Nomadic Interviews: Benny Lewis, Author of the Language Hacking Guide

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Our Nomadic Interviews series aims to introduce you to people who have chosen an alternative path and decided to live a nomadic life for many years. Last month we discussed food, photography and Latin America with Uncornered Market and this month we bring you Benny Lewis who has taken a different approach to permanent travel.

Benny is the author of the Language Hacking Guide and blogs at Fluent in 3 Months. He learns a new language every three months and can speak eight languages fluently, even though he didn’t start learning languages until he was 21. He has been hugely inspirational to us as we learn Spanish, and his guide gave us a new approach to language learning which we tried out with our own Language Hacking Challenge.

1. How long have you been travelling and where have you been?

I have been outside of Ireland for about seven and a half years so far. It started with brief visits to the states, and then as I learned languages I spent time in the country of those languages. A year or so in Spain, a year in France, 7 months in Italy, about five months in Germany, 2 months in the UK, and then three month stays in the Czech Republic, Canada (Quebec), Brazil (3 times), Argentina, India and Thailand. I’m the only traveller I know that has taken so long to get to Thailand, since it seems the first place most people go!

I prefer living in a country for real, rather than brief visits. I pride myself in the fact that my list is not that long despite the extended time I’ve spent travelling. I have spent a few days (or hours!) in Austria, Uruguay, Poland, Slovakia and Mexico but these barely count.

2. How do you fund your travels?

I’ve had dozens of jobs from many different fields. For the most of my travels, I would find a local job on arrival. Lots of teaching English, but also teaching Mathematics, working in stores (once even in a yoga store!), youth hostel reception, photographer, as an Electronic Engineer (since that is what I studied), First Aid assistant, and some boring office jobs too.

For most of the last three years, I funded myself by translating technical documents related to Engineering from French and Spanish to English. This gave me immense freedom to not have to worry about finding a job when I arrived as it is based online. In the last months I have stopped doing that and focused on trying to support myself from my blog by sales of my Language Hacking Guide. I can’t quite retire yet, but for the moment it’s covering expenses! It also means I can focus on helping others learn languages, which lets me make a bigger difference in the world.

3. Tell us about the missions you have in each new place. How do you think these enhance your travel experience?

I found that just aiming to “speak well” in an undetermined amount of time did not get me far in the local language initially. An application of Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time allotted to it) in reverse meant that giving myself tight deadlines and specific goals meant that at worst if I’d achieve only 90% of it, it would still be quite the achievement.

So my “mission” has recently been to improve my level of a given language dramatically in just three months. This has really changed everything, as it has given me a sense of purpose to my travels, rather than just wandering around picking up a bit of the local language. Since I started blogging about it, the stories have inspired others to try too, and since I am public about it, the pressure means that I won’t take it easy and slip back to English.

The more recent years of travel have been among the most rewarding because of this! I have taken on harder language challenges and socialised usually entirely just with locals. This gives you a much deeper glimpse into true life in the country. Even though my stays are relatively short (3 months is way more than most tourists, but still not enough to truly say you know a place), I feel like I genuinely understand and get to know the place I visit.

4. What are your tips for really getting to know the people and culture of a new country?

Learning their language and practising it often with them and asking many questions can open you up way more than reading about it in your guide ever can.

Then you have to take it as far as even avoiding people from your home country or other travellers. This is hard because it’s way easier to relate to travellers than it is to locals in many situations. But if you are serious about getting to know a place, you have to make the sacrifice.

I never spend much time with Irish/Brits/Americans/Australians etc. and this is hard because I know I would likely have more fun many times with them. But the long-term benefits of forcing myself to make local friends pay off in the invitations they give me to their homes and traditional events.

5. How have you found travelling as a vegetarian? Where have been the best and worst locations?

Travelling as a vegetarian is easier than most people think. I have never eaten meat/fish in my life and continue this no matter where I am.

However, I try not to make a big deal out of it. Respect for the local culture means trying to preach my values will only harm my experience in this case. I apologise for the inconvenience and request vegetarian options and it always works out. In rare cases I will plan in advance.

The best location would be India, since vegetarianism is part of the culture, and I generally really like Indian food. Otherwise Berlin has been surprisingly easy to eat out in! I didn’t find Buenos Aires complicated, but I had to rely on touristy restaurants a lot (there are plenty). The hardest place by far has been Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil. Barbecues are so ingrained in the culture there that even a salad has meat piled on it! I was only there for a few days but I didn’t eat well. There are vegetarian restaurants in the city, but because I was hanging out with locals they wouldn’t be caught dead in such a place!

6. You recently released the Language Hacking Guide to share your advice on learning a language efficiently. What are some of your top tips?

Speak the language with natives from day one. This realisation changed everything for me. It doesn’t matter what course material you buy, how many hours you study, even if you are in the country, if you aren’t serious about actually using the language. A language is a means of communication and if you focus too much on studying it and on the details that makes it different, rather than trying to simply talk to other human beings, then you’ll totally miss the point.

