September 16, 2019

Impossible tasks and bad techniques

If you see someone trying to lift a 500 kg stone with rollerblades on their feet, maybe knowing that that person had never done any exercise in their lives before, it's clear to you that that person will not lift the stone.

Firstly, the stone is just too heavy and secondly, it's really a dumb idea to try to lift it with your rollerblades on.

Unfortunately, the way people are trying to achieve language proficiency in some languages, is something you cannot see with your eyes, and a lot of people simply don't realize that either the goal they are working towards is impossible to achieve or the methods they are using will not work.

Some very difficult languages just cannot be learned to a satisfactory level with current methods. It's just like trying to lift that very heavy rock with rollerblades on.

So..if you are learning a language and are not making progress the problem might not be your lack of talent, but rather the fact, that with the methods you are using, you just objectively cannot learn what you are trying to learn.


  1. This is a huge topic, but I only want to say 1 thing. Learning a language is a very complex project, involving many factors. Treat each language you learn as different, even if they are related.

    1. But wouldn't you be wasting a lot of time if the two languages were Spanish and Portuguese for instance and wouldn't that be considered a bad learning approach?

    2. Hi Vladimir, I know this is an old post. But I still think it's worth writing this in case you or anyone is curious to hear a reply to your (perhaps rhetorical) question. Although the following might possibly sound a bit combative, I mean it all in an irenic and inquisitive way. I sincerely appreciate your blog posts, especially when it comes to Mandarin (suffice to say that reading and watching almost everything that you have on the Chinese language has dissuaded me from learning it, although I’m still fascinated by it), which is why I took some time on Christmas to browse through it and see what else I could learn. Fascinating stuff. Keep ‘em coming!
      So without further ado: I think Dolmetscher is right to an extent, though I’ll point to nuances in my position. Now, I'm almost completely certain that if you know one language, it's almost impossible for your brain to not leverage your knowledge of it in order to learn the target language, even if the two are not closely related at all. In other words, whether you like it or not, it's kind of hard to "waste time," or at least in the way you imply. To me it’s like trying to NOT understand Slovak or English in order to know what it sounds like to foreigners; try as you might, if you’re within an earshot of it, your brain is going to try to decode those sounds. This is beneficial for language learners because you're quite right that it would be a bad idea, as an adult, to learn a language in isolation from any other (as even knowing English can help with learning a language as different as Chinese; for, as I understand it, the semantic structure of, "I am Slovak," is nearly identical to, “我是斯洛伐克人。”). Indeed, it would take a very long time to do anything from scratch, but this is most especially true with language learning. This is why I agree with you, that say, one's knowledge of Spanish should (and like it or not, likely will) be used to learn Portuguese.

      That being said, this is where differences in personal goals push me in the direction of agreeing with you, Dolmetscher. If one's goal is simply to communicate and get by, one could get away with not fully treating each language as separate entities on a subconscious level (because consciously, we know they are). I recently watched a news report on Venezuelan refugees fleeing to Brazil. A lot of them basically spoke Spanish with some Portuguese words they knew sprinkled in. I imagine they would be largely understood, but likely with some effort. For greater context, like you, Vladimir, I have more than one native language: English and Spanish. A few years ago I started learning Italian (so far the "hardest" language I've had to learn), then later Portuguese. I did indeed use my knowledge of Spanish to learn them. Though at first, it may have sounded like the Portunhol spoken by these refugees, or even the Brazilian reporters. That’s fine, if simple communication is your goal. However, if your aim is to not only do the bare minimum to be understood, but to be an effective and advanced user of a language, in my opinion we would do well to heed your advice, Dolmetscher. That’s because, I would imagine that many Brazilians would have a hard time following Venezuelans’ Portuñol because according to anecdotal experiences and this Quora post (, Brazilians struggle to understand Spanish or Portuñol when the Ss are aspirated or dropped, as is characteristic of Venezuelan Spanish (but also many, many Hispanic accents). Anecdotally, it would be like Brazilians leveraging their knowledge of Portuguese to speak Spanish while treating it like a weird dialect of their mother tongue, such that they aspirate or drop their Rs. Eventually, in order to even be a proficient user, you have to treat them like separate languages, not like dialects of your L1.

