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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  • Zhu

    I totally agree, speaking is the key. I almost forget my Chinese when I’m in Canada but when I went back to Beijing for a visit, it only took me a few days to go back to my normal conversation level. Same went with Spanish and Portuguese!

  • Street-Smart Language Learning

    I should have known it wasn’t Jenny saying “language hack”. As they say in Brazil, “rsrsrs”.

  • Benny the language hacker

    They also say “kkkkkkk” :P

  • Amanda Moritz

    This is good advice…in general. But I really noticed the importance of JUST SPEAKING today. I was making a video myself speaking random sentences in Spanish for work (I just started learning Spanish using the app my company makes), and at first I was really nervous. Maybe it was the fact that I was recording myself, maybe it was that it was my first time speaking Spanish in front of people, out loud.
    Anyways, even just 30 minutes later I was so much more comfortable and really surprised myself with how much I knew! The video isn’t ready yet, but I’m excited to share it and I know that future videos will be better and better.

  • Amanda Moritz

    I like this super-positive attitude, jump right in and do it attitude. I think it’s important in learning anything where you have to present yourself…actually, just anything. But with presenting in front of people, speaking a foreign language, interviewing for the first time, first day of work…
    Today I was making a video of myself speaking Spanish. At first I was nervous, maybe it was the camera, maybe it was the fact that I was actually speaking Spanish, out loud, in front of others for the first time. But even in an hour I loosened up and was surprised with how much I actually knew. (I just started Spanish btw :)

  • Jennie Wagner

    Most language students don’t understand the importance of just speaking either. But you need to practice speaking to get better at it, just as with any other skill. I noticed a huge difference in my French ability when I finally started recording myself and listening to it as well.

  • Anonymous

    Which 8 languages do you speak fluently, Benny, and in which ones is your accent almost native like?

    I believe in speaking when you feel like it and when you have the opportunity. If you do not feel like it and don’t have the opportunity, don’t worry and just keep listening and reading. I have always found such an approach too be both effective, and practical.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Steve, one would think that with the amount of posts you’ve written about me and my website a year ago you would have at least had taken a couple of seconds to look at my videos or the sidebar of my site to figure out which 8 languages.

    I don’t claim to be mistaken for a native generally in any language on a daily basis (although it does happen occasionally – Colombians thought I was a Spaniard and Quebecers occasionally think I’m French). When I was living in Rio and very active in my Portuguese, I confirmed several times that they thought I was a carioca. If you don’t believe this FINE, but it is within a social context, so analysing videos I make many months later when I’m out of practice is not a good scope to judge it.

    Please don’t start beating this dead horse again – it’s tiresome having to explain myself to you so many times.

    Your method works for your goals, which as far as I can tell are to be passive in languages. I want to live in my languages with human beings, not podcasts, and have a social life in those languages. When you were in Japan you said you put most of your time for Japanese at home and were with your family, presumably speaking English all day. This to me clearly states that speaking is a dramatically smaller priority for you compared to me.

    Avoiding speaking is impractical if the goal is to speak well. It’s just illogical. If you have other goals, then other approaches will be necessary.

    Please drop this Steve – I’m not interested in starting this fight again – your goals and mine are just too different to make discussing learning methods practical. When people tell me their priority is to read or listen to a language well, I refer them to you. Otherwise I specifically tell them to ignore anyone who tells them to wait and wait and wait…

    Nobody “feels” like speaking early because getting over your fears is a big part of being social in a language in my opinion. From my view you are constantly telling people to embrace those fears.

  • Anonymous

    Benny, I have heard you read in many languages but did not know which ones you were fluent in. To me you sound non-native in all but English. No problem, so do I and most learners. In any case I don’t mind exposing my languages skills, as they are, in unscripted videos on youtube. The goal of language learning is not to be native like for a few seconds, but to communicate.

    It is not true that my language goal is to be passive in a language. I speak all the languages that I have learned, with mistakes of course.

    I believe you do a great disservice to language learners by implying that they cannot learn if they do not speak from the beginning. Listening, reading and vocabulary growth are practical and powerful ways to power up and prepare for speaking. The time to speak will come, and at a different time for each learner.

  • Randy the Yearlyglot

    Steve, I don’t think Benny ever implied that people cannot learn if the do not speak from the beginning. He’s only asserting that they will learn faster if they do so.

  • Anonymous

    I had not noticed this in Benny’s comment.

    “.. I want to live in my languages with human beings, not podcasts, and have a social life in those languages. When you were in Japan you said you put most of your time for Japanese at home and were with your family, presumably speaking English all day. This to me clearly states that speaking is a dramatically smaller priority for you compared to me.”

