Benny Lewis on His Language Learning Methods & Importance of Mistakes
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Elle: Hello everyone and welcome to the LingQ podcast with me Elle. With LingQ, you can learn a new language from content you love by turning anything into a language lesson: movies, TV shows, blog posts, news articles, anime, whatever you want. Remember to like this episode and follow or subscribe to the podcast from whichever platform you’re listening on.
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I am very excited to have a special guest on. He started the Fluent in Three Months blog. He is also a YouTuber and an author, author of the book Fluent in Three Months, and also the Language Hacking series available for French, German, Spanish and Italian. Uh, I am joined today by Benny Lewis, AKA Benny, the Irish Polyglot.
Hi, Benny. How are you?
Benny: I’m very good. Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here. Thanks.
Elle: Excellent. Thank you for coming on. Really appreciate it. So, um, to start off, tell us where you are in the world right now. You’re not in New York anymore, right?
Benny: Yeah. I currently live in Austin, Texas.
Elle: Wow. Okay. And how’s it going? I’ve heard. It’s great, uh, the nightlife… I mean, I’m sure you’re not enjoying much of the light live right now, unfortunately, but food, music, I hear it’s a great city. Are you enjoying it?
Benny: just because this has become the new Silicon Valley of the States. It’s got a lot of, uh, online entrepreneurs and creative types and such.
So that’s kind of the main reason I wanted to move here was to network with people like myself who are trying to make a difference online.
Elle: Oh, cool. I didn’t know that about Austin actually. That’s very cool. Um, so I wanted to just tell you first off that when I told some family members that I was interviewing you this week,
they were like, “Oh, Oh, even I know who that is.” So congratulations. I guess I’m kind of bringing language learning to the mainstream. Um, uh, I’ve been following you from many years ago now and, uh, I think what really resonates about your story is that you, like many of us, didn’t enjoy or didn’t get much out of studying languages at school.
Um, is it right that you studied, is it German and Gaelic? Irish Gaelic in high school.
Benny: That’s Right.
Elle: And so when you left high school, you weren’t really able to converse in those languages?
Benny: No, unfortunately the approach I had in school didn’t work.
Elle: Yeah. For a lot of us to have the same experience. Um, so you’re intro to being able to actually learn a language to fluency came after college with Spanish, right?
Benny: Yeah. I moved to Spain. The first six months were not a success for me. I did what a lot of people in my situation do, and just gravitated towards other English speakers. So I always tell people that moving to the country doesn’t actually solve your problems when it comes to language learning.
Elle: Yep. Same thing happened for me when I lived in Japan for three years, I did some study, but yeah, it, it happens right. You do, you know, it’s the easy route, the people who speak English, you kind of do make friends with. So what changed then? So you went to Spain, uh, weren’t able to learn a language, uh, but it was the first language that you learned to fluency.
So what, what happened?
Benny: So what happened was, I think at first, when I thought maybe living in Spain would just magically solved my problem, when I realized that wasn’t happening, I was tempted to return back to the idea that I’m just not naturally talented in languages and it’s just my destiny to never speak, you know, another language.
I was holding onto that for a while. Even if I. Was doing a few things, like I was going to group classes. I thought maybe if I would read a book with a dictionary that might help. And I’d like, you know, just looking up one word at a time without really trying to appreciate the reading experience. And like, I tried a lot of different things, which didn’t bring me any success.
But what was interesting for me was I was part of this exchange program for engineers. Um, um, there were, I, I was there for a very long time and I kept seeing other people from multiple countries arriving, uh, not having any Spanish initially, but then after a few weeks or a few months, they would start speaking.
And so it really challenged my belief that, you know, Oh, I’m an engineer, so I’m a technically minded person. And if there’s some left-brain right-brain stuff happening, then that’s the reason I can’t speak the language. And I kept seeing evidence to the contrary of new arrivals who arrived with no Spanish, but then eventually became to, um, they eventually developed the ability to have conversations.
So. That challenged me. And I would ask them, how are you doing this? What’s your secret? And I think when we first get into languages, we all want to know what that secret is, like is there one specific course or the one trick that you do that will solve all your problems? And I wanted to hear that. I imagined they would tell me something like when I sleep, I have this audio playing in the background and magically fluent because of that.