    3. This is even more so at advanced stages for those who, like me or you, Vladimir, want to speak a language well (although I know it depends on the language and one’s goals for it; Luca Lampariello himself suffers from a lack of “true differentiation” with his Portuguese, due to what I perceive to be a lack of interest in improving it, and thus he sometimes uses Spanish words and constructions). “Tomorrow, I school go,” is quite understandable to native English speaker, but is certainly not what a native speaker would say. A Mexican being asked for help by a Brazilian would certainly understand, “Puede mi ayudá,” but would realize it sounds kind of unnatural. This is the difference between, say, an intermediate user of a language and an advanced one. I’ve come to realize that in order to truly progress and sound as natural as possible in a language, you truly have to, “Treat each language you learn as different, even if they are related.” Despite studying Italian for three years now and being highly fluent, I’m still struck by how differently an Italian structures his or her idea from the way a Spanish speaker does, which is why during my weekly speaking sessions, I’m understood but often corrected by my tutor for sounding unnatural (in often subtle ways). For example, I recently said, “L’ho scritto nelle mie appunti,” (Eng: “I wrote it down in my notes.”/Span: “Lo escribí en mis notas.”) only to be told that it’s, “L’ho scritto tra i miei appunti.” Another one: “Ero ossessionato con l’italiano,” (“I was obsessed with Italian”/“Estaba obsesionado con el italiano”) is actually, “Ero ossessionato dall’italiano/l’italiano mi ossessionava.” I have many, many more such examples, such that I usually try to write all of them down in Anki to study later.

      You once wrote that Chinese has grammar that usually can’t really be generalized because it only works for a few set phrases, and that you have to spend a lot of time around Chinese speakers and experience as much in life as possible in order to know what the set phrase is for each situation. I often feel like the same is true for Italian and Portuguese (for the latter it’s especially so at the colloquial level), though the difference might be that unlike in Chinese, one is usually understood and that there are likely less exceptions. Thus I’ve come to realize that, as much as possible, we ought to aim to separate languages as much as possible; especially at the advanced level and if we want to sound natural. This shift in mentality might be crucial for improving beyond the upper-intermediate level. Although granted, as you pointed out, at the beginner level this is indeed a bad idea.

    4. Hi Roman,

      thanks for the elaborate comment.

      When I read my reply to Dolmetscher's comment now, I agree there might be some room for interpretation as to what he and I meant:)

      But just to make it clear, I wanted to say this:

      When learning a language which is related to another language you already speak well, it is very wise to use the language you already speak well to your advantage while learning the language are learning as much as you can, but goes without saying that they are separate languages and you have to treat them like that.

      On a slightly related note, a few days ago I asked on Twitter what people considered to be 'more' for a native monolingual English speaker:

      1) Mandarin at a high B2 level


      2) Spanish, Italian, French at a high C2 level

      I argued that 2) would be 'more' because keeping related languages well separated at such high levels is really a very difficult thing to do.

      This just goes back to the premise that it is important to treat languages as separate languages, however while learning a target language, it is wise to use everything you can to make your task easier - and using a related language you already speak well to your advantage is one of the best things you can do.

      P.s.: The "I am Slovak," is nearly identical to, “我是斯洛伐克人。" situation only works because both English and Mandarin happen to be isolating languages.

      Hungarian (agglutinating): Szlovák vagyok.
      Slovak (inflected): Som Slovák.

      All the best,


  2. Hi Vlad,yesterday I listened to an old podcast(language is culture)with David Mansaray in which you told that massive listening is key to reach a high level of performance and fluency in another language..based on your past experiences would you suggest to immerse yourself with tons of listening?if so,how many hours do you recommend?sometimes I feel that if i’m able to do many hours in a narrow space of time my fluency improves very this your experience too?thanks

    1. Hi Alessandro. Yes, I still think it's true. But you have to be paying attention to what you are listening to. It doesn't work if you have the audio on as a sort of background music or something like that. As for how many hours.. the more the better. I did it until I burned out on that given day. The good news was, that at least for me, I was able to burn out later and later every day as I did this.

  3. Hi Vladimir, first of all, congratulations to you because of your channel on YouTube I just meet you today and I spent some hours watching your videos and OMG there have great tips! I think this post is really interesting because I was studying English with the wrong methods and to find a great way to learn is the key to learn whatever thing.
    Btw I hope you back to post things on YouTube as well and continue to learn and share your insights and experience with us for a long time. Tks and abraço do Brasil. :)

  4. Hey Vlad,I’ve just listened to your last podcast recorded in italian and I can tell you that it was’re ability to convey messages in that language is still very good even though you haven’t spoken Italian for a while(i’m Italian,so I think my opinion has a certain value:))..i didn’t know you stopped your learning path because of haters..let me tell you that if someone with your talent gets discouraged by haters other people who lacks your ability should not even open their mouth trying to speak foreign languages..I really appreciated this podcast..looking forward to the next one..greetings from Italy

    1. HI Alessandro. Thank you very much for the nice words:) I'll try to record more. All the best.

  5. Yesterday I saw a picture of you with Alexander Arguelles..I didn’t know you met a question comes up quite naturally..what do you think about his language learning method of shadowing?do you really think it could be effective in some way?two questions actually!?!Bye Vlad

    1. Hello Alessandro. Actually I think we met only once about 5 years ago and only exchange a couple of words. I don't know too much about how exactly the shadowing method works to be honest. Only the basics. I know you have to walk briskly outside and repeat the audio you hear as you are listening to it. There must me more detail to the whole approach, but I don't know more. I use other methods, and never tried this one so I can't tell.