My review of “fluent in three months”

In the last in this series on input focus versus output focus, here is my review of Benny’s website. I believe that this whole exercize is not about Benny and Steve, but about the relative weight of input and output in language learning. I hope that this presentation of divergent positions enables people to evaluate their own programs and decide how much of each they want to focus on in their learning. Please visit Benny’s site for more details.

 

Benny is a plucky Irishman who has spent the last few years traveling to different countries and learning the local language. This is obviously an admirable pursuit. I have heard him in a conversation in Spanish, and I have heard his recordings, where he reads prepared texts in other languages. He appears to be an accomplished and enthusiastic polyglot. 

The name of Benny’s website is “fluent in three months” , where he offers “language hacking tips” to enable learners to improve quickly in their language skills. The name of the site suggests that in following his methods people can achieve fluency in three months. Apparently this three months period is not to be taken too literally, but he is confident that his method of learning enables people to achieve fluency faster than with other methods, such as traditional instruction or intensive use of input based learning (such as at LingQ). 

He provides no proof of this from his own experience, however. With his various claims we are left with having to take him at his word. He is enthusiastic in promoting his language learning activities, makes great claims for the effectiveness of his approach, and yet can be quite prickly and defensive towards anyone who challenges him. This is one of his less endearing qualities. 

Benny has been courageously announcing his various language projects and allowing his readers to follow his successes and failures. One challenge was Czech, one was Thai, and another was to sound like a native Carioca (native of Rio de Janeiro) in Portuguese. The first two were,even according to Benny, not successful (fluency was not achieved) for various reasons, whereas the latter was termed a success (“This mission was a success! You can read how I spoke Portuguese with no foreign accent,“) I will leave it to native Brazilians to judge by the recording that can be found on Benny’s site as to whether he sounds like a Carioca. To me he sounds pretty good, but I am skeptical of the ability of language learners to sound like natives. I know that natives can tell that I am not a native, even in languages that I speak well. 

Now Benny is in Berlin, where he intends, after three months, to end up sounding so much like a native Berliner that natives could be fooled for 30 seconds. He will also sit the C2 or highest level of German proficiency exam. This exam is tough, in Benny’s words, “think very hard and multiply that by a thousand”. Apparently he does not expect to pass this exam, just sit for it. We will see what happens. 

The Method: 

I have read a number of the posts on Benny’s site and have chosen just a few  quotes that are, in my view, representative of Benny’s approach to learning, and have added my own views in Italics. Benny accuses me of distorting what he says or not reading his posts, so I feel it is best to present Benny in his own words. 

“In my personal opinion, focussing on grammar too much in the early stages is a huge mistake in the academic approach. The priority is to speak as much as possible and you need words and phrases for this, not rules. Study grammar after you can communicate a little and it will be much more interesting and help you “tidy up” what you’ve got.” 

“Try to get as much frustrating study work out of the way as you can in your home country; especially phrases and vocabulary; this will allow you to take advantage of the country and locals themselves for practise.” 

I fully agree on not focusing too much on the grammar until after you have accumulated a lot of words. A little look at some grammar issues to get you started, and the occasional review thereafter are often enough to get you to where you can enjoy input activities, listening and reading. 

However, the learning of phrases and vocabulary, is not some “frustrating study work” that you can get out of the way quickly. To me, it is at the core of language learning and takes a long time. It is best done, in my view, with a lot of listening and reading and vocabulary review, based on interesting and meaningful content. I find it enjoyable and not frustrating. If I have the chance to speak to natives I take advantage, but it is not a priority for me at the beginning stages of my learning.

“This summer I will be spending 3 months in Prague and I currently speak no Czech. Nothing. Right now I don’t know how to say “Please” or “How are you?” or “Where is the train station?” or even “My name is”. I do not speak any language closely related to Czech (such as Polish) and Czech is very different to all other languages that I have learned up to now. Despite this I strongly believe that after 3 months I will be able to say that I speak “fluent” Czech; i.e. have comfortable conversations with locals about a wide range of topics, without a strong accent and with a good enough command of the language for expressing myself clearly in many social situations and understanding as much as possible…….” 

