Something about him immediately drew my attention. He had an exotic look, his style of dress was clearly foreign, and he was wearing sandals in December.
After talking with him for a few minutes, I noted something else unusual about him... in spite of just having arrived in the US, his English was nearly perfect, with a strangely familiar New York accent.
Over time, we became close friends, and I learned the secret to his excellent English.
Though he came from a small rural town in Brazil, he had somehow acquired several seasons of "The Nanny" on VHS.
With no other reference for spoken English, he mimicked Fran Drescher, until he could speak exactly like her. Whenever he would switch from his native Portuguese to English, the pitch of his voice would raise about half an octave and go all nasal, sprinkled liberally with Yiddish euphemisms.
Over the years, I've observed this phenomenon again and again.
In Japan, where excellent spoken English is somewhat of a rarity, I was introduced to a high level executive who spoke with a perfect, booming Texan drawl. He later explained that he had been obsessed with American westerns as a boy, and this motivated him to study English in earnest.
Then, in China, there was the young web designer who religiously watches Vampire Diaries, and the newspaper reporter who loves listening to Blind Willie Johnson, and has an remarkable vernacular vocabulary.
During my travels throughout Asia, I frequently encounter people eager to practice English with a native speaker. By far, the most successful English speakers are those who have discovered a love for American TV or music, accessible for free online in China.
The results are often spectacular. To my ear, they sound as if they spent years living in the US. Their speaking is natural, and their listening comprehension so good that I forget english is their second language.
I believe that the advent of the internet has completely changed how people learn language. It's true that a certain amount of classroom time may be necessary to lay down a foundation, but after this, we are limited only by our imagination and desire to learn. Foreign language TV shows, films, books, music, and perhaps most importantly, social networking apps, make it possible for a student to immerse themselves in a language more easily than ever before.
The best way to learn a language is to move to a new country, and experience the language personally. A good tutor will make the acclimation process even faster.
But for the large majority of us who do not have this opportunity, the Internet is proving to be a stunningly effective tool for language learning.