Me vs. Benny the Irish Polyglot

I haven’t blogged in a while due to end-of-semester grade stress.  I have a feeling that this post might be a long one so I’ll start off right with the main points, so you the reader can make an informed choice about continuing to read.  Here goes:

  • I’m going to start posting more about language learning, thanks in large part to Benny the Irish Polyglot.
  • Benny the Irish Polyglot is not my enemy, although for teaching purposes I did, in fact, claim that he was my personal enemy, for instructional purposes… him, and Michael Bublé.

So here’s the thing… I’ve been reading Skritter Jake over at iLearnMandarin.  He’s a good kid; insightful, and I like that he’s a teacher.  He reminds me a lot John Pasden in the good ways (not in the evil ways).  Anyway, all those learn-Mandarin bloggers, including Jake, were all wetting their pants that some Benny the Irish Polyglot is trying to become fluent in Mandarin in three months.  Preposterous, right?

Benny the Irish Polyglot, who is in Taiwan now, claiming that he’s going to be fluent in Mandarin in three months.  I immediately thought, “guh, why are they even bothering with  this Benny, who is obviously some flavor-of-the-month rosetta-stone-marketing-style snake oil salesman who just wants to profit off of people’s desire to learn languages.”  What’s he selling?

But then Skritter Jake reposted Benny’s first video of himself speaking Mandarin after two weeks, and I watched it, because I’m a sucker.

There are a couple of things I noticed:

  • Benny is pushing his proficiency level; he’s got lists of vocabulary going on, present-tense descriptions, formulaic expressions, and is able to partially memorize a script. I remember when I was at that stage as well.
  • Benny’s speech is halting and painful to listen to sometimes; I think he’s freaked out about the tones… or somebody has got him freaked out about the tones.  This to me screams isolated study, rather than communication, but we have to give him a break on that.

All things considered, it’s a good start, although I’m sure in a couple of weeks he’ll look back on that and say “why on earth did I let them freak me out so much about tones?”

So anyway, as hard as it was to watch Benny’s first video, he’s doing pretty good, and so I got curious and started internet stalking him.  I went to his website, http://www.fluentin3months.com/, and tried to check out his philosophy.  I also checked out a talk he gave in Vancouver, and I ended up watching the whole thing.  Here are the conclusions I drew:

  • Benny’s method of language learning is the same as mine, with only minor exceptions.  He stops speaking English, he seeks out target language conversation, he conquers his fears about being misunderstood, and he achieves a level of fluency in about three months.  At first that “fluentin3months” really stuck in my craw, but as I looked back at my own experience, three months is really about right.  In fact, it’s normal.  ANYONE can be fluent in three months, if they’re doing it right.
  • Benny’s full time job is traveling to different places and learning a new language.  That should be my job!  What is wrong with me?  We have the (almost) exact same philosophy about language learning, and similar results… So what’s different?  Oh, he is really good at promoting himself, and giving people who desperately want to learn another language some hope, and some concrete skills.  In fact, they’re forking over 41€ to buy his language hacking book… stuff I have known for a long time.  So why is he a minor international internet sensation, while I am a former minor international internet personality, teaching high school Spanish, wearing a hoodie with a ripped pocket?
  • Benny’s bread and butter is claiming that he’s got these “unconventional” language hacks.  I’ve had a look at them, and there is nothing “unconventional” about them.  In fact, I spend months trying to convince my students of the exact same strategies, but for whatever reasons, my students *refuse to believe me.*  When I say it, that is. When Benny says it, they’re all, “here, Benny, take my 41€!”

Here’s what I concluded:  unless I want to spend the rest of my life as a dumpy high school Spanish teacher in a ripped hoodie, I need to get my ass in gear and start promoting myself, my brand, and eventually my language learning media products.  So be it resolved:  more language learning posts on this blog, more self promotion everywhere else.  I have to make it happen.

As for my students, I wanted to show them one of Benny’s videos, but I knew that it would go over like a lead balloon.  So to set it up, I told my students that spent the weekend hating my two new enemies, Michael Bublé and Benny the Irish Polyglot.

Michael Bublé, I said, is a dopey Canadian who wears suits and sings only melody.  I can do that, but instead… instead I’m here… with you… wearing a hoodie with a ripped pocket.  You can bet melody-singing Michael Bublé has exactly zero hoodies with ripped pockets.  The students accused me of being jealous, which I admitted to.  It was necessary to establish the well-liked Michael Bublé as my #2 most hated enemy in order to set up a familiar pattern for Benny the Irish Polyglot.

The students called me jealous and shallow (this whole conversation was in Spanish), and then they begged me to tell them about my #1 enemy.  I told them Benny the Irish Polyglot was this dude who wears a tuxedo t-shirt and travels around the world, becoming fluent in different languages, and then selling people books filled with a bunch of non-secret tips on how to learn language, tips that I totally know.  So then the students suggested that I write my own 41€ book, and that I quit being so jealous all the time.

What did this buy me?  It let me have the conversation with my students that you can be fluent in a target language in three months, and that it’s TOTALLY NORMAL… provided that you do it correctly.  And the first thing you can do is to STOP SPEAKING ENGLISH; when it’s time to learn Spanish.

