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The mission is unchanged—let the world converse

2016 was a time of great exploration and learning and yet I have the same driving desire now at the year’s conclusion that I had when it started—make language learning faster, easier and cheaper. Most of my friends have been surprised that language learning still holds my interest. They fall into one of two camps. Either they’ve had great success and lost interest or they’ve basically given up. I fall between the two groups, having ended up doing pretty well but only after a lot of suffering.

English matters

another city, another Airbnb

This isn’t really about me though. In all honesty, I don’t need to have an easy time learning languages. Learning another will have at best a small effect on my future comfort and standard of living. But it’s not like that for people learning English. My good friend in college wasted his parents’ savings in an ultimately unsuccessful English learning attempt and went back to a diminished future in Japan. My neighbors in Vietnam at the beginning of 2016 could triple their incomes if they spoke English well. That still haunts me.

I know something about teaching English. I did it for years and even built and ran a school in Taiwan with a couple of partners several years ago. To this day, I’m still very proud of the educational outcomes. Students went from nothing to handling level 3 and 4 OUP Bookworms (graded readers at the B1-B2 level) in three years of study as part of a 4 or 6 hour a week class. I’ve visited a hundred English schools around Asia and never since seen any similar schools come close to that level of result.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. It was an all-consuming job keeping that school running. I was probably putting in close to 70 hours a week during the time I was there and I still failed to put quite enough effort into training the staff or much of any effort into marketing.

Another issues is that we were charging a premium to our competitors. Most families couldn’t afford it. In truth, about 1/4 to 1/3 of my students were affluent enough that they’d probably learn English well eventually, regardless of how much they picked up. The people who would really benefit the most would never by served by my school, other than perhaps indirectly by learning about the merits of extensive reading from their friends who attended.

Sadly, I’ve seen this problem in an even more extreme form in tech start-ups who serve language learners. With a few notable exceptions, such as Duolingo and HelloTalk, they focus on 1-on-1 teaching. That’s even further outside the price range of my Vietnamese neighbors from a year ago.

An online platform is the solution, but those who most need it can’t afford teachers.

How I spent the year

My 2016 had three seasons—the first of being a digital nomad, the second of working for a win-win collaboration with whoever I could, and the third of going my own way.

Being a digital nomad

Being out of the expensive and yet incredibly sketchy SF bay area was great. It gave me new perspective, a chance to be a beginner foreign language learner and a way to keep expenses down while investing in my own human capital.

Programming

Most of the programming I’ve done had been in JavaScript (or JS-based) and I’d done more front-end work than server-side work. So I decided to try again to learn Ruby on Rails. It didn’t go so well when I made the attempt as a non-programmer back in 2008, but this time (late 2015 / early 2016), I found it pretty easy. In fact it was so easy that I could build things more quickly than I had in Node.js (my previous server of choice)! It was definitely pretty gratifying given how supposedly uncool and out of date rails is.

I made a rails site to host the interviews I’d done with language learners. I made a basic app for estimating the size of a language learner’s vocabulary. I also got a webRTC video chat built, kind of like what Speaky has. It was pretty awesome. Rails wasn’t the ideal back-end for something with all the traffic that a free tool can bring, but it was enough of a start for me to validate the demand and start working on building something that could scale cheaply enough that it might be possible to give away for free.

Growth hacking

Early in the spring, strangely, both Google’s and Facebook’s recruiting teams reached out to me about engineering roles almost simultaneously. I was getting a bit low on savings and was seriously considering going for it. Though I wasn’t really looking for a job, both of those companies have fantastic engineering cultures and I have friends at both. As an added plus on Google’s side, maybe if I actually worked for them, I could get access back to my old YouTube account that got clobbered when they merged all the accounts into Plus 😛

But I really didn’t want to go back to the Bay Area and basically spend all of my time working to pay for a tiny $3500 apartment I don’t have time to live in. I asked both if they had anything available in Japan, Taiwan or Hong Kong and they said no.

So I started putting my skills at the intersection of engineering and marketing to work. I offered to help pretty much anyone I knew who was working on anything related to education. I ended up doing a mix of free work for free products I admired and paid work for a scaling US start-up that worked out well. During this time, I went into a burst of creative activity, journaling, writing ebooks, making LINE store stickers. It was fun, but in the back of the mind I could feel time slipping by. I also suffered a pretty bad injury.

