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Who’s Out There Now? Benny

Written By: jeff

Posted On: January 10th, 2012

Benny Lewis, Fluent in Three Months, Irish Polyglot

Benny Out in the World. Copyright FluentinThreeMonths.com

In this week’s ¨Who’s Out There Now¨ feature, we bring to you Benny, the man traveling around the world to learn as many languages as he can so he can share his language hacking tips on FluentIn3Months.com.  After 9 years on the road, Benny proudly declares that he is fluent in 8 languages which include English, Irish, all the romance languages except Romanian (Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian) and German. He recently delved into Quechua, the language of the Incas. And, on other interviews, I’ve heard him mention that he dabbles in Turkish, American Sign and Klingon!

benny lewis interview, fluent in three months

Ditching the Books! Copyright FluentinThreeMonths.com

1. So, where in the world are you answering these questions?
Right now in Cuzco, Peru! Hanging out here for a couple of weeks working on my Quechua (the Incan language) before going through the Sacred Valley and up to Machu Pichu.

2. Learning the local language can add so much to your travels and help you really get to know the local people and culture better. Is there a time when knowing a local language helped get you out of a tight spot?
It usually saves me tonnes of cash to be able to haggle in the local language, but actually it gets me INTO more tight spots :) Since I veer off the tourist trail quite a lot I end up having quite a lot of adventures, and misadventures! It’s all good fun though.

Benny lewis, irish poyglot, fluent in three months

In Brazil. Copyright FluentinThreeMonths.com

3. When you say you can become fluent in 3 months, what does that really mean? As someone who has been in South America for the better part of 5 years now and speaks Spanish fluently, I’ve learned that there are increasing levels of fluency.
That’s not what my message is about. The title of my blog refers to the fact that you should aim for a specific target and a specific deadline. New Year’s resolutions of “Speak Spanish” are terrible ideas. Say “basic conversational Spanish within a month” or “be able to talk on the phone by January 15th or whatever it may be. My title is an example of such a thing.
I aimed for fluency in Czech in 3 months when I registered the blog, and was definitely on the path, but had to stop after two months due to financial difficulties. By this stage I had reached “conversational” level. Since then I’ve aimed for other things, but always been very specific in what I mean by my definitions. In January I will be aiming for fluency however (you’ll find out about the language on the blog or earlier in my email list when the time comes!)
In that case I define fluency as being able to do absolutely everything that I can in English, in the target language. Speaking it with ease in such a way that it “flows” and my hesitations are non-existant or natural, and the other person can use slang and speak quickly with me, and I can follow groups of people speaking fine. In social situations nobody ever has to make adjustments for my benefit, and I can read and write fine, focusing more on natural use than formal.
I will still have an accent and make an occasional mistake, but I’d be working to reduce them. More technically, my idea of fluency is what we define in Europe as C2 level, a diploma exam I have sat in various languages, and a level of fluency they call “mastery”.
What’s important is not how I or you define fluency, but in the fact that you have a very specific definition, and something solid to aim for. For most people “fluent” is some high pedestal that is equivalent to bilingual or otherwise unreachable, so of course it seems impossible.
The 3 months target is a convenient time for me as that’s usually the tourist visa limit and the amount of time I like to stay in a country, so that’s my deadline, plain and simple. No magic formula to fluency in 3 months, just trying your damnedest.

4. What are 3 tips for someone who wants to learn a new language while traveling, even if they don’t have 3 months to achieve fluency?
Tip number one: Stop “learning” (i.e. studying) the language. All your studying while in the country is wasting time – study and prepare before you hit the road. While there it’s time to…
Tip number two: SPEAK IT. All the time, at every opportunity, with everyone. No matter how bad your level is, use it all the time. This will force you to improve quickly and when you see your faults and the vocabulary you are missing, THEN your studying will be a lot more specific and useful. Studying grammar or random vocab lists that are not so relevant to you now is a waste of time. Use it with people and you’ll see what you need to work on.
The main reason I’ll learn quicker than most travellers is because I avoid English. I don’t hang out with other expats, and I relax in bars with locals, not other backpackers. When you speak English the majority of your day, why should it be surprising that you don’t learn quickly?
Tip number three: Be confident as hell. Speak wrong, make mistakes, and continue on regardless. Stop second guessing yourself, stop making up excuses that you are too old or not naturally talented – all of these are nothing more than self fulfilling prophecies.