The message finally got through to them, they totally used Spanish for the rest of the period, even to chat with each other.

Oh, sure… when I tell them in September that English will poison their Spanish learning, they look at me like I’m an idiot, but when Benny the tuxedo-t-shirt-wearing, Esperanto-speaking Irish polyglot tells them you have to communicate in the target language, they’re all ready to throw their 41€ at him.  See what I’m up against?

UPDATE:  Just so it’s perfectly clear, Benny the Irish Polyglot is absolutely not my enemy. I told him about my “enemy” strategy on twitter, and he wished me luck.  Michael Bublé, however, is another story…

As for the minor differences in Benny’s approach compared to my own:  Benny studies more; i.e., memorizes lists and expressions, does Anki, etc.  Me, I don’t study like that; I concentrate my energy on conversation and consuming media for pleasure.  It’s a philosophical difference, but in the end, a minor one.  We have the exact same approach when it comes to grammar:  it only makes sense to study grammar academically once you’ve generated that grammar linguistically.  In other words, you don’t need to study it until you already know it.  Think about that one…

45 thoughts on “Me vs. Benny the Irish Polyglot

  1. From what I understand, you have a bartender with a background in marketing. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to go see him on Tuesday… (See that shit?! Not only did I offer to help you, but I marketed MYSELF while I did it! — I am a genius! A genius JP! Why can you not recognize this?!)

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  3. Obviously, no one is paying 41 euros for serious language learning tips. I think Benny’s readers pay 41 euros for picturing themselves as polygots who travel the world and make connections with lots of people in their native language. That is a pleasant dream that might well be worth 41 euros to many people. Actually trying to learn a language will just bust that bubble for most of his readers.

    I don’t think this kind of business is remotely as attractive as actually teaching students something.

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  4. Don’t worry JP, it’s not just you. I think the concept is sometimes referred to as “the out-of-town expert with the briefcase”. People don’t believe those that they regularly have access to, but they will believe a stranger. I travel a lot around Asia on business, so after a while I became “the regular guy” to my clients. They are thus less likely to believe what I tell them, but if I tell them that the folk back in Head Office say so, then they believe me.

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  5. Esa strategia me encanta! Lo voy a recordar =) Interesting take in the comments on why Benny has been successful (or not). I think he partly developed the product because, after gettign squillions of blog followers and not being able to answer all of their questions, he decided to productize his services and knowledge. I’ve read part of the guide (the free part), and I thought it was quite good to be honest. If it wasn’t good, he wouldn’t make a full time living off it.

    I have great respect for what he does, even if his attitude is a bit too full-on for my taste. And I do think people pay th 41E for his serious language learning tips. It’s cheaper than a course.

    A lot of his guide is about mindset, and having a positive attitude (which you’ve now put into your students JP, if they’re talking all the time in Spanish! Nice!). Bring on more language learning posts! =)

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    • Oh, I guess the price for his guide is now 72 euros. 🙂

      One interesting point is: Benny doesn’t even offer a language learning course and that’s probably a marketing advantage: it promises that you can learn a language without studying a language course; just read the language learning tips (in your native language), and you are ready to speak the language fluently. Errrr … wait, I think I missed a step.

      Another interesting point: Benny promises short cuts to language learning (which supposedly allow you to learn a language in less time) while he is studying languages FULL-TIME! Hello? Does anyone else see a slight contradiction here?

      To me it looks very much like Benny is ripping off people. These tips might be useful for a few world-travelers; but a) they are not worth 41 euros (and neither 72 euros) and b) the vast majority of language learners need help with the first steps in a language that isn’t spoken were they live. Encouragement to give up their jobs and travel the world is not exactly what most people need.

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      • Actually, it’s a guide plus a video course for 72 Euros I believe (I’ve not paid for it, nor do I have any interest in it, but I don’t think it’s a rip off if you’re really motivated to learn a language). He’s put a lot of work into that video course.

        One question: have you actually read the language hacking guide (the free part you get when you sign up for the mailing list)? Personally I find Benny’s style a bit too direct, but i definitely don’t think he’s doing more harm than good.

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    • Hi Martinillo,
      I wouldn’t say he rips people off; I’ve actually written him to thank him for the inspiration. In the end, he provides people with some strategies, and a lot of useful advice, stuff that works for him and stuff that just cold works. If people are willing to pay that price, then by golly good for Benny.

      I am concerned now, though, about the current state of his Mandarin. He’s more than halfway through his 3 month term, and his fluency goal is a ways off. I think he actually got sidetracked by too much study and not enough communicating, which is a function of his need for control, which may be a function of some culture shock. There was also a lot of pressure he put on himself to disprove his naysayers.

      Part of my jealousy of Benny is that he has created a product (albeit expensive) that can honestly help people learn by inspiring them, giving them strategies and advice. If you look at some of the claims I have had to make for SpanishPod and sp101, I am MUCH more guilty of ripping people off. The tagline of sp101 was “the fastest, easiest, most fun way to learn Spanish!” which is a fat lie; I don’t even think it’s a “way to learn Spanish.”

