Benny Lewis gave us a bunch of simple, yet very useful tips on how to learn languages.
He knows very well what he is talking about: at the age of 21 he spoke only English — now he speaks more than 12 languages. Today the author of Fluent in 3 Months is one of the most famous polyglots in the world!
Watch our interview from Polyglot Gathering Berlin 2015 and find out:
- when to start speaking a language
- how to make learning your leisure activity
- why it is important to make mistakes
- how to immerse in a new culture without leaving your country
- whether one size fits all when it comes to learning methods
VocApp.com: Hi Benny, I’m very, very happy that you managed to find time for us. I perfectly know who you are, but can you please just start by telling our viewers who you are and what you do, and why we are so happy that we managed to meet here.
Benny Lewis: Sure thing. I’m Benny Lewis from Ireland, and I only spoke English when I was twenty one. Then I got into language learning as an adult, tried it, got slowly better and better and eventually picked up a bunch of languages. Then I started the blog and YouTube channel, and I’ve written a book. I do all of this to try to inspire other people to do the same thing. I have the big blog and Ted x talks and everything, and that’s why I’m here.
VocApp.com: Probably this is the most original question that you’ve ever heard: how to learn a language?
Benny Lewis: It depends on the person, it depends on the language, but generally if someone wants to be able to speak a language, they should speak it from day one. It’s like learning to ride a bike. You wouldn’t learn the theory behind it, you wouldn’t read books about it, you’d just get on the bike and start pedaling. It’s the same with languages. I try to start by … Hold on.
VocApp.com: That’s fine.
Benny Lewis: I try to start by speaking from day one, learning five or ten words, using them, learning a few more words, and continuing to do that as best I can. The more you practice the better you get at it.
VocApp.com: It seems so easy when you just that, because English, Spanish, and you just keep traveling. What to do if you just cannot travel, if you cannot meet so many native people, the people around you?
Benny Lewis: For the last three or four years most of the languages that I have learned and improved have been via the internet. I get on Skype all the time, I have teachers that I do language lessons with. I actually find that is better than going to the country. For instance, if you want to learn Chinese, one problem that I had when I tried to learn Chinese in Taiwan, is I had to learn how to learn a new language but I have to also live in a completely different culture. That was two very difficult things I had to do at the same time, whereas if I was just learning Chinese, if I was just getting on Skype, practicing Mandarin, and doing that over a period of time, then you could use going to the country as your opportunity to practice and to use what you’ve already learned. I think it’s better that you learn before you travel or even if you can’t travel, that you learn right now via the internet. You can speak with people, you can read articles on the internet. You can listen to the language being spoken through live streaming radio and podcasts. There’s so many opportunities.
VocApp.com: What things do you recommend to do, when you are at home in your country. Books, audio books, music, what would you say?
Benny Lewis: I always say you have to interact with human beings as much as possible. Books are good if you want to improve your reading skills because that’s what a book is made for. That’s one thing you can do, but one other thing is to use resources to find teachers, to speak with another person. You don’t need to get a group cast, because in many situations it’s cheaper to get private lessons with someone via the internet than it is to get a group class in your hometown. I try to do that, and you practice what you want to improve. You practice your listening by listening to podcasts and stream radio, you practice your writing skills by writing a few documents and sending it to your teacher or your conversation exchange partner looking for feedback. You could do all of this thanks to the internet.
VocApp.com: A lot of people write to you, emails with some questions. What is the most common question that keeps reappearing all the time?
Benny Lewis: Generally people tell me their background, like they feel like it matters if they say for instance, “I’m studying medicine, and I’m a girl and I’m twenty two, and I like pizza. How do I learn Spanish?” People will give all these … But the answer is always the same, you learn by doing. Generally that’s the most common thing I get, is people giving me detailed things as if I’m going to say, “Oh, you’re a Pisces, well in that case …” and you just have to use the language. That’s the answer I give to everybody.
VocApp.com: What is the most common mistake that students make when they start learning?
