Category Archives: Personal Development

How To Become A Polyglot

This post was inspired by the European Day of Languages

First of all, let me tell you that even though the word polyglot sounds a bit intimidating, it only refers to the people who speak more than one language.

Language Learning FAQ:

Q: Are you an expert linguist or what? Why should I take your advice? You’re 16!

A: I’m not an expert linguist and I don’t pretend to be. I just happen to like languages a lot and to be very fast at picking them up. I just thought I could share a few (lengthy) tips that have helped me learn English, French and now Swahili.

Q: Can’t I just wait until the whole world speaks English?

A: You can, but you don’t know what you’re missing! For example, I’ve been told I have a clear writing style -in all the languages I speak. I was not born with this ability, it comes from learning languages!

Q: How long will it take to be fluent?

A: It depends on the frequency and efficiency of your studies. However, if you are not able to carry a conversation with ease or understand a complex text within half a year, you are not learning the language properly. The time it takes to achieve fluency is greatly reduced by the number of languages you already speak. Also, the standard of fluency varies from country to country. If you’re learning an European language, it’s usually very high.

Q: Will I look stupid when speaking a foreign language?

A: At first, yes. You’ll express yourself like a 5-year-older (one that doesn’t have a potato in his mouth, if you’re good). Resistance is futile. Prepare to be humiliated. But then it gets better.

Q: Will I mix up the languages?

A: If you’re not very bright, perhaps. Otherwise, it is very easy to keep your head thinking in one language at a time and your mouth behaving accordingly. You will do this voluntarily at first by need, and that’s OK to some extent (“A qué hora quedamos en… la… beach”) but try not to abuse it.

Multilingualism Facts and Figures

  • It is far from strange to be a polyglot: Multilingual speakers outnumber those who can only speak one language in the world.
  • The language with more secondary speakers is French (190 million), followed by English (150 million) and Russian (128 million).
  • The more languages you speak, the easier it is to pick up a new one.
  • Languages all borrow from each other.
  • It is common in Europe and India to speak three languages.
  • It is  uncommon in the US to speak more than one language (17% speak two and many of them are immigrants).

Picking A Language

Not every language is good for every person. If you plan to learn several languages but speak only one now, many recommend Esperanto as your first second language because it’s made to be simple and fast to pick up while containing elements of many languages, providing a good base for further training.

It is easier to learn a language that is closely related to the ones you already speak. However, don’t make the mistake I made with Portuguese: languages that are too similar may bore you to death. Start with the same language family of your first language, but make sure that you are interested in the tongue: don’t base your choice in ease and speed of learning.

If you want to live in a certain country in the future for a long period, then it’s obvious that you should have at least basic knowledge of the language (that you can start improving the moment you set foot in it’s ground).

Do you enjoy reading? If you do, you must know that most of the great works of universal literature were not written originally in English, and there’s nothing like the original, right? My main inspiration to learn French were the works of Jules Verne, an writer I enjoy a thousand times more now I can read in French. Great choices are also Russian and Spanish. It’s really up to you and the kind of books you like reading (or films you like watching!).

If you want what I call “a totally awesome mind-blowing language experience” (I’m not good with names), then the one to choose is one that is completely different from the one or ones you speak. For example, I speak Spanish. Then I learn French and discover the grammar and syntax are similar. Then I go to France and discover that the people and customs are similar. Not the same, obviously, but still similar.   But then I start learning Swahili and it takes me a week to start finding resemblances to Spanish. The way Swahili is structured, it makes me think very differently than in English or Spanish. In different languages you can think and express concepts you may not be able to in your first. I recommend a couple hours in Wikipedia checking out exotic languages – you’ll be fascinated!

Lastly, a good guide to pick a language is your career and your interests. For example, I want to be an archaeologist and I am fascinated by ancient Egypt and Greece, so I assume I will be learning Egyptian and Greek at some point of my life. It may not be so obvious for professions that involve less travelling and history, but I’m sure you can find a way a language can help you be better at what you do best. Philosophers and psychologists I know are fans of Greek and German.

Learning The Basics

If the language you want to learn uses a different alphabet, by all means learn the language in that alphabet from the beginning. Don’t use some wishy-washy adaptations. You’ll regret.

Same way a lot of bricks are not a house, a lot of words are not a language. The first thing you want to know is the basic structure of the language: what the morphemes are and how they are put together to make words, and what the word classes are and how they are put together to make sentences. I’m not saying you must master Russian grammar the first day, I’m saying that you must not begin by learning random words (the colours, the verb to be, some animals…) because you will forget it all the second week. You must have something to which to stick the words you learn from the very beginning. There’s a wonderful book on this topic, The Loom of Language, which you should read if you are serious about the subject matter.

