About Language Mastery

Why You Should Use Self-Guided Immersion, What I Mean By “Mastery” & How I Got Interested in Foreign Languages

The Power of Self-Guided Immersion™

Once upon a time, you had to two choices if you wanted to get fluent in a language:

  • Take expensive, time consuming, location-dependent classes.
  • Move abroad.

Today, anyone with an internet connection and a little creativity can learn a foreign language to a high level of fluency anywhere in the world. While taking classes and living abroad can be wonderful, they are no longer a requirement. My Self-Guided Immersion™ approach allows you to learn at your own pace, using methods and materials you’ve chosen, and in a way that fits your unique learning style, interests, needs, and schedule.

Self-Guided Immersion is not a panacea, of course, and you still have to invest the requisite time and energy, but learning in this fun, autodidactic way will save you a significant amount of time, energy, money, and frustration.

“…where you are isn’t what decides whether or not you’ll be successful. Attitude beats latitude (and longitude) every time. It’s more about creating an immersion environment, exposing yourself to native speakers, and doing everything you can in that language.” 

Benny Lewis

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My Language Learning Philosophy

The DON’Ts

  • You DON’T need to be “gifted” at languages. Most adult learners fail because they spend all their time learning about the language instead of actually spending enough time practicing in the language.
  • You DON’T need to spend thousands of dollars on foreign language classes or hundreds of dollars on overpriced products like Rosetta Stone. But a little investment in the right tools and materials can go a long way.
  • You DON’T need to force yourself through boring textbooks, grammars, and declension tables. Fun, modern, relevant materials are readily available online.
  • You DON’T need to move abroad. Creative use of technology allows you to create a fun, effective immersion environment no matter where you live.

The DOs

  • You DO need to figure out what methods fit your learning style, schedule, and personality. There is no one-size-fits-all way to learn a language. You have to experiment until you find what works for you.
  • You DO need to pick materials, topics, and activities that are inherently enjoyable and fit your unique personal interests. When you do, motivation and retention increase dramatically. As the blogger Khatzumoto puts it succinctly, “Fun gets done.”
  • You DO need to maximize your exposure to the target language everyday through input (listening and reading) and active output (speaking and writing). If you put in the time on a consistent basis, your brain will do the rest.

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.

“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.”

Bruce Lee

Meet the Author

Nice to meet you! 初めまして!幸會幸會!Enchanté de faire votre connaissance. ¡Mucho gusto!

I’m John Fotheringham, the silly goose who created Language Mastery. I’m a linguist, author, teacher, and entrepreneur. In addition to languages and applied linguistics, I am passionate about world travel, nutrition, ancestral health, improv, martial arts, mountain biking, hiking, art, design, and history. I grew up near Seattle, but have spent much of my adult life living, learning, and working abroad, especially in Japan, Bangladesh, China, and Taiwan.

Over the past two decades of learning and teaching languages, I have experimented with a wide range of learning methods, materials, and mindsets in an effort to figure out what works, and what doesn’t. I now share everything I’ve learned—and everything I continue to learn—on the Language Mastery Blog, on the Language Mastery Show (my free podcast), in the Language Mastery Insider (my free newsletter), and in my series of language guides that show you how to learn a language anywhere in the world using my Self-Guided Immersion™ approach.

For more about my language learning journey, see the How Did I Get Into Languages? section below. ☟

How Did I Get Into Languages?

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 travel, read, experiment, and meet new people. I had no grand language learning plan and had no idea 20 years ago where I would end up today. But I am grateful for all of the teachers, mentors, and experiences (both good and bad) that have made me the man I am today.

I would like to give a special shout out to Joseph Campbell (or “Joey Cams” as the comedian Pete Holmes lovingly calls him). Sadly, I never had the privilege of meeting Joe before he passed away in 1987, but his books and videos have had a profound impact on my life, and I am forever grateful for his guidance on how to best find one’s calling and follow one’s bliss. Thank you for showing us the way, Joe! I hope you are having wonderful conversations with Buddha, Jesus, and all the great spirit teachers.

“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.”

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

Joseph Campbell

1992

I travel to São Paulo, Brazil for a 2-week home stay at the home of one my dad’s business associates. 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, “Yeah, obviously.”

