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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.

Years ago, I saw a disturbing blight spread across the web. The place that had once been my liberating and exhilarating teenage escape had changed. It was no longer dominated by academics, anarchists and teenagers. It was full of people people who trying to make money.
continue reading…

What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

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


Blogging leads to unchanging opinions

As I told in the first part of this series, blogging is tremendously helpful for learning. Keeping this online journal has helped me learn about other languages and cultures, it’s helped me learn about writing and most of all it’s helped me learn about myself from a more detached point of view. But it comes with a terrible price—it has made it far more difficult for me to change my opinion.

Unfortunately, people are strongly influenced to believe what they write publicly. This bias is so strong that it was the subject of a full chapter of Cialdini’s classic book Influence. People will even tend to start believing things that they previously didn’t when writing them in public! I don’t know of any specific research on arguing, but I suspect people who publicly argue for a position become even more entrenched in their belief of it.

As a blogger who wrote multiple posts per week and occasionally ended up in huge arguments with other bloggers, it was an effect I felt acutely. Even when nobody disagreed with me, I could feel my openness to other points of view slowly decrease as I wrote repeatedly about various topics revolving around education, language learning, politics or blogging. This is the main reason I stopped blogging so much, even before leaving Taiwan.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that blogging isn’t a fantastic way to get feedback from other people and get closer to the truth at any given time. Over the course of days or weeks, it’s great. The danger is that after you come to a decision based on all of the feedback and have repeated it for a few months, then it gets harder and harder not to influence yourself to stick to it and even dig in further over time.

Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival

Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival


continue reading…

What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

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


The good times for EFL teachers in Taiwan ended in 1999

Along with Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, Taiwan invested early and invested heavily in English education. By the mid 80s, foreign teachers were in such high demand that it was not uncommon for people fresh off the boat to be earning over $35USD/hour and without any prior teaching experience. Very, very few schools were foreign run and those that were had a big advantage.

Even into the late 90s, most competent foreign teachers who were bilingual or had a bilingual local partner could successfully start English teaching schools. It wasn’t like that in 2006.

Since Taiwan is a fantastic place to live and very open compared to other Asian countries, a relatively percentage of western English teachers decide to stay for the long-term and settle down in Taiwan. It’s far more common than in Japan or especially Korea. For most of these teachers, the best career option is to open a business that leverages their unique skills as a foreigner—generally either an English teaching school or a western-style restaurant or bar.

The number of foreign-run English schools (and restaurants) in Taiwan has exploded and the bar has been raised year after year for decades. At the same time, the number of Taiwanese children has been decreasing. Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world right now. The result of these two trends is that the market is brutal—the supply and quality of schools has been increasing while the demand has been falling. While it’s still easy in cities that foreigners don’t like to live in, the market was saturated in Taipei long ago.

Opening a school in 2006 in Taipei wasn’t quite as tough as now in 2016, but far, far more difficult than in 1996. Fortunately for me, I had a huge unfair advantage.

Starting without capital

As I wrote earlier in this series, I was a top-performing English teacher. I was earning over double what most foreign teachers did and I had a very loyal following of students, but (legally) opening a school takes some money. Finding a suitable local partner is also extremely difficult for most foreigners. This blog helped me avoid both of those problems.

I was getting about one serious contact per month from someone who had read my writing on this site and wanted to start a business with me. While some were basically looking for someone to do everything for them, I did meet one very agreeable couple who had been struggling for several months after buying a school with only a dozen or so students. But they seemed like their hearts were in the right place and they really cared about providing a quality education for their students. They had read quite a few of my articles on teaching and even better it turned out they knew my best friend Martin! It wasn’t clear what I could do for them that would make economic sense though, since I was earning over double what the average foreign teacher did and I lived out in Guishan, not Taipei.

In the end, they offered me something that was both a great deal and a bit crazy—for me to join their school, recruit students, use my teaching methods, write a curriculum and handle the entire academic side of a new program for them. I’d have no base salary, but take a set amount per student per hour that I taught personally and 30% equity in the business with no money down.

There was a great deal of risk for me. The first class I opened only had 5 students. It was a huge, huge drop in pay and a lot more work but it was a fantastic opportunity. About a year and a half later, our business had grown and we bought out our closest competitor, moved into a bigger location and I took on 50% stake (for which I did invest some of my own capital). Yes, I was working far more than a full-time job. I was basically doing a full-time teaching job, plus writing textbooks, exams and exercises, plus recording CDs, plus hiring, training and managing teachers. But there’s no way I’d have had my foot in the door to begin with if not for writing this blog.