Um, it took a while for it to really sink in that what was different was that they were truly using the language. I was just studying the language. I wasn’t having any real experiences in it. I would study it and then I would fail inusing it in any kind of social situation. And so that kind of developed the philosophy I’ve had ever since then of if I want to truly use the language and, uh, uh, you know, there are different techniques, obviously with language learning, it depends on your goals.
And my goal is always the purely spoken focus at the beginning stages. So I have to speak from day one. And that’s what changed six months into that time in Spain, I tried an experiment where outside of my work, because I was an English teacher outside of that work, I would not speak a single word of English.
And it was a difficult process, but that showed me that maybe I can use some basic Spanish and I could start initially communicating with people. And that gave me the confidence to then move forward with this broken Spanish. And to truly use it as a means of communication and to develop it with time while I continue to live there.
And since then, I’ve kind of expanded on that approach with other languages where I truly try to speak it as soon as I can. And to immerse myself in the language, even digitally immersing myself in the language is a completely different experience to more academic, purely study based approach. So a complete mindset change, essentially.
Elle: Okay. And, and so Spanish then was your first language outside of English that you learned to fluency, and then you, uh, what other languages then did you go on to, uh, to study?
Benny: I would have learned Spanish I want to say, like, I didn’t take any official, uh, examinations of my levels or anything, but my best guess would be maybe at a B1 level.
Um, lower intermediate. And then I went on to live in Italy and I learned Italian probably to about the same, B1 level and pretty much replaced my Spanish. So I was kind of starting to forget my Spanish. And then I moved on to live in France for an entire year. And, uh, I reached, uh, definitely reached B2 because I had my first
experience sitting one of the European common framework exams. And I, I passed the B2 exam, uh, a little bit into my time in France, but again, I was forgetting my other languages. So it was, um, that initial process was just going from one language to the other and then essentially replacing it in my brain.
And what changed was after France, I went to Brazil and I had a very different approach to, uh, the language in Brazil. I wanted to both learn Portuguese while also actively trying to use my other languages. And I would take advantage of living in a touristy place like Florianópolis, which had a lot of tourists from Argentina, so I could speak Spanish with them.
And then I would have occasional visits from people from France and I could try to switch into French. And that was my initial true beginnings of becoming a polyglot and using the languages I had already gotten to a certain level, but not, not really pushed too much forward. And then after that experience with Portuguese, I went on to live in other countries and got my, my Spanish level up a much greater notch.
And I was able to start working, uh, as a, as an engineer and eventually as a professional translator for these European languages. And, um, I eventually started the blog based on that.
Elle: Excellent. Wow. Um, so you say your strategy or method is very much speak from day one and also have, uh, like a willingness to make mistakes.
I wonder if you have any, any advice, I find that the most difficult probably… and it’s one thing to know that you have to, that you should be willing to make mistakes and then, you know, to be, to try to move on afterwards. But it’s, it’s tough. I find, you know, cause it does, it does knock your confidence a bit.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is struggling with that coming back after, yeah, making those mistakes.
Benny: Yeah, it’s tricky because one thing I’ve noticed with a lot of language learners is a lot of them go into this with a very perfectionist mindset. And they imagine the goal is to speak the languages as correctly as possible.
And I think ultimately that can be the goal. Like if you want to sit a C2 exam or something, then you know, maybe a few years from now, then speaking the language with next to no mistakes can be something you can aspire to. But as a beginner learner, I, I found that I’ve turned that on its head and I’ve actually intentionally had my goal make 200 mistakes today in the language.
And that changes things a lot because if, if I make a mistake, like if I’m having a Spanish lesson with you and then I, I, I use el instead of la, ma mess up the, um, the, the gender of a noun, then you could think of that as this is me failing. This is another reason why I shouldn’t be speaking Spanish in the first place. I made this mistake.
My Spanish is bad. That’s one way of looking at it and that can be very demotivating. You have so, so much evidence as a beginner, there’s so much that you don’t know that almost every utterance you’ll make in the language, you’ll use the wrong word, you’ll mess up your grammar or something along those lines.
It’s just more and more and more evidence that you’re not ready to use this language. So I turned that on its head and I just decide at the, as a beginner learner, my, my approach, I like it to be dynamic. I. It, it evolves. It’s very different when I’m an intermediate learner, but as a beginner learner, my goal is to make as many mistakes as possible.