Injury and doubts

Months of heavy computer usage, all on my Macbook Air took a fearsome toll on my wrist. Since laptops have connected keyboards and monitors, it means the monitor is always too low and the keyboard is always too high. The raised keyboard put stress on my wrist. The track pad was even worse. At first I just felt a bit sore after using the computer for several hours, but then my wrist started to hurt when I was just typing. A month later, it hurt to brush my teeth or unlock a door. I needed a stable home with a desk with a proper keyboard tray.

I also needed to work harder towards my mission. Why was it that after months, I’d made such a small contribution? A big part of it was a lack of financial security. Another was that I still hadn’t fully recovered from a painful personal betrayal suffered earlier in SF. Was I crazy to turn down offers from two A-list tech companies? Was I doomed to never succeed again after my epic transition from English cram school boss to being an engineer in respected silicon valley companies? Thoughts such as these were difficult to keep at bay for a few months.

Working with brick and mortar schools

One thing that I could definitely win at was building another English school in Taiwan. My last attempt had grown more quickly than any I’ve heard of any direct competitors doing in the area then or since. And back then I didn’t have a curriculum already written. I hadn’t made supplementary exercises for hundreds of readers. I didn’t have CDs full of recordings I’d made. Even more importantly, I didn’t have any real engineering or marketing skills back then. The incumbents in the market had barely changed in a decade wouldn’t have a chance against 2016 me!

But… building another school wouldn’t solve anything. I’d just be back where I was, serving only a lucky few people in my area who could afford it. For that matter, growing a school “really quickly for Taiwan” is still a snails pace compared to the growth of online schools or even language schools in China. I could easily spend years doing it and make only limited progress towards the larger goal. There had to be a better path.

Collaboration Attempt 1

I could offer my services to an existing school. I could help them both improve their curriculum and drastically improve the ROI of their marketing. I could provide such an unusual value to them as an experienced entrepreneur in their niche who also had a silicon valley tech and marketing background that there would be plenty of upside for both of us. I’d work with them, improve the outcome of their students and still earn enough to build an online platform for those who can’t afford English teachers.

It failed. I had little autonomy and no power at the school. They wanted me to teach and in theory wanted me to help with the curriculum, but it just wasn’t going to happen within a time frame that made any sense to me. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that most language schools are a bit too old-school for me to have much of a chance. I can understand where they were coming from but it wasn’t a good fit.

Collaboration Attempt 2

I remembered two foreign-run schools in particular from when I was in Taiwan before been doing well when I’d left. Both had grown quite a bit, had branches in many cities and had reputations for pretty open management. I contacted them and tried a slightly different approach—I offered to be a business within their business.

Basically, in exchange for their administrative support, I’d offer some new classes with separate branding that would start from my previous curriculum and I’d incrementally build tech tools that both offered value to the classroom students and would be a path towards the online platform I’m building. I’d handle all of the sales and marketing. Any innovation that worked, they could use. I’d let them take a minority stake in the business and give them the right of first purchase so they could take it over when my online-only platform was self-sufficient.

Just as I was talking with these two schools, FB recruiting approached me again, and this time with an even better position on the growth engineering team. I was nearly broke after my recently failed collaboration and this team was working on very interesting things that I knew I’d love. I nearly abandoned the course and just moved back to California. But I didn’t. I just couldn’t.

One of the English schools got back to me and said no, they don’t do franchises or share equity in collaborations. The other school expressed interest, in principle, and was also interested in other tech and/or collaboration. I told Facebook no and went for it.

This collaboration also failed. I do believe there was some genuine interest in what I had to offer, but it was simply too far outside the scope of their normal operations and it probably wasn’t apparent just how large the potential upside was. Ultimately the business wanted to engage my services only as a teacher. While the rate was excellent for the Taiwanese EFL market, taking a job as a teacher in a school similar to the one I used to own and for a lower salary and less autonomy than I had even in 2005 would have been madness.

Building it myself

The managers of both schools I worked with were great people and I have respect for both their business sensibilities and their people skills. Given that there wasn’t a viable collaboration with either, I reluctantly set aside my plans of leveraging my domain expertise in brick and mortar language schools to help launch online efforts. I still feel that there was an potential path there, but I think the only way to have truly been credible to local entrepreneurs would have been to actually build another language school so they could see the results.

