From traveling the world to learning several languages, Irish graduate Benny Lewis is an inspiration to many
New heights: Benny has visited major landmarks all around the world on his travels
There’s no shortcut. It’s about putting yourself out there
Changing your life overnight might not seem possible, but for Irish graduate Benny Lewis it became a reality that has inspired millions in the process.
Lewis is an Irish polyglot who travels the globe learning different languages in a mission for self-imporovement, and is encouraging others to broaden their own language skills, and insists it’s easier than you might ever believe. He doesn’t advocate purchasing expensive self-teaching CDs or attending a course. The solution, he suggests on his blog fluentinthreemonths.com is a product called HB 2.0.
“HB is based on the most advanced technology on the planet,” he raves on the site, which attracts almost 500,000 readers a month. He goes on to list some of the system’s state-of-the-art features; advanced voice recognition, feedback-based correction and an almost infinite database of interactive conversations.
It’s also completely portable and costs “no more than the price of a coffee”.
There’s just one problem. HB 2.0 is a big fat hoax. Click on the link at the end of the blog post, and you’ll be directed to the New World Encyclopaedia entry for ‘Human Being’. It’s Lewis’s rather sneaky way of illustrating that, when it comes to learning a foreign language, there is no quick fix. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be quick – and he should know.
In a little under a decade, this engineering graduate from Cavan has gone from linguistic underachiever to confident speaker of 11 languages, eight of which he speaks fluently. “I got a C2 in German for my Leaving Cert and I dropped down to pass Irish,” he tells me from Brazil, via Skype.
“I was absolutely convinced that I couldn’t do languages, even to the point where I moved to Spain just after I graduated, and during six months in Spain, I did not learn any Spanish.”
Lewis had long resigned himself to a life of pointing and gesturing, but when he started to notice Erasmus students picking up the language with irritating ease, he decided to investigate further.
“I talked to these guys and I was like, ‘What’s your secret, what’s the magic sauce you put on your spaghetti?’ and they were looking at me like, ‘Why are you looking for secrets?’ I was trying to find out if there was some tape you play while you’re sleeping or some shortcut and it turns out that, like with anything, there are no shortcuts. It’s all about hard work and putting yourself out there.”
After 30 days of speaking only Spanish, Lewis found himself able to communicate comfortably with locals. About a year later, he achieved mastery, as certified by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Next came French. Then German. By the time he got around to Mandarin Chinese, it was taking just three months to master a language.
“It’s not like I’ve invented this method,” he is keen to stress.
“This is something that has worked for aeons and if you talk to anyone who is well travelled enough and has picked up a language, they’ll tell you that what I’m saying is obvious.”
The difference is that Lewis is inviting the world to watch him do it online.
“Every day I have dozens of people tearing me to pieces. It’s very hard to take that kind of criticism so directly but it’s also inspired other people, because they see that it’s not just a case of me magically learning the language. They can see I’m struggling, I sound like an idiot, I’m not saying stuff very articulately and then the process evolves until I can speak the language well.”
Luckily, for every troll, there’s a hundred devoted followers, hanging on the 30-year-old nomad’s every word. Since starting the blog in 2009, he’s racked up 22,000 Facebook Likes, 37,000 Twitter followers, 300,000 views for a TEDtalk in San Antonio, and almost two million views on his own YouTube channel. This, of course, isn’t just a job for Lewis, but a lifestyle.
To those who’ve been struggling with language courses, software and textbooks, Lewis’s no-nonsense approach comes as a breath of fresh air. “Big companies make their money because you buy their stuff, so it’s not a viable marketing campaign to encourage people to just speak to one another.”
But Lewis has something real to flog, too; a Language Hacking Guide and video series package, which retails for $87-$97 (about €67-€74) online. Contrary to the belief that there’s a wealthy aunt somewhere bankrolling his wayfaring lifestyle, he’s been living off of its sales for the past two years. “I’m definitely not a millionaire,” he laughs. “A few years ago I was so strapped for cash I had to sleep on a rock in Italy, so no, I didn’t win the lotto, my parents didn’t help me with any of this … Every single thing I own in the entire world weighs 23kg.”
It’s a way of life that even the most extreme minimalists would find challenging, but given that Lewis is speaking to me from sweltering Brazil, he doesn’t feel much like complaining. “You’re not going to see me writing a post titled, ‘My life sucks’,” he insists. “I prefer to be positive and look at what I do have in life and anything that’s missing, I can aspire to have that another day. I’m not going to travel forever, maybe after four or five years I’ll wrap it up and then I can try and have a settled life and integrate into a community and try and get all the things that I’ve not been able to have over the last 10 years.”
The longer I speak with Benny, the more he starts to look like a kind of unicultural life coach, rather than a human phrase book. The most popular post on his blog, titled ’29 life lessons learned in travelling the world for eight years straight’, has little to do with languages. Instead, it’s filled with stellar advice for the budget-weary back home. Take, for example, “No. 7. Nobody has it all figured out”, “No. 9. More money will never solve your problems”, or “No. 24. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
“I find that there’s this circle of envy that goes around the world,” Lewis explains.
“Everyone presumes that others have it easier or better. It drove me crazy at first to think that I needed a ‘thing’ to be happy because this other guy has it and he’s happy, but then when you talk to him you see, actually, there’s something he wants.
“Everyone is longing for something, it’s just human nature. If you talk to enough people, you realise that we are all basically the same deep down.”
Which brings us to number 29, ‘The most important lessons in life can never be expressed in black and white, but must be experienced’. “I’m not one for taking photos of landscapes,,” Lewis tells me, “I just like spending time with people.”
See www.fluentin3months.com and www.speakfromday1.com