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What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

Part 1: before the blog (you are here)
Part 2: meeting other bloggers
Part 3: how blogging helped me as an entrepreneur
Part 4: The biggest drawback to blogging


The first glimpse of a different life

When I was in college, blogging was new and exciting. As I was starting this site, other members of the Nintendo Generation were starting theirs, too. Some were like diaries, some were focused on personal interests many were mashups of both. I was enthralled by them. These blogs weren’t wooden news reports. They were often unfiltered and a closer look at what life was actually like for other people. One of the saddest parts of the growth of Facebook is that personal blogs have largely been subsumed by wall posts—nearly always a much less honest look at someone’s life.

I had become very interested in what it was like to live abroad. I couldn’t afford to and had actually chosen my school based on price. I desperately wanted to get out and experience life in a place different from where I’d grown up. It felt impossible at the time, but I knew that once I graduated I could go abroad to teach English. I’d heard that in some places, there was a tremendous demand for native English speakers and that with a language and literature degree I would definitely be able to find a job.

So I searched.

Google returned many links to blogs of Americans about my age who were studying or teaching abroad. I became a fan of one called A Better Tomorrow. It had Chow Yun Fat images in the banner and was written by a Swarthmore student studying in China. His Chinese was at a level I could only dream of and his stories of traveling around China were amazing! Another one called Sinosplice was written by an English teacher in China who had previously lived in Japan.

I read both with interest and started devouring everything I could find about language learning, language teaching and where to live. I decided to go to Japan if I were accepted into the JET program. After being rejected, I chose Taiwan.

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Moving to Taiwan

I had a really hard time when I first got to Taiwan. I wanted to learn Chinese, but everyone else wanted to practice English. Further complicating things, Mandarin was the second language in Chiayi (嘉義), the city where I was living. There wasn’t a language school for foreigners either.

Additionally, I was only the second American at the English school where I was teaching and the Canadian teachers completely shunned the other American… and me. It was during the 2nd Iraq War, anti-American sentiments were strong amongst many Europeans and especially Canadians and I was surrounded by young, ideologically motivated Canadians who literally believed discriminating against Americans (or at least those who pay taxes) was the morally correct position. Yikes.

I did manage to win over some of my coworkers after a month or so, but still it wasn’t the right environment for me. I didn’t believe the school was that effective. I loved the city and how I bicycle everywhere and I loved how friendly people were, but I just wasn’t learning any Chinese or advancing my career.

Moving to Taipei

Taipei was like a different world. Even then, the MRT was amazing and the city was incredibly walkable. Everything cost 20% than I was used to, except housing which was at least triple. There were tons of schools for learning Chinese. It was a stretch to afford tuition on part-time work but I did it.

The teaching methods and materials are the subject of another post, but in the end I was able to make some good progress despite them. I credit the many language learning blogs I was reading at the time for giving me both the inspiration and the know-how to succeed in such a difficult environment back in the days before language learning podcasts or apps had arrived and we were all looking up Chinese characters by radicals and stroke order in paper dictionaries.

My learning was <a=”http://www.fluentinmandarin.com/content/the-7-chinese-learning-mistakes-that-cost-me-a-year-of-my-life/”>incredibly slow and I couldn’t afford to study every semester. I also wasn’t making any forward progress on the work front. I was doing a marginally better job of teaching my students, but at its core it was unskilled work and the structure of the curriculum and business prevented me or any foreign teachers from making significant improvements.

Choosing to invest in new skills

I realized my work was essentially a commodity. I might get a slightly better wage through negotiation or becoming a popular teacher, but I was a very easily replaceable cog in a huge machine. There wasn’t much possibility of advancement either—to best of my knowledge the company didn’t tend to promote non-ethnically Chinese people.

The best opportunity I saw was to gain more skills that would make it possible for me to land a much better paying teaching job. There was also the option to pursue credentials, such as a TEFL certificate, but TEFL teachers are also largely commoditized and as I had learned even back then the TEFL training is highly opinionated but poorly backed by research. Some ideas, such as not using the students’ native language at all are clearly driven more by market prices of employing bilingual teachers than they are by what’s best for the students. Unsurprisingly, a TEFL certification is worth almost nothing in terms of increased earnings.

