Lesson Transcript

Peter: Hi Listeners, this is Peter Galante founder of Innovativelanguage.com. Today we have a very special guest, Benny Lewis, founder of the massively popular blog, Fluentinthreemonths.com. Benny also has a book coming out by the same name Fluent in Three Months. Benny is currently studying Japanese and touring Japan and he took some time to join us in the studio. Benny, what was the first step behind your massively popular website, how did it all start?
Benny: Well I had already been traveling for I think, almost, seven years and I’d seen a lot of travel blogs pop up and I read them and I figured, “I’m not a writer, I don’t have a background in writing, I did poorly in English in school so I don’t deserve to write on a blog.” I thought that’s something you have to essentially have some background in and ironically what motivated me was a blog that I’m subscribed to, a travel blog. I read an article on that blog once, which was terrible. The premise behind the article was ridiculous, there were all sorts of basic English mistakes in it and this was somebody who had many, many subscribers and that, I felt, when I saw that I was like, “Well, if this guy can do it, then I can do it.” That got me into the idea that maybe it’s ok for me to start a blog. I don’t have to be an English professor, I don’t have to be the world’s best writer. I know I can explain my stuff, I can find a way to explain it through video or writing and that’s how I got started. I registered fluentinthreemonths.com because I wanted to convey, not that I had a secret formula for getting fluent in three months, but that the whole point is that people need to aim high and they need to be specific. So I don’t like the idea of just “Learn Japanese”. I think you need to say, “I want to be at this level, within this time.” You don’t have to aim very high, you can modestly aim and say, “I want to have basic conversational within six months…” You can be more specific but that’s what’s missing. So that’s my whole brand and the whole title, “Fluent in Three Months.” Some people kind of feel it sounds like a, “Get Rich Quick” or “Lose Weight Overnight” promise and this kind of helps a lot that it stands out and people jump over to the sight to kind of think, “Is this guy a snake oil salesman?” but then when they’re there they see that it is actually about my learning philosophy and that’s: “Be specific, and give yourself a deadline.” So that’s how the blog got started and I kind of shared a story and it grew and that’s been applied to the book as well so the books going to come out very shortly I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be a whirlwind adventure.
Peter: Let’s talk about the book in a minute but what I really love about what you just said now is, “ a deadline.” Without a deadline, people tend to procrastinate, so you could have picked a lot of deadlines, tell us a little bit more about, “Three Months” and before we talk about, “Three Months” let’s talk about the definition of fluent because when someone says, “Fluent” you think of, “The United Nations Interpreter” or someone simultaneously standing between two people but is that really fluent?
Benny: Well, if you look it up in a dictionary it essentially just says that, “The conversation flows” and now, a lot of people may say that you’re not allowed to say that you speak the language until you can have a philosophical debate about ‘Kantian Epistemology’ in the language and somebody said that to me once and it stood out to me because I was like, “Well hold on a second, I can’t do that in English so are you saying that I’m not fluent in English?” and people have such ridiculous standards to aim for and my definition of fluency is, once again, it’s specific. It’s not perfection in the language, you have to have something which also allows for what you do not have in the language. So I understand fluency as, “Social Equivalency.” Can I be social in the language in the same way that I would be in English? So what this is excluding is, “Maybe I can’t work as a professional” I can’t be an engineer in the language, I don’t have to be an engineer in the language but can I make friends can they speak between one another very quickly with me following and essentially it’s the same as the B2 level on the CEFR scale but that for me is what it’s all about.
Peter: Just give us a quick equivalent of the B2 equivalent of the CEFR scale.
Benny: It means that you don’t hesitate too much, you’re not.. Ok I think the best part of the definition, if I remember right, is the other person doesn’t have to adjust for your benefit. So the major difference between the level below that B1, and I have B1 in a couple of different languages and the catch is if I’m speaking to a native speaker, they have to adjust for me. They have to speak slowly, they have to be selective in the words they’re using and I have to rephrase a lot because there are certain core words that I don’t know yet so I have to talk around them. But once you reach B2, I feel this is fluency because it’s the beginning of where your language can flow. You’re not hindering communication. You can, just join in and talk to people, you’re not going to have extremely deep conversations. You can have social conversations. People don’t realize that this level is what they need 90% of the time in their native tongue. You’re not always going to be discussing the political situation in France in the 15th century. Sometimes you’re just saying, “Hey, how was the game last night.” This is what people need most of the time in the language and I consider it more like “Pareto’s Principle” 80-20. For 20% of the work you get 80% of the benefits and 80% of the time in the language we do not need to be at the mastery level.
