Learning Languages with Ray Blakney
As a current or aspiring nomad, you have probably thought about or tried to learn a new language. If so, this is for you! In this episode, my guest is Ray Blakney, a serial expat and co-founder of an online language school.
Ray grew up as a TCK (third-culture kid) which has significantly shaped his worldview and how he approaches life. During our conversation he walks us through his experiences living abroad, joining the Peace Corps, and starting the language school Live Lingua with his wife.
He shares the benefits of being able to speak multiple languages, how to get immersed in learning a new language under current pandemic restrictions, and when and how to incorporate live experiences as a part of your language learning.
In this episode
- The TV commercial that changed his life
- His experience in the Peace Corps
- How nomads can approach languages when traveling
- How you know it’s time to take your language learning to the next level
- How to replicate the experience of living in another country for learning a new language
- When it makes sense to use a live language instructor instead of an app
- His 3 tips on approaching learning a new language
Resources we talked about
Note: Links with an asterisk are affiliate links, which means you may receive free credit or another bonus and I may earn a small commission or other benefits if you sign up/purchase using that link. There’s no additional cost to you, of course!
Amy Scott 00:02
In my years supporting and connecting with nomads, questions about language have come up fairly often, things like how do you learn the language of all the places you go? Should you go only to places you know the language? How do you handle traveling or even living in places that you don’t know the language? I have my own take based on my experience over the years, but I was thrilled to have a chance to talk to someone with a broader background and insight into learning languages.Expand
If you’ve ever wondered how to approach learning a language, whether at a survival level or to a much deeper level of fluency, then you’re going to love this conversation with Ray Blakney, a serial expat born in the Philippines to an American father and Filipina mother, who now lives in Mexico and runs an online language school with his Mexican wife. This conversation is also worth a listen if you like hearing about interesting life stories, the pivotal moments that send people off on a new path, and lots more. Let’s dive in.
Thanks for tuning in for another episode of Nomadtopia. Radio. My guest today is Ray Blakney. Welcome to the show, Ray.
Ray Blakney 01:30
Amy, thanks for having me.
Amy Scott 01:31
It’s great to have you here. So tell us a bit about what your Nomadtopia looks like right now.
Ray Blakney 01:36
So my Nomadtopia is pretty much what I’ve been living for the last 40 years. I’m 40 years old, just a reference there. Right. I have been moving around living as an expat I sound American for those who are only listening and not watching for pretty much three quarters of my life. So my Nomadtopia is living outside of the United States. And now with my family and my nine, almost 10-month-old son in Mexico.
Amy Scott 02:01
Nice. Nice. So give us a little bit more of your background. How did you end up spending so much of your life outside the US? And yeah, tell us more?
Ray Blakney 02:09
Yes. So I wish I could take credit for it. But you know, a lot of the credit, like most things in our lives I think, go to our parents. So my dad was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. He’s born, you know, born in Vermont, but he grew up in Rhodesia, Africa. So he’s like, you know, blond, blue eyed Boston Irish guy who grew up in Africa, and my mom was a five-foot-tall Filipina lady, they got married, I found out later, after dating for six weeks—they got married, they didn’t get engaged in six weeks. They got married six weeks after they met. So they’ve been married for 45 years. So it worked out. But we didn’t find that out until we were adults, my sister and I, because I don’t think they wanted us necessarily following in those footsteps. So they got married in the Philippines. My dad finished his Peace Corps term—for those of you who don’t know the Peace Corps is two or three years’ service. He did two years. I was born in the last 10 months of his Peace Corps. So he I like to joke that when I joined the Peace Corps, I’ll get to that my story. It was my second time in the Peace Corps, right? Because my first 11 months of my life, I was in the Peace Corps.
At that point, the Peace Corps ended and they got a job in Istanbul, Turkey running a publishing house. So at 11 months old, via the United States where I met my grandparents, I moved to Istanbul Turkey, which is where I spent the next 15 years of my life. And technically speaking, my first language is Turkish just because I happen my first word apparently was Turkish. And that looks really good on your SATs. When you say no, no, I’m not a native English speaker, even though yes, I am. So I grew up in Turkey lived there for the next 15 years. My school in Turkey ended after the sophomore year, it was an international school, they kept on adding years on it while I was there, but they just didn’t quite catch up to me. So I had to go to the US to go to a boarding school for two years in the United States. For those of you who have seen Dead Poets Society, they filmed it at the school I went to so it was very, very preppy. I didn’t quite fit in, you know, jacket, all the rest of it.
But I made it through two years, went off to college, I studied Computer Engineering, because I was interested in computers. And I thought it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, got jobs worked for about five years. And I remember sitting in a cube in my last job thinking, Hmm, I don’t want to be here 30 years from now. So pretty much the next day I was on peacecorps.gov applying for the Peace Corps. They tell you it takes one to two years generally to get into the Peace Corps and you know, get sent to your country. So I was thinking to myself, hey, that could be plenty of time to sell my condo, sell my car, let my boss know, you know, this is something way off in the future.
