Choosing A Language

The key to learning a second language to a usable level is the ability to stay focused and persistent. When there is a desire to learn a new language, unless already very certain from the outset, the allure of the plethora of languages out there can be appealing, and also distracting.  Shifting attention means nothing gets done, and after a while, the realization may come that although much time has been spent in consideration, very little or nothing has been accomplished towards acquisition of any one language.  Knowing how to say several things in one language accomplishes more than knowing how to say one thing in several languages.

Therefore, the goal here is to help you become placed firmly in certainty about one language to study, so as to make the effort worthwhile.  There are many factors involved in choosing a second language to learn.  The “right” language will vary from person to person.  Therefore, consider the following:

Trust Yourself

I am a firm believer in the language choosing the person, rather than the person choosing the language.  What is meant by this is that a person usually has an inclination, based on past experiences, favoring a particular language over others. This is important.  Others may attempt to persuade you towards another language because it is more popular, there are more speakers, economic projections for the future in the country (or countries) where it is spoken are bright, etc.  While these are all worthwhile factors to consider, the ultimate decision is yours to make.  If you learn a language other than the one(s) you truly have interest in, you may not have the enthusiasm and resolve to succeed to a high level.    

What do you want to do with the language?

It may be that one has a serious interest in a language, yet only to a certain extent, or towards a certain end, such as for use during upcoming travel or use only in a certain situation.  Others want to know every facet of the language in detail.  There is a broad spectrum in between.  Being clear on your purposes for the language will fuel your ambition to learn.

In discussing language learning with many people, I have found that a person most often will fall into one of the following categories:  

Causally Interested:

This person customarily has studied a language briefly in school, retained some interest, and may want to use the language in only a few isolated situations, or is satisfied with knowing only a handful of words or phrases.   

Moderately Interested:

This person ordinarily has an interest in the culture surrounding a language and wants to know all the basics in order to have simple conversations in the language at specific times.

Very Interested:

This person generally has a deep interest in a language, languages in general, or a certain aspect of language as an idea: such as writing, grammar function, or linguistic evolution.  They may speak, or have the desire to speak to a considerable point of fluency.

NOTE: Understanding the type of learner you are and your motivations will help in staying focused on the areas you are looking to improve.

Regardless of the category in which you would place yourself, speaking a second language should always be fun and interesting.  You may even find yourself gaining more enthusiasm over time and becoming more serious about your studies.

Learning a language to competency will require one to devote large amounts of time over an extended period.  However, the dedicated time need not be all at once, but could fit in segments among other unrelated tasks.

Have a Reason to Learn

Learning a second language may be important to you for different reasons.  Consider the following and judge for yourself if the language you have in mind is the best choice.

Do I Like The Language?

The first and foundational reason to learn a language is because you like it.  To know if you like a language, spend time with it.  For example, you could find a video of native speakers talking online.  It will be helpful to look at videos with more than one person, so you can see how natural interactions occur in the language.  Find beginner lessons.  See how the language is broken down.  Put your hobbies in the context of the language.  Test the waters by studying it for a few days.  After all of this, you should have a good idea if the language is truly for you.

NOTE: If you are in a situation where you have to learn a certain language, (which is not so appealing) try to understand it in a new way.  I have found a few times that my initial impression of a language changes with time and exposure.

Is It A Major World Language?

For some, the motivation to learn a new language depends on its status on the global stage.  The important question here is:  Which languages have the most native speakers, and which have the most total speakers?

Most Native Speakers (2016)

Mandarin・ 955 million・ 普通话 (中文)
Spanish・470 million・Español
English・360 million
Hindi, Urdu・355 million・हिंदी, اُردُو
Arabic・293 million・العربية
Portuguese・225 million・Português
Bengali・206 million・বাঙালি
Russian・155 million・русский
Japanese・126 million・日本語
Punjabi・102 million・পাঞ্জাবি

Most Total Speakers (2016)

English・1.5 billion
Mandarin・1.15 billion・ 普通话 (中文)
Spanish・570 million・Español
Hindi, Urdu・ 540 million・हिंदी, اُردُو
Arabic・422 million・العربية
Russian・260 million・русский
Portuguese・260 million・Português
Malay・250 million・بهاس ملايو
Bengali・226 million・বাঙালি
French・220 million・Français

Do I Like The Culture Of The Language’s Native Speakers?

Culture is a major factor for all languages.  It is where a language lives, grows, and expresses itself in the most genuine way.  Learn about the places where the language is used.  What is important to the people there?  What are the unique holidays?  How is life there different from where you live?   

How Would I Personally Use The Language?

Do I want to read famous literature and hear author’s true voice?  Sing along to my new favorite song without having to guess at what is being said?  Have meaningful conversations with new family members?  Get around more easily in a new country I have decided to call home?

How Will Knowing This Language Benefit Me?

Will learning this language enrich my life on a personal level?  Do I want to make new friends? Will it help me advance in my career?  Will it allow me to reach out to new clients, and develop a lasting relationship with them?  Do I have an important message that I want to share with the world?

Am I Willing To Learn A New Way Of Writing?

Many languages do not use the Roman alphabet.  If you are not used to how other systems of writing function, there can be a slight learning curve, and you will need to put forth extra effort to learn how to write, in addition to studying the other parts of the language. The Korean script is actually said to be the easiest to learn, while Japanese or Chinese is probably the most difficult.  I recommend researching the language’s writing system, if it is new to you.

Is There A Population Of Speakers Nearby?

Are there people living locally who speak the language you are considering?  If you are not sure, search Meet Up for groups that meet in your area.  You may be able to find a grocery store or restaurant in your area that conducts business in the language you want to study.  If you are having trouble finding people, you can create your own environment.  Television shows, music, news, radio, speeches, books, podcasts, and more are all available in many languages.  If you surround yourself with the language, you can get the feeling of living in the country, without having to leave the living room.

NOTE: There are many online options as well.  HelloTalk and iTalki are quite good.