The next plan was to work part time doing whatever paid reasonably well and self-fund. I soon found an opportunity as an engineer at an Israeli-run tech start-up focused on language learning that seemed pretty cool. It would have paid more than even great teaching jobs in Taiwan and the founder was okay with me working four days a week, remote. I ran the idea past a couple of good friends. I’d been just about to go for it but they convinced me not to. Having seen my torturous path over the past half year, the made a compelling case to just throw all my effort into building the thing I believe in. I’d never be happy working full-time for someone else’s language learning company because it’s just too close to my heart.

Recent progress

  • raised a small amount of investment
  • opened a bank account in America (wow was that hard!)
  • gotten Amazon to give me a bunch of free AWS credits
  • rebuilt Lingsprout on a 50x more efficient tech stack
  • added basic social features
  • had many chats with the target market
  • reverse-engineered Twilio’s helpers to use their video product on this stack
  • abandoned Twilio because they raised their rates more than 100x
  • started testing market interest for a paid product to ensure survival without further investment
  • built to an email list of about 500

Serious problems remaining

  • lack of content
  • lack of users
  • a language learning site without the above isn’t useful
  • no credit/debit card from the back account causes enormous hassles
  • long-term visa situation

I’ve been aware from the beginning that there would be a network problem and that many of the things I could offer via software would have no value until getting a certain number of users. Where I’ve unexpectedly fallen short of my goals has been getting content.

I know a ton of businesses and people who have invested gathering or creating language learning content. I had expected it would be a fairly easy process to work out a licensing deal a new startup could afford, such as a revenue sharing or affiliate model. It wasn’t. After spending way too much time pursuing content deals, the one language learning company that agreed to license content didn’t actually deliver any. So, as soon as I’ve either finished building the paid product mentioned above or raised enough investment to ensure continued operation, I’ll start making content for English learners myself.

It’s rough working alone and having to do all the admin, coding and marketing, and there are a zillion different directions the product could go. There are a lot of paths this could take, but it will happen. That’s because I haven’t given up and I won’t give up until it’s built.

Plans for the next few weeks

  • add text chatting to the site (nearly ready)
  • launch sales page for paid product
  • figure out where I’m going to live

I’ve been incredibly frugal the past few months and for that I’m glad. However, revenue can still simplify a number of issues, including powering the development of more free features. The chat features should both help from a standpoint of helping me ask users their needs in real time and with selling.

The harder problem will be figuring out living arrangements. I don’t yet qualify for a start-up visa in Taiwan. There are a number of countries to consider, but nowhere else standing out as a clear winner. In terms of visa hassles, Vietnam is probably the best bet. Korea might make sense, too.

Lessons learned

Over the past year, I put so much effort into seeking mutually beneficial collaborations with everyone I encountered in the language space… and it was a waste. I tried to work with solo “language guru” entrepreneurs, I tried to work with huge tech companies, I tried to work with physical schools and I tried everything in between. Many times, there was a great potential for a win-win, but each time it went nowhere. This is despite the fact that, being driven more by mission than profit, I regularly offered the lions share of the gains from cooperation to the other parties.

I’ve always had a bias towards cooperation and seeking the benefits it can provide and perhaps that’s what made it take so long for me to realize that people don’t generally want to collaborate in business. Almost tautologically, people don’t know the value of the things they don’t know. They also don’t know how trust-worthy a potential collaborator is. More importantly, people place more value on potential loss than on potential gain. Finally, there’s a bit of plain old conservatism and laziness. It’s always easier to stick with the status quo and change nothing.

So here’s what I’ve learned: Friends mean the world and networking has value too, but actively trying to collaborate with a business isn’t nearly as worthwhile as I had thought.


Want to help? Comment below and tell me what’s hard about language learning and what resources you wish you had.

With the right approach, you can do it easily in a single day.

When I first started taking Chinese classes at the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei, I already knew pinyin… or at least I thought I did. I had a basic idea of how to spell Chinese words I heard. They had a phonics training course that used zhuyin and I figured it would be a waste of time.

I found a chart at the back of my Chinese-English dictionary that mapped every syllable initial and every final to its zhuyin equivalent. I knew from my Japanese classes in college that learning a new alphabet (or syllabary if you insist) isn’t that hard. Our teacher told us to learn the curly alphabet—hiragana—before our first day of class. She just gave us some worksheets and sent us off!

hiragana sahiragana "shi"hiragana-su

How I learned hiragana and katakana

It actually only took a day to pretty much get it down. I went row by row through the worksheet. After writing each character of the first row with I closed my workbook and wrote each of them down. Then I checked and saw I’d made a mistake with あ and also with お. So I wrote them again and got them all right. Then I got a glass of water and wrote them again when I got back. Next, I practiced each character in the second row—. Then I closed the workbook and wrote them all from memory. After the fourth row or so, I tested myself on the whole thing and took a break for lunch. Upon getting home, I retested myself and then went on to the next row and continued like that.

