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My Cuban Salsa Adventure: 3 Weeks of Casino, Rumba & Sabor

24 Sep

In this article I’ll be giving some recommendations of salsa schools in Havana and also on places to go dancing. Next week I should have an article on general traveling tips for Havana, a city you should definitely consider visiting.

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

 

 I’m currently in the U.S. of A folks, I arrived in Miami last week after 3 weeks in the Mecca of salsa; Cuba. Here’s the article I started writing over there.

It’s been a few weeks of highs and lows.

I started writing this article in El Escorial, a beautiful café in the equally beautiful Plaza Vieja in Havana’s old town, one of the most architecturally stunning neighborhoods I have ever visited in my life. This is one of the highs.

However, I started writing this article because I physically can’t do anything else… I injured my neck this morning and can barely move without wincing in pain so it’s either sulk in the air-conditioned comfort of my “casa particular”… or write. I chose the more constructive latter. This is one of the lows.

We’ll get to my neck injury later.

In my last article, almost a month ago, I wrote about my challenge to learn Cuban-style salsa, casino, as well as learning as much about this country (or at least Havana) as I could in my short stay here.

Let’s be terribly unoriginal and summarize some of the more interesting points from this little adventure:

  • I took 27 hours of private lessons of salsa, rumba and a little reggaeton
  • I went out dancing a total of about 14 nights
  • I walked aimlessly around the streets of Havana enough to wear holes in my sandals
  • I discovered it’s actually possible to sweat more water than one consumes in a day  (some additional water may have been lost as tears)
  • I received countless offers of taxis, cigars and chicas
  • I went to a Cuban wedding party
  • I met some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered
  • I got to see a traditional Santería (Cuban religion of African origin) party in someone’s home
  • I learned that Cuba has some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen

Cuban Salsa from scratch (almost)
Let’s get down and dirty and talk about what people most want to hear about from that list (this site is, after all, mostly about dancing (or at least my attempts at it)).

My previous experience with casino had been a few sporadic classes in Miyazaki, Japan when I first started dancing salsa. I ended up forgetting most of what I had learned as I stuck with LA-style salsa but I regularly used one or two Cuban turns even when I danced LA and this helped me a lot when I started dancing Cali-style salsa.

To give you an idea of my “transformation”, I’ll explain things like this:

On my first night out (Friday) in Havana (before I had taken any classes here) I sat on a sofa in the bar of “Hotel Florida” with my jaw hanging somewhere around my ankles, staring in awe at some of the most intricate dancing I had seen in years.

I psyched myself up (this took a while) and finally worked up the courage to ask one of the local girls for a dance. Before we started I told her clearly that I didn’t know how to dance salsa cubana. The look of discomfort that I saw flashing in her eyes caused the flock of butterflies in my stomach to go on a rampage.

What happened next… was not pretty. I managed to pull off some basic turns from salsa caleña but in general things were sloppy. Let’s just leave it at that. I sat down disheartened after only one dance and thought to myself: I need to start classes soon.

Fast forward to the night before writing this article (Sunday, 16 days after that first night) and I danced Casino… all… night… long. I filled my dances with “dile que no”, “corona”, “habana loco”, “America”, “setenta y tres” and a whole host of other moves who’s names escape me. Now, it may not have been the most finely choreographed display of salsa cubana ever performed but I can definitely say that I now dance casino… and I love it.

How to dance Casino in under 3 weeks
First things first, I owe my progress entirely to the fantastic teachers in the school recommended to me by my friend Tanja from The Cuban Food Blog, who was my initial contact for all things Cuban (thanks for everything Tanja 😉 ).

The formula that worked for me was the following (and in my opinion it’s the best way to learn any social dance):

  • regular classes with good teachers
  • recording new movements learned
  • regular social dancing

I took about 25 hours of private classes with “La Casa del Son” (it would have been more had it not been for my neck injury calling a halt to everything that required… you know… movement!). The majority of the classes were of Cuban salsa but I also spent a good amount of time learning rumba (a traditional Cuban dance of African origin that heavily influenced salsa). Rumba is not easy, especially with my teacher Adrián the perfectionist but I think it can really enrich one’s salsa and especially one’s body movements (although don’t expect to see results quickly, the road to rumba is a long one).

