The Hoist Method

The Concept

The Hoist Method is an underlying conceptual framework, that can be applied to anything.

The key here is that you’re: Trying something reasonably outside of your comfort zone, but going about it in such a way that you can get through it with a little help.

Imagine you’re completely new to rock climbing and trying a challenging route—one that requires you to perform moves that you’re not exactly comfortable with. Now, say that while you’re trying this move, the person belaying you puts a small amount of extra weight on the line connecting you to them, so that some of your weight is taken up by theirs.

Call it cheating if you want, but this is the crux the Hoist methodology.

It allows you to experience doing something that, initially, seemed impossible. And once you’ve done it, you can do it again. Each time you repeat this with a little less help.

How does this fit with learning a new language? It means, you don’t need to wait to do all the awesome things!

So put down that glorified picture book and stop memorizing introductions that require you to stand around doors, constantly asking strangers: How are you? Do you have the hour?

Today, we’ll apply this method to books, novels in particular.

The Process

Step 1

Read it in your native language.

Step 2

Simplify or summarize the story into a few paragraphs.

Step 3 

Go through each chapter and try to capture the most important actions, translate these, before taking them and making a narrative that’s no more than 10 sentences long.

Step 4

Work with a native speaker and the internet to translate this narrative into something that sounds natural in the language.

Step 5

Read what you’ve made and add details to it over time.

For obvious reasons, this works best with shorter books.

The thing you’re going for here, or really anytime you’re learning a new language, is mileage. You need to get used to it, so that connections become faster and memorizing words reveals itself to be the awkward, archaic technique you’ve always felt it to be.

Unless your goal dictates that you need to learn a certain amount of vocabulary by a specific date, don’t force yourself to retain words. Just keep going after the things that interest you!

Patterns will emerge and words will infect you, so long as interest levels stay high.

The Example

If you’re much younger than me, you’ve probably never heard of K.A. Applegate’s, The Animorphs, a science-fiction based young adult series from the late 90’s.

My simplified summary of the first book in the series “The Invasion” is: Five adolescents meet an alien and get involved in trying to save their planet from a race of parasitic brain slugs who want to take over the galaxy.




From the first chapter I’d pull out the main actions in the form of phrases: Going to the mall, playing video games, meeting friends, going home through an abandoned construction site, seeing a flying saucer in the sky.

After translating those phrases I’d turn them into a short narrative, that might sound something like:

Jake and Marco are at the mall. They’re playing video games when they meet up with Tobias, Cassie and Rachel. They’re all friends who decide to walk home together. They go through an abandoned construction site and see a flying saucer.

I’d go through each chapter like this. And then move on to the next book in the series or a different book in a similar genre, so I could keep playing with words that had to do with aliens or similar narrative themes of saving the world.

The Wrap-up

I’ve seen this method work, consistently with myself, my language students and the kids and adults I coach in rock climbing. You might have to modify the above example to fit with your goals or learning style but it’s not all that different from the educational concept of scaffolding.

Don’t let years of formal education tell you that you need to put off doing the really fun things, asking the really hard questions or trying the seemingly impossible, because you’re not ready yet! The best way to get good at something is not to prepare yourself to get good at something, but to actually practice what you want to get good at.

If it sounds like common sense, why do  so few of us actually attempt it? My pessimistic guess, because the people who know this want your money. Or maybe because doing things this way is not something we can buy in a big yellow box.

Until next week, stay strong and keep learning!


Yellow Duckies in a Pool

Your first conversation can and probably should last between five and ten painful minutes.

Woah, take it easy there Kitten Mcspitfire, isn’t that asking a bit much?


Yeah, it may seem like a long time, but it’s not impossible and I’m going to give you a few tips on how to go about managing this by breaking down the set up into 3 categories: Openers, Topics, and Clarifiers. But first we must address…

The Yellow Duckies

Picture all the things in each of the following three categories as floating yellow duckies in a pool.