And that completely transforms the entire experience because when I make that kind of mistake where I’m using the wrong grammatical gender, or I don’t use exactly the right word order or whatever it might be. Then, rather than that, reflecting on the fact that I’m failing at this project, I’m actually succeeding, uh, genuinely trying to use the language as a means of communication.
And the goal should not be, as a beginner learner the goal should not be to produce perfect utterances of your, your target language. It should be communicating in the language. And this is why the likes of if I’m, especially if I’m using the language in the country, for instance, and I need to ask directions, I think me saying the local language equivalent of “supermarket, where?”
Is absolutely acceptable. That that’s missing the verb, the it’s missing so many things, uh, you know, technically, maybe the right way to say it is. “Excuse me, kind, sir. Could you direct me to the nearest supermarket?” And, and that, that could be maybe something you would aspire to later, but so many people they think, because I can’t say that, “excuse me, kind, sir…”
a long phrase, I shouldn’t dare speak the language, but realistically I, um, and this for me is, uh, as someone coming from like a background in mathematics where things are just right or wrong. Like it’s one or the other with languages. I don’t look at it that way. It’s not that your “supermarket where?” phrase is, is a failure because it succeeds in you expressing that goal that you want to communicate something and you can try to get the gist of what they say.
You’re not going to understand everything. If you understand just a couple of the key words. Then communication can happen. And this is one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned. And I know people with anxiety as they get into languages that can really feel like, you know, ah, I’m such a failure. Like I don’t know how to say anything.
And I feel the same way. Even after learning many languages as I start a new language, I can feel like such a failure when I’m trying to speak it in a language lesson. And I just accept that this is a part of the process. Me hesitating, me using the wrong words, the grammar, not being eloquent, all of that has to happen for a beginner, it’s unavoidable.
So if you embrace that and just think to yourself, get, you know, get these mistakes out of your system, the more you practice, the faster you’re, you’re going to be making these mistakes, these mistakes less frequently.
Elle: Hmm. That’s excellent advice. And is that still then something you say embrace it, is that still something, when you approach a new language now you still have that nagging thing or is it like, Nope,
I know that I’m going to make, like you said, however many mistakes, get them out, or is it still something that is, uh, those fears are still there?
Benny: They’re they’re still like, I still have hesitations. I still have moments when I’m about to start a call with a native speaker. Um, I start second guessing myself and thinking, you know, maybe I should cancel this call.
I don’t feel like I’m ready. And I didn’t study enough, uh, um, since my last call. So I still have those doubts. I’m, I’m better now than I was 20 years ago before I got into language learning at, uh, pushing through those doubts. But they’re always there. There’s always that lack of confidence and like, you know, should I really be doing this?
But I’m definitely better at it now. So the languages I’ve learned since then, like have, um, become an easier process for me as a result of that.
Elle: I think listeners would like to hear that someone who has learned so many languages can still feel that way. So it’s okay. We can, we can do this. Um, so are there any languages that you’ve found are the ones that, you know, that you found particularly difficult or are there even any languages that you started to study and then were like, Whoa, I’m not ready for this or put it on the back burner.
Benny: It’s, it’s a very interesting question. And a lot of people are always curious, you know, what’s the hardest language you’ve ever learned. And I have a completely different philosophy when I look at my languages like this, and I know from a linguistic perspective or a theoretical perspective, it can be interesting.
To put two languages side by side and say, well, the grammar in this language is more complicated or this language has tones, therefore it’s harder. And that, that whole line of discussion has just never been interesting for me because I don’t find it to be a useful concept to think about how difficult languages are.
So as an example, when I took on Mandarin, which I eventually got to lower intermediate stage when I took on Mandarin. Um, a lot of people told me, well this is one of the hardest languages in the world. And I didn’t want to hear that because that’s not useful to me. This is just forms of discouragement and it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to plug my ears and go LA LA LA.
I don’t want to hear it, because there are, there are certain things that, uh, people can warn me about that can be very helpful. Uh, to know ahead of time when I’m getting into a language that may pose more of a challenge. But what I wanted to know was why is it easy? And this is actually something I try to do when I begin any language.
