English LingQ 2.0 Podcast #24: How Polyglot & Software Engineer @Robin MacPherson Learns Languages

Study this episode and any others from the LingQ English Podcast on LingQ! Check it out.

YouTuber Robin MacPherson is passionate about language learning, so much so that he has created his own language learning tool, Journaly. He also wrote a book titled How to Maintain Languages which help readers… you guessed it, maintain their languages! In this episode Robin shares how his love from languages started, the methods he uses and more.

Elle: Hello everyone and welcome to the LingQ podcast with me Elle. Remember if you’re studying English, you can study the transcript to this podcast episode as a lesson on LingQ. I will always pop the lesson link in the description. If you’ve never used LingQ before a LingQ lesson allows you to read through and lesten and also watch in this case to a piece of content in English, translating the words and phrases that you don’t know, saving them to your own personal database and then learning English from content you’re actually interested in. So check it out.

The lesson link, as I said, is in the description and you can also find all past episode lessons there also.

Today. I have another wonderful guest for you. He is a polyglot YouTuber, also designer, software engineer and a data scientist, no big deal. Um, Robin McPherson, how are you, Robin?

Robin: I’m doing very well. How are you today?

Elle: I’m great. I’m great. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us at the end of your day, because you are joining us from the UK, correct?

Robin: Yeah, that’s right.

Although it’s funny just a couple months ago, you and I would have been in the same time zone.

Elle: Right, because you were in San Francisco?

Robin: Right, exactly. Yeah.

Elle: Um, so whereabouts in the UK are you now?

Robin: So I am now in Bristol. Um, I guess we call the Southwest. Um, yeah. Yeah.

And you’re in Vancouver, right?

Elle: Yes. Yes.

Vancouver, originally though, and we talked about this before we started recording I’m from Cardiff, which is basically right next door to Bristol. Yeah.

Yep.

Robin: Awesome.

Elle: Sunny, sunny Cardiff, sunny Bristol. So, uh, so Robin, as I mentioned, you are a, uh, YouTube… uh, polyglot YouTuber rather. Your channel is such a wealth of knowledge for anyone who is, um, actively learning a language, maintaining a language, interested in learning languages. So tell us what, uh, what languages have you studied?

Robin: Yeah, so I’ve studied, um, Spanish was the first one I did independently.

Um, then Japanese was the language that I really like fell in love with not just languages, but… well, not just Japanese, but the art and science of learning languages. After that was French. Um, I don’t remember the order after that, but then there’s, um, Portuguese, Italian, German, Swedish.

Um, now I did also learn Dutch, um, at one point, uh, to a reasonably high level, but I no longer speak Dutch. Um, and then Mandarin Chinese has been a language that I’ve been learning most recently for the last couple of years.

Elle: That was a really varied selection of languages. So Spanish was the first language you, you studied, you said?

Robin: I did French in school, but I was so terrible at learning languages, um, that my teacher said I would never speak a foreign language.

Um, so that prediction ended up not being true, thankfully. Um, but Spanish was the first one that I actually said, I want to learn a language. Uh, I was 16. It’s one of the only things in my life, I have no clue why I, you know, like so many I’ve done so many things like skateboarding or basketball where I can remember the moment like that I was inspired to do it by somebody else.

Elle: Right.

Robin: Spanish was the first thing.

I just, I have no idea, but I just called, my mom was like, mom, can you get me a… cause back then I had no clue. I’m like, can you buy me like a CD? Or a book? Uh, so she got me, you know, Fluent in Six Weeks. Um, the little book and a CD with some flashcards you could cut out.

That was where it all began.

Elle: Wow. And so to go back to what you said about that teacher, I think that is amazing. Have you… that was a French teacher. Have you spoken to that teacher since?

Robin: No, I did try to reach out, um, at one point after I got out of uni. Uh, but I didn’t hear back.

Um, so yeah, it’s a shame.

Elle: Yeah, yeah. Wow. I wonder if that spurred your interest to actually prove, him, her?

