About Language Mastery
Why you should use “Anywhere Immersion,” my language learning philosophy, what I mean by “Mastery,” and my “Origin Story”
The Power of “Anywhere Immersion”
Once upon a time, you had to two choices if you wanted to get fluent in a language:
- Take expensive, time consuming, location-dependent classes.
- Move abroad.
Today, anyone with an internet connection and a little creativity can learn a foreign language to a high level of fluency anywhere in the world. While taking classes and living abroad can be wonderful, they are no longer a requirement. My Anywhere Immersion™ approach allows you to learn at your own pace, using methods and materials you’ve chosen, and in a way that fits your unique learning style, interests, needs, and schedule.
Anywhere Immersion is not a panacea, of course, and you still have to invest the requisite time and energy, but learning in this fun, autodidactic, adult-friendly way will save you a significant amount of time, energy, money, and frustration.
My Language Learning Philosophy
- You DON’T need to be “gifted” at languages. Most adult learners fail because they spend all their time learning about the language instead of actually spending enough time practicing in the language.
- You DON’T need to spend thousands of dollars on foreign language classes or hundreds of dollars on overpriced products like Rosetta Stone. But a little investment in the right tools and materials can go a long way.
- You DON’T need to force yourself through boring textbooks, grammars, and declension tables. Fun, modern, relevant materials are readily available online.
- You DON’T need to move abroad. Creative use of technology allows you to create a fun, effective immersion environment no matter where you live.
- You DO need to figure out what methods fit your learning style, schedule, and personality. There is no one-size-fits-all way to learn a language. You have to experiment until you find what works for you.
- You DO need to pick materials, topics, and activities that are inherently enjoyable and fit your unique personal interests. When you do, motivation and retention increase dramatically. As the blogger Khatzumoto puts it succinctly, “Fun gets done.”
- You DO need to maximize your exposure to the target language everyday through input (listening and reading) and active output (speaking and writing). If you put in the time on a consistent basis, your brain will do the rest.
What Do I Mean By “Mastery”?
You’ll notice that the site name includes the word “mastery.” Many people have their own idea for what this term means, so let me share mine before we move on. I define mastery in a language as:
“The ability to use a language for your communicative purposes.”
That’s it. It is completely relative to your unique goals and needs. So if you are learning a language to live and work in a given country, then “mastery” would mean being able to easily communicate with your colleagues, your boss, the server at your favorite restaurant, or new friends at a bar. If you want to open a cafe in a foreign land, however, then “mastery” will require being excellent at inane smalltalk, and knowing lots of coffee-related words (“I want a double-tall decaf skinny caffè latte with two pumps of hazelnut in a for-here mug”). If you will just be traveling to a country short-term, then mastery will entail being able to ask directions (and actually understand the answer), checking into and out of hotels or hostels, and asking about local sites and bites. You get the point.
No matter your language learning goals, it’s important to remember that “mastery” does not mean “perfection.” Nor does it mean knowing every last word you may hear or read. For starters, I am a 40-something, well-educated, native English speaker who spends a lot of time reading and writing, but there are still plenty of English words I don’t know! While you certainly should strive to constantly expand your vocabulary, it is far more important to be able to use what words you do know with ease (this means knowing the different meanings of a given word, pronouncing words with the right intonation, tone or stress, knowing common collocations, etc.). Just as in martial arts (my go-to analogy for language learning), having lots of moves is not as important as mastering a small set of techniques.
初めまして！I’m John Fotheringham, a linguist, author, teacher, and entrepreneur. I grew up near Seattle, but have spent much of my adult life living, learning, and working abroad, especially in Japan, Bangladesh, China, and Taiwan. As I learned and taught languages over the past two decades, I experimented with a wide range of learning methods, materials, and mindsets in an effort to figure out what works—and just as important—what doesn’t. I create Language Mastery to share everything I’ve learned—and continue to learn.
Everyone learns differently, so I’ve packaged my language learning tips, tools, and resources into a variety of formats:
- Master Japanese: My comprehensive guide that shows you how to learn Japanese when you want, where you want, and how you want through Anywhere Immersion™.
- The 7-Step Roadmap to Japanese Fluency: My free 7-day email course that arms you with the psychology, methods, and resources you need to learn Japan quickly.
- Language Mastery Monday: My free newsletter for those who want tips, tools, and language laughs delivered right to their inbox each week.
- Language Mastery Show: My free podcast for those who want to hear interviews with the world’s best language learners.
- Language Mastery Blog: Free tips, articles, and resource reviews about how to learn any language, anywhere.
For more about my language learning journey and origin story, see the How Did I Get Into Languages? section below. ☟
How Did I Get Into Languages?
I would like to give a special shout out to Joseph Campbell (or “Joey Cams” as the comedian Pete Holmes lovingly calls him). Sadly, I never had the privilege of meeting Joe before he passed away in 1987, but his books and videos have had a profound impact on my life, and I am forever grateful for his guidance on how to best find one’s calling and follow one’s bliss. Thank you for showing us the way, Joe!
“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
- Always learn at least some of the language for every country you visit.
- Going through puberty in a foreign country is just as awkward (if not more so!) than in one’s home country…
I do a 2-week home stay in southern France, followed by a few days to run amok in Paris. Compared with my Brazil trip, I was a bit more prepared linguistically and culturally this time (and being 17 instead of 12 was definitely far less awkward).