The climb

I worked hard at learning classroom-related language and started coming in to work early and watching my local co-teachers when they taught their half of classes. Within a few months I was able to get a job at 750NT an hour as opposed to my original 550NT. I had to prepare some materials for class and grade homework but there was a lot of latitude in terms of creating supplementary materials and learning how to be a better teacher when not following a very structured system from a large chain.

About six months after that, I got a job at a larger school with even more stringent requirements at 900NT/hr. I left that job months later due to a stupid contract they wanted me to sign that would have given them broad ownership of things I created on my own time. Their top teacher from the previous hired me at 1100NT/hr with a 50NT raise every 6 months and profit sharing if I stayed long-term. I moved out to his new school that week.

My blog

At this point, I had been living in Taiwan for two and a half years and was earning more than double the average foreign English teacher. I was 26 years old and I could speak two foreign languages very different from my native one.

I’d read dozens of books about language teaching and language acquisition and was teaching well over a hundred kids and doing it vastly more effectively than I’d seen at any other school. As my life situation improved, I became increasingly focused on helping others—my students, language students in general and other language teachers.

I’ll be honest. I felt I had something worth sharing.

So that’s what I did. I wrote about what I’d seen in the job market for foreign English teachers, I wrote reviews of my Chinese text books. I spent an entire day using my virtually non-existent programming abilities to hack together a tool for adding tone marks to pinyin. I even shared my investment ideas and every single trade I made.

Looking back on it, it kind of amazes me how enthusiastically I wrote about everything and how much time I spent on it even back when it was such a tiny group of people reading.

Part 2: meeting other bloggers

Last week one of my projects at Hack Reactor was to write a server (using Node.js) to emulate the functionality of the Wayback Machine– that is to download and archive copies of various web sites.

An interesting coincidence is that my old friend John just wrote about it yesterday. He’s designed and written numerous beautiful blogs and, sadly, destroyed them and broken all of my links to them. He’s started combing the wayback machine to bring some of that content back… for me. Now I can tell you readers who email me about not being able to find his content to go check out the dev.gd graveyard. Some of his old posts on language (and other) learning are great!

Recently, John has started up yet another well-designed and interesting blog. This one is called Global Maverick, and it’s focus is language learning. It’s also got a tools section where he’s sharing iPhone apps he’s written.

One series of posts I found interesting was his interviews of three successful language learners– Steve Kaufmann, Kelly McGuire and Khatzumoto of AIJATT fame. Steve Kaufmann is a Canadian polyglot who has achieved excellent proficiency in six languages and varying degrees of skill in another four. I’ve written about him on Toshuo before. Khatzumoto made a name for himself learning enough Japanese through self study in the US to get himself hired at a Japanese tech company before ever setting foot in Japan. He’s also written a very motivational if quirky guide on his site. I hadn’t heard of Kelly McGuire before, but her experiences with Mandarin, Dutch and Japanese were also interesting to read about.

Despite the fact that my work is teaching a second language to kids who rarely start out with any motivation at all, I’m very interested in self-directed adult language learning. Language learning has been an interest of mine for years. I haven’t really been that good at it, but I have steadily gotten better at it and examining the habits of more successful learners has been a big help.

John’s new blog is full of good stuff and just might be worth archiving, just in case.

I’ve had a passing interest in the concept of spaced repetition ever since I read the Wired article about Piotr Wozniak’s fantastic human experiment.

Twenty years ago, Wozniak realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person’s memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge — introspection, intuition, and conscious thought — but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we’ve read, help us track whom we’ve met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak’s scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.

The reason the inventor of SuperMemo pursues extreme anonymity, asking me to conceal his exact location and shunning even casual recognition by users of his software, is not because he’s paranoid or a misanthrope but because he wants to avoid random interruptions to a long-running experiment he’s conducting on himself. Wozniak is a kind of algorithmic man. He’s exploring what it’s like to live in strict obedience to reason. On first encounter, he appears to be one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

It was a long but thoroughly engaging piece that inspired me to try out Piotr’s software Supermemo. At that time, it never really stuck. I found the interface frustrating, and I wasn’t really interested in buying the full product. At the time, my motivation to study Chinese was on the ebb anyway.

Recently, spaced repetition has come back onto my radar, thanks to what John’s writing about his study of classical Chinese.

In fact it’s motivated me enough to not only give it a try for my own study, but I’ve decided to try to contribute to an open source spaced repetition program, Anki, over the Chinese New Year. The interface is great, it’s easy to use and I love it. I’ll definitely be writing more about it soon.