You can name them all, collect them and order them into one little corner of the pool, maybe even tie some strings around their necks like little leashes, but eventually they’re gonna drift apart. Probably when one your language partners joins you in the pool via cannon ball. As the water starts sloshing and the ducks spin and bob and the light hits them differently you’re going to feel useless. You’re going to forget all their names, you’re going to let their leashes slip your hands as you kick and paddle to keep yourself afloat. You’re going to choke on water and your eyes are going to burn from chlorine.

And that’s okay! What you can do, is keep circling around the pool. collect some of the duckies as you go. Eventually you’ll get to know them all really well. You’ll be able to identify them from all over the pool and you won’t even notice the sloshing of the pool, the duckies will be constantly moving things but you’ll know them their names and you’ll be a duckie collecting wizard from anywhere in the pool.


When you’re greeting someone for the first time it’s highly unlikely that their response to your, “Hello how are you?”, will be, “I’m peculiar and now, where’s that report I asked you for on the statistical likelihood of accidentally falling into a microscopic black hole?”

If you meet a stranger and this is their response to you, then you need to keep talking to them—they’re a keeper.

Generally, you can predict what will happen in most initial conversations. I use this to choose what things I think it would be helpful to learn.

If you’re feeling particularly strong willed, you can make a script or several (one for each parallel universe). I tend to just pick 1-3 short sentences and memorize those.

Something like:

Hey, I’m Seth, what’s your name?

My name is Jen. How’s your day/week going, Seth?

Not bad/great/crappy. And yours/And you?

Just learning and figuring this out on your own can teach you volumes about grammar and how a language works.

I mean from those 3 little sentences you learn: possessives, basic conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to be called’ (Although this won’t always be the case in every language. In Hebrew for example you can simple say ‘I’, then your name.), pronouns, adjectives, question words, and more importantly, you get a tiny feel for sentence structure.

For example in Japanese a literal translation of the first sentence would look something like : Hello, I (as for), Seth is. Your name (as for), what is (question particle).

Just looking at that it’s easy to see how 1-3 sentences can get complicated fast, which is why I’d recommend keeping this first section simple and straight forward.

You can and should circle back to this in many of your conversations both to yourself and to actual people, eventually you’ll build on this so it’ll sound less stilted.


This is the meat of your conversation.

Again, keep it simple and do what you’ll almost always end up doing when you meet new people: Talk about yourself. Ask them about themselves.

Questions like:

What’s your name? How old are you? Where do you live? Why are you learning X language? What are you studying in school? What are your favorite sports or hobbies?

You can come up with your own questions or simply pick the ones that are most interesting and try to learn as many of them as you can, try to answer at least 5-10 of these in English and then translate them and see what’s going on.

It’s no secret that it’s easier to learn things that you’re passionate about. If you spend all your time thinking about quantum physics, then you should start off by learning how to say exactly this in the language. Which, like your opener will teach you hours worth of grammar in minutes.

Take the sentence: I like to think about physics and reality.

‘I like to…’ is a structure that you’ll use a ton, because it comes up so often.

By mining your first sentences, you can learn nearly all the fundamentals of any language: tense, conjugation, case, question words, adjectives, sentence structure.

Reading sentences that you wrote about the topics that interest you are one thing, but what about the actual conversation? You can’t predict what a total stranger is going to talk about.

Here’s that cannonball I warned you about.

But it also brings up the hard truth, you’re not going to understand everything you hear in your early conversations.

But that’s okay, you really don’t have to. Just smile and nod, keep circling the pool and make it over to the next section which can help with that.


Clarifiers are like a very disorganized cavalry of tempermental mercenaries. At least this is the case whenever I make this category up.

It’s the odds and ends that can make or break a conversation.

The tricky part is not putting too many or too little for your early conversations. Unfortunately, you’ll always feel like you have too little or too many.

I usually divide Clarifiers into two parts and fit them both on one sheet of paper—generally handwritten, because I tend to be able to find things easier when I have the physical memory of writing them on a certain part of the page.

The first category is useful phrases/questions.

Things like: Can you repeat that? What? How? I didn’t catch that. I can’t hear you. Can you hear me? Would you please speak slower/slowly? I can’t see you. I don’t know. Can you see me? Please repeat that. I think so. I understand. I don’t/didn’t understand.