      In the same way, I was told to overstate the benefits of SpanishPod. SpanishPod at its very best helped people with their listening comprehension and inspired them to keep learning, kept it fun… but the claims the company was making about it being a one-stop language learning service were just ludicrous. I resisted making those claims on the air and on the website, personally, but that crap was all around me.

      It’s funny; I know a few people in Taiwan, and two of them have already met Benny separately; Jake interviewed him for the Skritter blog, and Luke apparently lives next to Benny’s favorite cafe. This Benny business has brought my own career goals and ambitions into sharper focus.

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  7. No, I haven’t read the free part, I just saw the promotional video, the TEDx talk and read some blog postings.

    The thing is: there are lots of free serious language learning tips, for example:
    http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Autonomous_Technology-Assisted_Language_Learning
    And good courses will actually include lots of language learning tips.

    Benny is just like Ben from http://www.notesinspanish.com/ , who is also trying to make money by selling his home-made language learning tips. (Although Ben from Notes in Spanish also offers and sells content.) And I guess there are many other guys in the internet who try to make money out of the wish of people to learn languages. (I wonder why most of them appear to be native English speakers. Maybe because it is difficult for the rest of us to imagine that one could make money this way.)

    Well, but probably you are right and Benny is not causing more harm than good because the people who spend 72 euros on the internet for home-made language learning short-cuts can probably afford it. 🙂

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  8. Hi Martinillo, I can understand your apprehension with the price point. You’re right that some people will percieve it as crazy to spend 72 euros on a PDF and some videos. I still think it helps a lot of people.

    Where I think it’s useful is: as a beginner learner, would you want to read a web page called “Autonomous technology – assisted language learning”? I don’t doubt the technique, but it sounds so boring, and overly technical. (I’m not saying it IS boring – I’m a language nut myself, and could happily talk all day about language learning techniques – but to most people, technical stuff is boring and they just want to get on with speaking in the target language).

    Like JP says, I think he’s done a good job of making language learning more accessible to everyone. I also think that we overestimate how aware people are of simple techniques like asking someone to paraphrase a sentence in your target language (rather than just getting a translation in English), when you don’t understand. Sometimes when I suggest this, people are very surprised.

    My point is, I think Benny (and others, like JP / Spanishpod / many other fine folks) make it more accessible for everyone, and good on him for going out there and making it happen. Aside from his E72 product, he also has a TON of useful stuff on his website, all for free. And if it weren’t for Notes in Spanish, I wouldn’t speak Spanish (which I do). I’ve paid for some of their products, and they’re nothing less than awesome.

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  10. I don’t understand what the problem is here. This guy, Benny-the-Irish-Polyglot, is selling a product. I could spend 100E on a dress simply because I love it. I’d still really like it next month. In six months time it would be a bit boring. Next year it would be ‘this old thing’. If I was to spend a similar amount on Benny’s product, and use it as he recommends, this time next year I could be speaking four new languages! Of course, I can’t use it the way he recommends, because I don’t have the freedom to travel to four different countries and immerse myself in the language. But I can use it the way he recommends for people who can’t travel and be fluent in one new language by next year.

    Two years ago I spent a considerable amount of money on a Spanish course. I am still not fluent in Spanish. In fact I actually gave up trying, thinking that Spanish was not for me. Six months ago, while looking for online help with learning French, I stumbled upon Benny’s website. It appealed to me because it wasn’t trying to ‘teach’ me a language, it was teaching me how to ‘learn’ a language. And now, simply by following the completely free tips on the completely free website, I am speaking much better French than I ever did Spanish. I now believe that I can actually learn Spanish by using many of Benny’s tips.

    Perhaps what he teaches is not rocket science. Perhaps it’s not something other polyglots don’t already know. The difference is that Benny has taken the time to put the information out there for other people to use. Why shouldn’t he benefit financially by allowing others to avail of his knowledge and expertise? I came across Skype language lessons and was told they would cost me 20E for a one-hour lesson. Less than four lessons for the price of Benny’s Language Hacking programme. Somehow the 72E seems like an awful lot better value to me!

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    • Rua Mac,
      Let me be perfectly clear: the main problem I have with Benny charging €72 is that I didn’t think of it sooner. In other words, it’s mostly a problem of jealousy. It should be me making that dough.

      Secondarily, I feel like a lot of his “hacks” are the things that professional language teachers like me are desperately trying to teach students, if they’d only listen. Things like “live the target language 100%, create mnemonics,” etc. I wish he’d say “listen to your teacher.” I know he’s had bad teachers that want to drill grammar and other things that are not *actually* related to acquisition, but I resent that the professional teachers get painted with the bad teacher brush.

      Where I do differ philosophically from him is that in Chinese, he bought into the “no pain, no gain, hit it hard” strategy. I think that approach, though popular, is backward… I’m all about the path of least resistance. I think that “joy” in language learning is more important than “pain.” I don’t think you can engineer your language instinct… if you feed it, it will engineer you.

      I have to say that Benny did make excellent progress in his Chinese 3 month mission, but he could have benefited from some good mentoring, to give him some perspective. Imagine if you were learning to play basketball purely through exposure and solitary practice… without the benefit of someone else’s eyes and ears, someone with more experience. I don’t mean to be critical of him, it’s certainly a valid journey to walk, but for those of us who had the benefit of experience, perspective, and good mentorship, it was tough to watch him go it alone. Let me be clear: immersion is the best way… I advocate immersion PLUS mentoring.

