A New Approach: Following Moses..

The online ployglot community seems to be a fairly small but well connected group.  Most of us tend to be educated professionals with a passion for languages, travel and culture.  The are, however a few “rock stars” in this arena who have taken this avocation to whole other level.  One such “rock star” is Moses McCormick.Moses (at last check) is “conversational plus” in over 50 languages.  This is clearly a pretty amazing feat considering that he is only in his 20’s and most of us can’t even name 20 languages.  Moses began his language studies at The Ohio State University where he majored in Chinese and became a highly sought after language tutor.  A tutor  not just in Chinese, but in several other languages, including some that he never studied.  Since then he continues to accumulate more languages.  He currently spends three months on each new language but approaches no more than four languages a year.  Clearly Moses has found a way to “hack” the system.   He has and he calls it the FLR method.FLR stands for “Foreign Language Roadrunning” and is designed to get students up to conversational ability quickly.  Through his own studies, he identified several common components and phrases which were necessary to speak at an elementary level. He also noticed these same sentences applied to whichever language he was studying.  No, it was not   “This is a pencil … This is a blackboard” … My house is big …This car is new…”  He found that learning key interrogatives and memorizing several predictable, stock sentences was much more useful and efficient.   For the interrogative “what” , for example,  he might learn:

Q: What’s your reason for learning Chinese? / Nǐ xuéxí zhōngwén de yuányīn shì shénme?

A: I want to learn Chinese because I want to go to China one day. / Wǒ xiǎng xué zhōngwén yīnwei wǒ yào dào zhōngguó qù

Q: What is your job? /Nǐ de gōngzu. shì shénme?

A: I’m a student / Wǒ shì yīge. xuéshēng

Q: What do you do? / Nǐ shì zuò shénme de?

A: I study at the university. I’m a teacher / Wǒ zài dàxué xuéxí. Wǒ shì yīg. lǎoshī

Q: What is your age/How old are you? / Nǐ duōda le

A: I’m 30 years old. / Wǒ 30 suì

Q: What do you do in your spare time? / Nǐ yǒu kòng de shíhou zuò shénme? etc…

Once all the stock questions and answers are familiarized for all the interrogatives, he introduces what he calls “key words”.  These are the connector words that give speech the fluidity expressed by advanced speakers.  He has about 40 of them. A few for example are :

as long as, continue, still, probably, maybe, usually, sometimes, ok, I see, once in a while, always, especially, like this, like that, must, simply, yet,  I feel that etc.  

He memorizes these 40 words and then uses them to recompose the sentences that he has previously learned.  The key words can then link several of the sentences together and give a sense of fluidity to them. He makes his own drills by writing and memorizing these recombined sentences.  Once he has done this he gets to work speaking with as many native speakers as he can find.  For some more obscure languages he has to do it online or in chat rooms.  For a language like Mandarin, however, it is usually not too difficult to find speakers in the community.

This is supplemented by using a textbook and recombining the textbook’s dialogues with the key words as above.  He then does the same process for comprehension difficulties: eg:   “I can’t understand you when you speak that fast, if you slow down I might be able to understand better…”.   This is followed by creating a stock paragraph introducing oneself that can be automatically reproduced from memory with a native speaker.

This method has been incredibly effective for Moses and his students.  I met with him over Skype yesterday to discuss the method  and how I could apply it to my Mandarin quest.  Moses greeted me with a huge smile.  He is incredibly friendly and clearly has a passion for languages and linguistics.  We went through his own current plan for learning German.  I was amazed!  50+ languages and he hadn’t tackled German yet.  We shared a laugh over that one.

The great thing about his FLR method is that the learner can self-tailor it to his/her own needs. We talked about the textbooks that I was using and he pointed out that I could use a free online course called “Book 2”.  Think about it.  Countless scores of people are throwing hundreds of dollars away on ineffective courses like “Rosetta Stone” and Moses is using a free online course called Book 2 (& getting much better results!)  http://www.goethe-verlag.com/book2/

We came up with a plan for me to efficiently tackle Mandarin Chinese.  This week I am going to familiarize myself with the key words and memorize a solid chunk of the key questions and answers.  The DLI course is on hold for right now and in its place I will start going through the Assimil Chinese With Ease course.  The Assimil course lends itself to this sort of method better than the DLI course does.  Oh yeah, and I am definitely going to check out the Book 2 course!

Moses has been kind enough to outline his method and link a few videos here:  http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=18808&PN=1&TPN=1


A few weeks ago I mentioned how Chinese characters are the same amongst the different Chinese dialects.  Well, I got a reality check from Ari on the how to learn any language forum about this subject.