Also, rather than getting intimidated with how different it is, see what it has in common (European languages have thousands of words of vocabulary that is practically identical for example) and even if you theoretically start from zero, you are communicating with human beings and forgetting this human aspect is what holds people back from trying. It’s not a test you can fail if you answer too many things wrong. Make mistakes and you’ll be fine, and many locals will be happy to help you along. Speak lots and the confidence will start flowing and then you can naturally improve towards fluency.

7. Your method emphasises talking to people in your target language- a LOT! What advice do you have for people (like us!) who are quite shy of talking to strangers.

I don’t like the word “shy”, simply because everyone throws it around so much to the point where it means nothing. I imagine many people including yourselves are greatly exaggerating how shy you are. Unless you have autism, there is nothing stopping you from walking up to a stranger and saying Hola/Salut/Ciao etc. but yourself and the invisible barriers you have created. Do it once and you will realise that the world does not in fact come to an end. Do it a few more times and it will get easier and easier.

I was quite “shy” before I started travelling. I didn’t discover any magic secret to become more extrovert other than simply putting myself out there as often as possible and to stop thinking about it so much. If you see a stranger you’d like to talk to and suddenly analyse “What should I say first? What if they aren’t interested in talking with me? What about…?” then you’ll just give yourself more reasons to not bother. Stop thinking about it and just say hi. Thinking too much is what keeps people shy because you can always invent new bogus reasons why you shouldn’t make new friends.

8. How can people learn a language in their own country, without travelling to a country where the language is spoken?

There are plenty of ways to meet natives in person. meetup.com has regular meetings for practising major languages in big English-speaking cities. The group messages at couchsurfing.org have meetings with people from all over the world, with lots of changes to practise. Otherwise go to Facebook and do a search for your language name + city name and click on groups or events and see what is going on and join in.

You can also go to your local university and see if foreign students have put up advertisements looking for tandems (language exchanges). Other than that, keep your ears open and when you hear your target language, jump on the chance to practise it!

There are ten million websites for practising a language online so you could theoretically spend all day long talking almost any language in the world via Skype, but I’d recommend you exhaust the non-Internet options first. Seeing a language in person changes its context and will help you master it quicker.

9. Do you recommend any particular books or audio courses for language study?

My recommendation: take any good language learning course (Pimsleur, Assimil, Teach Yourself etc.) study it for a few short hours, and then close the book and follow the advice I gave to the previous question 🙂 There is no perfect course – they are all important to get the basics, but only active exposure will force you to learn to speak quicker.

10. What’s next for you? Do you ever plan to settle down?

I am settled down. I am a permanent resident of planet earth and a citizen of the world! 🙂

I experimented a lot and found that three month stays work for me. It’s in the “Goldilocks zone” of not too little and not too much. I am now moving to Budapest to try to speak Hungarian in three months and will then follow the summer somewhere in the southern hemisphere, before returning to Ireland to spend time with my family around Christmas. No matter how much I travel, my parents’ house is where I go to between trips. Friends and family are always the most important thing in life and this includes when you travel.

However, if some incredibly beautiful and charming local girl manages to convince me to stay longer than three months, then I may indeed pick one particular corner of the world to call home. I see travel is an education rather than a lifestyle, and I’m sure another chapter of my life will begin in a few years with an entirely different adventure.

Thanks Benny for some excellent reponses! If you are learning or want to learn a language read our review of Benny’s Language Hacking Guide, visit his blog Fluent in 3 Months or follow him on Twitter.

Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our 47 Useful Gift Ideas for Carry-On Travellers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.

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6 Comments (2 pingbacks)

  1. I’m a big fan of Benny’s blog and his book and have spoke a few times via email regarding tips for my Spanish. My Progress in Spanish has improved tenfold and I love his optimism. Optimism, like it’s nemmesis pessimism; is infectious. You can’t afford to be negative in languages-or even life!
    Benny makes a great metaphor about Helen Keller and excuses (which I have stolen and often use on friends). Nice interview.
    p.s. I hope you guys are having fun in South America, Newcastle’s freezing 🙂

    Anthony

    Reply

    • Glad to hear from another Benny fan. I agree completely that his optimism is so inspiring and he makes us realise we need to stop making excuses. We are enjoying South America thanks although as it’s winter here it’s quite cold at the moment. Need to head to warmer climes!

      Reply

  2. Great interview and I love the photos too! I love Benny’s wisdom and sense of humor. 😉

    I think I’ll steal this quote because it’s exactly how we feel about our open ended family world tour! 😉

    “I am settled down. I am a permanent resident of planet earth and a citizen of the world!”

    Reply

    • Benny is a very smart and funny guy. I LOVE that quote of his too – what a great response and something we empathise with too.

      Reply

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