I won’t say that my ability to write or even read hiragana was perfect at the end of the day, but it was about 95% there and I’d only spent about three or four hours, broken up into four sessions. When I woke up the next day, I tested myself on the full set of hiragana and got them all!

Next, I shifted focus to the more angular mean-looking Japanese alphabet called katakana. It was a bit harder because some of the symbols look almost the same. vs and vs . I was fine in class on Monday. I misread a few things, but it wasn’t a big deal and with constant exposure there was very little danger of forgetting any of them, unlike kanji which were my bane.

Learning bopomofo in one evening

Back to the original story… I was absolutely brimming with confidence when I discovered there was a Chinese alphabet, 注音符號, to learn. Equivalency table in hand, I just marched through the alphabet column by column, starting with and continuing until I reached and .

zhuyin-zhzhuyin-chzhuyin-shi

Half a day and done! That’s all it took to learn to read and write the mandarin phonetic alphabet and if you’re already a Chinese speaker, you can probably power through it even more quickly using the method I described. If you’re someplace such as Taiwan or a school for overseas Chinese where it’s used, keeping it is pretty trivial and it opens up a lot of learning resources.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t already a Chinese speaker and I’d just made a horrible mistake.

Learning the symbols is easy, learning the sounds is hard

I actually should have taken that bopomofo phonics class. Learning to recognize and write the characters wasn’t the main thing to have worried about (or taken pride in). Learning the sounds of a foreign language is much harder task, especially if you’re over the age of about 5. The problem is that I learned Chinese first through Pinyin and I basically went through English phonics where possible. I quickly realized that something special was going on with x and q. A while later I realized the pinyin r and u also caught my attention fairly quickly and I got them mostly sorted. But I spoke Chinese every day for years developing some messed up pronunciation habits related to thinking that the b and d were basically the same sound in Chinese pinyin as in English. They’re not. In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious. I wouldn’t try to speak French as if every letter were pronounced exactly like in English. Why would I do that with Chinese?

But that’s a different story for another day. You can learn to read, write and recognize just about any alphabet in a day. Thai might be pushing it, but for Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Russian, it’s mostly about having a decent resource, preferably with some sort of mnemonic like those liked above, diving in and testing yourself. If you’re studying the language, you’ve really got no excuse not to go for it!


On a side note, I’ve recently made some improvements to the Pinyin – Zhuyin converter. It now converts zhuyin to pinyin and handles tonemarks, too.

Let’s face it. Most people spend a lot of money on foreign languages either directly or through their public schools and the results aren’t usually that great. [1]

What are the problems? Well the biggest one is probably that most people studying foreign languages don’t want to be studying them! Some of my old students in Taiwan showed up hating everything about English! It took countless months of benevolent brain washing and fun materials to get even half of them genuinely interested in a language they only needed at school. But I’m basically going to set that problem aside and talk about the difficulties for people who really do want to learn. Let’s look at the main options and then the problems (and strengths) of each.

The main options

  • Classes
  • Self study courses
  • Online tutoring
  • Offline tutoring
  • Conversation exchange
  • Immersion
  • Other online tools
  • Self-designed study methods

Classes

  • Classes with professional teachers are expensive.
  • It’s cheaper to be part of a large class, but most students want talking time.
  • It’s very difficult to handle students with very different levels of proficiency.
  • Most classes focus too much on grammar.
  • Most classes focus too much on intensive activities instead of extensive reading.
  • Classes tend to be very rigid in terms of when students can start or stop studying.
  • There are limited times when students can join or leave.
  • Group classes motivate people to study regularly.
  • Native speaking teachers can correct students.

Self-study courses (books + CDs/MP3s)

  • Most are of poor quality (this can be mitigated by looking at online reviews).
  • There’s no correction. This is a huge problem for pronunciation.
  • Don’t generally get students to the level where they can use native materials.
  • Good for learning vocabulary and basic grammar.
  • Usually a reasonable value for the price.

Online tutoring

  • Online tutoring extremely expensive due to its one on one nature.
  • Teachers don’t generally have the same incentives to make study plans as those making courses for schools.
  • It’s difficult to become friends with an online tutor and some platforms forbid it.
  • Due to the individualized attention, tutoring is very time efficient.
  • Students able to continue spending $5 to $30 per hour can learn to a very high level. 
  • Students anywhere can learn from teachers anywhere.
  • It’s easy to switch teachers.