You will discover that learning the grammar of a second language will improve your use and knowledge of your beloved mother tongue. Same way, the more you know about said tongue’s grammar, the better equipped you are to learn new ones.

Another very important thing is to learn to respect the language. This is, accept that when you’re speaking Arabic you are speaking Arabic, and not translating English into Arabic. Every other language is not a translation of your mother tongue – they are individual languages that deserve respect. Don’t phrase in English and then translate -even from the very beginning- but give the other language a chance to be the the one in which you think to being with.

Learning Methods

The idea is to combine some or all of the following as it best suits you. Of course, you can also sign up for a class, but I don’t like schedules. It’s better to go at your own pace.

Travelling: This one seems to be the fastest and the one that deliver bests results. When you are surrounded by people who don’t speak what you speak, you will need to pick up their language fast. Need is the mother of invention, you know.

Speaking Online: If travelling is not an option at the moment, the best you can do is pick a webcam and a mic and start contacting people who speak the language you are learning. You can also use written IM or emails. Make sure to contact only people with whom you wish to begin a friendship of at least become acquainted, though. Don’t use people just to practise a language – that’s just plain mean and disrespectful.

Thought Method: Try to think on the new language and only in that language for a few hours a day. Perhaps just lay on your bed and start thinking about your day or your year. It’s faster than writing it all down, and the continuous flow of ideas will help you phrase concepts fast. It makes you feel the language as yours.

Input Method: Watch films, read books, read poetry, listen to music. A LOT. I learnt English mostly by input method. It’s main advantage is that you are given a lot of different situations and are getting the language at it’s full (some native speakers will dumb and slow down their speech so that you can understand them better). You are also getting to know the culture of the country or countries by the way they express themselves through literature and music, and it’s a highly enjoyable system. You can read out loud to practise pronunciation, but only if you are sure you know the proper sounds.

Creation Method: Start actually writing in the language. Songs, poetry, long letters, a journal, it doesn’t matter. Just use the language as much as you can. It works better if someone corrects it later. When we chat with friends we tend not to respect grammar very much. It is not good to learn a language only by using it with other people. You may learn to use it, but you will lack style and deep understanding, thus never being able to master it.

Studying: You will need to study grammar when you’re starting, as stated above, and when you want to improve your skills. But you will not learn to speak a language by studying grammar only. This belief may result in the dreaded “I’ve been studying Spanish for two years” “Qué te parece España? Te gusta?” “I’ve said I’m only STUDYING!”. Think twice before buying grammar books – there are vast amounts of free information online for almost every language. If you are a fan of printed media, the Lonely Planet Phrasebooks are excellent for quick, handy reference. Just don’t spend hundreds in learning material, it’s not worth it.

Woah! That was long! I shall bore you no longer 🙂 Thanks for making it all the way to the bottom, and if you live in the EU like me, please remember that there are many European Days Of Stuff such as this one (that are barely remembered outside of Brussels) that are very interesting to take into account.

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When Nothing Makes Sense, The Problem Is You

We all have our model of reality, which is different from everyone else’s. Some people think we humans are good by nature while others will die to defend the opposite. Some believe that a supernatural entity created the heavens and the Earth, and some don’t.

We all want, to some degree, to have an accurate model of reality. To achieve that, some turn to philosophy: a field of knowledge where every great figure is in disagreement with the others. Quoting Logicomix:

A Platonist thinks appearance is but a bad copy of real reality… while an Aristotelian puts all his faith in observation! Are mental concepts innate or acquired? “Innate”, says the great Kant! “Acquired”, says the great Hume! Is there an opposition between mind and matter? Yes, says Descartes. No, says Spinoza. “Why, it’s all in the mind” Berkeley says [bumps into lamppost] A rather extreme view if you ask me.

Given that science has not (yet) answered all questions we have about life, it seems impossible to get to a safe conclusion here.

However, this does not mean you can stick to your own interpretation of events if it’s wrong! Let me explain. Have you ever heard someone say, or said yourself, that “nothing makes sense”? For example:

  • Why would someone want to do harm to others? It doesn’t make sense!
  • Why does God allow for hunger in the world? It doesn’t make sense!
  • Why did he help me if he couldn’t get anything out of it? It doesn’t make sense!

But for most people is takes much more than one inconsistency to start questioning their models of reality. It shouldn’t take more than one. If philosophy was a science, then one counter-proof to your model means that something is wrong with it and it needs revision! It is certainly more likely that your model of reality is wrong than that millions of people are behaving wrongly, everyday, for thousands of years, isn’t it? Would you approach a person with “excuse me, sir, but I am afraid you are behaving incorrectly. People don’t work like that. Could you please act accordingly to my personal views”?

