Verbs are containers of vocabulary

This is a metaphor that describes a system for creating instant conversation in a new language.

Imagine that there is a cup, and on the front of the cup there is the verb "I am". Then imagine taking little pieces of paper and writing all of the words and phrases that correspond to that verb, and putting them into the cup.

For example, "I am ..."


-from Chicago

-a teacher

-a Spanish teacher

-a Spanish and English teacher

-a Spanish and English teacher in Chicago

...and everything else you could possibly want to say. And you put those pieces of paper into the cup.

On the front of the cup, under "I am", you can also put "Are you ...?" and all of the phrases on little pieces of paper of all the things you could possibly want to ask someone starting with the verb "Are you ...?"

Are you ...?

-a teacher

-a student

-a Spanish student


Put the "I am/Are you ...?" cup with all its phrases onto a shelf in your mind, and have it ready whenever you need to take it down and have that conversation.

Next repeat the process with the verb "I have", and "Do you have ...?" Again, write down all the phrases on little pieces of paper that correspond to this verb, and you conversation continues to grow.

I have ... / Do you have ...?

-family in Chicago

-two kids / kids

-a sister / siblings

-a dog / pets

Repeat the process with "I like / Do you like ...?", "I want / Do you want ...?", "I'm going to / Are you going to ...?", and put those verbs with their phrases on little pieces of paper on your shelf.

Remember, this is a metaphor; an actual suitcase full of cups would be unwieldy. The conversation-verb-cup language shelf is meant to exist in your mind.

My approach to learning a new language, and teaching them, is building this shelf -- creating conversation using verbs as containers of vocabulary. Then all that's left is to practice having the conversation and to have conversation in the new language as often as possible -- which is to say, to become faster and faster at locating the right piece of paper in the right cup at the time when they're needed.

Language is a bike, language is a tree, language is a snowball ...

Learning a language is like learning to ride a bike -- it's something that you have to do in order to learn. There is no book that can teach you to ride a bike; there is no book that can teach you to speak a language, without your using the language.

Verbs are like the branches of a tree. You can make virtually infinite sentences using just a single verb. How many sentences could you make beginning with the verbs 'I am ...', 'I have ...', and 'I like ...'? The vocabulary you use to the complete the sentence are like the leaves upon the branch. Trying to learn a language by learning vocabulary is like trying to make a tree grow by planting leaves. Vocabulary without a verb is like leaves without a branch -- they will fly away in the wind.

Once you are up on the bike, riding, able to communicate on a few topics using a few verbs and just the vocabulary you need, you will begin understanding more of what you hear when you listen to others speak the language. At that point, your learning the language will become spontaneous and automatic. Some of the questions you may have about the language might be answered in the form of song lyrics or a text from a friend. You're like a snowball rolling downhill -- picking things up as you go, becoming bigger and heavier, and thereby rolling even faster and learning more. The goal at the beginning is to reach the point where you become heavy enough that you can roll by yourself.

To summarize, leverage verbs as the nuclei of conversation, and have conversation until your learning becomes automatic.

Language learning strategy


Speaking strategy:

1. Choose a topic
2. Choose a verb
3. Mix and match verbs and vocabulary
4. Add useful expressions as needed
5. Practice writing
6. Practice speaking (in real life)

Listening strategy:

1. Establish context
2. Listen for keywords
3. Get the main idea

Overall strategy:

You learn a language by using it because you need it.

Need + Use = Learn

Overview for learning language organically

You learn a language by using it because you need it. The formula is Need + Use = Learn.

Most people follow the formula Want + Study = Learn. That's like trying to use a book to learn how to ride a bike.

All "learning" a language means is being able to use the language in the situations you need to use it in. So focus on learning to speak one topic or situation at a time. But again if you're not actually using the language it doesn't matter.

The next thing after choosing a topic is knowing what verb you need to speak on that topic. For example, if the topic is 'Spanish', the verb might be 'I speak', or 'I'm learning'.

The verb you choose will flow into vocabulary like branches. 'I speak...English; a little Spanish', and so on. Look at any one of my Language Matrix lessons to see how to plot this on a 3-column page.

Learn your highest frequency topics, and highest frequency verbs. The latter is available in several of languages for free here:

Practice writing and speaking. That's output.

The more beginner you are, the more output you need. For example, if I know zero words in a language, it doesn't help me very much to turn on the TV and listen to that language spoken. I need output. I need to begin conversing in that language using what I know of topics, verbs, and vocabulary. (The importance of your output being in the form of actual conversation is that you are also getting input from the other person.)

