Randy Hunt is on a mission to learn a new language fluently every year. His current project is Italian, with Lithuanian as a side-project saved for weekend fun. Randy has his language-learning head screwed on tightly, and I firmly agree with his contention that learners can reach “conversational fluency” (the ability to talk with native speakers on a variety of topics) in a year if you spend enough time doing the right things. As we both have observed, most learners neither spend enough time nor do the right things.
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John: This is episode five of the Foreign Language Mastery podcast. I’m your host John Fotheringham. In today’s show I interview Randy “The Yearlyglot” from yearlyglot.com. To read a transcript of this episode and to find tips, tools and tech for mastering any foreign language, go to languagemastery.com. Here is the phone interview, originally recorded June 6, 2010.
John: Maybe we can start out…just tell me a little bit more about how you got started in language learning and what languages you’ve learned so far. And then I’ll be asking you a bit more about your Yearlyglot project.
Randy: Maybe I should have prepared a little bit so that I would have some canned answers, but that’s all right.
John: I like the uncanned answers better. The real deal.
Randy: [01:03] Nice. I guess my whole life I’ve always been interested in language just in general. I don’t really have a good explanation for why. I started all the way back in kindergarten. My kindergarten teacher actually taught us Spanish words at the end of every day.One new Spanish word. So that might actually be the thing that got me going in this direction. By middle school I was taking Spanish classes. In high school I was taking German classes and French classes. One of my best friends in high school was a Filipino guy who have some trouble with the English language because he and his family had just moved here. He and I took up a pretty close friendship just on a principal that he asked for some help on the first day and I gave it to him. So in addition in everything else he taught me a lot of Filipino Tagalog…
[02:06] I just sort of picked up on everything every time it was put in front of me. I would have never taken the German and French classes except for the school didn’t offer anything past Spanish II. It was weird. I just wanted to keep doing language and I ran out of Spanish so I switched to German and then I met this Filipino guy and then learned some French and before you know it I’m like, wow, it’s not so hard. I want to learn every language.
John: Right. It is addictive that’s for sure. So the whole yearlyglot idea of learning any language in one year or less is that something you do help more recently or is that something can always gone towards…
Randy: That actually is a very recent development. It comes from the back of learning Russian pretty much fluently in one year. After everybody told me it would take six, seven, eight years of study. I still don’t claim to be an expert, but I put in some time and did the work and after one year I’m pretty fluent in Russian for a guy who only been learning for a year.
[03:09] Everybody says it is one of the hardest language which is if I con do it with that I should be able to do with anything. I don’t see why anybody else couldn’t do it especially with the easier language. Something like a Romance language that’s so close to English anyways. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to learn that in a year. But it proves that you can do that a lot of times in three months.
John: I often say, if you do things right there’s no reason you can’t…at least get to a modicum of fluency in six months. I think that is a good, realistic target. I think six years is ridiculous but that gets to the issue which is, if you do it the old academics in the classroom will take six years.
John: That’s maybe the next question I have for you is, how exactly do you go about learning the language that you could do it in under a year?
Randy: I never really formalized a learning method until the last third writing in the blog and now I’m starting to get it really in front of me and seen it all.
[04:05] If I move this over here it would work better and that sort of thing. Actually I’m starting to see a lot of logic behind some of the more commercial products like you think of the Rosetta Stone or something like that and all of us in the community kind of ridicule Rosetta Stone but there are some things they do right. I think particularly the order in which you go about things you start of with some really basic stuff and then you just build on that. I think if you see returns quickly you get encouraged. I guess that’s my biggest thing is if you can get encouraged you will keep doing it.So I try to do things at…if I can learn how to say, “Where is…” and then I can learn how to say, “Thank you”. And then I can learn how to say, “Excuse me”. I can immediately turn those three things into excuse me, where is whatever. Thank you. And now I actually had small connection at the cause of just learning three things.
John: [05:03] Right.
Randy: So I think that that’s really what I tried. I try to find a minimum amount of learning that you can get the maximum usage out of and I actually turn it into practical example sentence because I know those sort of things. Like I said, if you get really encouraged by what you’re learning you’ll feel more momentum and you’ll keep going.
John: How do you feel about the whole input versus output debate? I mean full disclosure. I’m definitely of the input camp. Though I’ve lived abroad for most of the last decade. It’s not practical for those that are going to be moving to Japan tomorrow. To spend six months on listening and reading input.