Stay With The Language

As I mentioned before, it is necessary to stay with this one language if you are serious about making progress, and all of this actually being of use to you. I have learned from personal experience that keeping with one language at a time will net the most reward.  That is not to say you should strictly forbid yourself from learning about other languages (if interested), but be sure that your percentages match what you are looking to achieve.

Before adding a new target language, it would be helpful to:

  1. Be able to speak without hesitation.
  2. Be able to hold a conversation across a wide variety of topics.
  3. Be able to write all of what you can verbalize.
  4. Understand the vast majority of what you hear in daily life.
  5. Be able to read a book, newspaper, article, etc. with minimal comprehension issues.
  6. Be confident in your abilities.

Which language do you plan to learn?

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.


Aprender un idioma nuevo en 6 pasos


Has decidido.

Quieres o necesitas aprender un idioma nuevo, pero durante los últimos días has estado de pie frente al espejo en la mañana, perplejo, preguntándote: “¿en qué me he metido?”, incluso “¿por dónde empiezo?“, o diciéndote a ti mismo: “no soy el tipo de persona que puede aprender otro idioma.”

Yo no soy ajeno a este pensamiento.

La primera vez que intentas algo nuevo, puede haber incertidumbre.  Muchas veces al principio, cuando comencé a aprender español (e incluso luego con japonés) pensé: “de verdad quiero aprender el idioma pero no sé cómo hacerlo.  Si alguien pudiera mostrarme los pasos a seguir, podría progresar.

Eso me llevó a buscar varios guías del idioma.  Yo encargaría el libro de texto recomendado o vería una serie recomendada.  Aún después de un tiempo me preocupé por no entender algún concepto a pesar de estar siguiendo cada instrucción.  Eventualmente vi que la pluralidad de estilos es la razón por la que existe la pluralidad de material (y consejo contradictorio) para aprender un idioma.

Que una persona hable un idioma con fluidez no confirma que la manera en la que lo aprendió o lo enseña es la correcta.

Sin embargo, que un estilo de enseñanza y un estudiante sean incompatibles, no significa que alguno de ellos es incorrecto; solamente significa que existen diferencias estilísticas.

Tan pronto como entendí esto, todo fue más fácil.  Como exploré distintos métodos, desarrollé una imagen más completa del idioma, fui capaz de hacer conexiones beneficiosas que de otra forma no hubiera conseguido y logré multiplicar mis habilidades.

En un esfuerzo por no malgastar tu valioso tiempo, he compilado una lista de pasos a tener en cuenta al momento de aprender un idioma nuevo. El objetivo es que llegues lo suficientemente lejos para poder ver el camino delante de ti mismo.

Listen 6 STEPS

Paso 1: escucha

Ya eres un profesional en esto de aprender idiomas.  Incluso si aún no te has dado cuenta, ya dominas un idioma: tu idioma natal.  ¿Cómo lo lograste?  Hubo varias cosas, pero lo primero que hiciste fue escuchar.  Entonces, cuando comienzas con un idioma nuevo, debes hacer lo mismo.  La prueba del éxito ya está allí.

Mientras practicas escuchar, no te concentres en aprender saludos, vocabulario, ni en tratar de comprender lo que se está diciendo.  Este no es el momento para estudiar tan seriamente.  Es un momento para relajarte y disfrutar de las cosas que aprecias del idioma.  El objetivo inicial debería ser entrar en contacto con el alma (o ánimo) del idioma, como si fueras un doctor que intenta diagnosticar a un paciente o un detective que intenta resolver un caso.  Entrar en sincronía con el idioma y su cultura. Es un buen momento para aprender sobre el país (o países) donde se habla este idioma.  ¿Quién es famoso allí? ¿Cuáles son los temas de actualidad?  ¿Cuál es la situación económica?  ¿Qué identifica a cada región de ese país?  ¿Cómo son las personas?  ¿Cómo es el clima?

Encuentra una canción.  Descubre una película o un programa de televisión.  Mira las noticias.  Escucha la radio.  Mira un periódico.  No te preocupes si no comprendes nada.  Debes familiarizarte con el idioma para que se abra a ti, como una amistad o una relación nueva.

Intenta escuchar la mayor cantidad de veces posibles, pero no te abrumes.  Si sientes que estas cansándote del idioma, toma un descanso.  Retoma luego, cuando sientas interés nuevamente.  Por supuesto, si no tienes mucho tiempo, hazlo en el momento que tengas disponible.

Paso 2: aprende lo básico

Este es el momento preciso para comenzar con el proceso de aprendizaje.  Te darás cuenta que el tiempo que pasaste escuchando estuvo bien invertido, ya que estudiar te será más sencillo y tu aprendizaje será más natural.

Hay mucha información en YouTube que te mostrará el idioma de manera escrita y oral al mismo tiempo, esta es una combinación muy valiosa.  Utiliza esta herramienta para encontrar videos sobre los sonidos y los nombres de las letras, saludos, los números, los días de la semana, los meses del año, cómo decir la hora, etc.  A medida que absorbes el contenido de estos videos, tómate un momento para tomar notas sobre cada uno (puedes consultarlas luego).

Si el idioma es coreano, hindi, japonés, chino, árabe, etc., (que utilizan una escritura única) concéntrate mucho en identificar los caracteres, sus sonidos, los trazos y practica escribir antes de continuar con los temas del párrafo anterior.  Otra sugerencia que puedes aprovechar es pegar los nombres de los objetos dentro de tu casa o tu habitación utilizando tarjetas o notas adhesivas.  Esto me resultó muy útil en la primera etapa, pero ya no tanto a medida que fui dominando ese vocabulario.

Recuerda que aprender un idioma no es una carrera y lo más beneficioso es poder trabajar a un ritmo que te resulte cómodo. Esto, más que cualquier otra cosa, te permitirá tener éxito.


Paso 3: libros de texto y lecciones de audio.

