Learning A Foreign Language (Part 1)

When I was 9, my dad returned from a business trip in East Africa. Surprisingly he brought back someone. This is ‘Charlotte’, he introduced her, “She will be your new nanny.” For years Charlotte lived with us, as Nanny, and as his secretary and translator for business in Africa. This episode was the first influence I had at learning a foreign language.

French was the first language I studied.


Charlotte spoke 9 languages (or was it 7?). Her English was very good, as was her French. I learned a little French from her and from my dad. He had learned it through business and travel. At age 13, my school offered French. Typically in American high schools, 2 years of foreign language are required before graduation. I took French for 5 years, and then again at University. I did some limited travel to French-Canada, and much later to France and Morocco. In all that time my grip of the language, was good, but not great.

Learning a foreign language in your native country as high-schooler for 45 minutes per day, 5 days a week, is full of challenges. Often we lack the interest to invest in ourselves at a young age. Especially as Americans. Globally we are criticized for ‘never trying to learn another language’ or ‘always relying on English’. The stereotype has a kernel of truth.

The U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave. In 2010, the average employed American worker took 18 vacation days, but only used 14 of those days, according to a survey by Expedia.com. Many Americans feel pressured (financially or otherwise) to work for some of those days. Many western countries offer mandated leave of 4-5 weeks per year, plus holidays. Also for Americans – travel is relatively uncommon, and international travel is even more rare. The USA is a large and diverse country, offering many types of travel, without leaving the country. For many, that is enough. Also we boarder only a handful of countries, and including the popular destinations in the Caribbean, many are English-speaking. With the language influences, and international world-view I had from an early age, I did better than most in my studies. But I wouldn’t have called myself ‘fluent’ in French, even at the height of my studies.


In the 2000′s I traveled through Europe and Central America. Returning from a trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I decided to learn Spanish. I knew I’d get more out of travel with a foundation in the language.

I studied at home using the Rosetta Stone language program. I recommend the system. Its very polished and engages the user in reading/writing/speaking/listening without tedious grammar. I devoted 30 minutes per day for 4-6 weeks to complete ’1 year’ of the 3 year program. I hired a tutor for 1 lesson per week, and continued for months. In Los Angeles especially there are countless native speakers who can tutor you for cheap. However I strongly recommend choosing a tutor from an established school as I think they offer a much more comprehensive program.

After soul-searching that led to divesting in my employing company and starting a (more flexible life with a) technology consulting company, I brainstormed some travels. I stared at a map of Latin America. Choosing a language learning destination.

To be ‘near the beach’, I (foolishly) chose Buenos Aires. It is a fantastic city, with much to see and do, and a haven for Spanish-language classes. Its relatively affordable, and I booked 4 weeks of class. Between there and Chile, I completed 6-7 weeks of class in a 10-11 week trip. In less than 2 months of studying, my Spanish was stronger than my French (after 5-7 years of classes) ever was. Studying intensively, studying in a native-Spanish country, and creating the need to speak the language helped me greatly.

In Fall of 2010, my Spanish skills plateaued. I was inspired by Benny The Irish Polyglot and his demonstration video of speaking 8 languages. He has a great blog and an eBook on language learning on his website FluentIn3Months.com. I was excited by a new language but also afraid of ‘losing’ my Spanish. I had already forgotten a good amount of French, but perhaps that was only from lack of use, and not from the introduction of Spanish into my brain.

I had completed about 6 months of class spread over 2 years of Spanish-travel. I was speaking mostly Spanish day-to-day – ‘transactionally’ (eat food, buy stuff, book a hostel, etc…), and socially, but 40-60 hours each week was still in English. I was working remotely, creating software for various companies. Work-time is a substantial opportunity to gain (or lose) skills in a spoken language. I knew I had to accept a job in Spanish or change languages, to maintain interest in learning.

Most Spanish-language job opportunities for a software developer (games and applications for the web) are in Barcelona, Madrid, Miami, and Buenos Aires. Googling around for a while, all appeared to be either full-time or low paying (or both). As a consultant, project-based work allows for the flexibility of location, technology, and networking that helps me thrive. Unless I’d found something perfect, I wasn’t ready for a full-time job. I found nothing perfect, so decided to start a new language. Portuguese.


I’d had 3 months in Brazil (Maceio, Recife, Praia Da Pipa, Rio, & Sao Paolo) in 2010. I went to speak (in English) at a conference, and traveled extensively. I chose not to study the language at that time, because I was concentrating on Spanish. Upon my return in January 2011, I was ready to start.

I had a potential work opportunity in Sao Paulo, so I chose to start in near-by Rio which I knew I loved. I used the Pimsleur MP3 program (20 lessons of 30 mins each) to get started, then enrolled in classes for 6 weeks. Between my knowledge of Spanish and the MP3′s I started at week #4 of the class and continued for 6 more weeks. After my Visa’s 90 days expired, I was fully conversational. My Portuguese after 3 months was about 70% of my Spanish. Spanish took me 2 years. My learning had accelerated.

Next, I went to Cusco Peru for 2 months. I took 4 days of Spanish class (private classes for 30 USD per 4 hour day). This was to re-acclimate me to Spanish. It was less about remembering Spanish, and more about forgetting Portuguese – purging it from my instinctive verbal responses. Both languages occupy the same part of my brain, I think.

Tricks To Learning

There are many tricks to language learning. Much of it depends on your personal learning style. In general you are told ‘do not translate into English’ as you learn. I’m not so sure that’s always appropriate. The most important recommendation to learn languages is to create the need to speak that language. Generally speaking this means to spend time in areas where English is not an option. Simply ‘trying’ to avoid speaking English around a group of English speakers is futile. Spend time with people who know less English than your Spanish. The best common language in a group is usually what everyone will decide to use. Hostels in every country I’ve visited operate in English. This is a blessing (convenient) and a curse (hampers non-English language learning). Tricks like this give me the confidence to continue to learn. I’d love to write more about such ‘tricks’ in the future.

So what language would I learn next? I was already familiar with #2 English (by population), #3 Spanish, #9 French, and #7 Portuguese . Here is an (outdated?) list of the 30 Most Popular Languages.

Rank – Language – Millions of Speakers

  1. Mandarin – 1151
  2. English – 1000
  3. Spanish – 500
  4. Hindi – 490
  5. Russian – 277Arabic – 255
  6. Portuguese – 240
  7. Bengali – 215
  8. French – 200
  9. Malay – 175
  10. German – 166
  11. Japanese – 132
  12. Farsi – 110
  13. Urdu – 104
  14. Punjabi – 103
  15. Wu – 90
  16. Vietnamese – 86
  17. Javanese – 85
  18. Tamil – 78
  19. Korean – 78
  20. Turkish – 75
  21. Telugu – 74
  22. Marathi – 72
  23. Italian – 62
  24. Thai – 60
  25. Burmese – 56
  26. Cantonese – 55
  27. Kannada – 47
  28. Gujarati – 46
  29. Polish – 46

I decided. I wanted to learn #23 Italian next. I am interested in the country and the culture. The language sounded pretty (or so I thought at the time), and its related to art, design, and food – all things I love. I then completed level 1 of the Pimsleur language learning program (mentioned above) in Italian, but since I know learning on-site is best, I decided I wanted to spend the summer in Italy. I was unsure where to study, but I had ideas on what I would look for in a location and I had I had an idea about what I wanted in an Italian language school. Three months later, in Summer 2011, I arrived to start my classes.


What Italian location did I choose? How did I pick my school? Can my brain hold a 5th language? Stay tuned…