Offline tutoring

  • It’s more difficult to find offline tutors if you aren’t at a university or hostel.
  • There may not be a tutor for the language you want to learn where you live.
  • Offline tutors sometimes to become genuine friends or introduce students to other native speakers who become friends.
  • There are no middleman costs from a platform or payment processors.

Conversation exchange

  • It takes some effort to find a good match (online or off)
  • Many conversation exchanges devolve into a struggle over which language to use.
  • There’s a MASSIVE imbalance between who wants to learn what languages. For every English speaker who wants to learn Arabic, there are probably 100 Arabic speakers who want to learn English.
  • People doing conversation exchange have to or at least should spend 1/2 of it helping the other person.
  • Conversation partners often end up becoming friends.
  • Conversation partners understand each other’s struggles.
  • Conversation exchange leads to more cultural understanding.
  • Conversation exchange is free.

Immersion

  • People are remarkably capable of creating their own language bubbles and resisting immersion. Just living in a country is no guarantee you’ll learn much.
  • Moving to another place is a huge life decision affecting work and relationships.
  • It’s costly to move and figure out how everything works in a new place (either in time or money or both).
  • The ability to take advantage of immersion to learn a language really depends on social skills, and sadly physical beauty. Not everyone can recruit the locals to help them learn.
  • Combined with study, immersion is one of the surest ways to learn a language.
  • It’s exciting.
  • It generally forces people to grow.

Other online tools

There is an ever-growing wealth of online tools available for learners. I’ve often thought my Chinese would have improved nearly twice as fast if I’d been born 10 years later and had access to those tools while I was learning.

A lot of great tools have a narrow focus and will help you with one specific aspect of learning a language. Obviously these can’t be relied upon exclusively, but they can definitely be valuable additions to your other activities. Anki, for example, is a long-time favorite of many language learners. Lang-8 is popular for those who like doing and receiving writing corrections. Another interesting option is LingQ. I will definitely write more about them in the future.

I’ve heard great things about some of the language-specific programs, in particular Frantastique for French learners. Due to their very high prices, though, I haven’t tried it out.

Podcasts are definitely worthwhile. The key is to find podcasts that are interesting, are at the right level and don’t waste your time with too much branding or chit chat in English.

The 100% free resources available online don’t tend to be time efficient.

Some of the most popular, like Duolingo are highly gamified, very addictive and not very effective. I’ve known some people who have spent hours a day on Duolingo for an entire year without developing basic speaking or listening abilities. Students with time but no money would be far better advised to take advantage of the free tier on something like LingQ and then start doing conversation exchanges after getting a basic foundation (or even after just getting enough to make it through one conversation on a pre-prepared topic).

Self-designed study methods

  • Only really an option for people who have experience learning languages and know what they’re doing.
  • For veteran language learners, personal approaches developed over multiple languages of experience are often very effective even for languages lacking study materials.

Lowering your learning costs—the bottom line

Here’s the best advice I’ve got based on today’s tools:

1) Get a self-study textbook + CD set. I had a decent experience with Living Language for Spanish. It was like 3 textbooks (of which I did nearly two), plus CDs for only $30 on Amazon. Just work through that.

2) If you’re learning a language that it supports, use the free LingQ to build up some vocabulary through reading and download the audio for each lesson you’ve read. Listen to that when you’re out walking around. If you really like the service, then it’s probably worth the $10 per month.

3a) If your native language is popular enough (e.g. if you’re an English speaker learning French or if you’re a Japanese speaker learning Korean), then get a conversation partner on mylanguageexchange.com or on Italki.

3b) If you’re having a hard time finding a conversation partner because you’re learning English (or maybe Spanish or French), then go to Verbling, sign up and go to the community tab as explained here.

4) I’d suggest using tutoring on an as needed basis and make sure you have all the questions you need to ask prepared ahead of time. If you know exactly what you want, most teachers will be very helpful.

And repeat

As you improve, keep listening, keep reading and keep talking with people about whatever topics you can. You don’t need to spend a ton of time, but if you can do 30-90 minutes per day and keep at it, you will get at least basic proficiency and even counting a few intermediate-level books and tutoring sessions the cost will be under $500.


