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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.

I did a video interview of Chris Parker of Fluent in Mandarin on Lingsprout. It requires a login to view, but everything on the site is free:

An interview with Chris Parker

It was about 15 minutes and covered his background as a monolingual kid in the UK, his transition to being a foreign guest on Chinese TV what his friends back home thought when they saw it. Check it out here: Becoming fluent in Mandarin with Chris Parker

It was a bit easier than with Southern Min, but it really wasn’t that easy for me to find Cantonese learning materials. I found online dictionaries, but none with audio. There are some very basic youtube videos, but only a few. I emailed a few people with blogs that mentioned learning Cantonese, but nobody had any suggestions of use.

My friend David did tell me of one podcast to help people learn Cantonese, but unfortunately I didn’t know about it until I’d already left Hong Kong. Other than that, the only resources I know of are Pimsleur and the FSI course.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of really positive reviews of Pimsleur language learning programs. Some of my friends have even lent me their Mandarin or Japanese packages. At the time it was hard for me to see the point. I had already learned the vocabulary being introduced, half the audio was English, and it seemed kind of weird. I filed Pimsleur under “stuff that works for people not like me” and put it out of my mind.

Then, not too long ago, I had a chance to see the results first hand. My friend Ben made some Japanese acquaintances and decided to give Pimsleur a shot, largely due to the recommendation of another friend. I saw him the next day, he told me he’d worked through an hour or two and then proceeded to ask me in Japanese, where I was from and if I could speak English! The thing that really impressed me was his pronunciation. To my ears at least, it sounded even better than his Chinese pronunciation! Considering he’d spent years living in Taiwan and using Chinese daily for work, that impressed the heck out of me. Afterwords, I thought a bit more about it. Pimsleur is essentially a spaced-repetition listening and mimicing program.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Before getting to Hong Kong, I’d only worked through the first three hours of Pimsleur Cantonese, but I did find quite a few chances to use what I knew. Furthermore, people in the airport answered my Cantonese in full-speed Cantonese I couldn’t understand! That’s usually a sign that your accent isn’t too far off. Obviously, it’s not ideal for communication in any given moment, but fortunately I knew how to say “My Cantonese isn’t that good” in Cantonese and switch to Mandarin. It’s not much, but even such minor successes gave were very, very motivating!

Over the next couple of days, I continued with the Pimsleur and also found I was picking up a lot of vocabulary from hearing local’s replies. Individually any given reply may not have made sense the first dozen times I heard it, but it did sink in with repetition. I don’t know how much help being a Mandarin speaker and a (poor) Taiwanese speaker gave me, but there were definitely a lot of things that sounded really similar.

After Hong Kong

By the time I left, I was able to order simple drinks, order a value meal at KFC (yay!) and talk to people a little. It wasn’t a lot, but for only spending a single week in Hong Kong, it was far, far better than I had expected. Despite my small vocabulary, locals were shocked with my canned Pimsleur sentences. One even refused to believe me that I was a tourist and not someone who had been living there for a while! The best boost I got was after leaving HK, when I was chatting with a guy from Guangzhou. He said (in Mandarin), “Your Cantonese accent… it sounds like a Hong Konger.” I had been certain he was going to say laowai! I guess Pimsleur must have focused their stuff on HK, not Guangzhou.

I have no illusions about the level of my Cantonese (low-beginner), but it was the fastest start I’ve ever gotten with a new language. If anything, this experience has reinforced to me just how much pronunciation matters. Especially for a clearly foreign-looking person in Asia, your pronunciation has a huge impact on how much input you get and how much of a hassle it is to get it. Back when I first started studying Chinese in Taiwan, I encountered people who downright insisted on using English with me all the time, often even from people with terrible English. After improving past a certain point, I almost entirely stopped running into those people. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous people complain that getting HK people to speak in Cantonese is like pulling teeth if you’re a westerner, but I didn’t experience it at all. Instead, it was me asking them to switch to another language.

If I ever decide to learn Thai or Korean, I’ll probably start with Pimsleur.

Taiwanese Study Resources

The very first difficulty I had after deciding to learn some Taiwanese a few months ago was finding appropriate materials.  Despite being surrounded by Taiwanese as a second language in Taipei, very little of what I heard was useful.  With almost no foundation to start from, local radio wasn’t much help.  I tried watching some Taiyu youtube clips with Chinese subtitles repeatedly, but it wasn’t very productive.

Next, I picked up a book+4 CD set, titled 台語真簡單 for under 1000NT at the local bookstore. It was extremely straight-forward. It consisted of a word or a phrase in Mandarin and then the exact same term again two more times in Taiwanese, repeated for enough words and phrases to fill 4 CDs. I ripped them to my iPod and listened during my 10 minute commute to work and whenever I went out for a walk. The results after a week weren’t very inspiring. I’d gotten through each CD a couple of times, and I thought I knew how to say some of the words that came up frequently, but people couldn’t really understand what I was saying. I didn’t really have any handle on the phonics, either. I suspect the problem was that the CDs were intended for people who had grown up hearing if not speaking the language.