Six weeks later, they said yeah, six weeks from now you’re gonna be on the plane. You need to sell everything, you’re leaving for Mexico. So within six weeks, I sold everything I owned, including my car, kind of serendipity. I sold my house in 24 hours. I mean, literally one guy came and saw it. He bought it. He gave me my asking price. It was about two months before the bubble burst back in 2006. Yeah, so it was about two months before the bubble burst. I couldn’t have gone to the Peace Corps like three months later because by then the value of my house would have been less than the loan. I sold my car also within a day they found out I was leaving and somebody wanted to buy it for his son. It was just like a Honda Civic. And he’s like, I need a used car for my son. He didn’t pay me anything, but he was like, I’ll take over your payments, how’s that? I’ll take it. I mean, you know, I’m at zeroes, took over the payments. My credit was great, because apparently we didn’t quite do the switch right. So I paid those car bills on time for the next three years, as far as Experian is concerned, so I had a great credit rating after I was done with the Peace Corps.
And they sent me to the Peace Corps and I ended up in Mexico, in southern Mexico in a state called Chiapas. My plan was to come to Mexico for two years, for those of you who serve in the Peace Corps, actually a lot of universities offer you full ride scholarships in the US. So I was gonna go back and get a masters or a PhD in something. Then I met my wife, and I ended up staying here, we launched a number of businesses together, we’re still running businesses together, we started a brick and mortar, but now we run online businesses, which allows us to use Mexico as a home base. But under normal circumstances, which, depending on when you’re listening to this, this is during COVID. Under normal circumstances, we travel about three months out of the year. So we kind of spend about three months getting to know other parts of the world, and cultures, because we can work from anywhere. So we spent a few, two months in Japan was the last big trip before we kind of got stuck at home. That’s pretty much it. It was a long, convoluted story to tell you that, you know, I pretty much have grown up overseas.
Amy Scott 06:13
Yeah, no, it’s great. I mean, it’s always interesting to hear people’s backstory and how those different things unfold. And yeah, it’s, it’s actually interesting thinking about your jump into the Peace Corps. Because when I first started thinking about, like, yeah, like, do I really want to be in a regular job with two weeks’ vacation for the rest of my life, the Peace Corps was on my radar, I had friends who done it. And I was just trying to I was doing the math a little bit, trying to figure out how old you were when you did it. Because I remember thinking, I’m like, Am I too old?
Ray Blakney 06:45
I was older than the average. So I was 26 when I went in, but a lot of people do it after college. But the fact though, the largest growing demographic right now is retirees, so Peace Corps, Mexico was very different, it changed a little bit. But when I joined, there were two of us in our 20s, I was the youngest there was somebody else who was about 28–29, two in their 30s, nobody in their 40s. And everybody else was 50 or older in my group of about 30. So the average age was 54, in the group that I was with, and we had somebody as old as 80 in our group as well, these were some amazing people there, there was a Rhodes scholar who studied in Oxford with Bill Clinton, there was in my group, there was a guy who worked at Dow Chemical, he invented the recyclable plastic that they use in all the fast food chains in the United States, the head of like sanitation for the State of Oregon, you know, retired, but he was part of the Peace Corps group as well. So he was helping with the water quality in certain parts of Mexico. So really, really smart people I was by far the least qualified in my Peace Corps group, even though I thought I’d be on the older end of the scale. When I got into the Peace Corps, I’m like, Hey, they’ll all be right out of college, 21–22. That was not the case.
Amy Scott 07:45
Very interesting, which actually now that I think about it that does gel with some things I’ve heard about them looking for people with skills that can be transferable into whatever project they have going in a certain place. Yeah, I was probably 28–29 when I—I was 28 probably when I was thinking about that.
Ray Blakney 08:03
You and I would have been about the same age.
Amy Scott 08:05
Right! I was thinking I would have been so old, but yeah, that’s funny.
Ray Blakney 08:09
Oh, no, no. And once you get to the country as well, there’s the Peace Corps volunteers, but of course, you usually get sent to a part of the country where you might have another volunteer there. But generally you are by yourself, right? Make friends with people your own age, it’s not that, hey, I have to hang out with people much younger, much older than me this entire time. The whole point is to integrate with the culture of the place you’re living in. And so you’ll meet people, there will be people your age, no matter what age you are, you’re gonna have some people your age there.
Amy Scott 08:32
Great point. Well, I hope that’s inspiring for people listening who have ever thought about doing the Peace Corps, who knows?
Ray Blakney 08:38
When I retire I plan on, you know, finishing my professional career in the Peace Corps too, my wife and I talk about it.
Amy Scott 08:44
Yeah, I love that idea. Well, and it also speaks to, it makes me think about was I thinking I was too old. Like because as you said, you know, you go into a local community or whatever, it doesn’t really matter how old you are. But I wonder if I was thinking like, Am I too old to make that kind of change in my life, which is funny, because then I did go quit my job and travel around the world and so on. But I think that’s part of it, too, that can come up for people. And also that speaks to that, it doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re ready for a change, just go for it.
Ray Blakney 09:15
That’s exactly right. I mean, one of the things I say is, I was a computer engineer, you know, 26 years old. And you know, I was making an almost a six-figure salary in the United States at that point, and very few people at 26 with a six-figure salary would quit that career and move into something else. So I was definitely an anomaly when I did it. But one of the things that inspired me to make the change was, it was actually a commercial. It was a commercial on TV, not Burger King, or anything like that. It was it was actually one for the US military. And while I’ve all the respect in the world for the military, my, you know, my uncle was in the Navy. If somebody shoots at me, I’ll start running the other way as fast as physically possible. So that really wasn’t on my radar. But the commercial set had a phrase at the end just really quick that said, if they were to write a book about your life, would anybody want to read it? That’s what made the change.