Ari wrote:

No no no, don’t fall into this trap! This is a common misconception, even amongst Mandarin speakers. The reality is that all

speakers of non-Mandarin sintic languages are forced (in China by law and in Hong Kong by social pressure) to write in

Mandarin. Almost all books in Hong Kong are written in Mandarin and any literate Cantonese speaker can read Mandarin,

even if they can’t speak it. There are, however, texts written in Cantonese, and these texts are usually hard to understand for

a Mandarin speaker. There’s a reason why there’s one Wikipedia in Mandarin and another in Cantonese. Cantonese is

different from Mandarin in both grammar and vocabulary, and written Cantonese uses many characters unknown to

Mandarin speakers (and doesn’t use many characters that Mandarin uses).

Example Mandarin: 這樣寫才是國語,那樣是不對的 (Writing this way is Mandarin, that way of writing is wrong)

Example Cantonese: 噉樣寫先係粵語,嗰樣係唔啱嘅 (Writing this way is Cantonese, that way of writing is wrong)

As you can see, the difference is quite profound, and there are several characters in the Cantonese that would stump a

Mandarin speaker (噉, 嗰, 唔, 啱, 嘅), and some that are used in a different way (先, 係).

Written Cantonese has existed since the Ming dynasty and it’s today used in comic books, on web forums, in text messages,

in some gossipy news columns, in advertising and whenever something is means to be read aloud (such as movie scripts).

There is still a strong pressure, however, for written Cantonese to have to be “sanctioned” by either light content or close

ties to spoken language. Writing a college textbook in the native language of the students is unthinkable because of this

diglossia, just like you wouldn’t write it in dialect in an Arabic country.

For other sintic languages it’s even worse, as no written form has been commonly adapted, so in many cases speakers are

unable to write their native language. Needless to say, the Chinese government is not hurrying to develop and standardise a

writing system for non-Mandarin languages, meaning these people can either write in Mandarin or not at all. See

this article for a more in-depth view.

liddytime wrote:

Awwwww man!

Just when you think you are going to get a “freebie” in Chinese …    NUTS! 😦

Ari wrote:  Sorry, man, no free lunches. There are, however, a large amount of vocabulary overlap between the languages and the characters do make learning this a lot easier. The formal register of Cantonese is very close to Mandarin, since all books are written that way. So technical vocab is the same. The colloquial language spoken every day on the street, however, is vastly different.

So there you have it. Even in Chinese, there is no such thing as a free lunch!


Fluent in Mandarin in 3 Months?! Really?

I must admit that I am a huge fan and live vicariously through Benny Lewis.
 For those of you not familiar with Benny he travels the world on language “missions” and attempts to become “fluent” in a language in 3 months or less!  see: http://www.fluentin3months.com/mandarin-mission
The crazy thing is that, for the most part, he does it!  He has become fluent using his somewhat unorthodox methods in, I believe, 9 languages ! ( and conversational in at least 6 others in his 2 month “mini-missions”!)  Benny has grabbed my attention once again because his latest mission has him in Taipei, Taiwan attempting to become fluent in spoken AND written Mandarin Chinese in three months.  This also takes into account that he will learn the “traditional” Chinese characters which are considered more difficult to learn.  My first reaction to this was “whoa this will be impossible for him” !  This is a language that takes our top diplomats and linguists YEARS to master.  (see my previous post :  https://mainlymagyar.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/xin-nian%EF%BB%BF-kuai-le-新年快乐-happy-new-year/  )  How on earth is he going to do it this time?  After all, he is starting in Taiwan with NO knowledge of Mandarin aside from “Ni Hao”.  I reckon he will do it the same way he does it every time; by using his “hacks” as he calls them.  This is his method in a nutshell:

Arrive in a country and start using the language immediately. No English allowed (with the exception of securing a flat to rent out although I’ve seen him do this without English as well!)  Get outside and talk to people.  The way he picks up vocabulary is by picking up words from the context of each situation and then apply it immediately.  He also uses gesturing and dictionaries but is strict about NO ENGLISH!  He is a very social guy and goes to work immediately by making friends and using only his target language with them.  He even changes all the display data in his electronic devices to his target language  ( Benny , I’d like to see you try this with Chinese!) .  After three months of complete and total immersion he picks up an impressive amount of competency in his target languages.

Many “experts” feel the need to debate with him on end whether or not it is truly “fluency”, but either way it is very impressive and from what I’ve seen “fluent enough”.  Plus, as Benny says “haters gonna hate…” So true…

So it will be interesting to see how he does with this one.  People have doubted him before but I have seen him do some pretty impressive things; including hold a free, completely unscripted conversation in Hungarian ( considered to be among the most difficult European languages) after studying it for only two months!

