Discussion with Benny Lewis
Last week I spoke with Benny Lewis the Irish Polyglot, famous globetrotter linguist and general cheerleader for language learning around the world who has touched many people with his enthusiasm.
We talked about the Polyglot Conference in Montreal that we both attended and gave talks at, as well as language learning in general. I had never been to one of these polyglot symposiums before. I prefer to call it the Language Festival “Festival des Langues”.
Benny Lewis told me that he has attended various Polyglot Gatherings and Polyglot Conferences, and that they are not just get togethers for people who speak multiple languages. “If somebody does not speak four languages, five languages or more, they don’t have to think, okay, I’m not good enough to attend. There are a lot of people who are aspiring language learners and they go to meet people that they know from YouTube and get to know them in person.”
Benny sees these events are more of an opportunity to get to know the language learning community face-to-face. There might be picnics, game shows, movie screenings but the best thing is just getting to talk to the people who engage with him online and share his passion for languages.
The language learning community is truly extraordinary. I had never met Benny, I’d never even shaken his hand, but we were always very much aware of each other, as we were of other people on the internet who talk about language learning. I sometimes get concerned that we are this little ghetto of people. I wonder what the hundreds of millions of people who, at some level, want to learn another language and, yet, for a variety of reasons, hang back, feel uncertain or lack confidence can get out of an event like this.
The first thing they come away with, Benny explained, is the actual talks that take place because they are about the process of learning languages or sometimes specific languages. If someone has a passion for a lesser studied language like Welsh or Scottish, they might find a talk on that language. It’s an opportunity to learn about those things and also meet others with the same interests. These people can get a lot of inspiration from others like themselves who have that special interest.
The meet ups that I have tend to attract language keeners. Not necessarily people who have an internet presence or following, but people who speak three, four, five languages. I think part of the LingQ mission is to get the monolingual or unilingual person to take the jump because it’s such a wonderful thing to be able to speak other languages and connect with people.
There’s something about this language learning world where we’re connected. It’s that warmth of other people trying to do the same thing as you. It just generates that level of enthusiasm and energy that a person needs to take on a language. It’s a long haul, so you meet people that you might be friends with going forward and they will keep you motivated, energized and can be an inspiration. Plus, you might pick up some tips that work for you. Those tips can help you a great deal, but at the end of the day it comes down to the work you’re willing to put in. It’s amazing how much hard work will do for you. It’s easy enough to say, “he’s talented. I could not do that”, but in fact you can.
Benny has found the most success with two tools: italki and Teach Yourself courses. In fact, he’s been busy over the past year making new language courses with Teach Yourself. “The kind of stuff I focus on, because I generally like helping people, as you said monolinguals, is for absolute beginners and those are going to be coming out in September. We’re starting with Spanish, French, German and Italian, so the four big languages. After that, when the series is established, I’m going to be able to start titles for languages that have been neglected in language learning courses. So I’m going to be able to make an Irish language learning course that can go around the world. I can work with translators to make these courses work well for immigrant communities. So we can translate the German course to Kurdish and make it dialect friendly for Arabic for the Syrian immigrants in Germany, for instance.”
I have used Teach Yourself to get started on a number of languages, and I’ve used italki when we didn’t have tutors at LingQ, for example for Polish. The idea that a person has bought this Teach Yourself and it’s chapter five and now they actually have to go and use it so they can connect with someone, I think that’s a very good use of the internet. I’ve certainly found those local resources very, very good, so I’m sure it will be successful.
We also encourage people to speak at LingQ. We don’t necessarily push them to speak right away, although the opportunity is there. We are working on a new version right now, which I am using. It seems a significant improvement over what we now have, in particular the mobile app.
I think it is becoming easier and easier to learn languages. An example is my discussion with Benny, and the way he’s working with Teach Yourself. They found out about him through the internet, and Benny connected italki with what they’re doing and what he has been doing on his blog. This is the new world, so people can learn languages a lot more easily than 50 years ago.
So the message at an event like the North American Polyglot Symposium, or the Festival des Langues, is it’s easier than ever to learn languages. All you really need is the inspiration and the motivation, and that you can get big time by attending a language event like this.