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Karaoke: Japan’s Gift to the Language Learner

26 Mar

Four years living in a different country will change anyone. Especially if that country is Japan!

If you’ve ever known anyone who has lived (for an extended period of time) in Japan you’re bound to notice that they’ve picked up a few “interesting” habits and I’m no different;

Not wearing shoes in the house, sitting on the floor despite having a perfectly good sofa right next to you, eating salad with chopsticks (Try it. It’s so much easier), not feeling like you’ve finished a meal until you’ve had a bowl of rice (or two), bowing even while on the phone… the list goes on.

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You'll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Salad with chopsticks? Try it. You’ll never try to stab a piece of lettuce with a fork again!

Japanese was the first language that I learned to fluency and I have one of Japan’s greatest exports to thank for that: Karaoke! This article will cover how you can use it to learn any language to fluency “WITHOUT EVER HAVING TO SING IN PUBLIC”!!!

Why Karaoke?
Karaoke in Japan is as much a part of the culture as rice-balls and ramen. If you live there, it becomes part of your life; you go out for dinner with your friends, you end up singing karaoke; you have a staff party with your colleagues, you end up singing karaoke; it’s Wednesday, you end up singing karaoke. And the Japanese take their national passtime pretty seriously so you learn fairly quickly to improve your karaoke game.

I realized that I was going to need to learn some Japanese songs to keep my coworkers happy and in doing so I realized that practicing karaoke is a fantastic way to improve my Japanese in three major areas:

  • Pronunciation: listening to a song and repeatedly trying to match the way pronunciation of the singer is an amazing way to improve your accent and how you sound in your target language. I’ve spoken previously about how important pronunciation and understandability are when speaking a second language. Repeating a song over and over again allows you to practice the vocal chord/lip movements and breath control necessary to imitate a new language.
  • Reading: karaoke involves reading the lyrics of a song in your target language at (what can be) a pretty challenging pace. That challenge and stepping out of your comfort zone can lead to a huge improvement in your reading speed.
  • Vocabulary: learning (or at least practicing) the lyrics of songs inevitably leads to you learning new words and ways to use them and they tend to stick better when you mix in a catchy tune (I can still recite songs in Irish that I learned as a child in primary school)

How to Karaoke!!! (without the humiliation of actually singing in public)
So, how do you actually go about improving your Japanese (or any language) with Karaoke? It’s as easy as following these 3 (or 4) easy steps.

  1. Pick your Songs: Find songs that you enjoy and that are of a relatively easy tempo. It’s important to start with slow songs at the beginning as it’s easier to keep up and follow the lyrics on screen. Starting off by trying to follow the lyrics of a fast paced rap song is not a good idea, no matter how much you like the song. Love songs (cringe) are usually ideal, just like this one below which became one of my karaoke staples.

    Download the songs to your computer/phone or create a specific “Lyrics” playlist on Youtube (some videos will even have the lyrics included) so you can always access them easily.
  2. Find and Save the Lyrics: Thanks to the good old internet you can now find the lyrics for virtually any song instantaneously. Find the lyrics for your chosen songs and save them in some form of file on your computer or on your phone. I personally save them to the memo app on my iphone (check out the picture below) but I’m sure there are better, more organized ways to store them for easy access. At this point you can also look up any new vocabulary or grammar that you don’t understand so you can actually know what the song is really about.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

    This is how I save lyrics to songs I want to my practice in the memo app of my phone.

  3. Practice: Here’s the fun part. When you have some down time just play the song you want to practice and recite the lyrics trying to match the cadence, intonation and sound of the singer. You can do it in the privacy of your own room and no one ever has to know about your new karaoke fetish. You can even practice in public without bothering anyone or appearing to be a total psychopath. For example, whenever I’m using public-transport I pop in my headphones and listen to my “Lyrics” playlist (I have one for Japanese and one for Spanish). Then I either recite the lyrics in my head as the song plays or I lip-sync the song. I consider lip-syncing the better option as you actually practice the mouth movements needed to produce the sounds. People do this on public transport all the time anyway (and it’s only annoying if they actually do start singing out loud).
  4. (OPTIONAL) Rock some Karaoke: When you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of a few songs, why not show your native-speaking friends how you can rock out and sing with the best of them during a night of unbridled, laser-illuminated mirror-balled, karaoke fury…
    …or just sing in the shower like a normal person!

    Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

                                                      Just think. With a little practice, this could be you!

Time Efficient and Free
The reason I’m such a fan of this method for learning a language is that it ticks a couple of boxes that are important for me:

  • It can be done whenever you’re on public transport or driving or just chilling out at home

  • It is completely free

  • You can store the songs and lyrics on your phone and have them with you at all times

  • In all my time learning languages I have found this gives you some of the best bang for your buck when I comes to speaking improvement in relation to time invested.

If you’re sitting at home in front of a computer right now you could literally start practicing this method in less than 30 seconds i.e. the time it takes to find a song on youtube and its corresponding lyrics. There’s no reason not to give it a try.

Do I sing well now?
F%&K NO! But I now have a repertoire of Japanese (and Spanish) songs that I can belt out (as long as I have the lyrics to follow on screen) whenever I end up at a Shidax. More importantly it has improved my spoken Japanese and Spanish considerably, which I’m happy enough with.

Get singing folks.

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How to Instantly Improve your Accent in a second language

7 Oct

We’ve all met a foreigner who has come up to us to ask a question (maybe directions to the bus station or the nearest bakery… at least that’s what I usually look for in new cities) only to not understand a word they have said to us because of their “heavily” accented English.

Was that some form of Quehua???

Was that some form of Quechua???

They might be speaking grammatically perfect English but their accent signals to our brain that: “This person is speaking some strange language that you don’t understand… possibly Dutch… or Klingon! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!”

It happens all the time. I work part-time in a bar and last week I had an older Finnish guy come up to ask for a drink. I had to ask him to repeat his order 4 times before I realized he wanted a Gin & Tonic. I felt ridiculous and I consider myself to be much better than average at understanding accented English due to over 7 years of living in non-English-speaking countries.

The under-appreciated Importance of Accent
Here’s something that you unfortunately won’t hear much about in your average secondary school language class:

“ACCENT IS IMPORTANT”

Working on your accent in your second language will benefit you in the following ways:

  • it will make you instantly more understandable
  • it will make it easier for native speakers to accept you as a competent speaker of their language

Check out this little video I recorded which shows the difference between Spanish and Japanese spoken in my native Irish accent and then with a much more “neutralized” accent. I think you’ll agree that the neutral accent sounds a whole lot more understandable (but does lose some of its Irish charm 😉 ) 

Eliminate your own accent
So, imitating the accent of another language is not easy. It is by no means impossible but it does take plenty of conscious practice.