    No Benny, I spent my day at work, mostly speaking English, but speaking some Japanese when I had the opportunity, and when I had built up enough vocabulary to make sense. Of course the goal was to speak and I achieved that goal quite quickly. Once I could speak well enough, I also had a social life in Japanese. Podcasts are a huge resource for the majority of learners who have limited access to live native speakers.

  • Anonymous

    The only person you can speak with from the beginning is a teacher. You can socialize with native speakers but then you will mostly be listening. Meaningful speaking, where you are not testing the patience of the listener, can only come after considerable input based learning, (which Benny dismisses as passive, inhuman anti-social etc..) The amount of speaking we can do at the beginning is so limited as to have no impact on the speed of our learning, in my view.

  • Randy the Yearlyglot

    Yes, Steve, and I think you’ve made your view abundantly clear to the entire internet for an entire year. I really don’t understand what value you are getting out of continuing the argument with Benny so long. It’s really not even much of an argument, as he quit participating a long time ago.

    There is value in stating your case, but droning on and on about your disagreement is only making you appear crass. And that’s kind of a shame, because you have some good things to say.

  • Anonymous

    As I said in my first post, I feel that Benny does a disservice to language learners by discounting input based learning, and I will continue to say so when I come across Benny spinning his line.

    As for your point of view, I can assure that you since your unsolicited vulgarity on my youtube channel I do not take you seriously.

  • Randy the Yearlyglot

    That’s probably wise. Nothing I say should ever be taken seriously.

  • Milan

    Why don’t you both have a phone interview in French, Spanish and German.

    Then it will be clear if Benny’s social talk right away method is on par with Steve’s.

  • Milan

    Actually speaking is not the key. If you had maintained your Chinese through daily exposure to TV, radio and books; you wouldn’t forget. I’m sure in Canada you went back into your English only routine.

  • doviende

    I hate to jump into the crossfire too much on this, but Steve is quite fluent in the languages that I’ve heard him speak. I distinctly remember going to a sushi restaurant with him and hearing him effortlessly converse and joke with the waitress.

    Whatever criticisms you may have about Steve and his methods, it cannot be said that he’s uninterested in or unsuccessful at interpersonal communication.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Funny you should say that. I feel you are doing a tremendous disserve to language learners by stopping them from speaking and telling them to embrace their fears.
    As Randy said, I NEVER implied people can’t learn if they don’t speak. It’s just more efficient if the end goal is to speak. You have other end-goals, which make speaking less of a priority. To imply that you are as serious as me in speaking is just arrogant – I morph my entire life around speaking, moving to the country and tailoring my social life around it – and you listen to podcasts.

    Congrats on your abilities in languages, but I have NO INTEREST in impressing an English speaking Canadian that I sound native when reading on Youtube videos. In-person meetings are what is most important to me – please get that through your skull.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Communication with Steve gives me a headache. It’s too confrontational. I use my languages to be social, not to talk about languages. Please go to my site to hear a very long live interview on the radio to hear my Spanish skills. I spoke spontaneously with a friend in German in another video on my Youtube channel.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Fair enough. Then tell him to stop judging me by watching select Youtube videos where I’m reading, and ignoring the ones where I’m getting interviewed by a human being and I’ll stop judging him by his Youtube soliloquys, which to me are not impressive.

    Steve started this whole attack on me – I’m not interested in criticising his level, but if he wants to be so arrogant as to criticise mine then he shouldn’t be surprised that I’ll bite back.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    It’s not surprising to me that you hadn’t noticed it. You never read my comments thoroughly and this is why I have to repeat myself so much with you.
    “Speaking some Japanese when I had the opportunity” – seriously?? You were in JAPAN. You always have the opportunity!! Not speaking for several hours every day would have slowed down your learning progress. I’m sure you speak great now, but in my opinion you learned how to read and perhaps write very efficiently, but learned to speak much slower than you would if you had been more active. But it was less of a priority for you since you spent time with your family (I also work, but what about the other 8 waking hours a day?)
    If it’s less of a priority, that’s FINE. I’m not criticising your goals. I’m just saying to be honest about them. You appreciate reading and listening passively to languages and that’s great. My advice holds less worth for such activities.
    I find it terrible that so many people might fall into your trap of “wait until your ready” if they happen to put speaking as a priority. That’s what annoys me about your advice. It’s not wrong – in fact it’s way better than mine if someone has very different goals.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Steve, you have never used a curse word, but you have written thousands of words of “unsolicited” attacks against me. This is why I have lost patience and can’t take YOU seriously.

    If you pride yourself on finding Randy’s comments to be unsolicited and vulgure then look back at yourself and how you have written about me, and please stop annoying me.

    I consider you to be antisocial – both in your language learning approach (by actively telling people NOT to speak – nothing wrong with reading etc. if that’s what you like) and in how you deal with me and other learners with different goals online. I get along fine with many language learners online because we aren’t constantly bickering. I find it to be a poor show of character that you need to poke your face into a post like this and drag up the same arguments as always rather than bring something new and interesting to the table.

