Interview With Benny Lewis: Busting The Language Learning Myth

I first met Benny in the summer of 2012 when he was learning Chinese and used our sister site ChinesePod as a resource. He is a real-life polyglot, speaking 8 languages fluently. He also writes the very popular Fluent in 3 Months blog where he shares his learning experiences and tips with fellow learners. He is a full-time career language learner, blogger and traveler, something many of us dream of doing. As unconventional as his lifestyle and learning path go, Benny has some rather widely applicable lessons for all language learners.

Q: How did you get started in language learning?

A: I am not a linguist by trade. In fact, until I was 21, English was the only language that I spoke. I had also done quite poorly with languages in school. So I am not naturally talented with languages. I actually have a degree in Electronic Engineering.

The transformation happened when I moved to Spain after graduation. I discovered that learning languages wasn’t so hard when you apply the right method! You also have to stop making excuses that you are too old, don’t have time, too shy to speak, etc. In fact, I lived in Spain for quite a while without learning any Spanish because I made a lot of excuses for myself. Myth 1: being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t naturally lead you to speak the language; And not being there doesn’t mean that you won’t learn the language. It all starts with whether you set your mind to it.

After finally successfully reaching a confident stage in Spanish, my travels led me elsewhere. Dozens of countries and many languages (8 of which I speak fluently) later, I am now a full-time language hacker!

Q: When you are learning a new language, what approach do you take? 

A: I start with defining the goal I am trying to reach. For me, it’s always to use the language to communicate with people and get me through travels in that country (I learn a language and I travel to the place where it’s spoken). I think defining your personal goal is absolutely critical because it will determine the kind of approach and resources you use. Different people have different goals. For example, some learners have the goal of reading poems or novels or writing essays in the target language, which is very different from mine. Myth 2: there is no single approach. The approach you take depends on your personal learning goals. You need to define the goals for yourself before starting to learn the language.

Q: A lot of adult learners have the same goal as you, i.e. to use the language to communicate in everyday life. What advice would you give them? 

A: If that’s your goal, then you have to realize that you need to get natural input in the language first, then study, speak and review it constantly. It’s a feedback loop. In my case, once I get the input, I start speaking immediately while studying the language in a more structured way and I always try to get feedback so that I can improve. Myth 3: there is no magical moment when you’ve done x hours of study and suddenly you can speak the language. You can start speaking a new language right away. The important thing is the feedback loop: get input, start speaking, study, review and improve. You have to do these things in a cycle and do them frequently. 

Q: You seem to be especially good at picking and mixing resources that suit your needs. Any tips for our learners?

A: Let’s get to myth 4: there’s no single product or solution that will get you there. You need to look for things that help you complete the cycle I just mentioned. Different products and services excel at different things. Some have very natural and engaging dialogues, some do speaking well. The key is to mix them. Say you might have a phrase book or app that you really like which gives you good input, but if you don’t break that down and focus on using the language with real people on a regular basis, you won’t succeed.

Q:I totally agree. Instead of focusing on the ‘what’, we need to focus on the ‘why’. It’s not about what the product it is, but why you are using it to achieve a certain purpose. Given that we’ve just started a new year and many learners have language learning as a New Year’s resolution, what suggestions would you give them?

A: The most important piece of advice is that set a specific goal. Myth 5: ‘learn a language’ isn’t a helpful goal because it’s far too general. You need to set specific goals or milestones and come up with concrete steps and activities to achieve them. So instead of saying ‘I want to learn x language in the new year, tweak your goal into something like ‘I want to be able to learn x number of phrases so that I can start a basic conversation with someone.’ And then come up with actual steps to achieve your goal. It’s also very important that you check on yourself or get someone to help you to make sure that you’ve followed it through.

Q: I must ask, the name of your blog is ‘Fluent in 3 Months’, can someone really achieve fluecy in 3 months? 

A: 3 months is a target I set for myself where I need to achieve a level of fluency which enables me to travel to the target language country and live there. But I am doing this on a full time basis. I immerse myself in learning the language. The moment I wake up, when I am on the bus, etc. I am always learning. For the average busy adult, they are not going to have that much time. So you need to integrate learning into your daily routine and make sure that you are using dead bits of time to study. It often means that you’ll do shorter chunks but frequently. It also means that you’ll probably need to give up 2 hours of TV every night and spend that time on learning instead. I’ve never seen someone who can learn a language without putting in the hard work. Myth 6: there’s no short cut to learning. If you don’t spend time on it, you are not going to learn.

Q: Very true. But there’s a lot that one can do to spend their time more efficiently and get the most out of their learning. 

A: Definitetly. Myth 7: you have to suffer in order to learn a language. You need to work hard, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy it. And simply putting in the hours and going through motions doesn’t mean you are learning either. So it’s really important to find resources and activities that are relevant to you, contribute to your success and are what you enjoy. Only then will they work for you. 


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