What Is Leveling Up?

I Used to Be Overweight

Between 2005 and 2010 I gained 53 lbs. (25 kgs). My BMI was at the bottom of the obese range. During 2010 I tried a juice diet and lost 35 lbs (about 16 kgs) in three months. I slowly and steadily gained 25 lbs back and, in December of 2011, I decided that something needed to change. Since then I’ve used an app on my phone to keep track of my calories and control my portions. I’ve also gotten into exercising, mainly cycling and hiking. It’s been a good time to go through Michel Thomas Method Arabic and Chinese, as well as listen to podcasts in my other languages. To date I’m down 46 lbs and am at a healthy weight for the first time since 2005!

Leveling Up On Y Mountain

I’ve become a rather inhibited person and I don’t like it. In addition to getting my weight under control, I’m trying to get outside my comfort zone more often. On a hike a few days ago, I passed a group of young Mexicans on their way up the mountain. On my way back down, I recognized one girl who was still hiking up the mountain far behind the group. ¡Tú sí puedes! (You can do it!) I said to her.

It’s hard. she wearily replied. I usually let other people determine the language but this time I felt insistent.

Tus amigos te están esperando. ¡Vas a poder!  (Your friends are waiting for you. You can do it!) I was rather surprised by what happened next.

Van a tener que esperar mucho. (They’re going to have to wait a while) she said.

Para eso son los amigos. (That’s what friends are for.) is what I think remember saying but by then I was farther down the mountain and she probably didn’t hear me. I was proud of myself for getting outside of my comfort zone and the rest of the hike went quickly.

At the end of the hike I noticed a Chinese family taking pictures of the valley below us. I loaded my dogs into my car and was about to get in and drive away when I decided not to be such a chicken. Nervously, I walked over to them and said, 请问. 你们 是 中国人吗? (Excuse me. Are you Chinese?)

I’ve been speaking Spanish since the end of 2000. I can handle myself in almost any situation. Chinese is a different story. My Chinese is laughably limited. This is why I was so happy when the oldest son replied, . (Yup.)

I thought of asking them where they were from but then I realized that I wasn’t very familiar with China and probably wouldn’t recognize the name of the city. Under pressure, I smiled and said the only thing that came to mind, 欢迎! (Welcome! [As in Welcome to my country!])

They smiled back and said, 谢谢. (Thanks.)

That’s leveling up.

Leveling up is what many people in the online language learning community call giving a practical application to the language you’ve been learning. This was demonstrated very well in a video of Moses McCormick and Benny Lewis that I blogged about a few weeks ago. This can be done online on websites like SharedTalk.com and the Polyglot website’s chatroom or on Skype. I think the best and most rewarding way to do it is in person. My friend Rich blogged about a recent experience he had leveling up in Persian.

I know it sounds daunting but even if you mess up it’s usually exhilarating and makes you want to go home and learn more. Leveling up exposes your weaknesses and shows you where you are actually better than you thought. You often get much needed encouragement and make new friends. You learn little things that are impossible to learn by your self, like facial expressions and filler words. Have you had any experiences leveling up in a language? Tell us about them.

Language in Education: Part II

I was tempted to change the title of this post (and the last) to Minority Languages in Education but that would be inaccurate. Some students that belong to minority groups in their communities are educated in a language they don’t speak at home. This is the case of Curds in Denmark, Pakistanis in Kuwait and Brazilians in Japan. This is not the case, however, of millions of kids in Africa, virtually all of the kids in Haiti, or even of the upper-class kids who go to private English schools all over the world. These young students speak their native language at home, in the market, on the playground and pretty much everywhere else but in the classroom. In my last post I delved into the advantages and problems related to educating children in a language other than their native one. I am grateful for those who weighed in on the issue in the comments section.