    This “discussion” grew tiresome for me a year ago. I imagine you’ll post something about this on your blog. I’ll continue my vow of silence there – nothing can be gained by satisfying your constant desperate need to point out how much we disagree.

    Your personality annoys me way more than your language learning advice, which is very valid in many language learners situations.

    The best thing by far for the language learning community is would be if such bickering never happened, and you focused on just giving your best advice without attacking other learners, as I try to do.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I don’t “test the patience of the listener” – I think this is a very one-dimensional way of looking at how people think. Here in the Philippines every time I speak even basic Tagalog more people I wasn’t even talking to come up to encourage me to keep going and think it’s great that a westerner is trying. And we participate in real conversations – not talking about the weather. You don’t understand what is involved in my approach beyond simply speaking – there is a lot of social engineering involved.

    In other countries I have to be more convincing and use other social hacks to make sure their interest is maintained. But this is always possible – only Paris has posed me a challenge, but I later figured out what I was doing wrong.

    But dismissing all of them as not interested in hearing you just shows lack of understanding of how people think, especially in the non-English speaking world. Perhaps you wouldn’t have patience to listen to a non-native struggle with English. That just makes you mean and unhelpful in my opinion.

    In most counties I’ve been to, “the only person you can speak with from the beginning” is EVERYONE. By being social and making friends, you’ll find people who will actively encourage you and help you on a daily basis.

  • Milan

    Hi Benny again, however, speaking with Steve no matter how confrontational is going to finally settle this long winded debate once and for all. Perhaps talk about a different topic in a friendly manner. I suggest talking about your career inspirations or something.

    You are both grown ups and I’m sure you can both get along! I personally want to hear you speak French in an unscripted interview.

    So any any regards, how about being social with Steve :-)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Speaking with Steve (he interviewed me for his site) is what got this stupid endless argument started in the first place!

    This debate isn’t about who speaks what languages better. Arguing that is pointless, and is nothing more than a p*ssing competition. That would be the only purpose of that talk you suggested, and wouldn’t resolve ANYTHING in this vendetta Steve has against me.

    I’m more than willing to be social, but if you read Steve’s blog this time last year you’ll see over 16 posts where he tries to debunk me as a fraud, while consistently ignoring or selectively quoting my retorts to be nothing but negative. He deserves no respect from me because of these attacks.

    As I said, his method is valid in particular cases. I just don’t like the guy because of how he has treated me, and have no interest in talking to him again. You’ll hear more spontaneous interviews with me conducted by *natives* if you must judge my level – I am more interested in friendly exchanges and if a native invites me for such an interview then I’d consider it.

    I actually did already have a spontaneous interview in French online, conducted by the Quebec TV station TQS, but unfortauntely they took it down.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Speaking with Steve (he interviewed me for his site) is what got this stupid endless argument started in the first place!

    This debate isn’t about who speaks what languages better. Arguing that is pointless, and is nothing more than a p*ssing competition. That would be the only purpose of that talk you suggested, and wouldn’t resolve ANYTHING in this vendetta Steve has against me.

    I’m more than willing to be social, but if you read Steve’s blog this time last year you’ll see over 16 posts where he tries to debunk me as a fraud, while consistently ignoring or selectively quoting my retorts to be nothing but negative. He deserves no respect from me because of these attacks.

    As I said, his method is valid in particular cases. I just don’t like the guy because of how he has treated me, and have no interest in talking to him again. You’ll hear more spontaneous interviews with me conducted by *natives* if you must judge my level – I am more interested in friendly exchanges and if a native invites me for such an interview then I’d consider it.

    I actually did already have a spontaneous interview in French online, conducted by the Quebec TV station TQS, but unfortauntely they took it down.

  • Anonymous

    Of course you need to speak in order to improve your speaking skills, and even to become more aware of the language generally. The question is when to start.

    My view is that it is up to each learner, and depends on circumstances. I prefer to invest most of my initial efforts in becoming familiar with the language, and increasing my vocabulary, so that I understand what people are saying. This makes conversations more meaningful and beneficial. Furthermore I do not live surrounded by speakers of the languages that I am learning, so organizing the listening and reading activities is more practical.

    Other people may prefer to start speaking earlier, or have more such opportunities. I do not think that speaking early makes much difference in the final outcome. It is just a matter of choice and opportunity.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Don’t you live in Vancouver? I have friends there who tell me it’s a very international city and they can speak any language they wish on a regular basis. I have discussed many ways to find these natives without travelling on my site. While in Medellín, Colombia I spoke Hungarian, German, French, etc. with natives. It would be even easier in Vancouver. I’m on a small beach in the Philippines right now and was speaking French, German and Spanish with natives.