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      • Sorry JP – my comment was meant to be in reply to Martin, and others who claim that Benny Lewis is ripping people off. Selling a product that works for people, and with a money-back guarantee, is hardly dishonest. Plus, Martin says that Benny’s business is not as attractive as actually teaching students something. Presumably Benny would disagree with that statement. He, after all, used to be a teacher. Apparently, to him, travel-writing, blogging, passing on language-hacking tips, whether for free or for filthy lucre, and seeing the world are much more attractive than actually teaching students something.

        JP, I totally understand your point – you have pretty much the same knowledge that Benny has, more or less. You may have different approaches on some things, the same on others. The difference is that he has marketed his knowledge and is reaping the rewards. You are openly, honestly, and understandably, a tad envious. Haven’t we all had a great idea and not followed through on it, only to find, a year later, that someone else has done that exact thing and is now a multi-squillionaire. Or someone else is making a fortune with a great but very simple idea and we go, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’

        However, the world is a big place, the internet’s even bigger, and I’m sure there’s room for one more polyglot blogger selling language hacks. Somehow, having read many of his articles, i’m pretty sure that Benny Lewis would be the first person to clap you on the back and say, ‘Go for it!’

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    • @Martin: Yes, I understood that that is what you meant. My point is that, to Benny Lewis, what he does must be more attractive than teaching – otherwise, he’d probably still be teaching. His job, however, is not as attractive to me as my own is. Nor is teaching, for that matter. We all want to do a job that we love, and earn money for it. We pay for each other’s products and services. I pay the teachers, the street cleaners, the hospital workers, the customer sales representatives for their products and services and they pay me for mine. Hopefully, for the most part, none of us feel we’re being ripped off.

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      • @Rua Mac,

        A little off topic: was Benny a teacher? I had understood that he was bored as an electrical engineer, and then he jumped into the polyglot business. Did he do a stint as a ESL teacher somewhere? He doesn’t read to me as someone who has been trained in the field… I’m not saying he’s shabby, of course, he just doesn’t move or quack like a teacher. I suppose though that I don’t always quack like a teacher 😉

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      • @Martin – I’ve never heard that BL was ‘bored’ as an engineer. He did an engineering internship in Spain, learned the language, and fell in love with travelling. He has taught English and Maths. I don’t know if he has an actual teaching qualification but I would guess not as he went straight to Spain after completing a BA in electronic engineering.

        As for quacking like a teacher – I’m not exactly sure what that means. In a previous life I was married to a teacher, I have lots of teacher friends, my daughter’s three best friends are teachers. It would be interesting to see which, if any, would be picked out as teachers in an Identity parade. Perhaps the P.E. teacher – loud voice and assertive body language. Maybe the primary school teacher, ‘OK, everyone line up,’ as she goes for a night-out with the girls. Apart from those two, the others are as disparate and disorganised as the rest of us.

        So, Martin, how would we recognise you in the Spot the Teacher line-up? JP?

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    • @Rua Mac, that was me, not Martinillo 🙂

      The expression is “if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

      Maybe I imagined the stuff about being “bored” with engineering; we can all agree he heard the siren call of travel and language learning!

      There are a few reasons that I feel he doesn’t walk and quack like a language teacher… When he talks about language learning, study, and acquisition, he explains things in ways that make me think he arrived at his conclusions completely organically, as opposed to through training. Much credit to him for doing that, of course, but he’s not exactly saying anything that people with training in linguistics didn’t already know as undergrads.

      Also, he’s kind of puts out a mild anti-teacher vibe (maybe I’m just too defensive?) where he knows the truth, and those grammar-happy teachers in the classroom have it all wrong.

      Finally, he uses SRS and Anki… and honestly, I don’t know any professional educators who advocate SRS, Anki, or flashcards as a way to do anything other than pass a test. The fact that he isn’t “post-flashcard” like me implies that he’s not a person in this field.

      (This may come as a surprise to students of Asian languages, but trust me, you’ll have to look long and hard for a professional educator with training in second language acquisition who embraces SRS (or specifically Anki) as a way of picking up Spanish or French vocabulary…)

      So there, I’ve just given three reasons why I suspect that Benny is not a professional educator in the field of applied linguistics. I’m not condemning him or saying he’s bad, I’m just saying he comes from outside the field. But you know what; good for him…. Language acquisition is not some mysterious secret that only obscure academics know about… it’s actually our birthright as homo sapiens. So in that respect, Go Benny Go!

      That said, I think someone trained in applied linguistics, whether it’s me or someone else, can show the world the other side of the coin….

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      • @ JP and Martinillo – sorry for mixing you two up. You look so alike!

        Yes, I’m familiar with the expression, ‘walks like a duck . . .’ I just was interested to know why you don’t think Benny ‘walks like a teacher. . .’ I hadn’t realised that you meant a foreign language teacher. Sorry for that misunderstanding. I can see how the analogy fits in that respect.