Peter: I really, really, like that. That really says so much about what you need to function in a language. I spent many years learning Japanese and I got to quite a high level. I got my masters at a Japanese university and studied in a PhD program started in a company that did many things in the Japanese language but I’ll never forget I was always hesitant to start speaking because of that, “Definition of Fluent” and I remember my class, one of my early classes I put in so much more work than the guy next to me but I remember seeing him out one night and his language wasn’t great but he was one of the most beautiful girls I ever saw. He was able to use his Japanese, which mine was better, but he used language as a tool to create many more friendships, meet many more people and it was at that moment that I said, “Hmm.. you know it’s not so important to focus on everything being such a high level but using what you have effectively.”
Benny: I actually have the exact opposite experience that I was that guy. When I was in Prag learning some Czech and I was out with some couch surfers and I remember I was with a Brazilian lady who had studied Czech for several years and we were with a bunch of Czech people and I kept using, what I like to call, “Tarzan Esque” you know, “Me Benny, me want go here” and its completely, grammatically a mess but you’re still conveying your point and I would keep turning to my Brazilian friend saying, “Oh, how do you say this in Czech?” She’d give me the translation and I keep speaking and then when it was her turn she would speak English and I’d be like, “Why aren't you speaking Czech?” and she’s like, “I’m not ready yet…” and the problem is…. a quote that I like that I found somewhere online once… in language learning, you feel that you have to keep studying until someday when you’re finally ready and there are seven days in a week and “someday” isn’t one of them. So I… my approach is “Someday is Today.” I speak from day one. I have no criteria for when I’m not worthy to speak the language. If I only now four words I’ll just use those 4 words a lot. I’ll wave my arms if I have to but people don’t realize that they know more than they think they know you can never start a language from scratch even a language as different as Japanese has so many English words in it from loan words so many body language cues that are international between cultures so it’s never too early to start and it’s never too late to start a lot of people also feel that as adults we’ve gone beyond a cutoff point in language learning and I’m trying to demonstrate that and I’m trying to show that rather than this perfectionist approach that you’re not worthy to speak the language until you’ve mastered it I say why not just make as many mistakes as possible. Get them out of your systems and I try to make hundreds of mistakes a day and that means I’m genuinely using the language.
Peter: You know, I wish the listeners now could take that snippet of audio and play it back again and again because I’ve adopted that approach you know as soon as I get a few words I start to speak them and I think one of the challenges is that you may run out of words but you know nowadays there’s so many tools. I think if you write down just a self-introduction or something's about yourself and then speak that out loud that gives you such an onramp to actually use the language.
Benny: Yes, that’s almost always one of the first things I do because people feel you know that first step, when are you allowed to speaking and it’s if you are in front of a native speaker you’d feel this wall in front of you like, “I can’t say anything I only know how to talk about this and that.” I would actually just write out in English first, a one minute introduction about myself and on my first lessons with a native speaker I try to translate that and I’d memorize that and this is the first thing I would say every time I’d meet somebody. I’d say, “I’m from Ireland, “I’m learning this language because I want to travel to your country. I’m learning it alone, I’m learning it via Skype.” These are things people would generally ask me and I learned that immediately and what the great thing is, you can have a whole one minute conversations even a few days after you’ve started learning the language because it’s the same conversation and people think that you’re not allowed to start the language until you’re ready to deal with any conversation. But you’re not going to have any conversation, you’re going to be asked, “Why are you learning the language?” “What got you interested” “How are you learning it?” or if you’re in the country people might say, “Where are you from?” “Have you traveled here before?” There's a much smaller set of questions you’re likely to be asked and if you’re prepared for that, you can do so much more. I don’t need to know the word for aardvark as soon as I start learning a language, that’s just not going to come up in my day-to-day situation, in my day-to-day life in the language. But there are certain things I do need to know and if I know them, pretty well, then I’ve got momentum and the great thing is that kind of pushes me in deeper because I start, I know this introduction off by heart and I start blurting it out, and then someone was like, “Oh… this guy knows the language pretty well” and they ask me more complicated questions. Whereas if I’m like, “Umm… I don’t know” then they’d back out and maybe just switch to English immediately, you know.
Peter: It’s so interesting what you said about the questions. We actually developed a series that gives you the Top 25 questions you’re most likely to be asked.
Benny: Mmmhmm.
Peter: and that was not what we did our first year in developing language learning material but over the years. We put the dots together. Wherever you go you’re most likely to be asked a certain set of questions initially and if you have those people are more likely to speak to you in that target language, so it’s amazing. So how many languages have you studied?
Benny: Definitely more than two dozen. So it’s in the twenties somewhere. I should probably stop and count them out someday.