” I’ve only had a quick flick through a grammar book and a couple of hours studying a phrasebook in Czech (no study since because of work) and I’m already saying a lot more in Czech than I was after my first several months of Spanish study. How am I doing it?” 

Although he did not achieve fluency in Czech, the Czech project is the only one, other than Thai, where he tried to achieve fluency in three months, and therefore is interesting in terms of how he proceeded. 

(Here are what appear to be keys according to Benny, mostly in his own words) 

1) Don’t speak English. 

“By far, the most important advice I have given this summer (and the “secret” of how I can actually learn languages) is to not speak English.” 

“Lots of people learn languages very well while also speaking English in their spare time, but in my experience they do it much slower than those who are 100% dedicated. This is why I can learn languages so quickly,” 

“When I sit down, before they go off to get a menu I do something most people wouldn’t do… I ask for BOTH an English and a Czech menu!” 

“Speak the local language with your (non-native) friends” 

This can be good advice. However, it is not always practical. Locals may respond in English or not have the patience to listen to you if your command of their language is too poor. Some people have friends and family with whom they cannot just speak the local language. This advice is less helpful for those who do not live where the language is spoken

2) Mix English with the target language 

By gradually changing your English into the other language rather than starting off in the deep end. I suppose the word for what I’m trying to do with Czech is Englisky, or maybe Czechish?The point is that I will start with this “Czechish”, which is currently 99.99% English and 0.01% Czech and gradually tip that balance in the opposite direction. I will likely never speak perfectly (i.e. 100% Czech; that’s not fluency, it’s bilingual and does in fact take years and not 3 months!!), but maybe I can turn my “Czechish” into 90-95% Czech or more?

So, right now my Czech is still abismal. I only learned off a few pages of phrases since I was tired when travelling, and I still have next to zero grammar or vocabulary. And yet… I have been mostly speaking in Czech since I got here! I have no intention of waiting until “I’m ready”

To some extent one is forced to do this. However, how is it received by the locals? What if they do not speak English? What if your native language is not English?
 

3) Use memory aids and imagery to learn words and new writing systems. 

I do not use memory aids but some people swear by them. I prefer spending most of my available time on content, listening and reading. 

In conclusion, Benny has an enthusiastic approach to language learning, one which many people find motivating and admirable. I feel that for someone who has never broken the “language barrier”, in other words, has never learned another language, Benny’s advice and exhortations can be valuable and helpful. It need not matter that some will not be able to follow the Benny program, and will speak English, and will get discouraged when the locals do not have the patience to humour their efforts to speak their language, many learners who do not try to speak the language, can benefit. 

It may be that an input based approach, such as we offer at LingQ, is less appealing to people who just want to “get talking”. And if all Benny does is motivate people to get talking, and to overcome inhibitions, then that is definitely a good thing. If the goal is fluency, that does require a large vocabulary, and will necessitate significant time spent on input activities. This has been my experience in studying more than 10 languages.

 

 

 

29 comments on “My review of “fluent in three months”

angela

Good Day Steve,I have just completed my nursing degree and look forward to travelling and learning languages.I have always been interested in taking linguistics. Would you advise that I take a linguistics degree program to understand language or am I thinking too much into it ? :)On that note, can you recommend any top rate linguistics programs in Canada through distance? (I live in the arctic)Thank youAngela

John Kim

Interesting insight you have there. I like Benny’s approach to stress-free learning actually. It is great to get up and start speaking effectively. I understand that mastering vocabulary is a major stepping stone to fluency. But the vocabulary follows after a degree of comfort in speaking and listening the language.

Joe

Everyone overcomplicates language learning. Benny doesn’t get anywhere near a meaningful definition of fluency in 3 months, he just gets competently conversational, which is what you’d expect from someone who spends 3 months studying their ass off, whatever the method.Output, input, what’s the difference? Basically you put in an hour of work every day, and you improve. The rate depends on how smart you are.

While other ‘experts’ are spending countless hours arguing over input, output and any other terms, Benny and other travellers are out there interacting in their target language from day 1. It’s a no brainer. If you’re active in the language and particularly if you’re speaking it, you’re going to make progress.

