Ireland isn’t exactly known for its language learning abilities. 66% of us can’t hold a conversation in a language other than our mother tongue, which is the lowest in the European Union. So it’s quite a surprise to hear the winner of the Language Blog 2012 award is an Irishman, who is fluent in eight languages and is currently learning Mandarin.
Benny Lewis from Cavan runs the website http://www.fluentin3months.com/, where he takes on the challange of learning a foreign language in three months. He’s just finishing up a stint in Taipei before heading around Asia with what he’s learned. He describes his fluency as “lower intermediate”, which ain’t half bad after a quarter of a year.
“I had a really rough time learning Chinese in three months”, says Lewis. During the learning, Lewis “cuts the chord with all people who won’t speak to you in that language”. Listening to and reading about Lewis, you start to feel a little guilty you didn’t put a bit more effort in at school to Irish and foreign languages.
After all language learning enriches experiences in countries immeasurably. Long-lasting friendships are forged, access to local customs greatly enhanced and, if you are learning Mandarin, you may even get a Kung Fu lesson from the son of a Chinese master, such is Lewis’ experience.
The first thing the one-language Irish majority think when hearing of Lewis’ adventures is that his genes must be fitted extra-specially towards the gift of the foreign gab. Nonsense, says the self-proclaimed Irish polyglot.
He studied German and Irish in school, left without barely speaking a word in either, studied Electronic Engineering in university and then trekked off to Spain for an adventure at 21. Six months later, he still hadn’t really learned any Spanish and decided to change that.
“I decided I was going to start speaking the language”, Lewis told a Ted audience in a presentation in California. Sounds obvious? Well, not exactly. Gone were the grammatical tables and the reading comprehensions and in their place was straight up speaking.
“When I learned German and Irish in school, there was way too much emphasis on grammar, learning random words or academic texts”. School learning just didn’t inspire him. Language is about communication, not fitting grammatical rules into boxes.
“Anyone can learn a language, I’m sure of it”, emphasises Lewis with all his exuberant conviction in a Youtube video with over 100,000 hits. Speaking from day one is the key, to such an extent that grammar should be avoided in the early stages.
“This may sound ludicrous if you’ve just started, but I would invest five euro in a Lonely Planet phrasebook and devour a few pages of it. Then walk up to a native and use it”, says Lewis. “They almost pretty much never laugh [if you say something wrong], so get rid of this silly fear”.
Then, after a short period of speaking the phrases and whatever else you can pick up, head back to the grammar books. The grammar rules will be easier as you can adopt them to what you’ve already learned. Go from there and never stop speaking to locals.
It’s may be easy to hear that and look to place the blame on the Irish education system for our language woes, but that’s not the answer. This one is on us. Lewis leaves us few excuses.
He was 21 when he learned his first language, so the “I’m too old” excuse is gone and last time he checked he hasn’t got any language genes, because if he did, he would have performed better at school. So, if you want to learn a language, the key word is “communication”, says Lewis.
A couple of problems arise though. The first is that cutting off all ties with English-speakers is quite daunting in order to learn a language in three months. The second is that most Ex-Pats or travellers can conduct their affairs almost completely through English, as international business environments, hostels and hotels all fall back on English to communicate
“Becoming fluent in three months is a challenge I set myself. It’s not a magic number in any way. I’ve learned most of my languages while working a full-time job in English and I still learned to a really fluent level, even if it took a few more months than three.
“It’s simply a case of Mathematics. It’s not the number of years it takes, but the number of dedicated hours you are willing to put in” says Lewis bringing out his Engineering side.For those of us still in Dublin, the internationality of the city offers a myriad of opportunities to practise your language of choice.
Either than expensive paid-for lessons, websites like Gumtree and social-networking sites like Couchsurfing.org offer possibilities to tandem with native speakers, where you speak with them in English and in exchange they help with your language of choice.
If that isn’t enough, the internet will help. Livemocha.com, busuu.com and a host of other social networking language sites offer the opportunity to converse with locals, where you can set up Skype sessions to exchange languages.
The Irish polyglot, meanwhile, is still eager to learn more and how could he not? His occupation is to travel the world learning languages – which is funded by sales of his book The Language Hacking Guide. Hardly something to give up on too soon.
In the short term he’s planning on going back to the languages he’s already learnt and bringing them up a notch, which will include a stay in an Irish Gaeltacht during this summer. After that, another three month learning endeavour, but as of yet he doesn’t know where. “I’m open to whatever happens and will focus myself on enjoying the moment and the people I am with”. There’s worse ways to spend your time.