    You don’t need to be “surrounded” by speakers to use the language. Even meeting one single native is all you need for speaking practice.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Much better than that would be to just meet up with Chinese speakers. Unless Zhu lives in a small village, this would be very easy in most Canadian cities. It’s easy to maintain languages without relying on cathode ray tubes.
    Speaking IS the key. Watching TV will maintain your ability to understand a language, but you’ll lose the flow of speaking it well without spoken practice.

  • Anonymous

    I have a lumber business to manage and an existing social life, as well as studying languages. Today I listened to echo moskvi radio interviews in Russian while driving to work, and then again on my way to and from a lunch with two old friends. We spoke English at lunch.

    My son and family left us their dog and I walked him for 45 minutes this afternoon, listening to the audio book of a Perez-Galdos novel in Spanish, in order to warm up for a video I wanted to do i Spanish for youtube. (I also did videos on youtube in French, Chinese, Japanese this morning). However, I ran out of time since I had a long chat on Skype in Russian with one of our Russian tutors.

    Tonight I am out to dinner with friends where we have invited a leading local international affairs journalist to talk to us, again in English.

    I will continue listening to my Spanish novel there and back in the car. If I have time tonight I will do some LingQing of the Spanish novel when I get back home, assuming my wife is playing the piano and does not me to do something else.

    Now, I have also started Korean at LingQ and you want me to approach the first group of Koreans I find and trot out the few sentences that I can say in Korean, knowing that I will not understand much of what they say. Sort of like, “I don’t know you but I just want to practice my Korean on you.”

    I find that very impractical in so far as language learning is concerned, but if I were a young bachelor it would certainly work, and I would be quite selective in whom I chose to strike up a conversation with..

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I find it weird that so many English speaking cultures are so afraid of talking to strangers. I’d talk to a new person to get to know him, and speaking his language would almost always break the ice easier, so THAT’s a good reason to use the language, not for an empty way for me to simply practice.

    I’m not interested in practising languages for the sake of it. I want to interact in new and interesting ways with people of other cultures.

    The only reason not to do this is disinterest (which is fine, not everyone has to like speaking languages) or FEAR if you really do want to.

    This fear of speaking to strangers is less apparent in Ireland & definitely less so in other countries I have lived in.

    I guess once I get married and am older, I won’t be able to talk to strike up spontaneous conversations with new people any more(!)

  • Paul W

    I have followed both Steve’s, Benny’s and Randy’s blogs and have got useful advise from all three. I have even bought Benny’s language hacking guide, however I have stopped reading his blog, because either I’m missing something or I really don’t get how some of his advise works. I’ve never been able to find answers to the following questions:

    1) How, after only a few days learning a language, can you have a meaningful conversation? How can you possibly have a conversation when you know only a few simple phrases? Unless you are either incredibly handsome or rich, how can you possibly keep somebody’s attention when all you can do is grunt, point, wave and say “yes”, “no”, etc..
    2) Benny mentioned that as soon as he arrived in Germany, he was able to buy a mobile phone and do various other things completely in German. I would be interested to learn the phrases or words he used to do this, i.e. without resorting to pointing, waving, English or sign-language. My experience of being in Germany, is that most of the time they’ll just see you are struggling and speak English.
    3) I’ve been living in Poland for over a year, I’m fully immersed. I’m surrounded by the language, and need to use it. What I don’t understand is, how after 2 months living in Prague where you able to have spontaneous, almost fluent discussions. Czech, as with Polish is not the easiest things to learn quickly, and requires a lot of work. Obviously I’m missing something here.

    Benny offers some very good advice and I respect him a lot, but the whole, “Stop being shy”, “Walk up to random people” thing has slightly irked me. Not everyone is super charismatic and super confident, and as much as he has argued the fact, it can’t be changed easily. Not only that, the big question always comes back to me “How can you have a meaningful conversation with a random stranger when you barely speak the language”. Sorry Benny, but your blog lately seems to read more like, “how I’m travelling the word and having fun”, rather than “how I’m learning languages”. Other than that, I still watch your videos from Twitter and find you a very entertaining and funny guy.

    I’ve discovered my own methods based on what I’ve read on Randy’s and Steve’s blogs. I read, watch TV, and listen to music in the language I’m learning. I like to watch the same actors, as I can pick up their mannerisms and common phrases and this has hugely helped me in being able to have random conversations with people. But it took time and a lot of work before I was able to speak and socialise (I’m not talking about buying bread in the bakery).

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    1) Meaningful conversations take more than a few days, I never suggested you can debate philosophy your first week. Without patience to endure imperfect conversations for a few weeks, then it definitely will not take a few weeks to reach something meaningful. I have gotten used to frustrating myself many times and this means I learn quickly. If someone isn’t open to that frustration, then they would have a very hard time doing much in terms of speaking in a short couple of months.