I remember going back to work the next day and thinking, yeah, I could be here for the next 40 years. I mean, I’ll financially be fine and all the rest of it, but I wouldn’t even read my own book at that point. I’m like, you know, what’s the book gonna be? He went to a cube and he wrote code for 40 years. No, I mean, come on. I mean, it’s a one to two sentence book. And it’s also not interesting at all. Like I alluded to this before. But you know, my dad grew up in Africa. I found out later that my grandfather was the first minister of the first black church in Harare, my grandfather was born in China and had to run away from the country during the Boxer Revolution, when my dad moved to Turkey it was during the military coup within six weeks. So there are stories of like tanks in the street. They all have interesting lives. So I’ve kind of that to live up to. And I was like, Yeah, I’m not sitting in a cube. And I was in Cleveland, Ohio, at the time, in Ohio, for the rest of my life, because that would kind of be letting down the unspoken family legacy, there was no pressure, but it was just kind of me. In fact, they told me to stay in the job, because that’s what parents want. Right? The kind of security, stay in a well-paying job. But yeah, I quit.
Amy Scott 10:54
Yeah, well, and I love that story about that line resonating with you and really being the trajectory for that. I think a lot of us can identify some trigger like that of some kind that really just got the ball rolling. For me, it was a cousin. I went to like, spend a weekend with some family. And I remember one of my older cousins saying, like, Well is this what you want? Like, I thought you really liked to travel? Like, wouldn’t you like to travel some more? And they weren’t even offering a solution. But just like, Have you thought about it?
Ray Blakney 11:27
It’s the right question at the right time, right?
Amy Scott 11:29
By the time I got home, I was like, telling my boyfriend at the time, Here’s the plan, we’re gonna quit our jobs. We’re gonna—like, they never said any of that. But yeah, it was like, just like you said the right thing at the right time. And it just set me off on that path. Yeah, crazy how you never know what’s gonna be that momentous conversation, or commercial or whatever it might be. I love that. So I want to talk about how your backstory translates into where you ended up today, in terms of you alluded to online businesses, tell us about the language school you’re running, because that is something that’s really one of the primary things I want to talk to you about is stuff around learning languages. So let’s kind of set the stage for why we’re gonna be talking about languages.
Ray Blakney 12:14
Sure. So as I mentioned, I actually grew up speaking multiple languages. I know I’m lucky in that sense. But I was also a really bad language student, because I’ve had French lessons since I was in pre-kindergarten. And I couldn’t even tell you my name in French. I mean, you know, I did about 10 years of French lessons, and it was awful. So but it was the old system of language learning, right? Just conjugate verbs all day long. And you’ll magically learn how to speak. No you won’t. I can guarantee you, no you won’t. So I thought I was really bad at learning languages. Just because I spoke a few did not mean I was good at learning them. I grew up speaking.
So I went to the US never really thought much about languages until I joined the Peace Corps. And the Peace Corps’ way of teaching a language is very different from everything I had seen up until that point, right. Even going before going to the Peace Corps. I tried Rosetta Stone, right? “El pájaro rojo está encima de la mesa.” First off, the translation is the red bird is on top of the table. I have never said in 12 years of living in Mexico that there’s a red bird on top of the table. The funny one was there’s a there’s a kid under the plane was another one of them. And I’m like, I hope I never have to say there’s a kid under that plane. What kind of circumstance would that have to be? So anyway, so I came to Mexico thinking, wow, this is rough. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish except for like the few phrases I learned on spring break in Cancun when I was, you know, back in college. So I got here, I’m like, Okay, I’m gonna live in Mexico for the next two years, I need to communicate, otherwise, I’m not gonna have much of a life.
So they bring me in first day. You know, I studied Rosetta Stone. I’m like, Yeah, at least I know something. They gave me a Spanish evaluation test. And they said, No, zero, this kid knows absolutely nothing in Spanish. But then they put me into Spanish, what they call language immersion. It’s a totally different way of learning language in which they in this case, they kind of put me with a Mexican family that didn’t speak any English, once we got to the school we only spoke Spanish, you know, we made a commitment to only speak Spanish. And they did three months of this. And it was you know, classes for half a day, cultural activities in the afternoon. So you’re kind of going out using Spanish in real world situations. Within three months, I went from zero to what they called Low advanced, which means communicative in almost every situation, within 90 days of arriving in Mexico.
Sure I conjugated verbs wrong, to this day, I still get like, the feminine and masculine wrong on some of these words, because, but there none of those are stuff that keeps people from understanding, you know, just think, oh, that’s wrong, but you know, say “la” instead of “el,” nobody’s gonna not understand what you’re talking about. Right? And that was a huge surprise to me. I was like, within 90 days, I can now go out and communicate in almost any situation, kind of babbling a little bit about it, you know, anything I need to do. I’m like, why doesn’t everybody teach languages this way? So I went out and I did my two years in the Peace Corps and I just kind of continually practiced, I never took another lesson, but I continually practiced from there. By the end of the first year I was conversationally fluent. I mean, I could speak to anybody about anything, I could understand everything that people were saying to me.
