Is there anything more central to connection than communication via language?

I’d like to learn Spanish. And Mandarin. And Cantonese. And Korean (I do live in Seoul, after all), Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, French, and Portuguese. I will die before I reach fluency in all of these, maybe any of these, and I’m not going to beat myself up for failing to be awesome at all of them. However, I can achieve a working knowledge of all of them, and I’m going to start with Spanish.

Sorry, let me back up a bit. I studied Mandarin for three semesters in college, all four aspects of it (and any language): listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Surprisingly, Chinese grammar basics aren’t too unlike English, so that wasn’t too bad and pinyin (the Latin transliteration of Mandarin phonics) was very easy and accurate. However, as you might image, reading and writing was crazy. There’s no other way to learn them than by brute-force memorization. The earliest versions of Chinese writing were more like hieroglyphics and the characters were somewhat reminiscent of what they represented, but Chinese characters became more and more abstract the more words were added to the vocabulary. Each character is essentially a tiny little picture. That you have to memorize. And you have to memorize literally thousands of them (3,000-4,000) just to read a newspaper.

By Mandarin 3, the class had thinned out quite a bit. There were 18 or so of us in Mandarin 1, and by Mandarin 3 (the highest class Missouri University offered), there were only six of us. And it was hard. I’m shocked to look at my transcripts to see my grades for the three semesters were B, B, and A, respectively. This isn’t a humble-brag. The teacher, who was a native Mandarin speaker from Beijing, graded very leniently, and I’d swear under oath I didn’t deserve that A. In the last 28 years, I’ve forgotten 99.9% of what I learned, though I do retain a decent accent, so my pronunciation isn’t terrible (Thank you for your Beijing accent!).

I grew up in California’s Central Valley and frequently heard Spanish spoken and sung around me (Strangely, I loved listening to mariachi on the radio, though I certainly didn’t understand it.). I can hear the sounds of Spanish probably better than any other language besides English, so that will be helpful. In high school, I was a foolish romantic and thought French would be a interesting language to learn. At the time, it was not, and I regret not taking Spanish, which would have been far more practical and I would have been far more motivated to learn it.

I live and work in Seoul, South Korea. I’ve lived here for about 7 years now. Given my past as a long-time enthusiastic, amateur home cook, working in food service, and being a chef for a couple (Asian) restaurants, my Korean food vocabulary is quite good, especially compared to the rest of my Korean, which is limited to some set phrases (“I’m from America.”, “Do you know English?” “I don’t know any/very much Korean.” “How much does it cost?”) which I could probably dissect, but can’t really rearrange into different sentences yet. I love food and food is easily the biggest motivator for me when it comes to learning any language. This is my way in, and I’ll use it as much as I can to build my skills in any language.

After my Korean friends kept telling me they were impressed with how Korean food vocabulary I know, I reflected on how easy it felt to learn it compared to trying to learn other parts of Korean or any other language. When you’re highly interested in an aspect of a culture (or a certain song or genre, or a particular visual artist, etc.), then I think it’s a lot less painful to acquire a new skill or new knowledge if you focus on that thing you’re highly interested in. Once you’re From there, branching out to other aspects of the target skill is easier because you have some tools to work with, and the same rules and meta-vocabulary apply to the stuff you don’t know yet.

Chris Lonsdale – Principles and Actions to Learning Any Language

A few months ago, I came across the following TEDx Talk by Chris Lonsdale, “How to learn any language in six months” which I found to be a very cogent distillation of what I’ve observed and experienced so far. I suspect Lonsdale’s principles and actions hold true for a lot of people and it would be useful for them to systematically and consciously follow in order to learn a new language.

It’s worth watching the 18 1/2 minute video, but here are his five principles and seven actions he’s codified to help us.


  1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you
  2. Use your new language as a tool to communicate from day 1
  3. Physiological training – Not really about knowledge
    1. If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it; If you can’t understand it, you’re not going to learn it
      1. You have to hear the sound
    2. Talking takes muscle – You have to coordinate those muscles to make sounds that other people understand
      1. When your face hurts, you’re doing it right
  4. When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously acquire the language
  5. Psycho-physiological state matters – If you’re sad, angry, worried, or upset, you’re not going to learn; Happy, relaxed, in an alpha-brain state, you’ll learn quickly
    1. You must learn to be tolerant of ambiguity


  1. Listen a lot
  2. Focus on getting the meaning first (before the words) – body language/pantomime (comprehensible input)
  3. Start mixing – 10 verbs x 10 nouns x 10 adjectives = 1,000 possible phrases
    1. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.
  4. Focus on the core – High frequency language
    1. In English, 85% of all daily communication only involves 1,000 words; 98% involves only 3,000 words.
    2. Week 1 – Toolbox: In target language – What is this?/How do you say…?/I don’t understand.
    3. Week 2-3 – Simple pronouns, verbs, and adjectives
    4. Week 3-4 – Glue words that allow you to tie bit of language together to make more complex meaning: But, and, even though
  5. Get a language parent – Provides a safe environment to build confidence, communicate simply with comprehensible input, including body language. Rules of a language parent (not generally a partner/spouse):
    1. Work hard to understand what you’re saying no matter how off base you are
    2. Does not correct your mistakes
    3. Confirms understanding by using correct language in response
    4. Uses words you know
  6. Copy the face – Get the muscles working right so people will understand you. Ideally, look at a native speaker and let your unconscious mind absorb the rules
  7. “Direct connect” to mental images – Same box (concept of fire), different path (the word aka “path” in target language, “fuego”) – Make new pathways (words) to the same concepts in your 1st language

I started with Lonsdale’s method because it’s language-specific, but it’s time to consider what Josh Kaufman‘s wildly popular TEDtalk (13 million views so far) on learning anything, not just language, brings to the table. Then I’m going to try and harmoniously combine the two learning methods. I think they complement each other pretty well.