        He taught English and Maths. To be honest, his attitude and enthusiasm remind me of a few of my children’s teachers. An Australian guy taught History and home economics, (of all the weird mixes!), an Irish fella taught English and Media, and a Spanish woman taught languages. Not only were they always the children’s favourite teachers but their students consistently got good marks. Enthusiasm for one’s subject can certainly go a long way!

        Benny Lewis doesn’t totally eschew grammar and structure. He just believes it’s better to leave that until you have a basic grounding in conversation. I have seen how this has worked with French. Being able to have basic conversations has helped me to, if not understand grammar, at least question it, because I began to see patterns forming. Therefore, when I started to study grammar, everything began to fall into place. With Spanish, because I was studying but not speaking, it was just a muddle. And my daughter assures me that Spanish is a much easier language to learn than French, so I must have been doing something wrong.

        I don’t think BL knocks teachers. (Perhaps you are a wee bit sensitive, but that is totally understandable. It’s hard not to read criticism into an approach that appears different to how we do things ourselves.) He just believes that keeping the head down in a classroom, conjugating eternal verbs, can be counter-productive. Basically he feels that, if we wait till we’re ready to start speaking, we might never be ready. I wish my teachers, in amongst the necessary classroom technicalities, had said to us, ‘Now go and talk. Speak to each other, speak to your friends, your parents, your siblings.’ But we left the classroom and never uttered another word of the language till third period on Tuesday afternoon.

        When I read that his first rule is ‘Speak the language from Day One,’ I face-palmed. Of course! It made so much sense. I don’t know an awful lot about his methods – I have just read some of the information on his blog – but that one has worked for me. And it has definitely worked for him.

        I have no doubt that, in Linguistics 101, professional educators learn what Benny Lewis has perceived and absorbed through his own experiences. But what he’s saying is that, in thirteen years of learning a second language, and five to seven years of a third, he gained less ability than he does through his three months of speaking the language from day one. (Mind you, presumably he didn’t have you as a teacher;) He’s saying that people shouldn’t get bogged down in grammar and syntax, unless, of course, their aim is to pass exams and get a qualification. Of course his target market is not school children.

        And yes, he is immersing himself in the country, culture, and language, and that experience isn’t available to the majority of people. But he’s trying to encourage those people who have moved to a foreign country, to get away from the ex-pat communities and actually speak to the locals. ( A friend of mine lived in the Netherlands for two years and the only thing she actually ever said in Dutch was, ‘two beers, please’.) And, for those of us who are studying at home, he recommends ways of actually meeting and speaking to others, every day, in our target language.

        In a nutshell – the guy doesn’t profess to ‘teach’ people a language. He calls himself a ‘language hacker’ helping people find different ways to ‘learn’. He makes no bones about the fact that he has come to his methods organically. He says he doesn’t have a particular love of languages but he does love to travel. Learning to communicate and socialise in the country he’s travelling in give him a much richer experience. Even if his knowledge and understanding of the local language are abysmal, (and I don’t believe it is), he still seems to be making friends, socialising, and enjoying life, and surely that’s what travel is all about.

        I, for one, am intensely jealous of his lifestyle. I wish I could communicate and socialise in ten languages. I wish I could just take off and travel round the world, with all my possessions in a backpack. I wish, when I was much younger, I had realised what a great resource I had – youth. But, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ Well, most of the time. It is not, apparently, wasted on Benny Lewis.

        I agree with you, JP, when you say, ‘Go Benny, Go!’ And I agree that someone trained in applied linguistics can show the world the other side of the coin. Although, I prefer to think of it as another facet to the diamond. And, with that I say, ‘Go, JP, Go!’

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  11. I’m a former ESL teacher. I’ve finished my ESL teaching activity and I no longer teach English. But I want to provide learners of English with my valuable resources. My articles are suitable for learning many languages. I also know some other languages.
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  12. Benny is a phony!!!
    I have studied advanced Mandarin in China, and I continue to study here at home. I am fluent in Mandarin Chinese both speaking and reading. I watched Benny’s “Mandarin Fluency”…to anyone who can speak Chinese it is obvious he is a fake.
    His conversation with the Chinese girl was awful, he couldn’t understand most of what she said no could she understand him. He just kept saying “yes” and “uhuh”.
    He has the nerve to bragg and state that he reached fluency in 3 months…in 3 months he achieved what anyone else could achieve in 3 months, the ability to hold a very basic conversation.
    His grammar was awful, his vocabulary limited to maybe 200 words I am guessing.

    Then he has the nerve to correct himself and say “I am not fluent, just intermediate”

    His level is not intermediate, it was very very very basic Chinese. The trick is most people don’t understand any chinese so he can say what he likes…but its BS.

    Benny is a fake. On his web page he claims to be fluent in 8 languages… the reality is he can say a few words in 8 languages.

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    • Hi Thedmachine, I’m not ready to accuse Benny of being a phony, he did well for those other languages. I’m pretty disappointed in his Mandarin–and I wonder where the evidence of his Tagalog went–but he still has a chance to help people in the position that he’s in.

      For those languages he was very successful at, I bet he made a lot of friends and had a lot more interaction. I really wanted and expected him to succeed, but I think he got derailed by some culture shock, the pressure, and his study rule.