Peter: And how many languages can you speak?
Benny: Here’s the question. What does speak mean? Because if you had asked me back at the start of March, “Do I speak Hungarian?” I would have given you an absolute, definite, “No.” even though I did study it before. I learned it and I kind of forgot it and yet I put a couple of hours into refreshing it and then I was able to have the basic conversations I was able to have years ago. The majority of those 24-whatever languages are dormant in my head somewhere and I feel like I could reactivate them with a few days’ work but generally I would not say I speak them because if you, right now, try to speak Turkish to me, or Quechua, the Inca language, which I did put genuine time into learning, I don’t feel like I’d be able to respond to you. But then again, there are languages that I can respond to you in, but then in varying levels. I do have that C2 mastery in 2-3 languages. I have a basic level of…
Peter: Real quick, a C2 means that you can free flowingly speak…
Benny: Well… I still think fluent is the social equivalency level I was talking about before, but C2 means you can do everything you can do in your mother tongue, including professional discussions and philosophical discussions. So I’ve actually worked as an engineer in both French and Spanish and that means there’s nothing that I can’t do in those languages It doesn’t mean I’m perfect, I still have an accent, it’s not a very strong accent and there still maybe the odd word I forget or a grammar mistake I make every now and again but I’m good as a native speaker essentially and then there are the languages I have at a fluent level and the languages I have at what I like to call a conversational level which is below fluent, as long as someone’s patient with me and then the large number of languages that are dormant that I could reactivate just I haven’t right now.
Peter: So, it’s a lot of languages. What do you want to say to someone listening who hears that and they’re like, “Wow, he can do all this but I can’t even master that one language.” Right, sometimes it’s just like a psychological battle right?
Benny: It really is. Sometimes when I’m introduction my story I always prefer to say, rather than, “I’m Benny, I speak this number of languages” is that when I was in my twenties, I could only speak English. My background is in engineering and I lived in Spain for six months without being able to ask the most basic things in Spanish so even being in an immersion environment didn’t work for me and I barely passed German in school so I’m not naturally good at languages and yet, that sounds very contradictory based on what I saying just a few minutes ago about the wide range of languages and the levels I have. So I feel it’s never too late to get started on a language and people… it can feel overwhelming… you see the number of languages but this is something I’ve been doing full time for a whole decade. So if you have a focus on a single languages I Would say that you have to, rather than have a goal of someone who speaks multiple languages or even someone who has mastered this language, embrace being a beginner it can actually be one of the nicest conversations I’ve ever had in my life was not a philosophical discussion it was actually, I was on a train in China and I was talking to this nice lady who just asked me what my name was and at the time I did not have a Chinese name. So I had to say my English name is this and I don’t have a Chinese name and she said, “Oh, well let me give you a Chinese name then.” This is one of the first conversations you have in a language, “What is your name?” She gave me this lovely name “Bun Lin” (SP?) which means kind of like Intuition or Skill and I actually have that on video, I have the moment, it’s on YouTube and that for me… that is a conversation I had at a low level in the language and it’s something I try to convey to people that, it’s never too early to start using your language, it’s ok to be a beginner and you can have amazing experiences, you can even make friends your first weeks into learning a language
Peter: It’s funny, it’s sentimental I guess, but I also remember the trying days of when I first started and they were not fun and it was at some points failure after failure but when you do achieve that level and you look back those are some of the most fun memories, they become fun memories because you got to the top.
Benny: Well, one way of looking at it is failure after failure but you can also look at it as small success after small success. So the first time I understand somebody spontaneously speaking to me, I feel that’s a huge sense of achievement they may just be saying, “That’ll be two dollars, please.” or whatever the local currency is, but I hear that, it’s not written down it’s not something that’s presented to me in advanced I just hear that and ‘m like, “Oh my god I understood that!” and I see that as a huge success whereas I feel somebody who's more pessimistic would be like, “Oh my god they said this one thing… I think I understood and then all this stuff I didn’t understand so I’m a huge failure in life!” and I’m like, “Well no, you’ve understood a new language whereas a few weeks ago you couldn’t have possibly understood anything they said.” So you build upon your successes and you have more and more with time.
Peter: That’s such an interesting thing you say like the connection between achieving goals in a language and then having that apply to other parts of one’s life. There are times that I’ve… I’ll be honest… the fact that I could speak in a language and the fact that I had these small successes gave me confidence in other parts of my life.