As you progress, input becomes more and more helpful (it's always helpful, it just becomes more and more helpful as you go and you want to get to the point where it's helpful as soon as possible, which you do through using the language as described above).

When it comes to listening strategy, follow these steps:

1. Establish context.

2. Listen for keywords.

3. Get the main idea.

Step 1. can often make the difference between understanding someone 100% and understanding them 0%. When you know generally what someone is talking about, it's easy to fill in the blanks by just listening for their keywords.

Getting good at guessing is the main skill here. And by the way, you establish context by asking questions. So if you ask someone, What do you think about xyz? there's a better chance you'll get the main idea of their answer than if they had volunteered the same information to you without your having asked. Plus, at that point you'll be able to apply the other most important skill in listening strategy, which is to imitate.

The more questions you ask, the more you learn.

To summarize, prepare yourself for output by learning your highest frequency topics, one topic at a time, by mixing and matching verbs and vocabulary. Practice writing, then go out (or online) and use the language.

Create conversation by asking questions, and practice applying the steps of listening strategy.

The goal at the beginning is to reach the point where you have enough experience in the language (both output and input) that you learn automatically -- like a snowball that's heavy enough to roll by itself. At that point language is an afterthought (as your native language is), and you're just living.

The 4 most important verbs in Portuguese

estar = to be

Estava = I was
¿Você estava? = Were you?

Estou = I am
Você está? = Are you?

Vou estar = I'm going to be
Você vai estar? = Are you going to be?

ter = to have

Tinha = I had
Você tinha? = Did you have?

Tenho = I have
Você tem? = Do you have?

Vou ter = I'm going to have
Você vai ter? = Are you going to have?

ir = to go

Fui = I went
Você foi? = Did you go?

Vou = I go/I'm going
Você vai? = Do you go?/Are you going?

Vou = I'm going to go
Você vai? = Are you going to go?

fazer = to do

Fiz = I did
Você fez? = Did you do?

Faço = I do
Você faz? = Do you do?

Vou fazer = I'm going to do
Você vai fazer? = Are you going to do?


O que você fez? = What did you do?
O que você está fazendo? = What are you doing?
O que você vai fazer? = What are you going to do?

ontem = yesterday
hoje = today
amanhá = tomorrow

How many question and answers can you make with this?

Share with someone learning Portuguese.

The 4 most important verbs in Spanish

estar = to be

Estaba = I was
¿Estabas? = Were you?

Estoy = I am
¿Estás? = Are you?

Voy a estar = I'm going to be
¿Vas a estar? = Are you going to be?

tener = to have

Tenía = I had
¿Tenías? = Did you have?

Tengo = I have
¿Tienes? = Do you have?

Voy a tener = I'm going to have
¿Vas a tener? = Are you going to have?

ir = to go

Fui = I went
¿Fuiste? = Did you go?

Voy = I go/I'm going
¿Vas? = Do you go?/Are you going?

Voy a ir = I'm going to go
¿Vas a ir? = Are you going to go?

hacer = to do

Hice = I did
¿Hiciste? = Did you do?

Hago = I do
¿Haces? = Do you do?

Voy a hacer = I'm going to do
¿Vas a hacer? = Are you going to do?


¿Qué hiciste? = What did you do?
¿Qué estás haciendo? = What are you doing?
¿Qué vas a hacer? = What are you going to do?

ayer = yesterday
hoy = today
mañana = tomorrow

How many question and answers can you make with this?

Share with someone learning Spanish.

Three categories for grammar and conversation

Grammatically, be able to talk about the past, present, and future. Learn the verbs and verb patterns that allow you to speak in those tenses, and focus on building real conversations with real people by forming questions and answers around those verbs. Don't study a list of verbs, then a list of prepositions, and so on. Organize what you're learning into 3 categories: past, present, and future.

Conversationally, be able to talk about the past, present, and future. Learn the words and phrases you need to talk about what really happened today, what's going on right now, and what you're doing tomorrow.

Grammatically: past, present, future
Conversationally: past, present, future

How you carry a language in your mind

In your mind there is a box labeled "English". If you speak another language too, then there is another box labeled "Spanish", or whatever other language you speak.

You carry that box around with you, and it's easy to carry everything that's inside of it, because it's all packed into that box.

When you speak that language, you open the box, and pull out the words and phrases you need to say what you want to say.

But those words and phrases are not randomly strewn about like a junk box, but rather they are organized in smaller boxes.

Within the main box, the next set of smaller boxes is labeled by topic, or situation. For example, there is a box labeled "greeting", and one for "introductions", and one for "weather", and so on and so forth.

