“Are you Japanese?”
Three pairs of eyes turn to meet the camera. It’s an Asian family, perusing through bags of crackers and snacks at a supermarket in Ohio. The person they see is Moses McCormick, a 38-year-old man with a chiseled jaw and a long frame. The father nods yes to the question, but the family’s faces show confusion.
For a second time, McCormick addresses them in Japanese. “How are you?”
“Do you know Japanese?” replies the mother in accented English, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
“Yes, I’ve studied Japanese for three years,” McCormick responds, sticking to Japanese.
The moment unwinds from there, with pleased smiles as McCormick works his linguistic magic trick. Here is a tall black man with a GoPro strapped to his head, appearing out of nowhere, speaking Japanese in the middle of a Midwestern grocery store as if imported from a fever dream. Then comes the plot twist for McCormick: This is actually a Mandarin-speaking Chinese family, who immigrated to Japan before coming to the U.S. Peals of laughter fill the aisle as both parties soak in the absurdity of the moment. This is McCormick’s “addiction” — that connection made only possible through shared language and a gutsy decision to interrupt strangers.
Over the course of a single shopping trip, McCormick speaks spotty Arabic to a gregarious middle-aged man (“You learned in your home? Really?”), finds another Japanese man to chat with and even busts out a little Korean on command (with an authentic accent, to boot). Elsewhere on his YouTube channel are examples of him conversing about his background and life with absolute strangers in languages as different as Burmese, Somali and Spanish.
No matter the nationality, though, the reactions follow a predictable pattern: Confusion (with a touch of suspicion), surprise and palpable delight. One Chinese man on a river, bucket full of freshly caught fish, gets so excited that he invites McCormick over for dinner. An Uber driver lights up before admitting he never expected to hear his native tongue spoken by a stranger in America. A Filipino woman grins wide before telling him in Tagalog to join the Peace Corps to put his languages to use.
McCormick is a language instructor whose YouTube channel, which started more than a decade ago, has grown to an audience of more than 700,000. His top videos garner millions of clicks, and he’s racked up 78 million total views. He’s one of a number of “YouTube polyglots,” including elder statesman Steve Kaufmann, popular Irishman Benny Lewis and Singapore-based Lindie Botes. But McCormick attracts a broader audience than any of them, in part because of his slightly provocative video titles, which often begin with something like “Black Man Blows the Mind of…” He also hawks a language-learning system he’s dubbed FLR, or “Foreign Language Roadrunner,” and the videos sell the product.
So how many languages can he really speak? McCormick says his strongest fluency is in Mandarin and Japanese, followed by Cantonese, Korean, Spanish, Swedish, Somali and Indonesian at a second tier. Beyond that, he claims to have learned and spoken in dozens of other languages more casually, with greetings and simple sentences.
He was just an 18-year-old living in Akron, Ohio, when he latched onto the idea to begin studying Chinese after falling in love with a series of cult-classic kung-fu films. McCormick admits he lacked any sort of drive to learn French, Spanish and German when he dabbled in them during middle school and high school. But Mandarin on his free time was something different — and something more entertaining than the courses he was starting to take at the University of Akron. “I didn’t really expect to stick with it for the long term,” McCormick tells me. “But once I tried out Chinese, and started meeting those people, it began getting fun to talk, fast. It became kind of an obsession, to get better so that I could keep connecting and surprising people. I was doing it every day. I think I got conversational after like, six months of practice.”
That conversational ability led him into a world of new moments and meetings that scratched something satisfying deep in his brain. He met a Chinese student inside an engineering building at the University of Akron, where he ginned up the courage to ask her what time the building closed. Her reply was his opening into a chat about Mandarin, and her eyes widened in that now-recognizable way as she realized he had more than a few words under his belt. “She told me that there’s a big group of Chinese students that get together, cook food and talk, and that I should come by this weekend. She gave me her phone number and email, and I thought… well, I thought it was strange,” McCormick says. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that! But I sat there and finally concluded that I should just see what it’s like, and try not to be nervous.”
He appeared later that weekend at an apartment, stuffed with students chatting in the rapid, lilting patter of Mandarin, with the classic film Eat Drink Man Woman playing on a TV in the background. Every time McCormick tried to interject in a conversation, though, it felt like tripping over his own feet. “Man, I was lost,” he admits with a laugh. “But there was no English there. I was immersed.”
