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…