Lessons learned:

  • Always learn at least some of the language for every country you visit.
  • Going through puberty in a foreign country is just as awkward (if not more so!) than in one’s home country…

1997

I do a 2-week home stay in southern France, followed by a few days to run amok in Paris. Compared with my Brazil trip, I was a bit more prepared linguistically and culturally this time (and being 17 instead of 12 was definitely far less awkward).

Lessons Learned:

  • Pain au chocolat is proof that God exists and He wants us to be happy.
  • 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, ITO Sensei (伊東先生) is a brilliant, hilarious graduate student from Japan. We become fast friends and he encourages me to study linguistics (which I later do).

Lessons Learned:

  • It is much easier and more enjoyable to learn a language when the learning environment is fun and grounded in cultural context.
  • Passion and enthusiasm are contagious.

2002

Moving on to 300-level Japanese, I am forced to take classes with the Japanese department head, a teacher who resides at the exact opposite end of the “fun and passion” spectrum from my first Japanese teacher…

Lessons Learned:

  • Language learning can be a dreadful experience when it focuses on ① formal study over active communication, ② accuracy over fluency, and ③ testing over participation.
  • Language teachers should never ever make students feel stupid when they make mistakes. Adult learners are already terrified enough of making mistakes and teachers should do everything in their power to encourage learners to take risks and “have a go” even if their language skills are far from perfect.
  • You can learn a lot from a bad example. This lesson is perfectly encapsulated in the Japanese word hanmen kyoushi (反面教師・はんめんきょうし, “a bad example from which one can learn”), which I learned (ironically) in a class led by exactly this.

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 full-time ninja assassin and saké drinker… Oh sorry, that was just the fantasy. The reality is that I join the JET Programme, and end up in a town of about 5,000 people, of which I am the only foreigner.

Lessons Learned:

  • Rural locations offer an unparalleled environment for honing your language skills. Loneliness is a powerful incentive to practice speaking the local language with actual locals.
  • Immersion does really work, but it’s not automatic. You have to actively avoid English and pursue the local language.

2004

I interview to be a CIR (“Coordinator of International Relations”), land the job, and move to Kobe. The night life is definitely a big step up from living in the inaka (田舎・いなか, “countryside”), but so is the stress. 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+ JET Programme English teachers working in the prefecture.

Lessons Learned:

  • 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 actually speaking a language well. Case in point: a few of my professional Japanese translator colleagues could translate from English to Japanese extremely well, but really struggled to speak or understand the spoken language.
  • 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 more Japanese, the number of potential friends would quickly expand from a few fellow English teachers to millions of 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 12+ hour days 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.

Lessons Learned:

  • 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 PleaseThank youI want to go to…, Turn right/left, and Oops, my mistake! made all the difference.

2006—2012

I move to Taipei, Taiwan to learn Mandarin Chinese and scratch my martial arts itch. I teach business English to overworked executives and do seminars at multinationals like IBM, MediaTech, Philips, and ASUS. Eventually, I get involved in the textiles industry, working for a sportswear company and designing underwear prototypes for big and tall American men. It’s a long story…

Lessons Learned:

  • 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.

2012—2017

I move back to the states to be closer to family and begin the next chapter of my life and career. I begin studying nutrition and get certified as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. As fate would have it, I meet my soulmate Rosemary in the class (someone as crazy about languages, travel, and nutrition as me), and we get married just a year later. We both end up getting hired at the school where we studied (the Nutritional Therapy Association), me developing curriculum and her supporting alumni.

Lessons Learned:

  • Love at first sight does exist. I knew the minute I met Rosemary that she was the one, something that I used to think was a silly Hollywood cliché.
  • Most “conventional wisdom” about nutrition is just as flawed as most “conventional wisdom” about language learning. It never ceases to amaze me how the most popular beliefs tend to be the most wrong.
  • Just as writing about health is not the same as actually being healthy, talking about language learning is not the same as actually learning a language. The former is always easier than the latter, but the latter is what really matters.

Photo by Allison Turcotte

Today

I spend my time writing, learning, traveling, 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, nephews, and niece how well I do!

For more about my current adventures, please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. ☟

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