Why Did I Create Language Mastery?

Howdy ho! I’m John Fotheringham, the crazy guy behind the curtain (you can learn more about me below). I created this site, The Language Mastery Show, The Language Mastery Insider, and my series of language guides to help adult learners reach their foreign language acquisition goals as quickly, cheaply, and enjoyably as possible. Learning a foreign language well does of course require an investment of time, energy, and money, but if you are smart about it, the process will take far less of all three currencies and evolve into a ridiculously rewarding process you look on with joy instead of dread. Fluency ultimately depends on how much time you have spent actively listening, speaking, reading, and writing, not how many hours you’ve sat in a class, how many textbooks you’ve studied, or how well you’ve done on tests. Language learning does take a lot of work, but you should have fun along the way. That’s where the Language Mastery blog, podcast, and language guides comes in. I’ve been learning and teaching languages for over a decade, and am committed to helping you succeed by sharing the tips, tools, and tech you need to learn the fun, affordable, adult-friendly way. I am a strong advocate of “self-guided immersion”, and believe that language classes and teachers are not necessary to reach a high level of fluency in your target languages (though they can be of great help if used correctly).

Why Self-Guided Immersion?

You will see in many of my articles that I am quite critical of traditional education, especially when it comes to school-based language learning. This is not because I failed in school (I actually did quite well in elementary school, junior high, high school, and university), because I don’t like school (I love the academic life and hope to get my PhD one of these days), or because I don’t think school can be a benefit to some (it certainly can). I do believe, however, that for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of subjects, the vast majority of the time, formal, classroom-based education is far less effective than what I call “self-guided immersion”, that is learning a language on your own time, using your own materials, all toward reaching your own goals. Ultimately, it’s the motivation factor that makes the difference. As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits puts it:

“When teachers (wonderful people that they were) tried to teach me something in school, I often became bored, and just did what I needed to do to do well on the test. Not because the subject or the teacher was boring, but because it wasn’t something I cared about. They wanted me to learn it because they thought I should, but that’s not why people learn something. They learn it because they care about it; because they find it incredibly interesting, or because they need it to do something they really want to do.”

What Do I Mean By “Mastery”?

You’ll notice that the site name includes the word “mastery”. Many people have their own idea for what this term means, so let me share mine before we move on. I define mastery in a language as:

“The ability to use a language for your communicative purposes.”

That’s it. It is completely relative to your purposes. So if you are learning a language to live and work in a given country, then “mastery” would mean being able to easily communicate with your colleagues, your boss, the server at your favorite restaurant, or new friends at a bar. If you want to open a cafe in a foreign land, however, then “mastery” will require being excellent at inane smalltalk, and knowing lots of coffee-related words (“I want a double-tall decaf skinny caffè latte with two pumps of hazelnut in a for-here mug”). If you will just be traveling to a country short-term, then mastery will entail being able to ask directions (and actually understand the answer), checking into and out of hotels or hostels, and asking about local sites and bites. You get the point.

What Don’t I Mean By “Mastery”?

No matter your language learning goals, it is important to accept that mastery does not entail learning every last word you may hear or read. For starters, I am a 30-something, well-educated, native English speaker who spends a lot of time reading and writing, but there are still plenty of English words I don’t know! While you certainly should strive to constantly expand your vocabulary, it is far more important to be able to use what words you do know with ease (this means knowing the different meanings of a given word, pronouncing words with the right intonation, tone or stress, knowing common collocations, etc.). Just as in martial arts (my go-to analogy for language learning), having lots of moves is not as important as mastering a small set of techniques. As Bruce Lee famously said:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

About Me

My name is John and I’m a languaholic. I originally hail from Seattle, but have spent much of my adult life living, learning, and working in Japan, Bangladesh, China, and Taiwan. I love learning, speaking, and teaching languages, traveling the globe, making corny puns, and gaining a deeper understanding of foreign cultures through their language, people, and history. The deeper into languages I have got, the more I have come to believe that languages cannot actually be “taught”. Rather, I believe that fluency ultimately depends on how much time you have spent actively listening, speaking, reading, and writing. With this in mind, I have structured Language Mastery around the tips, tools, and tech you need to maximize your exposure to (and practice using) your target foreign tongues.

I hold a PhD in Applied Pun Making, a Master’s in Advanced Movie Quotes, and a B.A. in Linguistics from Western Washington University, with a focus on Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and T.E.S.O.L. One of the above degrees is real; I’ll let you guess which…

How Did I Get Into Languages?

“While wandering, you experience a mysteriously organic process. It’s like a growing tree. It doesn’t know where it’s going next. A branch may grow this way or the other way. When you look back, you’ll see that this will have been an organic development.”  Joseph Campbell

My interest in languages—and my view on how to best learn them—has evolved organically over the past twenty years (as the following timeline shows), and continues to evolve as I learn new languages and work to retain others.