At the end of every salsa class I took I a video of myself and the teacher dancing the combinations we had learned. This is vital for remembering not only the sequence required for each movement but also for just remembering the sheer volume of moves that you can learn in a couple of intensive weeks of salsa classes. Even on nights out dancing socially, if I couldn’t remember a particular move I would just take a quick look at the video on my phone to remind myself.

Finally I went out dancing very regularly. The great thing about the school is that the teachers go out as a group quite regularly so I was able to go out and practice what I had learned frequently and with great dancers. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times “You learn the moves in class, you learn to dance on the floor!”. The more frequently one dances socially and with the greater the variety of partners the better one commits new moves and combinations to muscle memory, making them far easier to execute in the future.

Picking a Salsa School in Havana
If you go to a popular salsa club in Havana you’ll probably meet a whole host of amazing dancers who will offer you private classes. However, being a good dancer does not necessarily translate into being a good teacher so bear that in mind.

Luckily my school was recommended to me and I can gladly recommend it to you too. I took the grand majority of my classes at “La Casa del Son” and I was very happy that I did.

The school has 4 separate, mirrored practice-rooms and is located in the center of old Havana (the heart of the tourist area). The school has a team of 6 male and 7 female instructors who are not only great dancers and teachers but they are also one of the most fun groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. They really take you under their wing at the school and make you feel like one of the family. Going out dancing with these guys is an experience and a half.

They offer classes in Salsa, Son, Rumba, Afrocuban folkloric dances, Tango, Kizomba, Bachata and Reggaeton so I really recommend taking the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can with them.

The school’s details are as follows:

  • Address: Empedrado No. 411 entre Aguacate and Compostela
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8671537  or  (53 6)2641047
  • Email: lacasadelson@bailarencuba.com

Ask for Ray when you visit or email them and tell him that Richie (the dancing Irishman with the beard) sent you. I hope to get a few favors out of sending them a little business (just so we’re clear).

To be honest you’re best off visiting the school as soon as you arrive in Havana so you can organize your class’ and so you can get information on where to go dancing every night of the week (they really helped me out with this). It’s also great because the teachers can become your social circle while you’re visiting the city and it’s always more fun going dancing with a group of friends than going solo (especially in a new city).

I also took classes with Maria Elena Hernandez, a teacher at the well know Marisuri Escuela de Bailes Cubanos. They classes I took were mostly on body movement but she also teaches Folklore, Rumba, Casino and Son.

  • Telephone: (05 2) 760194
  • Email: marielenala@carpusmail.com

I also can recommend a newly opened school called Salsabor a Cuba, which has a group of fantastic dancers teaching salsa, son, cha cha cha, rumba, folklore, and reueda del casino.

  • Address: Calle Oficio No. 18 (First floor, Apartment 5) entre Obispo and Obrapia
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8608982  or  (53 5) 3027501
  • Internet: www.salsaborcuba.com

Where to dance in Havana
You can only enjoy the salsa in any city if you actually know where to find it. This can be issue when you first arrive in Cuba. Luckily I just had to ask my teachers at the end of the day where they were going to go that night and I had an instant destination and a group of dance partners.

I’ve included a very basic night by night list here that can “help” you decide where to go. I’ve left out a huge amount of places that will no doubt enrage other Habana experts but I’ve decided to just include the safe bets that I visited myself. You will be able to find the directions to each venue by asking at any large hotel in Havana (i.e. I’m too lazy to look up the address/contact details).

  • Monday: Hotel Florida
  • Tuesday: Casa de la Musica (Miramar) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Wednesday: Casa de la Musica (Galiano) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Thursday: 1830 (pronounced “mil ochocientos treinta”) until 12pm (I loved dancing here)
  • Friday: Hotel Florida
  • Saturday: Hotel Florida or Casa de la Musica (either)
  • Sunday: 1830 and the secret club full of locals that I’m not going to reveal for fear of ruining it 😛

Remember this, when all else fails, Hotel Florida is a safe bet for dancing every night of the week all though I  didn’t really like the atmosphere in the place. It’s full of tourists and people trying to take advantage of them. That said, if you go anywhere with a group of friends you’ll have a good night.

I recommend the matinees in La Casa de la Musica because it’s cheaper and you tend to get more regular locals there dancing. The later shows tend to be frequented by people on the prowl for foreigners.

