Starting My Bilingual Summer

Christine Gilbert, author of the wonderful and inspiring travel lifestyle blog Almost Fearless, recently wrote about her intention to learn a new language this summer, and challenged her readers to join. Well, join and compete with her, using Duolingo, a free online language learning site promising no ads or hidden fees now and forever. That’s right, free, forever.

Duo, the Duolingo owl.
Duo, the Duolingo owl.

I’ve been talking about learning a second (or third) language since I was born, so I’ve decided to join and compete with her. She’s crushing me at the moment, but that’s the point. Duolingo brings an unusual twist to the tired language-learning routine: competition. By adding Christine as my friend directly through the site, along with a few friends I’ve taunted or tricked into competing, each of our scores are plotted next to one another on the Leaderboard; the more I practice, the more “skill points” I earn, and the closer I’ll be to dethroning her and dominating my friends. That’s my plan, anyway.

¿Qué Hora Es?

This isn’t my first showdown with Spanish – we were first introduced many years ago in middle school, then again over two semesters in high school; we had another go in college, and one or two more feeble attempts as a young professional. And yet over a decade after our first affair I can only manage basic introductions, a few random verbs, and asking for the time, and that’s only because I’ve probably asked for the time more en Español than I ever have in English.

So what makes this time different? In all of my previous attempts I went about language learning in all the wrong ways. I took classes because I had to; I bought books I never made time to read; I let days and weeks lapse into months without practicing; I never enlisted a tutor’s help or sought conversation with native speakers; I never surrounded myself with the language. I never had a plan.

In her post Christine offers some smart suggestions to go from thinking about learning a language to actually learning one:

Create an immersive environment this summer full of movies, music, books and other media in that language. Reach out to native speakers on sites like for language exchanges. Find local resources. Be creative.

This Time, I Have a Plan

As I begin my own bilingual summer, here’s what I intend to do over the next several months:

  1. Actively use the language every day. There are no limits here. It could be 15 minutes of deconstructing the language, a half hour speaking with a tutor, listening to Spanish podcasts, watching Telemundo, or competing on Duolingo for a bit just after breakfast.
  2. Create an immersive environment full of movies, music, books and other media in Spanish (see above).
  3. Connect with a native speaker. Since I’m traveling each week to Toronto this one might prove tricky, but I’m determined to come up with an arrangement that works and share it here.
  4. Master the most-written and most-spoken Spanish words. In the past I’ve wasted too much time following rigid textbooks that dithered in rarely used vocabulary or complex phrases; since my goal this summer is to confidently converse with native Spanish speakers this feels like a good place to start.

I’ll revisit each of these periodically to write about what’s working and what’s not, but until then: Aquí vamos!

Want Hotel Status and Upgrades? Just Ask.

OK first of all, the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program is amazing. In fact I’m comfortable declaring that it’s my hands-down favorite and the best loyalty rewards program I’ve ever used to date. The reasons are many, but I’ll save extolling these virtues for a later post. Before I go on gushing and retell how I achieved Platinum status in nearly a third of the typical time required, let me first disclose that while it would be sweet, I did not receive any discounts, free nights, or any other cool stuff as a result of this post. I just happen to travel a lot, and I happen to stay mostly with SPG hotels, and they happen to rock.

Now back to the gushing. When I first learned I’d be traveling to Toronto every week I asked a few traveling buddies for hotel recommendations around downtown Toronto. Curiously my cohorts spent more time raving about SPG than about any particular hotel, so after the third or fourth SPG recommendation I signed up for an account and booked my first few weeks at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel on Queen St.

Sheraton Centre Toronto Lobby
Grand lobby at the Sheraton Centre Toronto

It turns out this Sheraton is a popular hotel – when I first strolled through the lobby a check-in line stacked 15 people deep greeted me, along with a host of front desk reps hustling back and forth. As I waited I noticed a much shorter, faster moving line over at the SPG Gold & Platinum desk. This line, I decided, was where I needed to be, and I immediately began hatching schemes to get there.

I became Gold later that very night, not more than an hour after I checked-in for the very first time and well before I spent a single week at the Sheraton. Six weeks (and only 18 total nights) later I became Platinum. For reference it normally takes 10 stays or 25 nights to reach Gold and 25 stays or 50 nights for Platinum. So how did I get to Gold before staying a single night and Platinum after just 18 nights? I simply asked.

After I checked-in and settled into my room I jumped on to their super-convenient online chat and asked something to this effect:

me: hi there. Looks like I’ll be spending six months to a year in your hotels and was hoping you could upgrade my account to Platinum in advance?

