Who are you?
I am someone who loves communication. I am fascinated by languages and the different, interesting, unique ways that humans have invented to communicate with each other.
I'm not anyone special. I am not any more gifted than you or anyone else. I just happen to have a natural curiosity and fascination with languages which gives me the attitude that is necessary to learn. Anyone can learn with the right attitude.
How did you get started?
It started in kindergarten, where my teacher taught us all one new word in Spanish every day. In junior high, I had two years of Spanish classes, but when I got to high school, the school I attended only offered Spanish I and Spanish II, so rather than repeat what I had just learned, I chose to learn something new, and that led to two years of German. Then for the same reason, I ended up with a year of French.
So, by the time I'd graduated high school, I'd had 2 years of Spanish, 2 years of German, and 1 year of French. Now, anyone who's studied a language in school knows that two years aren't enough to reach fluency, or even to speak it well, but the benefit of this was that by the age of 18, I had experience with three foreign languages, including their varied pronunciations, grammars, etc. And actually, one of my best friends when I was 16 was Filipino and I learned a lot of Tagalog while hanging out with him, so really by 18 I already had exposure to four foreign languages.
When and how did you reach fluency?
For the 10 years after high school, foreign languages actually had almost no role in my life, but then at 29, I became good friends with an evening shift manager in a restaurant and he said to me "I need to improve my Spanish so I can communicate with the staff in the back of my restaurant." He and I had a similar level, and I also had a desire to reach a better level, so I offered to work with him on this, and for the next three months we basically lived in Spanish: listening to latino music, watching Telemundo and Univision, hanging out in Mexican restaurants and bars, watching foreign films, and speaking to each other primarily in Spanish... and fluency came pretty quickly this way, and that provided the foundation for my language learning strategy.
In my early 30's, I dated a girl from eastern Ukraine who spoke Russian natively. At a New Year's Eve party once, we met a guy from Moscow who spent an hour talking to her in Russian. Later, he found me and said, "that is a smart girl, you hang on to her!" And from that moment, I wanted know know Russian so I could understand what he had heard. I worked extremely hard, and eventually reached fluency within the year. This became the idea behind my goal to be fluent every year.
The following year, with my reputation as "the language guy" well established, several friends began emailing me, asking for help and advice with their New Year's resolutions and language learning goals. When I realized that there were many people asking similar questions, I decided to create a blog as a way to answer a question once and have it read by many people. I thought the best way to help would be to lead by example, so I chose a language (Italian) and set about learning to speak it fluently in one year.
How many languages do you speak?
I hate this question, because language skills aren't like souvenirs you collect.
The short answer is, I speak Italian, Russian, and Spanish, each at some level of fluency. But it's never as easy as the short answer...
I can say "hello", "please", and "thank you" in more than 20 languages. I'm making fast progress this year on my goal of learning Greek. I can have a light chat in Polish or German, or an even lighter one in Turkish, French, or Esperanto and I can ask for directions in Mandarin or Lithuanian. I read basic Ukrainian, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian at a very modest level of comprehension — counting on my knowledge of Russian and Polish and a lot of assumptions. What little I remember of Tagalog and Portuguese is fun, and occasionally scores points with the natives, but is mostly useless in any real life situation. Naturally, all this will change as you follow along on this web site.
Basically, I know a little bit about a lot, and a lot about a little. I'm not a fluent speaker of seven languages. But a day is coming when I will be! And so can you — there's nothing that makes me special or gives me any advantage.
Input or Output?
I hate the debate. I have contempt for the terms "input" and "output". The entire argument has been manufactured by egos, and it has only served to distract language learners with an irrelevant question of method.
Language is input and output, you must do both. An input-only approach will leave you unable to communicate. An output-only approach will leave you unable to comprehend. If you're not doing both, you're cheating yourself.
What's your take on grammar?
I think this fear of grammar is completely irrational. It's a phenomenon that seems to only exist in native English speakers. People I speak to in other countries in other languages all seem perfectly comfortable with grammar. I think the problem in English is that our language is such a disorganized amalgam of other assimilated languages and cultures, that actually codifying our grammar is difficult. That's an understandable complaint, but that difficulty doesn't exist in other languages — their grammars aren't as disorganized as ours — so it's not an acceptable excuse for not understanding.
Why? What's the point? What do you gain from this?
The true reason I started this site was to create a place where I could share my language advice with multiple people. It started because several people asked similar questions, and starting a blog was less work than giving the same, long answers over and over.
The reason I learn languages is to travel the world and meet new people. I believe anything is possible and that you shouldn't settle for anything less than your dreams. With this web site, I motivate myself to follow my dreams, and hopefully motivate others to follow theirs.
But language learning has other benefits, too. Learning Spanish has had immediate benefit for me due to the number of Spanish-speaking immigrants throughout the United States. Learning Russian also had tremendous value as I've found myself in the company of Russian speakers in recent years. Learning Italian made it possible for me to see much of Italy on a month-long adventure around the country, making friends along the way.
As for the rest, I hope to use all of my language knowledge for communication with people throughout the world, both in travel and in online communication. In fact, this goal of worldwide communication will have a large role in the influencing my choices of languages in coming years. (Yes, that means at some point I will have to consider Arabic and Mandarin, though both are intimidating!)
Why one year? That other guy does it in 3 months!
First, because it's not a comptetition. I'm not trying beat anyone else. All I'm trying to do is use myself as an example to show you that anyone can learn a new language fluently in one year. Anyone.
This web site and this challenge is not aimed at the fastest possible way to acquire a new language. Instead, it's aimed at a realistic goal which I believe anyone can achieve. And, moreover, it's slow enough that I can still continue to have a normal life. If I'm going to do this every year, I can't spend all of my free time dedicated to study!
So will it be just the one language each year?
No. In addition to my focus on the target language each year, I will also be directing attention toward improving my knowledge of languages I have already studied. In particular, Russian and German. Russian immediately became my favorite language — like love at first sight — and I will forever continue to study it. I also really enjoy German, and since I never reached fluency in German continues to be a side-project for me.
What language will be next?
Frankly, I'm not going to tell you that. I leave hints from time to time about what languages are of highest interest to me, and there are a handful of people who pay close attention and worked out this years language before it was announced.
If you just can't wait for the announcement, and you need to know what's coming next, I suggest you start reading all the comments and the tweets and the newsletters and find those clues. :)