My new hero: Benny the Irish Polyglot

Benny the Irish Polyglot

Benny the Irish Polyglot © http://www.fluentin3months.com

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!

More Bennyisms:

“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)?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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17 Responses to My new hero: Benny the Irish Polyglot

  1. Wow, this is the most ego-inflating post I’ve ever read! 😀 😀

    Thanks for fishing out those great quotes. I’ve bookmarked this page to come back to and cheer me up in case I ever need it 😛

    • Maria says:

      Ha! I just sent you an email that said “I hope I didn’t creep you out too much by sounding like such a groupie.” Guess I’d better kill the order for all those “I love Benny” tee shirts…. 🙂

  2. Farnoosh says:

    Maria, EXCELLENT post. I am a HUGE fan of Benny and I was so lucky to meet him at Blogworld in Las Vegas – I had first seen his video of doing his 8 or so languages and when I met him, it was a celebrity moment. I went around all weekend telling everyone, “have you heard of Benny the Irish polyglot?” – and then they ask what a polyglot was and the conversation just didn’t go where I wanted it to go but alas, Benny ROCKS, and I am a lover of languages too but like you, sometimes I have hesitated to speak because I was not ready – that’s all done with now. No more waiting……great post! Tres bien fait, merci mille fois et moi, j’adore Benny aussi! 😉

    • Maria says:

      Benny à Blogworld — que tu as de la chance! Permission to speak imperfectly is the greatest gift he’s given me; like you, I’ve also realized that waiting is pointless. (It’s kind of like saving your good china for a special occasion when you could be enjoying it NOW.) So I’m breaking out my French, my Mandarin, and my expensive dishes, and if all hell breaks loose at least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I didn’t hold back. En avance!

  3. Carrie Lewis says:

    I am the proud sister of Benny, although we call him Brendan when he’s at home.
    This is a brilliant post, I like following what people have to say about him. He is indeed a true inspiration, but I havn’t yet followed his example and only speak English with the irish accent 🙂

    • Maria says:

      Ah, but Carrie, what a lovely accent it is! (My own wee mammy’s from Cork, so I find all Irish accents very comforting.) I hope you and your family enjoy having Brendan home for Christmas!

  4. Judy says:

    He certainly is an amazing guy. His technique seems to fall under the umbrella of the “communicative approach to language learning”. I’ve used this in my own feeble attempts to teach English and it’s certainly a lot more fun for both student and teacher.

  5. Benny makes a lot of sense. I’m bi-lingual and can mess around in a couple of other languages, and diving in is a very good way to learn. Who cares if you make mistakes? You need to communicate, not be perfect necessarily. However, having studied/learned languages the old fashioned way to start with, I still end up using books to help along with figuring out tricky stuff. It helps me to learn faster.

    Don’t shut up, say something! And let them laugh, why not.

  6. I too am a closet perfectionist and this makes the whole language thing a nightmare. I know I need a new approach, it’s just hard to change who you are.

    • Maria says:

      So hard! That was the good thing about living in a smaller city like Bordeaux: I came across so few English speakers there (and my francophone friends refused to allow me to speak English), so I was forced to communicate in French. I actually became quite good at it in the end, but I never got over my self-consciousness.

  7. I am a fan of Benny, but I wonder how possible it is to be able to decipher new vocabulary without a friend in the room with you, if you don’t know how the grammar works or, in the case of languages with difficult writing systems, you can’t read. I experienced this with Pimsleur CDs for example. I also didn’t know I sounded like a CD until someone, more or less, told me: ) Can, by using Benny’s methods can you get to the level where you could say, list the language on your resume or have a job as an interpreter? [These are actual questions, not rhetorical ones.]

    • Maria says:

      I don’t think his method would get anyone a job as an interpreter; I think what he’s aiming for is comfort in everyday situations. I could never jump into the deep end the way Benny does. I understand that he wants people to get over their self-consciousness and get used to speaking the language, but I’d prefer to at least understand how the grammar works before putting myself out there!

      • Actually I was on the road to becoming an interpreter and share the story on my blog here (last part). Shortly after this I became a professional translator.

        On the blog I focus on how to speak well so you don’t see what I do in parallel to that to reach professional levels of languages. I’m aiming for more than “comfort”. I have used many of my languages professionally 😉

        You learn what a method is focused on; I only discuss speaking on the blog, not becoming an interpreter. Pimsleur is an audio course, so it’s impossible to expect to learn how to write from it. Use a bit from several different approaches.

        @Maria Understanding grammar will never help you speak. As I’ve very recently written on the blog it is good to learn mid-way through to refine what you already know. Learning too much grammar at first will just have you thinking too much and not getting into the flow of speaking!! But once again, that’s my advice when speaking is a priority 😉

      • Maria says:

        Benny, I can’t seem to shake my self-consciousness — I tend to suffer from brain freeze when I’m put on the spot, even in English. I’d love to open my mouth and just let my brilliance flow, but somehow it never happens that way. 😦 The grammar is my safety net.

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