What I’m proposing, to begin with, is the much simpler option of just eliminating your own accent.

The easiest way to do this is to focus on what makes your particular accent distinct and then gradually try to eliminate those idiosyncrasies from your second language (where they only help in making you more difficult to understand).

This can run the full gamut from cadence, to pronunciation, to sentence intonation etc. Obviously, the more aspects you focus on, the better.

Let me take a Selfie!
So a great way of doing this is to record yourself speaking your chosen language.

Make a quick video of yourself reading something (newspaper clippings or comics are great). Play it back, analyze it yourself and then decide what parts are making you sound… like a foreigner. Better yet, get a native speaker of your target language to review it for you and help you work on your pronunciation issues.

Then it’s just a matter of practicing the same words or sentences, just without the accent that makes it sound… odd!

Give it a shot. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to improve how you sound, be it in Japanese, Spanish, Klingon or whatever.

Keep talking folks.

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The Dancing Irishman in Barcelona

25 Sep
Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That's just the local amphitheater, nothing special.

Just getting to know my new neighbourhood. That’s just the local ancient-Roman amphitheater, nothing special.

So… I live in Barcelona now!

Which means that in the last 4 years or so this is the fourth country I’ve “officially” lived in. After 4 years living and teaching in Japan I left in 2010, lived in Ireland for a year working at the Japanese embassy, moved to Colombia in 2011 working as a freelance translator, came back to Ireland via Cuba and the US at the end of 2013 and now, after all that, I am resident of one of Spain’s most famous cities.

I’m beginning to understand why my friends constantly tell me that they can never envision me settling down in one place. I’m not quite sure if I should be worried or not.

The Irish Diaspora
Since 2006/7 emigration out of Ireland (particularly of young people) has increased significantly; part of the great global economic depression. I was always secretly proud of the fact that I didn’t leave Ireland because I had to, because there was no work for me but because I wanted to experience life in other places. Hence my stays in Japan and Colombia.

This time is a little different
This time, I couldn’t find a job that I wanted to do. A job that I could actually see myself doing and importantly, enjoying, long-term. Anyone who has been following this blog will know from an article I posted a little over a year ago, when I left Colombia, that I left because I wanted to start thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.

Well, this year, living back home on the farm in the far south of Ireland, I had plenty of time to think. If we want to get all “touchy feely” about it, I wanted to do something that I loved. So I had a few options. The blog itself is actually a pretty decent window into the things that float my boat:

  • Dance: After all this blog isn’t called the “Administrating” Irishman. I do love dance and it is a huge part of my life. I’ve even taught dance before but it’s not what I see myself doing in the long term. I’m much happier working on my own dance and learning as much as I can fit in myself.
  • Languages: I’ve been working as a freelance Japanese translator for a few years now and while I enjoy the freedom it affords me, the work isn’t exactly regular. I may have “future” kids to think about and a “future” family to provide for so something a little more stable is called for. Also, my particular field of expertise, biosciences, while interesting, hardly makes for riveting translation.
  • Travel: I really don’t know how I could make a living just traveling the world. If you do, just drop me an email. That said, I think I’ve come to a point where I’m starting to want just one place to call home (other than my family home).
  • Fitness: I love researching fitness, putting it into practice and helping people get started in the gym or just exercising in general. That said, I don’t think I’d really make it as a personal trainer. I just don’t have the pecs for it.
  • Food: Now we’re getting somewhere. I do spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about food; cooking it, eating it, rolling around in it. However, while I considered becoming a chef in secondary school I pretty much turned against the idea when I realized I would probably be working social hours. That, and Gordon Ramsay in “Hell’s Kitchen” scared the crap out of me.
    Which leaves us with…. Drumroll please
  • …Nutrition: I love being able to improve my health through the food I eat, I love reading up on the latest research in nutrition and I really love helping people with their diets. It genuinely makes me feel fulfilled. Add to that the fact of the western world’s expanding waistline and it looks like it may be a rather lucrative little industry too 😉

Sooooo… I am about to start a Masters degree in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Barcelona & the University Rovira I Virgilli. Further education is going to be my first stepping stone towards the career I really want.

Why so far away, Irish?
Firstly, it’s cheaper than living and studying in Ireland. Significantly so.

Secondly, it allows me to indulge some of my other loves at the same time (we wouldn’t want to neglect those now would we?):

  • Salsa: Barcelona is well known in Europe for having a spectacular latin dance scene
  • Language: I get to do my Masters through Spanish and maybe learn a little Catalan too
  • Food: it’s just sooooo good here

Presenting… The Nutritioning Irisman!!!!
Hmmm, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? Maybe I’ll hold off changing the blog title.

In any case, I’m going to do my best to keep updating the blog and providing you with as much helpful and mildly humorous info as I can… just from Barcelona.

If you have any tips on the salsa scene here I’d be very happy to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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Remember Anything, Forever!

5 Mar
Most of us have plenty of "head" room to spare.It's time to start filling it with something useful!

Most of us have plenty of “head” room to spare.
It’s time to start filling it with something useful!

What if I told you that there was a way to learn huge quantities of information, permanently and in only a few minutes each day?

Why I bet you’d say “Good sir, I’d pay you a king’s ransom for such valuable information… or I’d at least read the rest of this article”.

Well my tightfisted friend, today you are in luck. Today I’m going to share with you a secret that will change the way you approach learning for the rest of your life.

Back story
I discovered this method back in late 2007. I had been living in Japan for a little over a year at the time and I had made a lot of progress in learning the language from scratch. However, being a perfectionist (the curse that it is) I was still looking for ways to speed up my progress. With all my online searching for a so called holy grail of learning I managed to hit pay-dirt in the form of a site with the very catchy address of  www.alljapaneseallthetime.com .

This site is aimed at language learning but in particular it introduced me to the “tool” that I’m going to tell you about. I used it and it worked. In only 3 months I had memorized 3000 Japanese kanji (chinese characters) and in a little over a year I was a certified Japanese translator. To put that in context, native Japanese students learn about 2000 kanji over the course of 10 YEARS in elementary, junior-high and high school (that works out at about 60 times faster than an average Japanese native). I often schooled my own students in Japan when they made mistakes writing kanji and my party trick was writing complicated characters that most Japanese people could only read and not even write themselves.

I know I’m tooting my horn here a little but it’s something I’m very proud of and I really want you to understand just how effective this method is.

