“Is 15 too old to fluently learn a language? I really want to be fluent in Russian or Japanese.”


No, it’s not.

Spanish at 15

I started learning Spanish at 15 and I would say I’m fluent. Could definitely keep improving at it, but I understand about 95% of what I hear and more sometimes (as well as less other times). Can express myself pretty well.

German at 19

I started learning German when I was 19 and can have conversations with people, my level is a bit lower than compared to my Spanish. At one point my German was better than my Spanish.

Chinese at 28

I started learning Chinese when I was 28. Not fluent yet, but I could be with more work. Have no reason to doubt I could get there.

Would I be better at any of these languages if I started earlier? Probably.

At the same time, I became better at German compared to Spanish and I started learning it later. When you start something is not the only factor in determining your ultimate ability.

“Child prodigies” with music sometimes stop playing music.

For me, I did not consistently put in work learning Spanish and German. Could maybe even make a graph of that.

I could speak either Spanish or German much better right now if I had approached it differently. But I can speak both in a way that could be described as fluent.

I would recommend starting now and dedicating yourself to anything you want to learn.

But don’t doubt you can do it.

“What does the transition into understanding a language look/feel like?”

I have tried learning a language before (Danish) before, but got only so far then stopped. Everytime I pick it up again, I start from the beginning. This has allowed me to develop a very sound understanding of some basic sentences. Will this eventually happen for the entire language?

(From Quora)

My response:

You probably don’t actually start from the beginning, it just feels like that since you have forgotten quite a bit. But likely, you do remember some things and some things will come back more easily.

Chinese is the language that I speak at the lowest level, so it’s probably most similar to your Danish.

Basically, I started learning words and phrases and I would recognize things here and there. As I worked on it consistently, I would understand more and more. I would be able to understand the meaning of simple statements. But there would often be words that I did not understand.

Sometimes that would make me want to learn those words, unless they were very uncommon.

With Spanish, I probably understand about 95% of what I hear. So I understand most things. And I do try to keep learning more words.

In between Chinese and Spanish is German for me. I understand quite a bit, but my level has decreased substantially in the years it has been since I was in Germany.

Much better not to stop practicing completely if possible!

“Why do Chinese English students always believe that speaking with a native English speaker will somehow improve their spoken English?”

Question from Quora and my response:

Likely because it is something that can greatly improve their spoken English if done effectively. And will probably help some even if not done very effectively.

Of course, speaking with a native English speaker can also be done in a way that is not terribly effective at helping improve someone’s level of English.

You probably know people who practice things and do not seem to improve quickly. Or you may think about something people do frequently, for example driving, but also do not rapidly improve after the beginning stages.

Comfort vs Panic

If you mostly say and hear things that are familiar, you reinforce what you know, but may not learn a lot.

If you mostly do not understand what you hear, the situation becomes uncomfortable and frustrating.

Figuring out how to be in between those two states can help learning.

Patience on both sides is necessary.


If both people in the conversation are very aware of the other person, it can help.

Maybe one person is speaking too quickly. Slowing down might help a great deal.

Or maybe one person says too much at once. If the first part was not understood and the other person is still trying to figure it out, it’s unlikely they will understand more.

One way I practice language that can help quite a bit in earlier stages of learning is the game on this site. It has helped me be able to have conversations better and makes the conversations I do have more helpful.

Six Words in 1.2 Seconds! Hearing the Wrong Thing, Examples in English and Chinese

The other day I was playing the Listen Speak Game and a couple rounds made me laugh.

I got only one word right out of six! And with a different person in a different round, the other person got two words (out of 10) that I said correctly!

We were playing in HelloTalk, so when you miss more than half of the words, the whole thing gets crossed out (even if a few words are right).

Here is the round in Chinese,


I have been learning Chinese for a year and a half, so I recognize a few characters, but not too many. I convert characters to pinyin most of the time. Have been working on learning the characters better though.

The first word, 您(nin), I actually know, but most of the time I would use 你(ni), so I didn’t expect that. Part of the reason I could get mixed up was that although it says 5″ (5 seconds), the actually speaking lasted for about 1.2 seconds.  So six words in 1.2 seconds, a little bit fast!