1st grade Taiyu

One nice thing after having started my studies is that help started coming from all directions. A mother of one of my students gave me a book for elementary school students here who are learning Taiwanese. One of my 2nd grade students even made me some flashcards and started quizzing me a word or two whenever she saw me after class! Her Taiwanese isn’t that good, but she had studied since first grade and was absolutely thrilled with the idea of being more knowledgeable about a school subject than a teacher.

The elementary school book was interesting. I found modified zhùyīn symbols in it, which I hadn’t seen before. Text was rendered in triplicate– characters, modified zhuyin and romanized. The Chinese characters were sometimes comprehensible to me, but in some cases they just don’t make sense to a Mandarin speaker. Below is an image of the glossary from one of the pages:
Taiwanese to Mandarin
As expected, the book was full of situational language to use at school, classroom objects, family members and animals. The CD had a dialogue and a crazy song in each chapter. I don’t think I learned very much at all, but it was fun and it motivated me to continue looking for a way to actually learn to speak a bit of Taiwanese.

In the end, I did find a very good resource, the Maryknoll textbooks. They are written primarily for Catholic missionaries, which means that a lot of religious vocabulary appears early in the text. However, there’s nothing else I’ve seen that even remotely compares. There are three primary books in the series, and each is accompanied by a lot of audio. I purchased the level one book, and the MP3 CD that came with it contained 32 tracks of about half an hour each. I strongly suspect that in the past, it was a “book and a crate of tapes” method much like FSI. I still haven’t completed the book (or even half of it), but it’s been enough to allow me to have five minute conversations with a cab driver, or to say a few polite words when visiting Taiwanese speakers.

Towards the end of this Chinese New Year, I started studying Taiwanese[1]. Though most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin Chinese now, it wasn’t always the case. Even now, there are a lot of people who prefer to speak Taiwanese and I think almost everyone here can understand at least a bit. That said, Taipei city is definitely not the best place in Taiwan to be learning Taiwanese. Mandarin is very dominant here. I probably hear less than a third of the Taiwanese I heard in my previous home in Taoyuan county.

What is Taiwanese?

By “Taiwanese”, I mean the Chinese language brought from Fújiàn (福建) province during the mass immigration to Taiwan of centuries past. It’s a variant or a dialect of Mǐnnánhuà (閩南話), also known as Hoklo or Hokkien. It’s unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin. The Amoy language, is mutually intelligible with Taiwanese, as I recently discovered with delight!

Why learn?

Pretty much the first thing any of my friends asks when I tell them I’m learning Taiwanese is “why?” I suppose it is a reasonable question. I’ve met some foreigners who barely even speak Mandarin after living in Taiwan for a decade. And unlike Mandarin, Taiwanese will almost certainly never benefit my career or get me into an academic program. Worse still, a lot of younger people seem to look down on the language.

So, why learn? For me, it was a realization that I’d been in Taiwan for seven years and still couldn’t really understand a language that I hear every single day. It’s true that I never have to speak it at work, and that clerks in any store will greet customers in Mandarin, not Taiwanese. But there are still people speaking Taiwanese all around me. A lot of my neighbors in my apartment building speak Taiwanese, the people at the traditional temple nearby speak Taiwanese, the fruit-sellers at the market speak Taiwanese and so do a number of passerby on the street. It seems like a waste to ignore the language completely.

People who do speak Taiwanese really appreciate my efforts. Unlike when I was learning Mandarin and had the distinct impression that people wanted me to just give up and speak English, a number of people have taken it as a point of pride that I would learn their language. It is probably just as Barry Farber said in his book, How to Learn Any Language. The languages which are least necessary to learn for work or schooling are the ones that can earn you the most goodwill for learning.

Progress to date

I’ve made some decent progress, especially in terms of listening comprehension. In fact, it’s the fastest start I’ve gotten learning a language since I studied Japanese 10 years ago!

This isn’t to say there aren’t some serious hurdles to overcome. So far, it’s been difficult on a number of fronts– there aren’t many study materials, there isn’t a standardized romanization system, there are seven tones with complex rules, there are both literary and colloquial readings for each hanzi character, and the phonetics is just brutal. The proverbial back-breaking straw has got to be the huge schism in the Minnan dialect spoken here in Taiwan. Unfortunately for the foreign student such as myself, the Minnanhua speaking immigrants to Taiwan came from both the cities of Quánzhōu and Zhāngzhōu, bringing two different, but pretty much mutually intelligible dialects of the language with them. In most of Taiwan there are regional variations in the Taiwanese spoken, but here in the capital city you hear them all. I’m sure I’ll love when and if I get to a high level of communicative ability, but for now it’s really confusing.

Each time I successfully buy anything at the traditional market without having to fall back on Mandarin, it’s a victory.


[1] I had learned a few words here and there before, but never really made a concerted effort.

Recently, I’ve been reading an interesting book called The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss, and stumbled across his blog. In it, he had a video in which he and Kevin Rose that was primarily about things related to the business of start-ups. But then, surprisingly, in the last 5 minutes of the video, the conversation turned to learning Chinese. Skip the first two minutes of the video if you’re easily disgusted!