Tell me more, Tell me more…
Ok, at this stage you’re probably saying “Ok, just get to the good stuff and let the super-learning begin”

What I used was the very simply titled “SRS”.

“What you talkin’ bout Richie?”
SRS stands for Spaced Repetition Software; it’s basically a computerized flashcard system that uses very fancy “spaced repetition algorithms” (God I love that word, it makes anyone who uses it sound like they know what their talking about) to schedule the learning of pieces of information (facts) according to how well you know them.

Think of it like this: An SRS quizzes you on certain facts by showing you a question (a question and it’s answer together are known as a card… from flash-card). When you reveal the answer you score yourself on a scale of how well you knew the answer. If you knew the answer very well, the algorithm will schedule that card to be shown again at a date in the future (days, weeks, months even years). However if you didn’t know the answer and score it accordingly the algorithm will schedule that card to be shown again very, very soon (maybe within 5 minutes). This way you spend more time reviewing facts that you don’t know well and don’t waste time reviewing stuff you already know.

The whole idea of the algorithm is to allow you to review a particular card just before you are expected to forget it. In this way you strengthen the memory retention effect maximally.

One of the great things about SRSs is that many are accessible from the internet so you can basically study anywhere you can connect to the net. With most mobile phones these days, that means you can literally study anywhere, whenever you have a couple of minutes free.

The screenshots below should give you an idea of what an SRS looks like (the particular one I use is called Anki and I definitely recommend it)

ピクチャ 3

This is what a Japanese “Question” looks like. I read it, try to answer it and then click “Show Answer”

ピクチャ 4

Here’s the same card with the answer shown in blue (it’s an explanation of new vocabulary in the sentence) (I prefer to study using a Jap/Jap Dictionary).
Below I have various options to score myself which will result in the card being shown at different intervals (1 minute, 1 day or 4 days) (This is a new card I haven’t learned yet).

Here’ an example from my Spanish deck

Here's a similar style of card, with a "question" in Spanish.

Here’s a similar style of card, with a “question” in Spanish.

And here's the same card with it's "answer" shown below in blue.

And here’s the same card with it’s “answer” shown below in blue. The scoring options will result in intervals of 10 months, 11 months, 2.1 years or 3.7 years (that means I know this card well).

The idea is to review your cards (study) for about 20-30 minutes a day. The real magic starts to happen when the intervals between seeing a particular question get long (many months). That’s when these “facts” start getting locked into your long term memory (thanks to the wonderful, magic algorithm).

I highly recommend you check out the wikipedia entry on SRS for further information.

Pfff, Bulls#!t
No, seriously, this is the real deal. To give you a little example: I don’t get to speak Japanese here in Cali all that often so I felt that my spoken fluency was suffering. Two weeks ago I met a bunch of Japanese folks and we got talking and as the conversation went on I was talking about something that happened to me in the gym. I just casually said that my thigh started to spasm when I was exercising. The word for spasm in Japanese is keiren (痙攣) and as it’s a medical term I probably have used the word less than 3 times in my entire life. The reason I remembered it is because it’s included in my SRS deck. I had reviewed it casually many times when I studied Japanese regularly back in Japan and it had become locked firmly into my long-term memory. To give you an idea of how long-term: I haven’t studied my Japanese SRS in any serious manner in about 3 years! This happened with a whole load of other words too, during the conversation.

So what can I learn?
The question should be “What do you want to learn?”.

Decks (collections of cards) can be completely customized to allow you learn anything that you can think of.

  • Use it to learn the vocabulary or sentence structure of a new language
  • Add photos and use it to learn the names and details of regular clients or workmates
  • Use it to memorize facts for quizzes from geography to quantum physics
  • Add sound and learn the pronunciation of difficult tonal languages like Chinese
  • Build a list of motivational quotes
  • Learn the nutritional values of the foods you consume most often

It really is up to you! You can find many pre-made decks online or you can create one completely by yourself and to your likings. For example, the front of your card could be a simple question (e.g. Who was the first man on the moon?) in which case the back of the card would be a simple answer (e.g. Neil Armstrong). On the other hand, if trying to learn the grammar of a new language you could write a short statement in the target language on the front of the card (e.g. Yo voy a la tienda cada mañana) in which case the back of the card (the answer) would be a explanation of new vocabulary or grammar in the sentence (e.g. tienda=store, cada=every/each). You can vary your question/answer style to your own needs.

This is what making your own cards looks like.It's as simple as writing in what you want to be on the front of the card (the question) and what you want to be revealed on the back (the answer).

This is what making your own cards looks like.
It’s as simple as writing in what you want to be on the front of the card (the question) and what you want to be revealed on the back (the answer).

The best way to start out would be to visit the website of whatever SRS you chose to use and read their instruction guide and FAQ to educate yourself about how to properly use their program. At first the learning curve can seem a little steep but within 30 minutes of downloading the software you’ll realize how easy it really is.

As I said previously, I really like Anki; it’s relatively easy to use and the best thing is it’s FREE!

Tips for using an SRS
Having used SRSs in one form or another over the years I’ve learned what works and what definitely doesn’t. Here are a few tips to make your learning experience more efficient.

  • Use it regularly. This may sound obvious but many people make the mistake of being very irregular with their SRS use. Remember, you only need a total of 20-30 minutes a day.
  • Keep questions simple. The shorter and simpler your questions are the faster you’ll get through your deck and the more you’ll enjoy it. Trying to cram too much info into a question is actually counterproductive and hinders fact retention.
  • Use it whenever you have a few minutes to spare. Especially if you use the online versions with your mobile phone you can study on the bus, waiting in line at the supermarket, during commercials while watching TV etc.
  • Keep cards interesting. If you make your own deck (which I recommend) make the cards as interesting and relevant to your own interests as possible. You retain interesting information much more easily than something you have no interest in. My language decks are full of cards about cooking, science and travel. It’s interesting (for me) and it’s in my target language (the majority of the language used is transferable to everyday conversation)
  • Grade yourself fairly. This one is a big stumbling block for newbies. If you don’t understand a question then score yourself accordingly. Otherwise you’ll only be lying to yourself and your progress will suffer. No one will know if you get it wrong anyway.
  • Have fun. Nothing will sabotage your learning more than if your study isn’t fun. Look at it as a daily game where you try to get through as many cards as possible in a set amount of time. Do everything you can to keep it interesting and fun. Make sure you want to come back to study.

I know this is a lot of info to handle at first. It was for me too a few years ago. But if you give SRSs a chance and put in a genuine effort at the start to wrap your head around how to use it, it really could be one of the greatest learning tools you’ll ever encounter.