      Oh well, I do know plenty of laowai who learned Mandarin well as adults in amazingly short periods of time. Still, Benny was so well documented, I had hoped he would bust the mythology that Chinese is impossible.

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    • I speak fluent Japanese and had the exact same impression when I heard him “speaking” Japanese to somebody. His accent was terrible. He only said very basic things that he had memorized and usually said them incorrectly. He kept looking down so he obviously had his few simple words and lines written down and was just reading what he was going to say.

      The Japanese speaker who he found to speak with him was clearly preselected to be very kind and generous and patient with him and to use very easy, beginner words and phrases that a new learner would expect to hear. The speaker also spoke very slowly and clearly for him. The speaker sounded like a seasoned teacher of Japanese for English speakers to me. I am a teacher so I can tell another teacher.

      Also, as you said with the Mandarin, Benny did not understand most of what the Japanese person was saying to him. Benny just kept saying, “Hai. Hai.” He apparently thinks that “hai” is an equivalent translation for “yes”, which it really is not. Japanese people in real life very rarely answer “hai” to each other. They are far more likely to say something like “wakarimashita/wakatta” meaning I understand. But they wouldn’t be doing that in this case either. They would tend to say other things to show they are listening such as short agreeable comments or sounds that mean they are following along or agreeing or sort of agreeing or maybe even sounds that are more on the side of doubt. But they would not NOT NOT be saying, hai, hai, hai.

      I had a waiter in France do that to me once. My French was better than his English but I guess he just had to show off. It was Paris. That is kind of what Parisians do in the tourist areas. They all love to show off there. Not so much in Alsace when we were there although a really obnoxious North African who had lived in America for a long time just had to use me to show off his fine English, which really was good. But it was obvious he would not have said two words to me in America but was only doing so in Alsace to show everybody his superior English.

      Anyway, even though I was talking to the waiter in French, he just stubbornly kept talking in English so I let him make the switch and started talking to him in English. That was a mistake. I was thinking he didn’t understand a God damned word I was saying because he was just idiotically responding yes, yes, yes with the same stupid glazed look in his eyes that Benny had while saying, hai, hai to the nice Japanese man.

      What was the waiter saying, yes, yes, in answer to? I was asking whether the chicken pie on the menu was American style pot pie made with a pastry crust or British style with mashed potatoes on it. I asked the question about four different ways. I thought the waiter was full of crap and really had no idea what I was saying but did not want to admit it because then he would fail in his attempt to show off for the other staff and customers. Well, sure enough, my pot pie arrives and it is British style with potatoes mushed up not American style with a pastry crust.

      I sent the meal back and told him that if he was going to insist on switching to English and pretending to be fluent then he should be responsible for the outcome.

      Another problem with Benny’s claims of fluency is that he is only learning a very limited set of words, phrases, and basic sentence structures relating only to things like his name, where he is from, how long he is staying and a few other things. He is just repeatedly having these same conversations over and over again with everybody he meets in those countries it appears.

      He is not discussing economics, philosophy, the housing crash, or any other type of topic that a fluent person would be capable of discussing. Not that somebody would necessarily discuss those, but they could. My neighbors aren’t too bright and certainly don’t willingly discuss anything beyond the activities of a squirrel (sleeping, eating, feeling well or sick, the weather, their children) but for myself, I simply can’t stand those sorts of boring conversations. If I can’t have an interesting conversation with somebody about the next election or the finer points of Obamacare or when the next housing bubble will likely burst or an article I read about stem cells found in ovaries or whatever else makes my brain neurons fire like it is Fourth of July, well, then I don’t want to talk at all because I can read a book that makes my hungry brain happy.

      So if I don’t have the grammar and vocabulary to have that sort of conversation, then I don’t think that is fluency. I don’t think what Benny is learning qualifies as fluency. As soon as his conversation partner deviates from the few words and sentence structures that Benny has memorized, he has NO IDEA what they are saying and he just responds, yes, yes, and then quickly switches the subject to say something else he has memorized. That is NOT fluency.

      His conversations in a foreign language are boring, basic, and riddled with beginner pronunciation and mistakes. I wonder if he ever sticks with any language long enough to approach anything even similar to fluency. I would like to see him take a foreign language test in these languages at three months as proof that he has any competence whatsoever. From what I heard him speaking, he would fail miserably.

      I am not impressed. I think he has a good racket going selling a useless “language hack” whatever the hell that is.

      I’ll give some free advice. Not $73 euro. Becoming fluent in a foreign language takes time and effort. There is no hack. I personally don’t take classes but I can understand why someone else might. If I had extra money I would. But for the amount of money that classes cost, I could save up for a trip to the country instead.

      So I use free resources on the internet. For Dutch I have found an entire free grammar book online, free pronunciation videos (lots of them), movies (all bad movies), a free tv shows like a series called The Golden Age and one called The Iron Age (since I like history these are watchable although not super interesting). On rare occasions I buy learning materials. I haven’t for Dutch yet but for Japanese I own a lot of great grammar books. When I start getting intermediate, I then buy a book in the target language and the same book in English. In Japanese I own Animal Farm in both and other stuff. In French I have Call of the Wild in both languages. I am not at that stage yet in Dutch since I have only been learning it for two weeks. I learned Japanese for years before buying a book.