    2) I wrote about my first week in Germany here. Just before going into the shop I spent 2 minutes looking up key words in a dictionary and then spewed them out enough to get my point across. Eloquent? No. Efficient? Definitely.

    I was also clear about why they may speak English to you in Germany on my blog. If you act stressed out then they will do it because they are NICE and want to save you from that stress. The social aspect of speaking a language is so incredibly crucial – it’s important to inject some personality into your conversations. Yes, this does involve some charisma, and yes I’m not going to sugar coat this and I prefer to slap some sense into people to snap them out of excuse-mode and try to improve their social skills.

    Perhaps a self-help guru would be nicer than me and give a step-by-step answer to overcoming shyness, but I really feel the best way to do it is to stop focusing so much on the shyness itself and just approach people. This is how I got over my shyness, not by following a complicated programme.

    3) I never said “almost fluent”. It was conversational Czech so I was still hesitating, but it was definitely spontaneous conversations. I clarified precisely where I was at on the blog, so I couldn’t follow conversations between two natives speaking quickly for example, but could participate at many levels when someone spoke slowly and clearly to me. It’s important not to exaggerate this to “almost fluent”. I’ve reached fluency in other languages in other circumstances.

    How did I do it? By speaking so much and getting so much feedback that I had no choice but to improve. My way is not the most fun way to learn a language because it involves a lot of frustration, but it is the quickest if someone can endure that frustration over many weeks.

    Perhaps you are focused so much on the difficulties in Polish (its cases etc.) and saying things exactly right that it’s slowing you down from simply communicating. I got my case endings right sometimes, but not all the time, and yet I had several pretty deep relationships in the language.

    My way is a perfectionist’s nightmare :) I work on communicating FIRST and then tidy up the edges after that. A perfectionist that reads my blog would have a lot of changes in mentality to take in, so it isn’t for everyone.

    I don’t see how you can possibly think that my blog is “more” about bragging about my travels. I write a post about my travels perhaps once a month, sometimes even just once in the entire trip – I almost never talk about my personal life on the blog, but give location updates for more transparency, since that is part of my story.

    Nobody can promise you a one-site-fits-all solution. I can only tell you what I feel works remarkably well for me and those who I have been in touch with directly. Every day I get a lot of e-mails from people I’ve never talked with who thank me for my advice since they have applied it and it is working. The best thing is to take a little from everyone as you have done and in the end it’s great that you have found a method that works for you.

    If you have any other questions feel free to e-mail me. Otherwise, after some struggling it seems you are on the right path now with a good combination of reading, listening and conversation :)

  • Paul W

    Hi Benny, thank you for taking the time to reply, and I think you summed it nicely when you said, “My way is a perfectionist’s nightmare”. I like to be perfect, but I also know it’s impractical and can only slow me down. This is something I’m slowly discovering, through language learning, as well as through my job as a programmer (Although, I have to admit it’s pretty important there ;-))

    I agree that there can be a lot of frustration involved in language learning, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve known what I want to say but it never comes out right and I feel quite frustrated and demotivated because of it. Your tolerance to this frustration and using it to your advantage is a quality I aspire for, and is one of the reasons I purchased your guide.

    Absolutely I concentrated too much on grammar when I started out in Polish. It seemed like one hell of scary language, after learning high-school French (What a joke that was). I now look back and realise that I should of just spent more time listening and trying to communicate. Both yourself and Randy have some very good advise about this on your blogs, and it made me realise where I went wrong. However, the communication for me would have to come later, unless I can learn to deal with the constant frustration, which makes it much less fun for me.

    Please let me clarify what I meant about your blog being about “bragging about my travels”. I would love to see more articles, or even additions to your guide where you explain in more detail how you actually approached someone in the street and used very limited vocabulary to talk to them. I don’t mean, “how you smiled”, or acted like Jack Sparrow ;-), but what you actually said. This to me would be a huge help and I’m sure to many others. This isn’t a challenge, or me asking to prove you do it, I’m just asking, because I honestly don’t know how. Last time I read your site, it was about how you are having fun getting salsa lessons and singing in (Spanish, or some similar language you are already fluent in). I failed to see the point, as you are already fluent in the language, if they were in a language you didn’t know well then I’d absolutely see the point.

    Again, thank you for the very detailed and quick reply

  • Anonymous

    Paul, let me share my views on this input versus output issue and reply to the points you raised.

