Lessons learned from messaging strangers on the internet

This post is based on a talk I gave at the Geek Sessions meet-up in Faro, Portugal 🇵🇹 on the 28th of June, 2023. The full title for this talk was “Lessons learned from messaging strangers on the internet in a language I did not speak” and the idea here is to draw some parallels between the idea of learning new (spoken) languages and learning new skills in technology.

If we can't talk to strangers, how can we make friends?

Back in June 2020 I was very bored and in lockdown, like most folks, and decided that I needed to learn something in order to keep sane. Being the language nerd that I am I decided I was going to learn Spanish.

Since I couldn’t just learn the basics and then take a two week holiday somewhere in Spain to practice I needed to decide how I was going to approach it before I could get started.

The Plan

I have a plan!

As I am a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese I thought this was going to be a quick and easy exercise. Just how I thought the pandemic and the lockdowns would be over before the end of summer or by halloween. Boy was I wrong…

So my idea was simple:

  • I’d exchange at least 50 messages a day with a number of people using language learning chatting apps
  • Watch videos in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. Money Heist taught a great Italian song (and some Spanish too!)
  • Start listening to music, and later podcasts, in Spanish

Armed with a sound plan and a fool’s confidence, I set my target language to Spanish in HelloTalk and got to work!

How did it go?

Risitas, a Spanish comedian, looking troubled

As it turns out, knowing Portuguese didn’t help nearly as much as I thought it would. Brazilian Portuguese has a much simpler grammatical structure, which meant that whilst I could read messages and take a second to understand which grammar tense was being used, I couldn’t really keep up with people’s audio messages or Youtube videos and series.

Added to that, whilst there’s an overlap of about 90% of vocabulary between the two languages, this overlap doesn’t help as much as you’d think. Some words have slightly different meanings, have fallen out of fashion in one language or the other, or just sound straight up embarrassing and you didn’t even know it.

I was always looking words up on either SpanishDict or using Google Translate, DeepL and the apps’ builtin translation tools.

After about 6 months I was already better at writing and didn’t need to rely so much on SpanishDict for verb conjugations of regular verbs and the most common irregulars like ser, estar, ver and a few others.

At about the 9 to 12-month mark I started being able to speak a few sentences without having to write them down first. My accent was horrible but at least I was able to alternate between audio and written messages during my practice.


Berto Romero smiling and waving his hand as if he was celebrating

After about 18 months I started to recall things quicker, expressing myself and having more in-depth conversations with others become much easier. I no longer needed subtitles and became able to listen to audiobooks and podcasts, some even at 1.5 or 2 times the normal playback speed.

Around this same time I also started to develop a kind of intuition for verb conjugations I didn’t know, and was able to use some of the less common verb conjugations in speech without the need to look them up in a dictionary.


Chihuahua wearing a sombrero

About three years into this learning journey my language level has oscillated between a good B2 and an acceptable B1.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Spain a few times and spend time there with friends speaking mostly Spanish for a number of days in a row each time. After being in a Spanish speaking environment for about a day I am very much back at my best.

My accent is still inconsistent, I’ll very quickly start mirroring whichever accent is spoken around me and then use expressions and vocabulary that may not be as common or native to where I am, e.g. using Mexican or South American words whilst speaking to a Spanish person.

I don’t mind this as much as I used to, I would like to have a more consistent accent but I’ve come a long way and I feel like I have achieved way more than what I had originally set out to achieve.

Parallels between skilling up in technology and learning a spoken language

Spidermen pointing at one another meme

Now that I’ve given some context of my learning journey, let’s shift our attention to some of the things I’ve identified in my process that could also be used to improve our experience when learning new skills in tech.

Learning can be a very personal experience and different people will have different ways in which they prefer to acquire new skills, for the purposes of my talk I chose to focus on a few more general points in order to try and make it as useful and relatable to as many people as possible. These are the five points I want to touch on:

1. Identify your goals

A football goal

Before you start you should identify your goals, this will help you with checking in on your progress along the way. These are a few of the questions you can ask yourself to try and understand:

  • What do you want to do with this new skill?
  • How will you know when you’ve achieved it?
  • How strict are you about those answers?
  • Will there be a next level after you’re done with this one?

These questions are not comprehensive but should be a great starting point. I find it specially useful to know how flexible I can be with the goal as I progress and how well documented my goal setting needs to be.

For professional goals we’re usually required to have a more detailed description and be more strict with our definition of done. Personal goals can go from a mental note to a full blown schedule, depending on what it is that you’re aiming for.

2. Take small steps

Accomplish your goals one small step at a time

Now that you’ve determined what the end of the journey should look like, let’s go back to the start. For almost any skill in technology it pays off to really understand the foundations of what you’re learning—you should learn to walk before you try to run.

