I’m in love.
I wasn’t expecting it to happen. I’ve been married to Chef Boyardee for nearly 20 years, so I certainly wasn’t looking for anyone new. But one day I was flicking idly through my twitter feed when I saw a retweet of something intriguing by a crazy-looking dude named @irishpolyglot. Since I was in full-on procrastination mode, I clicked through to his site, Fluent in 3 Months. It was a revelation.
Benny (the Irish Polyglot) Lewis is a global nomad and self-described Language Hacker. What began as a simple fascination with languages has morphed into a very cool career: he undertakes various “missions” to live in exotic locales for three months and gain fluency in the local language. To those who say it can’t be done, Benny says “pshaw,” and he says it in Irish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, German, Thai, and Hungarian.
Fluent in 3 Months is a wickedly engaging site, with posts such as “Does Drinking Help You Speak a Foreign Language?” and “Stop Being Such a Crybaby.” (Yes, he believes in dishing out tough love when necessary.) And the photos! One minute he’s mugging with a Brazilian football team; the next, he’s wai-ing Ronald McDonald in Bangkok. He loves to ham it up in outlandish outfits, which only adds to the fun.
He also puts his money where his mouth is, posting numerous videos that feature him in all his multilingual glory. It’s inspiring to see what he’s able to accomplish in such a ridiculously short time period. (Plus, he speaks English with a kick-ass Irish accent. I’ve been a sucker for Irish men since meeting my first boyfriend in high school.)
I wish I’d discovered his site (which he dubs “a plea to travellers to stop dragging their tedious English-speaking bubble around the planet with them”) before I lived overseas. A closet perfectionist, I was always anxious about speaking French or Mandarin unless I was absolutely certain what I was saying was perfect. As a result, I missed out on a lot of opportunities.
I like to imagine Benny shaking his head at my foolishness. He believes that obsessively studying grammar, syntax and vocabulary only slows us down. “That approach works great if you want to pass an exam, but if you want to communicate with actual human beings you have to get over your excuses and speak; and do this as soon as possible.”
Many people (mea culpa) lose sight of the fact that the goal of learning a language is to communicate. Benny uses phrase books to get a grip on some of the basic expressions he’ll need, and then he dives right in. “A language is a social tool, and being locked up in your room studying it is, frankly, antisocial. If you want to speak then stop studying and just speak already!”
A lot of language teachers out there must be apoplectic at this blatant heresy, but Benny is unapologetic. “I have no intention of waiting until I’m ‘ready.’ I’ll never be ready and I’ll always be ready depending on how you look at it, but by putting off actually speaking I’ll greatly slow down my learning process.”
His current mission finds him in Colombia — not to learn Spanish (which he’s already mastered, thank you very much), but to prove to all the haters out there that you don’t have to wander the world, as he does, to speak a different language. He plans to spend the next three months chattering away in each of his acquired tongues. “If I can speak Irish or Hungarian in Colombia of all places, then what’s stopping you from speaking French/Japanese etc. in your town?”
For Benny, the eternal optimist, the only failure is failing to try. “The path to fluency must include a lot of mistakes. The only way to make no mistakes is to say nothing, and you will never learn anything that way.” This is why I love this guy!
“Don’t have this attitude of Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m learning your language?”
“You are your worst enemy when you are a pessimist, and your own hero when an optimist.”
“It’s time to realize that speaking languages is totally natural. Most of the planet can speak more than one language. If you happen to come from a culture that is mostly monolingual, don’t let that define your boundaries!”
“The wall holding you back was one you built yourself.”
And my favourite: “Stop bloody studying and interact with people in the language!”
What do you think? Does Benny have a point? Or is he a raving lunatic (as some of his commenters seem to think)?