1. One exception would be northern Europeans. They’re outliers though. Their native languages are closely related to English, they’re pretty small in terms of speakers, and they can’t use their native languages abroad. They also from a very young age and get a great tons of input from English-language media that they don’t dub. A speaker of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or especially English has a very, very different situation.

There are two major forms of Chinese characters used in the world today—traditional and simplified (or three if you count Japanese). Most Chinese learners very reasonably decide to learn only the character set that’s used where they intend to use their Chinese—simplified in China or Singapore or traditional in Taiwan, Hong Kong or most overseas Chinese communities. Some learners even more pragmatically decide not to bother learning how to write either type and instead use the time saved to learn a couple of Romance languages!

Really the people who are asking which they should learn first are the unreasonable people with grand ambitions. A lot of them are college students planning to take on both character sets, maybe study some classical poetry and then pick up another language before graduation. I like those people 😀

By far the most relevant thing is which type of writing you have access to, but there are some objective advantages and disadvantage to each approach.

Why learn traditional first

As their name suggests, traditional characters predate simplified ones. The simplified characters were, in fact, simplified from the traditional characters. (See! Some things related to the Chinese language are very easy!) As a result, the way of simplifying characters is often pretty reasonable and not always reversible.

It’s often easy to remember how to simplify a character you know

For example, many characters are simplified just by using part of the original! In these cases, it’s very easy to remember how to write the simplified if you already know the traditional. The opposite isn’t true.

豐 -> 丰 (a piece from the top)
麵 -> 面 (the right half)
廣 -> 广 (first 3 strokes)
號 -> 号 (the left half)

Similarly, a lot of characters were simplified by just swapping out a big scary complex component with a simple one that has the same or a similar sound.

讓 -> 让 (sounds kind of like 上)
認識 -> 认识 (sounds like 人 and sort of like 只)
餐廳 -> 餐厅 (聽 sounds a lot like 丁 and exactly like 汀, 耵, etc)

Once again, this is very easy for someone who knows traditional. They can often remember how to write the simplified character immediately since it’s a sound substitution and the substituted component is simple. If you were a simplified learner, you’d have to try to think of a complicated component with the same sound, you’d have lots of choices to guess from and then you’d still have to remember how to write a complicated component.

Some characters were “merged” during the simplification

The character 麵 mentioned above was indeed simplified to 面, but 面 is a traditional character, too. In traditional characters 面 is face and 麵 is flour. In simplified characters, 面 could be either. Similarly 發 (to emit or project) and 髮 (hair) are both simplified to 发. In general it’s easier to remember to lump two things together mentally than it is to start distinguishing them (e.g. as students of Japanese have a much easier time merging their l and r sounds than Japanese students of English have in separating them).

Traditional may be easier to read

Traditional characters do tend to be easier to distinguish, in my opinion. Part of this is due to having more semantic information available and part of it is due to simplifications that created new characters very similar to existing ones or to other simplifications:

nothing vs day
无 vs 天 (simplified)
無 vs 天 (traditional)

head vs buy vs read
头 vs 买 vs 读 (simplified)
頭 vs 買 vs 讀 (traditional)

bountiful vs life
丰 vs 生 (simplified)
豐 vs 生 (traditional)

You have to learn the “hard” components eventually anyway

Even though you can avoid the difficulties involved with the right hand side of 讓 and just learn 让 in your first semester class, you can’t escape it forever. 釀 (ferment) simplifies to… 釀. Guess you still had to learn that right half of 讓! The same sort of pattern plays out with many, many other characters.


Why learn simplified first

Simplified might be harder to read, but its definitely easier to write. Every single simplification was made with the purpose of making a character easier to write. And with the possible exception of one or two border-line cases such as 者 -> 着, it was successful. It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is.

Reading is easier than writing

Even if learning to read simplified characters were a full 30% harder than traditional (which it definitely isn’t), it would still be a great bargain if it made writing 5% easier. Why? Reading is far easier than writing in terms of the time investment required to become competent.

Writing traditional characters is brutal for beginners

There are certain extreme simplifications such as 個 -> 个 that were done on very basic characters. This is amazing for beginners! 個 isn’t too bad, but every single Chinese textbook for foreigners I’ve seen includes the word “doctor” in the first few characters and learning 醫 as one of your first couple dozen characters just sucks. 医, on the other hand, isn’t too bad! Ditto for 讓 -> 让, 認識 -> 认识 and 興 -> 兴. The sum of all these simplifications is that writing just a huge ordeal instead of a cruel form of punishment for beginning students of Chinese.