If you’re learning a programming language you should focus on the basics of its syntax and peculiarities first, e.g. understand the basics of Rust’s ownership system, or Javascript’s asynchronous nature.

It’s also a good idea to start with some tutorials or books that will walk you through these basics and then start to experiment with the simpler examples that you see, exploring things in your own way.

If you’re trying to learn a new skill that is more role specific, like DevOps, then perhaps you can start with understanding the basics of Docker, Kubernetes and what it takes to deploy a “hello world” style app using such technologies. The main goal at this point is to start small so you can find your pace. Learning shouldn’t be overwhelming, nor boring.

After the talk we had a small QA session and one of the questions was about how can we know whether we’re doing too much or too little when trying to learn. A good analogy I came up with for the case of spoken languages was: if you’re dreaming in your target language, you’re good, if you start losing sleep over it then it is too much.

I don’t expect anyone to measure their learning effort of Rust or Haskell by how much they dream about these languages but this is still a good analogy in terms of the levels of exposure to the thing you’re trying to learn and how much you should make it a part of your daily life.

This takes us to the next point…

3. Practice regularly and immerse yourself in the technology

Practice regularly

In order to learn a new skill effectively you need to be able to incorporate as much practice as possible into your daily life. In the case of spoken languages this is obvious and easier to define. You should be listening to music, watching videos in the target language and speaking to natives or fluent speakers of that language as much as possible. For technology things can be a little bit trickier.

It is unlikely that you’ll be able to get a job utilising a skill that you’ve just started to learn when it comes to tech, in order to counter that you’ll have to find other ways to immerse yourself into the tech area you’re trying to learn.

The most obvious way to get exposure to the thing you’re learning is by practising it. Building low stakes projects will be the most effective way to achieve this as you can try different things out without running the risk of having a bigger impact on things around you. Then after that I would recommend listening to podcasts, reading blog posts, books, developer documentation, watching conference talks (online and in-person if possible), joining communities online around the topic that you’re trying to learn (more on this later).

These are all great options and you should try and mix and match them as and when you can, so long as you incorporate some kind of daily practice on your routine you will see the value in this effort in no time.

4. Embrace your mistakes

Happy little accidents

Mistakes are a very natural part of learning. Regardless of whether we’re just getting started or have been practising for a little while, it’s obvious that we will make many mistakes along the way. You should learn to be comfortable with your mistakes early on, in order to avoid frustrations.

As briefly alluded to in my previous point, having low stakes settings for your practice is one way to help you be more comfortable with making mistakes. Another point that is worth noting is that mistakes can also be used to give us more perspective on what we’re learning.

Whenever you make a mistake, be it one that makes it so your code doesn’t compile or something that someone else is telling you shouldn’t be done in that way you can ask yourself why is it that this is not how it should be:

  • Did you break a hard rule by making a syntax error or referencing a variable or file that doesn’t exist?
  • Did you not follow best practice and are now running into unexpected behaviour?
  • Did you rely on a feature of the language you’re learning that you didn’t fully understand and now don’t know why it isn’t doing what you hoped it would?

Mistakes in programming and other aspects of technology can come in different shapes and forms but they’re a great way to help us understand what it is that we’re lacking in terms of knowledge so that we can work to fill that gap.

Another great way to use our mistakes as a positive part of our growth is by having a mentor or community that can help you to keep moving when you’re struggling to understand something or to get it to work as intended, this takes us to the last point I want to touch on…

5. The importance of focused communities

Come to the dark side, we have cookies!

There will always be other learning or using the same things you’re trying to learn, if you can find a good group of people to learn with or at least exchange some of your experiences the synergy it creates can drastically improve your learning journey. Furthermore, by participating in communities you will likely start to meet people that could eventually help you on a professional level too, or that you may be able to help them.

I strongly recommend trying to find local communities for this as well, for offline meet-ups and events. These will usually have an online side to them but being able to get together and meet people, join hackathons or other events where you also get to do things alongside others can really help the immersion part of learning.

Another, possible less obvious, benefit of being part of more focused communities is that it helps with staying motivated. Very often in our lives things will happen that will force us to set things aside for a short period of time or deprioritise something in favour of a more pressing issue. When this happens, being part of a community and attempting to stay active will serve as a reminder of your learning journey and how you should continue to try and learn as much as your available time allows.


That’s it! I understand that this is by far not a comprehensive list but I hope it helps you when you next try to learn something from scratch or even on your current learning journey.

You can find the slides for my original talk in here and the source code for the slides on my Github.

Share in the comments below what sort of techniques or tips you keep coming back to when learning and what you are trying to learn now. Me, I’m currently trying to learn more of the Rust programming language, as it’s a compiled, lower level, language and I’ve never really done anything with compiled languages before.

Speedy Gonzales dancing