Hiring is really easy if you’re #1 on a relevant Google search

For years, I’ve gotten regular emails from strangers asking me about where to teach English or how they can upgrade their skills and get a better English teaching job in Taiwan. While running the academic half of a school, that second group of emailers was fantastic!

Job boards and classifieds usually suck, but blog readers who applied often had an idea of who I was, what kind of academic program I wanted to run and what kind of environment they’d be stepping into. There was still a lot of noise, and I probably hurt my negotiating leverage by having blogged about how much other more established schools paid teachers such as myself but the candidate quality was just head and shoulders above what I found on Tealit and other classifieds.

Blogs can help recruit customers

In my case I don’t think I got a lot of customers through this blog. It’s written in English (for the most part) and my customers were Chinese readers. That said, it might have helped a little bit in terms of credibility and retention for those who were aware of it. As with my business partners, customers could tell that I genuinely cared about teaching as well as possible.

A learning advantage

Much of the learning advantage from blogging came before starting the school. By writing about what I was working on and what I had learned, I forced myself to clarify my thoughts. I also connected with others who cared about the same thing and many of them shared their knowledge in comments. I’m not sure I’d have picked up as much as I did about TEFL or language acquisition if not for all the ideas, book recommendations and other comments from readers.

In fact it worked so well for me that when I decided to leave English teaching and try to gain the skills to break into a tech career, I started another blog to document my attempts. Like this blog, that one was a great learning tool and was instrumental in my success breaking into Silicon Valley as a thirty-something.

Self understanding

For me, the single best part of blogging has been the way it lets me view myself from the outside. This doesn’t work for all kinds of blogs. Many people I know tend to avoid revealing much of themselves online… for very understandable reasons. It’s also very natural and to some degree unavoidable present a false front to the internet—a more professional self or an idealized version of oneself.

To the extent that I’ve been able to be open and authentic in my blogs, I’ve found them to be fantastic tools for understanding myself. If I write what I truly feel, there’s a record to examine later when I feel similar things in the future and I can compare the feelings I had when I wrote and the things that happened. If I write what I truly believe will happen, then I can look back and see what I was right about and what things I was blind to. It’s not easy to do, but it does lead to more self understanding and the ability to make better plans the next time. And that’s good for business.

In particular, I’ve found it invaluable to look back at posts about major life decisions I’ve made and look at the reasoning I had at the time. There are often important things I’ve forgotten. When I was starting a software company in San Francisco, I went back and re-read everything I’d written when starting the English school in Taipei.

Interestingly, while all the other benefits in this piece required a blog to be public, self understanding is arguably improved even more by writing a private blog since it’s easier to be open and authentic in private.

What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade

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


Blogs were popping up everywhere in 2005

Soon after I started writing this blog, and sharing one post about teaching English as a foreign language in Taiwan, other bloggers started adding me to their blog lists. Notably, John of Sinosplice added me to his China Blog List and Michael Turton of The View from Taiwan added me to his massive blogroll.

From there, people started showing up and commenting. Even with only 300 visits per day, I often got 20 or more comments on a post. This seems to have been more common back before Facebook sucked up so much of people’s online writing time. It was an interesting time since nobody really knew what blogs were or were supposed to be, but it was very social.

Meeting the actual bloggers

It wasn’t long before, I started meeting this site’s commenters in real life. In Taiwan, there were a number of meetups. When I visited Shanghai, John put me up at his apartment for a week! In Beijing, I met David (then running Adsotrans), Brendan (a more fantastically talented foreign learner of Chinese than I’d imagined existed) and a number of other online friends. Other online friends, like Angelica actually moved to Taiwan from elsewhere and ended up in my offline social circle.

It was an odd world. In 2006, none of these people, except maybe John were making any money online and everyone’s focus was on the ideas they wrote about. Though some of us wrote about language learning or ourselves, others wrote mostly about politics, photography or travel. And we all put each other on each other’s blogrolls—lists of links to other bloggers on the side of our sites—just because we were foreigners with websites in Taiwan (or China). Sure there were some overlapping circles and others that didn’t. Some of the Taiwanese bloggers focused on politics weren’t adding a bunch of China bloggers to their blogrolls. They probably weren’t adding TEFL blogs from outside of Taiwan that I was following either.

People were almost always wonderful

It was really refreshing and eye-opening seeing how nice everybody was. I had originally created this blog with the goal of helping other teachers and students, but for some reason I hadn’t expected the internet to reciprocate.