Hi there SteveNice to see this up in da google. I would like to enhance this discussion on language abilities, dispositions or nature vs nurture with a pinch of woowoo courting. To my personal theory the languages have souls. So when you learn another you are inviting an intelligent entity into you. It is not just the melody or temperament, it has some traits of the nation carma and sentiments etc. (Thus one should travel first.) Some regions may have totally different persona/I do not like Praha’s one making all walk too fast and speak like pimps/ so that it may be advantageous to study in the regions where you feel more at home and thus being able to invite its persona into you. Will it sit well besides your ‘inner persona’? It is not just what your mother tongue culture is, it is more about your personal history inclinations so it also depends on Why does one study? To suffer to impress to enjoy to travel etc. In the above case one may see an IT guy who will mate well with the German personage yet be a bit too alien to be a Czech one.kind regards L

    Mark

    Not realistic. You may think that language acquisition is metaphysical and find it emotionally satisfying to think of languages as having souls. Think rather of communication as the rational goal and you will be more likely to succeed. Smoke less dope, but listen attentively. When trying to understand, fill in what you don’t know with ordinary human experience, and you are more likely to respond with understanding. When you misunderstand or say something stupid or hilarious, enjoy the realization, do not feel offended or ashamed, laugh at yourself when appropriate, and keep going.

    Deborah

    Hi Steve, could you please reply to questions regarding your suggestion/recommendation on best products/methods to learn a language? I think most of us would greatly appreciate your recommendations because we are here reading for good ideas and suggestion or recommendations to learn another language. I too am graduating from nursing school as the lady who commented above. I learned English but now I am hearing that if one knows Spanish (in the US) it increases the change of getting hired as well as increase in pay. Ok I will worry about the pay but getting hired is very important to me. Also, because I already love different cultures, speaking different languages will make life very interesting. I hope to hear from you. Thanks.

I hoped you might have said you noticed your Czech being is being helped by your Spanish one or so..;) /I like homonyms-ambiguos words/I was there at the end of October, too. I have great times in Praha since I use it as a privileged tourist. It is so beautiful. Beer is better than anywhere; only the smoking in pubs…

Steve Kaufmann

I was in Prague for my 5 days to fluency challenge. The link below shows you an evening in a smoke free area in a great pub on my first night there. After a year of hard and enjoyable work listening to and reading Czech, I was rewarded as my speaking ability improved by leaps and bounds while in Prague with the help of lots of friendly people.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNc9xj48ZsU

<div>Cool. Good to know another nonsmoking pub. There must be some correlation between silence and the beer price.  I usually go to somewhat louder <a href="http://lacasablu.cz">lacasablu.cz</a&gt; because I usually stay near to it.<br> </div><div>Can I ask you, as an inventor of a learning system… can one patent it? Say can I patent a system for learning foreign tongues consisting of auditory repetition of sentences with 4 subjects while holding his/her ear (say for better retention)? L</div>

<div>Thanks </div><div>I agree it is hard to patent these things…</div><div>The reason would be when  say  a Chinese company starts to copy your linq approach-method and promote it as Li-Kaufman's Linqs and you did not like it, you may ask them to refund you for your research/originality or sue them.<br> </div>

Saki

Benny is a true inspiration. I like that his advice comes from his own actual experience – imo, this gives him great credibility.

As with anything, results come from commitment.

DB Master

Here’s what I’ve experienced after living in China for several…you need to have a lot of input, you need new material because a lot of it is difficult to pick up from context. Sure I speak a lot with the locals but I find myself reusing simple words to say stuff. I need to expand more.

So if you are living in the environment, get tons of input and then when you go out you can pick it up when people are talking and you can begin to naturally use it in conversation.

You need to feed the funnel before anything meaningful will come out.

Eduardo

I feel you need a little grammar at the start. It spares a lot of frustration regarding verbal forms, plurals and the like. But I agree that a LOT of grammar is overwhelming and boring, because you don’t see any practical result.

Once you handle a little grammar, you can be more intense with vocabulary. A great help is to have a light book, in the target language, translated to English (or the inverse: an original English book translated to the target).

Audio-books helps a lot to understand the new language. Music have a bit different pitch, and pronunciation can be confusing. Movies with subtitles are good, but not so easy to get.