And even at this point, I’m about 90%, which to me, let’s be honest, as a non-native speaker, that’s usually about as good as you can hope to get. I’m totally content with that. If you’re like, 80, to 90% communication level, in any language that you study, you can fully interact in that society, the missing 20% tends to be cultural. And that’s very hard for foreigners to ever pick up because we did not grow up here, right. So like the baggage and all that history behind it, we might have read about it, but it doesn’t mean the same thing to us when they use it, and jokes is an example I give right. I remember telling some jokes that I thought were hilarious in English and all the Spanish speakers would just kind of look at me and it’d be crickets in the room. Like, yeah, that totally didn’t translate. One of my favorite ones was I said “traje de cumpleaños” and that literally translates to “birthday suit.” Nobody got it. Apparently, that does not mean the same thing in Spanish as it does in English.
But that is what was the impetus after the Peace Corps to say, Okay, we should share this with everybody else. Now, my wife was one of the Spanish teachers at the Peace Corps. So I actually had a big bonus on that end, and somebody who knew how to do the system. So we decided to launch a brick-and-mortar Spanish school in Mexico because back then, for some reason, I’m a computer engineer but the first thing that occurred to us wasn’t let’s do this online, it was more kind of the traditional, let’s rent out a building, let’s do all this kind of stuff. So we went down that path.
And honestly, we were pretty successful. I mean, our school was fully booked within the day we opened, and it stayed fully booked until Mexican swine flu hit which was about six months after we opened. It was only then that we just—Mexican swine flu, for those who don’t remember, in 2008 or nine was supposed to be what COVID is today, it was supposed to go around the world. So they shut off Mexico’s borders, nobody could come in, nobody could go out. So all of our students, most of whom were foreigners from other countries, canceled or were forced to cancel because there were literally no flights coming in. We’ve only been running six months we bootstrapped it. You know, we don’t have rich parents who gave us money to start this thing. Peace Corps gave me $3,000 as a relocation allowance. That’s what we used to start the business.
We didn’t have money to survive potentially months of nobody coming in. So my wife actually had the idea, why don’t we contact our old students and offer classes via Skype? So I’m like, Okay, let’s take it to the next level. I’m a computer engineer, let’s throw up a website and just offer maybe some other people will sign up, right? This is back in 2008. Nobody was doing it. It was an ugly website, people were confused. People think that if you’re a computer programmer, you’re also a designer. No, you’re not. I’m the guy who makes this, you know, you hit the Pay Now button, and I can make the payment go. But making the button look pretty. I have no idea how to do that. So it was a really, really ugly website.
But to our shock, one, swine flu ended in 30 days, it was not a big thing, it kind of burned out, and nothing ever happened. So we were fully booked 60 days from when it started. But also within 90 days, we were making more money off of our online school, giving Skype lessons, than we were in the brick-and-mortar school, which was fully booked. And we were working one hour a day on that online school. And we were working 90 days straight with no vacations in the summertime in our brick-and-mortar school. So that’s kind of how we got into the online space, we decided to sell the brick-and-mortar school. Unfortunately, selling a business is not like eBay, you don’t just put it up and by Friday, somebody buys it. It took us about three years to sell it. So the brick-and-mortar school, unfortunately, the new owner ran into the ground in 18 months.
But then we’ve had this online school, which started as a Spanish school, but now is Live Lingua where we teach 11 languages, that’s kind of how we made our way into the online space. We’re one of the top three online language schools and we’re the only one with no venture capital money. So all of our competitors have $10 million $20 million. And we started for $59.99, which is how much it costs to rent one year on Bluehost for the domain back in the day, somebody told me it still costs that much. So you know, that’s how much we spent on starting this business.
Amy Scott 18:43
Oh, wow. Amazing. Okay, I have like, a million things I want to ask. Well, and I and I am glad also that, you know, even though I said like I want to talk about the languages, I’m also glad you shared the business evolution, because obviously a lot of people listening are also interested in either starting businesses or building businesses and all of that as well. So it’s, I’m sure that’s interesting for people to hear how you got to this point.
So I think first I’d like to—based on your own experience, and all of the you know, the things that you’ve learned over the course of running the school and working with students—I’d like to talk just a bit more about the process of learning. And I think that language learning is something that comes up a lot for people in this community. Obviously, there’s concerns about like, well, what if I go somewhere, I don’t speak the language. And, you know, one thing I was actually thinking about is how a lot of nomads move around a lot. And so obviously, you’re not going to get anywhere close to 80 or 90% fluency with places that you’re only going to spend maybe a couple months right. So I think, okay, even around that I have several different questions. I think one would be like, what would you suggest as like say you’re going to go somewhere for two or three months, you don’t speak the language. How could one approach having some basic functionality to communicate with people in that country while you’re there knowing that you’re not really trying to go for, you know, really fully learning this language?
Ray Blakney 20:15
Yeah, you bring up such a good point. This is actually we had this conversation on a call recently in the Collective people were sharing some of their challenges with learning Spanish, and that came up about like, having to just be willing to look like an idiot. And just like you’re gonna make a ton of mistakes. And like, it’s fine. And like you said earlier, like you mix up “el” and “la,” like, whatever. They still understand what you’re saying. And that I think, for me was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.
Ray Blakney 20:15
Great question. And we actually, within the language learning community, they call that a survival level of a language, right? It means just enough to get by on the basic level of everything. So it’s generally broken down into a number of components. People teach them in different orders but the first one I actually like to start with, and what I recommend is the courtesy components, learn how to say “thank you,” learn how to say “please,” learn the basic cultural courtesies. I recently was in Thailand, right? They actually do the hands together. And you know, when they say “kob khun khrap” you know, they put their hands together. So learn the basics, you don’t necessarily have to do it. But you should understand the courtesy I think, wherever you go somewhere, that’s the first level of any language that you should learn the basic “thank you,” “please,” nothing else.