So no more excuses for not learning the names, capitals and flags of every country in the world or the lyrics to that song you love or those few key phrases in Spanish to impress that pretty latina girl at the salsa club 😉

What are you gonna learn first? Let me know in the comments.

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22 Ways Salsa Makes Life Better

19 Feb
You can quote me on that!

You can quote me on that!

My life has changed hugely since I started dancing salsa, unquestionably for the better and I’m certain that this is the case for everyone else who dances.

Whether you’re already reaping the benefits or you’re looking for a little motivation to start dancing, here’s a little list of the things that make salsa so popular and addictive.

1. New Friends: Getting into salsa opens up a whole new world of people from literally every walk of life who you otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet. I’ve even made a lot of salsero friends through this blog, whom I haven’t met in person, yet! I am so grateful for the huge amount of great friends I have made through salsa.

2. Lose Weight: When I’m dancing 3 nights a week I’m at my leanest. If I ever go through a period when I’m not dancing for an extended period of time I really notice the weight pile on quickly! Dance and say goodbye to those love-handles.

3. Stay Healthy: Doctors recommend you get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day to keep your heart healthy. Salsa is a great way to up your heart rate and boost cardiovascular health and the fact that it’s so fun means you’ll stick with it. It’s definitely more entertaining than hitting a treadmill for 30 minutes. Social dance has also been shown to keep the mind sharper as we age, better than any other physical activity!

4. Improve Coordination: Salsa teaches you how to coordinate complex footwork with arm combinations. Countless studies and personal experience have shown that coordination gained in one physical activity is transferable to a whole range of others. So if you want to move well in general, dance!

5. Forget about Life’s Worries: I think one of the major reasons I fell in love with salsa was that it became a form of meditation for me. Dance allows you to focus all of your thoughts on the dance and forget about everything else for a few minutes (or more). Losing yourself in the moment when dancing is probably a therapy that a lot of people could use in this day and age!

6. Learn New Languages: Salsa communities the world over tend to be very international and that makes them a great place to learn or practice a new language especially Spanish (well, you may as well learn what all those songs are about: Short Answer = Lovey dovey crap).

7. New Cultures: For the same reason mentioned above you can learn so much about different cultures from meeting new people through salsa. This really helped me to learn more about the large Polish and Latin communities in Dublin.

8. Better Love Life: While salsa should never, ever be considered a dating service I can honestly say that it has done absolutely no harm to my love life.

9. Better Understanding of People: Salsa is social. You will meet all sorts of new people and form all sorts of new relationships and gain new insights into how people work. I can’t begin to explain how salsa will affect every interaction you will have with people in your life but it will, for the better.

10. Discover Passion: This was and is huge for me. Through salsa you discover the passion of dance, the passion created between a couple as they move together as one in harmony with music and then you begin to discover it in every other aspect of your life. And once you taste passion you will never want to look back at how your life was before.

11. Appreciate Music: I never really listened to music before I started dancing but ever since then it has become a huge part of my life. I pay attention to new music, not just what I can dance to, appreciate it, enjoy it and feel it.

12. Travel: I’ve lost count of the amount of countries and cities I’ve danced in. Salsa is truly international and if ever you’re in a big city where you don’t know anyone you can just google a salsa club, get dancing and start meeting the locals and maybe they’ll even show around their city too.

13. Learn to Relax: I’ve always found it tough to relax myself physically, so much so that a Japanese masseuse once described me as the tensest human being she had ever worked with. Losing yourself in the music and letting yourself flow with the rhythm is one incredibly effective way of relaxing your whole body, not to mention how well you’ll sleep after a great night of dancing.

14. Improve your Fashion Sense: While this doesn’t apply to everyone I’ve definitely noticed that when people enter the salsa community they become a lot more adventurous with their clothes, start to pay a little more attention to their appearance and basically “sex-up” their whole wardrobe. I know plenty of guys who have discovered the wonders of hats and waistcoats through salsa (you know who you are).

15. Boost Confidence: Probably the biggest difference most people experience with salsa is just the sheer confidence boost you feel once you get into. In salsa you have to step out of your comfort zone all the time; asking people to dance, trying new moves etc and this definitely transfers to other areas of your life. Sex, business, sports, you name it! An extra bit of confidence goes a long way in life.

16. Discover Other Dances: Once people start dancing salsa, they often don’t stop there. Salsa is like a “Gateway Dance” into a whole world of other dances like bachata, merengue, cha cha cha, kizomba, tango and a whole host more. What will your poison be?

What will your poison be?

What will your poison be?

17. Drink Less: This really applies in Ireland where we have a ridiculously alcohol-centered social culture. In my experience, salsa dancers don’t drink much (some of us not at all) and this may be why some people turn to salsa. It offers a social outlet that doesn’t revolve around booze which is a blessing in some countries.

18. Overcome Addictions: Salsa is addictive! Many people find themselves that the best way to get over one thing is to replace it with something else. Be it smoking, alcohol, drugs, food, popping bubble-wrap, an ex-relationship or whatever, salsa is a very healthy and rewarding alternative.

19. Dodge Pedestrians: This might (probably is) just be me but ever since I started dancing I’ve found I’ve become really good at skillfully dodging oncoming pedestrian traffic when walking on the sidewalk. I don’t walk around people anymore, I glide!

20. Physical Contact: This applies more to people in Asia and the English speaking world but dancing salsa makes you much more comfortable with human contact. Obviously when you dance you’re going to be in close physical contact with your partner but on top pf that, salsa communities, thanks to the Latin influence tend to be warmer and closer; people greet each other with kisses and hugs. The world needs more of this.

21. Meet Me: When I asked people on my facebook page about how salsa has made their lives better, a lot replied saying that it had helped them meet me 😉 So there you go: Dance salsa and meet The Dancing Irishman, what more could you ask for haha!

22. It’s Fun: I can’t believe I almost forgot to throw in the most obvious reason of them all. The more fun in our lives the better right! Dance passionately with countless beautiful people to fantastic music until the sun comes up. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on… the rest comes later.

What about you? How has salsa improved your life? Let me know in the comments.

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Stick to your Guns (How to make new habits automatic)

31 Jan
Image

If I hadn’t stuck with salsa I’d never have learned just how much fun dance really is!

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine a few months ago, a guy who had traveled to Colombia to find a new, less stressful life much like myself.