Robin: Her

Elle: That teacher wrong. To prove her wrong.

Robin: I’ve never had that. I think, um, I, it’s not really in my personality, but I will say after having sort of become so passionate about language learning and also most of all seeing the effects that had on my life. I mean, all the best things that have happened in my life, even things that are not to do with languages, like becoming a software engineer, for example, none of that would have been possible without at some point realizing that I could learn a language. That’s how it began.

And so I’ve often wondered how many people are just like I was, but they don’t ever, for whatever reason, their life doesn’t present that discovery that no, you actually can do this?

Uh, and that’s what made me, honestly, that’s been one of the most powerful driving forces in terms of me wanting to help people not just learn languages, but sort of, it sounds cheesy, but you know, believe in their ability to learn independently much beyond languages. I’ve just found that languages have been my best vehicle to making that positive impact.

But certainly my aspirations are that, you know, the work I do to help people learn languages, hopefully it then goes on to have a bigger impact in their lives as it did mine.

Elle: And so tell us about your methods then.

So you, the first language that you truly learned was Spanish, and I’m sure your methods have perhaps changed over the years, but what are the key aspects to the, your language learning method?

Robin: Um, I think that these days I would overall classify myself as sort of an input first learner. I don’t tend to speak until much later on. I’ve actually been documenting the process recently of finally starting to speak in Mandarin Chinese after two years. Um, so, um, you know, I almost think it’s gotten simpler over the years.

Um, you know, where the beginning stages, it really depends on what’s available, you know, uh, I find the beginning stages, uh, wherever it’s an app that I like, or a certain textbook, basically finding a good set of resources.

But basically the first phase of learning for me is about seeing as much of the language is like can.

Um, so it’s not about mastering anything. It’s, I just want to see all of it in terms of the key structures, the key grammar things like once I’ve seen at least a few times, like, okay, that’s how you do the past tense, or this is how you do that. Even if I forget it, I’ve seen it now. So it’s, it’s the, it’s the entire journey after that.

Yeah.

Is about actually, um, cultivating and sort of deepening my knowledge of all these things. So first phase is sort of finding a set of resources I like, so I can see everything.

Uh, and then after that is where it gets more interesting to me where I do a variety of things such as I like reading a lot.

So I do enjoy extensive reading. However, one thing that I find makes me a bit different than lots of people who certainly follow my stuff, I’m a big fan of more intensive reading as well. A lot of the methods that I use tend to be a little bit more intensive. Um, and I also say, I always say, I’m, I’m a depth first learner.

So I tend to use relatively few resources, but I tend to go very deep on them. Um, and, and then, so, and then that kind of honestly takes me all the way through my, my journey.

Um, and the reason why I say I’m sort of depth first is that, you know, programming, we have this, these two concepts depth first versus breadth first.

Right?

Elle: Okay.

Robin: So the approach of either going deep before you go wide or going wide before you go deep. And I find that by just having a few really good resources that I go really deep on, um, it actually makes maintaining languages, um, a lot easier for me. And it also makes it easier coming back to languages later because I have a much narrower set of things that I know really, really, really well.

And so maintaining a language or getting back to it becomes quite simple.

I just have these, these things I go back to, um, Yeah, I guess I could talk for hours about my different methods and stuff, but I would say I want to see everything. And then I want to combine things like extensive and intensive reading.

I want to combine sort of extensive listening with things like transcription. I do a lot of substitution, uh, manipulation drills. Um, and then the other thing that I think makes my learning style perhaps stand out online at least, is that I tend to develop my speaking skills without really talking to people in the beginning.

Um, yeah. And this is a style that developed mostly out of necessity where I just didn’t have people to talk to. Um, and I didn’t have the money to book a tutor or something.

So there are a number of languages where I actually became quite proficient at speaking and expressing myself without really talking to a human.