SPG rep: Hello and welcome to SPG Online Chat, my name is so-and-so.

SPG rep: While I cannot upgrade your account directly to Platinum, I went ahead and upgraded you to Gold to welcome you to the SPG program.

SPG rep: I’ve also enrolled you in our SPG Platinum Challenge Promotion. If you stay 18 nights during a consecutive three-month period we will automatically upgrade you to Platinum.

That was literally all I did. At three nights per week it would have taken me over four months to achieve the 50 night minimum for Platinum. I hit it after just six weeks, and enjoyed Gold status perks along the way.

I’ve come to learn that other loyalty programs work similarly. If you have status with one hotel brand, other hotel brands will often “status-match” your account if you just ask. For example, let’s say you have Platinum status with SPG but Hilton is the only player at your destination. All you have to do is contact Hilton Honors customer service and ask if they’ll match your SPG status. Sometimes they’ll ask for proof of your existing premier status with the other program, but more often than not they’ll be happy for your business.

Rumor has it some airlines, in rare acts of benevolence, will also play the status-match game. I haven’t tried this personally (yet), but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Just asking bumped me into Gold status immediately; it also led me to the previously unknown Platinum Challenge promotion.

It’s all gravy from here.

Save at Airports: Bring Your Empty Water Bottle

Downtown Toronto in the Distance

If you find yourself trudging through airports every week, as I often do, I don’t doubt you’ve noticed that bottled water doesn’t sell for less than $3. Quite often even that is cheap. Nearly ever week since January I’ve wandered through terminals searching for bottled water, and nearly every week I shout (in my head) “Damn, $4.50!”

I’m sure this tip has already been revealed elsewhere, but it only recently occurred to me and I feel it’s worthy enough to repeat: bring your empty water bottle through airport security, then fill it up at water fountains. Since I usually fly twice a week this saves between $6 to $8 dollars each week just in bottled water, or at least $240 to $320 per year if I fly about 40 weeks between January and December. Is it a mountain of cash? No, but hey, it looks nice in my pocket and it’s better for the environment, so that’s like a double bonus.

Of course this won’t work for everyone: first of all, this tip assumes there’s a reliable supply of safe drinking water wherever you’re traveling. If you fall into this category, or aren’t sure, I’d say play it safe and spring for bottled water – Montezuma’s revenge is no joke. Fellow travelers have also reported that larger water bottles (one liter and above) are often confiscated at security even if they’re bone dry, so keep that in mind.

If we stick with the environmentally friendly theme, I recommend something reusable like a Klean Kanteen or something similar. If not, many hotels provide complementary water bottles that work just fine.

Toronto, Eh?

In January I joined a software engineering team on a project in Toronto, Ontario, for the first time departing from my warm, familiar Excel-modeling blanket. Until boarding that inaugural flight, creating Excel models was my one and only jam, my professional bread and butter. Changing career paths is a daunting endeavor – there are many unknowns, many self-doubts and a lot of second-guessing. Fear of failure is a powerful, persuasive force.

Circa 1994.
Circa 1990.

I can remember wanting to learn a programming language from that first, magical time I played Prodigy Online checkers against an unknown opponent from an unknown place, over dialup, on my parents IBM Aptiva desktop.

Compared to today’s standards it was like we scrawled our moves on stone tablets and sent them back and forth by courier. But it was still so cool, and I wanted to learn how to do it myself.

Now almost twenty years later, I’m finally making it happen.

Toronto, my new weekday neighborhood.
Toronto, my new weekday neighborhood.

I’m doing real Java development for a real, paying client. I’m learning SQL, Oracle database tuning, JSP and Apache Ant. I’m exploring a unique, culturally diverse city with so many interesting foods to try I hardly know where to begin.

I joke that I’ve had more Indian food in the past few months than in my entire life (but I’m not actually joking).

It’s a message we’ve all heard a thousand times in a thousand ways: do what you love, follow your dreams, pursue your passion, and so on and so forth. The cruel reality is that most people, for circumstances both in and out of their control, will never practice any of these clichés. A free market economy prevents the masses from traveling the world as freelance writers.

Riding the Toronto Rocket.
Riding the Toronto Rocket.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. My final tipping point came when I realized that the plunge I was about to take wasn’t permanent. Not by a long stretch. If it didn’t work out, if my worst fears came true and I failed spectacularly, I could always return to my familiar blanket.

The Toronto project ends this December; five months in, my fears of spectacular failure seem like a distant memory. What I’ll do or where I’ll go after that is an open-ended question, and that’s okay. It’s actually kind of intoxicating.