Learn a Foreign Language SUPER FAST or Not

I wanted to give an update on my progress learning Spanish followed by my thoughts on the advice being peddled in the blogosphere on language learning.

The last language update I found on this blog was on September 26, 2015. In the post King of the Road, I mentioned I my Duolingo streak was at 132 days and I was at 6% fluency. I had just finished Pimsleur Spanish 1 and was starting Pimsleur Spanish 2.

Today I have a Duolingo streak of 346 days and a fluency score of 24%. I should have a streak of 550 days, but that is a long boring story. Now I am half way though Pimsleur Spanish 4. I listen to educational podcasts in Spanish and spend 30-45 minutes a day on vocabulary app called Memrise. Two hours a week I have Skype lessons with a teacher in Venezuela. Yet I am not close to being fluent. And that is OK.

In August 2015, I posted:

I have no specific goal other than to keep improving. If one day I am fluent, great. If I can only read a newspaper, that is fine as well.

Well today I can read a good chunk of the news stories on BBC Mundo. Not quickly and I do need to lookup words, but I’ve made a lot of progress.


Now I want to share my thoughts on a lot of the language advice I see online.

#1 Every Tool Has Successes and Failures

There are many tools to learn a foreign language. Not every tool will work for every person. I think that people are too quick to state their way is right the way because it worked for them. But almost every tool works for at least some people or it wouldn’t be around anymore.

This summer I spent 8 weeks taking Accelerated Spanish 1 at a local Community College. It was mostly wasted money. I was already beyond the level of the class. Most of the students didn’t take it serious and stopped attending. Even though I got little value from the class, I knew at least two of the students benefited a lot. For me the apps and YouTube videos were better. They likely signed up for Accelerated Spanish 2, where as I hired a teacher via Skype for one-on-one instruction. The Community College is probably a better choice for them, whereas the Skype way is working better for me.

There is far too much debate on which language program is best. Pick something and get started. If you don’t like it, grab a different tool and proceed. And if someone leaves a comment on which tool is best in the comments, then I’ll know this blog post failed.

#2 Enough With the Polyglots

Maybe I’m alone here, but I don’t find it encouraging to get advice from someone that speaks multiple languages and can learn additional languages super fast. I find it discouraging. Because even though my goal is to just make progress every day it does get frustrating to see some 25 year old that likely grew up in a bilingual household tackling his 5th or 10th language.

I’m reminded of the old muscle magazine ads where some steroid monster is selling a program on how to get HUGE. I might get huge or I may discover that our monster had an advantage that I didn’t have.

#3 The Keys to Learning a Language SUPER FAST

I’ve seen the videos and read the books on rapid language learning. There seems to be two keys for rapid learning. Key 1 is it really helps if you’ve already learned at least one language in addition to your birth language. Tackling your 3rd or greater language is going to be much easier than tackling your 2nd.

The second key as far as I can tell is have no other interests. I’ve read Fluent in 3 Months. Total immersion is the message of this book. Great. I believe it. But, I have other interests and those interests are unrelated to language. And those interests take time. So indirectly a key to learning quicker is to lose interest in other things.

Yo soy la tortuga (I am the turtle)

When I approach fitness I often think of Survivorship Bias. Not what is the strategy that will get me the optimal results, but what is the strategy that has the highest success rate. They are two different things. The strategies peddled by the polygots will absolutely work for some, but most will fail for a variety of reasons. Frustration, time commitment, whatever. They will burn out and quit.

I’ve added over 30 Friends on the various language apps in the past 18 months. Of those only about 5 are consistently putting in the effort daily. Instead of being the hare, I decided to be the tortoise. I spend an average of 60-90 minutes a day on Spanish. When I started it was closer to 15 minutes.

Even though the polygots can achieve fluency in 90 days or less, I haven’t. But my confidence grows a little each month that I will someday. The most important thing is I am having fun. I am enjoying the journey. Had I tried to be the hare with a target of becoming fluent in a few months I would have absolutely quit a long time ago.

If you are learning a foreign language and looking for a Skype teacher, I use italki. Here is my referral link.  We both get 100 ITC (credits= $10 USD) if you join after you take your first lesson. I use PayPal as I’ve had issues with their credit card processing. 

Breaking CriticalMAS – A Return To Blogging?

It has been almost a year since I stopped blogging. I outlined my reasons in the post Goodbye For Now. I’ve enjoyed the break and I’m not sure I want to resume blogging on a regular basis, but I did receive several emails this year that made me realize that I left several topics open.

If you’ve watched the TV series Breaking Bad or its equally good Colombian version Metástasis you know that near the end of the series the main character has to pack up and move. After a while he realizes he needs to return to town to complete unfinished business. I kind of feel the same way.

I don’t like walking away from unfinished projects.

I’d like to wrap up some of the topics I left open. At that point I may or may not continue blogging. Unlike Breaking Bad and Metástasis, I don’t know how this story will end.


Metástasis is a shot by shot remake of Breaking Bad filmed in Bogotá, Colombia. It is on Netflix.

Here is a list of topics and tasks I feel the need to conclude on this blog.

  1. Potato Diet
  2. What I Eat and Don’t Eat – Updated
  3. The Peasant Diet
  4. Gluten/Wheat – The Final Chapter
  5. Remove worthless posts (ongoing)
  6. Update design. I like this one, except the search is relegated to the bottom.
  7. Left knee update
  8. Learning Spanish update
  9. Chromebook update
  10. Why events in 2016 didn’t surprise me.
  11. Blog Housekeeping: AMP mobile, broken links, CDN
  12. Opinions
  13. Novelty and Fitness
  14. Seattle, Open Data and Corruption
  15. Why didn’t I blog a lot more about economics?