He is striving to reach a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages  ( abbreviated as CEFR, is a guideline used to describe achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe) level C1.  CEFR defines this as :

“ Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professionalpurposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.”

I think this will be incredibly challenging in merely three months of immersion.

Now if he were to define his goal as CEFR level B1:

“Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.”

I think the B1 is definitely doable!   We shall see.  I really hope he does achieve his C1 goal.  It is a great reminder that we all can achieve some pretty incredible things if we put our minds and efforts into it!

As for my Mandarin this week…

We went down to our local tea shop the other day.  ( J-Tea in Eugene, Oregon.  http://jteainternational.com/   Not only a great place to sip a cup,  but the owner, Josh, is great fun and incredibly knowledgeable about tea!  If passing through Eugene, you must stop here!)    Josh lived in Taiwan off and on for ten years and is fluent in Mandarin.  I started out by asking him if he was the guy that spoke Chinese. (In Mandarin of course: 你說中文的人嗎?/ Nǐ shi shuō zhōngwén de rén ma?)  He answered in a rapid-fire succession of tones and taught syllables that were totally incomprehensible to me. I said to slow down because I have only been studying a month!  (你說話太快. 我只學習了一個月 / Nǐ shuō de  tài kuài le. Wǒ zhǐ xuéxí le yīgè yuè!)  He gave me a suspicious look and called me a liar in Chinese ( dang!  I forgot the word for liar already!)  and slowed it down a bit.  Holy heaters!!  I could understand him!  We had a great, if not VERY basic chat over our Lapsong Souchong.  I learned the name “Lapsong Souchong”  is actually Cantonese. The Mandarin name for the tea is ( 正山小种 – zhèngshān xiǎozhǒng) .  It means something like: “straight mountain, small type”.   He also told me my Mandarin name : 利迪,布莱恩  / Lì-dí, Bù-lái’-ēn.   But, most importantly, I learned my first of Mandarin’s likely many booby-traps.  I referred to a di-di, which EVERY introductory Mandarin textbooak gives as the word for “little brother”.  Apparently nowadays it has come to mean, well,  one’s own “little brother” , or “penis”!  Since di-di is now considered somewhat vulgar there is another word that is now used for the relative “little brother”, but of course I forgot that one too…

He made me really want to go to Taiwan which seems like China in a microcosm.  Much of the good, less of the bad and a much more manageable size than mainland China.

We were passing through a town the other night when we decided to stop for some food and ended up in what turned out to be a Taiwanese cafe.  The food was amazing and we were the only non-Chinese speakers in the place.  Usually when I hear Chinese spoken in a Chinese restaurant, it is either Cantonese or Fujian and I can’t understand a word.  This time everyone was speaking Mandarin!  While I couldn’t make out too much of the conversations I was shamelessly eavesdropping on,  I undoubtedly understood words and short sentences from the clientele.   Hearing a dozen people simultaneously speaking Mandarin was like crashing a party and finding a dozen old friends there.  It was so invigorating to hear this when up to this point I have only heard the language from decades-old, popping tape recordings.  I was going to strike up some conversations, but this time, I was so content just to sit back and listen!

Pimsleur II Lesson 3
Remembering the Hanzi Lesson 4
FSI : Module 2 Unit 7

How many languages do YOU speak?!

It seems like at least once a week, someone asks me:

” so, how many languages do you speak anyway?”.

My answer is usually “I have no idea!”.  I really don’t.  So, for New Year’s this year I thought, what the heck, perhaps I should tally them up and see how many I do  “speak”.

I have studied quite a few foreign languages over the years: some for school, some for work, some for travel…  But the majority of them have been ” just for fun”!   Most people I tell this to can’t wrap their heads around it.  Why on earth would someone voluntarily study a foreign language “just for fun” ?  Especially one with little chance of actually being spoken with someone ?  ( yes, I actually bought a Zulu audio course once so I could figure out how to do clicks!).  Most Americans that I know totally dreaded their obligatory High School language courses.  They merely endured them and as a result speak one language, English.  The idea that anyone would voluntarily subject them to the process comes across as just plain crazy.  After all,

“eeeeveryone speaks English, right?!?”

Yep, I am a bit crazy and that does help…     But, I think the real reason I do this goes deeper than this.   I think my love of languages started back when I was a child. Our family would take several week trips to remote areas of Mexico every year and it would drive me nuts that I wasn’t able to communicate with most of the people.  We usually went to areas where very few people were able to speak English and as a result, I was determined to learn some Spanish.  4 years of High School Spanish and 2 semesters of University Spanish later,  I could pretty much hold my own in Mexico speaking Spanish.  My Senior University year I spent a summer in Spain where all my classes were conducted in Spanish.  Unfortunately, all my interactions outside of class were in English with the other U students.  A cautionary note: if you intend to go abroad for an “immersion” experience, avoid other Americans like the plague…unless you feel that your English needs work…   The true value of this experience abroad came after my term had ended and I set out to explore as much of Europe as possible – in four weeks!