The 4th Random Episode from Glenn McElhose on Vimeo.

I thought those language learning ideas were pretty odd. In my own experience as a teacher and as a student, getting a lot of language input improves output, whereas focusing on speaking doesn’t necessarily improve one’s comprehension abilities. In fact, I recall at least unpleasant experience I had in Guatemala in which I was able to ask people for directions in a very fluent manner, but I couldn’t understand their responses. Steve Kauffman’s critique included the very same point:

2) Ferriss says that we should start with production of the language, not comprehension. I could not disagree more. You have to understand before you can speak. You have to get the language in you before you can produce anything in the language. I have seen his previous material where he places great importance on knowing the word order, and certain basic sentences, in different languages. To me the usage patterns in different languages are too varied, unpredictable and usually illogical to allow for any such formula approach. You just need to get used to the language with a lot of input, and work on comprehension.

That said, I have had very good results working on production in a few very narrow situations. The first is pronunciation. I still think the best way is to hear a lot of the language before trying to speak it (just as we do with our native languages), but focused drilling of the more difficult sounds can help quite a bit. I’ve seen it in my students’ pronunciation of “r” sounds in English, and I’ve seen it in my own pronunciation of the “ü” sounds in Mandarin. The other place where focused work on language production has helped me is with writing Chinese characters. I’m not sure that any amount of reading alone would give someone the ability to write characters. It would do wonders for the overall structure of their essays, reports or other writing, though.

This summer, I managed to get a few videos of a class at my school when they had nearly finished their second semester. It’s a pretty good class in terms of student morale. The read from an extensive reader called The President’s Murderer (OUP Bookworm). As usual for my school, this class meets twice a week for two hours each time, they spent quite a bit of time on phonics and basic grammar drills and had regular homework of an audio-lingual variety. As they progressed, the classes got gradually less intensive and more extensive. Their current level is about the tipping point between the strict, low-level classes and the more relaxed intermediate level classes to come.

First they read from a vocabulary sheet to review words in the book that they haven’t learned yet from the school curriculum:

Then, they take turns reading the chapter the teacher read last week:

After that, the teacher reads another chapter to them, intentionally making a few mistakes they have to correct. He might ask a few comprehension questions, and then it’s on to the next activity. That’s pretty much how all the reading works for the lower level classes. This class had already read Aladdin, Pocahontas and two other readers of the same level as this one, so it wasn’t necessary to interrupt for too many explanations. It would be boring to spend an entire two hours reading, but I think most the kids really look forward to the half hour they spend on it each time.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with this class. Several students quit at the beginning of the semester because their parents thought the basic phonics and grammar we started with was too easy, but those that have continued have done great. That’s including four kids who hadn’t been to an English school before, and who were a bit shaky on the alphabet and struggled with phrases like “sit down”, “stand up” and so on. Everyone has worked hard, and they have all far, far surpassed the starting point of those who thought the class was too easy.

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.

My friend David has recently shown me some of what he’s been working on with his site for learning Chinese, Popup Chinese. Popup Chinese has always had a great technical backbone, amazing talent in its instructors, and lots and lots of free MP3 lessons. That said, this last batch of upgrades is still pretty impressive.

learn chinese

The Writing Pad

This a cool writing application that has teaches how to write Chinese characters. The only thing I’ve ever seen like it is Skritter, also a neat tool. The writing pad enforces correct proportions in characters as you write them and also enforces stroke order. The strictness of the stroke order is a little bit frustrating for me, since stroke order isn’t entirely uniform amongst all writers and the stroke order conventions my teachers taught are slightly different than those in the Writing Pad. This issue would be irrelevant to any beginning students who aren’t already accustomed to writing a certain way, though. The app will teach you how to write correctly as well as any app I know of at this point.
The Writing Pad

HSK Stuff

You don’t hear much about the HSK here in Taiwan, but if you ever want proof of your Chinese skills so you can go to college in China or brag to a prospective employer, this is the test to take. There’s an impressive array of materials on Popup Chinese to help you get ready for it:

One-Click Access HSK Tests, HSK Flashcards and HSK Vocabulary Lists
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/flashcards
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/test
http://popupchinese.com/hsk/vocabulary

Spaced Repetition

I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my suggestions months ago made it into the site! For anyone signed up, the site remembers which flashcards they’ve answered right and which ones they’ve missed on and calculates the ideal time to show them again for review. Even for students who are unfamiliar with spaced repetition, this is a huge plus.

Practice Speaking Lessons

I’ve heard about these types of lessons before. I guess if you’re living someplace where Chinese tutors are hard to find or expensive, this option might be worthwhile. People can get one-on-one feedback on their spoken Chinese with a premium subscription.
Practice Speaking Lessons

Pricing

The prices have come down quite a bit. For the first time it’s in the price range of something I would have bought as a student. At just under fifty bucks, the “basic plus” subscription is far, far more useful than textbook in existence at roughly the same cost. I sure wish they had this stuff around back when I was in school!