He was working here and telling me how much he disliked his new job (he had started a little over a week before) and how he had read from some online guru that people shouldn’t spend their lives doing things that they don’t enjoy. He told me how much he agreed with this “guru” (he quit said job less than a week later) and how he firmly believed that people should constantly pursue new experiences.

“I don’t want to be the kind of guy that can’t remember the last time he tried something new” he told with a smile and a lot of confidence. “I want to try new things as much as I can”, “That’s” how you live your life”!

I felt a little sorry for him as soon as he said it!

Not that I disagree with him. I really believe that new experiences keep life interesting and keep us, as people, on our toes both physically and mentally. If you can’t remember the last time you tried your hand at something new, you really should take a good look at your life to make sure you’re not sinking into a rut.

My problem with what my friend said stems from that fact that he was so fervent about his belief in “new experiences” that he forgot how important it is to dedicate time to ones endeavors, to develop them beyond the superficial.

I’ll explain this the best way I know how; through salsa.

Let’s assume that when you went to your first salsa party a few years ago you were looking at salsa as your new experience. Let’s say you stuck with it for a few classes and learned the basic steps, a cross body lead and a turn or two and were pretty proud of yourself for it.

Then you decided to take up spear-fishing! All in the pursuit of new experiences.

You would never have learned the things that you have in all the time you’ve been dancing. You would never have learned how to enjoy music and dance as much as you do now. More importantly you wouldn’t know all the amazing people that you have met thanks to the world of dancing.

Give it time
As I said, new experiences are amazing but if you don’t dedicate yourself to new activities, you’ll never experience them the way they’re supposed to be. You’ll have just scratched the surface, thrown them a superficial glance and missed out on all the secrets that would have been revealed to you had you only “stuck to your guns”.

New Year, New You
I’m mentioning this now at the end of January because I’m sure many of you started out the year with great intentions and I’m also sure that many of you have thrown some of those goals out the window, just as I have.

Doing something new is easy the first time in the sense that you don’t need to dedicate yourself to it. Keeping it up is what’s tough, keeping it up is what takes effort and keeping it up is what reaps the greatest rewards.

My first salsa class was fun and, in a way, easy because I didn’t have any expectations for myself. I knew I was going to suck. Sticking with salsa for my first year however was tough. The few salsa parties I went to (they were surprisingly hard to find in rural Japan. Who’d have thought?) were like torture. I was terrified of making mistakes and beat myself up after for not having the confidence to ask more people out to dance. I thought to myself many times how easy it would be to just not bother, to give up and try something else.

However I also knew that if I stuck with it I’d be able to do the amazing things that I saw all those people doing on the dance floor and I’d be able to enjoy it as much as they seemed to be.

So I stuck to my guns and now they’re fully loaded (sweet pun, I know). I can dance (something I never imagined I’d be able to do) and dance has improved my life in many more ways than I can go into here.

Give yourself time
All dancing aside, if you want to achieve something, anything, you have to be dedicated to it.

How many of you said that you were going to eat healthier this year and are currently munching on the stale doughnuts you found at the bottom of your handbag? How many of you said you were going to get yourself a new job and your old resume remains only partially updated from the time when you got your last job?

Research these days says that for a new habit to stick, you need to stick with it for between 20-28 days. What that means is that if you try something regularly for just 3-4 weeks you break through a certain wall and suddenly maintaining that habit becomes a hell of a lot easier.

3-4 weeks is not a lot of time but that doesn’t mean that being dedicated that whole time is easy. It’s not. But if you stick it out, if you put up with the unpleasantness and inconvenience for just a few weeks your body will reward you by making it a whole lot easier for you. You’re not running uphill anymore, you’re cruising on the flat and straight road to victory.

Obviously 3-4 weeks doesn’t apply to everything. I takes me much more time to get used to something but from experience I know that there comes a time in every endeavor when things suddenly become easier, when things make sense and it all becomes a whole lot of fun.

I experienced it in salsa when my basic step became automatic and freed up my arms to do combinations and I’ve experienced it with Japanese and Spanish when I learned enough vocabulary and grammar to make conversations automatic instead of tediously over-thought.

Automation
In fact, that might be just it. You just need to give something new enough time for it to become automatic. Once that happens it’s clear skies and a nice wind at your back.

So what is it you want to do or learn?

If you want to get fitter then dedicate 3-4 weeks to going to the gym or going jogging at least 3 days a week.

If you want to eat less junk-food make yourself a promise that you won’t touch the stuff for a whole month.

Give yourself a month and once you start to see and feel the benefits you won’t need anymore will-power to help you achieve your goals. You’ll have made it automatic and that’s when the real magic starts to happen.

Forget January guys, your month starts here.

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Humble Pie (and why you need it!)

17 Oct

When was your last slice?

To those of you who have been dancing for a while and have reached a decent level, when was the last time that you had a good portion of humble pie?

I recently joined a dance company that has nothing to do with salsa. I joined to learn new styles of dance, new movements, and to meet some new people. The group has a great reputation and a very strict director that maintains it as such.

My first 2 practice sessions  with them weren’t overly challenging as they were going easy on the new guy! However, I arrived late for my third practice session with them and after I warmed up I moved to the back of the room to watch the rehearsal of a particularly fast paced choreography. The room itself was round with windows on all sides so everything could be seen by all the people outside (the practice hall is in a public park). At the back I clumsily tried to copy some of the movements I saw performed in front of me. I was pretty embarrassed as I knew the people outside could see me doing it and and doing it badly at that.

They then did the whole choreography to music. It was fast. So fast that during the 3 times they did it, my jaw hung open somewhere around my ankles.

Then came the moment that I hoped wouldn’t come. The director called my name (actually he called me “Michael” first until someone corrected him) and asked me what part I had been watching. I froze! I had been watching the whole choreography in awe and hadn’t even thought of memorizing the moves. I didn’t answer and just stood there with a look something similar to what I looked like when I realized I was getting mugged for the first time “Is this seriously happening?”, “Oh God no!”.

A friend of mine ran over to me and asked again what part I had watched and I stuttered that I hadn’t watched any one part in particular and that I couldn’t do the dance. She told me with the sternness of a parent to a child who doesn’t want to go to school, that I had to do it. My fate was sealed. I was getting schooled whether I liked it or not!

I walked to the position the director picked for me, looked around and took the pose of the guys around me and then the music sounded and in less time than it takes to say “Dear God No!”, the choreography started.

Quick turn, new pose, start spinning, new position, pose in front of female partner, rotate around her, spin to new partner, take formation with the other men, move around the room, pair up with yet again new partner, spin her a few times, dance around her… and so on. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I imagine it looked something like the first few minutes of the D-Day landings in Normandy as viewed by the allied troops… “We’re FU$KED!”

