Category Archives: Why bother to learn a language?

State of the World’s Languages: Wicked Infographic

State of the World’s Languages: Wicked Infographic
State of the World’s Languages:  Wicked Infographic

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of “every language you learn means you can speak to another X million people”.  Am I ever going to speak to all of them?  Of course not, but the possibility is mind-boggling.  With that in mind, I found the following infographic from Transparent Languages really intriguing (click the image to enlarge):

Speaking of Languages - Infographic

Do the math: With your current languages, how many people can you speak to? Once you reach fluency in the language you’re learning now, how will that number go up?

Infographic source:

3 Sneaky Ways to speak your target language (to partners, friends, family, or whoever)

3 Sneaky Ways to speak your target language (to partners, friends, family, or whoever)
3 Sneaky Ways to speak your target language (to partners, friends, family, or whoever)

One common question I hear – and that I’ve faced – is: How do I get people to talk to me in Spanish?  (Or Japanese, German, or whichever language you’re learning).

I’ve experimented with several techniques, and annoyed many people into speaking with me in Japanese, Spanish and German.  Here are four sneaky ways I’ve found to recruit unsuspecting practice partners.

For the examples below, let’s pretend your partner speaks Spanish, and that’s what you’re learning.  (Spanish could be replaced with any language, and your partner could be replaced with anyone you see often – a friend, colleague, family member, whoever).


1.  Tell them something you learned today.

After learning lots of juicy Spanish tidbits from podcasts, I would tell my Spanish-speaking wife one thing I learned every day.  It could be a concept, it could be a sentence, or even one word.  The volume doesn’t matter:  it shows your partner what you can, and cannot yet, talk about.

If you learnt how to talk about going to the beach, tell them “Guess what I learnt today?  Quieres ir a la playa este fin de semana conmigo?” (Want to go to the beach with me this weekend?).

From then on, she’ll know you understand how to talk about going to the beach, and next time, maybe she’ll ask you in Spanish, because she knows you understand.  Repeat.

2. Pick a specific time to speak the language.

It could be every day at lunchtime between 12-1pm, every Wednesday all day, or for 20 minutes during dinner each Read the rest of this entry

The Two-Hour Struggle

The Two-Hour Struggle
The Two-Hour Struggle

30 minutes down

Every word I uttered felt strange.  I knew I wasn’t saying everything correctly, and I felt rusty.  I wanted words, but when I reached into the back of my brain, and reached again, the specific ones I wanted still weren’t there.

Stuff was coming out of my mouth that I knew wasn’t right.  The people in my sentences sometimes didn’t match who they were (male/female), and the way I was describing them (big/small/inquisitive) didn’t match them either.

But hang on…. my tutor still seemed to be understanding me.  I was able to understand almost everything she was saying, either from context, pictures, movements or words.  It was a bit slow, but she hadn’t kicked me out of the room, or even put her hand up in a “speak to the hand” rejection.  So far, so good.

1 hour down

I reminded myself again:  still no English – that’s progress.  One hour of French in the bag.  Was it perfect French?  Nope, but I’d never spoken French for a full hour before.  My tutor kept correcting me, and most of the time my frustrated internal monologue said “Arghhh, but I know that!  Why didn’t I say it?”.  On the outside, I could only say “ouiii, d’accor. Merci.”.  Yes, understand, thanks (for correcting me).

2 hours down

The end of the lesson.  My brain was Read the rest of this entry

Watch out, Spain: Here I come

Watch out, Spain: Here I come
Watch out, Spain: Here I come

Photo credit:  maradentro

Soon, I’ll be taking a short trip to Spain to practice my Spanish.  Needless to say, I’m excited like a little kid in a candy store, and the 14 hour+ trip will be well worth it.

Since most of my speaking practice is with people from Latin America, I’m really excited to hear more Spanish from Spain, get better at listening to rapid-paced Spanish (and I mean really rapid, especially when i venture north), and get a taste for the different dialects.

What I’m excited about

Creative Lodging with Locals
I plan to use Couchsurfing to find and stay with some friendly locals.  I’m somewhat of a newbie to this, but I’m excited to give it a go and have heard nothing but glowing reports from friends and family who surfed couches.  No surfboard required.