After opening the main box, you open a smaller box for the situation you are in, or the topic you're speaking about.

Within each "Topic" box, there is a set of boxes that are each labeled with a verb. For example, in the "introductions" box there is the verb "I am", and in the "weather" box there is the verb "it's".

And inside each "Verb" box, there is a set of boxes labeled with the vocabulary that completes the sentence that the verb box begins. Such as, "Tony", and "from Chicago", and "a teacher" -- which are inside the "I am" verb box -- and "warm", "sunny", and "nice out" -- which are inside the "it's" verb box.

You've been organizing your "Language" box since the day you began learning that language (through listening and speaking, and later reading and writing).

The process of learning a new language is organizing a new box. You put in boxes for topic/situation, and in each of those boxes you put in verbs, and in each of those boxes you put in vocabulary.

And then you can carry that language around, and you'll always know where to find stuff.

Thinking in a second language

The most important thing to understandwhen learning a language is that the thought process involved in speaking a second language is not a matter of formulating a thought in your first language, and then translating it into the second language.

Instead, your thought process must be a matter of “scanning your inventory” in L2, searching for something suitable to say. Yes, this suitable something you find may be entirely different from what you would have said had you been thinking and speaking in L1.

For example, if you asked me (in L2) my opinion on X, and I thought X was “the best thing I’ve ever seen”, I might simply say “I like it a lot", in order to avoid the more complex grammar of the L1 construction. Yes, it lacks ‘resolution’, detail, but it is still true in sum and substance.

Do not begin by thinking in L1 and translating to L2, but rather to THINK in L2, even if your thoughts be considerably more simplistic and general. By practicing this mental discipline of controlling your thoughts and choosing to say something manageable, you will quickly become more fluent, more comfortable, and more complex and expressive in the second language.

Language teaches itself

How does ‘Language Teach Itself’? Consider this small, yet important, and representative example: some languages, such as English, Polish, and Mandarin Chinese put adjectives before nouns, as in ‘green tea’. Other languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic, put nouns before adjectives—‘tea green’. When you know that a language is either a ‘green tea’ language, or a ‘tea green’ language, you can assume that every other instance of the pattern will be the same. ‘Black coffee’, or ‘coffee black’; ‘red car’, or ‘car red’; ‘blue sky’, or ‘sky blue’.

Once you know to say, ‘tea green’ and not ‘green tea’, you would know to say ‘sky blue’, and not ‘blue sky’. Conversely, ‘sky blue’ could teach you ‘tea green’. Every example teaches every other example.

Now if someone should ask, “Why is it correct to say ‘sky blue’ and not ‘blue sky’? The answer should not be: “Because nouns come before verbs in this language”, but rather, “It’s ‘sky blue’ because it’s ‘tea green’.

Language is not learned explicitly, through explanation of rules, but rather implicitly, through examples of the language in use. ‘Green tea’ teaches ‘blue sky’. Language teaches itself.

One of my students told me he would NOT be back. Best. Compliment. Ever. (click-bait style)

A Spanish student of mine recently told me he had had enough of my “practical, intuitive, and effective” language learning methodology, and that he would not be coming back to any of my classes. Did I lose sleep over the financial loss I would incur from having one less student?


Hardly. He told me that in 4 short weeks, he felt I had given him all the tools he needed to teach himself. And that’s my goal with every TMM student. I teach you to teach yourself.


He did say he’d be sending everyone he knew my way. ¡Gracias!, former TMM student, and happy learning!

Linguistically, Everyday is Groundhog Day

             Have you seen this movie? It’s the one where Bill Murray is stuck repeating the same day over and over (which happens to be the American ‘Groundhog Day’). Every interaction begins the exact same way. “Good morning, Bill. How’s the weather?” Or whatever. The repetition becomes so certain that Bill begins to experiment; in one case, he punches a guy in the face!

            Imagine you were stuck in Groundhog Day in a foreign country. In a week you could become fluent in the language—fluent as far as anyone would know. You’d simply learn the exact words and phrases needed to satisfy the predictable interactions of that day, and you’d be done.

            The secret is that linguistically, everyday is Groundhog Day. The relatively few words and phrases you’ll need on a given day, are the same you’ll need everyday. The grammatical patterns of the language will be the same, and even the content of conversation—greeting, weather, work, etc.—will be relatively unchanging.

            Your goal in learning a language is to exploit the repetitious nature of life and language to create a Groundhog Day situation for yourself language-wise.