For anyone wondering how to learn a foreign language, Benny Lewis is probably a household name. His book came out some time ago, and it’s definitely on many polyglots’ reading lists. I finally found the time to read it. There are some things that every language user will find useful there – but this won’t be a one-sided review: there were some things in Benny’s book which I found problematic.
0. Before we begin: Should you buy “Fluent in 3 Months?”
Yes. Hell yeah. Sim. Tak. Ja, baby.
The book itself is something that was badly needed in language learning. It’s a story of someone whose passion, mission and job it is to learn languages and describe the process. You can love every page of it, or you can read it and firmly decide to do that multilingual thing your own way. But this is not just optional reading: the talk Benny talks is about the walk he’s walked. Go get it and read it all – to make up your own mind about it.
Here’s what I make of it, then.
1. Polyglot Pep Talk: 5 Things I loved about “Fluent in 3 Months”
Thing one: Passion. Nobody I know is as passionate about multilingual life. I met Benny on one brief occasion, and the stories he shared made one thing clear: he lives by speaking the languages of people he meets. Every page of this book is full of this passion, and this is brilliant motivation for people who wonder: “what good is a foreign language?”
Thing two: Approachability. This book won’t bore you with statistical studies or endless grammar guides. It won’t confuse you with jargon or blind you with complex narratives. It’s a story about how one guy went about becoming multilingual. You can see the hard work which Benny put into every page (and his editing team, too) – the end result is almost like sitting next to the author and listening to him. Which, coming from someone who works with books 24/7, is high praise indeed.
Thing three: Life. Benny Lewis has one method for you: learn the language you love by living the life through that language. Immersion is nothing new – it’s probably the oldest way of picking up foreign tongues – but Benny shows you how to re-discover it. In 21st century, you don’t need to worry about budgets or jet-lags. This book will show you why it’s possible (and desirable) to speak the language from the comfort of your home).
Thing four: tools and tricks. “Fluent in 3 months” started out as a blog, and as such, it retains the practical edge of writing-for-the-web. There are heaps of good techniques, tricks, tools and suggestions mentioned, and even the more advanced language learners will find something useful here. I loved the “conversational connectors” list – this truly is a masterpiece, no matter which language you’re using this in!
Thing five: cost (time and money) I got the ebook through Hive. It cost me less than a coffee. I read the whole book in one day, filled with several Tube journeys. ‘Nuff said. You really have no excuse now: it probably took you more effort to read this blog post than to buy Benny’s book.
2. “Benny in 3 Months” – 5 Things I couldn’t agree with
Thing one: Fluency. Benny uses a Collins Dictionary definition for fluency, which mentions “speaking and writing,” and then IGNORES WRITING FOR 95% OF HIS BOOK. I’m not exaggerating. “Fluent in 3 Months” is a book about speaking languages. Not writing them. In 21st century, coming from a guy who wrote a blog and wrote a book, this is like hearing a piano teacher tell you to “only worry about the white keys for now, you’ll have time for the black keys later.”
Thing two: Shyness / Introversion. The book implores learners to “stop thinking themselves into shyness” and just start talking. I picked up on this a while back, and won’t repeat myself. I’ll just say this: for many people, shyness is not the right word. There are introverted learners, depressed learners, many of whom still enjoy languages in a different way. I’m sorry to say that they won’t be enjoying “Fluent in 3 Months” quite as much.
Thing three: Lifestyle limitations. Benny Lewis admits this himself a few times, to be honest: the languages he learned helped him to travel, meet people and chat with them – and he had to cope with alienating some of his foreign friends once it became clear he no longer wished to bestow upon them the joys of free native English practice. These three areas are ideal arenas for trying out the methods and tools he advocates. Many of the tools and strategies (backpacking, meetups, chatting to people online, language exchange, global couchsurfing) are either within your comfort zone, or they aren’t. I suppose if you’re someone else than male English native speaker, your comfort zone (or even your range of available options) will differ from Benny’s.
Thing four: “serious” uses of language. This really connects with all of the above things. If, like Benny, you wish to speak other languages on your travels and social meetups, then “FI3M” is great. The problems arise when reading and writing are involved. Or when there are topics you can’t just fudge your way through with a giggle and a clink of the glass. Or when research, critical thinking and problem-solving become everyday tasks in your language. You would then start looking for help, and “FI3M” wouldn’t be helpful. Benny does suggest putting these things off until after “fluency” (as he defines it); my experience of preparing foreign learners for university life in the UK tells me one thing – it’s precisely the decision to defer serious study which led to my students having to rush, fake and despair over their inability to do anything serious/work-related in English.
Thing five: methodology. “Fluent in 3 Months” is a bit unclear on it in several places. Learning is confused with acquisition on a few occasions, the critical period hypothesis is dismissed outright (can’t say I agree with it either, it’s just too big of a concept to tackle in 5 pages of 1 book) and the language input suggested by Benny would get most language learners in trouble. Benny’s methods worked for him, and the testimony is clear. But it won’t work for everyone, and that’s why language learning methodology was created. It shouldn’t be dealt with so carelessly, just because one didn’t have any need for it.
3. Final verdict: Go get the book. Make of it what you will.
Benny Lewis did more for foreign languages than all the linguists and professors of many a university. He inspires people to speak, learn, travel, exchange and explore. This book is a multilingual pep talk you’ve been waiting for. Go get it.
(if you were looking for a thing to put on a blurb, stop here 🙂 )
If it doesn’t work for you, you’re not alone. You might treat “FI3M” as a useful reminder – a model which helped many people on their foreign language journey – and perhaps a good foundation to build your own multilingual adventure on. Which, at the end of the day, is what the book was trying to do from the beginning.
4. Your thoughts, language learners?
Let’s have it. Twitter is my favourite but there’s much more out there.
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