Something I never use: vosotros
In Latin America, ‘ustedes’ is used exclusively to say ‘you (plural)’ (a.k.a. ‘you all’ for American readers).  In Spain, they use vosotros as well.  I’m not particularly good at using vosotros yet, because I never have a need for it.  I’ll be trying my hand at Read the rest of this entry

3 contintents, 6 weeks and 3 languages

3 contintents, 6 weeks and 3 languages
3 contintents, 6 weeks and 3 languages

Photocredit: Pmiaki

To say I’m almost as excited as a cordial-fuelled toddler right now wouldn’t be an exaggeration.  I love to travel, I love to speak other languages, and lately I’m beginning to love adventure more than I ever have.  (2 years ago, I wouldn’t have stepped foot on a rollercoaster if you paid me… but I’m coming around.  Skydiving in Namibia changed me for the better.)

Throughout October and November, I’ll be travelling to 3 continents in 6 weeks, hearing Kiwi English, Thai, and Spanish.  Did I mention I’m excited?

First stop:  New Zealand.  We’ll be taking a two-week adventure trip (with, hopefully, plenty of rest thrown in along the way) and visiting some dear kiwi friends.

Since late high school, I’ve adopted a somewhat dangerous love of trying to imitate the Kiwi accent.  I think I do a pretty good job, but I imagine some New Zealanders would think otherwise.  In the scheme of things, it’s probably mock-worthy.  I’ll be doing my best to leave the kiwi-accent speaking to the locals (while I secretly revel in its splendour).  Love thit accint.

Second stop:  Thailand.  In the last 6 months I’ve developed a real desire to get into salty water, swim towards the floor and get friendly with things that live in the ocean:  I can’t wait to try scuba diving.    I’m booked in for a 4 day course to become a certified Open Water Diver.  (Kind of like getting your Probationary License for a car; with an air tank instead of a vehicle.)

I’ll also be attempting to expand my two-word Thai vocabulary (‘thank you’ and ‘hello’), and try my hand at making – not just eating – some of the local cuisine.  I hear the cooking classes are excellent, and I love Thai food.  Watch out, limes: you’re about to be juiced by me.

Third stop:  Spain.  There is one reason, and one reason only why I’m going to Spain: to speak Spanish.  I’m fortunate in that I get to speak some at home, but I’m hungry for more.   I’d also like to practice the Spanish dialect (including the omnipresent third-person plural ‘vosotros’, used exclusively in Spain and which makes South American Spanish-speakers turn up their noses), and improve my listening comprehension to understand lightning-quick madrileños.  Hey, a boy can dream.

It’s been a year and a bit since my last overseas trip, and I’ve been itching to go ever since I got back.  I’m looking forward to some fresh air, new adventures and something completely different every day.

Isn’t it going to cost a lot?

As Chris Guillebeau rightly points out, travelling doesn’t have to be expensive.  In Thailand, I’ll be staying in basic accomodation and eating local meals (who wouldn’t want to stay in a Bungalow instead of a resort, and eat local food instead of western pizza anyway?  I certainly do).  In Spain, I’ll be having my first dabble into the world of Couchsurfing, which comes highly recommended by some people I know as well as the squillions of online advocates who’ve used the service.  In short, I’ll be trying to make my budget go as far as possible.

More to come

I’ll be sure to post some photos and stories from the trip.  Many of them will no doubt focus on language-related topics, and I hope to have some interesting stories to share, too.  I will be posting during the trip, so I’d love for you to stick around.

Question: Where do you go for inspiration and adventure?  Share in the comments below.


A table full of languages, teaching orphans in Zambia, and reasons why

A table full of languages, teaching orphans in Zambia, and reasons why
A table full of languages, teaching orphans in Zambia, and reasons why

Three nights ago, it felt almost like summer in Melbourne.  It was warm and balmy, and a big bowl of delicious Malaysian Laksa was staring me in the face.  ”Eat me.  Eat me quick.” it said.  Who was I to say no?

How lucky I was:  a table-full of languages

I was surrounded by four fellow French-learners from my Alliance Française class:  to my left, a friend who also speaks German and Chinese, and is moving to Vienna next year to study at university in German (!).  To his left, the only guy in our class who is able to make jokes that are actually funny in French.  Next, my wife, a bilingual who’s adding French to Spanish and English, and lastly, another classmate who already speaks excellent Japanese.  Between us, 6 languages at a Malaysian restaurant.  As a language nerd, I was in language nerd heaven.

Move to Zambia, anyone? – Language Learners tend to do amazing things

These are the kind of people you tend to meet in language courses.  Over the past 12 years or so, I’ve attended enough language classes to make most people curl up into the foetal position and ask ‘why, oh why?’.  One reason is that the people I meet in the classes are unique and amazing.  Meet these two:

“Yeah, I just thought it would be fun to pack up and go and teach English to orphans in Zambia.  Then I travelled through Africa for a while.”  You did what?  A friend from my French class told me this last week.  Astounding.  Now that’s what I call using your language skills as a force for good.