      As somebody who has a lot of experience learning languages, I tend not to squander my language learning money on things that have little pay off and that I can get for free. So I would never waste a penny on Rosetta Stone. If the library had it free I might use it if I was in the first month of learning but it is worthless for anybody past that point. I would never pay some nonfluent learner money to give me their language learning tips. Anybody paying for learning tips has too much money to burn or isn’t spending their money wisely. Here is a free tip…money doesn’t grow on trees so unless you are one of the rich 1%, be more thoughtful of how you spend 70 euro!!!!

      With 70 euro to spend on language acquisition, I would buy the same book in both English and Nederlanse and start reading them. Dutch is so close to English with many cognates (plus I already know some German so more cognates and more similar grammar that I already know) so I can start reading Dutch now. I have a couple books in mind already but can’t justify it yet because I am still in chapter 7 of the free grammar book I found.

      Until you have exhausted all your free online resources, don’t toss your money about on learning materials. Save that money for a trip to a country where they speak the language you are learning or some essential learning resource.

      I think Benny is selling a promise and nothing else. He is the wizard in Oz. All he has is smoke and mirrors and fools paying for the show.

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      • And by the way, is there any proof that when he says he has only been learning Japanese for a week that it wasn’t more like a month? I suspect that not only is his Japanese at an extremely useless remedial stage in the video I saw, but that his claim of having gotten to that level in a week may not be even true. Just a hunch from years of interacting with beginner language learners. Sorry, but you can’t kid a kidder. I might have been born the day before yesterday, but I sure wasn’t born yesterday. Like I said, smoke and mirrors.

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      • Hi tanitmoon, this particular writing of yours is rather critical here and there but it’s so lucid and even, in a serious way, funny. Btw, I don’t know much about this Benny everybody’s writing about, so I assume you have valid reasons to be critical. I really enjoyed your writing (and also most of the texts by all people on JP’s blog here; all that I’ve read seem polite, or at least not rude). Thumbs up to all of you!

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  13. Oh and I commented on Bennys Youtube page that his Mandarin is basic, and he erased my comments and banned me from commenting ever again.

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    • Thedmachine, Benny is promoting an image and a product, I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have very tight control over his social media accounts.

      Out of curiosity, are you a regular reader of my blog? Or did you find me by Googling Benny? I seem to get a lot of hits to this site from Benny searches. I’m amazed by both the positive and negative reactions he gets.

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    • Well, do you notice that on his video that is entitled something about 8 languages 2010, he has obviously written down and is just reading a few prepared sentences in those languages. Does a fluent person have to do that to speak in a language? He has to because otherwise he can’t put together a sentence in those languages obviously.

      How do people not see it? It is so obvious. The subterfuge isn’t even well done. That just shows how stupid people are. In order to have an excuse to be looking down for a long time reading his sentences, he uses the subterfuge of setting down and picking up some silly items that he holds up for each language. He takes a LOOOOONG time setting down and picking up the new object so that he can spend a long time gazing at his script before speaking. Then even with that cue, he can’t finish the couple sentences without looking down again in the exact same spot for that language to read his script again.

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  14. It’s a really elusive task to assess his level across all languages he claims to speak fluently. He doesn’t really state what fluency signifies in his terms. Absent this, you could vouch for him (in the languages you’re “fluent”) and give a vague assessment of his skills, but only a native speaker could truly rate it. The problem is, you’re trying to convince yourself, not others. And you have only “one” native language. I do believe he can carry out conversations about ordinary topics in Spanish and Portuguese. In any case, I don’t think he could write academic papers (graduate level) on his own—and by that I mean, no signs of foreign-language influence—in either one. His Portuguese seems all right, grammatically speaking. He does have a heavy accent, though. His Spanish seems decent to some extent.

    As for formal certifications, that’s another story. Supposing he “studied”, say, 16 hours a day, he could easily pass a C2 test (CEFR) in 3 months—in a language of the same family, that is. Now, that does NOT imply he’d be able to maintain the same level 5 years later. I’m aware it varies greatly from language to language. The bottom line is, you can learn as many languages as you want but the level of correctness differs drastically across them. You can’t be good at everything. The journey never really ends.

    All in all, I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s trying to rip people off. It’s all common sense. People have to realize that on their own. No money could ever buy that.

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  15. I actually get really annoyed with Benny.
    1. He’s not really a very good polyglot, but he gets all this respect. (French, Spanish, Portugese, Italian, Esperanto? Then English, Dutch, German?? Come on! There are un-marketed people who speak languages in 8 families, rather than 8 languages that are almost dialects of two root languages)
    2. The way he does it is essentially through crowd-pleasing.
    3. To an extent, I’m jealous.

    On point 2, there are two posts of his which I read which drove this home to me. One was about Rosetta Stone. Now, it may be that his actual opinion is that RS is rubbish, but it’s just so convenient for his power-to-the-people you-don’t-have-to-spend-much-money-to-do-this marketing scheme. I actually think that RS is a FANTASTIC piece of software, in combination with Anki basically the most powerful thing available, and quite cheap for what you get (contrary to popular opinion), and that he mainly enjoyed disparaging it at length because he can show off how cool he is.

