Getting Away from SRS (Spaced-Repition) For Vocabulary Learning

Ok. I admit it. I have a problem.

I use spaced-repition software (flashcard software) way too much when studying Chinese.

And, I always have. Ever since I started learning Chinese.

I wasted way too much time on Memrise, Anki, Skitter, Pleco Flashcards, the flashcard/testing feature on FluentU and even the Remember the Hanzi flashcard site.

Way too much time. Much of it useless.

Countless hours. Hours I’ll never get back.

I first fell in love with the notion of spaced repetition software back when I first heard about Memrise before I moved to Japan a little over 3 years ago. I used the Memrise site – basically just a website to aid with mnemonics and spaced repetition – to learn Japanese kana (both hiragana and katakana) in a little under 3 hours.

It felt like a god-send. I never would’ve learned two new alphabets that fast with out it.

I did pretty good then though, at least with that “deck”, or set, of “flashcards”. After I initially “learned” the two kana alphabets, I never reviewed that deck again. I didn’t have too. Kana was everywhere in Japan – I could reinforce it by reading menus at coffee shops, reading Dragonball Z manga, or anytime I looked up, or studied a new Japanese word or vocabulary list.

That was a good use of spaced-reption. I used it to be more efficient, and then no longer used it when it was no longer efficient. That was good. That time. For that set of cards. That “deck”.

After that, I wasn’t so good. And that’s when the inefficiency started. The countless hours of lost time.

I poured through the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) vocabulary list on Memrise until I “planted all the plants”. When I wanted to move more into grammar and sentences, I actually wound up abandoning Memrise for Anki – which was more customizable in what you could do and test yourself on.

When I decided to move to Taiwan and began studying Mandarin in Aug of 2013. I started with Anki, and Anki flashcard decks in Chinese.

Then, I switched to Pleco, then to FluentU, then I read Remember the Hanzi (RTH) and used a website that was an SRS system built for helping you remember your RTH stories/characters. Then, I switched to Skitter.

Then, most-recently, after about a month of being back in Taiwan I realized something. (I came back to Taiwan in November 2015, after being gone for over a year and a half)

I had a deck of cards in there, in Pleco, from the last time I was in Taiwan. A deck of cards I had built from words I came across back then. I looked through that deck and 1.) realized I didn’t know most of those words, and 2.) couldn’t even think of what context I’d come across them in, and couldn’t even think of what context they would even be useful.

So, I just deleted that deck. “If they are useful words, I’ll come across them again.” I thought.

A smart move. A step in the right direction.

The next step in the right direction was the next thought process. “Should I move the card decks I currently have in Skitter over to Pleco? (from Remember the Hanzi, recent ChinesePod lessons, etc.)?” “No, if I need those words, they will surely come up again in my studies.”

But, you know what they say: two steps forward, three steps back.

And, before you know it, I was reaching a point where I had 400+ vocabulary reviews a day again.

And I was saying things to myself like “Alright, I’m going to listen to this new ChinesePod lesson, right after I get these reviews out of the way.”

Only I would go through the reviews – and get a substantially large percentage of words wrong!

That’s not how SRS is supposed to work. You shouldn’t be getting 50% of your words wrong. Some words were just not sticking. Why? I started to dig deeper.

Luckily, I was putting words into different categories based on where I came across them. And, one thing was noticeably clear: words I learned from my girlfriend and her mom were sticking. I learned those words quickly, and tended to know them better when they came up in reviews. Words from other sources (reading material, ChinesePod lessons, even sessions with iTalki teachers) – not so much. Some of the words were sticking – but a lot of them weren’t.

Why is this? The biggest difference is that the words that were sticking were the words that were useful. Ie: they were the words I actually used after learning them. Because, they were words I actually learned. Words I learned in context, understand how to use in context, and then later actually used in similar context.

Other words weren’t. They were just words. Words from a list. A list my iTalki teacher gave me at the end of a session. Or a list of words from a chapter in a book. Even, if I was a list I made myself. It’s still just a list. And, a list is a devoid of a real context.