Here is the round where the other person got two words out of ten. Really, almost three since the person said ‘learn’ instead of ‘learning’.


Two of those words are important to the meaning of the phrase, Chinese and learn, but overall the attempt did not get an understanding of what I said.

I said the ten words in about three seconds, so at what I thought was a fairly slow speed.

10 words 3 seconds

I did not feel bad about missing most of the words though, it was said quickly. And by seeing that I missed most of the words, the other person can better gauge my level and either simplify or slow down the rate of speaking a bit, slowing down would have helped a lot.

For the example with English, since I did not speak too quickly, the other person can listen again to the recording and learn from it. I can do the same thing, although it would help to have a slower recording!

What I can realize from the English example is that I should not try to say sentences that are more complex than that and probably should use some of those same words in another recording to see if the person can now recognize them.

Listen Speak Game with Advanced Speakers, Mixing Things Up

weiwei pianoHad a conversation about the Listen Talk Game the other day. Basically, from the perspective of a Chinese English tutor in China.

Basically, she was able to play the game and make very few mistakes most of the time. A few here and there. The game ended up being more useful for me since my level of Chinese is lower than her level of English.

She thought that the game is better for beginning/lower-intermediate. So I think that would translate to A1, A2, B1, and possibly B2.

It’s easiest to come up with sentences for the other person actually if their level of language is a bit lower. Basically that means that anything will work. If it’s too hard, you adjust, but it’s less likely for you to come up with something that is too easy.

Essentially, when practicing language with someone who has an advanced level of your language, you can use the Listen Speak Game, but you will need to put more thought into what you say out loud. It will need to be both challenging enough and useful for that person.

You can also think of the Listen Speak Game as just one tool for practice, especially if it is useful for one of the two people.

Other activities that you can mix in include,

  • Pronunciation Correction
  • Free Talk
  • Asking questions about a specific topic

There are many ways to practice language.

But just as ‘free talk’ would probably not be as helpful for someone on day 1, the Listen Speak Game may not be the only way you should practice with someone who is more advanced. And if you do play the game with such a person, make it challenging and useful.


Differences in ‘without a timer’ and ‘timed practice’ on Duolingo + Progress Two Weeks After Statue

Two weeks ago I got the Spanish Duolingo statue.duolingo_to_still_strong

Have been trying to get all of the skills to the highest level ‘still strong’.

The first two sections are at that level. A few have dropped down to three (out of four) bars and I have raised them back to four. Figure I will require myself to have everything previous at that level before working again on a new skill.

There are a couple ways to work on the skills:

Two options

1. Without a timer

2. Timed practice

Both help you practice, but there are a couple of differences.

Without a timer

For the option without a timer, it’s much like the lessons are normally. You have three hearts. So if you go past losing all the hearts, you don’t get credit.

An update includes the option to ‘fix’ small errors and regain half of a heart for each correction. At the end of the lesson when you complete it, the points are also rounded up for half hearts.

Maximum points for practice without a timer is 13. And if you lose zero hearts then you get a lingot.

Timed practice

The timed practice does not use hearts. There are more questions. You also have to think more quickly and finish things quickly. You don’t really want to spend time examining why you got something correct or not. And on timed practice I worry less about the accents on letters, since the program will point it out if they’re missing, but not mark things incorrect. Sometimes you just don’t really have enough time to include them.

To write one or two words isn’t bad. It’s a bit harder if you need to write a longer sentence or record something that is a bit longer.

Correct answers get you more time. And if you run out of time, as long as you have gotten at least one thing right, you will get credit for what you have done.

You can also get more points using the timed practice, seems like most times if I tend to get things right it’s 19 points. Perfect execution could get you a couple more points. Doesn’t seem like you get any lingots though.

Refreshing skills

If a skill is at a lower bar rating, one or two for example, you likely will not get to ‘still strong’ by practicing once. If you make mistakes sometimes, it can take three or more times to raise up the level.

Seems like a good setup since practice will help you strengthen skills and it’s often not immediate.


There are 63 skill areas in the tree.

I have 23 of them at ‘still strong’ (four bars)

3 are at three bars.

10 are at two bars.