Traveling through twelve different countries I found my experiences improved considerably by allowing myself to get out of my comfort zone.   I intentionally sought out the destinations less frequented by tourists in order to get a better sense of what each country was truly about.  English was rarely spoken but I was amazed to find that with a phrase book/dictionary and a little effort, I could be understood in languages that I had never studied before!  In return, I was rewarded with hospitality, generosity and insight into cultures that there is no way I would have received if I did not make these efforts to speak with people in their own languages.

My curiosity was then ignited.  I started to learn more about language families, mutual intelligibilities, dialects, different alphabets and scripts. It was like I uncovered a universal puzzle with thousands of little pieces to be mastered one by one.  When I returned, I only had one semester left in school so I had to make the most of my limited time.  I concurrently enrolled in Russian and Arabic. Not the easiest languages to pick up, but they were in different scripts and totally unrelated to any language that I had come into contact with.   I didn’t “master” either one in my one semester, but this became a springboard into the study of many, many  others which continues to this day.

So, back to the original questions;

  1. Why do I study all these languages for fun and
  2. How many languages do I know?  

For the first question, sometimes it is simply for the challenge, or because the language sounds cool, or because I love the script, or because there is a Greek speaking restaurateur down the street and I can try to speak with him in the tongue of his motherland, or because I love the music of the country and want to be able to sing along ( however badly ) …  The reasons I study them are as diverse as the languages themselves. There isn’t a specific reason.

For the second question, I suppose it comes down to how well I can speak the language.  I do believe from my experiences abroad that one can “know” a language without necessarily being “fluent” in the language.  Since the main reason I study is for travel, I devised my own spoken fluency spectrum which encompasses my needs.  Maybe I’ll call it the “Liddy Scale” 🙂  I then self-assessed how well I speak the languages that I have studied and ranked them according to the scale.

Level 1:  Very basic knowledge of the language.   Rudimentary familiarity with the language’s grammar.  Knowledge of several basic phrases from memory for example:

  1. Basic Greetings and polite expressions,
  2. How much is this?,
  3. Do you have a room?,
  4. I’d like to order this,
  5. I’m learning _ x_
  6. I need help,
  7. Am I going to get violently ill if I drink/eat  this? etc…

Able to have basic needs met with the help of a phrase book.

Level 2:  A basic knowledge with ability to construct several phrases freely without a phrase book.   Basic conversations should be fairly easy but beyond this, help of a phrase book / dictionary is necessary.  Able to comprehend if the speaker speaks slowly and deliberately although much in the way of gesturing is still needed. I would estimate that a three level Pimsleur course should get one to this level.

Level 3:  A good command of verb tenses, aspect, case declinations, plural formation gender formation and other components of syntax. Conversations on most common subjects should be fairly effortless. Help with phrase books or dictionaries is necessary with less routine subject matter.  Speaker is still likely to have an accent.  Ability to understand over 50% of news broadcasts and movies, more if subtitles are used as an aid. I would estimate level 1 of an FSI type course should get one to this level.

Level 4: Thorough command of grammar and syntax.  Ease with production and comprehension of most conversations.  Ability to understand most news broadcasts and movies without subtitles.  Help with phrase books or dictionaries may be necessary for highly technical subjects. I would estimate level 1 and 2 of an FSI type course should get one to this level.

Level 5: “Fluent”. Can engage in any conversation easily and pick up the subtle nuances of humor and irony.  A dictionary or phrase book should seldom if ever be needed.  Reaching this level without being in an immersion program or residing in-country would be extremely difficult.

Level 6 : Native Proficiency.  ‘Nuff said.

So here are the languages that I have studied and my self-assessed fluency levels of them:
Level 5

Level 4

Level 3
Haitian Creole

Level 2

(used to be a 3 but lack of practice has demoted it to a 2 😦  … )
Arabic (Written and Gulf Dialect)

Mandarin Chinese

Level 1



So there it is.  I speak anywhere from 1 – 24 languages aside from English depending on what level you would consider “speaking”.

For me, I would consider Level 3 and above “speaking” a language and below that ” having knowledge of ” a language.  This is of course very subjective and I’m sure there are as many opinions on this as there are languages!  I do strongly believe that any knowledge of a country’s language, no matter how basic,  is a tool that can greatly enhance a trip to that country.  My experiences have proven that it can introduce a window into its people that would not exist without any knowledge of its language!