There will likely be some overlap in terms of question words and general question structure, which will help your memory.

The second category would be helper words or phrases that come up a lot in conversation, like: But, also, maybe, if, please, thank you, yes, no, not yet, again, once, twice, first, second.

Moving from Pool to Ocean

The problem with most university methods is that you spend all or most of your time studying the little duckies on land or in shoebox sized pools. And then, one day when you go right into the ocean, you’ll feel a strange kind of lost. You’ll recognize the duckies but you won’t be able to keep up or contribute much to the conversation. And this brings up one of the secrets about human languages:

All those bits of grammar, sentence structure and conjugations move around. Studying them in a traditional way is like studying how a bird flies after you’ve killed it and nailed its wings to the table. Sure you could, from an anatomical perspective, understand how and why a bird is able to fly, but that wouldn’t help you to understand all the things and variations that go on in flight. That wouldn’t help you have a living picture of what it looks like or the sounds it does or doesn’t make.

So go out and have those first few awkward and socially painful conversations. One day, if you stick with it, you’ll find that you’re actually speaking a foreign language, in a foreign world and that, to me is one of the most magical gifts and human experiences that we as a species can have.

Polyglod’s Top Five Language Methods

Last week I talked about the first step to learning a new language, which came down to establishing a goal and planning accordingly.

Okay, let’s say you’ve done that. You’ve got your goal and you’ve got your plans, but you’re hung up on one tiny snag. You don’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. How are you supposed to create your own course if you’re not even qualified in the subject matter?

Here’s where my top five picks for starting a new language come into play.

I’ve put them in an order, but really it’s not representative of which I think is the best. What’s best out of these five favorites of mine really depends a lot on who you are as a learner and person as well as the specific goals you’ve set.

With that in mind, I’ll tell you what I do and don’t like about them, how much they cost, and who they might be a good fit for.



Price Point


The Good

This method is actually a ninja. It will teach you grammar without teaching you grammar and you won’t even know it’s doing that.

Luckily I’m part ninja myself and was able to pinpoint exactly how Glossika accomplishes this. It tosses you thousands of grammatical and useful sentences, that stick like caltrops in your subconscious, only with less pain and no bleeding. These sentences build on one another in theme, vocabulary and grammatical complexity. This is also sometimes referred to as an assimilation method

Out of fifty sentences, you might get the word ‘weather’ in several different contexts like: It’s nice weather today. How’s the weather? Bring an umbrella today, the weather’s bad.

This is so that while you’re picking up grammaticality and sentence structure, you’re also accidentally learning the words that you keep hearing.

The Not So Good

This technique doesn’t work for ALL the words, so if your goal is to build a huge vocabulary and fast, you’ll probably be better off looking into something like Anki.

Is It For You?

Lazy language learners like me, will love this one. If you don’t have oodles of time, and your goal is to be able to read and speak this method, like Neo, is the One.

Also great if you’re a fan of the IPA. (Sorry beer lovers, not that kind of IPA.) The International Phonetic Alphabet can be a great tool in language learning. Also sharing the other kind of IPA with strangers is a good way to make new language buddies!

FLR Method

Price Point

$40.00 (Per level)

The Good

This method gets you going with a self-introduction that can be used in your first conversation. It’ll also hand you a bunch of useful phrases and words, things like: ‘Can you repeat that?’ ‘What does X mean?’

If you’re at all familiar with Benny the polyglot from fluentinthreemonths.com, (who is not related to this method) then FLR will give you a pretty good toolset for following Benny’s advice, which emphasizes speaking as soon as possible. There’s a great article on that here.

This advice aligns with the actual creator of this method, Moses McCormick.

The Not So Good

My main gripe with this method is its piecemeal format. The design struck me as something I could have slapped together myself, which left me feeling like the price point should have been closer to ten or fifteen dollars. Still, it’s clear from the content that Moses knows his stuff when it comes to languages and regardless of the presentation it’s clear that an immense amount of time and work went into this.