Benny: No that’s I mean totally true for me as well. I.. wasn’t a very outgoing person when I started learning languages. I would have been more of a perfectionist and not ready to try new things for fear of failure, but language learning has shown me that the greatest key to opening success is as many failures as possible. You get them out of your system and I’ve had to go up to people I don’t know and feel embarrassed about using a language and this has made me more outgoing and it’s helped me make friends easier, its helped me open up and express myself better. It’s an amazing thing it really is its applied to life in general and I’ve used it in my blogging strategies, even before I wrote this published book I had an e-book that I wrote first and another author has an expression, “Ship it” and that’s like, you do something, it’s good and you sell it. You get it out in the world and people give you feedback it’s not going to be perfect you need to tweak this, the design isn’t so great and that’s fine you tweak it and you ship it again. this is why every year we have a new iPhone because there’s no such thing as the perfect iPhone engineering is the process of improving it over time and I’ve applied this to my whole life philosophy that it’s ok to have something that’s good and it will get better and the only way to the top is to climb the mountain very slowly a lot of people see you at the top and they might thing I can never get there but it’s a long process of making lots of mistakes and this is something that I’ve learned from language learning .
Peter: Again, we’re talking with Benny Lewis, founder of fluentinthreemonths.com and the author of the upcoming book…
Benny: Also by the name: Fluent in Three Months
Peter: So, you just heard the story that, through speaking languages, maybe I’m stretching it a bit but through speaking languages, you are now traveling the world you have a massively popular blog and you are, more importantly than anything, you're inspiring others to follow in your footsteps and speak languages, get over the courage, get the courage up to say the first words and after that they just start to flow. So it’s quite a remarkable story.
Benny: Well, my story isn’t finished yet, I’ve got lots more in me.
Peter: Ok so, one more time where can people read more and find out more about Benny Lewis.
Benny: You can go to fluentinthreemonths.com or just Fi3m.com if you’re scribbling it down quickly and search for the same name on Amazon.com, you can get the book, it’s not expensive at all and it’ll give you all of my best advice
Peter: Can we give people a little sample of what’s in the book, maybe you want to give us, just a couple snippets from the book.
Benny: Yeah I like to share my pneumonic technics, they’re not mine necessarily I’ve picked them up from other people. That’s what the book is, I feel it’s more, it’s a collection of the best language advice I could find. Not just my own, but sharing other peoples. You know when I was learning French, an example always like to give, the word for train station is “Gare”, G-A-R-E. and I thought to myself, “Well how do I remember that?” I visualized Garfield, the big orange cat, running through a train station and I like to share these funny stories in the book with examples and I keep flicking between languages and I share specific people’s stories. There’s some very inspirational stories out that I want to share to people, to show… it’s not… you know even if you’re married and with children and you’re very busy. You might think, “Oh it’s all well and good for some young guy who’s gallivanting around the world to learn languages but I cant.” I like to share other stories and show people they can learn too. So it’s, what I feel is, the most encouraging book in the world to learn a language. It’s not about the technique, I do share lots of techniques, but I feel that in language learning the biggest problem is that people just aren’t confident enough. They don’t think that they’re ready to, they don’t think that they deserve to speak a language. They think they’ll frustrate people and I want to show them none of that is true.
Peter: Excellent, you know one of the things that I like about the way you learn is, I’ve seen many people who speak a lot of languages and some of them have learned through immersion. Where they go to the country and they're immersed in a language, they’re surrounded by it, so they’re forced to speak it but you actually speak several languages that, before you even set foot in the country, using technology, that you’re able to speak the languages.
Benny: Well like I said, I spent 6 months in Spain trying to learn Spanish and that didn’t work out for me and I’ve actually had other experiences where I go to the country and it has been a disaster because when I first went to Spain I had this idea that something in the air, I guess, is going to make me speak Spanish you know there was an episode of the Simpsons one where Bart was in France, he was walking down the street and then suddenly he broke into speaking French and I thought that was going to happen to me. I thought one day I’d be walking down and then, it would be just like, “Oh my god! habla español!” and then everything would be wonderful and that’s not how it works so I found that immersion is the answer. This is the problem, I’m not saying that immersion isn’t going to help people but in this day and age we can have virtual immersion. So you can listen to podcasts to give you hours of content to expose your ears to train them to understand the foreign language you can get on Skype and you can talk one on one with a native speaker from that country you can read newspapers online you can stream live radio there’s so many things you can do, that you could essentially be, bombarded with the language 24/7 without leaving your home as long as you’ve an internet connection.
Peter: Yeah, I think that’s just a fraction of what’s inside the book and what you can find on Benny’s blog. Thank you very much for joining us today and sharing a little bit of your insight about language learning with all of our listeners at innovativelanguage.com
Benny: Thanks for having me.