Para construir una estructura sólida, se necesita una base sólida.  La combinación de los libros de texto y las lecciones de audio son la fórmula mágica para tu base sólida.  Hay cuatro categorías en un idioma: leer, escribir, hablar y escuchar.  Los libros de texto abarcan la lectura y la escritura, y las lecciones de audio el habla y la escucha.  La fuente de estas dos herramientas no tiene por qué ser la misma.  En realidad, obtendrás un mejor resultado si son diferentes, como ya dijimos al principio.  Alterna entre los libros de texto y las lecciones de la manera que quieras.  Sólo asegúrate de estar expuesto a ambos sin dejar pasar mucho tiempo entre los cambios.

En el caso del libro de texto, revisa todo de principio a fin siguiendo las instrucciones.  Además, detente periódicamente para releer (y reescribir) oraciones o párrafos en el idioma meta, preferiblemente en voz alta.  En tus notas, puedes anotar palabras o frases que te gusten mucho.

Para las lecciones de audio, comienza con el nivel más bajo si eres principiante.  Sin embargo, si ya has tenido alguna experiencia con el idioma, escoge el nivel que mejor se adapte a tus habilidades.  Particularmente recomiendo que te mantengas en ese mismo nivel hasta que te sientas más cómodo con el contenido antes de continuar.  Sin embargo, puedes probar con las lecciones avanzadas que más te interesen con total libertad.  Mantén y aumenta tu resistencia haciéndolo divertido.

La mayoría de los productores ofrecen las lecciones con la transcripción de los diálogos.  Cuando estudies mediante las lecciones de audio debes hacer tres cosas: escuchar la lección, ir leyendo el diálogo al mismo tiempo y luego leerlo en voz alta (también puedes practicar escribir el diálogo en tus notas. Esto te ayudará a recordar cuando no tengas ayuda y debas hablar el idioma).  Para un mayor rendimiento, recomiendo no estudiar más de cinco audios por vez.


Paso 4: conocer a un amigo

Cuando ya seas capaz de producir de manera independiente muchas palabras básicas del nuevo idioma, hacerte amigo de un hablante nativo del idioma meta será lo más beneficioso.  Además, si aún estás luchando con algunos conceptos en este momento, tener un amigo para aclarar dudas y corregir cualquier error será de gran ayuda, divertido y motivador.

Tu amigo puede ayudarte a reforzar y desarrollar lo que has estado estudiando para que lo puedas utilizar en situaciones de la vida real.  Tener un compañero de conversación te ayudará a llenar esos espacios en blanco en tu vocabulario y con el tiempo te permitirá mantener una conversación fluida, sin esas pausas incómodas y frecuentes al preguntar o explicar algo.

Prepárate.  Cuando vayas a una reunión, ten listas tus notas de antemano.  ¿Con qué has estado teniendo problemas?  ¿Qué quieres saber cómo decir?  ¿Qué cosas de la cultura quieres conocer más?  Otros temas que pueden ser de ayuda para reunirte con un amigo pueden ser cómo hablar por teléfono o cómo acordar un horario de reunión.

Utiliza el ambiente de reunión como ayuda para lo que quieras discutir, aprender y practicar.  Puede ser bueno reunirse varias veces en el mismo lugar.  Esto te ayudará a familiarizarte con ese espacio y te permitirá manejarte con facilidad.  En el futuro, puedes ir a otro lugar y hacer lo mismo (si vas a un lugar nuevo busca las palabras relacionadas de antemano, en vez de aprenderlas de cero al momento de llegar).

En la reunión debes incorporar el paso 1 como uno de tus objetivos.  Presta atención a la manera en la que las personas hablan.  ¿Cuándo hacen pausas?, ¿cuándo alargan las palabras?, ¿qué cosas enfatizan?  Cópialo, así hablarás de forma más natural y te sentirás más cómodo y seguro.

Después de eso, tener muchos amigos puede ser muy divertido.  Tal vez cada uno sea de una ciudad o una región diferente y utiliza un vocabulario único.  Quizás tengan intereses o áreas de experiencia distintas.  Si salen juntos, podrás ver como los nativos interactúan desde el primer momento y con suerte podrás unirte a su conversación.  De todas maneras, así es como estás aprendiendo tu idioma ¿verdad?

Con la cantidad de opciones que hay hoy en día, si vives en un lugar donde verse cara a cara no es una de ellas, también puedes encontrar amigos con quien practicar y hacer preguntas en línea.


Paso 5: la universidad y la escuela de idiomas

Para comenzar con el paso 5, entraremos en el territorio de transformarnos en un estudiante enserio.  En este punto ya debes tener un nivel de conversación más o menos fluido.  Si sólo quieres divertirte con el idioma, puedes detenerte aquí y beneficiar tu curiosidad con el contenido de este artículo, pero aquellos que tienen un profundo interés en refinar sus habilidades hacia fines académicos o profesionales, pueden continuar.

Ahora puedes hacerte entender en situaciones del día a día, pero eres consciente de que a pesar de que puedes comunicarte, aún existen errores en tu forma de hablar y escribir.  ¿Cómo puedes corregir esto?  Si uno desea convertirse en experto, se debe aprender de un experto.  Esto se traduce en asistir a cursos universitarios, clases en una escuela de idiomas o clases con un tutor calificado.  Los profesores e instructores llevan años, décadas o toda una vida de experiencia en este idioma.  Pueden hablar elocuentemente y superar las barreras más difíciles sólo con pensar un momento.

Algo que debes recordar antes de inscribirte es que no todos los profesores son iguales, así que elige cuidadosamente. Muchas instituciones te permitirán presenciar una clase antes del papeleo o el pago.  Debes aprovecharlo.  Estos servicios te permitirán desbloquear los niveles más altos del idioma, aclarar sutilezas y matices para poder dominarlo.  Haz todas las preguntas posibles.  Mientras tomas las clases, continúa estudiando por tu cuenta.  No temas presentar tus dudas en la clase y pregúntale al instructor en el momento apropiado.  Tu entusiasmo los inspirará y te alentarán por tu esfuerzo.

