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/

Language Learning Mindset, The First Step.

Bookstore shelves run thick with language learning advice.

Make no mistake, a language cannot be contained within the covers of a book or the confines of digital media. It is a living, breathing, para-ecosystem that rides and thrives in the hearts and minds of its speakers. So before you dive into that jungle, you’d better prepare yourself.

From flappy yellow jackets whose covers caw at you, outright accusing you of being a ‘Dummy’, to austere red and ivory towers with titles like, ‘Petrov’s Explications of the Nuances and Cognizant Factors of Russian grammar: Book The First’, the options are endless.

Which can be great, or just leave you feeling confused as to who to give your money to. Probably the cashier’s a good place to start.

Figuring out where to start while staring down several walls of options can feel like trying to solve a rubik’s cube while balancing on a table that’s skate boarding down a hill. And you’re on fire.

Eventually, physics will run its course and you’ll fall on your ass.

Which can mean over spending on all the wrong methods or walking away empty handed and with a bruised backside.

I’m hoping this article will save you some time, some money and some bruises.

The first step is the most important and like all important things it deserves at least thirty seconds to a minute before you get bored and eat a Cheeto.

Start with the question:

Why do you want to learn this language?

Be as honest as you can, (although you should always be honest anyway, right? I mean…Why would we lie to ourselves?)

Write it down or say it out loud, let whatever comes up flow.

Some examples: I want to date a tall Norwegian girl. I want to couch surf through Southern France. I want to order my Chinese food in Chinese. I want people to see me reading Harry Potter in Italian on the subway during my rush hour commute.

Once you’ve got your reason, you’re halfway there.

Next you need to set your reason up as your goal.

So take your reason and make it as specific as possible. Don’t worry about this too much. Follow what feels right to you in the moment.

This doesn’t need to be an end game goal, and it can be modified as you get closer to it, but you need to start somewhere.

Basically, whatever your reason is you need to focus on being able to do this from the start.

Sounds a little paradoxical, I know.

It’s like saying, well if you want to learn to read, the way to do that is to read. Which is solid advice.

So how do you do this when you’ve got something huge?

Say for example, you want to give a 10 minute presentation about Dante’s l’inferno in Italian.

Start by breaking this goal down into manageable bits.

If it were me, I’d attack it this way:

First, I’d read Dante in a language I could understand.

While going through it the first time, I’d make a list of all the words and themes that I thought were most interesting.

Then, I’d go write my ten minute speech in a language I was fluent in.

Next I’d sit down and look at the kind of language I used in my speech.

How did I open the presentation? With a joke? With a fact? Did I introduce myself? From there I’d start translating, with the help of an Italian tutor/friend and the internet.

Another approach, say if I really wanted to focus on actually reading Dante’s l’inferno first and the speech part second, I’d start by going through the meat of my speech and that list of words and themes that I kept while I was reading. Those would be the things to focus on.

This is all a very rough draft example, but hopefully you get where I’m going and how I’m going there.

The point here is, life is short and there is A LOT of it. There are so many things. So many languages. Why waste time learning how to say toothpaste in French, when you know damn well you’re not going talk to your toothpaste anyway?

So, setting your goal, is the first step in learning a language.

Now what about all those flapping bright colored books and prestigious methods?

The short answer is that my top five picks are:

Glossika, FLR Method, Pimsleur, Duolingo, Assimil.

If you want a more detailed review of why I recommend them as well as pros, cons, price points, and for whom I think they would be the best fit, then you’ll have to wait for next week’s article.

The take-away here is that before you start aimlessly wandering through the jungle that is a new language, you can bump the odds in your favor by setting a destination and taking a map.

Once you get to your first destination, you might set another, and another, and so on, until you suddenly realize that you’re pretty good at navigating that the jungle.

Happy beginnings to you in your new language quest!

Interest and Language Learning

The most important thing you’ll need to learn a new language is interest. Without it you’re pretty much guaranteed to fail. I’ve mentioned this before but it deserves mentioning again.

There are two kinds of interest, Direct and Indirect.  When you have a Direct Interest in the language you feed your interest by simply studying the language. This in turn ensures that you continue studying, even when things get hard, even when you run into a wall… especially when you run into the same wall several times. If you have at least one Direct Interest it can make or break your language learning.

On the other hand an Indirect Interest is when you don’t actually care about the language, but you’re learning it to feed some other interest. Like getting a job or impressing someone. In a case like this, the only time you’re going to feel rewarded is when you reach that goal and it’s more likely that you won’t be able to maintain interest in the language long enough to do that.

I’m not saying you absolutely can’t learn a language if you have an Indirect Interest, but simply that your chances of success are much lower, unless perhaps you have a few Direct Interest reasons as your primaries.