Um, and then I ended up finding out there were loads of people online who for one reason or another don’t have people to talk to. And it turns out people are quite fascinated by this idea that you could develop your speaking skills without actually speaking to people if you need to. So.

Elle: Interesting. Do you mean then that you kind of talk to yourself or you talk about what you’re doing in the day? I know that that’s a method.

Robin: Yeah, but there’s, I find there’s loads of stuff. And recently I’ve been developing a lot of my own methods.

Like there’s one that I love talking about, uh, what I call the podcast interview method, where, you know, it’s basically a method where I pretend I’m on a podcast like this, and I pretend that you’re going to ask me a question, but I basically take the exact same question every day of the week for a full week.

Um, and I, I do my best to give a different answer every time, same answer, but there’s no script. And what happens is that throughout the week I get better and better and better at answering that one question. So I start to get this immense depth. I develop my vocabulary. And then the last two days I’ve tried to give a completely new answer altogether as a way to get the spontaneity in there.

That’s just one example.

So I have all these different methods I do. Some of them like that one do involve actually speaking, but I do also find things like extensive reading will improve what’s called automatic processing. My ability to sort of formulate thoughts or parse language as it comes in. So yeah, lots of stuff.

But yeah, I find you can actually become quite comfortable speaking, if you need to, without having to talk to others.

Elle: Excellent. I really liked that idea. I might try that in French this week. So, so you, you take a question and then each day you answer it, they, you said the final two days you answered something completely different.

That’s great. Okay.

Robin: What I do is it’s like I’ll have, I’ll have like Google Translate or something of my favorite dictionary, something open. And then the first day I find the, wow, I’m lacking a lot of vocab, you know, if the question’s about design. It’s like, oh yeah. I don’t know how to say any of these words in French.

Um, but so the first day is more about like figuring some stuff out, but then the second day it’s like referencing it. I’ll have a list, right? Um, I may even go ask some people that I know people, but the point is that by the third, fourth and fifth day, you, it becomes less about, oh God, what are the words?

And it becomes more about, okay, now I’m actually just focusing on how to express myself. So it kind of isolates that problem, but as a by-product you learn all the words. Um, and then, like I said, the last two days you get that spontaneity that is much more lifelike where now it’s like, okay, how can I, you know, improvise on this subject?

Uh, and I find that you could either do that several weeks in a row with related questions. So you go deep on a topic or you could do different topics every week, and then you grow the amount of topics you can discuss.

Elle: I really like this. I am going to give this a try.

Robin: I’m glad you like it. I’ll send you a video.

Elle: Oh yeah. Excellent. Thank you. So it sounds like maybe your, um, your career as a software engineer really influences your language learning. Would you, would you say?

Robin: Certainly influenced how I view languages. Um, you know, I now view languages almost like systems. Um, and this came from building not just sort of software engineering, but in particular, working on software architecture where, yeah languages are kind of similar, you know, there, there are different… and I say similar in that there are these moving pieces that interact with each other, you know? And so for example, that’s how grammar works, right? It’s like, well, if we change this piece, maybe the, maybe we go from talking about one person to two people.

Well, that has an impact over here, perhaps, um, maybe a conjugation or a declension or something, right? And that, that perspective came from being a software engineer and it kind of simplified things, especially languages like German or Russian, where the grammar can be quite complex. It’s kind of cool to be like, it’s just a system.

You know? It’s like having cars where one car may have more moving pieces and more components to it. And another one… but they’re all still cars. And it’s just about understanding how this one is different than that one.

Elle: Excellent. And in terms of maintaining all the languages that you know, um, you literally wrote the book. So you wrote a book called How to Maintain Languages. And what was your inspiration for writing that book?

Robin: I think early on, I got very inspired by some of the, um, sort of, uh, pioneers of the polyglot um, Community, which I think now is really blossomed into more of a broad language learning community. Um, and with that, I did begin learning quite a few languages quite early.