Feeling like a beginner again
The interesting thing about learning a new style of salsa is that it makes you feel like a complete dance beginner all over again… which really sucks.

I went from being totally confident in my environment in Cali where I know I dance well to a new environment with new rules and new standards that made me feel like I knew nothing. And you know what, that’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.

I think it’s great to feel like a beginner again, out of one’s depth. Obviously it sucks at the time as you lose confidence and you feel overly self-conscious about your dancing but you overcome it because you’re reminded of how you were when you started out with other styles. Then all you have to do is remember how much progress you made with those styles and it actually encourages you to drive forward.

On this trip to Cuba I experienced many moments where I felt like I didn’t want to dance in public because I felt I would look ridiculous around the people who had been dancing for years. My confidence hit a low and I would get frustrated (as I regularly do). However, all I had to do to get over it was remember that I’ve done it all before, with LA style salsa and salsa caleña. And thinking of that got me right back in the game.

With dance, the initial learning curve tends to be uncomfortable but just remember that all great dancers most likely had to go through a brief period where they “probably” sucked. That’s the price to pay to dance well and honestly it’s a bargain.

Loads more for another time
This article already is way too long and there’s a lot more that I want to write about dancing in Cuba but I’m going to have to save it for another article.

Note to self: when taking pictures of sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

Note to self: when taking pictures of Cuban sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

My adventure in North America is just starting so I’ve got lots to keep me occupied for the next few weeks. Remember, if you have any recommendations for dancing or places to visit along the east coast of the U.S. drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Most Famous Salsa Teacher in Cali, Colombia (and he’s Irish???)

8 Jul

As of last Wednesday, July 3rd, the Dancing Irishman is now probably the most well known salsa teacher in Cali, Colombia.

I was featured in an episode of the show, “Tiempo Real” which aired last week on the local Cali channel, Telepacifico. You can check out the clip below.

The whole thing came about when a journalist friend of mine (muchas gracias, Paola) mentioned my story to a a friend of hers who was looking for stories about foreigners doing things a little bit “different” in Cali. Apparently and Irishman teaching salsa in the “world capital of salsa” qualifies as different… (go figure).

In the clip you can hear some of my students talking about my teaching technique and a number of them mention a couple of things that have given me my own little niche here in the (as you can imagine) “saturated” market of salsa teachers in Cali. Those would be:

  • I speak English (which makes teaching a hell of a lot more efficient when your students don’t speak Spanish)
  • I break down the movements in a way that local teachers simply don’t do because that’s how I learned myself and that’s why my students, some of whom have never been able to dance in their lives, learn salsa so fast.

Another thing that I think has been helping my students is the fact that I only teach moves that they can use (in the “wild”) in salsa clubs in Cali. Most big dance schools here tend to teach a huge amount of complicated footwork which is fine if you eventually want to perform in a show or something like that but in general, you don’t see that out on the dance-floors in Cali and very few “untrained” girls can follow it.

On the other hand I stick to refining my students basics, body movements and turn patterns so they can use everything they learn on an average night out in Cali with the vast majority of dancers. It looks like that plan has been paying off.

Wouldn't you like a mild mannered, poorly accented, bearded Irishman as your salsa teacher???

Wouldn’t you like a mild mannered, poorly accented, bearded Irishman as your salsa teacher???

The Accented Irishman
In the video you also get to hear my spectacularly awful Spanish accent. I literally cried when I heard it for the first time :-(. Thankfully, some of my friends have assured me that I don’t speak that way normally so I’m going to put it down to being nervous in front of the cameras (I’m really very shy 😉 ). It has, however, given me the incentive to work more on my accent in Spanish, so I should have an article on that in a few weeks.

Anyway, since the show aired last week I’ve been getting a huge amount of emails from people (most of whom are Colombian) wanting to take salsa classes with me (Wuhoo for mass media). I guess with the World Salsa Championships just around the corner (August 5th) people want to learn what their city is famous for.

So there you have it, how an Irishman ended up teaching salsa in the World Capital of Salsa: Cali, Colombia.

Keep dancing folks.

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Why You Need To Dance With Better Dancers

2 Jul
If you want to get better you've got to go "toe to toe" with the best!

If you want to get better you’ve got to go “toe to toe” with the best!