Josh Kaufman – The first 20 hours: How to learn anything

(By the way, do not miss his hilarious ukulele mashup starting at 15:45.)

While Lonsdale’s methods can help you achieve native-level mastery of a foreign language, Kaufman is aiming quite a bit lower than that. His goal is to get pretty good at something without having to invest thousands of hours. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success popularized the theory it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. (There are a number of problems with that theory and Gladwell’s misuse of it, but I won’t cover them here.) As Kaufman notes, people eventually morphed from “10,000 hours to mastery” to “10,000 hours to learn something”, which is a truly intimidating amount of time, and would probably prevent a lot of people from trying to learn anything new, even hobbies, due to that fallacy of time investment. Because of this intimidating investment of time and the fear of feeling stupid/feeling of failure (which are my main obstacles to learning), Kaufman says that the major barrier to learning isn’t intellectual, but emotional. I can’t disagree there, that analysis is spot on for me.

smooth learning curve

Kaufman uses it to illustrate that you can gain a lot of proficiency by investing a relatively small of time, far less than 10,000 hours. He uses 20 hours of practice as a good length of time for the amount of practice to achieve some level of proficiency at anything, which is 0.2% of 10,000 hours. Like Lonsdale, he doesn’t recommend just spending 20 hours doing whatever you’d like to learn. Kaufman lists 4 things that makes this 20-hour timeline possible.

Kaufman’s 20-Hour Method

  1. Deconstruct the skill – Decide what your goal is and break it into smaller pieces. Practice the most important skills first.
  2. Learn enough to self correct – Get 3-5 resources for what you want to learn (books, courses, DVDs, etc.), but don’t use them to procrastinate (i.e. After I read this entire book on programming, then I’ll start writing my first program.)
  3. Remove practice barriers (TV, internet, etc.) – This will probably be the most critical thing for me to in order to make progress.
  4. Practice at least 20 hours – To get beyond the frustration/”I feel stupid” barrier, commit to 20 hours of practice.

Synthesizing a plan

So I’m going to mash up Lonsdale and Kaufman’s methods for learning to see if I can’t come up with a plan to learn Spanish.

  1. What do I want to learn? Spanish. More specifically, I want to learn food Spanish. To be precise, I want to learn how to:
    1. read menus
    2. talk to friends, family, cooks, and waiters about food
    3. get to restaurants
    4. recognize and name Spanish dishes
    5. name the common ingredients that would go into Spanish food (or any food for that matter)
    6. use the most common food adjectives
    7. use the most common food verbs
  2. I’ll collect some resources. At least one of those resources will be a living, breathing person, a coach, or as Lonsdale says, a language parent, ideally someone who’s a native speaker. Given that I’m in South Korea, I may not have access to a native speaker every day, but I’ll try. Other resources will include digital resources – interactive and reference – cookbooks (bilingual or in Spanish), food word lists, and Spanish language food forums. But I don’t want to get distracted by all of the possible resources I could collect to help me when I just need a few and I need to start practicing.
  3. On day one, I’ll learn the most basic language tools (phrases) so I can whip them out anytime I encounter anything I don’t understand: What is this?/How do you say…?/I don’t understand.
  4. I’ll set aside as much time everyday as I can, starting with 30 minutes a day, free from any other responsibilities or distractions.
  5. I’ll start using as much Spanish as I can everyday, especially when I’m in the kitchen and talking with my wife (She’s fluent in German and knows quite a bit of Spanish, French, and Italian. Yes, I’m very jelly, but she earned those skills and was her high school valedictorian. Not kidding.)
  6. I’ll listen to Spanish music, talk radio, and whatever real audio I can find, whenever I can get it. The internet makes this laughably easy.
  7. Label everything in the kitchen, consumable or not, with the Spanish word for it.
  8. Dream in Spanish #lifegoals

Haha on that last one, but it would be nice to get to that point. I already dream I’m in the classroom, and when I was truly stressed out as a chef, I’d hear the ticket printer in my sleep. It was strange. But I digress.

I have more than just a passion for food and an interest in Spain. About 24 hours ago, my mom landed in Málaga, Spain and will be living there for at least 3 months, hopefully longer. If she’s there this summer, my wife and I will go and visit her. My mom, now 72, has been diligently studying Spanish in preparation for her stay in Spain. My wife is definitely functional in Spanish. Both of my sisters are proficient, even fluent. I’m starting to feel very left out of the club. And besides, I want to be a food polyglot, so…

¡Vamos a comer!
(Let’s go eat!)