The next level, there is what I call the safety level, which means learn how to ask and give basic directions. It’s down there, where do I how do I get here, and also basic commands for let’s say, taxis or something like that, I need to go here. Very, very simple, not high grammar. It’s pure memorization. When you’re doing survival Spanish or survival any language, don’t worry about how do I conjugate this verb, that’s not the point. It’s purely memorize these words, memorize these phrases, get them out there.
And then the final one is what I call like the enjoyment level. And that’s learn your numbers, because you can ask them how much things cost, and you want to, you know, be able to negotiate the prices down. That’s not for survival, but it might cut your trip cost in half, if you know, they’re just people might overcharge you, depending on the country you’re at. So you want to be able to learn to say no, no, no little cheaper, I’ll pay you this kind of thing. Learn those three things, and it will totally change the way you travel not only for your personal confidence, because you’re gonna be able to go there, and you’re like, I know, I can at least get around, I can at least buy things I can, you know, ask for the bill. But also, one of the things you’re gonna see when you travel, there’s a big difference. If you’ve traveled and didn’t speak the language you show up there. And you have to do with tour groups, or you can’t communicate with anybody. So you only go to the super touristy places, but that’s the only place that you have any kind of confidence around.
As opposed to I have some survival, I can go into that restaurant that doesn’t have the menu in English, I can use whatever little language I have to order something at a cheaper price, probably more authentic food. My rule for when you travel is if the menu is in English—outside of the United States, obviously, or the UK—then the price is probably overpriced, and the food is probably mediocre. I mean generally speaking my experience, I’m sure there’s some exceptions, generally speaking, yeah, generally, it’s a rule of thumb, if the menu’s in English and you’re in a country that they don’t speak English. Yeah, you’re not getting authentic food. I mean, you know, that’s that place is for tourists.
So that’s what I’d recommend to get to that level. It sounds intimidating but based on our survival courses, depending on the language, we’re talking between six to eight hours of study, nothing more. I mean, you know, not that’s not in one day, you know, you can do an hour a day for the week before you go. And you’ll probably be able to get that with a little bit of commitment to get up to that kind of survival level of whatever country you’re doing. We do that wherever, when we went to Japan it was basic like in Thailand. Tonal languages kill me. I mean, I’m pretty sure I knew the words, but I was saying, I mean, still people didn’t understand me, because I’m like, I think the accent was off on that letter. I don’t even know. But they appreciate it when you do that, right? Nobody makes fun of you. That’s a lot of fear that people have, oh, my goodness, they’re gonna make fun of me because my Thai is bad. No, they won’t. No, not a single person made fun of my awful Thai. They all smile, and they actually appreciate that the person takes the time to learn enough about their culture that they’re trying to communicate with them. Everybody will appreciate nobody will ever make fun.
I was pregnant in Mexico for three months, is what I tell people when I was a failure, I told people I was “embarazado” for three months thinking it meant I was embarrassed. Everybody would laugh when I said it. I thought they were laughing with me. They were not they were laughing at me. That’s a false cognate for anyone other people out there who are trying to you know, add “ado” to the end of any English word and think it’s Spanish word. Nope. I was you know, “Ah, estoy embarazado” and everyone was like, What? What are you talking about? So if you very few of you are gonna be more embarrassed than me. So trust me if I could get over it anybody can, you know, I’ve made I’ve made all the mistakes in the book learning languages.
Amy Scott 24:43
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s especially true for those of us doing this as adults. That yeah, we’re much more conscious of like, Oh, that was wrong. And you know, I don’t want to make mistakes. But like you said, they appreciate the effort even when you’re making lots of mistakes.
Ray Blakney 25:00
Nobody has ever made fun of me for trying to learn another language ever in any country I’ve traveled to. So I think that fear is entirely unfounded.
Amy Scott 25:06
Yep. Okay, so let’s talk a bit more about how someone might determine when it’s time to actually invest more time and energy into learning a language. Have you found that there’s certain situations that are kind of a tipping point where it’s like, Ah, this is something I really do need to go beyond that survival level?
Ray Blakney 25:26
Yeah, so survival level is great if you’re traveling somewhere, and you don’t actually plan on spending a significant amount of time there. Or if you won’t have a long term relationship with that country, but anything past that, which means if you’re planning on retiring there, if you want to move there, if you get married to somebody whose back cultural background is from this, you know, a country that speaks a different language, or if on the business level, you’re in a, you know, in a profession where speaking another language, we have a lot of, for example, bilingual, we have a lot of doctors, or medical nurses from the United States who deal with a lot of Hispanic, you know, Spanish speakers, then it’s time for you to take it to the next level, learning another language. I mean, there’s mental benefits to it as well, they’ve done studies that, you know, for Alzheimer’s, it puts it off for about five to seven years if you’ve if you’re bilingual, trilingual adds another year on top of it, and I don’t know what four or five languages do, but you know, they’ve done those studies on that. And just on the personal development end, you know, if they’re going to promote somebody, and everything else is equal, and you speak another language, you’re probably going to get the job. And finally, if you’re going to, you know, if you’re going to get married or dating somebody from another country, learn their language, then you’ll be able to talk to their family at some point. So make the effort learn the language.
Amy Scott 26:39
Yeah, that was actually what led me to first, the very beginning of my Spanish journey was because I was dating a guy in San Francisco, whose family was from Mexico. And I wanted to be able to talk to his grandmother.