I’ve landed on my face, been punched in the ribs, kicked in the throat, I’ve even taken a shot to the “meat and two veg” (thank God for sports-cups). I’ve had my pale Irish arse handed to me on a plate numerous times and truth be told I’m grateful for every single experience.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not referring to some sick “Fight Club” version salsa where you not only have to keep on time with the music but you have to watch out for body blows from your partner and everyone else on the dance-floor. While the thought of becoming a salsa dancing version of “Tyler Durden” does fill me with intrigue, I can’t see the whole movement really taking off (nobody wants bloodstains on their favorite dancing waist-coat).

No, I’m taking about when I used to spar competitively in karate tournaments.

As a kid I was never big into team sports (I’m still not) which was “unusual” for my village in Ireland where both boys and girls were almost expected to play gaelic football, hurling and soccer (which all three of my brothers play). So in order to not feel left out in the trophy cabinet I contributed with trophies and medals I received for kicking people.

I appreciated sparring a lot; it’s a beautiful balance of speed, timing, accuracy of movement and adaptation to your partner. It’s no wonder then that a lot of salseros I know also have a background in martial-arts. The two disciplines compliment eahc other beautifully. in fact, there are very few differences between a well performed “kata” and a perfectly executed salsa combination.

Better Partners
I learned very early on in my karate career that if I really wanted to improve my sparring ability, I needed to spar with partners who were better than me. If I spent the majority of my time sparring with beginners I made very little improvement. However, if I went a few rounds with the bigger, more experienced guys in the club I made noticeable improvements in very little time.

I loved getting to spar with my coach and the older guys who knew what they were doing. As I said, I had my arse handed to me plenty of times but I knew that every time I stepped on the floor with them, being pushed to my limits, I was getting better and better.

That all came to fruition (sort of) about 3 years ago when I got my black belt and entered a regional karate tournament n southern Japan. In on of my fights I was put up against a guy who my coach “casually” mentioned just before I stepped on the floor , had won the world championship the year before.

I learned two very important things from that fight:

  1. Protective head-gear really does very little to soften a punch and…
  2. There is no better learning experience than going toe to toe with with your clear superior

“Your Salsa is Strong, Grasshopper”
This is something that salseros should take into account when they’re dancing.

When I was a salsa beginner I used to spend most of my time dancing with other beginners for 2 simple reasosns:

  • I knew the other beginners from the salsa classes and we were friends
  • The mere thought of dancing with the really advanced dancers made me break out in a cold sweat

This obviously meant that I wasn’t making much progress in the beginning!

My first salsa “break” came when I left Japan for a 10 day salsa vacation to the Philippines and Hong Kong. I improved hugely in those 10 days because I was both dancing much more regularly (thank you law of 10,000 hours) and I was dancing with seriously good dancers. It was a winning combination.

Dancing with dancers much better than yourself is one of the best ways to to up your salsa game… fast. You learn timing and rhythm, proper hand position and signaling, better body movement etc. Like I’ve always said before, the dance floor is where you really learn to dance!

Obviously a beginner girl dancing with an advanced guy is going to improve quicker than a beginner guy with an advanced girl. This is simply because the guy has more points to master and this is the main reason that women advance in salsa much faster than men.

The challenge of seeking better dancers
Going out and dancing with all the the great dancers that you see on the dance floor is much easier said than done, I know, but you don’t have to spend ALL your dances with the best in the club.

While you might not always find a partner as good as Tanja "La Alemana" you can surely find plenty of dancers better than yourself!

While you might not always find a partner as good as Tanja “La Alemana” you can surely find plenty of dancers better than yourself!

Obviously the more great dancers you dance with the better but even trying to have 3 or 4 such dances a night will go a long way to improving your game.

To do this originally, I set myself a challenge. My challenge was to find the woman that I considered to be the the best dancer in a club and ask her for a dance. I remember the first night of that challenge too.

I was in Fukuoka and my target was a beautiful salsa instructor from Colombia. I set my sights on her early in the night and it literally took me a whole night of heart palpitations, sweaty palms and aborted attempts (imagine me walking up to ask her and then suddenly doing a 180 as soon as I got close, numerous times) before I finally asked her to dance.