1992

I travel to São Paulo, Brazil for a 2-week home stay. This is my first time ever leaving the U.S. or having any real exposure to foreign languages (or the people who speak them). As a 12-year-old unaccompanied minor, I have to be escorted by a flight attendant while changing planes. With less than 10 minutes to run to the next plane during a connection in Rio de Janeiro, an attractive female flight attendant grabs my hand and literally pulls me down the walkway. While running, she enters into an angry diatribe for a few minutes (I can only assume it centers around her frustrations about having to look after me), at which point I finally say, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.” She looks at me with “you-stupid-uncultured-American” disgust, and says, “Yah, obviously.” From that moment on, I vow to learn the language of every country I visit.

1997

I do a 2-week home stay in southern France, followed by a few days to run amok in Paris. In addition to beginning a life-long addiction to pain au chocolat and quirky French films, the experience reveals two truths:

  • People don’t hate the French; they hate Parisians.
  • Despite two years of French language study, having a fantastic teacher, and being highly motivated, I was still wholly unprepared to speak with native French speakers. This is when I realize the inherent weaknesses of formal classroom study, boring textbooks, and focusing more on reading than speaking.

1999

I begin studying Japanese in my second year of college. My Japanese teacher, a hilarious, zany graduate student from Japan, shows his class just how fun languages can be, and encourages me to study linguistics. My language addiction worsens…

2002

Moving on to 300-level Japanese, I am forced to take classes with the Japanese department head. She shows the class just how horrible language learning can be when it focuses on accuracy over fluency, makes students feel stupid when they make mistakes, and grades students based more on tests than projects or participation. The best thing I get out of the class is a new word: 反面教師 (“a bad example from which one can learn”).

2003

After graduating with a degree in Linguistics (which tends to be on par with Communications and Philosophy in terms of unemployability), I move to Japan to become a ninja assassin… Oh sorry, that was just the fantasy. The reality is that I join the JET Programme, and end up in a town of about 4,000 people, of which I am the only foreigner. While not exactly an epicenter for night life, the rural location does offer me an unparalleled environment for honing my language and chopstick skills. Within one year, I go from broken Japanese to fluency.

2004

I interview to be a CIR (“Coordinator of International Relations”), land the job, and move to Kobe. My job involves translating official documents sent to and from the prefectural government, interpreting for bigwigs who visit the prefecture, and acting as an advisor to the 250 plus JET Programme English teachers working in the prefecture. The experience reveals another two truths:

  • I don’t want to work as a translator or interpreter. It is a highly specialized, highly stressful job that has little to do with speaking a language well. Case in point: a few of my professional Japanese translator colleagues could translate from English to Japanese extremely well, but could barely speak English.
  • If you don’t speak the local language, you will miss out on lots of interesting experiences and live a limited, stressful life. The vast majority of “I-can’t-take-it-anymore-and-want-to-go-home” calls I received from frustrated English teachers related to loneliness and not being able to communicate with local people. Had they learned Japanese, the number of potential friends would quickly expand from a few fellow English teachers to 127 million Japanese citizens.

2006

Wanting to try my hand in the business world, I spend 6 months working for a Bangladeshi start-up telecom company. Working 26 hours a day in an all-English environment, I have little time to learn Bangla unfortunately, but I do at least learn the Bangla script and pick up enough of the language to get around and build rapport with my wonderful colleagues. In addition to building a love for telecom and technology, the experience reveals two additional truths:

  • Most expat professionals never even bother learning to say “Hello” in the local language, fed by equal parts laziness and arrogance. Whether you are traveling to a foreign country for work or pleasure, for the love of Pete, at least spend part of the plane ride learning to say a few basic phrases. You will be amazed how happy people are when you at least start a conversation in their language, even if you quickly fall back on English. Just think how crazy the crowd goes when a foreign rock band says “Hello Tokyo” in Japanese.
  • Not everyone in the world speaks English. Other than my highly-educated colleagues and the staff at nicer hotels and restaurants, a good portion of Bangladeshis I met did not speak English well, if at all.
  • Knowing even basic phrases like “I want to go to…”, “Turn right”, and “Sorry, I didn’t know she was your sister!” made all the difference.

Mid 2006 – Mid 2009

Knowing that 2000 to 2100 will be “The Chinese Century” (and in an effort to scratch my martial arts itch), I move to Taiwan to learn Mandarin Chinese. I teach business English to overworked executives and do seminars at multinationals like IBM, MediaTech, Philips, and ASUS. Two more truths come to light:

  • Just as in Japan, I see that the vast majority of English learners fail to reach their fluency goals even after years (and even decades!) of formal language study. The reason? They spend almost all their time memorizing information about English, translating to and from their native language, and cramming for tests (TOEFL, IELTs, etc).
  • By studying languages in such an inefficient way, it is no wonder few ever learn to speak their target tongue. And it is also no wonder why so many learners hate the process.

Mid 2009

With new nephews to corrupt, I move back to Seattle. As much as I enjoy living abroad, who can say “no” to a picture as cute as this? 3 months old and he can already write! Talk about a linguist!

Today

I spend my time writing, learning, pursuing various entrepreneurial endeavors, and trying to be the best husband, son, brother, and uncle I can be. You’ll have to ask my wife, parents, siblings, and nephews how well I do!