The program is fully free (gratis and libre), and I can see it as not only helping me with my studies, but with a bit of localization it can also help my students and other students as well. Maybe not being able to get a plane for a visit home wasn’t such a bad thing after all.


If anybody is interested in helping me translate the Anki interface into traditional Chinese, I’d love to have your help. I’m only a small way through and there are still about 6000 lines of messages left to go through. I’m not exactly a real translator either.

I caught this off of John Biesnecker’s recently resurrected blog*.

This is a pretty impressive display by Steve, the founder of Lingq. He definitely got a boost from his post-hockey drinking, though.

Related Entries:
A reformed blog butcher
Steve Kaufmann – Bilingual interview in Taipei

*He’s a re-reformed blog-butcher now… bordering on legend. And every incarnation of the blog is still great!

John’s officially a bad person. Not only is he a blog butcher, but he’s responsible for me finding out about Desktop Tower Defense, a flash game of crack-like addictiveness.

Desktop Tower Defense has officially made all other work both impossible and pointless. If you something that you need to get done, today, by all means avoid clicking on that link.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

またあの煩い外人(John Biesnecker’s blog): Desktop Tower Defense

Warnings shmarnings. This is one dangerous game. It sucks time from you until you’re nothing but a twitching husk of a person capable only of fantasizing about ever more diabolical mazes. I managed to achieve a total elimination of every creep, though, so take that, John!

(If you happen to get bitten by this addiction, too, you can find my scores on the “China Bloggers” group)

Last night, Rika threw a dinner party over at my place. Since she and Martin already sold most of their things, including their refrigerator, to the Tealit vultures, she had to make the food over at my place. I’ve been really busy with work recently… but hey, they’re leaving and the party needed to be thrown. I wasn’t that thrilled with the idea initially, but in the end it turned out better than I possibly could have expected.
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Last spring, I wrote about an “awesome blog” I’d found. The writer, John B., was an American who had just moved from Hangzhou to Shanghai. He wrote about language learning, cultural observations, and a number of other topics. In particular, he had written an inspiring post about his goal of learning five languages, an amusing account of The perils of being a preschool teacher, and an interesting post about this picture. To top it off, the layout of the blog was phenomenal. I loved it. Less than two months later, he destroyed the entire thing.
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Last week John B. wrote about his thoughts concerning the simplification of Chinese characters.

Then, in the course of my varied and meaningless reading, I stumbled upon a character that reaffirmed my belief that, for all its faults, simplification was the way to go. The new word I encountered was 抓阄, meaning “to draw lots.” I wasn’t familiar with the second character, so I looked it up only to discover that it was the simplified variant of 鬮, a 26-stroke monster that uses 龜 (simplified: 龟) as its phonetic component (according to Wenlin both 鬮 and 龜 are pronounced gau in Cantonese, but in Mandarin they are jiu and gui, respectively). I’d like to think this character was created to describe thrilling Han Dynasty turtle fights (鬮 = 鬥 (斗, “fight”) + 龜 (龟, “turtle”)) that were later banned by a turtle-loving Emperor, thus leaving people no choice but to draw lots when settling disputes, but more likely it was the result of one-upmanship by bored scholars.

John Biesnecker: Turtles, lots, and proof simplification wasn’t all bad

Simplification is something almost any westerner living in Taiwan will probably think about, too. Living here, we learn traditional characters, but nearly all the resources for learning Chinese online focus on simplified characters. Great services like Chinese Pod, great dictionaries and annotators like Adsotrans, and many other tools target simplified character users. It’s hard to blame people, since 98% of the Mandarin speakers in the world use simplified characters as opposed to traditional, but still it’s hard not to feel unfairly left out. Living in Taiwan, all I see or use are traditional characters.
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I have a new favorite blog, this month. It’s called johnbiesnecker.com. John’s an English teacher in China with an ambition for learning languages that you can’t help but respect. He’s striving to learn five languages in one decade, and I think he’ll make it! Not only that, but he writes at least one post pretty much every day. Chinese students, this is one blog not to miss!

The only thing wrong with his blog is that he’s inconveniently named “John”, just like another frequent commenter on Toshuo. My tag archive is getting over-loaded with Mikes and Johns, but I’ve added him as “John B”.