And, Maneesh recently wrote about habits. He talks about building one new habit a month, and reinforcing last month’s habit.

What was my habit in August?  Practicing Mandarin.

If there was one thing I did everyday during the month of August, it was practicing Mandarin. Mostly pronunciation.

Damn tones pairs. Tricky bastards.

So – now what? I’ll follow Maneesh’s idea here. In September, I’ll reinforce last month’s habit – so I’ll continue to practice Mandarin everyday.

And then I’ll add something new.

But what?

Fitness was an easy place to look. I’ve been itching to get back into the gym. I haven’t worked out seriously in quite a long time. I did P90x a bit back when I was living in London, and then in Tokyo – I joined a gym. But, I half-assed it. I didn’t have a solid plan, so I just went to the gym to go.

The last time I really had a solid workout program was when I lived in Boston. And that seems so long ago.

So, when I got back to Taipei, I considered getting back in the gym. I considered joining a gym and getting a personal trainer and getting back on the weights.

Then, I had a change of heart.

Why? Well, I guess partly due to the inspiration of those mentioned above: AJ, David, Nick, Masa and their love of BJJ.

Oh, and I remember another friend of mine back in Texas ranting about how the Gracie’s were the best fighters ever and no other fighting style can beat BJJ and when you look at mixed martial arts, anybody who’s anybody has solid knowledge of at least one good grappling discipline.

There’s also one other big reason for

Choosing Sports Training over Weightlifting.

There’s the social aspect of it.

Training with and against other people – you make friends. It’s a social sport, even though it’s an individual sport. That’s only natural.

I’m a very social person – I ranked as an ENTP last time I took the Myers-Briggs and that E is very telling. I talked to the counselor at UT (where I took the Myers-Briggs) and her notion of extrovert was very important to me and stuck with me, “somebody who gets energy from other people”. When her and I talked about that I recalled when I worked as a trader – a job mostly full of introverts – and I just always had to get up from my computer and walk around and talk to people. Mostly the other extroverts. The same guys mentioned above – who are coincidentally all into BJJ now.

So, I need people in my life. I need social activity. If I were to spend all of my time writing, reading, and working on the internet – I would go insane.

Weightlifting is too easy to do individually. You show up to the gym with headphones in and lift. For that reason, it’s too boring. I have enough individual things going on in my life. I need something that requires constant interaction with other people.

Preferably something besides drinking, which is just too easy to fall into as a main social activity. That winds up being costly: time-wise and money-wise. Health-wise as well. Losing whole days to hangovers sucks. Getting drunk and hooking up with random girls is fun, but I’ve done enough of that in recent years. I need something more productive to focus on.

So, I guess these recollections hit me and I remembered Masa knew of solid place to train here in Taipei, so I hit him up and sent me the info of the gym.

I hit up my boys in Texas too to get their thoughts on BJJ and getting started in it.

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is: Getting Started & Getting Dedicated

I popped over to the gym.

Then came the next day to sit in on a class. The only idiot in the class without a gi.

I bought a 6-month membership.

6 moths? For a couple of reasons:

  1. Well, I’ve decided to settle down and stay in Taipei for at least the next 6 months (this inspired more by my quest to speak Mandarin than anything else. But, also because I quite like it here.)
  2. You get a discount for signing up for 6 months rather than doing month-to-month.
  3. And – the biggest reason is: I’ve been down this road before. Not with BJJ, but with boxing. I got all hype and into boxing and joined a boxing gym. Went 3 times a week for a month – was sore as hell at work everyday the next day. But, then when the month ended, I didn’t renew the membership. Why? “Too expensive” and “I didn’t have the money”. Playing basketball was cheaper. I was going to come back and re-join the boxing gym again when I had the funds to do so. But… I never did.

I’m determined to not make the same mistake with BJJ. This one needs a longer commitment.


Time to Work

The Polyglot Approach to Learning…And, Where I Currently Stand in 14 Languages

The truth of the matter is that actual mastery takes time. Yes, there’s the Anders Ericsson research into 10,000, as discussed before .

But, that’s actual mastery. World class mastery. Of a wide field. All-encompassing in a particular subject. What does that even mean? It’s often too vague for most of us to comprehend. Too far away to set a goal for. Too much to time to keep track of, to stay on task for.

Mastering smaller goals requires much less effort.

But, effort still.

The key being very focused study. Very focused goals.

Sometimes guys like Benny Lewis , Maneesh Sethi , and Tim Ferriss  catch a lot of flack for their whole “learning things quickly” gig.

Yes, it’s true that in order to actually master a particular subject you’ll have to put in years and years of work at it. I don’t really think any of them are denying that. No, instead, I think they’re merely trying to redefine learning, by showing people that you don’t have to absolutely master something in order to enjoy it.

You think we’d know this by now. Most of us aren’t wine connoisseurs, or even whiskey or beer connoisseurs even. Yet, we still tend to enjoy those things. Most of us aren’t even expert dancers or expert golf players, yet we still allow ourselves to enjoy those things.