Benny Lewis: Ironically, the most common mistake is not making mistakes. I think a lot of people say when they’re getting into languages, they are perfectionists. They feel like they’re not allowed to use the language, to speak it, unless every conjugation is perfect, every pronunciation is right, they know a thousand words, or whatever it is. They feel they need to know it perfect, and that is a mistake because a language is not like geography or history, a list of facts that you need to cram into your brain. It’s a means of communication, so you can’t study it for five years and then suddenly be able to speak it. You have to be speaking it throughout the entire process. It is a mistake to not be okay with making mistakes.
VocApp.com: We’ve just seen your perfect presentation “Fluent in Three Months.” How to get fluent in three months, because for most of the people it seems so Mt. Everest of learning a language. Whole life, some people keep studying and it’s still not possible. How is this possible in three months?
Benny Lewis: You don’t have to be fluent in three months. One thing I always tell people is the concept of “Fluent in Three Months” for me, is about specificity, because one thing unsuccessful language learners do is they just say, “I want to learn Italian.” That’s not very useful, there’s no idea of a plan of action. I don’t say, “You have to be fluent in three months,” I say, “Find something that works with your lifestyle, a goal that’s realistic for you. Something you know you can aim for, but be very specific about it.” If you want to do something in the space of a few months, you have to live and breathe that language. You don’t have to move to the country for this, you don’t have to quit your job for this, but maybe you have to make a lot of sacrifices.
Instead of going down to the pub with your friends four times a week, you decide “for the next three months I’m going to make a sacrifice and I’m only going to socialize in the language I’m learning”. Or you say “for the next three months instead of watching “Game of Thrones” in English, I’m going to see if I can watch it in the target language.” There’s all these things you do that you don’t realize that you’re not getting value out of your time. You can still relax, but relax in the target language. Find ways to do that, find ways to live the language and you may get conversational in a few months. It depends on what is suitable to your goals, what you’re really looking to do with the language. Try to be specific about what you’re aiming for.
VocApp.com: You are a very busy person and you keep learning languages. How to learn a language if you are totally busy? Like the “Game of Thrones,” so I was just thinking whether it’s available in German, but how to do it?
Benny Lewis: Like I said, when you try to squeeze every spare second out. I had to learn Italian for instance, while working a sixty three-hour-week job. Almost double time, but what I did was every spare second that I wasn’t working was about Italian. I was living in Rome, which is a very touristy city. I could have very easily have had many English speaking friends, but I avoided English because I had to speak English in my job. Every time I stepped outside the door, Italian only. I looked for Italian friends, I tried to read in Italian, I tried to listen to the radio in Italian. Everything I did, my purpose for existing when I wasn’t working, was to improve my Italian.
VocApp.com: All right, you also run a blog. A blog and a YouTube channel apart from the book. What can our viewers find there if they decide to follow the links below the video and just visit it?
Benny Lewis: One of the things I work hardest on is my email list. If people go on fluentinthreemonths.com and join the email list, then every week I will give them the best links around the internet. The newest stuff that other people have done to encourage language learners. Every month I’ll give specific links for every language I possibly can, about thirty or forty languages. The best links for learning Chinese, the best links for learning Italian, and so on. That’s something you can do if you join my blog. Otherwise, if you look through the history of the blog you’ll see many posts that I’ve written and my Youtube channel, many videos that I’ve done to try to help people to learn languages.
VocApp.com: What language will be the next one?
Benny Lewis: For the moment, I’m going to focus on improving the languages I currently speak. I don’t want to learn a new language for the next year. I want to get my Mandarin to be at a higher level and my Italian and so on. Next year I will see where do I want to go, because I don’t pick languages. I pick cultures. When I know I want to investigate that culture, even if I don’t want to travel there, if I just want to see what that group of people are like, then I will learn that language. I don’t know what it is now, but I will eventually get inspired to take on a new culture and the language is part of that.
VocApp.com: All right, so good luck with your learning and I hope that one day we’ll be able to speak in Polish.
Benny Lewis: I hope so too, thank you very much.
VocApp.com: All right, thank you very much.
Benny Lewis: Thank you.