One of the keys to learning any skill (including language)

One of the keys to learning any skill (including language) is mastering it in its 'small but complete' form.

There are endless examples of this, here are a few:

If you can paint a single perfect flower, you can likely paint anything perfectly (not necessarily, but if you can't paint a perfect flower then it's unlikely that you can paint everything else perfectly).

If you can do the basic steps of a dance, you are on your way to dancing well.

If you know a single verb, just in first person, in past, present, and future, in the language you're learning, that's a microcosm of the grammatical system of the language.

The key is recognizing the microcosm - seeing the 'whole picture' in its small (not simple, which implies details are scrubbed) but complete form, mastering those basic steps, and allowing them to bloom.

How does the method work from beginner to advanced?

As beginners become high beginners, within about 3 hours of lessons, my Matrix begins to "zoom out" until it becomes what I call a Map of the language. The Map is a single page which shows you the complete tense/aspect matrix of the language, core verbs, an adverb timeline, questions words, pronouns, and a few other items at a glance. 

Once the Map becomes in view, the potential for conversation multiplies into a variety of topics. At that point, it's time to begin choosing the most relevant topics to you, and begin to converse on those topics in a question-answer, question-answer format. At this point, lessons feel like playing a game of tennis...back and forth, practicing conversing freely, with our Map as the basis. 

As the student becomes more and more comfortable in the "tennis game", I begin introducing techniques to better "serve", or ask questions, and better "return", or answer questions. There are defensive techniques, methods for understanding when you're not really understanding, and techniques for making the most out of what you have. 

Around this time (about 5 or 6 hours in), I introduce listening exercises that train you to deal with different native speakers when different accents and styles speaking at different speeds, and again I teach strategies to deal with those situations.

When a student is rather advanced, the lesson becomes focused on "elective"-type material such as business, or whatever sort of subjects they need, and I just provide feedback/refinement within 5 categories, which are accent, pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, and colloquial language. Poetry and phonology is also of personal interest to me.

But no matter what the students' level, Katarina, my goal is also to impart to the student an understanding of the principles that underlie each stage, so that ultimately he or she will not have to rely on anyone or anything, including me, to improve in the language, but rather can continue to learn the language by simply living in the language, and let interacting with and in the language be the true, natural teacher. 

What is the #1 most important factor in language learning?

What is the #1 most important factor in language learning?

Having the right books, class, and teacher? Learning grammar? Input first? Output first? Spaced repetition techniques? The #1 most important factor in language learning is interaction with other people.

To learn a language, you must interact with other people in the language. But how can you interact with other people in the language if you don't know the language?

To solve this problem, I developed a tool called the Language Matrix™, which is a spreadsheet grid that allows you to immediately begin conversing in any new language simply by mixing and matching building blocks, so you can learn the language by using the language, not by studying the language, similar to the way we learned our first languages as children.

I have developed my method over 12 years as an Arabic Cryptologic Linguist for the US Air Force (2005 - 2009), and a Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and English teacher for the FBI, Navy, NATO, and hundreds of private students.

My method is inspired by fractal geometry and Taoist philosophy, and I am grateful to my NATO Arabic student for calling the method "a miracle", and "new light in language learning".

The Earth revolves around the Sun, and you learn a language by using it

The current/past thought in language learning is that you learn a language so you can use it. But in reality you use a language so you can learn it.

It's like thinking the Sun revolves around the Earth, and not the other way around. Not true, and difficult to see at the beginning because it appears that it is the Sun that is moving - appears that you need to learn a language before you can use it.

But once you see it the way that it actually is, you can't un-see it.

Preparing yourself for a Practice Partner

You've been practicing a new language for a while, and now you've met someone who is willing to be your practice partner. He or she is a native speaker, and has suggested that you meet for coffee once a week to speak the language together.

Your lessons have been going well and you are confident, but the session left you feeling discouraged.

What happened? And what can you do to make future sessions better?

There is a good chance that your practice partner (albeit with good intentions) hurt your confidence by stopping to correct you every time you made the slightest mistake.