Ray Blakney 26:52
Yeah, I lived in San Francisco for two years. And everybody actually assumed I was Latino and would speak to me in Spanish. And at the time, I did not speak a word of Spanish. So I’m like, I’d have to look around because I lived near San Jose. And I was like, Yeah, I have no idea what you just told me. I’m like, I’m Filipino. It’s not the same thing.
Amy Scott 27:13
Yeah, that makes sense, I think people will have their own motivation. And there’ll be something that clicks that encourages them in a certain direction. And so it’s probably kind of self-motivating. I guess when you know, it’s time. I think part of the reason I came up with that question is because I have been thinking about wanting to learn a third language. Well, fourth, maybe because I studied French first, but I don’t know if it counts if you don’t really speak it anymore.
Ray Blakney 27:43
Like I studied it for 12 years, I don’t count French. Yeah.
Amy Scott 27:46
So and I’ve been kind of like, well, so what should I learn? You know, and I think until one of those things that you were describing, like until there’s a clear connection, to like, for example, Portuguese has been on my mind, because we have talked about going to Portugal, and possibly living in Portugal, in which case, that would become a really obvious choice. But until we’re much closer to actually making that decision, it’s just kind of a vague idea. And so I can see how yeah, like, wait until it makes sense.
Ray Blakney 28:18
Exactly, there’s gonna be a need, whether it’s an internal need, or an external need, you know, your job versus, you know, relationships, all the rest. There’s always a need. And I think that’s the key. It’s great to be you know, want to learn languages. For fun. I think some people can do it. But for most of us, that only takes us so far, right? Hey, you know, it’s great, I’d love to learn some Russian. But until unless you’re really moving to Russia, you might know some phrases, you might even be able to do basic communication. But I would bet against you being fluent at it. If that was your only reason. Now, if you’re gonna move there in a year, or if you were already there, and you were living there, yeah, a year from now, you’re probably gonna be fluent in that language.
Amy Scott 28:54
Yeah, yeah. I want to go back to something you said earlier about, you know, your experience in the Peace Corps, and that really immersive language learning experience, which I’ve had some of that myself and I can speak to the difference it makes, you know, like, I started out taking like community college classes in San Francisco at night. And then I don’t even remember how long I was there. But then when I started my around the world trip, I went to Peru, and did an immersive Spanish class as my first thing, and obviously being in a country where people were speaking the language, and it just was a whole different experience. So I’m curious how that translated into what you developed with the school. And like, I guess what I’m asking is, for people who can’t go and actually live in another country, and you know, at this moment, in particular, but how can you kind of replicate some of the efficiency and effectiveness of that kind of learning experience when you’re not actually immersed in it like that?
Ray Blakney 29:55
Yeah. So one of the first things that we do is get the greatest the best teachers We’re not a directory, like a lot of the other language sites out there. For a lot of, you know, the example I use is I could sign up to be a teacher on a lot of the language sites out there. And I have no business teaching anybody. I mean, if you asked me why “ed” is pronounced like a “T” sometimes, and like an “ed” the other times, I have no idea. There’s what my dad told me, but that’s not a really valid answer. And the people that we hire are also from the countries, you know, they’re not a Spanish teacher who happens to live in the United States, that gives you that cultural immersion that were part of that cultural immersion that we’re talking about. These are the people that I said, they’re not only fluent, but they understand the cultural background. And during the classes, that’s what they try to give you.
We’re not gonna say at the beginning, especially that a lot of our teachers speak English, let’s say, but they, they want to say everything in Spanish, if you’ve never studied Spanish before, because it’s kind of silly. I mean, you’re like, you’re nobody’s understanding anything. But they do that we have activities on our website, which are also kind of geared towards the immersion experience, it’s about listening, it’s about you know, seeing and all the rest of it. And then the teachers will assign activities if the student requests it, because some students are just so busy that they can’t, where they can actually do immersion in their own countries, United States, you know, watch the Spanish news channels, and we’ll discuss it tomorrow, right, don’t go and watch CNN or Fox News or whatever, just go and watch something in Spanish, at least an hour a day. So you can add that start listening to Spanish music, when you’re at home, part of the immersion, especially when you’re not, can’t be put in a forced immersion, like, you know, be put in Mexico, you have to do some of the work yourself back home.
And we’re not gonna lie to you, you know, any of those apps who say—this is my pet peeve, the apps that are like 15 minutes a day, and you’ll be fluent. I’m like, no, just like the 10 minutes a day, you don’t have six pack abs. I mean, no, none of those things work, really, I mean, you need to put in the work. If you know, if you want to lose weight, you got to put in the work, you want to learn the language, it’s not 15 minutes a day, you kind of have to keep studying it throughout the day. And our teachers help facilitate that. The rest of the journey is kind of on you, and what we’re talking about, your need. If you really want to learn a language, it will work. If you’re just going to be if you expect that I’m going to take classes for two hours a week, and then forget about it for the rest of the week. And then I’m going to be fluent in six months, that’s not going to happen either.