A vocabulary list is not a language.

So these lists were quickly becoming similar to the old list I found in Pleco, from two years ago. Lists of words, where I couldn’t even remember the context in which I added the words.

So, then, I abandoned SRS. For two weeks. I still studied Chinese, still spoke Chinese everyday, still did iTalki lessons, still (tried to) read the newspaper. I even still looked up words in Pleco and added them to lists.

I just didn’t study the lists. I didn’t do any flashcard reviews.

And what happened? I forgot everything and my Chinese atrophied to nothingness.

No, not really. Not much happened. My Chinese actually still probably improved. I still learned new words. Remembered some of them, even.

All that really happened was there was a couple of times, maybe three, maybe four. Four times, max, in two weeks, where I heard a word or came across a word in context where I felt like I know that word, but can’t remember what it is. Maybe if I had reviewed my flashcards I would’ve known those three or four words better.

Maybe not. Maybe I still would’ve struggled with them. It’s a toss up, really.

So, I’m getting off of SRS. Getting away from it, really.

Not entirely. It still has it’s use. One particular use case I’ve found, is to review words before and after a session. For example, I’ve noticed that if a review the vocab from a ChinesePod lesson, before listening to the lesson – I’m able to follow along with that whole particularly ChinesePod lesson much better than if I don’t.

So, yeah, SRS is useful in small limited doses.

But, SRS is not language learning.

(Also, see Hacking Chinese’s great post on this: If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong)

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.

No More Goals

I Quit: No More Goals

Brighton UK

Take life one day at a time…

I used to always be in a rush.

I had to graduate college in 4 years (I even picked a major I didn’t care about and went to Summer school a bit to make that happen), I had to put out a CD by X date, I had to be a profitable trader within 6 months, I had to go to a 1 year MBA program – because 2 years was just way to long, and I had to go NOW, I couldn’t put it off for another year.. I wanted to be a millionaire by 30, etc, etc. All of these time constraints and goals on everything…

We’re told growing up, or at least led to believe, that you grow up, you turn 18, go to college, graduate in 4 years and then get a job… and then you’re done. You’re grown up now. Or maybe, it’s get a spouse, a house, a few kids… now you’re done.. now you’re grown. Like that’s a goal… we just want to grow up, in a race to grow up before X date….

Why though? Does growth stop at 18? at 25? No? Maybe at 30?

My thinking has slowly started to evolve on this. When we’re young, we look forward to these ages 18, 30, like everything stops at that point. We can’t see past that. But, really there is no rush.

I started to realize this when I would meet with professionals in Singapore, people who had lived all around the world, in the midsts of their careers, marketing managers and MDs, CEOs, and managing partners at consulting firms, and they would give me career advice, they would tell me: “Your career is a long road. You’re still young, you have plenty of time to make mistakes…” Man, what are you talking about? I’m still young? You don’t even know how old I am! I was 26 then. I thought I was old. I wasn’t some 22 year old college grad any more…

Or maybe its some of the books I’ve read lately that have changed my thinking and long-term perspective: Radical Honesty: “everything is futile”; George Valiant’s work around adult development and the Harvard Grant studies: “Why is it we know so much about childhood development, but hardly anything about adult development? Does development stop once you hit adulthood?” The answer is a resounding “NO” by the way; Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You to Be Rich: short-term saving plans, long-term investing, “just get started”, what you do doesn’t matter so much, 85% of it is just getting started.