I was once laughed at repeatedly by a Romanian guy who was trying to teach me to say a word. He'd say it, then I'd say the exact same thing, but he was sure it laughably incorrect. I've had the same experience with various other languages.

While they may be trying to help, it really just makes you feel like you'll never be able to get by in this language, and forever sound funny or weird, which is not a good self-image to have while learning to speak a new language.

So what can be done? Try this:

Tell your practice partner (in English) before the session, that you know you have a lot of work to do in this language, and that you feel it would help to get to hear the language more. So you have prepared a list of questions in the target language that you would like to ask.

The begin to ask these pre-prepared questions, such as 'How are you?', 'How was your day?', 'What did you do?', and any other question you'd like to ask. Just listen to your partner's responses. We'll call this your INPUT practice, or listening practice.

As your partner responds, practice guessing what they're saying. You can do this through keywords, and assumption. For the occasional learning moment, ask 'What does that mean' in the target language, and take a few notes. But try not to make it too much about learning, or the conversation will end - the goal is to keep the conversation going!

When it's your turn to respond to a question (OUTPUT), rely on simple answers that you also prepared when you wrote your questions.

If your partner asks a follow-up question and you understand the question, then answer it. If you do not understand the question, then use it as a learning moment and ask 'What does that mean?' in the target language, and take a note. Then answer the question. If you need a word or to to answer, have another learning moment by asking 'How do you say ...?' in the target language, and take a note.


The entire algorithm looks like this:

INPUT (listening)

1. Ask a question.

2. Listen and practicing guessing the meaning through keywords and assumption.

3. Learning moment - ask 'What does ___ mean?' in the target language; take a note.


OUTPUT (speaking)

1. Answer in a simple, prepared way.

2. Wait for a follow-up question, or go back to step 1. of INPUT and ask a question.

3. If there is a follow-up question and you understand it, answer.

4. If you don't understand, ask 'What does that mean?' and take a note.

5. Once you understand, answer.

6. If need be, ask 'How do you say ___?', and take a note.


A real-like example might go like this:

YOU: How are you?

THEM: Good. You?

YOU: Good. How was your day?

THEM: Good, but really busy, a lot going on at work. Yours?

YOU: Good too, thanks. What did you do?

THEM: I worked all day, and after that started getting ready for the party.

YOU: What does "party" mean?

THEM: "Party" means party.

YOU: Thank you.

THEM: What did you do today?

YOU: I went to work, then had lunch, and then took a lesson.

THEM: Nice! What did you have for lunch?

YOU: How do you say "chicken"?

THEM: "Chicken" is "chicken".

YOU: I had chicken for lunch.


To summarize:

1. Prepare your questions.

2. Prepare your answers.

3. Ask a lot of questions.

4. Take a few notes.

5. Repeat often!

What really matters when learning a language?

What really matters when learning a language?

Does pronunciation matter? Does correct grammar matter, or does making yourself understood matter more? How good do you have to be before you can say you've learned the language? What does being good in a language mean? And how do you know when you've learned a language?

Every one of those questions is built on the premise that language is something you learn. Like how records are things you play, frisbees are things you throw, and whistles are things you blow, languages are things you learn, right?


Language is a thing you use.

More to the point, a language isn't even a "thing", so much as it is a system of conduits, like city streets.

It's not a "thing" that you "use", as much as it is an "avenue" that you "take".

It is a structure that stands on its own, in the minds of those who know it, and when you subscribe to it, you too can fill in the lines with your own colors.

For example, once you can say 'I feel' - which is structure - you can fill in the blank with your personalized content - your color - to say 'I feel good', or 'I feel great', or 'I feel...whatever'.

That's what language is: structure and content, constant and variable, solid line and color.

Even vowels and consonants are structure and content. Vowels, vibration, like a musical flute, are the basic structure of sound, and contain within it consonants, which are like the fingers of the flute player who changes the sound.

From syntax to sound, It's structure and content all the way down.

So how do you learn it, which is to say, how do you become a member?