Australian-born former German classmate: “My (less than 1 year old) daughter is saying some words in German now.  Hopefully she’ll grow up being bilingual.”.   He reads to her often in German.  Consider for a moment: most bilinguals grow up either as having native-speaking parents and being introduced (or forced) into learning, or by learning of their own prerogative.  This friend, however, has taken it upon himself to teach his daughter his (excellent) German from birth.  As a non-native speaker, he is giving his daughter the chance to grow up bilingual; a chance he didn’t have himself.  It’s amazing.

The anonymous reasons why

Above are just two examples.  Then there are the thousands of other language wizards who learn a new language to ‘fit in’, travel the world, move countries, get closer to their family, do business, enjoy art, watch movies, read poetry, or impress their partner.  I’m constantly amazed at the variety of people that are interested in foreign tongues and cultures.

My reason(s)

This tricky, because I could write much more than you’d want to read.  I learned Japanese partly because I was forced to in the beginning.  Then I felt a fire for it and couldn’t stop.  I’ll confess I learnt German partly due to the creamy, delicious wheat beer.  (Ok, perhaps more than partly.).  I learnt Spanish to get closer to my wife (and partly to impress her when she was my girlfriend!) and be able to speak to her family.

And French?  Well, I’m just studying French because I think it sounds wonderful.  I once asked a French-Canadian friend to say “I’m going to kill you with an axe” in French… it still sounded beautiful.  If that’s not evidence of a nice language, I don’t know what is.

Question:  How about you?  What’s your motivation for learning, and have you met any inspiring people along the way?  I’d love to hear your comments below.


If you enjoyed this article, you might like to sign up for my free Free Email Series – Six Ways To Sky-Rocket Your Language Learning. You can unsubscribe with a single click if it’s not for you, and your email address will never be shared. Click here if you’d like to sign up.


Photo credit: residentevil_stars2001

Japan Ski Lift Conversations: 5 years later

Japan Ski Lift Conversations: 5 years later
Japan Ski Lift Conversations:  5 years later

Nagano, Japan, 2006

The sun shone overhead, a perfect blue-sky day.  I was freezing my a** off, but it didn’t matter.  A big powder snowfall overnight had me very excited.  My snowboard strapped underneath me, dangling in the wind, the 5-minute chairlift ride would be quick and uneventful.

Next to me sat a twenty-something Japanese guy.  We nodded at each other when we got on the two-person chairlift. A minute or two later, I thought I may as well say hello.  I was in a great mood.

“Ky?, tenki ga subarashii desu ne.”, I said.  Wonderful weather conditions today, aren’t they.

Clearly not expecting me this tall hairy fellow (me) to speak Japanese, he did a double take, and I repeated my sentence.  He agreed, and we had a great conversation on the way up the lift and parted ways, wishing each other a fun day on the powder.


This is why I love learning languages, I thought.  And here I am over 5 years later, writing about that unplanned. unexpected 5-minute conversation which happened on the spur of the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

Why bother? 4 Good Reasons to Learn a Language

Why bother? 4 Good Reasons to Learn a Language
Why bother?  4 Good Reasons to Learn a Language

Everyone has their own ideas on why language learning rocks their world.  Here are four of mine.

1.  Communicate with millions

The sheer thought of being able to compete with millions more people than you could before you started learning is an exhilirating idea.  The possibilities in work, life, friendships and travel open up exponentially when you can talk with millions of people.  Sure, you need to be in contact with them (sitting at home thinking “great, I can speak with more people now” won’t do you much good), but the possibilities are endless.

Example:  Before I started learning, I communicated with the English speakers of this world.  Fair enough.  Once I added Japanese, my audience went up by 120 million people.  Spanish:  300+ million.  German:  90+ million. That’s over 500 million people than I could speak to before my smiling high school teachers forced me into starting Japanese.

Will I ever speak with all 500 million?  Of course not.  But isn’t it exciting to think that, even if I only speak with 100 of the 500+ million folks who might understand my natterings, I could make some great friends, increase my chances for business, taste some local cuisine or just be able to enjoy travelling more.  After learning Japanese, Spanish and German, I’ve been able to make lots of great friends, use Japanese and Spanish in an international Fortune 20 company, increase my salary by almost double within a year (by taking a role which needed a Japanese speaker), travelled smoothly across Japan, Germany, Colombia, Chile, Germany and Switzerland, and be the subject of laughter to many generous helpers along the way.

2.  Ahh, the beauty of visible progress

Last week, I could only talk about what I was doing today.  Now, I can talk about what I’m going to do tomorrow. Read the rest of this entry