Here we go for another interview of our Top Language Lovers Competition 2011. This time, we got in touch with our winner of the Learning Language blog category and the overall Top 100 – Benny Lewis. He told us about his journey to language learning and a few tips on how to learn new languages.
Why did you start blogging?
Just over two years ago, I decided to up the game on the language challenges I set myself. I had already spent about 6 years travelling while learning languages, but didn’t have particularly solid end-goals in most cases.
So I started the blog with the target of getting fluent in Czech in 3 months. At the 2 month point everything was looking great, but I not only ran out of money, I was reaching my maximum limit on the credit card, so I had to stop the mission and work over 65 hours a week for my last month.
Some other missions have been a huge success, and some have just missed the target, but the initial purpose of starting the blog to publicly announce to the world what I was aiming for has been great to force me to get as close as possible to the goal within a tight deadline.
Once the emails started flooding in with people from all around the world thanking me for helping them progress with encouraging advice, since most courses are so… inhuman as I see them… I saw that the blog had grown beyond my initial plans and I could use it as a means to really help people.
How has the blog helped you on your journey master all the world’s languages?
I have zero interest in mastering all the world’s languages. Unlike some other people in this competition, I actually am not passionate about languages. I see a language as a means to an end, my end being making new friends from interesting different cultures.
There are some cultures I eagerly await getting to know and some that I’m not too pushed about. I’ll be back in South America many times even though I already speak Spanish, as there are unique cultures to discover there. Because of this, I’ll never compete with the super-polyglots who have dozens of languages, nor would I want to.
However, the blog has helped me for the reason I gave above. Also, in the last year I have started earning a full time living from it and this has helped me to focus even more on learning the language (although people don’t realize that writing for it, preparing posts and promoting it so more people find it, is a job in itself).
Do you have any surprising story that involved your readers?
My Berlin mission (to sit the C2 exam) seemed to have gotten the most local interest out of all to date. This meant that I was approached in public by no less than six different readers of my blog who recognized me in different occasions!
Most of them were on the overground trains or buses, and it was weird being recognized like that! They were all non-Germans learning German, so I made sure to give them some in-person inspiring words to help them!
After this I’ve met readers all over the world. It’s starting to happen more and more frequently that my mind would be wondering and suddenly someone I’ve never seen before asks “Are you Benny from Fluent in 3 months??”
What was your most controversial post?
Most of my posts are well received, and the purpose is always to share a positive message.
However, I’m very frank in telling people to grow up and stop whining and to face their fears, and this does annoy people on occasion. One post that had several comments and e-mails tell me in many permutations how wrong I was, was The Shy Delusion: It’s all in your head
Since I discuss social learning with languages, it was important to address this issue. I feel I argued it well and that the vast majority of people identify themselves with a word that has no real meaning in most cases. Using this magic word as a failsafe excuse not to approach people and try to speak becomes nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know this because I especially identified with this mystical word for most of my life.
Unless you have autism, suffered abuse or something similar then I will always push you to be more social if your end goal is to speak a language well because your “But I’m too shy” excuses are pathetic compared to people with real problems.
I say this matter-of-factly because I feel that understanding people is a greater talent of mine than language learning is, because meeting as many people as possible (introverted and extroverted) has been the purpose of my travels for the entire last decade.
One of my most effective solutions to the shy delusion when people reveal theirs to me was mentioned in my recent talk at a conference here (this tip 20:20-21:55 in the video).
How did the Top 100 Language Lovers competition impact on you?
Actually, it’s the one in 2009 that had the greatest impact on me! I got nominated when my blog was just 3 weeks old and somehow made it into the top 10 spot. This was a huge honor and for many months, the page linking to me was my website’s greatest source of traffic!
This really helped my site to get off the ground and start growing quickly. I’ll always be grateful for this 🙂
Did you expect to rank so high and actually hit the first spot?
I was expecting to be in the top 10 simply because my site is well known, highly trafficked and (I’m told) is interesting to read.
I was not expecting to get all the way to number one though! As said before, I don’t actually have a passion for languages, my passion is always about speaking them, and I know this conflicts with many others in the language blogging community who like other aspects to it.
So I always wonder if they’d even like my blog. I don’t talk about grammar and syntax, I’ll never be learning dead languages, it’s about as far from a linguistics paper as you can get since it’s written informally – so I’m amazed enough people who truly are passionate about languages voted me to number one. Thanks! 🙂
According to you, what made the difference between you and the other participants?
I think it’s quite ironic, but the fact that I did so well in a competition between language blogs is because I don’t have a language blog. I blog about travel, culture, socializing, and I do it very personally (you’ll see a photo of me in every single post I write) and throw in my own humor and writing style.
All that just happens to take place around a language learning mission.
This gives my language learning a personality, and it’s something I would like to see more in other blogs, even though the content of what they write about can clearly beat mine many times in terms of pure factual value.
Who was your favorite competitor in your category?
All Japanese All the Time.
While I am not (currently) learning Japanese, I love his zany writing style. I’ve also had the pleasure of speaking to him directly to interview him about his language learning philosophy and see that we have a lot in common.
While nitpickers would look at the two of us and say that I’m an “output” guy and he’s an “input” guy, as if such terms make any sense (which they don’t), the fact of the matter is that we both use our languages passionately. There is no “best” way to learn a language, and each of our own approaches work perfectly for our own particular uses of our languages.
I can’t relate to language learners, but I can relate to language users. If you want to use your language to read and understand as the priority then his advice wins over mine, which is focused just on conversing.
Any special advice and things to avoid for people blogging about languages?
Yep. Stop blogging just about technical aspects of language learning.
Encourage people by sharing the incredible first conversation you had, share your passion about why you are learning the language. Share pictures of yourself having dinner with natives, upload videos of you conversing in the language, even over Skype (not videos of you talking about language learning in general in your native language!)
For example, recently I posted several native video interviews; one about the differences in culture and language between France and Quebec, and another about the life of Spanish speaking au-pairs in Amsterdam. These aren’t necessarily about foreign languages, as much as they are in them. Blog posts about how I mastered the subjunctive in Spanish would have been way less interesting if that was the only kind of thing I wrote about.
Find a style that works really well for you and stick to it. For example, I write at least three times a week (including my newsletter), and each post is very detailed. If you only post once every few months, you are crazy to expect the blog to grow, no matter how amazing that one post is.
How long will you keep on traveling the world?
Until I die, get arrested, get bored, or find the girl of my dreams.
Are you up to run for next year’s Top 100 competition?
You betcha! See you then 😉