Amy Scott 32:06
Yeah, that’s such a great point, I can think of so many situations where because I was living in a Spanish speaking country, I just got kind of thrown into figuring out how to communicate stuff that I needed to communicate. And I think, actually, we also had an interesting conversation recently in the Collective about apps like Duolingo. And there’s someone in the community who’s been, I think he’s like two or three years on his streak, like he’s got this crazy long streak with it, which is super impressive. And I said, because, as we talked about, I definitely still make mistakes. And I you know, there’s definitely some tweaking that I could be doing to my language to my Spanish. And I said, like, I wonder if I could do something like that, like, if it would help me kind of clean things up a little bit? And he said, Nah, I think you’re gonna find it super frustrating. And like, it’s just not really going to help you get where you want to go. So I’m curious about kind of deciding when? Well, I mean, you kind of spoke to this already, just in terms of like, how quickly you want to learn and how effective it’s going to be. But when are those situations when it makes more sense to go into a live learning experience versus like, is an app more like for maintenance or vocabulary like, you know, or for someone like me, where I am now, I’m just kind of making sloppy mistakes, and it would help just to kind of level up a bit. Right? So what kinds of scenarios do you think it makes the most sense to go into a live experience?
Ray Blakney 33:31
Yeah, generally going into a live experience is whenever you get quote, unquote, serious about getting to the next level, the apps I recommend, there’s apps, they have their place in the learning, but they by themselves, I’m very skeptical about anybody learning with a software or an app, how to learn a language, the reason being exactly like what you’re talking about, doesn’t matter your level, but everybody has their own way of learning has their own needs, has their own speeds, and the apps can’t really account for that. Let’s say, you know, the app has flashcards. I love flashcards, that might work for me. But if you don’t, the app still has flashcards. And there’s not much you can do about it because that’s what the app is. You can look for other apps and find stuff like that very limited.
But when you’re working with a teacher—this is in language just like anything in life—but if the teacher is like oh, she doesn’t learn very well this way. A great teacher can flip that it’s like okay, then we’re going to try this these are the activities we’re going to do for you. If you don’t know how you learn I’ll do a little plug for the site it this is entirely free so nothing to buy but we actually have a language learning style quiz on our website, which will tell you how visual auditory and kinesthetic you are in your language learning totally free just go to livelingua.com/quiz, go and take it. It mixes personality type—introverted, all the rest of the Myers Briggs—with the learning style. Take it, at the end of it, you get your results and it will actually tell you Hey, you’re kinesthetic. So generally speaking, you should learn more by doing activities by you know, doing more physical because that’s how your mind retains it. Nobody’s 100%. So it’ll actually give you a percentage score. You’re about 55% this 33% this, something like that.
And apps have a lot of trouble accounting for that. But teachers don’t. A great teacher is like, Oh, now that I know that, this is what we’re going to do next week this is what we’re going to work on, you didn’t quite get that concept, you know those little holes that a lot of us have apps and software will not fill those. But if the teacher was like, okay, Amy, you’re still getting “ser” and “estar” confused, so we’re gonna spend the next few weeks.
Amy Scott 35:16
How did you know?
Ray Blakney 35:17
Yeah. Because me and every other Spanish learner in the world is exactly the same.
Amy Scott 35:19
My husband is like, You still don’t have this straight?
Ray Blakney 35:24
No, subjunctive. I’m like, what is that? Like? What is that whole thing? Right? I mean, I’m still learning that. But a teacher will be able to kind of go down with you and say, Okay, you get it right in these situations, but you never get it right in these. So let’s go and work on that for a bit. That’s the difference between a teacher. Flip side, obviously teachers cost more than a free app. I mean, there’s no, there’s no comparison, right. So I know there’s an accessibility thing here. A free app is much better than nothing. But it’s just not—one of the things an app does not do that I find is really important to learning any language is it doesn’t force you to get out of your comfort zone. It’s very easy for me to sit in front of my computer, and, oops, I made a mistake. And you know, just move on.
When you’re learning, even with a live teacher, and you’re talking to him. Or if you’re in a group setting, you’re forced to get out of your comfort zone, you’re gonna say something in Spanish, you’re probably gonna make a mistake, and Japanese, Chinese, whatever it is, but that’s much more realistic, and much more applicable. When you go to that country and have to speak the language, you’re totally out of your comfort zone. So if you know you’ve been kind of getting a little out of it, while with a teacher, you’re much more comfortable. Again, flashcards, apps, books, something somebody talks to you like, I have no idea what that person just said. I mean, even though on paper, if they’d written it down, and you could analyze it or something you might have understood. But in that situation, you’re just so stressed, you’re not prepared for it at all.
Amy Scott 36:41
True. Yeah. I can also vouch for the value of hearing different people speak like you mentioned, like listening to the news. And then you might have a teacher who talks another way. And then you go out on the street and someone’s talking a different way. Like I’ve gotten so comfortable with my husband’s accent, for example, that then I go out on the street and someone is talking completely differently. I’m like, I don’t know what that was. Even though I probably on paper, I would know exactly what they said, right?
Ray Blakney 37:07
We spent a month in Cuba. And actually the funny part was, I understood it better than my wife. But she’s like, I have no idea what they’re saying. When we got there, because they chop all their words in half. But it’s Yeah, I mean, especially all around the Spanish speaking world the accents are very different. Amy, you studied in Peru, it’s actually not so bad there, except they call avocado something else, which really threw us for a loop. I can’t remember what they call it—
Amy Scott 37:29
“Palta,” which is what they call it in Argentina. But you know that’s actually partly why I chose Peru to do it. Because I’d been told they had a fairly neutral or clean or whatever you want to call it version of Spanish. But then yeah, I wasn’t prepared for all the regional differences. I went to Chile, and then I went to Argentina, and then went to Costa Rica. And then I went to Nicaragua. And then I went to Mexico. And I’m like huh?