Books HD

Paso 6: leer

A pesar de que, indudablemente, ya has leído infinita cantidad de veces en este idioma, al mismo tiempo que tomas el curso, o en lugar de él (si eres un estudiante un poco más independiente) comienza a leer más seguido.  Puedes confirmar tus propias habilidades evaluándolas con la literatura (preferiblemente original en el idioma meta).  Ver la forma en la que una persona escribe (el autor) o habla (un personaje citado) naturalmente será la clave del éxito para mejorar la forma en la que hablas y escribes.  Desde exponerte al verdadero fraseo, hasta ser capaz de visualizar las letras al escribir una palabra, los beneficios de la lectura son realmente muchos y muy completos.


(Bonus) Paso 7: es opcional la lectura y la conversación en tu idioma natal

Desde mi experiencia personal, puedo afirmar que es muy importante mantener relación con tu idioma natal en este viaje de aprender un segundo o tercer idioma.  Por ejemplo, he tenido episodios en los que mi aptitud para hablar inglés flaqueó tanto que al momento de usarlo, no fui capaz de recordar cómo deletrear palabras básicas, o durante una conversación no fui capaz de expresar mis pensamientos como quería por la falta del vocabulario correcto.  Como el sentido común indica: “todo con moderación” llevará a los mejores resultados. Esto es algo que puedes tener en cuenta a medida que avanzas.

Puedes dejar cualquier pregunta o comentario sobre el artículo, aquí debajo o, enviármelo vía Twitter a @cbilbrey12.  Para recibir actualizaciones sobre futuros artículos, por favor, sígueme.

Gracias por leer.

How I Learned Spanish


When someone discovers I know Spanish, usually the next thing they say is, “How did you learn it?”.  I have always struggled with a proper response, because learning Spanish (or any language) is a detailed process involving many components. Spanish is like a computer software program for your mind that has to be built.  It will take deep study, and persistent action over time, but it is very possible to achieve.

If you want to learn Spanish, but feel lost, oblige me as I share the story of how I laid the foundation for my success with Spanish.

Discovering Spanish


In middle school I took a foreign language class.  I can remember the teacher writing on the whiteboard and explaining simple exchanges like  ¿Cómo te llamas? / Mi llamo Cody, watching cartoons in Spanish on the classroom television, and doing reports on Spanish-speaking countries. (Mine was Argentina.)

There was something about this new way of arranging letters that captivated me.  I can remember thinking how strange it was that one group of people all agreed that the letters to spell “cat” were C-A-T, while this new group all agreed that they were G-A-T-O,  gatoThe fact that they were both correct was thought-provoking.

Except for buenos  días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), and buenas noches (good evening), I forgot everything I learned, and it would be four years before Spanish would enter my life again.

Spanish Superpower


Spanish was reintroduced to me in high school. I had a good friend from Mexico, and was very impressed that she knew this language that was completely separate from mine.  As I came to spend time with her family, I would hear entire conversations which I could not understand.  It was in these moments that the conceptual idea of other languages existing in the world would merge with the concrete fact.  For the first time, I witnessed the presence of an alternate reality to the one I had known my whole life.  Spanish was like a superpower that granted one access to another dimension. The idea fascinated me.  Soon I became hooked, and started learning all I could.

Understanding the Possibilities


In the beginning I did not know many Spanish speakers, but there was one Chilean man I would see weekly at the church I then attended.  I decided to share my enthusiasm for learning Spanish.  He was very happy to help, and graciously lent me a set of spoken-word CDs containing greetings and simple phrases.  I can remember hearing the word usted (the formal form of “you”) for the first time, and thinking how cool it sounded.  I would use it all the time, even when there was no precedent.

As I progressed with the CDs, we would practice occasionally.  The defining moment of my Spanish language career occurred one night as we spoke.  We began with the usual Hola, ¿Cómo estás? / Estoy bien.  As he continued talking to me, where I would usually falter, I did not. I understood what he was saying.  Moreover, when asked questions, I could reply.  This was unreal; I was actually doing it.  I was so surprised, so happy, that I began laughing and was unable to stop.  Tears came to my eyes, and I thought, “Wow…this is amazing.”

Improving My Spanish


Although I now knew I had the ability to learn Spanish, I was not sure how to proceed.  It took me a few years to pinpoint a successful strategy.  During this time, I tried different methods which have all served me well:

NOTE: As I rotated these, I found that I improved significantly each time I returned to one.



At home there was one Spanish television channel, Univision.  It was my direct line to real native speakers, culture, current events, sports, programs, and more. I watched Primer Impactó, La Fea más Bella, El Chavo del Ocho, El Chapulín Colorado, Sabado Gigante, soccer matches, or whatever happened to be broadcasting at the moment.

NOTE: I also rather enjoyed the short-lived skit by talk show host Conan O’Brien, Noches de Pasión con Señor O’Brien.



I love music.  Furthermore, I have always been keen on music performed in other languages.  There are many great Spanish-language artists who go largely unnoticed in the English-speaking world, such as: Selena Quintanilla-Perez, Julieta Venegas, Fanny Lu, R.K.M. y Ken-Y, Juanes, and others.

The first artist I was introduced to was Julieta Venegas.  Her music became an instrumental motivation for my learning Spanish.  The spirit of delivery, the quality of lyrics, and topics covered in songs are all very good.  The great thing about finding an artist you like is that you end up spending a lot of time with their music and internalizing things like new vocabulary, patterns of speech, and pronunciation with minimal effort, all while enjoying the music.


I have always been one to keep notebooks, and have found that they are quite useful for Spanish.  I have heard so many horror stories of people taking notes on their phone, only to have everything become lost at some point.  Using a physical notebook allowed me to avoid this.  I recorded new vocabulary, copied down phrases or sentences, wrote periodical journal entries for tracking my progress with Spanish, compiled lists of words I wanted to know, and organized and planned out my studies.



Podcasts are a great tool that help me to maintain a connection with Spanish, no matter where life takes me.  My favorite podcast for Spanish is SpanishPod.  This podcast is now available through the company OpenLanguage under the name “OpenLanguage Spanish”.  The podcast features lessons on individual topics that are given in the form of a dialogue which is presented, translated, analyzed, and commented upon by the two hosts.  These lessons made Spanish come alive to me and always kept me wanting to learn more.  All the hosts are very likeable and fun.  The presentation of the Spanish language in this podcast is unmatched.  Anyone who does not use it will definitely be missing out.