    1) If you live where the language is spoken, it is possible within a few days and certainly weeks to say a few things in the language in very limited situations. You can buy things in a store, or ask for directions, for example. You have to pick situations where you can get away with saying things where you need not worry about the reply, or the reply is predictable and within the range of what you know. Doing this is fun, but, in my view, of limited benefit to language acquisition.
    2) Benny spoke German before going to Berlin, having studied it at school and having lived in Germany for months, roomed with Germans in Spain etc. so that situation is not comparable.
    3) After two months it is certainly possible to have limited but fairly satisfying conversations in a language, if, you have been able to spend 4-5 hours a day working on your input activities. This true whether you live in the country or not, but more so if you live surrounded by the language. However, this assumes you have put in a lot of hours on input, vocab review, some grammar review etc.
    You don’t have to wait months before doing this but you have to have some competence in the language. I cannot just go up to people I don’t know in order to speak in a language I essentially cannot speak, I imagine how I would react if someone did that to me in English! However, after a few weeks of hard work, I would certainly try out what I have learned, even if it gets me into trouble, (the conversation stops as I get out of my limited comfort zone).

    The most important thing with input activities is that you enjoy them. My preference is to concentrate on listening and reading, where I can listen to what I read, and read what I listen to, and save words and phrases for review like we do at LingQ. I would also have the TV and radio on, and go out with locals, but would understand little of what I was listening to, and would not have the opportunity to review most of what I hear, so those activities would be, for me, secondary, and just for fun. However, they are very beneficial and are part of the advantage of living where the language is spoken. You may prefer to focus on different input activities, but it is the input that will give you the words and familiarity that will enable you to eventually speak. Of course you will also want to consult grammar books from time to time as well.
    And if you live where the language is spoken, you can start speak quite early, as soon as you feel comfortable doing it as I said.

    I do agree that being a perfectionist is not ideal in language learning. We need not wait until we are perfect before speaking, because we never achieve perfection, never. We can expect to always improve, and if I lived where the language was spoken I would certainly be using it in an ever increasing variety of situations. Remember what Krashen said, language acquisition is based on meaningful acquisition and low anxiety. Obviously the anxiety level in our interaction with native speakers decreases as we understand more of what is said, and have more words to use to maintain a discussion. The choice of when to speak is yours, and living in Poland I would encourage you to speak as often as is reasonable while putting a lot of effort into the input activities of your choice.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Steve, if you must force your opinions on people in articles that have nothing to do with this ridiculous input vs output debate, and hijack any mention of me on the Internet, please STOP MISREPRESENTING ME. It’s dishonest and mean spirited of you to spread these lies about me like how I “already spoke German” when I went to Berlin. I have explained this to you so many times that I am starting to think you are either incredibly smart to have such a selective memory, or incredibly stupid, which is amazing considering how intelligent you seem to be in other regards.

  • Anonymous

    From your blog

    ” I actually studied German for 5 years before going to University – it’s the language that I’ve put the most work into, and yet, right now I couldn’t even order breakfast in German if I wanted to. You’ll notice that it is not one of the flags I’ve included on the right of this site as a language that I speak.

    I know all about the Accusative/Nominative/Dative cases and the various ways to say the (der, die, das, den, dem…), I know that the order that words appear in a sentence goes by Time then Manner then Place, and that the second verb goes at the end if there is an auxiliary verb. I can reproduce tables of rules and I can read some text and have a pretty good idea what it’s about.”

    “I spent several weeks in Munich and a month in Freiburg (both in south Germany) a few years ago. I felt like I was starting over from scratch, but even so, I managed to start speaking a little. I even lived with two Germans in Spain for several months and got to practise even more.”

    However much you may discount your German knowledge before you got to Berlin. it was not zero. If I remember correctly you said that your German at the time was like your Czech after two months in Prague, although I assume it was better since you did a video not too long after you got to Berlin, where you spoke German quite well.

    It really does not matter. The point is that you had considerable background which would make it much easier to use your German. It was not like starting from scratch. I am not misrepresenting anything.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Steve, I think it’s so cool that you have such an amazing ability to quote things out of context!! It’s fantastic how you deleted sentences that would precisely prove the point I was trying to make about how selective you are being!

    And it solidifies your argument even more when you follow up actual quotes with “If I remember correctly…” – when did I say that my German when I arrived in Berlin was the same as my Czech after 2 months?

    When I arrived in Berlin I couldn’t do ANYTHING except recite verb tables and the like – no abilities to converse. I’ve explained many many many times to you how worthless the C I got in High School German was. What you’ve selectively quoted (about cases) was EVERYTHING I remembered in German. The time I spent in Germany before Berlin was all in English. Perhaps I got some magical passive input in the background during that time? But it certainly didn’t help me to communicate with Germans over the years. I met many in my travels and only ever spoke English (or Spanish etc.) with them.

    We have gone through this rigmarole ALREADY. It’s so fecking tiresome to repeat myself with you so often :( Couldn’t we just link to this argument (the 1st, 2nd or 47th time) from last summer and save us both time in repeating the same to and fros?

    If it “really does not matter” then why are you dragging it up??? Stop attacking me!

