The Year Without English

Hey, if you’re reading this now, the project is finished. Vat and I left Seoul, South Korea on August 27th, 2014 and concluded just over a year of travel. I’ve written an in-depth summary evaluating the successes and stumbles of the trip, but for a quick version:

  1. Did we go the whole year without speaking English? No. But we did get pretty close to no English in Spain and Brazil. China and Korea were more mixed.
  2. Can we speak all four of the languages? Yes. We’re in an intermediate level in all four. Spanish is my best and Korean is my worst. Vat’s best is also Spanish and his worst is Chinese.

See our TEDx Talk about the project here:

I want to announce my next learning project, The Year Without English. The challenge is to live in four countries, learn four languages and attempt to speak zero English for an entire year.

Along this trip I’m going to be accompanied by my good friend, Vat Jaiswal. Vat is also going to be learning all four languages, under the same constraint of not speaking English, even though he has never learned foreign language as an adult.

Together, we want to show an honest record of what the process of full immersion is like. Excitement and burnout, triumphs and embarrassing slip ups, we want to share the experience of what it is like to abandon speaking the language you’re most comfortable with and attempt to learn something strange and new.

The Languages

We want to document the trip in two principle ways. First, we want to record a daily sample of our actual conversations from that day. Second, when each leg of our trip is complete, we want to compile it into a short video which will have an audio timelapse, drawn from our daily audio logs, so anyone can watch whatever progress we made along the way.

Here are the four countries with the language we’ll be attempting to learn in each. We’ll update each of these below with our audio logs and the video, once complete.

1. Spain (Valencia) – Spanish

To get a longer assessment of our level of Spanish when we left, see this interview we did with Benny Lewis of FluentInThreeMonths:

In Spain, we also recorded near-daily conversations, so you can pop in and check our Spanish level as it actually progressed.

2. Brazil (Florianopolis) – Portuguese

To get a longer assessment of our level of Portuguese when we left, see this interview we did with Portuguese professor, Renata Luis:

Once again, in Brazil, we recorded frequent conversations on SoundCloud so you can see our progress.

3. Kunming, Shanghai (China) and Taipei (Taiwan) – Mandarin Chinese

I have two interviews, one with Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese recorded at the 3.5 month mark and another with John Pasden of Sinosplice recorded at the 3 month point.

In China we recorded daily conversations for the first half of our project. Unfortunately, I had my cellphone stolen and our schedules made further recordings quite cumbersome, so we stopped the daily recordings at around the halfway point.

4. South Korea (Seoul) – Korean

After three countries, with three videos all done in the same style, Vat and I opted for something a little different. Check it out in the above video!

Project FAQ

Q: Will you really speak zero English on this trip?

We really are trying to go without speaking English, but full avoidance is impossible. For one, my business often requires me to get on the phone and speak to someone. Second, my mother would probably kill me if I didn’t speak to her for an entire year.

So we have a small list of exceptions:

  1. Anything absolutely necessary for work.
  2. Calling family members.
  3. Emergencies (like dealing with customs officials or police officers)

In all I hope that the combination of #1 and #2 will be less than an hour per week of speaking in English. Everything else—any conversations we have with each other, friends we make, etc. will be done in the language of the country we’re in.

Keep in mind the rule is no speaking English. Although I’ll want to communicate with people I meet in the written form of the language I use to speak with them, I’m (of course) going to continue blogging, answering emails and posting written updates in English. My goal is to keep my blog updated the same way I did during the MIT Challenge, which had a minimal time commitment.

Note: The rule was only a partial success on the trip. In Spain and Brazil, Vat and I were successful at avoiding speaking English expect for a few emergencies. In China and Korea, we did break the rule occasionally, on account of these languages being harder and fatigue from the trip itself.

Q: How much preparation did you do in each language prior to going?

When I asked my good friend, Benny Lewis, himself a language learning veteran, for advice on the project his first thought was: learn as much as you can before you get to each country. Our goal was to show it was possible to learn without extensive preparation, but we still wanted to have the basics so our no-English rule could be feasibly upheld from the first day.

In total, we had about seven months to prepare for all four languages. My (Scott’s) total preparation was less than an hour per day. Vat’s was roughly 15 minutes per day, over the same time period.

Here is a breakdown of the practice we did for each language, prior to arrival:

Scott Vat
Spanish Anki = 27 hours
Pimsleur = 25 hours
Tutoring = 4 hours
Total = 56 hours
Anki = 2 hours
Pimsleur = 25 hours
Tutoring = 4 hours
Total = 31 hours
Portuguese Total = 0 hours Total = 0 hours
Mandarin Chinese Anki = 70 hours
Pimsleur = 25 hours
Tutoring = 10 hours
Total = 105 hours
Pimsleur = 25 hours
Total = 25 hours
Korean Anki = 16 hours
Pimsleur = 15 hours
TalkToMeInKorean = 15 hours
Tutoring = 7 hours
Total = 53 hours
Pimsleur = 10 hours
Total = 10 hours

Q: How are you paying for this? You guys must be rich.