So folks, don’t assume you are right about life. If you observe something doesn’t work as you think it does, you are wrong. We are all attached to our philosophical views (they’re the one thing that’s ours after all), but trying to be accurate in such a chaotic area won’t do any harm.

Best regards, and wear sunscreen. Those bastards reach you even when you’re inside, looking at a glowing rectangle, in winter.

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Basic Guide To Learning

This is not a comprehensive guide to the mastery of any subject (as the title implies). It’s just a set of three principles that it’s good to keep in mind every time we try to acquire some new knowledge.

Learning principle number 1: Everything is connected.

Politics is really Psychology. Psychology is really Biology. Biology is really Chemistry. Chemistry is really Physics. Physics is really Maths.

Have you ever wondered why so many great minds are multidisciplinary? Take a look at  Leonardo da Vinci: “Italian polymath: painter, sculptor,architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer”. Well, turns out, every area of knowledge is connected with all the others. maths can teach you how to paint.

This is especially evident with languages. The more languages you know, the easier it is for you to learn new ones. This is where I discovered the importance of learning all those technical names for the words we already know how to use.

This is why I find it hard to believe that some scientists subscribe to the argument “you can’t apply the scientific method to religion and morals, it’s based on faith”. You either apply the scientific method, or you don’t. There is no such thing as unrelated areas. If you can affirm something is true without evidence in religion, you may be just as willing to do that in physics (my advice: be consistent!).

For further insights on this topic check out Holistic Learning(.pdf) and The Loom of Language(book).

Learning principle number 2:  Background matters.

“I study and study, but I can’t possibly pass this subject! How can it be, if it’s my favourite?”.

While it is a fact that some people are smarter than others, I believe the most important factor that differentiates a dedicated C student from a dedicated A student is when they started caring.

The people who is doing best in my class these high school years happen to be the ones that were interested in the subjects since they were very little. They read books, they asked questions. They have been building a knowledge base for their lifetimes.

On the other hand, some students have recently started caring about the subject at the same level than their A-obtainer counterparts. They probably used to study by repetition, not really understanding the content. They lack understanding of the most basic concepts of the matter, and thus have it extremely difficult to understand the more complex ones.

According to the first principle, the base you need to build for a new area of interest must be wide and comprehend several other areas. For example, if you want to learn Swahili, it’s not enough to learn the basic syntax and pronunciation. It’s also important to learn the history of the language and the culture of the people who speak it, among other things.

Learning principle number 3: Learning is organic.

“School is like Britannica. Learning is like Wikipedia”.

The educational system we have is linear. That means that you start at one point and you follow a line of increasingly complex concepts until someday you know enough and  get a diploma. The content is sorted in complexity order the same way the words are sorted in alphabetical order in a classical encyclopaedia.

There is no traced line from beginning to mastery of a subject or skill. You should not start learning by the basics, if the basics are not what interest you most. Learning must be a pleasant experience, always. Learning is like navigating Wikipedia. You see something you like, so you learn about it. While learning about it, you see related concepts that interest you, so you learn about them. Repeat.

When you learn in a non-linear way (organic if you will), the principle of background matters applies itself. You will not understand the most complex ideas so you will expand your knowledge until you do.

Note that this is closely related to “everything is connected” (as is should be, ’cause everything is connected ;))

For further insights on this topic check out Bring On The Learning Revolution(video), Math Class Needs a Makeover(video) and The Learning Revolution(Facebook Group).

I apologize for the made-up quotes on principles 2 and 3. I don’t know any quote that fits there! 🙂


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Clothes: Your Most Powerful Long Range Social Weapon

Picture a world where all the boys and girls are impeccably well dressed – Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother).

I used to be fashion-blind. I used to dress in jeans and a T-shirt. I didn’t know what a powerful tool clothes were.

We have many weapons we use to “win” people over: a good handshake, manners, a charming accent and so on.

But these are all short-distance “weapons”. You can’t shoot a handshake across the room. But you can transmit something of who you are over the air: your looks.

While some parts of your look, such as your face or height, do not speak of your personality because you are not able to control them (your expression does, however), the way you dress speaks volumes about you.

We are told not to judge a book by it’s cover, but covers contain some valuable information. When a book cover features a flying saucer on it, you assume it’s science-fiction, and when a woman is wearing a skirt that barely covers her bottom, you assume she’s a slut.