When we eventually did dance, it was awesome. She responded to everything I threw at her (which in all honesty wasn’t really that much) and I finished the encounter feeling like a million bucks and wondering why it had taken me so long to ask her to dance in the first place.

Get out of your Comfort Zone
I think that’s the problem! We stop ourselves from leaving our nice, safe comfort zones because we focus on all the things that could “possibly” go wrong! We scare ourselves into believing all these terrifying disasters can happen if we take little risks. That’s no way to live.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and dancing with people who are better than you is simply one of the best things you can do to get better.

You need to remember that we get better due to necessity, due to a stimulus that tells our bodies that we need to improve. Just as a guy who lifts weights heavier than he’s used to gets bigger and stronger or just like a child that is sent to school in a foreign country learns the language quickly, so to will your salsa improve when you dance with great dancers because IT NEEDS TO!

You need the stimulus of a challenge, of something more difficult than what you’re used to, to improve.

So on your next night out dancing, step out of your comfort zone and ask out a few of the best dancers you see and prepare to get a whole lot better.

Keep dancing folks.

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The Importance of Being Grateful

23 Apr
Being consciously grateful has many of the benefits of meditation!

Being consciously grateful has many of the benefits of meditation!

We all want…

We want more money.

We want to look better naked.

We want pie.

We want more respect from our coworkers.

We want to be better dancers… lovers… parents… painters… friends… speakers…

We want, we want, we want!

The truth is there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting. It’s perfectly natural and it motivates us to work for what we want in life.

However, if you are in a constant state of “want” you can begin to feel deprived and if you consistently feel deprived your mood and general well-being can seriously suffer. On the extreme end of the scale you could even begin to experience depression.

One thing that we need to realize these days is that no matter how much we “want” we also need to be aware of the many blessings that we already “have” in our lives.

Everyone needs to be grateful
I learned about the importance of gratitude as a way to improve general well-being in the same way I’ve come to learn about many useful things in my life; through necessity.

A few years ago I went through a personal “rough patch” that put me on a path to trying to sort it out for myself. I ended up reading a few self-help books and I took a particular interest in the books written by the very famous Tony Robbins. I learned a few different things and it certainly opened my mind to the power of technologies like Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

But of all the things I learned from that time in my life, one of the few that I have maintained and practiced consistently over the years and which is probably the simplest of them all, is conscious gratitude.

Conscious Gratitude. Why?

Why? It is simply the fastest way I have ever found to feel better… immediately and long-term.
And there are a whole host of other reasons why you should practice gratitude regularly, including:

  • better mental health
  • improves the quality of your relationships
  • greater happiness
  • helps you deal with loss and negative emotions
  • improved performance at work and school
  • better sleep
  • improves your immune system and overall health

Check out this article on Huffington Post for a more detailed look on the benefits of being grateful.

How
To be honest there are probably a million different ways to do this but I’m going to tell you how I do because I’ve found it both effective and easy to make a regular habit. It only takes 2 or 3 minutes a day.

  • Pick a time: You need to make this a habit so make being grateful part of your regular schedule. It could be first thing in the morning or right after lunch. Preferably it should be a time when you can be alone and quiet (not the easiest things to find these days). Personally I always do it at the very end of my stretching routine after I exercise, that way I always just add it on to my time in the gym.
  • Optional: Pick an upbeat song you like: Something that makes you feel good that lasts for 3 0r 4 minutes. You can listen to it as you do the activity and use it like a timer, letting you know when you’ve done enough.
  • Get comfortable: Find a position you’re comfortable sitting or lying in. If you’re at home you could lie on the couch or sit in a favorite chair. I’m a little bit of a purist so I do it seated in “seiza” something I picked up from my karate training. Seiza is not easy so I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to beginners. Whatever position works for you for 3 minutes should be fine.
seiza

Seiza, the traditional way of sitting in Japan, is definitely not for beginners!