Randy: And by the same token, it’s also not practical for those who are not going to move to expect to do a lot of output either. I think that the input versus output debate is mostly…it feels to me mostly like a constructive disagreement sort of manufactured for the sake of ratings or clicks or whatever. Anyway, because really you need both.
[06:13] It might serve you better to have more output if you’re in person and it might serve you better to have more input. But at the end if you don’t do both you’re not going to learn. So I think that the debate itself is kind of silly. It’s entertaining but if it lost the entertainment value a long time ago for me.
John: I have my opinions but I really wanted just share the opinions of others that…what’s worth for them? Because obviously everyone’s different. and what it’s works for me won’t necessarily work for everybody. Although I do think 90% of the things probably work for everybody and it’s that extra 10% that is different. And that’s why you need to present a variety of method.
Randy: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like the parade of principle of 80/20. Everybody can benefit from that 80.
John: I think we’ve read the same book. So back to then, what’s worth for you? So you’ve build on the basics which makes sense. What other do’s and don’ts can you share? I know there’s a lot.
Randy: [07:13] My biggest don’t. I love to ramble on and on about don’ts. Maybe it’s a little too negative but…
John: The first post I put on my language blog was the top 10 not to do list items in in the language.
Randy: I think that my biggest don’t is don’t put too much pressure on yourself. People worry about how far back they are in the book or how much chapters they’ve done or how many words they know. It becomes so stressful that you’re actually…you lower the quality of your learning for the sake of getting more quantity. For me that’s the biggest don’t. It’s easy to over stress yourself. It’s all about staying positive. Anybody who has a positive attitude can succeed.
[08:04] I look at people…here in Chicago, it’s very diverse. It’s a very…like a world community. And I’m everyday, surrounded by people speaking hundreds of different languages. And what’s interesting to me is that when they speak to me they don’t speak correctly or properly. But they’re not afraid to do it.
Randy: And I think about people I know who are like, “Oh, I’m trying to learn Spanish.” or “I’m trying to learn this.” And you’ll never hear them actually do it. They never tried. They just say they’re trying. I’m on the bus with somebody who is asking for directions and they’re butchering English but they’re not afraid to do it.
Randy: That’s so important.
John: The fear of the pain of doing something I think that turns so many people off of whether it’s a language, whether it’s getting in shape. It’s all the same. It’s using the fear of the task is worsening the actual task itself.
Randy: [09:02] Absolutely. The anticipation of, “Oh, it’s going to be so much work.” But…I was watching an interview with Will Smith recently and he was talking about his dad have a shop and broke down the brick wall and then asked his sons to rebuild the brick wall. And the kid suppose to say, “Oh, it’s impossible. That would take forever.”
[09:23] Then his dad said, “I don’t care how you do it. Don’t think about building the whole wall. Just lay one brick and just make sure every time that you lay that brick perfectly you don’t care about anything else. And day by day and brick by brick after several weeks or months or he didn’t really say how long but had rebuild the brick wall of the shop.
[09:44] That’s so motivational. When you think of building things…don’t think of how far you have to go or how long or how far the journey is. You just think about doing each step the best you can. Eventually you’ll look back and you’re surprised at how much you’ve done and how easy it’s become.
John: [10:04] Right. That’s really a good metaphor. I like that. Great.
Randy: Specially with languages because there is a lot of work. We’ll be fooling ourselves to say, “Oh yeah. Anybody can do it in a week or two.” There is a lot but you can do those things that keeps you motivated. And then you can look back and say, “Holy cow! That whole journey was fun and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.”
[10:26] I really like the metaphor you drew to working out. That particularly, for me, has always been one my favorite analogies from pretty much anything difficult in life. Because I go to the gym every morning. I weight train in the morning before I work.
[10:40] Everyday I go in there and I have to push up a weigh. And I have a goal in mind…every time I go I try to push five more pounds than the last time. I don’t always succeeded doing it. But week by week I am pushing more weight every time than I was a week before.
[11:02] You look at that long-term goal of, I want to bench-press 250 pounds or I want to squat for 100 pounds and you think, “Oh my god. That’s far off and impossible.” But each week you look back and say, “Wow, I remember when I could only do 160.” Overtime, you watch yourself change and you watch your strength grow and what it does more than anything else in my opinion is it makes your mind strong. And when your mind is strong you believe you can do anything. And once your mind is strong there’s nothing that can stop you. It might be days or weeks or months but there’s no task you won’t attack. That’s the attitude I like to have.