- Pain au chocolat is the superlative form of pastry in the universe.
- Despite two years of French language study, having a fantastic teacher, and being highly motivated, I was still wholly unprepared to speak with native French speakers. This is when I realize the inherent weaknesses of formal classroom study, boring textbooks, and focusing more on reading than speaking.
I begin studying Japanese in my second year of college. My Japanese teacher, ITO Sensei (伊東先生) is a brilliant, hilarious graduate student from Japan. We become fast friends and he encourages me to study linguistics (which I later do).
- It is much easier and more enjoyable to learn a language when the learning environment is fun and grounded in cultural context.
- Passion and enthusiasm are contagious.
Moving on to 300-level Japanese, I am forced to take classes with the Japanese department head, a teacher who resides at the exact opposite end of the “fun and passion” spectrum from my first Japanese teacher…
- Language learning can be a dreadful experience when it focuses on ① formal study over active communication, ② accuracy over fluency, and ③ testing over participation.
- Language teachers should never ever make students feel stupid when they make mistakes. Adult learners are already terrified enough of making mistakes and teachers should do everything in their power to encourage learners to take risks and “have a go” even if their language skills are far from perfect.
- You can learn a lot from a bad example. This lesson is perfectly encapsulated in the Japanese word hanmen kyoushi (反面教師, はんめんきょうし, “a bad example from which one can learn”), which I learned (ironically) in a class led by exactly this.
After graduating with a degree in Linguistics (which tends to be on par with Communications and Philosophy in terms of unemployability), I move to Japan to become a full-time ninja assassin and saké drinker… Oh sorry, that was just the fantasy. The reality is that I join the JET Programme, and end up in a town of about 5,000 people, of which I am the only foreigner.
- Rural locations offer an unparalleled environment for honing your language skills. Loneliness is a powerful incentive to practice speaking the local language.
- Immersion really works, but it’s not automatic. You have to actively avoid English and pursue the local language.
I interview to be a CIR (“Coordinator of International Relations”), land the job, and move to Kobe. The night life is definitely a big step up from living in the inaka (田舎・いなか, “countryside”), but so is the stress. My job involves translating official documents sent to and from the prefectural government, interpreting for bigwigs who visit the prefecture, and acting as an advisor to the 250+ JET Programme English teachers working in the prefecture.
- Being able to translate a language well and actually speaking a language well are two very different skills. Case in point: a few of my professional Japanese translator colleagues could translate from English to Japanese extremely well, but really struggled to speak or understand the spoken language.
- If you don’t speak the local language, you will miss out on lots of interesting experiences and live a limited, stressful life. The vast majority of “I-can’t-take-it-anymore-and-want-to-go-home” calls I received from frustrated English teachers related to loneliness and not being able to communicate with local people. Had they learned more Japanese, the number of potential friends would quickly expand from a few fellow English teachers to millions of Japanese citizens.
- Most expat professionals never even bother learning to say “Hello” in the local language, fed by equal parts laziness and arrogance. Whether you are traveling to a foreign country for work or pleasure, for the love of Pete, at least spend part of the plane ride learning to say a few basic phrases. You will be amazed how happy people are when you at least start a conversation in their language, even if you quickly fall back on English. Just think how crazy the crowd goes when a foreign rock band says “Hello Tokyo” in Japanese.
- Not everyone in the world speaks English. Other than my highly-educated colleagues and the staff at nicer hotels and restaurants, a good portion of Bangladeshis I met did not speak English well, if at all.
- Knowing even basic phrases like Please, Thank you, I want to go to…, Turn right/left, and Oops, my mistake! made all the difference.
I move to Taipei, Taiwan to learn Mandarin Chinese and scratch my martial arts itch. I teach business English to overworked executives and do seminars at multinationals like IBM, MediaTech, Philips, and ASUS. Eventually, I get involved in the textiles industry, working for a sportswear company and designing underwear prototypes for big and tall American men. It’s a long story…
- Just as in Japan, I see that the vast majority of English learners fail to reach their fluency goals even after years (and even decades!) of formal language study. The reason? They spend almost all their time memorizing information about English, translating to and from their native language, and cramming for tests (TOEFL, IELTs, etc).
- By studying languages in such an inefficient way, it is no wonder few ever learn to speak their target tongue. And it is also no wonder why so many learners hate the process.
I move back to the states to be closer to family and begin the next chapter of my life and career. I begin studying nutrition and get certified as a Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (FNTP). As fate would have it, I meet my soulmate Rosemary in the class (someone as crazy about languages, travel, and nutrition as me), and we get married just one year later. We both end up getting hired at the school where we studied (the Nutritional Therapy Association), me developing curriculum and her supporting alumni.
- Love at first sight does exist. I knew the minute I met Rosemary that she was the one, something that I used to think was a silly Hollywood cliché.
- Most “conventional wisdom” about nutrition is just as flawed as most “conventional wisdom” about language learning. It never ceases to amaze me how the most popular beliefs tend to be the most wrong.
- Just as writing about health is not the same as actually being healthy, talking about language learning is not the same as actually learning a language. The former is always easier than the latter, but the latter is what really matters.
I spend my time writing, learning, traveling, and trying to be the best husband, son, brother, and uncle I can be. You’ll have to ask my wife, parents, siblings, nephews, and nieces how well I do!