I can sit here and say, “I know how to play golf” and when I say that nobody expects greatness from me. Nobody expects zero mistakes. Nobody expects that I’ve put in the hours and hours and years and years of hard work to reach PGA-level skill. So, it’s a clear statement. I merely “know how to play golf.” And, it’s perfectly fine to say such, even though I don’t know (and may never know) how to hit a power fade.

Playing Golf with the Deer in New Mexico

Playing Golf with the Deer in New Mexico

Yet, when it comes to things like languages many of us think this way. We tend to think of it as very binary. You either know a language, or you don’t. Michael Erard  calls this the “all or nothing approach” to language learning. Either you know that language, and you’re completely fluent/bilingual/native-like speaker, or you’re not. Knowing “some Spanish” or “some Japanese” is not a good enough goal for most people.

Most of us say things like, “I took Spanish my whole life, but I don’t really know Spanish.” I know. I have said this. But it’s a false statement. I do know Spanish. I know quite a bit of Spanish. I could probably test out of several levels of Spanish if you had me take a test on it. But, I would struggle to have an actual conversation in the language. Why is this?

Well, it has to do with the actual skills that were learned – and you can go back and say it’s a reflection of a poor education system which teaches test taking skills over actual real-life applicable skills. (Which is certainly true.)

Hell, the same is true in Japan. I met plenty of Japanese people with fairly high TOEIC scores yet they struggled to even have a conversation in English. Why it that? There’s a very good reason for it actually. A lot of Japanese companies give bonuses for certain levels on the TOEIC: if you score a 650, you get a $3,000 bonus. So, the Japanese go out, memorize 120 something odd English grammar rules (don’t ask, as a native speaker, I’ve never heard of half of these rules either) and they pass the test. And good for them, they get a $3,000 bonus for doing so. Hell, I’d do it too. Anybody want to pay me $3,000 for taking a test? I’m all ears. Anyway, the truth of the matter is, they’re good at memorizing the grammar rules and taking the tests, but they still struggle with actually speaking English.

Where do we even classify that in the “all or nothing” approach?

Polyglots See Things Differently

Polyglots have redefined what it means to know a language. Benny Lewis calls this “taking language back from the academics.”  I really like that idea – but then again I’m pretty biased here, I already have my pitchfork ready, and would love to see academia burn to the ground.

Michael Erard  calls it the “something and something” approach. And its quite an interesting one – polyglots tend to know exactly where they stand in each language.

I like that idea, so here’s my rundown:

English – Since birth. Native language. Actually, I almost wish this counted for more, as throughout my life experiences and travels, I’ve reached a point where I can understand and perhaps even speak a bit of several different dialects of English, including: Standard American, Southern American, African American, British English, and Australian English. (This of course, it’s not without its confusions. I’ve now had the privilege of writing reports for school and for clients in British English, Australian English, and of course American English. Nowadays I’m pretty confused as to whether words like colour or favourite should have a ‘u’ in them or not; if ‘travelling’ or ‘modelling’ should be spelled with one ‘l’ or two. Good thing I can just switch the default language on my computer from British English to American English and let spell check take care of those things for me!)

Polish – Polish is an interesting one. I almost didn’t put it in here. I’m not even sure how to properly explain it. My mom’s family is essentially Polish-American, and honestly some of the first words in my vocabulary as a child were actually Polish words. Aunts were always “ciocis”, my great-grandmother was “babci” and she spoke nothing but Polish; we sung Polish songs and ate Polish food at every holiday, but that’s basically it. As you can imagine, the actual Polish spoken in the family and the knowledge of the language has dwindled with each generation in our family. By the time we got to my brother and me, it’s really just a few childish words, family member titles, songs, foods, and occasionally crazy stuff our older cousins would teach us at parties.

Polish Food - cooked by me, In London

Polish Food – cooked by me, In London

Spanish – Since the age of 3. Yes, I started learning Spanish in pre-school. Pre-school Spanish isn’t much beyond Feliz Navidad songs, counting to 10, and random body parts (boca, nariz). After preschool Spanish, there was a lifetime of public school Spanish, including acting like complete shits and running the new Spanish teacher off each year (including one who may or may not have been Selena’s killer – certainly looked like Selena’s killer anyway). Because of the new teacher every year thing, the curriculum basically started over every year and we never really got much further in the language. In the midst of all of that, I actually did have one decent year of Spanish in middle school (sandwiched between years and years of awful Spanish classes in elementary and high school) and a couple of decent years in college. I do have a fairly broad knowledge of Spanish and can actually read and understand Spanish fairly well. But outside of drunken Spanish and coarse language, my conversation skills are fairly minimal. Pinche educacion! For the record, my accent is probably fairly decent though (of a Northern Mexican variety, I am from Texas) since I started with Spanish at such a young age, before the brain plasticizes (around age 14) and accents become much harder to influence. So, my accent in Spanish is probably better than I’ll be able to ever achieve in any other language.

German – I once took 5 week course in German back in middle school. The only thing I remember how to say is “Sprechen Sie Deutsch? (Do you speak German?)” Which doesn’t really work too well if you don’t have a follow up to it.

French – Similar to German. I also took a 5 week course in French. I don’t remember anything.

