When I was 10, my parents thought it a good idea for me to learn a second language. They enrolled me in an after school French program, and I dutifully attended each class with a friend.
We practiced vocabulary, learned phrases, watched videos, talked to each other, so on and so forth—all the normal stuff you do in a language class. By the fall, I couldn’t remember a single word I’d learned.
I tried again in 8th grade. Same result. Later on, I took four years of Spanish classes. Many, many lessons. I retained almost nothing.
It was so frustrating! I decided I wasn’t a “language person” and gave up. I mean, most people just aren’t good at learning languages, right?
But then, something changed.
In my last year of high school, my family took in a Spanish exchange student. At first, Carlos and I struggled to communicate. I could barely speak Spanish, and he could barely speak English. After 10 months together every day, I could speak Spanish well enough to have an interesting conversation. And Carlos’ English was perfect.
Even better, I retained much of what I’d learned after he left. Years later, I spent a month with him in Spain. I was nearly fluent by the time I left, talking to anyone I wanted about anything I wanted.
Today, I travel regularly to South America and have an amazing time because I can speak the language. It provides me access to experiences I wouldn’t get as a normal tourist. It’s nice.
How did this all happen? Years of language classes failed, but just a little time close to a native speaker rapidly improved my abilities. And just a month completely immersed took me to a level of mastery.
And don’t forget I made all these breakthroughs as an adult—something most think impossible. You have to learn languages when you’re young, right?
Maybe not. And maybe you don’t have to travel to get the benefit of immersion, either.
That’s what Benny Lewis, the Irish Polyglot says. He claims you can master any new language as an adult right from your home in just three months. And you don’t have to invest in thousands of dollars of courses to do it.
I sat down for an interview with Benny to talk about his language learning strategies. And even though he’s a friend, I didn’t give him an easy ride. I grilled him on the topic just like I do everyone I interview.
The transcript is below. Read on to find out if Benny really has uncovered the holy grail of language learning.
The Riskologist Grilling Of Benny Lewis, Author Of Fluent In 3 Months
I’ll to start this interview with the question on everyone’s minds: How did you trick Harper Collins into publishing this scam, and how can I trust anything you say if you don’t have a mustache?
Ha! Well, as incredible as the title sounds, it’s not actually as far-fetched as you may think!
Generally, we learn a language “for years” by spending an hour a week getting grammar lessons and vocab drills with nothing to show at the end. It’s why the concept of genuinely speaking a language in as short a time as a few months sounds so crazy. But what’s crazy is the current system in place in schools that takes so damn long and has no results to show for it.
In the 11 years I’ve been on the road, I’ve seen that you can do a lot in a short time. In fact, having deadlines drives us to work even harder than vague “Learn Spanish” goals ever would. That’s one aspect of what I write about, and has been the theme of the language projects in my travel, so it had to be the theme of the book! The book covers everything I’ve learned in the last decade of intensive language learning, and everything that has helped me learn over a dozen languages myself.
Also, one thing I get into later in the book is that cultural integration involves blending in with the locals, and I had a hideous looking “porn stache” while I was in Egypt. True story.
Okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt because you’re a friend of Riskology. But, is this just for kids and MENSA members? Normal adults can’t learn second languages. Everyone knows that.
Actually, a study at the University of Haifa found that, under the right circumstances, adults are better language learners than children! The reason they usually aren’t isn’t because of the environment, but because adults learn languages so differently. Children learn their mother tongue through playing, using it all the time, and making mistakes naturally.
A friend of mine once said that “babies aren’t better language learners than you, they just have no escape route.” When you keep going back to English, is it any wonder you don’t learn the language? What really helps is if you can spend several hours uninterrupted using one language that is not the one you grew up speaking.
You also don’t need to be a genius. It’s easy to look at someone like me and dismiss success as being caused by angel blessings, good astrology or other nonsense. I worked damn hard to get where I am. That hard work is manageable if you break it up into the steps that made it up. This is something anyone can do.