    If anyone thinks I’m being paranoid about Steve’s vendetta against me, he has had it with others online and was banned from the Internet’s biggest language forum (although if you ask him about it he’ll conveniently forget it – he can comment there now because he created a new handle). He has quite the track record for getting on popular blogger’s nerves whenever languages come up. See Tim Ferriss’ retort here.

    Leave me alone please Steve.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I am no longer interested in replying to comments from Steve Kaufmann or related to any attacks he has brought up here. To understand this, please read this final comment I made to him in a previous argument. We have exchanged thousands of words worth of comments already and the bickering is getting far too repetitive.

    It’s over Steve.

    He may retort with more very selective misleading quotes or lies (a.k.a. “if I remember correctly” suggestions) or other feats of misdirection or irrelevance – the only way I can stop this madness is to ignore him. His vendetta against me (as he had for Tim Ferris) means I can expect him to comment elsewhere online as my name comes up in an attempt to reduce how valid my advice is.

    Challenging my advice is important, but hijacking any mention of me online with irrelevant additions is wasteful and childish.

    I find this to be a poor show of character. I don’t know if it stems from jealously that he isn’t in the spotlight as “the language expert”, dislike of me personally, or genuine passion to stop me from encouraging people to speak languages sooner, but arguing with him in endless circles like this is just taking over the comment thread on Jennie’s blog for a post that has nothing to do with Steve.

    When he appears in comments on guest posts or mentions of me elsewhere on the Internet, I suppose the best thing I can do is to simply link to our argument as I’m doing here and my reasons for not wanting to talk to him any more as the entirety of my reply, pointing out that he has attacked others online and hope people understand my position and how I have lost any respect I had for this man. He doesn’t deserve my replies any more.

    His language learning advice is very valid and clever (in certain situations, especially if speaking is less of a priority for you in the short term) and his LingQ site is useful too, but his personality, arrogance, persistence and negativity have worn my patience down and I’m not interested in playing his game any more.

    I hope other people will comment on this post on issues related to things discussed in the post. If you want to argue input vs output (i.e. the “benefits” of waiting until you are ready to speak) then I welcome your comments here and I’m sure Steve will welcome your comments on his site too. If you have any other questions about “gaps” in my approach or advice, e-mail me and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can with an answer, but this post is not a good place for arguments. I talk about these issues many times on my blog – comments there are a good place to share your scepticism on particular aspects of my approach.

    Looking forward to other (relevant) comments on this page and sorry to everyone (especially Jennie) who has to read this petty argument between two people who simply dislike one another and shouldn’t be so public about it.

  • Alex

    Benny: “I speak 8 languages fluently and have been told that I have an excellent almost-native accent in several of them.”
    This is simply ridiculous and incorrect (Thai, Czech, Tagalog, Hungarian). Where are the proofs? In your 3-months stays you learn just some conversational phrases, why do you call this fluency (see Thailand video)??
    Benny, you can fool a lot of people here and in your blog.
    But you have to admit one thing: Steve speaks more languages and he speaks them much, much better than you, even without even traveling to the country (example: Russian). So it seems Steve methods are superior! It’s so simple: Without input (reading, listening) – no output (speaking, writing)!

  • Alex

    I forgot: Benny, you are a GREAT CLOWN — see your video “Overdose on homeopathy in the Philippines”. Making jokes about homeopathy just shows that you understand nothing about the successes and benefits of homeopathy.

  • Anonymous

    The real issue is not Benny or Steve, but what works in language learning. Input based language learning is powerful, and for many people who do not live surrounded by the language, the easiest to do, the most cost effective, and the most likely to lead to fluency. If more people availed themselves of this opportunity, we would have more successful language learners. That is the issue.

  • Callitlikeiseeit

    Steve, Most of the time, I am on the same side of the argument as you in regards to input-first, etc. And there are good arguments for this. Sadly, neither you nor Benny ever actually get to any kind of truth in the matter because your both too busy fending off strawman arguements to ever actually pursue the reality behind any of this. Is this because you both have a product to sell? Probably. It’s the same reason, Steve, that you deny the benefit of proven technology like Spaced Repitition Software, LingQ doesn’t provide any type of SRS accomodations, and you’ve been too busy destroying natural resources and pillaging virgin forests to develop the programming acumen to create such a thing, which, actually would amplify the power of LingQ many-fold if you embraced it, so instead you troll anything different and promote your own blog and services. Sadly, although you are a wealthy individual, you haven’t developed much business acumen either or you would realize that you’ve built LingQ around an old-fashioned and faulty business model which simply isn’t successful on the internet. Anyone who wants can build a site that does exactly what LingQ does, make it free and then either charge for only a few VERY select services or work completely off donations and make far more money than you. It’s the model behind nearly every contemporary internet business to meet with major success. Yes, I’ve heard you bash wikipedia for putting out their “begging bowl” once a year, but that “begginb bowl” model brings in tons of money, while also allowing everyone who desires it access to wikipedia, which is completely FOUNDED on the idea of donated energy, resources, and knowledge. It’s where business is going, but I guess you’re too old to understand. But, my point is this, Benny has said repeatedly he’s no longer interested in having this “debate (that’s a farce, it’s a commercial and that’s all)” with you, but you follow him all over the internet commenting on any blog or forum he says anything on. I’ll give you this, you may not be internet savvy as far as running an internet business (if you were you wouldn’t have to constantly harrass Benny just to promote yourself, and you could focus on ACTUALLY improving the quality of Lingq) BUT you are an extremely successful internet TROLL. And that is for sure.