The reason why interest is, in my opinion, the most important thing and comes before having a good method and all the other necessary things, is because methods and other things can fail, you can fail. We all do. But if you have interest, you’ll keep going and find a way.

Why I Dislike the Word, ‘Teaching’. 

This is teaching: You teach someone that every time a bell rings, they’re going to get a donut. So eventually when they hear the bell ring their mouth waters.

This is what teaching doesn’t address: In real life there’s not always a bell and there usually isn’t a person to bring you a donut after said bell has rung.

This is what I think learning is: You have an interest, you see something cool, you want to make something, you ask a question along the lines of, how can I achieve this? You start learning.

I don’t want this post to seem like I’m saying teachers are evil or stupid. On the contrary there are so many who are brilliant and want to genuinely help their students but don’t know how and there are even more who do know how and do see that the system is broken and they encourage their students to ask questions, to not feel bad about “wrong answers”, that they’re capable of making decisions and growing from mistakes and most importantly that they matter as humans.

The thing I never learned in school, is that life is learning. Sure, I had teachers who regurgitated the cliché phrases about always being a student, or was bashed over the head with signs encouraging me to “never stop learning”. But the problem, for me, was that it was always within the context of school. Realizing that I didn’t need a teacher or a textbook, is probably one of the most life changing experiences I’ve had.

Students follow teachers down hallways in single file lines and keep their mouths shut because that’s how the teacher wants them to walk in the hallway. Students sit upright in class and take down the notes that the teacher tells them is important because the teacher knows what will be on their next exam. But being a learner, you have accountability. You’re not following orders and as a result you’ll have less of a desire to break them. And you’ll quickly learn, that when you’re chasing or learning something that interests you you’ll write down the things you need to be reminded of. Or you’ll find another way of remembering stuff. Or you’ll learn what’s actually important to you.

Dozens of notebooks and binders filled with scribbles and handouts from high school and college, sat untouched for years in a closet. You know what happened when I needed something from them? I used the internet or a book, or I asked a human being. And if it was important and something that I continued to use in my life, I didn’t forget it.

This can seem like more of a tangent on learning, but I think it’s evident how this all impacts language learning. You can go to Italian class and become an excellent note taker, but when you’re out at a bar or a café talking to someone, you’re not going to go back and flip through your notes to see if that is indeed how and where to use the past tense subjunctive.

The point here is that being taught is a passive action and if you want to succeed at anything beyond passing an exam, and getting a sheet of paper that testifies to your ability to follow orders, hand in assignments on time and memorize facts that are easier found on the internet, you need to be active.

Go after what inspires you and don’t waste time on stuff you find boring, or something that someone told you they think you should do. Always question if it lines up with your goals and your passions. So long as you’re chasing what you want to do and asking questions you’ll find a way to do it. Cheers and good luck!

I’m Not a Teacher, but…

Learning is a huge mountain that has several different peaks. How’s that even possible? A mountain with several different peaks? It’s a fantasy mountain. Voilà. Problem solved.

The thing about Mt. Learning, is that it is enormous. It might even merit the invention of a new word, Gigantuous? But Mt. Learning doesn’t just cover learning a foreign language or some other aspect that one often study’s in school, but all aspects of learning. From learning how to play an instrument to learning how to fly a parachute. It’s all on this massive mountain.

Most teachers and professors tell you, there’s only so many ways up the mountain. Many will often tell you that there’s only one way up the mountain. But really, they’re lying, or they genuinely don’t know that there’s more than one way, because they were deceived by the same system that is trying to deceive you.

I’m not a teacher or a professor. I’m just some dude who loves climbing this mountain. I’ve climbed to a lot of the peaks that have to do with language learning so many times that I happen to know a lot of ways to get there. But I don’t claim that they’re the only ways.

A consequence of climbing around this mountain for years is that I can get to where I want to go pretty quickly and usually without being eaten by bears or skewered by orcs. Regardless of which path you take there will almost always be enemies and obstacles. I’m no Katniss Everdeen, but I can give you tips on how to get rid of some of those enemies and how to get around some of those obstacles.

But you’re always and should always feel like you’re entitled to your choices. If you don’t like the path I’m showing you I can show you the others that I know, or help you find your own.

As a language guide, I’m here to share the information and experience that I have, but I’m not here to make you feel like your ideas or opinions matter less. My style of helping people in their learning may not be for everyone. This is not to say that my style is wishy-washy, kind of like, you know man just sort of like float up the mountain—no. I can give you a map and show you how to get where you want to be. But I think people should know that I do my best to avoid using or conforming to the meanings behind teacher and professor. The currently standing idea of “teaching” is something that bothers me.  But I’ll address this in a separate post, because it’s likely to get lengthy.