Fluent in three months? Mon dieu!

Wed, Feb 1, 2012, 00:00

How did an electronic engineer who was only average at languages in school learn more than 20 and change his career?

IRELAND MIGHT have two official languages, but we are, shamefully, a nation of monoglots. There are a few myths that we stubbornly cling to about language learning, almost as an excuse, such as that you need to learn other languages while very young, or that you need to have a language “gene” or natural flair to master other tongues.

But it’s all nonsense, according to one globe-trotting Irish man who has spent the past eight years travelling the world learning nearly 20 languages. Indeed, he’s become so successful at it that it has become his career.

“I try to make it very enjoyable, and the way to do that is to make it about socialising and communication,” says Benny Lewis, a self-styled “language hacker”, and his enthusiasm and flair for the task that has become his life is evident. The 29-year-old says his website, Fluentin3months.com, is the world’s busiest language blog. He has recently given a talk at one of the TEDx conferences – organised by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading” – in San Antonio. And he has self-published a hugely successful guide to his methods called The Language Hacking Guide.

Above all, his language learning has allowed him to embrace foreign cultures all over the world – he has been travelling almost non-stop for the past eight years. At the moment, he is living in Taiwan having set himself his biggest challenge to date – learning Mandarin in three months. “I feel like my brain is going to melt all day, every day, I’m so intensively learning Chinese at the moment.”

How did an electronic engineer from Co Cavan become a professional polyglot, especially given the fact that he says he was average at languages in school, doing pass Irish and getting a C2 in German. “I went to Spain on my 21st birthday after my degree, and I knew I had to learn some Spanish,” he says. “I paid for a really expensive course but got no use out of it, it was all just gobbledygook. I figured, I don’t have this language talent that some people are born with; I’m good at mathematics and physics and stuff.”

After nearly six months in Spain with little success, he realised he was spending all his time with ex-pats, and needed to immerse himself in the language. He set himself the first of many challenges – no English for a month. “My biggest issue wasn’t with the grammar and vocabulary; it was the fear, and letting go of that. Making mistakes does not hinder communication, it actually helps you because you get into the flow quicker. I think realising that made this thing click in my head.”

With the language thing clicked, he travelled Europe using the same method from country to country, focusing on speaking the language from day one – he found the formula to be so successful he now calls his multimedia language kit Speak from Day One. For work, he spent a lot of time teaching English and translating engineering manuals, the sort of location-independent jobs that allows the world to open up, and he started venturing further afield, becoming fluent in Spanish, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Esperanto and attaining a conversational level in another dozen or so, including Czech, Quechua, Dutch and Turkish.

He also spent time in the Donegal Gaeltacht to learn Irish. Lewis is very critical of traditional language-teaching methods, and particularly the teaching of Irish. “What happens in school is that they’re always testing you and you get a big red X every time you make a mistake, whereas with human beings it’s the opposite. When you’re speaking and making mistakes, you’re actually getting encouragement and positive feedback from communicating with another person.”

He started his blog more than two years ago, and quickly built a large readership. “I gave myself a ridiculous objective and timeline – I was going to move to Prague, I wanted to learn a language unrelated to anything I had ever learned, and I wanted to speak it fluently in three months. The blog gets its title from that initial challenge I set myself, and it exploded in popularity.” With more than 400,000 unique visitors a month, it’s the largest language blog on the web, and generates enough interest that he can live off the proceeds from his guide and multimedia kit.

Lewis talks about his experiences in an exuberant torrent of anecdote and insight, with all the enthusiasm of someone who hasn’t spoken English for weeks. What sets him apart is not just his hard-earned facility with languages, but the determination with which he goes about setting himself big tasks. Lewis is proving, one destination and language at a time, that while the world is big place, it feels a lot smaller when you can talk to people, wherever you go.

“It’s great to earn a living from this,” he says, “but every day I’ll get at least a dozen emails from people saying they were inspired by me to learn and speak a language. All I do is encourage people to interact with other human beings.”

fluentin3months.com, speakfromday1.com