In the United States there are a number of Mexican restaurants, and to a lesser extent Cuban cuisine and other varieties.  As the staff in these establishments are largely Hispanic, I thought it a good place to practice my Spanish skills.  Frequenting restaurants allowed me to branch out from the basics and start having real conversations with other speakers. I learned how to place an order, personalize an order, request items like straws, napkins, boxes to-go (take away), and the meal ticket.  Servers and owners would ask things like where I was from, how I was learning Spanish, and what my hobbies were, so I learned how to speak on these topics as well.

From perfecting greetings and small talk, to developing the skill of inquiry, and beginning to have deeper conversations, restaurants became an essential part of my recipe for Spanish.

Talking to Everyone

Over time, with my abilities improving beyond the scope of a restaurant, I sought opportunities to use Spanish elsewhere.  I enjoy meeting new people, especially if we share something in common.  I knew that I could not wait around for Spanish speakers to come to me, so I actively looked for people to strike up a conversation.  I talked to everyone I could find.  If I thought there was a chance they spoke Spanish, I introduced myself.

I was amazed at the warmth, hospitality, generosity, friendliness and interest people showed towards me.  I have met many great individuals over the years, had many memorable interactions, and learned a lot of Spanish.

NOTE: Not only have I met Spanish speakers in this way, but also people from Brazil, China, Italy, Russia, Laos, the Philippines, and other countries.

The Spanish Journey

I am not completely fluent in the Spanish language, and honestly, would not even consider myself fluent in English, my native language.  I continue to learn new things every day.  What has been covered herein is only a start.  Learning a language is a lifelong endeavor.  There is sufficient depth of content in any one language to keep a person occupied for as long as they wish.  Fortunately, it does not require a lifetime to obtain the rewards of knowing a new language.

If you have ever considered learning Spanish, know that it is possible; you just have to start.

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.


Learn Japanese, Step 3: Kanji


NOTE: This article is part of a series.  If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 please click the corresponding link.

You have now mastered Hiragana and Katakana.  A lot of progress has been made.  You now know a total of three (Romaji, Hiragana, and Katakana) of the writing systems of Japan, with only one remaining.

What is Kanji?


Kanji 「漢字・かんじ」 consists of the Chinese characters for China and character. Thus, it can be translated as “China character” or “Chinese characters”.  Kanji originated in mainland China during the Shang Dynasty, (around 1500 B.C.E.) when the symbols were engraved by oracles onto animal bones, such as those of oxen or horses, and turtle shells.  

The number of Kanji in existence total more than 50,000.  However, over time many of these fell out of circulation, and the number decreased.  China now uses only around 5,000 characters, while Japan uses about 2,000 characters. In fact, the official number as set forth by the Japanese Ministry of Education places the current total at 2,136.  This list of characters known as Jōyō Kanji「常用漢字」, or “common use Kanji”, was established in 2010.

NOTE: Kanji were once used by Korea, who later developed Hangul「한국어」and Chosongul「조선말 」and Vietnam, who later adapted the Roman alphabet.

漢字 Radicals

Kanji are comprised of units known as radicals 「部首・しゅ」.  These are components that fit together to form a complete Kanji.  Radicals can be of two types:

 1. Other Kanji

十 口 日 月 田

2.  Elements from a part of another Kanji

⺅ ⼇ ⼌ ⺡ ⺮

As Kanji evolve to express more complex ideas, they absorb radicals to help convey meaning:

日 + 月 = 明

 目 + ⼉ = 見 

木 + 木 = 林

言 + 売 = 

⺾ + 目 + ⼍ + 夕 = 

Radicals are similar to Hiragana and Katakana; they are simpler, and have fewer strokes. Knowing how to write radicals will help you when penning more advanced Kanji.  Also, you can often look at a Kanji and guess its meaning, (even if you have never seen it before) simply by knowing the radicals in the character:

花  (flower) + 火  (fire) = 花火  (flower of fire) = 花火  (fireworks)

外  (outside) + 国  (country) + 人  (person) =  外国人  (foreigner)

今  (now) + 日  (day) = 今日  (today)

女  (woman) + 子  (child) = 好  (to be fond of; to like)

電  (electric) + 話  (talk) = 電話  (telephone)

漢字 Readings

ame kun on.png

One of the tricky things about reading in Japanese is that the same Kanji can be pronounced multiple ways.  These different ways of pronouncing Kanji are called readings.  There are two main categories of Kanji readings.

1. Onyomi

Onyomi「音読み ・おんよみ」means “sound reading”.  This reading comes from Japanese people trying to pronounce a Kanji according to how they heard Chinese people saying it, during the importation of Kanji to Japan.  Thus, not only did Japan adopt a writing system, but they absorbed new vocabulary as well.   Onyomi is also called the “Chinese reading”.

1. 火  (fire) : 曜日  (Tuesday) ・ よう

2. 国  (country) : 外人  (foreigner) ・ がいこくじん

3. 人  (person) : 日本人  (Japanese person) ・ にほんじん

4. 日  (day) :  一  (one day) ・ いちにち

5. 会 (meet) : 社  (company) ・ かいしゃ

2. Kunyomi

Kunyomi「訓読み・くんよみ」means “instruction reading”.  This reading comes from Japanese people assigning the pronunciation of their own words to Chinese characters. Originally, Japanese was a purely spoken language.  As Kanji were introduced to Japan, Japanese people mapped the sounds of their language onto the Chinese characters. Kunyomi is also called the “Japanese reading”.

1. 火 (fire) : 花  (fireworks) ・ はな

2. 国 (country) : 国  (country) ・ くに

3. 人 (person) : 人  (person) ・ ひと

4. 日 (day) : 日  (day) ・ 

5. 会 (meet) : う約束  (appointment) ・ やくそく

NOTE: When multiple Kanji are side by side, it is usually an indication that they carry the Onyomi reading, and when they are together with Hiragana, they will usually carry the Kunyomi reading.  Also, sometimes Kanji have more than one Kunyomi or more than one Onyomi.  This is due to Kanji being introduced at various times and places in Japan, over many years.