Chinese holds a key place in his heart, even reflected in his YouTube name, “laoshu.” The nickname came from a young Chinese man he met while eating at a restaurant in Akron. McCormick asked him where he was from and he replied Fujian Province, an area that sends a disproportionate number of restaurant cooks and workers to the U.S. That led to an invite to his family’s home, where they practiced Chinese and played video games together. “We were with his parents, and his uncles were cooks, and they couldn’t speak English. His mom asked him what my American name was, and he was trying to explain ‘Moses.’ They really struggled with it — it sounded like ‘Mohse,’ or ‘Mouse,’ or something,” McCormick says. “Then, he looked at me and said he got it: ‘lao-shu.’ Everyone at the table laughed. I was confused, so I asked, ‘What’s so funny?’”
Turns out it meant “rat,” or “mouse,” in Chinese. While McCormick didn’t like the idea of being called a rodent, he quickly realized that it was a clever little inside joke for the people at that dinner table, given their pronunciation of his first name. It became a badge of honor.
Such interactions also taught McCormick about how even a baseline ability to ask and answer basic questions can open up a different, bolder style of learning languages than he was accustomed to. Learning Mandarin had been a crapshoot, with McCormick buying different textbooks and audio tracks and figuring it out in the confines of his bedroom. As he worked through textbooks like the Teach Yourself series, he kept coming across practice dialogues and grammar sections that seemed more or less useless on the street. “I just thought, ‘Why should I spend time learning this right now when I can’t apply it anywhere?,’” he says. So over the course of months, his Mandarin textbooks became a whirl of highlighted passages, sticky tabs and bent pages. It was the genesis of his FLR lessons, and ultimately, a full-fledged career.
“It became a structure of taking the most useful phrases, adding keywords and incorporating the two. From my experience, I realized that people — no matter where they were from — were asking the same questions to me: ‘Where are you from?,’ ‘How old are you?,’ ‘Why are you learning?’ and ‘Have you ever been to my country?’”
So it was a shock to purchase and explore his Level 1 FLR program for Korean, a language I inherited from my parents and speak at a “professional working proficiency” level on the ILR scale for competency. At no point did I ever imagine you would learn Korean by memorizing the full sentences for “Who’s teaching you Korean?” and “I’m teaching myself.” But that’s exactly the first task on the first lesson of the first week of McCormick’s FLR program.
It’s a stark contrast to, say, the popular language learning tool Duolingo, which begins by having you identify vowel and consonant sounds in Korean. This type of broken-down, constructive style of learning is probably what the average person imagines a beginner lesson to look like. Duolingo also suggests that you can speak a language by spending just “a few minutes a day” on these flash-card-like online exercises; McCormick counters with the insane command to spend multiple hours a day to take full advantage of FLR. The first hour, he explains, should be spent listening to the native-speaker audio files attached to each text lesson. The second hour should be focused on making sentences. And the third should be dedicated to practicing with native speakers, either in a real-world setting, or more realistically, an online chat.
This seems like an almost impossible load to bear. But as I scan the lessons and listen to the recordings, the internal logic of drilling large phrases with intensity begins to make some kind of sense. The final lesson in Level 1 is stunning in its complexity for two months’ work, as McCormick has me repeating phrases like, “I’m learning Korean and other languages simply because I think that learning languages is very enriching. I love meeting people from all over the world.” Getting to a point where you can identify patterns and substitute keywords is a big milestone for any language learner. McCormick seems to want to get people there fast, even if it seems rushed, so they can feel the rush of speaking to another living, breathing person.
The FLR system, and McCormick’s limited ability in a number of the languages he shows off on YouTube, have garnered him criticism, too. Some dismiss his skills as only being “for entertainment,” rather than any meaningful or sophisticated fluency. Others say that his system is the equivalent of memorizing a script, and that more advanced lessons in FLR are just the extension of that script for when you run out of things to say. When I bring up these criticisms, McCormick nods — he’s heard them before. And his measured retort is the same: He doesn’t claim to have high-level proficiency in all these languages, and the purpose of his system is to get a speaker “playing” with others.
“I play with the language for about three months, then start doing grammar stuff formally. You’re going to learn grammar just by practicing. You’re going to start seeing certain concepts as you play. That’s what worked so well for me,” he says. “People out there don’t agree with what I do, because they don’t understand. Some people want to master languages. Different folks, different strokes. But for me, the experiences are addictive, man. Every experience of talking to someone is new and beautiful. A jack of all trades is a master of none, but I’m okay with it.”
“He sounds like a pattern substitution guy,” Dan Bayer, executive director of the Language Center at the University of Southern California, says with a laugh when I ask him about McCormick. Bayer is an academic expert with his own ability to speak multiple languages, and he lights up when discussing McCormick’s videos. “Moses and other guys online that I’ve seen, you have to understand, their language ability is entertainment first and foremost. There’s nothing life-threatening or dramatically serious happening in these interactions. It’s fairly surface-level language learning in most cases,” Bayer says. “But the caveat is that, this looks like how Moses actually acquires language best. That makes sense. It’s admirable.”
