Friday, December 14, 2012

This polyglot's got nothing on me (except about 6 languages)

I recently caught up with Benny Lewis, aka “Benny the Irish Polyglot,” in Brazil, where he had gone to learn -- what else --  Arabic, a process he thinks will take him about three months. Why Arabic in Brazil? Partly because, put quite simply, he likes Brazil, and will feel comfortable there and thus be in a conducive frame of mind for learning. Sounds to me like he wants to party. But he says he’s also there to make another point to the half-million people who visit his Fluent In Three Months blog: Stop making excuses for not learning a language. And the biggest excuse is, “I don’t have the time or money to study in that country for the immersion experience I need.” So, to prove that you don't need immersion, Benny has gone to Brazil to learn Arabic. And to party.  

Is the Irish Polyglot one of these language savants, with a brain full of synapses in the Broca’s Area that the rest of us struggling learners can only dream about (in our native tongues)? Benny dismisses the notion. “Over half the population of the planet is multilingual,” he says. The idea of a selected few having a gift for language “is an entirely Anglophone-centric point of view. When I hear this, I feel like the person telling me this has never traveled in their life. It’s just someone in America who doesn’t appreciate that most of the world learns other languages.”

You can quibble with his percentages, but his point is taken. After all, think of all the adult Frenchmen, Spanish, Romanians, and Portuguese who became Latin speakers during the Roman Empire, and did it without classrooms, podcasts, or Rosetta Stone, because their livelihoods — if not their actual lives — depended upon it.

Benny’s approach to speaking languages is simple: “Speak from day one.” Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just grab some phrase books and flash cards, start studying, and most importantly, find some people to speak to. Like me, he’s found the classroom approach lacking, because classes try to cover the entirety of the spoken and written language with what he terms “a very, very gray, fuzzy long-term view. It’s a bottomless pit you’re never going to be able to fill. You have just keep throwing more vocabulary, more grammar in, and I find this learning approach somewhat hopeless. You’re never going to be satisfied; you’re never going to be perfect, and the whole academic system is based on getting you toward perfection.” 

Benny has found success with a one-day-at-a-time approach that most educators, and most students, would find frighteningly haphazard: Prepare for a day’s activity by studying the vocabulary you’ll need most for that activity, don’t worry about getting it perfect. Will this approach work for everyone? I’m learning Italian next, to prepare for trip to Italy in the fall. Maybe I’ll give it a try. Because it seems I’m a blithering idiot when it comes to languages. If I can learn this way, then anyone can.


  1. I completely agree. I've met pastoral Kurds without computers let alone electricity and they learned to speak five languages just from practicing and necessity. We've been taught that "buying this product will solve all of your (language learning) problems" when we should be reminding ourselves that you can't always solve a problem by throwing money at it; we need to take action.

  2. Amongst the three languages I've studied--Russian, German and French-French is the one that is most ingrained in me. Although I studied all three in a classroom, I truly learned French by dating someone who only spoke French...and through writing love letters to him during a year-long transcontinental relationship, in the days before email and Skype, when phone calls overseas cost $1 a minute. I actually find it refreshing that you can't learn a language overnight. That means people who speak another language really wanted it badly and invested themselves in the time it takes to learn it.

  3. What a wonderful note, Cindy...learning French through love letters (sounds like good book title,as well). Thanks for taking the time to contribute.

  4. The idea of gearing vocabulary toward situations that you actually expect yourself to be in, such as grocery shopping in a French supermarket or preparing to make a telephone call to a new French friend is very sensible. I have purchased several books on building French vocabulary and, though they mean well, it all becomes overwhelming--so many words! If you think you're not going to need the French word for ostrich (autruche) anytime soon, that one should not be on your shortlist. And yes foreign languages learning is not stressed enough in the US--though that may be changing a little. Good post.


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