Some students will make an effort to learn readings individually, per each Kanji.  This is time-consuming and difficult.  A more natural way to learn Kanji readings is through acquisition and usage of vocabulary.  As you encounter new words and practice using them under a variety of circumstances, readings will become effortless, due to the principle of association: their being connected with whole words, rather than being isolated.

Erin’s Challenge is one tool that will help you conceptually understand how to read Kanji in this way, by offering the option to see both the Hiragana and Kanji version of a dialogue at the same time.

NOTE: On the videos, check the first two boxes: 「日本語」 and 「ほんご (かな)」

Writing Japanese Words


Japanese words can be written in 5 different ways:

1. In Hiragana -> とけい

2. In Katakana -> スターバックス

3. In Kanji -> 電車

4. In a combination of Kanji and Hiragana -> 勉強します

5. In Romaji -> Tokyo

However, words can move between all five writing systems, depending on how they are being used.  For example, in formal writing you are more likely to see words spelled in Kanji.  However, a student taking lecture notes at university may use more Hiragana, as this is easier when jotting down information.  A word may be written in Katakana if it is meant to catch one’s eye.  Romaji can be found at train stations and tourist sites to ease navigation for foreign visitors.  For this reason it is important to know all the Japanese writing systems, and understand how they work together to convey meaning.

Certain words are usually associated with a certain script.  For example, “apple” is normally written in Hiragana,んご」because it is more simple to write than the Kanji「林檎」.  The same is the case for “giraffe”: the Katakanaリン」versus the Kanji 「麒麟」.

Learning 漢字

There are a combination of methods I would recommend.

Method 1: Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1

This book was written by James Heisig.  It is a comprehensive guide which walks you through a list of 2200 Kanji, grouped in sets between 56 lessons.  The book uses simple Kanji as a foundation for presenting the more complex variety, so that as the student progresses, all the information needed to understand the next set of Kanji, has been covered in a previous chapter.  Remember the Kanji, Vol. 1 covers the meaning and writing of Kanji ONLY.  It does not cover their readings.

Method 2: Kanji Deck (on Anki)

This Anki deck was created by Niko of  It pairs perfectly with Remembering the Kanji, and is a great alternative to making your own flashcards, as Heisig recommends.  Additionally, if at any time you forget the meaning of a Kanji, you can review its story (from the book) from within the deck and try again. Stories created by other learners are present as well.

Click here for Niko’s complete guide on setting up the Kanji deck as well as information on the 97 Day Kanji Challenge.  The sections “Set Anki Preferences for Efficient Studying” and “Change New Card Quota” are especially noteworthy, as they explain how to set your own pace for studying Kanji.

NOTE: Anki is a website and virtual flashcard app for iOS and Android.  It uses a spaced repetition system (or SRS) to guarantee maximum retention of the information stored in your flashcards.  You can even track your progress.

Method 3: Kanji From Zero, Book 1

This is the first in a brand new series by George Trombley of  The book has a similar format to his Japanese From Zero series, however focuses exclusively on Kanji with a unique perspective on radicals, sample vocabulary, stroke order, fill-in-the-blank style sentences, and other features.  In all, 240 Kanji are discussed over the span of 39 lessons.  To learn more about this book, see the introductory video by the author.

Writing 漢字


Writing aids greatly in recall of Kanji.  If you can write a Kanji, you can definitely remember it.  However, if you can only recognize it, it may be a challenge to write.  Physically writing out the Kanji will promote muscle memory and mental memory.  This will allow you to automatically recognize and produce each character when needed.

Reading 漢字


When first learning to read Kanji, it may be beneficial to use material that incorporates Furiganaりがな」.  This is a Hiragana reading aid added to Kanji to mark their reading. Furigana can be located above, to the side, or beneath a Kanji.  This is useful when Kanji literacy is low, but as you improve, using Furigana may hurt your ability to read, as your eyes will tend to gravitate towards the readings, and not the Kanji to which they belong.  Furigana is sometimes referred to as Yomiganaみがな・読み仮名」

One of the best ways to learn how to read Kanji is through instant messaging apps, such as HelloTalk or LINE.  If your Japanese is even at a basic level, you can start writing with native speakers.  If you do not understand something, look it up, reply as best you can, and move the conversation forward.  You may want to take notes on the exchange, to refine your skills for next time.

Listening For 漢字

kanji listening.jpg

As you continue practicing spoken and written Japanese, you will internalize many character’s readings and meanings, so that when an unknown word arises, you will be able to use these, as well as the context of the situation to establish possible Kanji for the unknown word.

 漢字 and Learning Japanese

kanji and jpn.jpg

Learning Kanji is a major stepping stone to achieving fluency in Japanese, and one that requires more time and attention than either Hiragana or Katakana.  For this reason, it is important to start studying Kanji as soon as you can.  However, this does not necessarily mean that you should focus exclusively on Kanji.  Study Kanji at a pace which feels comfortable to you.  It is very important to continue developing your speaking and listening skills at the same time, so as to progress evenly across all fields of the language.

For Optimal Success with 漢字

  1. Read Remembering the Kanji, Vol. 1
  2. Get a notebook for practicing Kanji and write them every day
  3. Download Anki and the Nihongo Shark Kanji Deck
  4. Review with the Kanji deck every day
  5. Print out a Kanji progress chart
  6. Use Erin’s Challenge or other subtitled videos to match the spoken and written word
  7. Use to find the Kanji for vocabulary you know, or want to know
  8. Download an instant messaging app and connect with Japanese speakers

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.



Learn Japanese, Step 2: Katakana


NOTE: This article is part of a series.  If you would like to start at the beginning, please click here.  Here for Part 3.

You have now mastered Hiragana.  Congratulations!  You can identify them, write them, hear them, and verbalize them.  Perhaps you have even become familiar with things like greetings and simple sentences.  You are comfortable with the sounds and rhythm of spoken Japanese.  Where do you go from here?

The next item on your list is Katakana.

What is Katakana?

