The best language hack? Speak it!

My name is Benny Lewis, an Irish lad that at 21 would never imagine speaking any language other than English to be possible for me. I took German in school and did quite poorly, and when I visited Munich I couldn’t even order a train ticket – a frustrating place to be after five years of schooling in the language.

Now at 28 I can confidently say that I speak 8 languages fluently and have been told that I have an excellent almost-native accent in several of them. I am now at the stage where I only need about three months, starting from scratch, to reach a confident level in any given language. I will try to learn up to four new ones next year.

I am absolutely 100% sure that anyone else could do this if they applied the right approach and mentality, no matter what their background is.

What changed for me is incredibly simple, and I don’t need to go into details about how many words to learn, or grammar explanations, or precisely which courses or websites to use. All I did was speak.

The “magic bullet” in learning any language is simply speaking it regularly

That’s it. I just started speaking my target language.

Speaking it wrong, making lots of mistakes initially, not having enough vocabulary to be “ready”… and doing it anyway.

Initially stumbling through a language may sound undesirable, but this is by far the quickest path to fluency. You will never speak a language quickly by avoiding speaking it. This is obvious for any task or goal – avoiding the actual goal itself will never get you anywhere.

Six months in Spain studying every day, but speaking English all the time gave me nothing more than a splattering of random words and a frustrated feeling about grammar. I needed a dramatic change, so I made the decision one day to try speaking no English at all for a month and that single month changed my entire life and converted me into someone who seemingly has a “talent” for languages. I don’t have a natural-born talent for languages, I created and nurtured that talent, just like anyone else could. After that month I was speaking Spanish.

You don’t have to move to the country to do this. I learned Portuguese while living in France and arrived in Brazil already at a confident conversational level, with almost no trace of using Spanish (or “portuñol”) as my crutch. I made the same decision to put my self-doubts aside and to just start speaking at every opportunity possible. The pressure of a native in front of you and the need to communicate will force you to improve at an incredible rate. Paris and Toulouse being major cities, it was very easy to meet up with Brazilians.

Benny in Paris

You don’t have to travel: there are plenty of opportunities at home

Not being able to travel to the country yet is not a good excuse I’m afraid. If you live in any major city in the world you have ample opportunities to meet with natives of any major (and some minor) language in person. Couchsurfing holds regular meetings (shown on the groups and events pages) and if you set up a profile you can host native speakers.

This is how I have maintained my spoken level in any given language no matter where I live. In Berlin I hosted Brazilians and in Argentina I hosted French backpackers etc. also holds regular meetings and if you go into Facebook and search for your city name followed by your language name, you may find groups and events taking place that you should definitely check out!

Other than that, simply keeping your ear to the ground will reveal where all the opportunities that were previously flying by you for some real practise have been. I like to speak to tourists, ask my friends if they know anyone who speaks my target language, look for local communities – the opportunities are endless!

The “I’m not ready yet” delusion

But surely you can’t speak if you haven’t enough vocabulary or studied enough grammar yet? Of course you can!

If you know a single word, then use it! And no matter what language you are learning there is a vast amount you already know when you are starting. Focus on this positive rather than focusing on what you don’t know as most courses are tailored to. The power of incrementing your speaking abilities by using what you have just learned is amazing and exponential.

Waiting until you are ready on the other hand is what will forever hold millions of learners back from ever trying. You will never have enough vocabulary. Not being ready is a state of mind that you can maintain until the day you die if you so choose. I choose to be ready after studying a travel phrasebook for just a few hours. It leads to lots of frustration of course, but it also leads to incredibly rapid progress.

This may not be as pleasant as studying books and podcasts in comfort and with no pressure for years, but if your goal is to speak – over-preparation will hold you back. Even if you knew the grammar and vocabulary of any given language inside and out, the cat would still have your tongue when the time came to speak if you are simply not used to conversing in that language.

If your goal is to read excellently and understand foreign movies and streamed online radio, then you have to do that as the priority. To read excellently, read a lot. To understand spoken language, listen (attentively) a lot. To speak well, speak a lot, right now. No waiting.

If speaking a language is not your priority, then my advice cannot help you and you would be better focusing your energy on input. Everyone says they’d love to speak a language, but I have found that some people really do have a preference for literature and just hearing native speakers. In that case speaking is a pleasant side-effect of their main goals and frustration involved in my suggestions to speak quickly and efficiently isn’t worth their effort.

For me and others it’s the opposite. Focusing on speaking makes other aspects of a language improve themselves with time.

So what are you waiting for? No matter what excuse you have there is a way around it if you try hard enough.

My own language learning adventures

Because of making some tough decisions early in my language learning journey, I now go to a country and almost exclusively socialise with locals (or with natives of other languages I’d like to maintain). I have had incredible experiences getting to know cultures more than books can ever convey. My mission is to help as many people as possible to experience the same feeling, and to do that I have to pull people away from their books.

Of course, I study too – but with short-term goals. I study vocabulary to prepare for a meeting this evening rather than next year. This change in context changes your motivation and thus, your rate of progress.

If you’d like to hear more about how I “hack” my way to fluency, check out the multimedia book and guide I wrote precisely about that: the Language Hacking Guide. Other tips are given regularly on my blog as I apply them on the field. The Language Hacking Guide has been translated by natives to over a dozen languages and has just been updated with more translations today. Reading it in the target language, while having English (or otherwise) ready to check for reference has helped many people.

My guide describes how I and many others start speaking immediately and improving our levels quicker, but even if you don’t decide to get it, stop studying so much, get out there and use the language with human beings!

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  • Rick Henry

    I’m not suggesting that your in-country German fluency is invalidated by any previous study. At the same time, it didn’t hurt, regardless of the grades you got in school.

    Like you with German, I had studied Spanish for 4 years before I went to live in Mexico. Still, the first three months there were hell for me. I was incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t communicate effectively. As time went on, I had many, many “Oh right! I remember that now.” epiphanies. And then things were solidified. Was that due to just speaking, or was it because I’d learned it in the past and there finally came a time for me to effectively use it consistently? Obviously, your current situation is different. You travel to a place with no previous knowledge of the language and want to be conversant before your three months are up (two in your current mission).

    In that aspect, I think the question of basic fluency is relevant.

  • davidp

    very inspiring!

  • Margaret Nahmias

    I think there is something to both sides of the issue. If you are going to converse you need more than basic vocabulary and you need to have t down pat because you won’t have to time translate in your head or look for a words. However, one shouldn’t wait to practice speaking until his knowledge is perfect. You also need goood listening to know what is being said.

  • Constant Gardener


Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.


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