  • Close your eyes: This is not necessary but it definitely helps you to visualize and focus. I’ve learned how to do this with my eyes open over time but whenever I can (i.e. when I’m alone) I do it with my eyes closed because it just feels easier and more effective.
  • Think about everything you’re grateful for: this is the “bread and butter” of this activity. You should think of everything you have in your life and are grateful for and try to visualize it in your mind. When you visualize it, consciously feel the sensations of happiness that come with the thoughts of those things. The most important part of this whole activity is that you actually make yourself feel good by thinking of these things in your life that you have been blessed with. Only focus on the positive things that make you happy. Physically smile and enjoy the sensation while you think of everything. Don’t be worried if anyone sees you doing this. What’s the worst they can say? Ha, that guy looks really happy !!! (What a burn!)

A few ideas for things to be grateful about might be:

  • The people you love in your life, your family, your friends, your partner
  • Your health
  • All the good experiences you’ve had in life
  • The coming days, weeks and months and all the amazing possibilities they hold
  • That beautiful girl who wears virtually nothing at the gym
  • Your job and the opportunities it has brought you
  • The delicious meal you had with friends last weekend
  • Your achievements over the years
  • Your skills and the things you do well; cooking, dancing, making ornaments out of paperclips
  • The challenges you’ve faced that have shaped you for the better
smiley

Be grateful. It’s a great way to perk-up your day!

Consciously think of these things, visualize them and experience the happiness and gratitude that they make you feel!

And that’s it. Feel better for the rest of the day knowing how much you have to be grateful for in life.

It’s gonna be one hell of a great day.

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Dancing Salsa like an Irishman

20 Mar
Dancing for truth, justice and good old St. Paddy

Dancing for truth, justice and good old St. Paddy

Last Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day, a celebration of everything Irish and a great excuse for a party. Never one to turn down an opportunity for a rumba (party) I held a “little” shindig in my apartment to celebrate St. Paddy (NOT St. Patty), Cali-style.

All in all I had about 70 guests and a great time was had by all with lots of great music, great dancing and a whole lot of sweating in the tropical heat.

Video Antics
As you know from previous posts like this one I’m a big fan of videoing oneself dancing in order to see where you need to improve and how you’re progressing.

So I got a friend of mine to grab a quick video of my dance-partner Kelli and I dancing a mixture of LA and salsa caleña. Check it out below.

First off, I know, I’m sweating like an animal. If people can sweat dancing salsa in Ireland in the winter, just imagine what it’s like dancing in the tropics.

For those of you unfamiliar with Cali-style salsa, you can recognize it here from the basic back step (side to side in some cases) and the more circular, cuban-style turns. The majority of stuff with complicated handwork is LA style.

Post Game Analysis
One thing that I’m finally starting to improve is my eye contact which is something that I’ve always had trouble with. It might just be the fact that I’m dancing with Kelli who I’m very comfortable with by I manage to get a nice amount of eye contact in during this dance.

One thing that annoyed the crap out of me is the fact that I still hold back from doing more complicated Cali-style moves and footwork when I social dance. I tend to stick with the safe stuff which doesn’t do me any good in the long run.

Help the Irishman Out
What do you think yourself? Where do you think I can improve or what do you think I need to work on? I thrive on constructive criticism so if you think you could offer me a little bit of advice please let me know in the comments.

Excellent New Song
The song we’re dancing to in the video is “Mother’s Delight” from the new Irish salsa group “Baile an Salsa”, check them out. It’s a mix of traditional Irish music and salsa and I really think it’s a fantastic song for dancing linear On1 or On2 salsa. It’s not the most appropriate song for dancing salsa-caleña, however, so that may explain why I didn’t do many Cali moves in the video.

Dancing Alone
You might want to know why Kelli and I are the only couple dancing in the video. I asked the same thing to a Caleño friend of mine that night and he told me it was because the locals weren’t familiar with the song (or the Irish-style music for that matter). He said that caleños tend to only dance to music they’re familiar with. I’ve noticed this when I’ve DJ-ed before, anytime I put on a song that isn’t heard regularly in the clubs in Cali, people tend to shy off the floor and get some conversation in instead. Just a little observation.

We had a great time here in Cali last weekend and I hope you all had a Happy St. Patrick’s Day too, wherever in the world you are.

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

31 Jan
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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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Be inspired!

23 Oct

Dancing with great partners really keeps you on your toes!

I dance well!

I am far from being a great dancer but I get by. I stay on the beat, I use a variety of moves to keep things interesting, I adapt my dance to the level and style of my partner, I avoid stepping on toes and probably most importantly I haven’t dropped anyone on their face in months!

