The polyglot

By the time he turned 21, Benny Lewis, from Ireland, knew only English. In his intellectual armoury was a degree in electronic engineering. After graduation, in 2003, he moved to Spain. Some 10 years later, all spent on the road, Lewis is fluent in eight languages. He knows everything from Spanish and French to Mandarin, Irish, Esperanto and American Sign Language. Hundreds of thousands of keen learners read his website each month, enabling Lewis to make a full-time living off language projects. Is there a secret to success with languages? Yes there is.


1. At 21 you knew only English. What made you decide you wanted to learn languages? 

I had moved to Spain and was getting frustrated with the limitations that only speaking English gave me, since I could only make friends with rich Spaniards who had lived abroad, or other foreigners. One day I decided to change this.

2. Did you have a moment when you suddenly realised the ‘secret’ to learning languages?

The ‘secret’ is that you simply can’t avoid frustration, and my Eureka moment was about two weeks into trying my hardest to muster through with my ugly beginner Spanish in real conversations – and then realising that I had just had an exchange entirely in Spanish. It was far from perfect, but the fact that I had used just Spanish – bad conjugations and all – showed me that perfection is not the answer, and that making mistakes will get me further.

3. Your website is immensely popular (nearly 500,000 monthly readers) Have you been surprised at the response? 

I had been travelling for many years before blogging and people found my language learning encouragement unique and helpful, so I had plans for my site to grow from the very start. I imagined it would be popular eventually, but I am surprised by the speed at which it has reached this level of engagement.


4. You talk about shortcuts and unconventional learning techniques. Could you offer us some examples? 

The most unconventional advice I give related to language learning is to fail fast, fail often, and start speaking to a human being from day one. My shortcut is definitely not the ‘easy way’ to learn a language, as it will be frustrating and embarrassing. But the point is to dive into it despite this and embrace this stage, and aim to make as many mistakes as possible.

5. The website is titled ‘Fluent in 3 Months’. What level of effort and dedication is required to achieve this goal? 

Well, first I think it’s important to change one’s mindset to not be so uptight about making mistakes, and to be cool with speaking with a human being as often as possible. These changes are the most important ones, and it’s unlikely that many could do them overnight. But once you get over this, and are active in practising your language, then you could theoretically reach fluency in three months for sure, depending on the language you were learning. But for this you would need absolute full-time dedication to the project.

As such, I generally recommend people aim for goals such as basic conversational in four months or whatever other idea is realistic, but that they still push themselves. There is no one magic goal that can be applied to everyone, but since I now have the confidence to make mistakes and can work full-time on the project, I can aim for fluency in three months, and I think others who can set aside the three months, if their work situation let them, could too. For those who can’t take a break from their work, this by no means implies they are stuck at never learning a language. Fluency is within reach for everyone, even if it’s a year or two away rather than a few months. It just takes dedication, even if that is just an hour a day.


6. What would you say are the common mistakes language learners often commit? 

Study until the day they are ’ready’. There will always be more vocabulary to learn, and more grammar to tweak. You could delude yourself into postponing the ready day indefinitely if you were perfectionist enough. Otherwise, fearing native speakers is another huge mistake – as if you will get ridiculed for trying, which never actually happens anywhere outside of our head.

7. On your travels, what kind of advantages have language skills given you? 

Way cheaper travel, since you don’t pay the English speaking tax. You also get to truly experience the local culture, because otherwise you would rely on a guide or interpreter to babysit you the entire time.

8. You also advocate ‘light travel’. We imagine most people would be uncomfortable getting rid of stuff. What would you tell them?

That stuff owns you, and that’s a terrible way to live. Really, what gives you value in your life? Is it a couch and a nice mattress, or is it the experiences that you have and people you meet? Everything I own in the world weighs 23kg (50lbs) and that’s still way too much. What do you really need? People confuse ‘need’ and ‘want’ way too much in life, and should keep that in mind when looking at all the crap that anchors them down to a place.

– Benny Lewis runs the website Fluent in 3 Months. For more tips on how to learn languages, watch his recent 10-year travel anniversary video, and his talk at TEDx.

Photos: Benny Lewis.