In fact, I have a degree in electronic engineering. When I moved to Spain at the age of 21—only able to speak English—I still couldn’t speak Spanish after living there for 6 months! Smarts wasn’t the issue (I’m the same person after all). It’s that my methods weren’t smart enough.
Why is it so damn expensive to learn a new language? I see TV ads all the time for systems promising to make me a natural speaker in another language for just three easy payments of my entire life savings. How much do I really need to spend to find my hotel in Budapest?
The likes of what I shall refer to as “The Yellow Box” being everywhere is nothing but good marketing. In Europe, we’ve never heard of it because we use good stuff instead, and language products spread because of success rate, not cleverest marketing campaign.
The problem is that we associate cost with quality. If something is more expensive, it must be better, right? No. That just means there are suckers with that much money willing to pay. Language learning can be very inexpensive or free! I took $5/hour lessons in Japanese via Skype and often start learning with just a $5 phrase book.
You can listen to streamed radio via sites/apps like TuneIn and read online newspapers or blogs in any language you like for free. You can also get my book for next to nothing, but I’m biased in recommending that!
I’ll do the product plugs, thanks! Now, what if you’re busy and very lazy. You don’t have three months to learn a second language because you’re going to Norway next week to meet some girl from the Internet you tricked with an online translator. What do you do?
Even if you don’t have enough time, you can actually make amazing progress in just a few days. The trick is to get started. I like to throw myself in the deep end and start speaking from day one.
Hell, I even managed to start speaking Polish after one single hour of studying it! It’s the Pareto principle at its best – if you’ve tricked this girl into meeting with you, obviously you only want to say “Hey Baby – want to show me your Fjord?” so learn that phrase first. She will, of course, swoon and make passionate love to you on the spot.
But seriously, conversations are predictable. I know in advance that my priority phrases revolve around finding where things are, explaining that I’m vegetarian, and sometimes a really quick intro about who I am and why I’m learning their language. So I get on italki (a great site to connect you with native speakers for super cheap lessons) and run through my phrases with a teacher there to translate them in advance. You can also throw together something from Google Translate and send it to Lang-8 for free corrections if it’s short enough. Then you know what you have is legit.
Just those few phrases make a major difference in helping you ease into the country, and this is totally doable in a few hours. You absolutely don’t need to be fluent before having “permission” to use the language.
What’s the funniest miscommunication you’ve ever had? When I was in Spain, I got confused with the gender nouns and mistakenly ordered rice with “female” chicken at dinner (If you speak Spanish, you’ll know why that’s hilarious). The guy serving us just stood there with his mouth agape until a friend—laughing hysterically—corrected me.
The funniest by far was when I had just recorded a video in German for my blog. I was hanging out with a female friend of mine who I had known for years (we used to speak Spanish together, but she was German), and I wanted to say “Hey, I made a really cool video! Do you want to come up and see?” Somehow, this came out as “I’m horny and want you to come inside me”, because of how the word “cool” (geil) works in German, and how “to come” in English has sexual connotations if you use it wrong (or right, as the case may be…)
[Tyler’s Update: It’s gettin’ racy here. Big thanks to The Pope for making it okay to accidentally swear in a foreign language.]
How can I get natives to talk to me in their language when I’m traveling? This was another challenge for me learning Spanish. I would walk up to someone and start talking, and they’d be like, “That’s so cute. We’ll just do this in English, you dunce.”
There are actually really good reasons for this, and it may blow your mind to learn this has nothing to do with your Spanish skills. When I arrived in Egypt a year ago, for instance, people always spoke immediately in English with me. It was driving me crazy because I had spent months intensively learning Arabic.
The problem wasn’t my Arabic skills, though (I literally wouldn’t say anything and they would greet me in English). It was because of how I looked and my body language. Remember that porn stache? That’s something sported by many Egyptians along with a rugged look, heavy clothes despite the desert temperatures, and a macho attitude when you walk. I transformed, and the reactions instantly changed.