And then I found that at a certain point, it was a mess, you know, where I have like one or two languages that were, that were really high levels. And then I had a whole bunch and it was very overwhelming just to even keep them at a basic level concurrently. I just thought I have to figure this out because I want to learn these languages.

Um, and those are almost exact same ones I know today except for Chinese.

Um, and so, yeah, I just thought I have to figure out a system that works for my life. Something that is sustainable, that will allow me to not only keep them at the same level, but over time deepen my knowledge of all of these languages.

And so the next couple of years was me trying to do that and it worked really well. And so, and then I realized this was a massive problem that I didn’t, I felt people weren’t discussing in enough depth. And so that’s when I decided to write the book.

Elle: Excellent. Now I know you can’t condense, you wrote a whole book, you can’t condense that into some soundbites, but, um, what are your key tips for maintaining languages?

Robin: I think there’s a few, I think, um, the biggest perhaps underlying realization that I had was that you don’t have to do everything all the time, right? I think a lot of people perhaps view language maintenance as like, you know, gotta do every language every day.

Uh, and I think realizing that there are many, many ways to do this, um, that are quite intricate and, and, but also quite simple, that’s really helpful. Uh, I think there are certain techniques. I have like one, like whole little language projects where once in a while I’ll take a language that I haven’t really been working on enough,

um, or as much as I want to, and I’ll say, you know what, for the next week or two weeks I’m going to do a project with that language, right? Um, and it could be like, I’m going to read a novel if it’s a really high level language, or it could be, I’m going to watch a single episode of this TV show, whatever it is.

And just having that, understanding that it’s okay to just pause, take one week or whatever, however long it takes to do a little project in this language. And in doing that, I can really boost, um, that level. I can… it’s amazing.

The long-term impact that has on keeping my languages fresh, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really take much away from whatever else I was doing.

And so that’s an example of a technique I have that I think long-term helps me enormously in keeping languages sharp and fresh, but also continuing to deepen them over time.

Elle: Great. Well, I’ll leave the, uh, the link to the book in the description. If anyone is interested, I think it’s such a great topic because there are so many books on, you know, learn this language. Learn it, learn it, get it in. But what about once you have a decent level, you do need to not lose it, which is such a shame, you know, it happens.

So, yeah, it’s a, it’s a great topic. Uh, another interesting, um, project that you’ve been working on lately I would love to hear about, this is exciting for anyone who’s learning a language, but especially anyone who’s learning a new language and enjoys writing.

So tell us about Journaly.

Robin: Yeah. So Journaly is a project that I’ve been working on for now three and a half years. Um, and it’s basically a foreign language writing platform. Now I’ve centered the concept around the idea of journaling because journaling is a habit based thing. Um, It’s something that I found through doing research and surveys, like loads of people want to journal even just for their own lives, right?

It’s such a helpful positive habit and it involves writing.

And I think that writing is the most underused tool for learning languages. Um, and I think it’s so powerful. So I wanted to build a tool that would hopefully from a design perspective, make it as easy as possible to write, right? Like, because I think a lot of people don’t write, because it’s it’s effortful, right?

It takes effort, right? So it was about how can I create a place where you can write, but also one of the things, this is why I love writing is the feedback element, right? It is the best way in my opinion, to get the most granular, amazing feedback, right?

When you’re speaking, it’s pretty hard for someone to stop you constantly and everything else, even if you record it, it’s like, it’s very difficult to package that feedback for you.

And then for you to digest it, writing is such a great way to do that. So with Journaly, basically you can come, you can write in any language you want. We support all languages. Um, if any languages are not there, you can just write to me and I’ll add it to the database immediately. Um, we have over a hundred languages already supported.

Um, you can get feedback from native or advanced speakers and I’ve built these tools where I, for example, you can highlight exactly a certain piece of text and then open a thread. And then have a discussion inside of that thread.

So your feedback ends up exactly where it belongs. It doesn’t just go to the bottom of the page and you scroll up and down again.