You can actually transmit any attribute of your personality through your clothes. Clothes can be just as “conservative”, “funny”, “different”, “innovative”, “sexy” and “outgoing” as you.

We don’t get to know most people we meet very well, so the first impression is extremely important. Clothes can do a lot in your favour before you ever open your mouth.

Personally, I don’t like clothes that are trendy (same way I usually don’t root for most trends of any kind). I prefer wearing classic items in solid colours with only one item -many times an accessory- that has a pattern. The classic clothes represent that I’m not a regular teenager -and more- and the patterned item that I’m even weirder: not a regular person in general.

But that’s only my general style. Each individual item has it’s own attributes and they combine together to send a message. If you don’t consciously form it, you may be sending the wrong message.

Steve Pavlina covers this extensively here and here.

Also, clothes can make you look great

One rule of thumb I use when buying clothes is that “if I look better naked, then I don’t take it”.

There are thousands of shirts, pants, skirts, ties, heels and jeans in the world. Why should you ever waste your time and money in something that doesn’t look absolutely stunning on you?

Also, you must wear clothes that fit. A girl tries on a shirt and her love handles are showing off awfully. Her friend points it out: “But I’m a size 4! The shirt I was wearing today was a 4!”. You may be one size for one designer and two sizes bigger for another. Or you may need to lose weight. Get over it. Buy what looks good on you, not what you think should look good.

Plus, wearing a suit makes any guy automatically twice as hot. Thousands of girls agree with me.

A suit brings instant memories of James Bond to a woman's head.

Also known as "The Bond Effect".

Not to mention, knowing you look great in your clean and nicely ironed clothes and that some of the best features or your personality are being shown is an absolute confidence boost. You feel ready to succeed.

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5 Reasons Why Procrastination Done Right is Good For You

What is procrastination done right? Procrastination done wrong is when you spend the time you should have spent working on that report feeling guilty for not working on that report. Procrastination done right is when you spend the time you should have spent working on that report relaxing and playing piano.  In other words, when you’ve got yourself some quality time.

1. It forces you to be creative

You’ve pushed the time you were going to start designing that brochure to the last possible minute. Now what? Now you’ve got to use all of your resources and even invent new ones out of the blue, pushing the borders of your creativity to new territory. You’ve got to really give your best, or you’re fucked.

Waiting until the last night to study for tests for all my high school years has forced me to come up with a whole new set of memory, reading and comprehension skills I could have never dreamt of. Some of them include the “10 minute intensive background research to get interested in the topic and learn the stuff fast” or the “30 second mind map in every class before the test hour”. I never go below a B and I remember what I learn for years (one thing that can’t be said of most students who memorize 2 hours a day), because the only way to learn something fast is to understand it.

Procrastination usually provides high-quality results.

2. It helps you build self-confidence

Do you know how good I feel when I get an A on a test? I feel like I’m the king of the world. All these people who obtained the same grade I did spent a lot time studying -probably just memorizing- and only improved in the five better-known study methods, which have little use outside school. Me? I’ve learnt to learn a little faster than yesterday. I feel great. I feel like I can do anything. When you do a month’s project in two hours and the result is brilliant, you feel like you’ve achieved the impossible.

3. It makes you happy and relaxed (95% of the time)

Imagine you have 5 hours to do a task. But you don’t feel like doing it. If you got to it and tried to finish it really fast, you couldn’t, because your only motivation to do so is that you are bored with it. You’ll probably spend 4-5 hours doing the task, with many, many ultra-short breaks to check your email, wash your hands for the 5th time and so on (in other words, procrastination done wrong).

Those four of five hours wouldn’t be much enjoyed. You probably would start stressing because you don’t feel like you’re advancing with the task.

But if you instead took four of those five hours and used them to do something you really want to do, such as playing your favourite musical instrument or reading a book, you would have got yourself some quality time to enjoy life and improve your skills. Now, back to the task. A 5 hour job in under 1? Now it’s a challenge! You’ll probably be stressed while you do it, but I think it’s worth to trade 5 hours of boredom for 1 hour of stress.

4. It teaches you to remain calmed and avoid stress

Many times, procrastinators stress about the tasks they have to do in such a short time, but realizing that they can accomplish things in a shorter time than others and do it well helps them remain calmed in most of other situations where people who don’t believe in the power of procrastination would break down screaming “two days! he wants us to do that in two days!”.

Also, there comes a moment in the life of every serial procrastinator when they realize that not stressing enough lead them to that situation, and stressing too much would only make them lose even more time, so they achieve the perfect stress balance: the state in which you get things done.

