Myth and Matter Links

How to Learn a Foreign Language in Your Spare Time

Since this is an article entirely focused on one topic, learning languages, I want to start with a non-obvious answer to the question  “why would you spend so much time learning a language?” 

The answer is that it’s often the only thing I have time and/or mental capacity to do. Between working full-time and an active family, there aren’t many opportunities left in the day for uninterrupted focus. Then, if there is a block of time, I’m often simply too tired to dig into something that requires my full attention. Language learning, as it turns out, is perfect for those times. As long as some preparation has been done beforehand, I can spend anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours opening up an app or some flashcards (see below for examples) and get in some solid learning. Interruptions are fine, having only a few minutes is fine. I can jump in, get a quick session done and go back to whatever else needs my attention. The best part is, it’s fun. Once I have a new word or phrase in my head, I’ll teach it to my kids or repeat it out loud a few times. I’ve found that it gives me the same kind of boost as playing an iPhone game.

So, apart from all the obvious reasons for learning a language (travel, communication, etc.) that’s why learning languages has been so enjoyable for me. Check out the resources below and give it a try, maybe you’ll find some of the same enjoyment.

Gabriel Wyner, my favorite language learning expert and the author of Fluent Forever, a must have book for anyone studying languages, has updated his popular learning technique. He wrote about it in an article called On Hacking Fluent Forever. Well worth the read.


And… here’s the big list:

  • I’ve started using Memrise heavily over the last few weeks. They’ve updated their mobile apps and website and it’s become a close second to Duolingo. Memrise is mostly free, thought they do have a premium plan. I don’t think the premium plan is necessary for learning, but I subscribed because I think they’re a great business, in particular, I am excited to see the results of their Membus Tour – currently on Kickstarter. Memrise was founded by my second favorite language learning expert, Ed Cooke (the link goes to his book on Amazon).
  • Have I mentioned that Duolingo has Russian now?
  • In addition to Duolingo and Memrise, I use Anki heavily. It’s a spaced repetition flashcard app that is free for computers with an (expensive) iOS version available as well. Check out Gabriel Wyner’s pronunciation trainer decks for the best Anki resource on sounding like a native speaker.
  • The Actual Fluency podcast is generally pretty good. It helps keep the motivation up.
  • The Chunking Express – this is a quick Economist article that can really make your learning more focused and effective.
  • There are a bunch of other language learning sites that are up-and-coming. Some are better than others, I simply haven’t had time to try them all extensively:
    • Readlang – Chrome extension that trains you by translating words to or from your target language inline then saves your translations to flashcards.
    • Verbling – native speaking tutors and lessons. ~$10 – 25 an hour.
    • Ling
    • Forgo – Cool, extensive and free pronunciation dictionary.
    • Bliu Bliu – language learning for intermediate learners.
    • – learn by reading and translating articles.
    • CoffeeStrap – text chat with native speakers.
    • FluentU – learn by watching videos. Pretty slick translation interface.
    • italki – lessons from native speakers.
    • HelloTalk – language exchange for mobile devices.
    • Speaky – another language exchange.
    • MangoLanguages – good online conversational lessons. Expensive if you pay for it yourself, but most likely free through your public library. My favorite part is the feature that lets you easily compare your pronunciation with that of a native speaker.

In addition to all these there are scads of terrible mobile apps (and a few good ones). My recommendation would be to try the above before going to the app store. Also notice that nowhere in this list is a certain software that comes in a yellow box mentioned. I’ll leave it at that.

If that’s not enough, here’s another extensive, but somewhat unfiltered, list of resources.

As always, you can find me on Twitter @zzzmarcus and online at my website. You can reply to (or forward) this with feedback or questions and, if you reply in a different language, even better 🙂

Myth and Matter Links

A Potpourri of Brain Food

Nobody will like all of these links, everybody will like at least one:

  • If you use Google Photos for your personal pictures, try using search. It is incredible. Search for something like “Volkswagen” or “red shirt” or “acoustic guitar” or pretty much anything else. It just works. It’s also much faster than any other online photo backup / management app I’ve used.
  • The bluegrass band The Cleverlys do Gangam Style entirely in Korean. Impressive.
  • Jerry (who has no online presence) recommended this MIT course on algorithms. It’s taught by Erik Demaine who is a fantastic visual artist and one of the best teachers I can remember having. It requires a bit of programming knowledge but is otherwise very accessible
  • The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello is a book that reminds me some of Krishnamurti, except from a Jesuit perspective. It’s a strong catalyst for change, even for a secular reader. It’s short and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
  • Mandatory language learning link: This one is personal and less than 140 characters: How I Learned Cyrillic. (spoiler alert: brute force)
  • Hubert Dreyfus’ Lectures on Heidegger’s Being and Time. I haven’t listened to these yet, but I’m putting them here because someone should.
  • And a semi-random thought to finish the list: There are four types of hormones – peptide, amino acid, eicosanoid and steroid.
Myth and Matter Links

China, That Little Country with 423% of The Population of the US

I’ve never been to China, but would love to go, especially after reading Liu Cixin. It’s been fascinating exploring the Eastern way of thinking–very old, very mature, yet so different from Western thought.

  • I loved the book Three Body Problem by Chinese author Liu Cixin, but The Dark Forest is twice as long and, I think, twice as good. This trilogy is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Cixin might not be as inventive as Neal Stephenson and he may not have the character breadth of fantasy authorBrandon Sanderson, but in terms of pure science fiction, he’s up there withIsaac Asimov.
  • The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard Nisbett dives into why China never developed science in the Western sense, but how their very different way of thinking led to many pragmatic inventions and a worldview Westerners could learn a lot from. I’m only a couple chapters in, but have already have learned a ton.
  • Speaking of different ways of thinking… I’ve seen The I Ching, or, Book of Changes referenced many times, but I’ve never read it. I’m still a complete noob but this version has a great forward by Carl Jung (read it online here). He explains how what could seem comparable to astrology or a magic book of spells can be useful to even the Western mind.
  • ? is “wood” or “tree” in Chinese. ? is “forest.” Cool.
  • That 423% number came from WolframAlpha, one of the most impressive search sites on the Internet.
Myth and Matter Links

Short Stories about Deity

My friend Seth and I have been trading short stories that explore the idea of God for the last few years. This is a list of some of the best. Sit back and enjoy them for what they are, fun stories and thought experiments. They’re all available freely online.

  • The Last Question by Isaac Asimov. His “favorite story,” one that encompasses all of human history in just a few pages.
  • Answer by Fredric Brown. Just read it :), the whole thing is almost short enough to Tweet.
  • Talking to God from The Ragged Trousered Philosopher. God answers some questions in a chance encounter with an atheist on the bus.
  • Hell Is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang. Angels visit Earth in a dramatic way. This one is a pretty dark. I included mostly just for the sake of completion… skip it maybe.
  • The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke. What do a bunch of Tibetan monks need with a supercomputer?
  • The Egg by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. If everyone thought this way, Earth would be awesome.
  • I don’t know, Timmy, being God is a big responsibility by qntm. What happens when a group of engineers creates a quantum computer capable of simulating the universe?
Myth and Matter Links

Why Superintelligence Matters

Start with this article on Wait But Why. Its fascinating and shouldn’t be missed even if you have almost no interest in computers.

The article is largely based on Nick Bostrom’s work. If you like it, you should check out his book book Superintelligence. It also discusses many of Ray Kurzweil’s ideas. Some of which are a bit far fetched, but hey, this is AI we’re talking about, it’s all far fetched.

More AI Stuff

Myth and Matter Links

Escape Depression! Climb Mount Everest in Shorts! Run a Marathon in the Desert Without Water! Heal From Anything Faster!

shop black bridesmaid gowns

Wim Hof has done all of it and wants to teach you how. His claims seem sensationalistic to put it mildly, but science is confirming them all. I think he’s on to something big. If you haven’t listened to him, it’s worth it. I’ve tried his breathing technique. It’s easy and it works.

Myth and Matter Links

Coding Bootcamps

I recently did a survey of Coding Bootcamps. These are schools that train you to become a programmer over a few month’s time. There are many of them and some look pretty good. Here’s the list if you’re looking to change careers: App AcademyBlocCode FellowsCoding DojoDev BootcampFullstack AcademyGeneral AssemblyHack ReactorStartup Institute.