Today we are honoured to feature in our blog John Fotheringham from Language Mastery. A very inspired person in the language learning community.
Absolutely visit his blog at L2mastery.com (or jump directly to one of our favorite article 33 Life Lessons Learned Living, Learning & Working Abroad for 10 Years
Here is John’s interview
Who are you and where have you lived in the last 12 months
I am from Seattle but lived in LA the past 2 years, helping take care of my nephew (my brother jokingly referred to me as a “bro pair” or “manny”). Prior to that, I lived most of the past decade in Japan, Bangladesh, and Taiwan. I just moved back to Seattle in early July.
What languages do you speak?
Japanese and Mandarin. I recently started learning Spanish.
Languages are just a hobby or you make money out of them?
Languages are mostly a hobby for me, but I have done a number of jobs directly related to language learning/teaching in the past, including teaching, teacher training, translation, and consulting. Currently, most of the language related stuff I do is free (blogging, podcasting, etc.) but I do sell some language learning guides through my site to help independent adult learners (Master Japanese & Master Mandarin).
Tell us something about your First Time.
Blush… My first time being intimate with a woman or my first time speaking a foreign language? I’ll keep this Rated G and answer the second question. My first real exposure to foreign languages was when I did a short home stay in Brazil at age 12. There was a tight connection in Rio de Janeiro en route to São Paulo, and being an unaccompanied minor, a flight attendant had to guide me between planes. I ended up paired with a breathtakingly beautiful flight attendant, who was literally dragging me down the walkway at top speed to make the next flight in time. She went on and on in Portuguese, I can only assume venting her frustrations about having to look after me, until I finally said in English, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.” She looked down at me in disgust and said, “Yah… Obviously.” Ouch! I vowed never again to visit a country without learning to speak at least some of the language.
Any terrible experience? Like a language you could not learn and you gave up…
I almost gave up Japanese a few times given how painful and ineffective the traditional academic approach tends to be. Luckily, my first Japanese teacher (and eventual lifelong friend) was so passionate about languages that I got hooked. When I moved onto more advanced levels of study (and interestingly, far worse teachers), I had enough internal drive and confidence to continue on, often learning on my own by speaking with exchange students out in the central square at my university instead of attending classes.
What about an “easy” experience
Having already learned to read and write Japanese, I really enjoyed the head start I had in Mandarin when moving to Taiwan. Grammatically and phonetically the language is extremely different of course, but at least I could already guess my way through a lot of written materials.
Why languages and not…..
My favorite quote on why to learn is from Frank Smith:
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”
Do you have a mentor? Does anybody inspire you?
Not officially, no, but lots of people inspire me. My parents. My siblings. A number of bloggers, authors, and entrepreneurs, including Mike McIntyre (author of The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America), Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss, Benny Lewis, the guys over at Fizzle (Corbett Barr, Chase Reeves & Caleb Wojcik), and too many more to name.
Do you have a secret weapon to learn languages?
The expert ability to make a fool of myself! You have to make mistakes in language learning, but most adults are so terrified of not understanding others or being misunderstood themselves, that they never put themselves in situations where they will actually make progress.
Another secret weapon may be my ability to imitate accents and do impersonations. Even if I am new to a language and have a tiny vocabulary and shaky grammar, I can usually pronounce things pretty well.
But I think that everyone has their own unique secret weapons that can be deployed in language learning. There are multiple kinds of intelligence, but traditional academic approaches only focus on linguistic smarts (an area I am actually pretty weak in compared with my other brands of intelligence). Figure out what you’re best at, what excites you most, and approach languages from there. Maybe it’s singing. Maybe it’s dancing. Maybe it’s reading. Maybe it’s learning a martial art. Whatever it is, don’t fall back on the tired cop-out, “I’m just not good at languages.” Yes, you may indeed be bad at learning languages in an academic environment, but I don’t believe that you couldn’t learn in a way that better fits how your brain works.
Can you share with us your language learning routine?
It varies year to year, month to month, week to week, day to day, and language to language, but right now it looks like this:
- Wake up with the sunrise.
- Take a walk while listening to foreign language podcasts.
- Look up new words & structures that come up during the podcast.
- Study this new vocabulary (and previously studied words) using spaced repetition.
- Read for an hour.
- Try to find someone to practice the language with (whether on iTalki, at a local meetup, or even strangers). I am always amazed where I end up finding native speakers. I was walking back down from the top of Lassen Peak last month in Lassen Volcanic National Park and came upon a young Chinese couple walking up the mountain. The guy was wearing a shirt that said 壞人 (which means “bad guy” in Mandarin), so instead of just saying hello, I jokingly asked him in Mandarin if he really was a bad guy. He was quite shocked to encounter a white dude on the side of a volcano who could speak his language and we had a nice little chat.
- Review my flashcards throughout the day when “hidden moments” (hat tip to Barry Farber) arise such as waiting in line for my coffee, waiting for the crosswalk, etc.
Do you try to read/watch content at your level? Is it easy to find?
Actually, it’s best to find content that is just above one’s level (what Krashen would refer to as i + 1). It’s impossible of course to always find the perfect material at the perfect level, so I just try to make the most of whatever I have at hand. I am a recovering perfectionist and look back with regret on all the learning opportunities I missed when thinking, “Oh, this podcast/radio program/TV show is too easy, I’ll wait until I get home to use the right material.”
Have you already used Bliu Bliu? :)
I must admit that I have not. I have it on my list of sites to review and hope to do a write up at some point on Language Mastery.
Your final words: share anything you want with our passionate community of language lovers.
Learning foreign languages may not be easy, but it’s certainly not complicated. All you have to do is “show up” and give your brain the exposure and practice it needs to make sense of the new sounds, patterns, and symbols. Do this enough times in meaningful contexts, and your brain will automatically perform its amazing evolutionary feat: building the robust procedural memories that enable you to understand and produce human language on the fly, at the speed of electricity. The hard part is not the language itself but the motivation, discipline, tolerance for ambiguity, and willingness to make mistakes that learning a language requires.
The key to building motivation and sticking with the long-term process is having fun with the language and developing a deep love for the culture, its people, history, etc. Interact with real people, not just tutors and podcast hosts. Travel in the language. Learn to dance, cook, or do a martial art in the language. Don’t learn just to pass tests or get a promotion at work. Such extraneous goals don’t provide much motivation and don’t usually lead functional skills in the language anyway.
Connect with John
John recently deleted his Facebook account so you find him at his blog at