5. It saves you time

Indeed, the methods and techniques to finish stuff fast you learn while you procrastinate provide highly useful later in other tasks. For example, when I study something I’m interested about I am a much faster learner than I would be if I had not developed all those fast-learning tips and tricks.

Procrastination teaches you how to get things done fast, and well.

But remember! All these things only work if you are committed to deliver a high-quality product: if you don’t accept anything less than your best.


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My 2 Role Models

Felicia Day (Actress)

This gorgeous girl is not only a brilliant scriptwriter and a great actress but also a total maths nerd and video game geek. She holds two university degrees: mathematics and music performance.

Similarly to what I said about Captain Kirk from Star Trek, she proves that you can be smart, beautiful and creative at the same time. But she also is a girl, so she inspires me even more.

What I like about her is that she is an actress who starts projects of her own. She inspired me to write a play, and guess what? We represented it this year in my school. And that was the day I discovered I loved to be on stage.

She proves to be a great singer in Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which I highly recommend you watch. She is also the writer and main actress of the web series The Guild, which is about a group of MMO (Massive multiplayer online role-playing games) players.

I highly enjoy all of her performances and I want to grow up to be more like her.

Bertrand Piccard (Psychiatrist and Balloonist)

Piccard was, along with Brian Jones, the first to complete a non-stop balloon flight around the world. This amazed me because what people do mostly is to beat previous records. Few people are “firsts” these days, specially in something as old as ballooning!

He wants to repeat the adventure, but this time on solar-powered plane designed and constructed by his team. He says that this is to prove that we can rely on solar power for everything. That if we can fly one man around the world today, it’s just a matter of time to fly two hundred. And no one could ever say again that it is impossible to get rid of our dependency on fossil fuels.

The project is called Solar Impulse and dubbed “a great human adventure”. On the Solar Impulse website, you can read a fantastic Jules Verne quote: “All that is impossible remains to be achieved”.

It deeply inspires me that there are people like Bertrand Piccard in the world, innovating and pushing the human race forward. I sincerely hope he and his team succeed and prove their plane can work day and night on solar power.

Honouring the name of this blog, I’ve purchased their set of badges, or the “adventurer” package on their website (you can also personalize a solar cell or write your name on the plane). They’re awesome!

Check out his incredible talk on TED.

I want to be like him when I grow up. Actually, I’m getting a small craft pilot licence as soon as I’m old enough to do so.

But what’s the lesson you can learn from both? They do what they love. Unless you do what you love, you have zero chances of success. At least, of this kind of success: the kind that leaves a mark and inspires others to do the same.

If you are a parent, I encourage you to present this kind of people to your children as role models instead of what they usually get from TV: Hanna Montana, Lady Gaga, etc. It really makes a difference.


Filed under Personal Development

Best Things I’ve Done: Learning A New Language.

Update! For an in-depth guide on getting started with languages, check out How To Become A Polyglot.

I first started learning English in school at the age of 6 and French at the age of 12, but I never became fluent in any of those languages until I finally understood the real benefits of speaking those languages.

The moment I realised I really wanted to become fluent in English was when I was watching Blade Runner in said language with Spanish subtitles and I understood one line they said, then read the subtitle line and said “but it’s not the same thing he said!”. In that moment I noticed that there are certain thoughts and messages that can only be expressed in one language. Every time I watch now a film in English with subtitles (when I watch it with someone else) I can see the subs say the same thing the characters say, but it’s not quite the same thing. Many deep levels of film lines are lost in translation.

But then it hit me even harder: “Wait. What about books? All my favourite books are in English!”. Now I really, really had to learn English.

The same thing happened to me with French. I wanted to read Jules Verne and many other writers as they originally intended their thoughts and words. I don’t want to risk missing anything. I don’t believe in translations any more. Lately, I’ve been thinking how great it would be to read Solaris in Polish. It’s one of my favourite novels so it might be worth it.

But there’s one more wonderful thing about foreign languages. It’s the moment you realize you can actually think in a different language. You have to experience that (it sounds like Also Sprach Zarathustra and it feels like awesome). no more translating word-by-word in your head before speaking. Now you are expressing yourself with a whole new set of words and even different rules. Along the lines of the previous idea, you are thinking differently. Such a great brain exercise, isn’t it? You may even be able to express ideas you couldn’t express before. The more languages you speak, the better you understand yourself. It’s like learning new vocabulary, but in a whole new level: learning new syntaxes.

Also, you feel like you understand something you previously didn’t. When you translate in a language word-by-word, you don’t quite think of it as anything more than a different set of words, but when you use it in your head, to think, it’s an eureka moment. That set of strange words and rules finally make sense.


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