Another member of the group actually chased me around the room shouting directions at me and telling me where to move. All I could think about was how badly I was doing it and all the people outside looking at me, laughing and thinking of me as the uncoordinated foreigner who thought he could join this dance group.

The moment the music stopped was the sweetest sound (or I should say silence) I have ever heard. I was humiliated, I felt like crying, I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me down and I had a whole 15 seconds to feel that way before the choreography started again. Of the 5 times we rehearsed, none were quite as humiliating as the first time but they came shockingly close.

I’ll be honest I really felt like I wanted to give up the idea of dancing with the group, right there and then.

Sucking like a vacuum cleaner
When was the last time you felt that way yourself? Might it have been after your first uncoordinated salsa class? During your first awkward “attempt” at a social dance? Right after you were refused a dance for the first time? That time you dropped your partner on her head?

I’m assuming, however, that you didn’t quit, that you grit your teeth and kept going and because of that you dance the way you do today.

What I’m trying to get at is that before we get good at something, we have to SUCK at it big-time first. We humiliate ourselves, we look like idiots and we feel like quitting but every time we practice we suck a little bit less.

I think that’s the whole point, to suck a little less every time. It’s called practice because the whole idea of it is for you to get better, eventually. If we were automatically good at everything we tried we would never feel that sense of achievement that we get after putting in some hard work and suffering through the embarrassment of sucking for a while.

The demeaning ordeal with the dance group really helped me remember what it felt like when I first started dancing and made me appreciate how far I’ve come since then. I used to actually wait for songs to be almost finished before I asked women to dance to avoid the embarrassment of only knowing a couple of moves. Now I can’t get enough dances in during a night out!

As long as I remember how far I’ve come with salsa (or Japanese or Karate or anything else I’ve achieved for that matter) taking on new challenges doesn’t phase me much. I know from experience that to get to the point where I’m good at something I need to go through a “perceived” humiliating period of seriously sucking at it.

Go out and get a slice
Being humbled every now and then would do us all some good every now and then. Try to remember when you had your last slice of humble pie. I’d you can’t remember it’s probably due time for a big piece so go out and look for a new challenge. Find something you’ve always wanted to do and just do it. And if you suck at the start (as most people will) just eat that portion of humble pie and shout out military style “THANK YOU SIR! CAN I HAVE ANOTHER SIR!”. The slices will get smaller and smaller every time!

As for me, I plan on going back to practice with the dance group this week for my next portion of humble pie. I’m going to suck, but not as bad as the last time, and that’s what it’s all about.

Keep dancing folks.

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Cali: One year on!

5 Sep

Cali: the only risk is wanting to stay!

This September is a special month for me. On the 8th of this month I will celebrate one whole year in Colombia.

It’s been an amazing year, which doesn’t mean it’s been completely free of “downs” but it certainly has had an overwhelming majority of “ups”.

It’s very difficult for me to to summarize my experience here over the past 12 months but I feel the occasion merits a decent look at some of the many experiences that have been part of my life here in Cali.

Recent time restrictions (because of a new job) and my general lack of writing talent dictate that this will be a rather haphazard amalgamation of thoughts but hopefully I’ll be able to convey a little bit of my feelings to you, my avid (cough cough) readers.

I’ve already spoken about some of the things I love about Cali so you can check those out together with some of the things I have to say in this post.

La Capital Mundial de la Salsa
Seeing as Cali is the “World Capital of Salsa” I suppose the place where you all expect me to start is with salsa. So that’s exactly why I’m not going to… who am I kidding, that’s exactly where I’m gonna start.

Music is the life blood of this city and salsa is the vast quantity of red blood cells with bachata, merengue, regaeton, vallenato, cumbia, bolero and pacifico music filling less prominent though equally important roles like plasma, platelets and white blood cells (can you tell I’ve been teaching high school biology recently? Right, enough of that!).

Everywhere you go you can hear some form of Latin music, mostly salsa, playing. Taxis, shopping centers, bars, restaurants, restrooms, everywhere. Whereas in Europe or the states where you have to look for specific places that play salsa music, the reverse is true here. Here, salsa is the standard and you have to go to specific bars or clubs to hear pop, rock or anything else for that matter.

This ubiquity of salsa (and other latin music styles) is, in my opinion, the real reason why Cali is called the Capital of Salsa! Salsa is the No. 1 social activity here. If you go out with friends to a bar or club you are more than likely going spend the night (apart from drinking and talking) listening and dancing to salsa.

This, at first glance, is great news for a salsero like yours truly. However, certain discrepancies become apparent very quickly.

Going Out
As dancing is the social norm here people generally go out in groups so that they can dance amongst themselves. This means going out dancing solo somewhat of a challenge. In the non-Latin world, when people go out dancing they generally ask every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Harriet) for a dance. Here you usually stick to your group (normally seated at a their own table).

I learned this, much to my disappointment, on my very first night dancing salsa in Cali. It was a Tuesday night and having arrived in Cali early that morning I was raring to go and dance salsa in my Mecca. I arranged a small posse of foreigners (unfortunately none were dancers) in my hostel and asked the receptionist to recommend somewhere good on for a Tuesday night. Cali, just like anywhere else has clubs that are good on specific nights, so he told us to go to a place called “Siboney”

In I went, as excited as a 7 year old about to go to the zoo for the first time in his life. The first thing I noticed was the layout, the majority of the club was made up of booths with tables facing the relatively small dance floor. The club wasn’t empty but it was far from full and there was loads of room to dance, which I love.

When I looked at the clientele, I noticed that most tables consisted of only one or two men surrounded a bevy of beauties (what a great word eh, “bevy”!). The girls were impeccably dressed with near perfect hair and makeup and many were … er… em… enhanced in both the front and the back (to stop them tipping over I’d imagine).

I danced with the one girl from the hostel who I’d managed to convince to come out with us and despite her claims of being “able to dance salsa” I quickly realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to spend the whole night with her flailing around in my arms like a freshly caught fish.

I also realized that the layout of the club didn’t really make asking strangers for a dance all that easy. If I wanted to dance with a woman I would have to walk up to her booth and ask her in front of all the other people there and pray that the guys at the table didn’t take offense to me moving into their territory. That sensation was really overbearing and something kept telling me to bide my time.