The Good News

It is almost impossible for one group to take away another group’s linguistic identity. The only way your linguistic identity will be lost is if you allow it to be lost or pushed out. A long time ago, Americans tried very hard to squash the languages of the natives. Certain languages have been lost or will be lost soon but others came out of the experience stronger than before. You couldn’t teach Cherokee in school two hundred years ago because it wasn’t a written language. Now it is. Navaho is not only now a written language but can be used to give university lectures. The Welsh, Ukrainians, Norwegians, Basque, and even the English have all had their languages seriously threatened at one time or another. If you are willing to fight for it, no individual or government can rob you of your language completely.

As I said in my last post, this situation is a sticky one and there is no one size fits all answer but there are three principles that can guide every society facing this problem.

Principle #1: You Need to Want It

In order for this to work then the group that wants to promote its language needs a very strong sense of self-determination. If Xhosa speaking parents organize, come together, and say they want their children to receive instruction in Xhosa then I think the government should provide at least a few classes and activities in the language for them. Books should also be provided for Xhosa speakers at the library. If the Xhosa classes are enthusiastically received, if there is a very high level of participation in Xhosa activities, and if there is a long waiting list for Xhosa books at the library then I think the government should expand Xhosa services. They could perhaps even allow for schools to teach half in Xhosa and half in English.

Principle #2: You Need to Want It More Than Me

I often go to the Spanish language book section at my library. Do you know which people I don’t really see much in the Spanish language section? Hispanics. You can’t expect your language to thrive if you aren’t really enthusiastic about it. Especially in this economy, why should one group vote to allocate funds to support a different ethno-linguistic group if the members of the latter group aren’t going to make really good use of the money?

Principle #3: Think Win/Win

Many people approach language with a very Win/Lose mentality. If you speak my language then you can’t speak yours. Continuing with that logic these same people often think, If you speak your language then you cannot speak mine. When trying to push a language in schools it helps to assure others that the students will continue to learn English, or whatever other language they need to learn in order to function in a broader society. This requires some extra effort and a change in lifestyle that many do not expect. This is where principles one and two become very important.

This Can Really Work

When the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire they kept Aramaic as the language of government. Everybody already knew Aramaic so why should they try and fix something that wasn’t broken? Many languages coexisted side by side but it was understood that the official language was Aramaic. This is the way Greek functioned for centuries in the Mediterranean countries and Latin in much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Just like the ancients, I believe people in modern times can learn a vehicular language, like English, without losing their own ethno-linguistic identity.

Language in Education

Kirsten, a college student from South Africa, sent me a nice email a while ago asking me to weigh in on an issue that I find extremely important and often complicated. It is an issue that affects people in every country of the world and one that has affected every ethnic group in the history of the world. The question is whether children who should be educated in their native language or in a language that will give them more opportunities later in life.


What kind of opportunities in life will you have if all you know how to speak is a variety of Zapotec that only a few thousand people in Oaxaca, Mexico understand? No one would blame such a person for making sure their children learned Spanish from an early age. How far can you go in life in south western China if you don’t know Mandarin? Ethnic minorities are certainly not the only people confronting this issue.


German is the official language of six prosperous countries and has over 100 million native speakers with tens of millions of non-native speakers added to that number. It also has a literary tradition that is hundreds of years old and boasts some of the best writers and philosophers in modern times. In spite of this, every German engineering student knows that his or her career will be limited without a solid command of English.


Is it any wonder that millions of students from all over Africa are demanding to be educated in English instead of Afrikaans, French, Yoruba, etc.? Many American, British, Australian, etc. companies have been known to favor employees with fluent English over other employees who are harder to understand but are more competent in their professions. The advantages to combining impressive professional skills with fluency in English are palpable.


On the other hand, I wonder about the Filipinos who have a wider vocabulary in English than they do in Tagalog or Cebuano but speak it with a heavy accent. I wonder about Haitian children who are taught that what they speak at home is corrupted French, instead of a proper language. This means they have to be be taught to speak the real thing by teachers who usually cannot speak French well either. I also wonder about the Hispanic youth in the USA, the Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain, and Algerians in France who never learn to speak any language well.