John: Time plus effort.
John: It is in the language matter that my main interest is martial arts. And I just like to share with people that the word Kung Fu did actually means skill through effort or skill through…
John: And it’s such a good analogy. The language. It’s just doing it day in day out and eventually you’ll get better.
[12:02] You can’t not get better. One of the reason so many people fail is because they’re just not doing it ultimately. Sitting in a classroom is not doing it. Even watching a movie. You put in a foreign language movie. That’s not actually doing it. You must reactively doing it.
Randy: Right. Classroom. That’s a really great topic for me to go on and on about. I think that, like I was saying, about the weight training and stuff and about your mind being strong.
[12:36] When you talk about signing in for a class that’s always the really the cop out I think. You want to do something or you say you want to do something so you sign up for the class and that becomes like the token effort of saying, “Hey, I tried.” But the lessons are always so far apart and so short and even worse they’re retarded by the fact that you have to teach a whole group. Not just one person.
[13:02] You’re not even putting up a fraction of the effort. You will do spending that same time on your own with a book once a week. The worst thing about the classroom is that if you don’t do it you can blame the teacher. “Oh, I tried but the teacher was no good.
[13:19] The class was no good. It was too far away or it was too expensive” or whatever. But you don’t take any responsibility when you sign up for a class the way that you would if you just grab a book and just start reading it. Or grab a CD and start listening to it.
John: OK. Any other tips that you would like to add or any don’ts?
Randy: Well, there was one thing that sparks something in my mind that you said a moment ago too about a lot of people aren’t trying, you know, it’s a lot of work. And it reminded me of something else that…recently I just really started thinking about this is that everything is work.
[14:01] Any skill…anything that you do well is the product of hours and hours and hours of practice and work. Some people may have a talent in whatever. You can’t teach talent. But nobody becomes successful on talent alone. You have to have the skill. When it comes to anything in life…but language is a great example of this. It really feels to me like people give up too early. And even at the easiest phase all you have to do is just correct that book or talk to that tutor or put on that CD or whatever it is that you do to study instead of turning on the TV And it’s so easy, effortless to keep doing. Once you do something, you know, it’s a have. It’s effortless to keep doing that. It’s actually more work for you to stop and go turn on that TV and ignore your language time. Sometimes I found it astounding that people actually give up. That means you;re making a choice to quit.
[15:08] Just like my gym metaphor. Again, if I get sick and I don’t want to go in the gym because I’m not feeling well or something. I automatically start to miss it and after a day or two I’m like, I want to go in earlier and try to make up for all that time. There is a point like if you miss a lot of time like a few weeks or something.
[15:29] There is a point where that habit starts to fall off and then you have to do the work of rebuilding it. And the same thing is with everything certainly with languages. I just think that over all unless there’s like a death in the family or something. There is no thing that can stop me from spending an hour or a day learning something about languages or whatever because that’s what I want. How could I stop? I would have to make a conscious decision to actually stop.
John: That leads to another…I think the important point is it does take time. It does take consistency. But I also think that people overestimate how many hours a day it will take. They’re so used to sitting in a classroom for two to three hours.
[16:10] And realistically I don’t usually study or more than 15 or 30 minutes of the time. I just try to do that three times a day everyday. That’s much, much more powerful than doing four hours a week but all at once.
Randy: Yeah. If you over burden your mind it starts to fight back against you. I do the same thing. I wake up in the morning and I browse a vocabulary list or I look at something or just read a blog entry or something for fifteen minutes.
[16:41] And then I head off to the gym. Go to work. On the ride home from work I spend 15, 30 minutes. However long it is depending on the traffic that day. look at some phrase list. So whatever I’m doing that particular day and again once a night. So yeah, probably about the same as you. Three times a day for maybe 15 to 30 minutes.
John: [17:01] As you said listening the way they work out on their way home. It’s just making that a habit. It’s, I’m going to do the dishes. Pop in the iPod. In line at the store, OK, put in the iPod. Every chance that you’re not doing something that requires your 100% attention. That can become another learning opportunity.It doesn’t have to be sitting down on a desk.
