The Ideal Situation

This is a blog post that has been coming for some time.

As i’ve mentioned many a time before, a key aspect to language learning is definitely motivation. If you don’t have it, the process is nigh impossible. Then I spoke about systems and “hacks” and different approaches for accelerating one’s personal absorption rate of data and information and the best and most interesting ways to perform immersion. But ultimately, these things tend to fail relative to moving forward if you have a lack of one things.

What’s that? People.

This is probably the biggest “hurdle” I have faced. Without people and situations to practice language and root your memories,it seems language learning is like happily entering a void that you know you can traverse, but only halfway. So as I’ve gotten much better and figuring out the “how” of learning language, and seeing how fast I can start functionally speaking it, I also tend to get frustrated (and eventually start to lose interest) because of the lack of speaking time I get with people. What i need is the IDEAL SITUATION.

There are a few language learning “beasts” that I’ve made note of over the years. Particularly Benny the Irish Polygot, Tim Ferris and Khatzumoto. Let’s talk about the first two. What i’ve noticed is that these guys definitely have a way to approach learning languages, since they both speak about 6 fluently each. But after reading through their blogs occassionally and getting amped up about the prospect of using new tools and tricks to learn languages, I realized that often, they had the ideal situation and i didn’t.

Meaning. Even though Tim Ferris can use his techniques to learn languages rapidly, he seems to incorporate these while going to some of the top language schools in the world for that language. I remember when he said he learned fluent German in 8 weeks and my mind was blown away. Then he mentioned going to a super awesome language school (not to mention expensive) and I wondered how much of his progress was weighted on that versus just his techniques. This isn’t skepticism, I just mean if Tim Ferris was not in Germany during that time, in one of the best language schools in the country, would he have made the same progress? I highly doubt it. But what i do know, is that he was in the ideal situation. It allowed him to use whatever “accelerated techniques” within the daily grind of a language school designed to make you learn faster. I realized if I wanted to learn German that quickly (and more importantly effectively) I would need to create such a situation. Either going to a language school there, or living in Germany. Two options not available to me, so in a sense my situation isn’t ideal.

Now you might say, “find a German girlfriend ” or “hang with German embassy people”. Well as a guy currently in Jamaica who tries these things, there are three things that are always missing in that scenario. 1. Is structure, 2. compatability and 3. gaps

Meaning, a hotshot diplomat might not have the time (or the patience to meet with you  3 times a week to practice speaking). Also, he/she might not be the kind of person with the personality of patience or consideration for what you are trying to do. Meaning, you might not get everything you need out of the interaction. Thirdly, because of a non-native environment, there are gaps between learning cycles, so cumulative learning from high error based acceleration is less effective since you aren’t speaking/talking German in daily situations. I’ve found this brutally difficult to create. People just don’t have time.

This has happened with both French and Japanese here. I took some classes at the Alliance Francaise here. They were B1 (I guess upper intermediate speech classes) but I had an issue. It was “cool” that in only 3 weeks I was able to attend these classes, but the structure didn’t work for me. There were a few more advanced speakers than myself, and classes worked on a format of splitting into groups and discussing a topic. If someone you are speaking to is way more advanced than you, they can speak rapidly at length while you are plodding along (and often get interrupted) which kills an aspect of the learning process. The best option would be to do private lessons one on one with someone for a while, but the planning/implementation of that was a bit tricky and costly. So again, I fell into a scenario where I wasn’t in the ideal situation relative to my goals. 

Now you might say, why not just learn a language casually? Have fun with it, let each experience be a fresh and fun one! 

The easiest answer is that I am NOT a casual learner. It took me a while to realize this, but the effort i’ve put into research and implementation is pretty intense. At the time of this writing, I am assuming i’ve written over 300,000 words on this blog (probably more) on my observations and inferences.

This is not a matter of a positive perspective, its more closely having a better idea of worthiness relative to what you know you can do. In other words, when I feel myself hit a plateau, the plateau tends to always be relative to the lack of persons I interact with. The only way to really build language muscle is to speak it every day (somehow) and so far, in my experiments here, this is what causes me to lose steam. Lack of people.

So in looking at Tim Ferris and Benny the Irish Polygot, also following a few other bloggers learning different languages. There are two commonalities.

1. They go to the native country for an extended period of time. 

2. Once there, they implement whatever “system” they use to learn the language at an accelerated pace.

This is currently my missing equation.