The 20th century saw major movements in language academia, and the middle of the century brought a focus on repetition and memorization of grammatical structures through the “audio-lingual method,” Bayer tells me. Alongside it was the “direct” or “natural” method, which prioritized listening to native speakers, immersion and a prohibition on mentally translating words into English (in favor of an emphasis on learning to associate objects and actions in the vocabulary of the target language). In the 1970s, the development of CLT, or Communicative Language Teaching, shifted the paradigm away from grammar and solo memorization and toward interaction, between peers and instructors in a classroom.
Each of these systems were borne out of frustration with existing resources, and McCormick’s FLR program appears to pull a bit from each era. And to Bayer’s ears, many of McCormick’s YouTube videos showcase a form of “survival language” ability — the ability to make yourself understood in simple ways, using cues and context to skate over mistakes and misunderstandings.
To get a better sense of what it’s like to progress in McCormick’s FLR system, I talk to Eirik Aspaas, a 23-year-old in Gjøvik, Norway, who is studying Japanese. He discovered McCormick the same way I did, through stumbling upon a YouTube video. By coincidence, he’d started studying Japanese on his own, but began doubting how to progress beyond simple grammar and syntax basics. “I sent Moses a message asking what I can do to improve,” Aspaas explains. “My native language is Norwegian, which he didn’t know. So we cut a deal that I would teach him Norwegian if he taught me Japanese. And we went from there.”
Aspaas fell headlong into a fascination with Japanese after a trip two years ago that he went on a whim with friends. The change in landscape, the endless thrum of pop culture and the sheer foreignness of it all left an impression that didn’t fade once he flew back to Gjøvik. Over and over again, he replayed one memory in his head: Sitting in a favorite ramen shop, one near the hotel that they returned to repeatedly during the trip, trying to talk with the gregarious but English-limited chef using a translation app on the phone.
“We had learned some words and phrases for the purpose of getting around, but this was a step up. This chef seemed like such a fun dude, and I wanted to have a real conversation with him. That’s one of the moments where I had this overwhelming desire to know Japanese,” he explains. “When I got home, I just wanted to learn everything about the culture. And to learn more about the culture, you need to learn the language.”
Aspaas found freedom from “boring” technical lessons on word construction and grammar technique when he took up McCormick’s system. His confidence grew fast because of how quickly he could ask and answer questions, Aspaas says. He is now in the third level of FLR, which digs deeper into formal rules while also raising the ante on elements like idiom use. “That’s a real surprise factor,” Aspaas says with a smile. “When you use an idiom with a native speaker, they react so nicely and want to continue talking with you, which is really motivating.”
McCormick admits that his own family wasn’t sure what to make of his budding ability in Chinese, back when he first approached Mandarin 20 years ago. In fact, the first impressions were more negative than anything else. “They thought it was weird,” he explains. “They were telling me, ‘Why you wanna learn that when Chinese people don’t even like black people?’ Crazy stuff like that, man. If I wasn’t strong and didn’t have my own drive, I would’ve taken their word for it and given up.”
That changed as his parents began witnessing McCormick flex that language ability in the real world. He still remembers how his mother’s face turned when he chatted happily in Mandarin to a server at a Chinese restaurant in Akron. “They started respecting what knowing a language could do for you. My mom was going around, excitedly telling other people what I pulled off in that restaurant,” he says.
His obsession with Chinese began to consume his time at the University of Akron — so much so that he missed classes and had to transfer to a community college. That led to a leap to Ohio State University, which set the stage for his biggest language test yet. First, literally: He took a Chinese placement test on a whim and realized he was already halfway to gaining a degree in the major. Then came a request to help tutor a university athlete in Chinese. One successful freelance gig led to another. By this time, McCormick had gained proficiency in a number of other languages, like Japanese and Korean, and saw an uptick in YouTube views for videos in which he spoke with strangers. Over the course of a year, he gained a clear view of a future in which he could study languages and make money doing so. It seemed, in his words, “like the perfect fit.”
A Chinese degree wasn’t necessary anymore. He dropped out of OSU in 2008. He upped the ante on trying new languages, much to the benefit of his YouTube channel, which has been skyrocketing in views. Recent comments include a lot of plaudits from his longtime fans, who believe a change in YouTube’s monetization and front-page algorithm has brought McCormick the visibility he deserves. “I’ve always been an introvert,” he says when I ask him what language did for his personality. “I still consider myself that, but it was worse. I used to have a problem. I never talked to anyone but my siblings or close relatives. I found it hard to take part in school activities.”
His love of language then showed him a way out. “We all have to come out of our comfort zones when it comes to using a foreign language,” he says. “But the high from it is like nothing else. So I figured, forget it. I’m just going to walk up to some people and talk with them.”