Some traditional characters are just ridiculous

I used to live in a town called “turtle mountain”. This is written as 龜山. I had to write that 龜 every single time I wrote my address. Why couldn’t it have been 龟 or even just 亀 like in Japanese? 龜 is ridiculous. Even worse, it’s a radical which means it’s used as merely a part of even bigger, even more ridiculous characters.

Speaking of ridiculous characters, you know which one really depressed me upon encountering it in my level 2 class at Shida in Taiwan? It was part of the word for depression, actually! And since it would be basically just a black splotch on the screen otherwise, I’ll blow it up for you:

Yeah… lets all memorize how to write that one when we’ve only been in class for a semester!

Handling complex Chinese characters gets much easier over time

This is the biggest reason why it’s better to learn simplified characters before traditional. Complicated characters, even crazy characters aren’t that bad if you know enough of the building blocks. I haven’t really written any characters by hand in years, but it’s still easy to write that horrible doctor/medicine character 醫 from chapter one of my first Chinese book from memory because I know the parts. I know the simplified 医 (and that it contains an arrow 矢 in a box radical 匚), and I’m familiar with 殳 from many other characters and it’s easy to remember you 酉, one of the 12 celestial stems associated with the animals and years because it’s inside a lot of other characters including 酒 (alcohol) and I imagine an ancient Chinese doctor using alcohol to sterilize a wound before treating it.

Therefore…

I still think it makes sense to learn the character set that’s in your environment because learning both is a gigantic effort that very few people make. But for those who really are going to learn both, I think the faster way is actually to start with simplified.

If a genie were to magically grant you one or the other, the right move would almost certainly be to take traditional since it would make learning simplified so easy. But that’s not going to happen. You’ve actually got to do the learning yourself and you’d might as well start with the easier system that will let you get a faster start. Doing it the other way would be kind of like going to a gym out of shape, and starting with the heaviest weights you can with the plan of later being able to easily switch to the lighter ones.

Related Content: Also check out Chris from Fluent in Mandarin’s take on this question:

Learning Chinese is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago for westerners, but the options learners have is pretty staggering compared to what I had to work with. I probably wouldn’t have made all those Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life if I’d had todays tools.

There is one mistake I’ve seen new companies making again and again, though. It generally ends up resulting in poor support for a large segment of learners, especially advanced students. It also results in dictionaries that confuse words with each other, often merging them into single entries when they shouldn’t. And this problem ends up at the core of the company’s tech and they often just give up, figuring they’ve already invested to much to go back and do things properly.

In many ways the decision that leads to these problems is rational for a young business with limited resources, but it’s also a red flag for learners since it shows the business is more about short-term earnings and less about the love of the Chinese language or the desire to support everyone who wants to study Chinese for work, study, history, Chinese medicine, etc.

Can you guess what the mistake is?

What was a completely understandable choice in 2005 is a lot worse to be making in 2015 now that it’s well understood territory. While it doesn’t “doom” a company, I think it’s a huge red flag. What do you think?

Part 3, at last! After another month, this is what I sound like:

Progress summary since last time

  • Anki Decks: Almost nothing… just trying to keep up with reviews
  • Living Language: 80% Finished Living Language Intermediate
  • Reading: Read 2 Blaine Ray books, started a third and have done some short stories

Time allocation

I haven’t done so well this month at making time for Spanish. I barely used Anki at all and I spent about 30 minutes, 4 days a week on Living Language. I’ve been reading graded readers, but sporadically. The one bright spot was getting in more tutoring sessions. I managed 6 in April, I think.

Results

Living Language still seems pretty standard, but of high quality. I’m almost done with the intermediate book and while my memory of previous material isn’t perfect, I think I’m retaining a good amount. One thing I particularly like about the series is that while it uses all four language skills, it does a good job of keeping the time spent on writing in control. Back when I was learning Chinese, I spent far, far too much time writing. I think that if I’d spent 2/3 of that time reading or listening instead I’d have improved my vocabulary and comprehension more efficiently and it would have gotten me to a high level more quickly.

Simplified readers

I’ve been super impressed with the Spanish readers I’ve bought. They’re of way better quality than the easy reading materials I used learning Chinese. Especially Blaine Ray’s novels have been fantastic. The first one, Pobre Anna, only has 300 headwords! There’s also a glossary at the back which contains all the words used. Even more importantly, it’s well written and manages to be kind of interesting despite being so simple. The next book in the series, Patricia va a California has a slightly bigger vocabulary but is still very easy. In total, there are five books in the easiest level of the collection, four at level two and two at level three. I’m not exactly sure what the levels correspond to, but the series definitely has a gradual ramp up in difficulty.

