'Fluent In 3 Months' Author Believes You're Never Too Old To Learn
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Many people in San Diego are bilingual. Most of the rest of us are jealous of the ability to speak two languages. If you did not grow up in a bilingual family, or you did not learn another language when you were young, you make think that ship has sailed. My next guest says that is not necessarily true. Benny Lewis is a polyglot, he says he has a comfort level in more than ten different languages, even though he did not start learning them until he was an adult. He is the author of the popular blog and now book called "Fluent in Three Months." He is in town for a book signing and discussions night at Warwick's Books. Welcome, Benny. BENNY LEWIS: Thank you so much for having me! MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You have the largest language learning blog in the world, what is your central message about learning languages that has generated so much interest? BENNY LEWIS: Well, it is very simple, actually. The message is just you have to speak the language from day one. It is counterintuitive because a lot of people feel that you will embarrass yourself, and people will laugh at you if you dare speak the language, so you have to go and study it for one, five, or who knows how many years, until you are worthy of speaking it. I am encouraging people to actually make mistakes, to embrace being a beginner, and this will skyrocket you toward speaking fluently much quicker. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Everyone can hear your Irish lilt, and I think a lot of Americans probably think that Europeans learn languages earlier and better than they are taught in the United States. If you could share with us some of your personal story about learning language. BENNY LEWIS: In Ireland, it is actually mandatory to learn Gaelic. For eleven years, despite this, I could not even say my name is after all of this time. I took German in school for five years and barely passed my exams. After I got a degree in electronic engineering, did not go the linkages route. I moved to Spain and lived there for six months and could not ask where the bathroom what's. So unfortunately, even though we do teach two languages in Ireland, we always teach our own language and a European language, which is pretty much the same way it is done in America, which is far too focused on traditional learning methods. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What you do now you refer to as language hacking, what does that mean? BENNY LEWIS: When people talk about life hacking, or time hacking, it is a way of trying to get a more efficient way to do something, both in time and energy consumption. It is using the resources like the internet, interesting mnemonics, things that are not so general language learning. It is not about studying, is about using the language. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It is not about conjugating the verb, it is not about speaking perfectly. BENNY LEWIS: Absolutely not. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're basically telling people just to dive in and speak the language. BENNY LEWIS: I would go a step further than that. I actually tell people to go out of their way to make mistakes. When I start learning a new language, I actually make a goal to make at least 200 mistakes a day. Some people may think this would be embarrassing. If you really think about it, if you're learning a new language, and you want to perfectly form a sentence saying something like excuse me kind sir, could you direct me to the nearest bathroom please, it is just as effective to say bathroom, where? If you think about it. You have the same informational component. You can speak like Tarzan. I would always say "me want go supermarket." People understand you. You actually focused on communication. Ultimately, this is the reason I feel that there are issues in language learning, because we treat it as something factual. Like geography or history you have to this information, a list of vocabulary, understand grammar rules, and then you will speak the language. Whereas a language exists as a means for human beings to exchange ideas, and if you exchange those ideas, even without conjugating a verb correctly, if you have actually succeeded in making yourself understood, that is the most important thing. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think people have this fear of sounding stupid. It seems to me that it takes courage, a certain amount of courage at least to do what you are advising people to do. BENNY LEWIS: Absolutely. I had a pretty big learning curve to get into this. I was actually very shy and introverted, and I generally believed people would be insulted by me trying to speak their language. In doing this for the last eleven years going to so many countries and starting over and making mistakes and having a strong accent and sounding silly and not being able to express myself, you know that the earth has never opened up and swallowed me. I have survived, people have not stood around guffawing and laughing at me and how stupid I am. People are actually very nice. If you think about it, if you're out in the street in San Diego and a tourist from Japan or some other country comes up and speak to you in broken English, would you actually say how dare you, you did not put your preposition in the right place? Of course not. People are as nice as you would be to them, they will be that nice to you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What if you are not in the country where the language is spoken and you are trying to learn that language, can you still use this method? BENNY LEWIS: I think this is actually better to use before you go to the country. I lived in Spain for six months, and initially I thought there was something in the air, by breathing Spanish air I would exhale Spanish. For six months, because I gravitated towards the ex-pat community. For people who cannot necessarily travel right now, you have to realize in this day and age, we have such an amazing resource. The internet. This means that you can listen to strange radio just like you can with KPBS, you can listen to radio from Spain, Japan, every country on earth. You can read newspapers. The most important thing that you can do is get on Skype and have a live exchange with a human being. That is what I'm trying to encourage people to do. Not to find quirky study methods, I am trying to push people to talk to another person, and to see that it is very hard. I will admit that those first ten seconds are the worst. If you have seen an opportunity to practice Spanish, that is the hardest part, taking the first step. I guarantee if you do that, you will not regret it. You'll see my Spanish is not that bad and you will have a conversation. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Benny Lewis, author of the book Fluent in Three Months, and he will be speaking at Warwick's books tonight. I know people who have a real currency in a second language, but they are hesitant to learn a third, especially if it is a similar kind of language, because they are afraid they are going to confuse them and basically lose what they already have. But when you say there? BENNY LEWIS: There is a danger of that if you start two similar languages from scratch. If I wanted to learn Spanish and Portuguese and started them both at the same time, there would be danger there. If somebody already has a fluency level in Spanish, and then decides to take on Portuguese, French, Italian, and it is not actually that dangerous. The same way as if you imagined starting your first language, we started learning Spanish, will you forget English? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No. BENNY LEWIS: The same rule applies. If you reach a certain level of fluency, you will not lose that as long as you are maintaining it. This is the key point, you can learn many languages, but you have to keep maintaining the previous ones. It is not a case of reaching this level and it stays there forever. I have a lot of languages to juggle, but what I am doing is getting on Skype every single day and practicing each one so I do not lose it. Because of that, I do not mix them up. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about the common knowledge, or what people think of common knowledge, if you're not adult your brain is not receptive to learning new languages. Like there is a sort of cut off point where you can't. BENNY LEWIS: Right. I looked into this when I was writing my book. I wanted to see what kind of research has come out to demonstrate this. To see if I can work around the problem. There is actually never been any study that has confirmed that adults are worse language learners. In fact, when I was doing this research I found a study done in a University in Israel that said under the right circumstances, adults are better language learners than childre The thing that is happening here, a child is muchn. Better at unconsciously picking up a language. Whereas an adult can control time, energy, and if a child was not motivated to learn the language they would learn it worse than an adult who is motivated. You can talk about different brains being hardwired differently and so on, that is simply not true. I am one example of many people who started later in life, I started in my 20s, but I have message people who start in their 60s and 70s and still succeed. There really is no argument, it is essentially just experience. You see more children learning languages, that is because they have to. It is also how they do it is how a child will do it. The child plays in the language, they have friends in the language, a truly live the language. It is another message I like to tell. You cannot just learn a language, you have to live it. That is a thing we can take from children, rather than going and studying a dusty old grammar book, how about we play in our languages? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: People spend an awful lot of money trying to acquire a second or third language. You can get things on the internet, you can still go to language schools, are you against that? Or do you think that is a waste of money? BENNY LEWIS: It depends. There are many, many different options. I do spend money, but I put 90% of my money, essentially into getting one on one time with a native speaker. The good news is, this is not actually expensive. If I was in San Diego looking to get lessons in Japanese, and I wanted a private one on one lesson with a tutor, you're talking a lot of money. That is why people go to group classes, which are unfortunately not that great, because you get less attention. But if you go to the internet, you can get one-on-one lessons in any language that you like for five or six dollars an hour. You're talking about getting currency leverages, that the dollar may be worth more than it is in other places, or you may be dealing with a person who happens to be in a very cheap village. I would get lessons in mentoring from people who live in the middle of China, very far from Beijing and Shanghai, where it was just five dollars an hour. That is where my money goes. Courses it depends because with some courses they invest money different ways. It is hard to discuss which ones are good and bad. You never need to spend hundreds of dollars on a course. You spend any money on time with human beings. Even the tightest budget, you can do it 100% for free. You can get language exchanges, you teach them some English, they teach you there language, you never spend any money. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Finally, one thing which are you working on now? BENNY LEWIS: I am actually focusing on helping other people learn languages. Because when you get to a certain number of languages, I have ten languages in varying degrees, you have to maintain them. I practice those languages, and it is important to remember that, you want to maintain what you have comments sure it is strong, and maybe next year I will consider a new language. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Benny Lewis will be at Warwick's Books in La Jolla tonight at 7:30 PM to discuss and sign his book, Fluent in Three Months. Benny, thank you so much. BENNY LEWIS: Thank you for having me.
Many people in San Diego have the added benefit of speaking two languages. But if you didn't grow up in a bilingual family, or haven't mastered a foreign language by a certain age, you may think that ship has sailed.
However, author, polyglot and National Geographic Traveler of the Year Benny Lewis says that isn't so. He said he can comfortably speak 10 languages, even though he didn't start learning them until he was an adult. Lewis believes you're never too old to learn and says the idea that some lack the "language gene" is a myth.
He outlines his method in his new book, "Fluent in 3 Months."