I was greatly saddened to hear that American polyglot and YouTuber Moses McCormick—a.k.a. “Lǎoshǔ” (老鼠, )—passed away on March 4, 2021 from heart complications just shy of his 40th birthday.
Though his life was brief, his profound legacy lives on in the millions of people he inspired through his popular YouTube videos, courses, and language coaching.
Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting Moses in person or having him as a guest on the Language Mastery Show, but I have been watching his videos for years and have learned a lot from his practical, playful approach to learning new languages.
Here now are what I consider to be the three most important pieces of practical wisdom from Moses, teachings that can help you:
- Banish perfectionism
- Bust through your fears
- Reach fluency faster
- And have much more fun along the way
1) You don’t have to move abroad to learn a language
Most people assume that there is only one way to learn a language well: move to a country where the language is spoken.
Can overseas immersion help? Of course.
Living in Japan and Taiwan changed my life, expanded my career, introduced me to lifelong friends, and provided countless opportunities to practice Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.
Moreover, nearly all of the polyglots I know who have reached near-native levels of fluency have spent a significant amount of time abroad.
But does this mean that buying a plane ticket is the price of admission to Fluency Land?
As Moses showed, you can reach a fairly comfortable level of fluency right in your hometown if you immerse yourself in the language and seek out chances to practice with native speakers online or at local restaurants, malls, etc.
Will you reach a native-like level chatting up strangers in a food court? Probably not. But so what? It all depends on what your goals for the language are. You don’t need C2-level mastery of a language to make friends, have meaningful conversations, or deepen your travel experiences.
Most polyglots agree that a B1 to B2 level is more than sufficient for these goals. And you can certainly reach this level of functional, conversational fluency without getting on an airplane or even without leaving your house!
2) You don’t need to be perfect (or even fluent!) in a language to start using it
You can find videos online of Moses speaking a dizzying number of foreign tongues, from A to Z, obvious to obscure.
Here is an lengthy—but undoubtably incomplete—list of languages Moses spoke to varying degrees (arranged alphabetically, not by Moses’ ability in each):
Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Bulgarian, Bengali, Burmese, Cambodian, Catalan, Cherokee, Croatian, Czech, Chinese (including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese), Dutch, Esperanto, Estonian, French, Fula, Finnish, Georgian, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Hmong, Hungarian, Igbo, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Kazakh, Korean, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malagasy, Malay, Mongolian, Navajo, Nepali, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Spanish, Somali, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Tamil, Tetum, Tibetan, Thai, Tlingit, Turkish, Twi, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese, Wolof, Yoruba, and Zulu.
Phew! I’m tired just reading that list!
To be clear, Moses made no claims about “fluency” (however defined) in all of these languages. By his own account, he could converse confidently in about a dozen tongues.
What matters is that he practiced using whatever he knew whenever he could. If he knew five phrases in Sinhala (an Indo-Aryan language spoken in Sri Lanka) and happened to meet a Sinhalese speaker at the mall in Akron, Ohio or Phoenix, Arizona, you can bet your britches he would practice saying those five phrases with them.
And guess what? Most people will be quite tickled that you know some of their native language (especially less common tongues), even if it’s nothing more than “Hello! Nice to meet you!” You can then take the dopamine buzz you get from their smiles and praise to learn a few more useful words and phrases for your next encounter.
3) You can’t learn to speak without speaking
Perhaps the most lasting impact Moses made was his admonishment to put down your textbooks, walk out the door, and go practice speaking the language face-to-face with real humans (what he called “leveling up”). As he states on his YouTube channel:
“When I first began language learning 20 years ago, I noticed that most language books and classes did not teach students how to prepare for real world conversations.”
For most language learners, speaking is the most intimidating aspect of language learning. And it makes total sense why!
- There are no subtitles.
- You don’t have time to look up unknown words.
- And you can’t hit the pause button on a human being the way you can with Netflix.
Reading books, watching foreign language TV shows, or studying Anki spaced repetition flashcards can all be useful activities. But “input” alone (listening and reading) is not enough. You need output (speaking and writing), too, to ensure a healthy, balanced language learning diet.
Want to get good at speaking your target language? Then the hard truth is that you are going to have to actually practice speaking it. A lot.
But don’t worry: if striking up conversations with total strangers at the mall is not your cup of お茶 (ocha), there are tons of ways to practice speaking and communicating without leaving home. Here are my two favorites:
- iTalki: Find patient, experienced language tutors for high-quality, low-cost 1-on-1 tutoring.
- HelloTalk: Learn a language for free by chatting and texting with native speakers around the world.
As Moses’ premature passing reminds us all, our time on this planet is short. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. Whatever your dreams may be, start today.
Thank you for all you’ve done, Moses.
You will be missed.
And you will be remembered.
Learn more about Moses McCormick
- Moses’ YouTube channel (@laoshu505000)
- How Moses McCormick learned 50+ languages! RIP @laoshu505000
- Moses McCormick’s Wikipedia entry