Hey everyone! As I predicted, I’ve been too busy with work to have much time for studying Spanish, but I’ve tried hard to do at least a little every day.

Progress summary since last time

  • Audio programs: Finished Michel Thomas’s Total Spanish
  • Anki Decks: About 500 words learned in total
  • Living Language: Finished Living Language Essentials (their book 1)
  • Reading: Ordered some graded readers but don’t have them yet

Time allocation

I’ve barely spent any time at all on Anki. I’ve been reviewing about 1-3 times per week and I don’t spend that long. The “learned” and “mature” cards of the two decks are still growing though. I spent about 1 hour per day on Total Spanish until I finished it. Recently I’ve been spending most my time—30 minutes to an hour a day—on the Living Language series text books.

Results

Michel was great for grammar and for leveraging cognates between English and Spanish to get as much as possible out of the similarity of the two languages. After I get to a higher level, I may do his next program. Anki is doing all the wonderful things it does and unlike when I was learning Chinese, I’m not giving myself stress over it or spending over an hour a day doing flashcards or anything like that. Living Language seems like a pretty standard textbook, but a bit better than average.

I don’ know if my progress in these past three weeks has been good or not. It feels slow and my ability to speak is lagging reading, which wasn’t often the case with Mandarin! Here’s another video in Spanish:

I’ve just finished going through the Michel Thomas Total Spanish audio course. It’s eight CDs in total and it assumes the listener is a complete beginner.

continue reading…

It’s been too long since I’ve been actively learning a language and I’ve decided to take on a new challenge! I’m going to learn Spanish. It should be good fun. Since learning how to learn a language, I haven’t studied anything so similar to English. It’s going to be great having so many cognates with English and not needing to learn thousands of characters!

I have a lot of skills from my experiences learning Japanese and then Mandarin that will help me. On the other hand, now that I’m a software engineer at a tech start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t have nearly the time I had in my 20s while I was learning those languages. Here is my plan:

I’m going to spend some time on vocabulary flashcards in an SRS, but no more than three hours a week. I’ve also got some textbooks and I’m doing an hour of private tutoring each week.

While I’m not a complete beginner, my Spanish is very, very bad at the moment. I’ve often wished I could see the version of Mark from many years ago who struggled to speak Chinese, so I’m recording videos of my Spanish right from the beginning level.

Next time will be better! At the very least, I’ll know how to say 500.

😀

Growing up, I was an avid reader and English was always one of my stronger subjects. But, I never expected that one result of going to Taiwan to teach english would be unintentionally becoming a grammar nazi! I suppose my grammar was relatively strong before I left, but teaching English to non-native speakers has greatly strengthened it.

I taught children. It was wonderful. They were, for the most part, cheerful, eager to please and fun. But they also had this annoying habit of asking “why?”

Why is it, “I haven’t swum this year,” instead of, “I haven’t swam?”

Why is it, “I like eating,” and not, “I like eat?”

“Why is it a big, brown dog and not a brown, big dog?

“Why, why, why…”

Being a student of foreign languages myself, I told them I’d always done better by focusing on how to express a given idea than why it had to be expressed that way. A lot of children were satisfied with that. A few children weren’t. Most of their parents weren’t. They really wanted to know why. And after my first year or two, so did I.

So I ended up learning about when to use past participles, the similarities between gerunds and infinitives, subjunctives and many, many other things about the wonderful complexities of my native tongue. It wasn’t half bad for my abilities to talk about grammar in Chinese, either!

Somewhere along the way, I started to forget what it was like not having an explicit knowledge of various grammatical points. Then I came back to the US and almost immediately started noticing everyone else’s grammatical errors. “There’s a lot of busses to the Embarcadero from here,” I’d hear someone say. And I’d be thinking, “There are a lot of busses because they are countable and plural!” in my head. “I’ve ran a lot of intervals this week,” I’d hear some guy say at a park. “NO!!! You’ve run them because it’s a completed action and therefore is a perfect tense and requires a past participle!” an evil voice would scream. Once in a while it was almost like being a character in The Oatmeal comic.

Now that it’s been two years, my inner grammar nazi is just now finally starting to subside and allowing me to let the distinctions between less and fewer slide. I still haven’t relaxed my stance on English “names” I can’t stand, though!

😀