But… really I think it was the last 8.5 months I spent in Taiwan: where I started to really take studying Chinese and training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu seriously. And, I had to give up goals, because I couldn’t see them. It was just too far out, too impossible to predict. In order to take these things seriously, you just have to imbed them into your life, make them a part of your everyday. What am I supposed to say? “I’m going to be fluent in X amount of months/years”? But actually what does “fluency” even mean? I’m fluent in English and I’m currently in the UK and I don’t understand what the British are talking about approximately 20-30% of the time. And, once you reach “fluency”, then what? You stop with Chinese? Because, you’re done? Or, for BJJ “I’m going to be a blackbelt in X number of years” Man, who can predict that? It may take 7 years, it might take 20. What if you get an injury?  What does it even matter? Oh, and when you get a blackbelt, then what? That’s the goal. Now you’re done, you can stop training. Plus, when you start to take up these long endeavours like BJJ or Mandarin Chinese, you realize this whole “I’m going achieve X by date Y” is so laughable that only complete newbs really say things like this.

I’m trying to wean myself away from goals.

Not just in BJJ or Mandarin, but in everything: career, finances,…. Life.

But, that doesn’t mean I’m not still working at all of them everyday.

You get better at something through constant work, constant reassessment, constant refocus.

In fact, I’m probably working more at all of it now, because I’m learning to enjoy and experience the pursuit and process. Not chasing some end goal.

Pursuit and process.

“Goals are for losers.” – Scott Adams


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.


Watch Me Rap In Chinese


— Note: If you just want to watch the video of me rapping in Chinese, scroll to the bottom —

I tried to start studying Mandarin similar to the way I learned Japanese.

I downloaded some Anki decks and started to studying them. Then, I quickly realized this wasn’t going to work.

Or I was going to go crazy.

See, with Japanese – I just studied the most commonly used 1,000 or 1,500 words in the language, skimmed through one book on grammar, and then spent a lot of time doing language exchanges, trying to piece together sentences.

You can learn Japanese that way. It’s hard work. But its possible.

Mandarin Chinese?

I’m pretty sure I would’ve gone crazy doing it like that.

I tried it for a couple of weeks – but I quickly realized that wasn’t the way to do things in this language.

This is mainly because the difficulties in the two languages are much different.

The difficulty in speaking Japanese is in its grammar and honorifics. NOT its pronunciation. Japanese pronunciation is fairly easy. The only sound that’s really different from English is their ‘r’ sound.

However, in Mandarin, the difficulty is NOT the grammar. It’s all pronunciation. There’s at least a dozen sounds that don’t exist in English at all. And another dozen that almost sound like English sounds, but are a bit different. Then, there’s tones. Say “ma” a certain way and it means “mother”. Say it in a different tone and its “horse”. Say it in a different tone, and it signifies that you’re asking a question.

There’s five of these tones. And, they change based on the tones around them.

For a quick introduction to Mandarin tones – here just watch this video. It’s hilarious. It’s also spot-on.

Yeah, studying “vocab” in Mandarin is a tough way to get started in the language.

But, then what? What to do, what to do…

I got lucky.

Right when I was just getting started in taking Mandarin seriously, I stumbled upon Idahosa Ness and his Flow Series and Flow Methodology of learning a new language… through rap music.

At first it sounded a bit gimmicky to me. Learning to rap in another language? Why is that beneficial?

But, then I took Idahosa’s free 5-day course on the introduction to flow and I realized he was spot on, and he has science on his side.

See, Idahosa reckons that every language has its own flow: its own rhythm and sounds. As native-speakers of whatever language we start learning first, we internalize the flow and rhythm of it.

And this Flow is key.

It’s why we can listen to song, watch a movie, hear a sentence, etc in our native language and despite regional accent differences, still understand all of it. We know the flow.

This also has implications for any accent we have difficulty understanding – they are usually using a different flow.

Once you’ve really internalized the flow of a language, you can easily add new vocabulary as well. Think about it: do you learn new vocabulary in your native language from reading definitions or from hearing the word used in a sentence?

Yeah, it’s the latter.

So, the flow may be the most important thing to get down in a new language – yet, it’s something most language learners don’t focus on at all. They, like me when I studied Japanese, focus on vocabulary and grammar.

But, vocabulary and grammar come natural to native speakers. Or at least it seems so.

And, the idea behind this whole flow thing it that once you’ve really internalized the flow of a new language you don’t need to study vocabulary or grammar – you can add those things in naturally through the proper flow.