I did. I decided to wait for the guy at one of the tables to take one of his girls out for a dance and leave the other girls unaccompanied. Then I pounced. I walked up to the table and asked one of the girls in my best Spanish (which was fairly awful) for a dance. Her reaction most certainly was not what I expected. She looked very surprised and immediately started looking to the two other girls at the table (yeah that’s right, this one guy had four girls), as if for advise. They quickly discussed what to do amongst themselves and the other two then encouraged her to dance with me.

We stepped out on the floor and danced. I could tell she was nervous but the dance was fine, nothing special, but it made me feel better to actually be dancing with someone who could follow (my few Cuban steps at least).

I had a one or two more dances with other girls from other tables deciding to ask the guys if I could dance with their girls, which felt very strange. The next day I confirmed my suspicions that the guys were probably drug dealers and the majority of the girls were prostitutes. Just as well I didn’t make a move on anyone.

So my first night dancing in Cali was a little bit of a let down. I’ve learned to deal with the seeming inaccessibility of other groups in a club by always trying to go out with a group of dancing friends and going to clubs where things are a little more relaxed (and where there’s less drug dealers and prostitutes).

The Dancing
The vast majority of people in Cali “dance” salsa. That does not mean they are good at it.

The majority of Caleños know at least the the Cali-basic back step. Most guys can through in a turn and most girls can follow one or two. For the majority, that’s it. People can spend entire songs repeating the basic step and one or two turns over and over again.

In all honesty and not intending any disrespect to Cali and my friends here… it’s really boring.

In non-latin countries we learn salsa in order to get good at it. We love adding new moves and combinations to our individual repertoires. I honestly expected that salsa in the World Capital of Salsa would be mind blowing and that most people would be able to put us non-latino dancers to shame. Not the case.

As I said, salsa is part of the social fabric here and as such, people don’t take it as “seriously” (for want of a much more appropriate word) here. What that means is that people generally don’t see any need to practice nor do they dance as much on a night out as dancers do back home. In Ireland or Japan, if I go out dancing I will spend the vast majority of my time doing just that. Here however people spend most of there time sitting down or standing at a bar drinking and talking and only go out to dance every now and then.

All this said, there are “some” spectacular dancers in Cali. Apparently there are more than 100 salsa academies here and according to some sources more than 7000 professional dancers here. And these people can dance!

The people who do know how to dance Salsa Celeño to it’s full potential really are amazing dancers. They speed at which they move their feet and the way in which they interpret the music is simply jaw-dropping. I’m very lucky too to have a great group of friends who are great dancers and really inspire me to learn more of the local style although I’m still pretty poor at dancing Caleño myself.

Check out this video of Cali’s most famous dance troupe, Swing Latino.

Dancing Close
Although I said that I find dancing the same moves over and over again a little boring I have to admit that this does not apply to the slow salsa that is danced here in Cali.

Slow salsa is, obviously enough, salsa danced to music with a slower tempo, a good example being Vente Negra by Havana con Kola. It is danced very close with the hips touching and arms around your partner, just like a close bachata. The movement too is very fluid and sensual too and people often dance without even moving their feet, just moving their hips together in time with the music.

With the right partner it’s a great way to dance!

The People
What can I say. Caleños are great. In the short amount of time I’ve been here I have made some incredible friends, people who I genuinely feel close to, some of whom have left Cali for other parts and I genuinely feel very sorry to see them go. They’re fun loving, happy and they always think of you when they go out, be it for a bite to eat or to dance.

I genuinely think that it’s because of Caleños that so many people decide to stay in Cali without being able to put their fingers on “why”. Cali doesn’t offer much in the line of tourist attractions, beautiful architecture or mouthwatering gastronomy but the people here are warm and friendly and caring and a hell of a lot of fun and that’s very important for me.

My Goals
I came to Cali eager to do many things but the most important of those were to improve my salsa and to learn Spanish.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and neither have improved the way I had hoped.

I spent a great deal of my time when I first arrived trying to settle into life here: finding work, finding an apartment, finding stuff to put in the apartment, meeting people and enjoying myself instead of focusing on what I came here to do.

I worked most of my time here as an English teacher working in the evenings when most salsa classes are held so that was my “excuse” for not taking more salsa classes and my job required that I spent a lot of my time speaking English and thus by default, not learning Spanish. To be honest I made far too many excuses to cover up my poor time management.

That said, I do speak Spanish now, not as well as I want but definitely a lot better than I should for the amount of time I’ve actually put into learning it. To give you an idea of where my level is, I have no problem with one on one conversations (if I don’t understand a word I can infer from context) and I can follow most group conversations amongst native speakers. I do have trouble with some movies and TV shows but have absolutely no problem with flirting in Spanish which is great because Caleños just like the Irish are serial-flirts.

My LA salsa has gone downhill considerably from lack of a consistent partner who can dance LA but I have picked up quite a few new moves from salsa caleña. Most importantly I feel that I’ve developed a much better appreciation for changes in the music allowing me to react much more naturally to it. My body movement too, I feel, has improved and I feel much freer to interpret music with the movement of my entire body. Which is nice.

All in all, despite the loss of some technical salsa (which I’m currently working on countering) I feel that my time here has rounded me out as a dancer, knocked off some of the rough edges so to speak (still plenty more to knock off though!)

Colombianization
I feel I’m quite good at adapting to new environments. In my four years in Japan I integrated well and took on many Japanese mannerisms that even now, more than two years since I left Japan, manifest whenever I’m around Japanese people.

I feel I’ve done a pretty good job adapting to life here in Cali too (although it may not have been the smoothest transition). When I decided to come here two and a half years ago I wanted to experience a culture completely different from Japan and that’s exactly what I got!

When people tell me a time to meet them I’m fairly certain that if I arrive on time I’ll be waiting a while. I’ve had to get used to that. Actually, on the night of my first date in Cali I was waiting almost 2 hours before she showed up. The next day I met the same girl for lunch and she had me waiting 2 hours again. Before you say “Well you’re a bit of an eejit for waiting that long” I have to say that she was worth every second of the wait! Nuff said!

Public transport is slow and usually overcrowded which in reality is the reason for most people being late so I understand but it doesn’t mean I don’t feel like punching someone’s internal organs when I get squeezed into a bus like a sardine every morning.

I’ve learned to let things happen knowing that I have much less control here. I think that’s a skill that everyone should try to acquire in their life.

I’ve become more cautious when I’m in the streets, something that I’ve learned to do from a couple of bad experiences that you can read about here and here. Colombia is definitely the most dangerous place I have ever lived but with a little experience, common sense and the advice of many locals I’ve learned how to avoid the danger as much as possible but I am always aware of it. Much like I’d imagine many Caleños are.

