Benny Lewis, the spunky language hacker behind Fluent in 3 Months, is living proof of the raw potential in all of us.
Benny thought that he was not good at languages (not even his own native English), but now, after over a decade of living in different countries, he can speak more than 10 languages (and counting!) in varying degrees from conversational to mastery.
By combining his tech expertise and lived experiences, this “technomad” is on a mission to continue learning and to teach a valuable lesson that anyone can learn: anyone can become good at their target language by learning how to fail for success – how to struggle to find “the right approach.”
Check out my interview with Benny “the Irish Polyglot” and start learning now!
1. How did you go from struggling to get by in Spanish to learning languages full-time? Can you recall the first successes and failures that shaped your method?
What happened was that I had just experienced almost six months of other non-Spaniards showing up in the same city as me with no Spanish, and then a few weeks or months later start getting by pretty well in the language. I dismissed them all as geniuses, until some sat down with me and talked to me.
It was a hard realization, but my own laziness was the reason I didn’t make progress. I said I couldn’t, didn’t put in the work and stayed stagnat because of that, not because of my go-to excuse of lack of talent.
They knocked some sense into me, so I decided to apply the simple rule of only speaking Spanish for a few weeks and everything changed! I had to embrace the idea of making mistakes being OK, and once I did this, the many daily “failures” changed into successes in that I was genuinely progressing.
2. Would you say that your strategies for achieving fluency are, in a sense, life strategies? If you could put this philosophy into 3 words, what would they be?
Make more mistakes.
3. When did you get the idea to turn your learning process into a business? How did you transform your own unique experiences into language “hacks” that are useful for anyone? Did starting your business change your own strategies for learning and traveling?
It wasn’t a direct transition. I was already earning a location-independent living as a freelance translator. Seeing the success of my blog in the first months since launching, I figured I could sell an e-book to help me cover hosting and to buy a nicer theme. I had no idea that my push for a bit of extra money would actually lead to something that would very quickly transform into a full-time living!
A few weeks after launching that e-book, I realized that the earnings weren’t going down and that’s when I made the push to make this my new full-time job. To this day though, I still don’t consider it a “business”, but a lifestyle that pays for itself.
Earning from language learning did change the way things work. You would think that it would mean that I could learn a language full-time, but the website itself (hundreds of emails, backend work, support, forum maintenance etc.) has been a full-time job in itself and required lots of outsourcing to allow me to have the time to focus on what made the blog popular in the first place!
As such, I’ve learned a lot about time management, and hiring people. It’s been a fun journey!
4. Your approach to using technology for learning languages is multichanneled (ebooks, videos, etc.). How did you develop this variety of content? Is there a limit to how helpful technology can be to the language learner?
Technology has been and always will be a tool. I actually think that the greatest resource of all is simply time with a human being. Skype, Google+ and other aspects of technology can help you meet up with those people in person, but otherwise technology can be detrimental to language learning and suck us until less social uses of languages, which is a pity and something I try to get people away from.
5. As a full-time “technomad,” do you have any tips for working while traveling? How do you ensure that your work funds itself? Does your website give you all the financial freedom you need?
Learning good time management skills, email management, outsourcing and such have been essential to my workflow. Focus is essential, and time-boxing your tasks so you definitely have work and play time separate is important or you’ll go crazy and end up working all the time.
My website does indeed give me financial freedom, but it’s a lot of work to make sure it stays afloat. I have to post interesting content, do lots of work on video editing, and be learning a new language myself to keep people interested. I think the ideal money making machine doesn’t require any further input, but I like my work so it’s all good!
6. Your professional training was in electronic engineering. Did this background shape your approach to language learning? In your experience, how do other skills transfer to this process?
Absolutely! Engineers apply scientific principles to get something working in the real world. It’s like science except with “ideal” situations removed – refrigerators need to take heat loss into account, bridges need to incorporate wind force and so on. And in the real world we have imperfect conditions in language learning that I have always simply accepted are there by default and to be worked with, rather than throw my hands up in desperation as soon as a problem occurs.
I also have a good way of visualizing progress, and visualize the improvement process as working towards an asymptote (which is technically an unreachable point), so that I accept that I can use my language when I decide to, and that a perfect ready day is never going to happen. This is freeing, and it’s all thanks to my background as an engineer that I understand this even better!
7. Your mission is to prove that anyone can learn a language with the right approach. What about fluency? Is fluency in 3 months really possible for anyone? Do you have any advice for testing out strategies?
Fluency in 3 months being possible depends on a million factors. It’s impossible if you only put an hour a week into it. It’s impossible if you define “fluent” as “perfect with no mistakes ever” (in which case you aren’t even fluent in your native language!), and it’s impossible if you aren’t willing to do hard work intensively, which can get exhausting.
I use “fluent in 3 months” more as a call for people to be specific in their goals, by presenting one example of specificity. You can aim for conversational in 2 months, get by as a tourist in a week, fluent in 6 months, mastery in a year – whatever you like, but stop with vague “Speak Spanish” goals that mean nothing.
If someone could focus on it full time, understood fluency as “socially equivalent” to your native language rather than mastering a language in all ways, and was genuinely passionate about it, then why wouldn’t they get fluent in 3 months, or even just a month or two more than that?
My strategy is Speak From Day One, and adjust your approach as you learn. You have to try as many different techniques as you can until one produces results, while also not wasting time trying everything until you find a perfect approach, since you could have gotten quite far in the language even with a mediocre approach, compared to spending all your time on research. Try something for a few weeks, and if it doesn’t make a serious difference, ditch it and try something completely different.
8. The story behind your program Speak from Day One begins with you answering tons of questions from language learners like yourself. How did you try to make this package useful for anyone? Have you adapted the product in response to feedback?
I took a lot of feedback, over the last couple of years, which I’m applying to a replacement packing that will be available shortly. The initial package was based on a year of feedback on my blog and me posing questions directly in blog posts.
9. Your website Fluent in 3 Months is a hub of resources. How do you provide these tools for free and still persuade enough people to buy the complete toolkit? Is there a secret to balancing entrepreneurship and your mission to help learners?
Make helping learners the priority. Monetizing my site is so low in my list of priorities that many people aren’t even aware of the fact that I earn from my site (there are no advertisements or aggressive pitches anywhere). As such the site is much nicer on the eye and easy to share, and a half a million people check it out every month.
Even with puny conversion, a half a million people is plenty to work with. I’m a minimalist, so the sale of a single product a day is actually more than enough for me to live off. As long as at least this is happening, I can focus on helping people, and the system self-perpetuates to naturally grow larger as a consequence. It’s beautiful really!
10. So what’s next on the Irish polyglot’s list?
My book Fluent in 3 Months, published by HarperCollins, is coming out in March and I’m going to devote this year to using the book as a good excuse to tour English speaking countries to encourage people to learn a language. A “book tour” that is actually a chance to inspire people in person, which I imagine (like my blog) will pay for itself if I do it right. Time will tell, and I hope to meet some of you on my journey!
Thank You Benny