5. How do you choose what languages you are going to tackle next?
For me a language is a means to an end. I don’t pick languages, I pick interesting cultures. Learning the language is a natural part of integrating into that culture for me.

benny lewis, fluent in three months, irish polygot

B-B-B-Benny and the Jets? Copyright FluentinThreeMonths.com

6. Career break, nomadic adventure, backpacking, how do you characterize your travels?
I’ve been travelling for almost a decade so you could hardly call that a “career break”. And I don’t backpack, as I prefer to stay for several months. I like the word “technomad” or “location independent professional”. My personal style, as well as attempting local integration, would be “language hacker”.

7. What are some of the secrets to travel that you’ve discovered that you think more people who aren’t traveling should know?
That it’s ridiculously cheap if you do it in the local language. Search Google or Lonely Planet in English for prices and you will get the tourist prices. No reservations are needed, just arrive with one night paid for at a hotel/hostel and you will sort out your work and accommodation very easily if you are confident enough and don’t walk in yelling loudly with an SLR camera around your neck.
My lifestyle is way cheaper than almost all settled people I know, even when I stay in nice accommodation. Buying a car, paying a mortgage, fuelling an Apple-product addiction – those are things that you can let go of, embrace some minimalism and get a lot more out of life.

8. What was your first ¨I’m not in Kansas anymore¨ moment?
The first time I was ever abroad was in New York City. My head hurt from looking up at the skyscrapers in fascination.

benny lewis, irish polyglot, fluent in three months

In Budapest. Copyright FluentinThreeMonths.com

9. What’s been your most ¨local¨ experience so far?
After the big earthquake in Italy, my travel plans were changed dramatically as I was supposed to go to the epicentre. So I had to think quick and ended up in Rome around Easter – the most chaotic time for Europe’s most chaotic city. Luckily a friend came to my rescue and invited me to spend Easter with his family. I ate a traditional Italian dinner with 4 generations around a table and had some fascinating conversations.
There’s no way you can get this experience when in tourist mode, and especially not if you rely only on English to get around.
That dinner has been one of the highlights of my travels.

10. What has been your most embarrassing moment?
Getting handcuffed and locked up by the Federal Police in Brazil for stupidly yelling insults at a federal officer.

11. What’s your secret for getting the most out of your journey?
Local friends. I still go to expat meet-ups on occasion, but spending the majority of my social time with people from the place means I see things from a different perspective, and go to places no guidebook can do justice to recommend, and have incredible experiences.
For me it’s all about the people I meet.

benny lewis, irish polyglot, fluent in three months

With university students. Copyright FluentinThreeMonths.com

12. Finally, our lightening round.

  • Best dish you’ve found so far: Aloo Gobi in India.
  • Most exotic food eaten: I’m vegetarian so I don’t go too exotic with food, or prioritize food as I travel. My favourite dishes can also be found back home if you look hard enough.
  • Most breathtaking moment: Having a full 360º view from the peak of Mount Teide – seeing other Canary Islands in the distance.
  • Biggest disappointment: Can’t think of one.
  • Most memorable place: Florianópolis, Brazil
  • Most memorable person: I got to dance with the president of Ireland, and had a great chat with her.
  • Best thing to have on a long bus ride: A fully charged 3G keyboard Kindle with dozens of books installed and a reading light.
  • Worst thing to have on a long bus ride: An illness.
  • Best thing you packed: Clever conversation-encouraging t-shirts.
  • Dumbest thing you packed: Big books that weigh too much that I never used.
  • Funniest travel habit you have: I keep my SIM cards after living in a country. I have dozens of them.
  • Place you wish you could’ve stayed longer: Cali, Colombia.

You can follow Benny online at FluentIn3Months, LanguageHacking.com on Facebook, and on Twitter @Irishpolyglot

Every week, Career Break Secrets profiles a different traveler or traveling couple who are embracing the ¨Because Life Is Out There TM¨ travel spirit.  These are people who have taken the plunge to embark on a career break and are currently traveling the world.

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