Foreign language hacking with Benny Lewis

A top goal if you’re living abroad as an expat is to pick up a new foreign language.  Benny Lewis from came on an interview with the Expert Enough podcast show.  He explained his rapid-fire approach to learning new languages.

Lewis makes the point that you should avoid being too “academic” when studying.  He stresses the importance of getting out on the street, conversing with locals, and finding out how natives really use the language.  This makes a lot of sense, as foreign language textbooks can sometimes be outdated by the time they’re published.

Do you think dating a local would boost your language skills?  I’ve heard a lot of people arguing for and against.  For example, I’ve met lots of newly-arrived expats in Taiwan who say things like, “I’ll just learn Chinese off my girlfriend.”  A year later, the girl’s English is a lot better, while his Mandarin is still nonexistent.  More than any magic method, your attitude will be the most decisive factor.  If you really apply yourself, I think you can’t go too far wrong.

What was interesting was that a lot of the barriers (excuses?) that people make for not studying new tongues can apply to other new year’s resolutions that fall by the wayside.  Things like being too busy, not having enough money, etc.  Lewis demolishes these arguments and challenges viewers to really unleash their true potential.

I couldn’t help but noticing that he hasn’t picked up any Asian languages yet.  Would Mandarin Chinese or Japanese be similarly compatible with his methods?

What do you think?  Have you become fluent in a foreign language?  How long did it take?  What techniques did you use?  Please share your experiences in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (7)  | December 23, 2011
Category: Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind

7 Responses to “Foreign language hacking with Benny Lewis”

  1. Dave Says:

    Great video, great advice. I spent roughly 12 years studying french in school and about all I can say now in french is that I studied it for twelve years in school, but can’t speak it. I also spent a few months traveling around Central America and can get around, find accommodation, and get food without much trouble.
    I think the idea of being animated when asking a question is spot on, as that is a normal way of speaking in english, and it makes for a much more natural conversation.
    Also he advice on having definite goals makes perfect sense as opposed to “wanting to learn spanish”. As such my goal is to be able to read or listen to news and spanish and understand it…in three months.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Benny Lewis Says:

    Thanks for sharing the video!
    Note that I’ve actually taken on a heap of Asian languages, although not learning them to fluency. In January I start one that I will bring to fluency though 😉

    Hope someone takes my advice in the video to heart and really gets into their language next year!

  3. Davis Says:

    My goal has always been to arrive in a country with enough of the language that I can travel independently wherever I want to go. A few hundred words, including numbers and days of the week, and a handful of basic constructions will take me a long way. Verb tense can be signaled with “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. A pen and notepad are a big help. After that, once I am there I read everything I can see — newspaper headlines, advertisements, labels — and listen to people talk and watch for context: if the stewardess is smiling and holding a cup and saucer and a coffee pot, she probably isn’t telling me to prepare for a crash landing.

  4. Davis Says:

    Another thought: How do you prepare for languages on a RTW trip? I usually go only to one country on each trip, so I can do a modest amount of language preparation. But if you are going to be traveling through Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Far East you will have to deal with a dizzying menu of languages.

  5. Pier-Olivier Says:

    I learned english around the age of 16 by re-watching a TVshow I used to enjoy as a kid. First I used english subtitles and french audio, then rewatched it with english audio… though I think you need a kind of geek to do it this way! (have to stop the episode and search each words, make your own list and all) I did it concurrently with reading the first harry potter novel in english 🙂

    I’d like to point out that I had the exact same situation as Dave (comment above) but here we learn english in school and couldn’t even read a text properly though I always had “ok” grades … you need to really watch/read the news each day and do something you really like in another language: there are blogs/news website in any language on the internet !

    I’m actually planning some months of study abroad and will have to do the same with german pretty soon (or chineese idk yet :P) and I started reading some websites in their spanish version ^_^

  6. Davis Says:

    It’s my impression that in college languages were taught with an eye to the grad school language requirement which was, at least in the old days, not conversational use, but a reading proficiency in your specialty. In consequence, tense, case, mood, etc… were stressed, rather than conversational fluency.

    It was also claimed that studying the grammar and syntax of a foreign language — even a dead language like Latin or classical Greek — made the student more aware of the structure of their own language. And for this purpose there was of course no reason to teach conversation.

    I would think that even if you couldn’t carry on a conversation, high school or college language would give you an excellent basis to build on when you come to use an approach like Lewis’. You would, for example, have a fair-sized vocabulary and probably some stock phrases to draw on. In German, for example, you would have learned the article, and hence the gender, of common nouns.