    The second one was about how many words you need to know to be able to speak a language. He gave some hippyish spiel about how “you can’t just define language that way man, you need to realise it for the free-flowing system of communication that it really is” (I paraphrase). Bullshit. If you know more words, you are better at the language. If you don’t know enough, you are crippled. Obviously it can’t be the sole metric, but for many (if not most?) languages (and people learning them), it is by far the hardest bit (me learning Mandarin and Farsi were certainly like this). This page actually gives an intelligent, well-researched answer to the question, rather than just crowd-pleasing marketing: http://speakingadventure.com/how-many-words-is-fluent

    There. I’ve had my rant. Now you can all tell me how I’m bitter and should stop being shallow. Or how you agree.

    p.s. I found this by searching for criticisms of Benny on the Internet because I couldn’t stand bumping into his increasingly popular webpage

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  16. I came for the discussion about Benny; I stayed because of the Madison photo. (I went to grad school there.)

    I go back and forth about Benny. I think a full-timer doesn’t have a lot of “secrets” that someone learning languages in their spare time could use. Some days, I squeeze 15 minutes out to learn a language, and it’s listening to podcasts in the car.

    But his relentless persuit and his focus on languages is good. I loved his TED talk about overcoming fear, too.

    I could never figure out how he makes money to travel and learn languages. I’m with you–I need to figure out how to work that out.

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  17. I guess you need some kind of charisma. Probably your schoolkids like Benny and buy his method because he presents himself in an attractive way. I would say, be happy that he made your students learn Spanish well.

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  18. I see your point JP, but I partially agree with Benny in something when watched his talk in TEDX: you should define what’s your purpose on learning a language, you shouldn’t feel bad if you forget a word and you should use a language practicing rather then memorizing it. That’s why I think he’s contradictory when advises to use Anki, etc.
    As personal example, I’m a portuguese native speaker. I had English and Spanish classes in school, however I wasn’t able to speak either Spanish or English there since we didn’t practice or show any interest and the whole class was in Portuguese. I’ve taken English classes in a separate Language School where stayed for many years. I think I have learn a lot, of course, rather than my English classes on my high school. However, I feel I ain’t good enough for the time I stayed there. I consider my self as C1 on reading and listening, but B1 on writing and speaking (English).
    In Spanish I’m worse, I traveled to Chile and I wasn’t able to communicate with the native even with simple words, so I gave up and start to speak Portuguese to them. Now, I’m learning German.

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  19. This article completely changed my life, well, partially. Benny Lewis, to me, is a total idiot. I’ll tell you a little bit about me. I am a 14-year old freshman who tested out of Spanish 1 AND 2, which is the first time they allowed anybody in the history of my 100+ year-old school to do that. So here I am, a freshman sitting in a Spanish 3 class. I am not even a native and I do not have any relatives that can speak the language. I am also able to comprehend and write some German, French, Swedish, and Mandarin Chinese. If you want my total opinion, Benny Lewis is just being totally arrogant about being an international bestseller and that he has been featured in magazines and interviews or whatever. First off, all the languages he claims to know are Romance languages derived from Latin. I am not trashing those languages, but French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese are all very similar (I know, there are differences). The only impressive thing is he can speak Gaelic, but for crying out loud – the man is from Ireland! No doubt he knows the language, he probably grew up with it all around him. Recently, he came out with something called “Why Spanish is Easy” and is charging people for it. Ironically, the other night I was ranting to my mom about how people think Spanish is so hard but it’s really easy. I even, jokingly, commented that I could write a book about it or something. Honestly, Benny Lewis needs to calm down. All he has done is beaten the rest of the world to making something out of the ideas we already had before him. Congratulations, tell us how our ideas are working for you.

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  20. Nobody can be fluent in 3 month this is total utter bullshit!! Unless for you being fluent means being able to blabber about basic shit. Unfortunately this is not the case, being fluent requires not only vocabulary but knowing the culture of the country. All these so called polyglots aka fluent in 3 months are charlatan trying to sell their shit. And if you sell nothing and still think you can be fluent you’re delusional because this is not the way you learn a language (being fluent requires a lifetime and a passion for the language).

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  21. Pingback: Benny Lewis & Other Hyperpolyglots | Thoughts From a (Wannabe) Linguist

  22. To the person impressed with Benny’s Portuguese and Spanish, he didn’t learn those in three months. My understanding is that he had a rather traditional background in learning those. So I don’t think those count for his three month fluency. But for languages that he really did try to learn in supposedly three months, like Japanese, he is AWFUL.

    To people saying the term ‘fluency’ is relative. No, it really is not. To be fluent in a target language is not a relative idea. It is at the very least the ability to communicate easily and articulately in another language with little to no cognitive effort. That is at the least. He certainly does not qualify in Japanese. I am sure the same holds for his other three month languages.

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  23. It’s nice to see a few other people with similar ideas around here. I read your article and really enjoyed it. You should definitely give this guy some competition. I read his book. Like you said, for some reason he really knows how to make you spend your money. Anyways, I am trying to do something similar for the first time. I will try to learn Spanish in 6 months. Hopefully it will work out. If you have any tips, please send them to me. Thanks, and nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

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