I may have missed a few. If there is something you would like to see added to the list, leave a comment below. Also don’t leave any Breaking Bad spoilers in the comments.

Overcoming My Only Irrational Food Fear

When it comes to healthy food, I pretty much like everything. I’m the opposite of a picky eater. I love eating new and interesting foods. Organ meat, fish eyes, insects – bring it on! When it comes to food, as of yesterday I am fearless. I even have a spreadsheet of food challenges.

What happened yesterday? I tackled my only remaining food nemesis: the orange. I told the story of how I grew to loathe oranges in the 2007 post Why I Don’t Like Oranges.

Is it OK to have just one irrational food fear? Maybe. But for me I decided it was no longer serving me. It had been almost 20 years since the airport incident. Did I really want to avoid oranges for another 10 or 20 years? No.


Photo by Suzette

I started the process of warming up to oranges years ago. In the early 2000s I started with fake orange flavors, such as Tang and orange Popsicles. In the past two years I have been drinking more and more orange juice. I started with the no pulp and then mixed in some of the pulp varieties. My issue with oranges was never really about the taste. It was the smell. I know that sounds weird, but go back and read the story link to understand where I am coming from.

Yesterday I put on some kimchi gloves and cut up an orange into slices. Kimchi gloves are those thin loose fitting clear plastic gloves sold in Korean grocery stores. Then I ate the entire orange down to the peel. Afterwards I smelled the peels. This is something that would have caused a gag reflex just a few years ago. I was fine. The smell wasn’t pleasant. It was neutral. A huge win. I defeated my fear of oranges.

I still have a few rational food fears, such as french fries cooked in vegetable oil and dark roasted coffee. But now I can eat any healthy food. I no longer have an issue with oranges. Do you have any irrational food fears? Any interest in overcoming them?

King of the Road

Today I am Waze Royalty!

waze royalty

Driving sucks. I know. But if you need to drive, then why not get some points and a rank? I explained all this in the post Learning to Hate Driving Less. Waze may seem silly to many, but it not only made driving more pleasant (less painful), but gave me the idea to use gamification for something more beneficial.

That turned out to be the language learning application Duolingo, which I covered in the post 30 Días. Well 30 days is now 132 days. I’m on Level 14 and just hit the 6% Fluency level. Several of my friends have now joined me on Duolingo. My group the Coffee Club of Seattle now has eight members actively learning Spanish. A few are learning French and one Portuguese. It all started with the Waze scoreboard.

Duolingo 6%

We live in great times. A year ago I hated driving and was too unmotivated to even start the process of learning a foreign language. Today I drive around with Waze turned on while listening to Spanish lessons (Pimsleur). I feel like a King.

Are you using any educational applications that take advantage of points, ranking, streaks or competition with friends?

UPDATE January 2016: Having fun with the new Language Zen program.

Change Your Security Question Answers

I mentioned this briefly in another post, but I thought it was important enough to cover again. The sensitive financial accounts you have often will use security questions to prevent unauthorized people from accessing your account. This may have been an effective level of security at one time, but not anymore. There are databases that do nothing but collect data about you. Every point of data they can. Some of these entities are good people and some are bad people. And just like you, they can be hacked as well.

I can change my password in minutes, but the answers to the security questions these institutions ask are the type that aren’t suppose to change. Some examples:

  • What street did you grow up on?
  • What was your high school mascot?
  • What was your first car?
  • Where does your nearest sibling live?
  • What is the name of your oldest nephew?
  • What is the birthday of your youngest sibling?

Even an amatuer sleuth could discover the answers to every one of those questions about me. A professional hacker probably already has them. Someone with malicious intent could call my bank claiming to be me stating he lost “his” password. The bank would then ask the security questions, which are easily discoverable on the Internet. And with major hacks such as the Premera Blue Cross Cyberattack where millions of health records got exposed, I must assume at some point even my Social Security Number will fall into malicious hands.

Not to be too paranoid as banks have other forms of security such as 2-factor authentication plus text and email alerts. But not everyone signs up for them and they may not be offered where you bank or invest. And for that layer of security, you need to trust your financial institution. There is nothing you can do should they mess that up.


Photo by Angel Arcones 

However, you can control your answers to the security questions. The answers you use to bank security questions can not be truthful. Here is an example of how I might answer these questions. These are not my answers, just an example on how to think about answering the questions.

  • What street did you grown up on?  celery mustache
  • What was your high school mascot? boxes of paint
  • What is the birthday of your youngest sibling? shampoo day

You can store your answers to these questions inside your password manager. If you don’t use a password manager, come up with a single answer that you can remember, such as “SlipperySamSofa“.

One last tip is do not use any words that are tied to your likes. This especially applies to password choices. If you LIKE Star Wars on Facebook, you can bet there is a dictionary of Star Wars terms hackers will use when they try and crack your password. Hackers have software that can scan for interests across blogs and social media and then use that information to build hacking lists. Before I started this project, I used “kimchi” as part of one of my passwords. Not anymore. The words I use in passwords, passphrases and security answers have zero connection to my interests.

I’ve also assembled a Best Of page for accessing the Online Security posts.