Katakana「 カタカナ・片仮名 」consists of the Chinese characters for piece, temporary, and name.  This could be translated as “fragmented temporary name”.  Katakana is another set of 46 syllabic symbols which could be considered as a mirror image of Hiragana, although different in purpose. Katakana originated with Buddhist monks of the Heian Period (794-1185 C.E.).  While working with manuscripts, they simplified Chinese characters by extracting a piece from many of them to form a type of shorthand to aid in efficiency.  The bits that were taken away became Katakana.  Originally, its use was exclusive to men, for historical documents, legal documents, and other official writings, but later it branched out to be utilized by all people.

Uses of カタカナ

While Hiragana is used for words of Japanese origin, a major implementation of Katakana is for use with words of foreign origin.  Words have been imported from many languages around the world, for example:


Portuguese:  pãoパンbread

English:  コンピュータcomputer

French:  pâtissierパティシエpastry chef

Russian:  Коксованияコンビナートindustrial complex

German:  Arbeitアルバイト part-time job

Additionally, Katakana is commonly used for animal names:







Company names:

toyota katakana.jpg


セガゲームス・SEGA (games)


イオングループ・AEON (group)


…and for many other things, including: in comic books「漫画・まん」,  in foreign names (Your name will always be spelled in Katakana.) , for emphasis, (similar to bold type, italics, or ALL CAPS) , technical terminology, and product names.

NOTE: Katakana is often used in advertising.

Coke in katakana.jpg

Learning カタカナ

There are two methods I would recommend.

Option 1: Learn Katakana, The Ultimate Guide


This guide was created by Koichi of  It is a straight-forward presentation of all the Katakana.  If you follow the directions exactly all the way through, you will know Katakana at the end.

NOTE: I am not in favor of the illustration for オ

Option 2: Japanese From Zero, Book 2


This is an excellent series by George Trombley of  The second book teaches all the Katakana slowly over the span of 12 lessons, integrating the symbols from the previous lessons as you progress. Vocabulary, grammar, and exercises are included in each lesson, and there is even a new video series with the author. (Book 2 starts with Video 32.)

NOTE: I advise using both of these consecutively.  (Learn Katakana, The Ultimate Guide will serve as a solid introduction, and Japanese From Zero, Book 2 will provide helpful reinforcement of the Katakana as you continue to develop your fluency in Japanese.)

Writing カタカナ

shi tsu su n.png

There are similarities to Hiragana for some of the Katakana, but quite few of them look different.  It is easy to fall behind with writing practice, because Katakana does not always appear as frequently as Hiragana, but it does appear, so make sure to practice just like you did with Hiragana.  Stroke order can be taxing, especially for the four pictured above.  If you see these written with a brush, the flow of strokes becomes more clear.

A (“Love”) Story for Remembering  シ , ツ , ソ , and ン

love story.jpg

: [The Romaji for シ is SHI, which in English can sound like SHE.]  So, imagine a guy who sees a beautiful girl.  He might turn his head quickly, and with a funny look say, “She シ is so beautiful.”

ツ : [The Romaji for ツ is TSU, which in English can sound like YOU…if you say it in a funny voice.] Then, when the girl notices him looking her way, she smiles and says, “You ツ …are you ツ …looking at me?”

ソ : [The Romaji for ソ is SO, which can sound like SOU or, in Hiragana: そう ]  And so, ソ he winks one eye and responds, ソ・「 そうです。」  (“Yes, I am”.)

She replies, “Well, would you like to get a coffee sometime?”

ン : [The Romaji for ン is N. In Japanese, there is a way to confirm something by saying UN, or in Hiragana: うん ] He answers ン ,「 うん。(“Yes.”)  Let’s go for coffee later on.」

And they lived happily ever after, I guess…

NOTE: This story is original to me.  (I conceived it.)

Listening for カタカナ


The easy thing about listening for Katakana is that usually it’s a dead give away.  Anything that does not sound like Japanese is probably Katakana.  You will want to keep an ear out for words that sound like English, or at least sound “Englishy”.  If you think you hear one, it is probably written in Katakana.  Keep in mind that Japanese only has 46 native sounds, so other sounds that are not native to Japan can be challenging for a Japanese person to pronounce.  This accounts for the variations in pronunciation between Katakana words and their source words.

For Optimal Success with カタカナ:

  1. Write them every day
  2. Follow the correct stroke order (especially with シ , ツ , ソ , and ン)
  3. Print out and post a Katakana chart on the wall at your home or office
  4. Read…instruction manuals? (That might be boring. Just be on the look-out for Katakana.)
  5. Listen to audio that might include Katakana transcribe the words you hear.
  6. Watch subtitled videos
  7. Practice typing
  8. Find out how to write your name.  (Accuracy may vary.  Confirm with native speaker.)
  9. Download an app

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.


Learn Japanese, Step 1: Romaji & Hiragana

hiragana blocks.jpg

NOTE: This article is part of a series.  If you are just browsing, feel free to skip ahead to Part 2 or Part 3.

A challenging aspect for beginning students of the Japanese language is working out where to start.  Unlike Western languages, which can share many commonalities, (use of the Roman alphabet, parallel grammar patterns, etc.) the components and structure of Japanese are more unique. It may take time to adapt to this.

I remember as a child first becoming interested in the language.  After some basic research, I unfortunately convinced myself that acquisition of Japanese would be impossible.  It would be several more years before I would entertain the thought again. Do not let this happen to you.  If you have a strong desire to learn a language, trust yourself. I cover this topic in my first article.

Reading is the secret to starting off successfully with a new language.  This is especially true in the case of Japanese. If you can read, then you know how words are meant to sound. Therefore, they are easily identifiable in spoken conversation, and can be understood, remembered, and produced with minimal effort.  Reading provides a basis and foundation for everything else that occurs with the language.

Reading in Japanese requires the knowledge of four writing systems.  Do not let this overwhelm you.  These writing systems are simpler than you would think and work together nicely, allowing for efficient comprehension and clarity in self-expression not available in other languages.  What’s more, if you are reading this, you have already mastered one of them.