27 are at one bar.

It’s going to take a little while to get all of them to ‘still strong’. My estimate would be three months give or take a month. Since I have approximately an equivalent to 35 at one bar and if I work on Spanish everyday (for a short while~20 minutes) I can get a one bar skill up to four bars in about two days.

(Kesten estimation problem style!)


Got the Spanish Owl Statue on Duolingo, New Goal is….

Once you complete all the lessons in a language on Duolingo you get an owl statue!

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 8.16.01 PM

It was cool to get that. But it doesn’t really mean you’re a master of the language. In the words of the program though, it says you have ‘conquered’ the language.

It’s a goal to reach, a step along the journey.

The statue became a bit harder to get when they expanded the lessons and I imagine that the lessons will be expanded more times. Though you probably keep the statue even if it expands.

Duolingo has a feature that seems very useful for reaching a higher level with the languages. It mimics how your memory works with the different skills in that if you haven’t practiced something for a while, it starts to fade.

There are four levels:

1. still strong
2. pretty good
3. time to practice
4. overdue

I liked how they set that up. The program keeps track of how well you do with different words and skills. So this system where the skills fade encourages you to review things, especially those things you had trouble with initially.

So my new goal is to get all of the skills in the tree to the fourth level (still strong). I’m curious how much I can get to before the first things that I got back to ‘still strong’ diminish down to ‘pretty good’.

After about a week of using the ‘practice this skill’ function, I have the first section of the tree at ‘still strong’.


Today I also ordered some tacos in Spanish and replied to a question a guy asked me. In both cases people assumed I could speak Spanish, which was interesting, but probably shouldn’t have been all that unexpected given the festival that I was at.

Seems like if you speak Spanish and it sounds at least okay, you will probably get a response in Spanish here.

When I was in Germany, your German had to sound fairly good to get a response in German. If it didn’t sound very good, I saw people getting responses in English even if they said something in German first.

I think my accent is decent in German, but my grammar is fairly weak, something I would like to work on some more.

Probably will work on German a bit more in Duolingo, but hopefully after I manage to get all the skills in Spanish to ‘still strong’.

Trying the Chineasy Characters – Concept by ShaoLan Hsueh

Saw a cool project that seems a brilliant method of teaching Chinese characters by ShaoLan Hsueh, Chineasy.

Link goes to the Kickstarter page, which has 14 days left.

The Chinese language can seem somewhat intimidating to say the least. The four tones in the spoken language change the meaning completely often times.

And I thought that I would probably never learn the characters.

But then I saw this project and it seemed much more approachable to learn some of them.

By starting with a base of characters with visual representations built upon them.

Since I have been drawing a little over the last few months, thought I would try some of her examples.

Here are a few:


What I Learned from Using Duolingo for a Year

duolingo_all_unlockedHeard about a tool called ‘Duolingo‘ in a video from the guy who invented Captcha, Luis von Ahn.

Thought it sounded like a cool idea.

So I tried it out for a bit. And liked what I saw, but then my momentum slowed down. Didn’t work on it much for about a month.

Seemed like it would be more fun if more people I knew used it as well, so I invited some friends to try it out. And a few did.

That got my momentum rolling again.

Duolingo also got some funding and publicity that allowed them to expand and add new features, some of which made it more fun. And it also encouraged competition a little bit.

So friends would pass me in the number of points I had and I would be notified, sometimes I would pass other people.

And the program kept track of the number of consecutive days I worked on the language.

Working on language a little each day is very helpful, much like with learning other skills like music and dance.

More so than large amounts spread out sporadically.

Mostly I worked on Spanish- currently at level 14. Did a little German- up to level 5 and tried the Portuguese.

My background with language is that I took three years of Spanish in high school and a few years of German in college, including spending two summers in Germany.

Conversationally, I can speak better German, but my grammar and knowledge of the written language is better in Spanish.

Also, in California, I’m around Spanish a lot more, especially with the salsa scene.

Here’s the video I saw that came out in 2011 about the program if you would like to check it out.

And I would recommend spending a little time on it each day, possibly on the phone app in your downtime.

It can teach you quite a bit and is constantly being improved, both by the team and by user feedback.