  • Anonymous

    Cait, I am used to your style but no matter;

    1) I enjoy discussing language learning issues, not straw man arguments. It is for you and others to judge the validity of what I say.
    2) SRS may work for you and many other, it does not work for everyone, and especially not for people who do not like spending their time on SRS. We have a form of SRS at LIngQ and may improve it at some point. It is not a priority. Instead we have enabled the exporting of vocabulary lists to other more developed SRS systems for those of our learners who enjoy SRS.
    3) You do not like LingQ. LingQ will not appeal to everyone, that is for sure. On the other hand, many do like it, do very well in their language learning there and regularly thank me for it. This gives me great satisfaction. I think we have a great community. We are constantly improving the site.
    4) The softwood (coniferous) forest industry is the is one of the most environmentally benign industrial activities, we have. It is a renewable resource, CO2 neutral, and the softwood forest land mass is constantly increasing. Wherever lumber is used for building we are storing CO2. I suggest you inform yourself.
    5) Only sites with massive traffic can make a living from donations. Sadly that is not the case with LingQ.
    6) Anyone who presents himself as an expert on language learning on the internet, like Benny or me, can expect to be challenged.. When my views are challenge I try to defend my views. Where there is debate there is disagreement. To judge by your comments here and the caricature of me that you submitted, you have trouble dealing with differences of opinion.

  • doviende

    ya, this is why I shouldn’t have jumped in. You’ve both impressed me with some of your language skills, so I see no need to doubt that either of you applies your different methods successfully.

    The part that annoys me is the generalized statements against the other. Benny commonly claims that any method not based on immediate speech is “antisocial” and ineffective, which I think Steve takes issue with. Steve seems to also claim that Benny’s ultra-social method is inefficient, but I see Benny’s good results so I have to say that it seems to work somehow.

    Personally, I just can’t (yet) figure out how to be that social, so I can’t use all of Benny’s recommendations. Instead, I start out with weeks or months of input-based learning a la Steve, and then I use many of Benny’s methods after that for activating my knowledge. This led me to success in German, and is currently my process for Dutch, which is going well so far.

  • Anonymous


    I am not against speaking in the language I am learning, as soon as I feel ready and have the opportunity, as I have said many times. However, many people simply do not have that opportunity. Therefore when Benny says as he does here;

    “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.”

    “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. ”

    This is, in my view, impractical advice for most people, and I will continue to say so. Benny has the time and means to travel the world and meet people and yet has not demonstrated that this approach works for him. None of the languages in which he claims fluency were learned in this way. Most people, however, are not in the position to travel the world talking to people, nor even to spend their day finding people to talk to in the language they are learning..

    For most people, getting to where you can speak requires a lot of effort at input activities. That is the shortest path, and the most cost and time effective way to prepare yourself to speak when the opportunity arises and will ensure meaningful communication.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thai, Czech, Tagalog and Hungarian are not part of the 8 languages I claim fluency in. These are listed on the right on my blog and I have been interviewed in various languages on Youtube.

    Thank you SO MUCH for adding that bit about you believing in magic placebos. :) To quote yourself… “Where are the proofs” – the hypocrisy is just so delicious!! :D

  • Rick Henry

    “Thai, Czech, Tagalog and Hungarian are not part of the 8 languages I claim fluency in.”

    Benny, I don’t really wish to get into the debate, other than to ask an honest question: Is there any language in which you can claim (basic) fluency that you’ve taken up in, say, the last year? I’ve followed your blog for less than a year so, again, this is an honest question.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    If you’ve been reading for less than a year then I’ve only taken on German and Hungarian (still in the process of Tagalog). I was successful in reaching fluency in German (and my spoken level is at European standard C2 according to the Goethe Institut).

    If anyone would like to suggest that this “doesn’t count” and exaggerate that I spoke it already because of the C I got in my non interested attempt at German in school, then I invite you to work as public relations for the Irish Education board, but not to drag up your speculations of my level here.

    I hope this answers your question, although I really don’t see how what I have done specifically in the last year is relevant to this particular post. Please ask any questions on my blog or e-mail me.

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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