If I, um, I’ve written blog posts, why Hungarian is easy, why Chinese is easy, which are so strange for a lot of the language community, because there’s this association that you have to keep saying this language is hard and here’s why on a, in a way, part of it is bragging rights. You know, if you have successfully learned the language, it’s good for your ego
if the world thinks it’s a hard language, because then everyone thinks you’re smart. And so I, I understand that, you know, if, if somebody successfully learns Mandarin, then it’s good for them. If everybody says it’s the hardest language in the world, But realistically, um, whenever I try to learn a new language, I I’m a much more practical person, so I’m not actually that passionate really about language learning the process of language learning
isn’t what interests me. It’s more the, I see a language as a tool or a means to an end, to open up this door to allow me to communicate with another culture. So because of that, I don’t put a language on a pedestal necessarily. So that’s why it’s something like, well, this language is harder than that is just not useful for me.
I care more about how can I advance my learning experience faster. And then on top of that, there’s a lot of things that people don’t consider outside of the linguistics sphere for why a language is hard or easy. Uh, I always think back when I was in Spain and the friend of mine was learning both French and Japanese and of course, Spanish and French are in the same language family.
So I presumably I said to him, well, obviously French is easier for you. And he said, no, no, Japanese is easier for me. And at first I was like, how, how is that even possible? Because you know, all the cognates and like I had all these arguments and he said, well, I was forced to learn French in school and I don’t find it interesting.
Whereas I think Japanese girls are cute and I really liked the look of the language and I would love to move to Japan one day and these reasons are actually much more important than, it’s, it’s why linguistically yeah, you can put Japanese next to Spanish and French next to Spanish and give a very reasonable argument for why French is easier
and Japanese is harder. But for, for an individual, the passion that they have for the language is going to completely transform its difficulty and how they, we use the language or they get exposure to the language. It’s going to change that. So that’s why ironically, something like Mandarin was easier for me to learn than Spanish because Spanish being the first language I truly tried, I didn’t have the right attitude.
And so I went through it very slowly and I kept second guessing myself. I kept telling myself if people are going to laugh at you, people are going to be mad at you for speaking Spanish. And that slowed me down. Whereas Mandarin, I had enough experience, enough years with other languages, that I was a bit more confident to make those mistakes.
So I advanced a lot quicker, even though, you know, linguistically it’s obviously a much further away language and a lot of people would very reasonably argue why it’s harder, but it was easier for me because of this personal experience. That’s, that’s often overlooked when people think about language learning.
Elle: Hm. And is, uh, is Mandarin a language that you’re still active in learning? Are you actively learning any languages right now or kind of maintaining, taking a break?
Benny: Yeah. So generally I’m, I I’m all either in one mode or another, I’m either intensively learning one new language. And if I’m doing that, then I kind of have to pause my other languages.
I know there’s lots of polyglots who are very good at multitasking. I’m not, I can’t multitask. So I can only focus on one language if I’m truly pushing it up to a very, uh, very different, higher level to where it was before. Or I’m in maintenance mode where I’m essentially trying to keep all my languages at the level that they would have been when I stopped an intensive project.
So for a while, I was doing that with all my languages, including Mandarin. And then what happened was I went through some very difficult years and that’s kind of knocked me off my tracks of maintaining that level of, of, uh, maintenance in my languages. And now this year I’m reactivating that to, um, a much slower degree because my goal is maybe at the end of 2022, something along those lines to, to feel like I’ve reached the maintenance level in all the languages I had learned to high levels before, and then I’d be ready to take on a brand new project that I may in three months really intensively push it up.
So my Mandarin, I haven’t gotten back to that one yet. It was a, I’d say about six years ago, that was the language where at the drop of a hat, I could get into conversations with people, but like anything, if you don’t keep up the work, you’ll start to, it’ll start to slip away from you. But fortunately it is among the languages that I’ll be reactivating within the next year or two.
And I’ve already with that in mind, started to make like, a separate Instagram and Tik Tok accounts just in Mandarin, just so I can like upload videos in those languages. Cause that’s one way that I enjoy my experience of using languages is making content online in them. So this is kind of, in the, um, the version into 2021, 2022 years,
uh, different to how I would upload YouTube videos. I’m already keeping that in mind and I’m getting better and better now at getting my momentum back with my languages.