Building a Better Language App

Over the past three years, I’ve taught English in three countries while learning three languages. These experiences have been wonderful opportunities to meditate on and tinker with existing methods.

With each country, I faced a different culture, classroom setting, and set of needs. My teaching style had to morph to match the circumstances. Sticking to one method would only risk alienating students. In Chongqing, I oversaw twenty-two conversational English classes at a junior high school, each of which had 60 students or more. I had complete control over the curriculum, but was required to create Keynote presentations (and have their content vetted by the head teacher). Most of my day was spent trying to get through it. Prague was an experimental period. I tram-hopped to various companies to teach business English to small classes of 20-60 somethings. Since most of my students despised textbooks and had specific goals in mind, I had to create most of my lessons from scratch. In Taipei, I had to follow stricter guidelines. For every intensive, general, and test-prep class I taught to adults and high school students, I was required to use a specific textbook at a certain pace and attend regular workshops.

Where training failed, language study stepped in and made adapting easier. After failing to learn Czech in a classroom setting during my initial months in Prague, I committed to pursuing my interest in another language—Japanese—on my own. Once I refined my approach and techniques, I easily moved on to Mandarin Chinese and Russian, and even returned to Spanish.

By teaching in a classroom while learning on my own, I discovered gaps in traditional methods, possible alternatives, and new materials. And my teaching evolved further.

Leaving education for iOS development isn’t leaving at all. It’s simply a continuation of a three-year experiment, with the added challenge of linking together everything I’ve learned to create awesome language apps.

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Breaking Into Chinese, Japanese, & Russian: A Brief Guide to Getting from Newbie to Intermediate-Level in 8 Months or Under 

My Twitter has been blowing up with requests for language learning resources and tips. So, I’m putting together a short guide. I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible, since a deluge of resources won’t help you. In general, I recommend using no more than three resources at a time, even if you’re going at an accelerated pace. Also remember to vary your materials; using three step-by-step guides, apps, or what-have-you wastes time.  Whenever I start learning a language, I focus on small deliverables. Having a benchmark for each week and month keeps me focused. To get an idea of what a realistic goal looks like, check out this one-page CEFR guide.

Since these three languages have a special reputation for being difficult, some advice: consistency is more important than volume. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to learn All the Things, as many language learners will (wrongly) suggest. If you want to go fast, you need to go slow. 20 minutes of concentrated practice is better than two hours twice a week. You’ll notice that most of these resources can be completed in 1-3 months with 30-minute daily sessions. There’s no need to stop having a life to learn a language.

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A Guide to Selecting & Organizing Self-Study Materials


From Stefan Bucher’s 344 Questions


So, you’ve decided to learn how to program or speak a foreign language on your own. Without a clear strategy, one of two things will happen. You’ll spend hours researching and gathering resources, only to become overwhelmed, as it becomes increasingly clear you have no idea where to start. You’ll assume you need several hours a day to learn, which means that your routine will be threatened by every unscheduled event, bad mood, or low-energy day. Or, you’ll hop over to Codecademy or Treehouse, Duolingo or Babbel–or whatever big-name company you’ve read about online–and start picking through their courses. Your sense of mastery will grow with each badge you earn and streak you maintain, until of course you finish. That brief, exhilarating ego boost will be crushed, as you realize that your chosen subject is far more complex and rich than those introductory courses led you to believe.
This is when most people start giving up, which is unfortunate because both approaches have merit. Deep research is essential to mastering a subject, as is recognizing that you should probably stop googling and just get something done. The problem isn’t the approach; it’s the fact that most people only choose one.

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