It’s like, how can it, how can we make it as easy as possible for you to both give feedback to somebody, but also collect it. And, and then the other aspect of Journaly is that we don’t just collect language data. We collect topic data. So what’s this post about? And so the long-term goal is to not be transactional.

It’s so that you can actually meet people on journally that have similar interests, not just similar languages, right?

So if you’re learning Japanese and you love gardening or plant, houseplants or interior design, wouldn’t it be great if you could find someone that’s a Japanese speaker, learning English, who’s journaling about plants and interior design so that you too could actually potentially have a long-term connection?

So it’s writing, it’s feedback, it’s… but it’s also about building community.

Elle: I love that aspect of it too. Yeah, that’s right. And so it’s live now when you said a hundred languages.

Robin: Yeah, I think we over a hundred languages now. Yeah.

It’s live right now. Um, yeah, it’s a journaly.com. It’s honestly, it’s, I’ve been blown away by the… it’s only been live for about five months now.

I’m still technically in beta, but we already have almost 10,000 posts. Um, and the biggest thing is that we have now about 130,000 comments have been posted on those eight to 10,000 posts. Um, which, which sounds insane, but it’s because somebody will say, “Hey, this should be this way. Not that way.” And then somebody will respond and say, “oh, could I do this.”

Somebody else will chip in. So you have these gorgeous threads. Um, so that’s been the biggest surprise is that people are willing to do it. And the biggest… I’ve gotten this feedback that it’s addictive, it’s addictive to realize five minutes of my day, just reading someone’s posts, leaving a few comments that just changed their life today.

You know, like that’s solid gold that they couldn’t otherwise get. And so some people just come on every day and just correct like 10 or 20 posts. Um, and that’s my other favorite thing about Journaly is realizing that yeah, I don’t need one Korean native speaker for every Korean learner. I just, I just need a few really enthusiastic, engaged native speakers that can then impact like thousands of learners.

So it’s really cool.

Elle: Wonderful. Yeah.

Very cool. I’ll again, put the link in the description for anyone who is interested in checking out Journaly. Okay.

So for the rest of the year, what can people expect who subscribe to your channel? And now I’m sure everyone listening will go straight to Robin and subscribe.

What can they expect from your channel for the rest of the year and beyond?

Robin: So I do a lot of things where I document myself doing things in real time. So the last two years I’ve been documenting learning Mandarin from zero, right? As an example, right now I’m documenting, developing, spoken fluency, but I also do things in all my other languages.

Um, so there’s a lot of things like watch me become able to understand authentic podcasts, right? And how, how do we do it? How do I adapt in the middle? Things like that? I do a lot of videos just explaining methods. Um, almost like tutorials, like here’s a method for doing this. I’m doing a lot more interviews now and collaborations, which are really fun.

Um, and then I’m also going to be doing more sort of short documentary stuff that I originally was my goal on YouTube. My oldest video is like a short documentary about my life in Japan. So I’m going to be having a lot more artistic pieces that incorporate more interesting filmmaking stuff that has been a deep passion of mine, but I couldn’t do much before with a full-time job and everything else.

Now, this is my job finally. So basically a pretty big variety…

Elle: Those pesky jobs getting in the way of all the fun.

Robin: Everything is in playlists. That’s one thing I try to do on my channel. So like anyone who’s interested, it’s a bit overwhelming.

Uh, I know a lot of people have a lot of videos, so I do try to put them in playlists.

Yeah.

I do a lot of series where it’s like, You know, here’s a series about extensive reading or here’s a series about X, Y, Z. So…

Elle: Fantastic. Well, as I said, I’ll pop the link to your channel and also to your book, How to Maintain Languages and to Journaly in the description. So everyone check those out and Robin, best of luck with all of your projects and your channel.

And thank you so so much for joining me today. It was a great, interesting chat.

Robin: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

It was really pleasant to talk to you and, uh, I look forward to seeing all of your future guests as well.

Elle: Excellent. Great. Thank you Robin.

Robin: Bye-bye.

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