But I love it here
I know I’ve mentioned many negatives in this post but I think that only stresses how good the positives are. I’m having a great time here in Cali. I’m enjoying learning the language and the dance and the lifestyle. I love meeting the people here, spending my time with them and becoming more and more caleño myself.

I’ll be honest when I say that Cali is not what I expected before coming here but the unexpected can lead to some really great experiences and some amazing friends.

Gracias Cali!

P.S. this turned out a hell of a lot longer than expected, my apologies!

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Learning Languages made easy!

14 Aug

Learning a new language is easy when you know how!

Like almost every Irishman (and the vast majority of people on earth), I’ve been taught languages other than my native English since I was a child.

I started with Irish (Gaelic, for my non-Irish readers) in primary school. It was an academic journey that lasted 12 years (until I finished secondary school) and like the majority of Irish people (unfortunately) I hardly speak a lick of my ancestral language (much to my own shame).

The next language I had any academic exposure to was French. For my first three years in secondary school I didn’t really take it seriously but I studied enough to pass the tests although I could hardly speak it. That changed when I got a new french teacher for my last 2 years. She was a terrifying woman who ruled that classroom with an iron fist. I remember once she quizzed me on some vocabulary. I didn’t know the answer and was so scared that my vision blurred and the room felt as if it was shaking…seriously!

Fear is a great motivator and I did learn quite a bit of French in her class. More importantly she instilled me with a desire to learn the language and I’m very grateful to her for that (she was actually a really nice person, just terrifyingly strict). It was because of her that I decided to work in France for a summer to up my level.

The next and most important language I was exposed to was Japanese. I moved there to work in 2006 and lived there for 4 years. I was determined to get fluent and I was very lucky that my job afforded me a lot of free time to study Japanese and try lots of different methods.

Over my years in Japan I learned a lot about language acquisition from an excellent website called alljapaneseallthetime.com. I still use a lot of the philosophies I learned from that site when I try to learn languages. It works; today I work part-time as a Japanese translator.

My current language challenge, while I live here in Colombia, is Spanish. For various reasons (mostly down to pure laziness on my part) I’m nowhere near as good at Spanish as I would like to be after 11 months here. However, I do think that I speak better Spanish than I should for the amount of work I’ve actually put in. For that I can thank the following tips that I’ve learned over the years.

*Please bear in mind that a lot of these tips are aimed at people living in a country where the target language is spoken but there are also plenty that are applicable regardless of your physical location.

Learning a new language opens up a whole new world of possibilities and people you can get to know!

Tips for success

Eliminate English (or whatever your native language is): avoid English whenever possible and use use the language you want to learn in it’s place. You should only resort to your native language when all else fails i.e. when you haven’t got a clue what is going on. It also gives you an excuse to avoid certain annoying friends who speak your native language… it’s for educational purposes.

Read everything (in the language you want to learn): I’m not just talking about books, magazines and comics (which are great by the way). Got a flier for restaurant in your mailbox? Read it. Cooking instructions on the back of a box of food? Read them. Toilet graffiti? Read it. Every opportunity you have to read the language you’re learning and increasing your exposure.

Get musical: load you’re MP3 player with as much music as you can get in your target language. Any chance you can get, have those ear-buds attached and just listen casually, you don’t need to focus on what they’re saying exactly. You can also download the lyrics and read them along as the song plays (do it on the bus like I do just to see everyone’s reaction to the crazy foreigner singing to himself).

Learn new things through your new language: if you need to look up a fact, look it up in the language you’re learning. If you want to learn how to make ice-cream from scratch, find a recipe in your target language. The fact that the subject matter is important to you means you’ll retain more information. Wikipedia in your target language is your new best friend.

Try podcasts: Pod casts are basically web-based, downloadable talk-shows or radio programs. The topics are always incredibly varied so you’re bound to find something that interests you (I usually listen to cooking shows). Again you listen to them passively, while you’re driving or walking etc. it’s the constant exposure to the sounds of the language that helps.

Make friends: you need to practice the language and it’s much easier to practice with people you feel comfortable with (you’ll hold back much less). Also, you can ask friends to correct your mistakes and they’re much more likely to do it than people you don’t know well. My Colombian friends correct my mistakes all the time… after laughing at me (but that’s ok, we’re friends).

Join clubs: basically mix with local people as much as possible. Join a gym or a local sports team, take group dance classes, sign up for a cooking class. You have the joints benefits of doing something that interests you and meeting lots of new people to speak with. Public noticeboards are great places to look for them.

Carry a notepad: I always carry a little notepad to write down new words and phrases I hear so I can study them later. Most mobile phones these days also have a memo program so you can just note it on your phone for review later. My friends here in Cali get a kick out of it when I write down what they say (especially since it’s mostly slang and obscenities).

Use an SRS: an SRS (spaced repetition system) is basically a computer program that helps you remember things better and faster. I use a free SRS program called Anki. You can find all the information you need on the anki homepage. I cannot stress enough how incredibly useful an SRS is for language acquisition. The SRS is a language learning game changer.

Watch movies: or TV or anything for that matter, in the language you want to learn. A great place to start is watching movies you’ve seen before dubbed into your target language. You already understand the basic plot so it helps you understand what’s going on. If you can get movies with subtitles in the language you’re learning (not in your native language), all the better.

Use a native dictionary: as you progress and you understand more and more of a language you can start using a dictionary completely in that language. That means you’ll be learning new vocab through your target language which means more exposure and better retention in my opinion. Use a children’s dictionary if you can (they usually come with nice pictures as a bonus).

Change your settings: change the settings of your computer, your phone, your, camera, your email account, your facebook to the language you’re learning. You already know how to navigate them well so it shouldn’t be a hindrance and you’ll learn a whole load of essential words. It also means your friends probably won’t be able to fool around with your settings when your not looking.

Keep it interesting: You retain much more of the language when you’re learning about something that interests you e.g. cooking, sport, celebrity gossip etc. (and you’re also much more likely to remain motivated and keep studying). If you have no interest in the history of turn of the century South American politics, avoid it. Don’t get bored. Boredom is death.

Make mistakes: one of the greatest obstacles that people have to making progress with new skills is being overly concerned with making mistakes and looking foolish (this is very applicable to language learning and dancing salsa). Stop worrying about looking stupid, we all look stupid anyway and get out there and make as many mistakes as you can. Making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn (at least that’s my excuse)

Practice: as I’ve said before in this article, practice makes perfect. The more time you put into actually speaking the language, the faster you’ll get better. Practice doesn’t have to formal either, just make friends and above all have fun with it and you’ll be speaking a new language in no time.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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