Other than being offered a place to crash when I visited China, I got immeasurable help from people who had learned more Chinese than I had, people who knew more about getting around Taiwan, people who knew more about running a blog, people who knew more about programming and people who were just really friendly in general. People I met on this very site helped me find apartments, set up websites, set up a business in Taiwan (which was an entire story itself) and all kinds of other things. Even the people who constantly argued with me helped sharpen my ideas about language teaching and my understanding of cultural differences and local politics.

Arguing on the internet

duty calls

XKCD: Duty Calls

Given how many bloggers in Taiwan at that time were focused on politics, it’s inevitable that there were arguments. It wasn’t just politics, though. For me, the longest and most contentious arguments were about language teaching and search engines. I also argued about using standard Pinyin. Actually, my biggest comments on politics generally revolved around issues that related to foreigners in Taiwan, which included romanization. At the time, the DPP very much wanted to adopt or create a romanization system different from China. Due to squabbling and repeated attempts at this, the signs were really confusing for me before I knew enough Chinese to understand the characters and I hated that. “The locals don’t read romanized signs anyway!” I thought. At one point, I had a protracted debate about the merits of including tone marks on signs!

All in all, I feel the online arguing was worthwhile but that there were rapidly diminishing returns. It was fantastic for getting new ideas and seeing how others thought of my ideas. On the other hand, habitually digging in and making a third pass at an argument is very costly, not only socially but also in terms of personal growth. I certainly don’t agree with everything I’ve written here in the past, and in more than one case I’ve gone back and appologized to people I’d interpreted uncharitably in the midst of a disagreement.

The dark side of online visibility—safety concerns

Given how blogs and the internet in general make it easier to put oneself in an echo chamber filled with agreeing voices, online communities tend towards polarization. Paul Graham, a prominent essayist, believes the effect goes far beyond online communities and is a society-wide refragmentation. I think he’s probably right. People, at least within the US and the Anglosphere generally, have diverged into increasingly separated cultural camps. Nowhere is this more visible than in online mob behavior. Twitter has probably been a net positive, but it’s very possibly 45% destructive.

The absolutely most unpleasant experience I’ve had on this site was with a certain person from a country in the southern hemisphere who had an online presence in Taiwan. We had a disagreement which had originally seemed a hope trivially minor misunderstanding—I had corrected a couple of minor errors in what he’d written about me on his site—but his reaction was over the top. He left disturbing sexualized messages both in my email and voice machine, and contacted my business partners threatening to sue over a blog post. Years after I had moved away from Taiwan and I’d had no contact with him whatsoever, he emailed out of the blue swearing to follow me the rest of my life, to ruin it and that if he had half a chance he’d “pay somebody to knock me off”.

Though I had heard others speak of his behavior enough times that I knew I was far from the only person on the internet he’d unexpected flipped out, it was terrifying. I lived in a different country than he did, so there wasn’t a completely credible death threat or anything concrete that the police in the US could do. That one blog post that upset him is the only one I’ve ever taken down at someone else’s request.

I feel hesitant to write about the experience even without naming the individual. Hopefully this serves as an alert to my peers who might think that only huge or exceptionally contentious sites have real risk associated with them.

Also, FWIW, writing online has been a net positive despite this experience.

Lasting bonds

One really great thing about an online presence, or putting yourself out there in general, is that you can choose who you want to spend more time with and who you don’t. I didn’t like everyone I met. Guess what? I don’t follow them online or hang out with them now! Conversely, most of the people I got along with best in 2006 are still friends. Some are close friends, some are weak ties and others are just people I’ll follow online.

I many ways, this is the good side of the societal “refragmentation” mentioned above. In this past decade more than ever, people have been able to find kindred spirits and form like-minded communities.

Next is Part 3: 3 Comments Read more

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.

redbeanyum

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 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

The last few times I’ve come back to Taiwan, I’ve found myself in a recurring situation—I’m out at a bar celebrating something or at a coffee shop using the internet and some random person comes up to me and says, “Hey, you’re the guy that writes Toshuo, aren’t you!”

It’s a bit odd having online fame in a very limited niche translate into the real world in a social context (especially at a bar), but it’s been mostly positive and has even lead to a few new friends.

I don’t really want to be known publicly outside of my work, so I’ve felt the desire to take down the entire site. On the other hand, I can’t deny the numerous ways writing has helped me over the ways or the ways it still can help me with my future goals. On the whole, it’s definitely been a net positive, but strangers, employers and even certain governments have been getting increasingly vindictive about punishing viewpoints they disagree with. This is often the case even when those views were written a long time ago.

One of the best things about writing—especially writing online—has been how it helps organize thoughts, so I think I’ll write it out here and publicly for now at least.

Part 1: Before the blog

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:

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.

😀