What is Romaji?

romaji no.png

Romaji is based off of the Roman alphabet, common to languages like English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and others.  Roma means “Rome” and ji means “character”.  Thus, Roma + ji = “Rome character” or “Roman character”.  If you were to write it in Japanese it would look like this:「ローマ字」or「ローマじ」.

 There are only two times you need to use Romaji:

1. When you are writing Japanese words for people who don’t know Japanese

(For example, a Japanese man’s business card may include his name as Soichiro Honda for foreigners whom cannot read「本田 宗一郎」)

2. When you are learning Hiragana

If used at any time other that those specified above, it will be harmful to your progress in Japanese. The reason for this is that the Roman alphabet, at best, can offer only approximations of Japanese sounds. There are subtle differences that can reveal unnatural sound to the Japanese ear.  We can see this even between Romance languages, where for example, the ll in Spanish makes a y sound, while in Italian it retains the standard l sound.  Therefore, it cannot be taken at face value that sounds will always correspond, especially as Japanese comes from a totally separate language family.  Your goal should be to stop using Romaji as soon as possible.

What is Hiragana?

old hiragana.jpg

Hiragana「ひらがな・平仮名」consists of the Chinese characters for even, temporary, and name.  This could be translated as “smooth temporary name”is a set of 46 syllabic symbols which represent every possible sound in the Japanese language.  They were made by breaking down certain (more complex) Chinese characters into an elementary form.  Hiragana surfaced in the Nara Period (710-794 C.E.) but it was during the Heian Period (794-1185 C.E.) that it became widely used.  Initially the script was used by women only. Over time it was officially accepted and now is used by everyone. Learning Hiragana is the first task for the student of Japanese. Unlike Romaji, these symbols are indigenous to Japan, so you will essentially be learning your ABCs all over again.  (Hiragana is first taught to young children in primary school.)

Common ひらがな Words






Forty-six new symbols may seem like a lot at first, but honestly, learning them is really easy.  I learned Hiragana in 3 days, studying only 30 minutes each day.  Once you know Hiragana, you will be able to read a substantial amount of Japanese.  For me, it was a hugely motivating, amazing experience that turned on the green light for learning Japanese.

Learning ひらがな

There are two methods I would recommend. 

Option 1: Learn Hiragana, The Ultimate Guide

eels い.png

This guide was created by Koichi of  It is a straight-forward presentation of all the Hiragana.  If you follow the directions exactly all the way through, you will know Hiragana at the end.

Option 2: Japanese From Zero, Book 1


This is an excellent series by George Trombley of  The first book teaches all the Hiragana slowly over the span of 13 lessons, integrating the symbols from the previous lessons as you progress. Vocabulary, grammar, and exercises are included in each lesson, and there is even a new video series with the author.

NOTE: I advise using both of these consecutively.  (Learn Hiragana, The Ultimate Guide will serve as a solid introduction, and Japanese From Zero, Book 1 will provide helpful reinforcement of the Hiragana while you learn the basics of Japanese.)

Writing  ひらがな

writing hiragana hand.jpg

After being able to identify the Hiragana, you need to be able to write them. This will require practice and dedication on a daily basis.  You can use designated practice sheets or just a regular notebook. If you write them every day, they will begin appearing more natural, and within a few weeks reading and writing in Japanese will become second nature.

Listening for ひらがな

listen hiragana.png

Once you feel like you are getting the hang of it, start listening to Japanese audio. There are a lot of great podcasts out there.  Check iTunes for the best results. Isn’t it funny how you can spell out the words perfectly by only hearing them?  If you are having trouble, try listening to slow Japanese at first.

For Optimal Success with ひらがな :

  1. Write them every day
  2. Follow the correct stroke order
  3. Print out and post a Hiragana chart on the wall at your home or office
  4. Read children’s books (to see how words are formed)
  5. Listen to audio and transcribe what you hear
  6. Watch subtitled videos
  7. Practice typing
  8. Download an app

The Hiragana Song

By: MissHanake

(Download available in video description box.)

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.

¿Qué es HiNative?

HiNative note

Para los que no saben HiNative es una página web y aplicación gratuita para aprender idiomas disponible en iOS.  Sirve como un medio para conectar estudiantes de idiomas de todo el mundo para hacer preguntas y respuestas sobre idiomas.  Por ejemplo, si a lo largo de sus estudios encuentra una oración que no puedes entender, puedes publicar en HiNative, donde uno o más hablantes nativos pueden darte una respuesta y una aclaración.

Lo genial de HiNative es que es una página muy activa, por lo tanto sus preguntas hallarán respuesta.  La interfaz es muy agradable para los usuarios, y también hay un montón de características.  Yo recomiendo descargar esta aplicación para iPhone.  Con el iPhone, la accesibilidad de bolsillo puede ser como un regalo del cielo durante los momentos en que mueres por saber algo.  También, le asegura que tengas un registro de preguntas para consultarlas más tarde.

Cuando publicas una pregunta yo recomiendo usar las grabaciones de audio y también escribir la pregunta completa. Así, la persona al otro lado va a tener una mejor oportunidad para entender, pudiendo leer y escuchar los dos.  Otra razón para usar audio es que la persona que responde podría ofrecer consejos de pronunciación, además de la pregunta original.  Cuanto más puedas ganar mediante el intercambio, mejor.

Al recibir la primera respuesta, es mejor si puedes esperar un poco para obtener más respuestas.  Es posible que la respuesta de la primera persona que conteste sea incorrecta.  Entonces, dar más tiempo a otras respuestas va ayudar a consolidar una respuesta que puede ser correcta, o va a mostrar que es un error.  En algunos casos, la gente que conteste de otros países o regiones distintas posiblemente tendrá sus propias interpretaciones de cómo debe ser la respuesta. Esperar múltiples respuestas es un buen método para verificar una respuesta precisa.

Cuando tenga la seguridad de que la respuesta o las respuestas a su pregunta sean correctas, asegúrese de practicarlas inmediatamente.  Hacer uso de todas las oportunidades para practicar va a reafirmar sus conocimientos, hasta que formen parte de su repertorio lingüístico.

¡Buena suerte con sus estudios!

Gracias por leer.