    I would agree, as long as we don’t expect to remember the rules, or even understand some of them, and don’t have to drills on them, in my experience.

Neil

I found this after looking for reviews of Benny Lewis’s new book “fluent in 3 months”. Please could you review his book both here and on amazon as I think it would be useful for people thinking of buying the book to have a detailed and honest review of the book written by someone who can offer an experienced opinion on the subject of learning languages independently.

João da Cunha

Hello there!

Benny isn’t able to sound like a native portuguese even TODAY, yes, 2014. I was born and raised in Brasil, still struggling to learn proper english. I saw the fuzz around the guy and checked his TED talk. Gosh…

If I close my eyes and focus only on the words, sometimes the pronunciation is such a mess I can’t even understand. I wish german, french, japanese people would rate his ability to speak in those languages as well.

BENNY IS NOT FLUENT IN PORTUGUESE AND DOESN’T SOUND LIKE A NATIVE (Benny não fala português fluentemente e não soa como um nativo)

I hope I made it as clear as possible. I’m not saying he’s all bad or anything like that. He’s an extremely good motivator, but his claims are not true. The only second language he can speak fluently is English. Only that.

Mark Sistrand

I feel compelled to point out that the word is spelled “exercise” not “exercize.” Encountering this mistake in the first paragraph of an article by The Linguist is a bit disconcerting. Where is your proofreader?

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Cas

“…that’s not fluency, it’s bilingual and does in fact take years and not 3 months!!” – I don’t think Benny understands the definition of fluency…

Hi Steve, thanks for the review.

I am a language teacher myself and have found great joy learning languages.

I find writing in the target language of great importance in language as well. In my own learning experience, I found that writing also allows the mind to consolidate whatever has been taught in class (or read in books).

Though this may probably scare most people off, the exercise actually allows the learner to reflect on what has been learned and to apply it in a practical way. This, if applied correctly can yield much fruit.

The above is just what I have gleaned from some years of learning and teaching languages. What is your take on this. Looking forward to a great exchange. 🙂

Name *Maya

Thanks for this thoughtful review. I speak only four languages plus bits and pieces of a few others, but having learned Chinese as an adult, and learned fast by typical standards, I find Benny’s claims quite misleading. It’s the kind of inflated marketing language that might be useful if all you need is a dose of positive thinking. But nobody who speaks only European languages is going to be anywhere near “fluent” in a language like Chinese in less than 18 months at the bare minimum, even assuming that you live with Chinese speakers and speak the language more or less full time.
Benny is playing fast and loose with the term fluency. It’s interesting to see from your review that he in fact has not proven his own claims.

Nora Balogh

I’ve learned several languages as an adult and I will say that I do not like Benny’s approach whatsoever. I do like trying to get lots of simple written and verbal input and I also like organized learning. I believe in using your native language or another language you know very well as a crutch and believe that this speeds up language learning and makes it more enjoyable.

I will say that I do believe in trying to use the target language soon. Trying out a few phrases and then maybe just a word here and there is a lot of fun and motivating… but you’re not yet in a position to carry on a conversation. A “from day one” crappy-quality, mostly-English attempt at “language hacking” a new language is totally unappealing to me!

Roger

I think Benny enjoys being a minor celebrity. He’s a classic schmoozer and doesn’t like to be challenged. His use of the word ‘fluent’ and the claim ‘fluent in three months’ used as a marketing phrase – though not a very original one (Hugo are responsible for popularising that) – is used irresponsibly. There are millions of people who find language-learning a chore and too much effort and are desperate for the usual silver bullet method involving little-to-know effort. More people read about and follow Benny’s exploits than likely doing any language learning.
Who has the time and money to jet off around the world 365 days a year. Benny it seems, because it is funding by being a ‘writer’ which means accumulating ad-revenue and money from other similar ‘media’ activities which then funds something no-one else can really actually follow as a methodology. Language-learning for ordinary folk it isn’t.
I encountered Benny initially on an Esperanto forum and he is a tiresome naive-optimist playing the sunny-personality, with a darker attitude problem lurking beneath. At least he believes in himself…

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