The structure must be established.

The structure must be established so that it will stand alone; so that even when you aren't speaking the language, for example because you are sleeping, you could be speaking the language if you chose to because you know the language, which means the structure is still there.

And how do you build the structure?

YOU don't build the structure.

The CONTENT builds the structure.

The content itself builds the very structure that will come to hold it.

Just like how moving water carves a river into the land, each time you express a thought, it leaves its mark in your mind in the shape of the language.

Over time, the system becomes more refined, and more defined. The bends are carved into rock, rather than mud, and you can say whatever you want to say. At the extreme end, it can becomes difficult for people to change the way they speak, which makes it difficult for people to change the way they think.

But in the meantime, while you are building the structure, understand that each time you express a thought in the language you're learning, you are deepening and expanding the structure. And most importantly, in that moment you're communicating something, or using the language to some end, which is the purpose of language.

Once a thought is expressed, it blows away like the colored sand of a mandala. But as it's being expressed, it makes its impression in the rock.

Verbs are containers of vocabulary

This is a metaphor that describes a system for creating instant conversation in a new language.

Imagine that there is a cup, and on the front of the cup there is the verb "I am". Then imagine taking little pieces of paper and writing all of the words and phrases that correspond to that verb, and putting them into the cup.

For example, "I am ..."


-from Chicago

-a teacher

-a Spanish teacher

-a Spanish and English teacher

-a Spanish and English teacher in Chicago

...and everything else you could possibly want to say. And you put those pieces of paper into the cup.

On the front of the cup, under "I am", you can also put "Are you ...?" and all of the phrases on little pieces of paper of all the things you could possibly want to ask someone starting with the verb "Are you ...?"

Are you ...?

-a teacher

-a student

-a Spanish student


Put the "I am/Are you ...?" cup with all its phrases onto a shelf in your mind, and have it ready whenever you need to take it down and have that conversation.

Next repeat the process with the verb "I have", and "Do you have ...?" Again, write down all the phrases on little pieces of paper that correspond to this verb, and you conversation continues to grow.

I have ... / Do you have ...?

-family in Chicago

-two kids / kids

-a sister / siblings

-a dog / pets

Repeat the process with "I like / Do you like ...?", "I want / Do you want ...?", "I'm going to / Are you going to ...?", and put those verbs with their phrases on little pieces of paper on your shelf.

Remember, this is a metaphor; an actual suitcase full of cups would be unwieldy. The conversation-verb-cup language shelf is meant to exist in your mind.

My approach to learning a new language, and teaching them, is building this shelf -- creating conversation using verbs as containers of vocabulary. Then all that's left is to practice having the conversation and to have conversation in the new language as often as possible -- which is to say, to become faster and faster at locating the right piece of paper in the right cup at the time when they're needed.

Language is a bike, language is a tree, language is a snowball ...

Learning a language is like learning to ride a bike -- it's something that you have to do in order to learn. There is no book that can teach you to ride a bike; there is no book that can teach you to speak a language, without your using the language.

Verbs are like the branches of a tree. You can make virtually infinite sentences using just a single verb. How many sentences could you make beginning with the verbs 'I am ...', 'I have ...', and 'I like ...'? The vocabulary you use to the complete the sentence are like the leaves upon the branch. Trying to learn a language by learning vocabulary is like trying to make a tree grow by planting leaves. Vocabulary without a verb is like leaves without a branch -- they will fly away in the wind.

Once you are up on the bike, riding, able to communicate on a few topics using a few verbs and just the vocabulary you need, you will begin understanding more of what you hear when you listen to others speak the language. At that point, your learning the language will become spontaneous and automatic. Some of the questions you may have about the language might be answered in the form of song lyrics or a text from a friend. You're like a snowball rolling downhill -- picking things up as you go, becoming bigger and heavier, and thereby rolling even faster and learning more. The goal at the beginning is to reach the point where you become heavy enough that you can roll by yourself.

To summarize, leverage verbs as the nuclei of conversation, and have conversation until your learning becomes automatic.