Randy: And I would even go so far as to say that like a lot of times when people like us use that analogy, you know, we say five minutes at the supermarket line or 15 minutes on the train. I think that listeners or readers sometimes get the impression that we’re saying, “You should do that every time.” And really, that’s not the case. All you need to do is just make use of one of those times over the course of your day.
[17:51] And you’re already doing something. I don’t spend every five minute line wait reading something about languages and I don’t spend every cab ride or every train ride to rhyme the study of vocabulary. I just do sometimes. But it’s enough times.
John: [18:08] That’s a good point and that goes back the fear of doing it often prevents people from starting.
Randy: It can sound really scary when you hear people talk about it or you read some of these language hacking tips. All of these stuff, we’re all trying to help people. That’s why we’re all here. All of us are trying to help people to see that it’s easy. And sometimes there’s so many tips that people get overwhelmed and they think it’s going to be too hard.
John: I think in it’s aggregate though it’s doing a service. I think so many people do things so far their own way. And gets so fed up and they look it up this whole foreign language phobia and this belief that, “I’m just not going to learn any language which is like you’ll never learn.” I mean, almost everybody I know is that way.
[19:00] It’s that sort of the norm is, “I’m not good at languages.” And so I think it’s a lot of us. A lot of voices. A lot of echoes to…hopefully, eventually get to…not everybody but at least those that want to learn. Which I just hope that enough of our voices reach them. That they can shake themselves out of these belief that they can’t do it.
Randy: [19:22] Absolutely. And I think most of us probably all have similar stories about struggling with their first one or in my own personal struggle. This is going to sound funny from a guy who tells people it’s easy to learn languages. But I actually have such a hard time hearing that sometimes I don’t even understand English. I’m constantly asking people to repeat themselves and, you know, not understanding things that are said. And then you try to translate that into learning a foreign language. And it becomes a real challenge.
[20:01] So it’s one of those things where even though I’m telling you…I’m telling telling anybody who will listen. I can learn a new language every year. I’m totally not talking about the challenging part that anybody else who does this is going to have an easier time than I am.
John: Very good. What is your current language project and what is the next one you think?
Randy: The current language project is Italian. Although it’s never just one thing. I’m planning a trip to Lithuania in a few months. I allow myself the weekends to stray from Italian.
[20:42] So every weekend I’m learning a little bit of Lithuanian in anticipation of this trip but during the week I stay focused on Italian. But I haven’t selected my language for next year and even if I have I wouldn’t admit it to anyone but I do know that I’m starting to narrow in on one of maybe three. I’m very, very interested in Turkish. I’m living pretty close to Canada and I think that if I didn’t take advantage of French that would be foolish. The third one possibly Arabic.
[21:21] So, I’m not really sure. I haven’t chosen yet but I think that right now I’m teetering between those three. I could come out as a surprise and just pick something totally unexpected too.
John: All right. We’ll just make a wrap up. If there’s only one thing you want listeners to hear about language learning what would it be?
Randy: [21:38] When you showed somebody you’ve spent even the smallest amount of time to learn about them specially if you’re American. Because we have a stigma to overcoming the world. If you show people that you have spent even smallest amount of time taking an interest in their language and in their culture it’s so well-received that…it makes such a big difference on the way that you’re perceived and the way that your whole dealings with that person go. I was just recently at the bar watching a hockey game. Go Blackhawks. I hope they win the Stanley Cup.
John: [22:12] Now you’re speaking foreign language to me. I don’t speak hockey. I’m sorry.
Randy: That’s all right. A patron who had no place to sit was standing near my table and I started a talking to her. And I picked up on her a Russian accent. On a whim I’m assuming that I’m right because there are a lot of Polish people in this town too.
[22:35] I said something to her in Russian and she immediately became my best friend for the rest of the night. I saw half a dozen…maybe a dozen guys come in and try to hit on her over the night and she blew them all off. It’s so interesting the way those little language niceties can change the way you’re perceived.
John: And there’s a motivation for you right there. I mean if you’re struggling just stay motivated in the language. look no further than that. It just opens up so many doors that really cannot be opened in another way. It’s a pleasure talking to you, Randy.
Randy: [23:08] Absolutely. Yeah. Have a great day, John.
John: You too. Thanks so much, Randy.
Randy: Take care.
John: Bye bye.
John: For Show notes and the transcript of this episode go to languagemastery.com. and if you’ve enjoyed the show please take a minute to rate us in iTunes.
To learn more about Randy, visit his website, Fluent Every Year.