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.
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.