For too many of us, learning a new language is an ever-present, neglected New Year’s resolution. Deep down, we know we’d like to do it, but shy away from the immense commitment to epic vocabulary lists and verb conjugations we imagine will follow. Carrying on as we are, the idea of learning Spanish hangs like an ominous cloud somewhere in the back of our mind.
Omniglot Brendan ‘Benny’ Lewis decided that this wasn’t enough of an excuse and since we were after an expert to tell us why we should learn Spanish, we thought he’d be the perfect person. Disheartened and uninspired in language classes at school, Benny decided to tackle language learning on his own terms: by doing. Eleven years travelling and a complete career in language teaching later, he has forged a complete career from his exploits, including running Fluent in 3 Months, the world’s most popular language learning blog, and being invited to talk at a TEDx conference in Warsaw.
We caught up with Benny to get the scoop on the best ways to approach language learning, beating self doubt and why mixing up masculine and feminine is really no big deal.
Hi, Benny! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy travel schedule to speak to us. Whereabouts are you now?
Right now, I'm about to drive across Connecticut to Rhode Island for a signing in Providence – I'm driving down the East Coast of America to encourage language learners, as part of my ‘Make America Multilingual’ tour.
What inspired you to learn your first language?
I did poorly in languages in school, and lived in Spain for six months speaking only English, so I was uninspired to learn German, Irish (Gaeilge) and Spanish.
What changed was that I kept seeing other foreigners arrive in Valencia, Spain and be as bad as me, but within a couple of weeks be speaking basic Spanish. After I saw this enough, I found it harder and harder to cling to the ‘the language gene is just a rare blessing few get’ delusion, and face the fact that it was my own fault and bad approach that was causing me to slow down. I talked to them to see what the ‘secret’ was and they said that there is no secret – you just have to speak it!
Do you have a particular strategy when you get started in learning a whole new language?
Speak from day one! You can't keep putting off the most important part of language learning. I say Tarzan it up and butcher the language, and get the mistakes out of your system so you can get momentum faster. People are extremely forgiving.
This is the core of my strategy: speak it a lot and my spoken skills will improve.
What would you say is the hardest part about learning another language?
Self doubt. I know when I wanted to take on Spanish that the reason I never made progress for so long was because I was sure that people would get mad at me for speaking broken Spanish to them. I pictured them thinking I was an idiot, talking about me behind me back about how foolish I was, etc.
None of this is real of course – people are patient and nice. But each one of us has an inner ‘perfectionist’ that holds us back from daring to say something that we know is a little wrong. While people may complain about grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and other technical aspects of language learning, I feel that their own doubts in not giving themselves permission to try is what is truly holding them back.
We loved your TEDx talk on language learning, particularly when you speak about needing a passion for a particular language in order to succeed in learning it. What advice could you give in igniting that sort of passion?
Spend time with people! I didn't have passion for learning German in school because I just saw it in dull books and grammar explanations. I presumed that Germans were all robots who talked about the Accusative all day. When I went to Berlin and had a wonderful experience making friends, meeting people and socialising, my view on the language changed and I was passionate about learning it.
You can also expose yourself to comic books, online videos, Skype people, read websites and listen to free streamed radio. Anything that shows you how alive that language is!
Was there any language that was your favourite to learn? Why?
Probably Brazilian Portuguese. Nothing to do with something like its use of future subjunctive etc. I just really like the culture. Language and culture are intertwined, and it's important to remember that. You can't have one without the other, and this will influence how much you like the language.
Was there a particular language that you found the most difficult?
To this day, no language has ever given me as much of a challenge as Spanish did, for the reasons I gave above. Years later, I was further along in my Mandarin after three months, or my Hungarian after two months than I was with my Spanish after six months.
Difficulty is a state of mind. If you are convinced that you are too old, you don't have enough time, this language is impossibly difficult, then you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nowadays I have a glass-is-half-full mentality and this makes any language much easier.
French and Spanish have always been a popular pick for language learners. Why do you think that is?
Hard to say. In the UK and Ireland for instance, French is the biggest foreign language taught because France is essentially next door to us, and a very important European power. In the states Spanish is the language of choice because of how prominent it is there. In my school, only French and German were an option to learn – this was a decision by the school/government, rather than one the students themselves make.
The good news is that because both are so widely taught, there are way more materials available for learning those languages.
It’s one thing to learn a language, but another to be able to maintain it. Is there a single, prolific piece of advice you’d give to learners having trouble maintaining their new ability to speak Spanish?
Practice! There are no tricks other than consistent practice that will help you maintain a language.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to learn a language, but is perhaps too intimidated by the task ahead?
Take it one problem at a time, and it becomes way more manageable. I remember when I wanted to learn Chinese I could have been overwhelmed with the fact that I had tones, Chinese script, new words, a new culture, sentence word order and a million other problems to deal with. Instead, I spent two weeks just learning to use the tones right. Then, I spent the next week just learning basic words. With each week I made serious and easy to see progress.
Break it down into manageable tasks and it won't seem so intimidating. Best of luck!
There’s no time like the present to bite the bullet and learn a new language. But before you can get practising, why not take a look at some Spanish courses to get the ball rolling? Or, if you’re unsure which language is for you, why not take a look at our languages guide for some inspiration?