Either way, I’m not writing this to stymie any efforts you might put into learning languages. Of course I am not saying it is impossible to learn a language outside the native country. I mean, I can functionally speak French now, even though I don’t speak it every day. BUt if I was living in France, I am sure I would be much closer to fluent using my methods.

Of course things would be different if i had some job where I was speaking French everyday, I had a hot French girl friend who chatted to me in French and only hung out with French people in Kingston… but that’s not realistic for me.

Also, this “realization” in itself can be a downer. It’s like functioning at 45% efficiency, when you know you can be at 95%.

So it would seem the next logical step for me would be to plan to go to countries where I plan to pursue the language, at least for six weeks. Presently this is the only way I can imagine really getting the most out of accelerated learning systems.


Be sure to realize that I am writing this after testing several extremes of rapid language acquisition. I’ve done high levels of immersion, memory tricks, audio programs and whatever else is out there. I’ve blogged a few times about losing motivation because i have no one to speak to, but i’ve also found speaking to someone once a week isn’t very helpful either. Three times a week is better if you can wing it, and everyday would be the best. This is my perspective on how efficient i want to be. I don’t like to always have to lower my ambitions, but sometimes with environment one has no choice.

Again, Tim Ferris notes in his blog that he learned Mandarin, German and Spanish rapidly at very good language schools in the native countries (Mandarin I believe he did a very advanced language program at Princeton) then adding his methods. Benny the irish polygot goes to the native country of the language he wants to learn then starts using his systems to make it happen. With the exception of Khatzumoto, who used brutal amounts of effort to learn Japanese in 2 years outside of Japan, most speakers who use “tricks” and learning approaches that are considered “out there” tend to go to the native country first once they have their method in place.

I didn’t realize I had such passion for languages until I started researching these methods. That said, based on my slightly different perspective and desire to learn languages quickly i write this post to explain the biggest plateau for me presently. It isn’t much fun for a person like me, with my wants, to get brief tastes of what I am aiming for. Sure I might meet some French people every now and then, or think of taking classes that aren’ tvery effecient or wahtever. I might also run into some Japanese people randomly at a party, or try and squeeze in some chatting time with some overworked Embassy folk, but that structure just won’t cut it. That’s a system that might work when you already have grounded fluency in your target language. When you’ve reached a point (after mastering it) where you can chat whenever since the roots are there. I’m not there yet.

So I will need to make a decision very soon. If I want to actively pursue what I am doing, it will require a return to the native environment, otherwise the process will be a waste of time (in a certain way) for me.

There is one very specific reason why I also wrote this blog post, the most obvious and key observation to language learning that comes from chatting to native speakers.


That’s it! If i run into some French people here and we are at a party trying to discuss the state of reggae music in Jamaica, and i’m trying to mix my personality into what i’m saying, that gives you a lot of grammar challenges. In fact, I tend to get bombarded with things that test my grammar, vocabulary and knowledge of idiomatic speech. Since you learn things cumulatively, it only goes to say that if I were speaking this way day after day, I would improve faster and possibly more efficiently. In on night hanging with some Japanese folk in Kingston, I would learn a lot more than simply watching TV and reading sentences. It is the reality of language learning that eventually hits any hardcore learner. You will learn so much from people, but that is what is ultimately missing. When you are in situations to make jokes, speak seriously, ask common questions, try and make nuanced statements, this is how you learn fluent speech. But I havent ‘(yet) found a way to really flood myself with these personal challenges in a place with limited access to native speakers.

So I have much to think about, and much to plan for. I need my IDEAL SITUATION!


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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2 Responses to The Ideal Situation

  1. lealena2000 says:

    Interesting. I didn’t speak to many native speakers when I learned Spanish at least initially all I did was listen to music and television in Spanish and shadowed what the native speakers said. Now, I speak to native speakers all the time. But in my experience, you do not have to be in the country in order to learn a language. With technology the whole world is so much closer. I speak with Japanese people everyday on skype and I watch Japanese news and television.

    • marcusbird says:

      I agree, at the time i wrote this I was a bit frustrated with a lack of access to speakers, but you are correct, there are always native speakers “somewhere”. It just a matter of organizing the time to speak to them. I don’t like to speak on Skype honestly, I prefer to see someone live, and that was the issue, but in terms of language learning there are people from all walks where I am, so it is just a matter of figuring out when to hangout.

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