A self–taught language hacker, Benny Lewis insists he has no natural talent for mastering a new lexicon. As a kid in Ireland, studying Gaelic and German made him fluent in neither and he could speak only English well into his twenties. Today, he can speak in 10 different tongues, honed during stays in a dozen countries. Now, he shares his strategy via a website, Fluent in 3 Months, and multiple language coursebooks – he once helped author Tim Ferriss pick up Tagalog in mere days, just in time for a live TV interview. Lewis’ first rule: Never mind the grammatical rules. “A language can’t be learned,” he says. “It can only be lived.”
Benny Lewis, an Austin, Texas–based author and vlogger who schools aspiring multilinguals through his website Fluent in 3 Months, shows us what he packs for his language–immersion trips.
enRoute You describe your technique as language hacking. What’s the difference between that and language learning?
Benny Lewis When I took German in high school, I did very poorly. I’m not a natural language learner. What changed for me was when I stopped thinking of languages as academic subjects, where every mistake you make gets you closer to a failing grade. If I can, as an absolute beginner, say a grammatically incorrect sentence, somebody I’m talking to will understand me. And that’s what language hacking focuses on – the actual communication benefits, rather than the number of mistakes.
ER Have your travel experiences helped you perfect your language technique?
BL Yes. In high school, German was this inhuman concept – I imagined everyone in Germany being grammatical robots. When I eventually visited Germany and dated a girl there, I saw it as a human language, and a means to establish friendships and to experience the world. That completely altered my language learning philosophy and helped me understand that it’s okay to make mistakes.
ER Your website is called Fluent in 3 Months. Is that the ideal amount of time you need to learn a language?
BL The name of my blog comes from the concept of people needing to have specific goals and timelines. In general, three months is a Goldilocks zone – not too big, not too small. But it’s on the horizon enough that you have the pressure to learn consistently every day. With my background, I can learn a new language in three months, but I don’t prescribe that to other people. I say, just try to have specificity.
ER What has been your favourite language to learn and why?
BL People often talk about the components of a language that they like. I’ve never thought of it like that. For me, it’s always directly connected to the people. So, my favourite language is Brazilian Portuguese because Brazil is my favourite country. The people are so welcoming, even to solo travellers and I’ve had such rich experiences there. I once spent part of Carnival in a small town deep inside the state of São Paulo. I even made it into the local newspaper because I was really getting into the party. Most people told me I was the first foreigner they had ever met. And they just let me talk to them; they were very friendly and curious to hear how I live my life.
ER Can you share a travel experience you were able to have only because you could understand the language?
BL I once went to Italy for a conference, but there was an earthquake, so it was cancelled. I got in touch with a friend and he invited me to Easter dinner with his family. I got to sit down with four generations of Italians, and I had the most fascinating conversations. Fortunately, my Italian was fluent at that stage. There’s just no way you could have that kind of authentic experience unless you were to learn the local language. And I had the best pasta I’ve ever eaten – that goes without saying.
Benny’s Top Language–learning Hacks
My philosophy is you have to speak from day one. Don’t wait until you’re ready.
Write a script for your first conversations (translate “Hello,” “My name is...”). Keep it on hand as your training wheels.
Embrace mistakes. I encourage people to get out there and aim to make at least 200 a day.
I can learn a language in three months, but I don’t prescribe that to other people. Just have specific goals and specific timelines.
What’s in Benny’s bag?
Lonely Plant phrasebooks — These get you around the challenge of trying to form a complex, grammatical sentence in your mind. They fit in your pocket and take a bit of pressure off.
IQbuds — These earbuds are pretty new technology. They isolate and amplify the voices in front of you and cancel everything else, like noise in a bar or restaurant.
KeeQii 60–minute visual timer — When I sit down with a book and go through language exercises, I use the Pomodoro time management technique and this timer as a cue to stay focused for 25–minute increments.
Teach Yourself coursebooks — They help you reach a conversational level and use lots of examples. For instance, if I’m going to eat out with friends, I can very quickly reference the restaurant chapter.
Back–of–the–seat organizer — On a flight, I hook this onto the seatback in front of me for quick access to the handful of things I need – my ticket, passport, eye mask, headphones and Kindle.
SwitchPod — With a very quick flick, this tripod turns into a selfie stick. It’s one of my favourite tools for vlogging.
Cadet cap — I bought my original one in Prague. I have Irish skin that doesn’t do well in the sun, so this is very good for that extra bit of shade. I never leave home without it; it’s become my signature look.