Look, here’s a video to try to show you what I’m talking about: what English sounds like to non-native speakers. Check out this video, it’s pretty funny. It’s gibberish spoken in the flow of English – in that sense it’s almost intelligible to English speakers.

Actually, here’s another good example from Russell Peters – he’s pretty good at getting the flow of other languages down and it works well in his act.

And, this flow stuff is especially important in Chinese. Where if your tones are incorrect, you’re unintelligible.

This has implications across languages really. Where the age-old adage holds: you don’t learn a language from a textbook, you learn it from actually speaking it.

With his flow series, courses Idahosa aims to teach the flow of a language through music, first you learn the new sounds, then you learn the tones, then you learn some songs in order to put it all together and add the rhythm of the language in.

It’s more like dancing, and less about memorization and cramming for an exam.

For the record, this isn’t easy – have you ever tried to learn to dance? Or even just watched something like Dancing with the Stars?

Then, you know what kind of work is involved in learning entirely new rhythms and being able to perform then fluidly.

That’s what language is.

It’s more like dancing, and less about memorization and cramming for an exam. Well, at least it should be anyway.

Like Idahosa says himself (here, where he raps in 8 languages):

“if language is sound, and sound is music, well that must mean that music is language.”

So, I gave it a shot. Memorizing a 16 bar rap verse in English is a piece of cake… especially compared to what it took to memorize this: a 16 bar rap verse in Mandarin.

Weeks and weeks of Idahosa hammering me on my tones. Lots of re-dos and what-the-fucks.

It’s anything but easy…. but here it is: me rapping in Mandarin Chinese.

(For the record, the song is Beijing Wanbao 北京晚报 by Yin san er 阴三儿)

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.



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The Importance of Frustration

I think one of these days I’m going to rip somebody’s head off.

I’m back in Japan and meeting with people speaking Japanese, trying to practice my Japanese some more, etc. I still fail.

One day I’ll have a really good conversation that lasts about an hour and I’ll be really proud of myself because I understood almost everything and the conversation flowed well. I’m speaking in Japanese!

The next day, I’ll be having a conversation and then I’ll realize that I have no idea what this person is talking about. The last 3-4 sentences they said absolutely didn’t register at all. Now I’m completely lost. Now I’m getting frustrated. Now I’m getting mad at myself. And, now I’m tuning out even more. I look at them, their lips are still moving, they’re still speaking Japanese, but I’m not catching any of it.

“Fuck this. I’m going home.” I think to myself. “I’ll never speak Japanese. This shit is too hard. It makes no sense.”

And, that’s it. Once I’m frustrated I zone out.

I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish I didn’t get frustrated. But I do, I’m human.

But, the truth is…

Frustration is part of the learning process.

In Josh Kaufman’s  book: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast! in the chapter on learning programming he mentions:

 “If you can avoid the impulse to throw your computer across the room, the instant feedback can make programming quite addictive.”

The thing is: the impulse to throw your computer across the room while learning programming is very real.

As is saying to yourself, “Fuck this language. I’m going home.” when you are learning a new language.

It’s part of the human experience. Nobody is harder on us than we are on ourselves. But we’re never hard like this on others. In others we see the progress. If you have a child, or a friend, or you’ve ever been a tutor or a teacher, you know what I’m talking about.

Back when I used to tutor people in math I’d always see it. The student would be getting it, they’d be getting it… and then, they’d come to a new problem, a little more complex.. they’d almost have it figured out and then… BAM! the pencil slams down on the desk. “I’m just not good at math! I’m not made for math! My daddy wasn’t good at math! I’m not good at math! That’s just how it is!” I think I just lost him.

We don’t like experiencing difficulties.

Why can’t this just be like the Matrix? Why can’t I just plug something into the back of my head and learn Kung-Fu instantly?

Man, that’d be awesome.

But that’s not reality . Reality takes work.

Reality takes frustration. A few computers thrown across the room.

Stay away from me while I’m learning. I might rip your head off.




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