Most people grossly overestimate the cost of a trip like this. Living in a single place for three months is far cheaper than staying in hotels and doing the things people typically associate with tourism. My first time I lived abroad for a year, I earned less than $12,000 that year and didn’t have any debt when I left.

I will continue running my business online and I’ve hired Vat to help me edit the videos for the project. This means the only major expenses are plane tickets and any activities we want to do in each country, which we wouldn’t normally do back home.

Q: What level do you plan to reach in each language?

I have no idea. In each country, my aspiration is to reach comfortable conversational fluency. But that may not happen. Especially in Mandarin and Korean which have a larger culture and linguistic distance from English.

Instead, we wanted to focus the project on the method of not speaking English, and see how far we can go. Whatever happens, I’m sure it will be an interesting ride!

Q: What language learning resources do you recommend?

Benny Lewis’s website, Fluent in Three Months, was a big inspiration for this project. Benny shared a lot of advice with me in starting this project, so I strongly recommend his website to anyone who is interested in learning a language conversationally.

For actually learning the languages, the three programs I found most useful, across all languages, were Pimsleur, iTalki and Anki. Pimsleur is a bit expensive, but it’s worth it. iTalki is a way of getting inexpensive tutoring online. Anki is free, and is one of the most popular tools for learning languages.

As we go to each country, I’ll list the resources we found particular helpful in each country.

Q: Why four languages? Why not learn one language really well?

Part of it was the excitement to see if it could be done. I had learned French in one year, even if less efficiently than I had hoped. This challenge is something I’m not sure whether I can succeed at, which makes it more interesting.

Another reason is to get a taste of four very different cultures, side-by-side. I’m hoping seeing the differences between them at the same stage in my life, will make the cultural differences more distinct and I can appreciate them better.

Finally, I see this, not as an end, but as a beginning for each of these languages. We picked these languages because they would afford us an opportunity to practice them all when we got back to Vancouver. I hope that even if I don’t reach a high degree of fluency, they are languages I will continue to improve the rest of my life.

Q: Why did you pick those languages?

With difficulty! Vat and I spent months debating about which countries we were going to go to. In the end, we opted for a mix of geographic diversity, cultural diversity, linguistic prevalence in Canada and simply which countries we wanted to visit most. The four weren’t selected to be the hardest possible four languages to learn, or the four with the least inter-similarities (Portuguese and Spanish are quite similar in comparison with English).

Other close candidates we had a hard time deciding between were Japanese, German, Turkish and Polish. Narrowing down a world of possibilities to just four was hard work!

Q: Why Taiwan instead of mainland China?

EDIT: Originally we were going to go to Taiwan, however Vat had visa problems staying in Taiwan for over 30 days! This was completely unexpected (we only learned later they wouldn’t offer a 90-day visa for him) so we opted to return to Canada for one week to process visas for China. It broke the strictness of not speaking English for a year, but we were able to salvage this leg of the trip. In China, we lived in Kunming and Shanghai. We did go to Taiwan for a short breather between China and Korea for three weeks.

  • Tu-jur

    Hey Scott, thanks so much for documenting this adventure! I saw your Ted Talk via Youtube and it totally inspired my wife and I to do the No English Rule in our home. We are ethnically Hmong (southeast Asian ethnic minority group) and we grew up speaking Hmong and English but now as a grown up, we primarily speak English (99% of the time). Now that we have a daughter who is 16 months old, my wife and I really want to preserve our Hmong language and we know that she will not learn if we are not regularly practicing the language in front of her and with her. With the inspiration of your Year without English, my wife and I have committed to only speaking in Hmong at home and if either of us speak in English, then we will have to pay one another a dollar. At the end of the week, we’ll see how much money I can get 🙂 With this no english rule in our house, I’ve already gained two new Hmong vocab words that I had not learned before: coconut which is txiv pov luj and straw which is paas nqus dlej. Anyways, thanks for the inspiration! I feel like it is now possible to learn the languages that I’ve always wanted to learn: Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. We’ll see how it goes!

  • Ag Bov

    Muy bien chicos! Buenísimo el video de TEDx! I’m going to stick to that rule 😉

  • Luke Truman

    When starting out in each language did you get burnout at the start or reach the point where you started to get stressed out/tired or just want to switch back to using English? I ask this because after seeing someone do something similar with learning German, just after he reached this point he had his biggest breakthrough and everything started to become much easier after. Here is the blog post I am talking about:

    On the tenth day of the project I broke down in the kitchen and started crying.

    I was midway through a conversation about something trivial. But, no matter how hard I tried, my brain just couldn’t do German anymore. Every word was just like white noise. And I just started to weep.

    I think my brain had reached the point of burn-out. For the last 10 days I’d been translating everything in my head and it just became a little too much. So I took the evening to be alone, play my guitar and do no speaking whatsoever.

    What was amazing about this though, was the next morning I stopped translating words in my head. All of a sudden the words I heard that I knew in German I just, well…knew. It was almost as though I’d reached the tipping point.

    I am going to attempt something similar and was just curious if you had any experience similar to this during your year

  • Ilana

    Hey Scott – I watched your videos a couple of years ago and seem to remember you including a link somewhere to a page that detailed your exact learning process and schedule, is that still available? Also, you’re super cool and such an inspiration!