What does it mean to undervalue, or even despise, your native language? What does it do to a person to intentionally lose or weaken the ability to speak with Grandparents and other relatives? How do we feel about ourselves and our worth as individuals if we believe that the language that feels most natural to us is somehow inferior to another language? Can a language’s true worth be calculated accurately with money alone?


I wish I had a simple answer to this complex problem. There is, however, no single solution that will work for countries as diverse as South Africa, the USA, China, Ukraine, and Malaysia. I would like to describe some principles that will help people as they try to negotiate their education between two or more languages and I will talk about them in my next post. Until then, what are your thoughts?

Level Up with Moses and Benny

This is a totally cool video and definitely worth sitting through twelve minutes of a shaky camera and poor audio. Even my wife, who is not a language enthusiast, loved this video. If you are a language lover or want to be one, please watch it.

Benny (the Irish Polyglot) Lewis has the playful attitude and lust for life that that his compatriots are famous for. In his case, this includes a love for languages and travel. Benny has been traveling the globe for eight years and got his language learning method down to a system. He’ll even sell you a book about that system. He likes focusing on a language for three months and striving to speak it fluently by the end of that period. We can thank this video in large part to his world travels, especially coming to Ohio (that’s a state in the USA). A point that Benny makes in this video, that I really like, is that shyness is probably not a lifelong stamp and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moses McCormick is the other language enthusiast in this video with an Irish last name. He, like Benny, also has language services that he would be happy sell you. If you watched the video you cannot help but be impressed with Moses. I know I can’t. With the soft relentlessness of a door-to-door salesman, Moses lets nothing stand in his way to have a positive language experience. In this video, he gives us all a fabulous example to follow: get out there and use your languages! He also gives us a great example of learning and using the languages in your community. Moses has never visited Cambodia and perhaps never will, but that doesn’t stop him from interacting with Cambodians in Columbus, Ohio.

Benny has also written a post about his experience on his blog which includes another video not seen here. I suggest you give a look. Thanks for the video guys!

New Lady Polyglots

The MehrsprachICH competition is over and I am happy to announce that my friend Richard won first place! Thanks to those of you who responded to my invitation to vote for him. Every voted certainly counted. While I am please that Richard won, I was also happy to come across new polyglots that I was previously unaware of.

Male polyglots are very well represented online. Moses McCormick, Benny Lewis, Steve Kaufmann, Stuart Jay Raj, Luca LamparielloRichard Simcott and Dr. Alexander Argüelles are some of the most well known. Female polyglots are not nearly as well represented but they do exist. Three who have come to my attention are Susanna Zaraysky, Jana Fadness and Kathleen Hearons. These ladies have done some fabulous work with their languages and their videos are definitely worth watching.

The MehrsprechICH competition introduced me to three more lady polyglots that I would like to highlight here. Dalia Hazem’s video didn’t actually make it into the competition but is worthy of mention nonetheless. You can tell that she’s serious about writing and making her works known in English and German in addition to her native Arabic.

Lily Alexandrova’s video got fourth place in the competition. Be sure to turn on the subtitles when you watch it. Her knowledge of French, German, Spanish and Italian (in addition to her native Bulgarian) are impressive to say the least. As a native English speaker, I get a huge kick out of her English. She speaks as if she were the daughter of an English lord. Watch out world! She’s going to be a lawyer soon.

Anastasia, from Lithuania, had the best produced video in the competition. Her love of languages and cultural exchange come across very clearly as she switches effortlessly between her four most fluent languages: Lithuanian, Russian, English and German. She also includes fun little scenes in Spanish, Polish, Korean and Japanese. I was genuinely surprised that she didn’t get more votes. Remember to turn on the subtitles while watching her video as well.

I want to wish all three of these new young polyglots the best! We hope they will all continue to share their language learning journeys with us.