Latin – Similar to German and French. I took 5 week course in middle school. All I remember from it is that I learned that Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar stuck their names into the middle of the months (July, August) and that’s why the number system for the months is completely messed up after June. (Sept=7, Oct=8, Nov=9, Dec=10… yet, these correspond with months 9-12 instead of 7-10.) I think I also learned some other things about prefixes and suffixes that were actually useful in English. Don’t know much beyond that.

Portuguese – Very minimal. A few basic formalities learned off of friends.

Italian – Also very minimal. Same as Portuguese.

Dutch – Similar to Portuguese and Italian, I got some Dutch girls to teach me a few basics once when I was an Amsterdam.

EsperantoInspired by Benny’s blog post , I once spent a weekend cramming Esperanto vocabulary and watched a movie entirely in Esperanto. My Spanish knowledge really helped with picking up Esperanto vocabulary quickly and I probably picked up a few hundred words or so. Not sure if I would understand any of it or even recognize it if I heard it now though.

Mandarin – I first got interested in Mandarin when I moved to Shanghai last year. I did the Pimsleur lessons, flirted with Chinese girls, talked to taxi drivers, and my most impressive feat was successfully bargaining with a shop owner in Mandarin over the price of a hat. When I was in Taiwan earlier this year, I was surprised at how fast my minimal Mandarin came back to me without making any real conscious effort to get it back. The fact that it was stowed away somewhere in brain amazed me.

Bahasa Malay – I lived in Malaysia for 2 months last year (Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur) but I never put much effort into the language. A few basic formalities is all I picked up. Similar to Portuguese, Italian, and Dutch.

Hindi – Similar to Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, and Malay, plus a few “coarse words” I picked up while drinking with friends in Singapore.

Japanese – The first language I really put an intense effort into while living in Tokyo for 5 months. Again though I probably dabbled and bounced around too much: sometimes spending weeks studying vocabulary words, sometimes spending weeks reading or writing, and other times spending weeks hanging out with friends and having conversations in the language. Am at a fairly basic conversational level, and can read and write a bit, but honestly, not much, maybe a few hundred kanji (well short of the 2,000 kanji needed to be “newspaper-literate”). As of right now, I’d rank Japanese as my 2nd best language in speaking ability (behind only English) and 3rd best in terms of reading ability and comprehension (behind both English and Spanish)


My Japanese “textbook”

So… definitely a fan of the “something and something” approach, as I wouldn’t call myself anywhere close to fluent in any of these languages, other than English. But, I enjoy it though. I plan to continue to move forward and I would like to boost my levels in each of these languages.  But, honestly, Spanish and Mandarin intrigue me the most. I would like to reach a very high level in both of these languages someday. I’ve said before that I would like to reach a high level in both of these languages by the time I’m 30. I’m 27 now, so there’s a lot of work cut out for me over the next 3 years. We’ll see if I can get there.

I plan to keep dabbling in other languages as well – in particular Thai, Korean, and Bahasa Indonesian come to mind.



[randomtext category=”Post Sigs”]

Write With Me. Learn With Me.

I’ve decided to invite a few of you all to join me…

If you saw my post last week, you know that I’m now focused on sitting down and writing everyday. This includes doing the following:

  1. Writing 3 pages of uninterrupted thought (The Morning Pages)
  2. Copying out by hand some of my favorite and/or best performing blogposts and articles

The idea for step 1 comes from Julia Cameron who I learned about through Masa Matsumoto when I interviewed him about his life and travels.

The idea for the second step comes from my experience copying ads by hand with Derek Johansen’s CopyHour course. If you want to learn how to write copywriting: advertisements, sales letters, or just interested in internet marketing, email lists, and squeeze pages – I highly recommend you check his course out.

But, if you’re interesting in what I’m doing now – becoming a better writer/blogger, then I’ve decided to share my daily structure though a 30-day email program. It’s free to sign up and allows you to learn along with me. It’s basically just my swipe file of 30 articles and blogposts.

But if you want to practice your writing/blogging and don’t know where to start, then feel free to tag along.

This could also help if you are an English-is-a-2nd language speaker. Since everything included are blogposts and articles it’s basically nonfiction and written in more of a spoken voice. (Rather than the literary prose and long descriptive sentences of fiction writers).

Write with Me

Write with Me

A quick disclaimer though: don’t sign up if you get offended easy.

Most of the swipe file comes from blogs. Some from articles. Almost all authors are good at arguing a point. Some you may not agree with. That’s fine. The point is to learn. Not agree with everything. But, I will say this: almost all of the articles and posts I have included are written from a male voice. Meaning they are mainly male authors and may touch on subjects such as sex or politics from a male point-of-view.

Why? Because I write with a male voice. From a male perspective. So, these are the guys I want to learn from.

So, if your sensibilities get all offended from reading controversial pieces. Or if you get bothered just by hearing names such as Christopher Hitchens or Roosh V, then simple… don’t sign up. Don’t learn with me. The course isn’t for you.

That said…. if you’re still here and you are interested in learning how to crank out well-performing blogposts, or structure well-written arguments, sign up here and join me for the next 30 days.

Join Me 



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