So, the first thing you can do is emulate how a Latin American (or otherwise) person would walk and talk. This sends subconscious cues that keep things in the right language.
The other reason is confidence. You say you “walked” up to someone. I never walk up to people. I stride, march, gallop or zoom in like I own the place, and never “start talking” but BURST into my target language. No hesitations, no regrets, no prisoners. If you are holding up a bank, you don’t ask nicely. Just presume that this conversation WILL continue in Spanish, and that reality distortion field will suck the other person into it.
In the book, you talk about the “keyword method” you use to quickly memorize a large vocabulary. What’s that? How does it work? Can I sell it to Internet marketers? They’re always talking about “keyword this” and “keyword that.”
This is fancy terminology for using mnemonics to remember things. A great website, memrise, has a heap of interesting suggestions. So, you learn a target language word via a “keyword.” For instance, I was learning Spanish and came across the word “playa”, and needed to learn that it meant “beach.” I visualized Johnny Bravo, strutting down a beach and saying “Hey sexy Mama!” to scantily clad Spanish girls, and getting slapped in the face. This “PLAYER” was on the “PLAYA”. It was very effective in helping me remember.
With a keyword association, you will simply not forget words. This is way more effective than rote memorization.
What’s this business about language immersion without traveling? You better have a good answer because I’ve kind of gone all in on the whole “travel is good for you” thing.
Considering I’ve been on the road for 11 years, I’ll hardly argue with you. However, I do feel time is limited when traveling, and you need to take full advantage of it. You should be out exploring, eating interesting food, meeting nice people, and taking in the sights. Not indoors studying dusty old grammar books or doing language exercises.
It’s why I’d recommend people learn a language before they travel—the experience is all the richer.
Immersion can be applied virtually. You are immersed visually and audibly through Skype lessons, streamed radio, and downloaded foreign movies or TV shows. You could theoretically spend your entire day existing in whatever language you like thanks to the Internet!
But you will still have a struggle ahead of you to get your bearings and learn what needs to be learned. Some parts of language learning are annoying, but you have to go through them. So do them NOW and arrive in the country already speaking the language. It’s so much more fun that way!
What’s the easiest language? I just asked that one to annoy you. But you know everyone is wondering…
Esperanto! I spent seven weeks of my life speaking 100% in this language through online communities that came together in week-long conferences—always in random places. A study actually showed that learning this as a bridge language can speed up your attempts at other languages since you get over your lack of confidence in using a language, and the one you are more passionate about gets that boost in a shorter time span.
Generally, though, I don’t think there are hard or easy languages, since a lot of that is mental. Spanish was the hardest language I ever learned (harder than Hungarian, and Chinese and Japanese), because it was my first foreign language and I had the wrong approach. Everything gets easier when you look at it the right way.
Is there more to language learning than just speaking and listening / reading and writing? Body language stuff? I sometimes pick my nose while talking. What does that say?
I see a language as a means of communication. It seems so academic to break that up into simply speaking and listening / reading and writing. How you comb your hair, what clothes you wear, the length of your hesitation, whether you raise your eyebrows, and the distance you keep between you and the person you speak to. All of this is intertwined with language and especially with culture.
I never take on language challenges because of the linguistic components, but the cultural ones. I feel like there are so many fascinating cultures in the world, and learning their language is a bridge to learning about them. But while you learn the technical components of a language, you also learn what questions native speakers like to ask, and how they think differently to where you are from.
It’s all so fascinating and it’s taught me many lessons about the world. I hope some of you will give language learning a try for yourselves and see what I mean! It’s something that’s open to absolutely everyone. Give it a whirl!
Alright, folks. I hope you enjoyed the interview and feel like I gave Benny a thorough grilling! Fluent In 3 Months is legit, so grab a copy and help Benny get on the bestseller’s list.