Is It For You?

This is a language learning method designed by a self-learner for a self-learner. So if you don’t mind not having someone hold your hand and walk you through every step, then this might be the one for you. A noteworthy consequence of most self-learner oriented methods though, is that they’re time consuming. But I’ll argue in another article that the potential yield of skills offsets that.

The Pimsleur Method

Price Point

$119.95 per level (30 thirty-minute lessons)

The Good

Pimsleur’s focus is on listening and repeating, using the Spaced Repetition System. It’s somewhat like Glossika, in that it relies on audio and teaches you useful common words and phrases. But this is not an Assimilation method and does not rely on immersing you in thousands of sentences. Spaced Repetition, however, is proven to work wonders and you can read about how to benefit from it using an application like Anki, here.

The Not So Good

This method will not help you learn to read and although you learn a lot of useful sentences, it doesn’t help you get dive into any very interesting first conversations.

Is It For You?

If you’re a commuter or have no interest in reading in the language, then this might be the one for you. It’s also great if you have no previous background in the language, otherwise the first 10 lessons might try your patience, since clearly you know everything already.


Price Point 


The Good

Duolingo is great for learning how to read and expanding your vocabulary. It does this using translation and is very similar to Rosetta Stone except in two things—it’s free and it’s better.

In addition to getting access to an active community of language learners, you get the added bonus (at the higher levels) of helping translate the internet, see Luis Von AHn’s TED talk.

The Not So Good

The only downside here is that, like Rosetta Stone it’s not the best at getting you into those really important first conversations.

Is It For You?

If you’re broke or just trying to save your capitol, this is a great option. Plus, its design is really intuitive and anyone who’s not my father can figure it out. But don’t mind him, he still calls his i-pad an Apple screen device.


Price Point 

About $40.00 depending on options.

The Good

Assimil uses the power of story to make words stick, and the power of a bi-lingual text to lay bare grammatical structure in a way that’s visible and tangible.

Its short dialogues teach you to read as well as listen and luckily the dialogues dance the border between funny, corny and informative.

I learned about the history of monuments in Japan as well as heard some pretty great jokes.

The Not So Good

The dialogues help with understanding sentence structure and building intuitive grammar. But, like so many other methods it doesn’t really get you ready for conversations.

Is It For You?

Assimil is great if you like reading quirky, awkwardly funny dialogues/stories that give you brief explanations of grammar. But this one probably requires the most attention and time investment. For example, I would listen to and read along with each dialogue several times before going on or going through the mini grammatical explanations. And then there were short exercises at the end of each dialogue to help you practice what you just learned. I easily spent up to an hour or two a day reading/listening to these.

Put It Into Practice

Now that you’ve got my top five picks for getting started in a new language, you might be wondering how that connects with the mindset and goals that I mentioned in my previous post.

Simply, let your goals determine the method.

So to give you an example of how I might do that: Let’s say that my goal is to read Dostoyevsky in Russian.

I’d start out using DuoLingo so that I could learn to read without having to flip through and guess at pronunciation guidelines. Also instead of wasting my time learning how to pronounce each letter in Cyrillic I’d be learning how they work in words and phrases.

In addition to Duolingo, I’d pick up Assimil’s Russian book and audio files. Because sometimes, I like to not look at a screen. Plus I’d be able to read casually about grammar and how verbs work. Eventually (when I felt pretty confident with my ability to read in Cyrillic, I’d supplement these two by finding stories for children on the interwebs.

If any of these methods piqued your interest, I highly suggest looking more into them, as an in-depth look at these five methods was beyond the scope of this article. I’ve included links to some articles that give a more in-depth look at them.

Glossika: http://www.lingholic.com/glossika-review-mass-sentence-method/


FLR Method:https://www.reddit.com/r/languagelearning/comments/3jr0lx/has_anyone_here_tried_the_flr_laoshu505000_method/

(Not exactly a review of the FLR method but this reddit thread raises some of my unvoiced concerns.)


Duolingo: http://www.fluentin3months.com/duolingo/