What this adds up to is that at times I can begin to “believe” that I’m good. Don’t mistake me, there’s nothing wrong with confidence, in fact it’s essential for all aspects of dancing. From actually getting you out on the dance floor in the first place to allowing you to feel comfortable doing things outside of your comfort zone which is the only way to improve; confidence is essential.

Over-confidence on the other hand can be detrimental to your progression. Thinking you are the Shiz-nit (I’ve always wanted to use that word) may make you FEEL like a great dancer but it doesn’t MAKE you one at all.

Searching for Swing
Case in point: I recently took advantage of a 4-day weekend with a little trip to Bogota to give the salsa scene there another try after a mediocre experience there a few months back. I went out dancing two nights and had two very different experiences. Both nights I went out with some very talented Caleña dancers as partners (I’ll admit I didn’t hold out much hope for the local dancers) so for the experiments sake let’s say that that factor was fixed.

The first night we went out we strolled around a particular nightlife hot spot in Bogota looking for a little rumba. We tried two places, “Quiebra Canto” first and then “Salsa Camará”. In both places I can unfortunately say that I was the best dancer there. Now before everyone turns there nose’s up and scoffs at the cocky Irishman who’s full of himself, allow me to clarify. What I’m saying is that the standard was very low!

My dance partners and I were the main source of visual entertainment that night, both because we danced well and because we danced a lot, which can’t be said for the other couples there. I’m not criticizing the other couples though; they were social dancers and were content with having a little wiggle on the dance floor every 6 songs or so… and that’s fine!

I, however, am not interested in just “a little wiggle” on the dance floor. I want to be good! After some great dances with my partners we left the club and as we were doing so I thought to myself: “I really don’t want to be in a place where I’M the best dancer”. The next morning, all I could think was that Bogota is missing some “swing”, the word dancers use here to describe a combination of feeling, emotion, musicality and skill when dancing.

Eye Opener
The second night was a very different story. We went to “El Panteón de la Salsa” a place that had been recommended to me by an Italian salsera who had lived in Bogota. She told me it was the only place to get some real dancing in the capital. It’s in a slightly dodgy part of Bogota and I was advised by quite a few people not to go there but after coming all the way from Cali and for the sake of my “research”, I had to go!

I knew things were different as soon as I stepped through the door. The dance floor was full, the air was hot and humid and the atmosphere was alive with salsa. People were dancing salsa caleña, linear salsa and salsa cubana. There were people doing moves I’d never seen before, people sweating buckets in the heat and best of all everyone was having fun with the dance in there own unique way. There in that one little club with it’s two little dance floors was Bogota’s Swing!

I danced the night away and apparently got plenty of attention because I was the only foreigner there and I knew how to dance. However I was far from the best dancer there and that’s what made it so much fun. I could happily sit down and watch the other dancers, wishing I could do some of the things they could do. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face the whole night!

Being around people that are better than us makes us want to improve. If you’re the best dancer in a certain club or certain city or even a certain country, what incentive do you have to improve?

Probably not much, right? This is one reason why the big international salsa congresses are so beneficial. They give people who have gotten used to a certain salsa scene the opportunity to see, dance with and learn from amazing dancers from all over the world! For example I’ve heard some great things about the recent Berlin salsa congress after a lot of my Irish salsa dancing friends attended it a few weeks back.

Finding Inspiration
To avoid developing a false sense of over-confidence we need to put ourselves in positions or places where it’s obvious that we’re “not all that”.

Try dancing with the the person you consider to be the best dancer in the club. Try going to a new club or class to learn from dancers you haven’t seen before. Try to keep yourself on your toes. There is nothing worse than becoming complacent.

I’m lucky to see amazing dancers every time I go dancing here in Cali. They are the minority but they exist and seeing this amazing minority is enough for me to want to make myself a better dancer.

Remember, confidence is a good thing as long as you temper it with the knowledge that there will always be someone better than you. This is what it’s all about, getting to see all those amazing dancers out there that are better than you and being inspired to better yourself.

If you can’t find anyone who inspires you in your current situation it’s time to shake things up, time to try new things, maybe even time to go somewhere new. Find that new source of inspiration. That’s how great dancers are made!

Keep dancing folks!

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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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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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