Ray Blakney 37:52
Yeah, yeah, everything in between is sort of, you know, it’s all. But it’s like English, it’s the British accent, the Australian accent, the US accent. And even you when I say US accent, it’s right. The coast, the South, there’s all these different accents as well, right?
Amy Scott 38:07
Yep. Well actually I think I want to highlight something that you touched on earlier, too, is that having a teacher from the place that you intend to spend most of your time would be super valuable. My teacher in San Francisco, I think she was from Colombia. And they’re—like, I’ve never been to Colombia—and there were definitely things that were specific to her background that I remember her talking about. And like we’re just talking about, there’s so many differences in in pronunciation, in vocabulary. Yeah.
Ray Blakney 38:36
Food is different. Transport is different. There’s all these different things that you wouldn’t. Yeah, from Colombia. I think they eat these like this, like tortillas, but they’re, like, 10 times as thick as tortillas in Mexico, and they call them something else. And they—but anyway, I mean, you know, first time I heard that word, I was like, I have no idea what you’re talking about. So there are all these things. If you said “mole” to somebody from Costa Rica, they’d be like, I don’t know what that is, either. And if you move to Mexico, you should know what that is. So yeah, it’s very important that if you can get somebody from wherever it is, you’re you have that connection to whether you’re moving to, where you’re going to, or you know, your, your significant other is from there, and that’ll take it up to the next level.
Amy Scott 39:13
Yeah, for sure. Okay, I think to wrap up, I’d like to talk about kind of in a more general sense, we talked about, like getting over fear of being embarrassed and making mistakes and looking like an idiot and all of that. Are there any other things kind of around, you know, mindset or like kind of how to approach the process of learning a language that you could share?
Ray Blakney 39:35
Yeah, so there’s a few things in there. First, it’s don’t be impatient. I think part of this is like what our culture is these days, you know, we were talking about business. All the business courses are how to launch your own business in 30 days, right? All the language apps or language systems are 15 minutes a day, and you’re going to learn. That puts that in our minds and that’s not how anything in life works at all. I mean, nothing is 10 minutes a day in life and language learning is nothing different. So kind of going in being prepared for that will make a huge difference when you have your expectations.
Number two, don’t wait till you’re perfect before you speak. We’ve had students like this before, right where they say, I’m not going to speak the language until I know the language perfectly. And so they never know the language perfectly because they never spoke the language. So it’s kind of this this loop, be comfortable making mistakes along the way. Otherwise, you’re never ever going to make progress. You need to kind of go out there and be comfortable trying these things. The final thing is the myth of age. I’m too old to learn another language. It’s been scientifically proven, that we don’t create new neural pathways in our head, that’s been debunked, you know, like 10–15 years ago, they have science to prove that that’s absolutely not the case. But the issue is what you said, Amy, is that the older we are, and we find that actually the more traveled and more educated people are, it’s actually more of a problem, we are embarrassed to sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about. Right? If you’re learning a new language, and let’s say on the high end, you have multiple PhDs and you talk about astrophysics on a day-to-day basis in English. And then suddenly you sound like a babbling two-year-old, right? Because you have no idea what you’re saying. Pride gets in the way. So those people have a lot of trouble getting past that. I’m not even going to try because I sound stupid. Why would I do that? Why would I put myself through it?
But without going through that phase, they’re never going to get to the point where you can talk astrophysics in Japanese or Chinese or Spanish, because you need to kind of evolve just like you did in English and your native tongue, kind of go through it and get through that phase. And it takes time babies, we think, wow, babies are so good at learning languages. I have a 10-month-old and I can guarantee you he doesn’t speak any language right now. But I’ve met you know, two- or three-year-olds, they know some words, some sentences. But it took you know, two or three years for all of us to at least be conversational in a language. Don’t expect it to happen in six months. It’s you know, at an older age, it’s not gonna happen in six months. We couldn’t do it when we were when we were babies.
Amy Scott 41:58
I love that. Thank you so much. That’s great tips. And yeah, I really enjoyed getting to chat with you. Tell people listening where they can find you online.
Ray Blakney 42:06
I really need to get better at social media, because I’m like, you know, like, I don’t really have a personal brand or anything. Like, Oh, go to my Facebook page. I like to say I’m on—or my Twitter. I, I don’t, I can’t think of something smart to say so every single day, so I don’t have a Twitter account. Because it seems like that’s kind of a prerequisite to have a Twitter account, right. I’m like, I’m not that witty.
So generally, if you want to get in touch with me the easiest way is to go to livelingua.com. Go to the about us page, my email’s right there. I mean, it’s public, you can kind of get, you know, you can get in touch with me there, or you can go to my new project, podcasthawk.com. Since I bootstrap businesses, you just have to go to the contact us form. And that actually goes straight into my inbox. But that hopefully within six months, I’ll have somebody answering those, but at least right now, that will come straight to me as well. And the final thing is, I’d like to say I’m old, Facebook, look for Ray Blakney, look for a guy swordfighting. And that’s me.
Amy Scott 42:59
Yeah, we didn’t even have a chance to get into the sword fighting, we’ll have to talk about that next time.
Ray Blakney 43:04
Sounds good. Sounds good.
Amy Scott 43:06
All right. Well, thanks again, Ray. And thanks everyone for listening, and we’ll see you on the road.
Ray Blakney 43:10
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