I Interviewed Benny Lewis and Asked Him Your Questions

I had the honor of interviewing arguably the world’s most popular language learner, Benny Lewis, about his approach to language study, embracing mistakes & reflections on learning Chinese ten years on from his fluent in three month challenge. Check it out here! Benny Lewis on Learning Chinese, Embracing Mistakes & Why He’s Not a Language Learner (Podcast) – I'm Learning Mandarin

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Thanks for this amazing interview. Benny’s experience and wisdom is very valuable.

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I did think your question was good, and thought he had a good answer.

Good people to interview would be Imron & Roddy (Chinese-forums.com mods) and John Pasden

You should have asked him if he really did go to Berlin as a beginner in German and then passed a C2 equivalent German exam three months later like he claimed.

Edit: as the ever erudite PeterBormann points out, he did not claim to have passed the exam, but instead claimed to have passed four of the five parts.

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I’ll leave Benny aside, because I’ve hung up my sword and spear of controversy (so to speak) and I genuinely bear him no ill will. But I have come to regard the whole notion of “learn X in Y amount of time” as a deeply pernicious modern trait. Sure, this is what the human heart secretly craves - “money for nothin’ and yer chicks for free”. But life just doesn’t work that way! Some things take time and effort. Imagine a school claiming to teach people medical degrees and clinical training in, let’s say, 12 or 16 weeks? In all seriousness, is any sensible person going to want to be treated by a doctor from that school? :-0
If it takes a kid in Germany or Russia 14 or 15 years of complete immersion to attain something approximating to basic adult-fluency in these languages, then it is severely improbable that any goon from England or America, or Canada (or even the sweet Emerald Isle) is going to learn it in three months. Just the way it is…

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While I agree with the gist of your post, you really cannot compare kids and adults. The children’s brains are still only developing [not all lights are on]. You absolutely can reach adult-fluency in these languages in 3-4 years (not 3 months though).

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Ha!
Teach yourself brain surgery in 30 days!
Gastroenterology for dummies
Stay at a Holiday Inn Express and receive your very own medical license!

I’m opening up my own practice next month.

Seriously though, I remember when I started taking French in high school, I thought 2 years of classes and I’d speak it. Besides formal classes being mainly a waste of time, there’s sooo much more to learning a language than I thought. You don’t realize just how many words there are until you try to learn 'em all.

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I agree an adult learner can reach a good level (let’s say B2-C1 level) in 3 or 4 years. But actual native-like level…well…I can imagine that would require many years of immersion.

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He didn’t pass the C2 exam in German.

“There were five different aspects to the exam. Based on four of these aspects I “passed” the exam and have a C2 level in German in these parts, doing better in certain sections than I originally thought I would! :grinning:
However, I did not pass one aspect: Listening comprehension. Because you must pass all of the five sections, the overall result is not a pass and I will not be awarded the C2 diploma.”

I think Benny made it clear in this podcast with Mischa that such missions are “challenging experiments” where he tries to get as much done as possible in a relatively short time.

Whether these experiments are successful or not is of secondary importance, because what matters are the learning opportunities (I’d like to add: for further missions).

Or to put it differently:
These are non-perfectionist ultralearning" missions (in the sense of Scott Young) where Benny looks how far he can get on the fluency scale in just 90 days while communicating with others in everyday situations from day 1.
In short, “fluency” (B1, B2, C1 / C2 or native-like) per se isn’t the end goal here, but a means to an end, i.e. to function in communication processes with others.

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My personal highlight from this podcast episode:

Benny sounds extremely “relaxed” when it comes to divergent language learning approaches.
And that’s really a good thing, because there are no enemies in language learning!

So in answer to Colin’s question: No, he wasn’t a beginner and no he didn’t reach C2 in 3 months.

Yet he maintains:
“Back in 2010, I went from a beginner level to near mastery in German in just 3 months.”

Another two quotes from Benny:
“I spent five years studying German in school”
and
“I got a C in my Leaving Cert German”

The above is equivalent to A levels taken at the age of 18. He successfully passed his final year exams, getting grade “C” in German, permitting him to go to university.

The only problem with Benny - which has never ever changed - is his definitions.

Beginner doesn’t mean beginner according to Benny - it doesn’t mean starting at the beginning (look at his German) - and fluent doesn’t mean fluent (look at his Chinese).

His Chinese was never fluent, which is why he ended up in hot water years ago.

In contrast his German is fluent. He successfully passed a number of sections of the C2 exam as defined by the CEFR in German which really is quite a feat.

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“The only problem with Benny - which has never ever changed - is his definitions.”
I’m not sure if it’s a “personal” problem: maybe, maybe not.

However, I’m sure that it’s definitely a marketing problem. Nowadays, anything that has to do with acquiring practical skills (language learning, math, programming, fitness, etc.) has to be:

  • super-fast
  • super-easy
  • super-fun
  • effortless
  • without any discomfort.
    And many inexperienced learners have internalized this message and formed expectations accordingly. With a focus on this (large) clientele, companies that focus on processes of skills acquisition tend to over-promise and under-deliver.

That’s a systematic and socio-cultural problem (beyond Benny)…

“fluent doesn’t mean fluent (look at his Chinese)”
Fluency is a vague term that everyone interprets differently.
As a non-SMART goal for language learning, it is essentially useless.

However, marketers prefer such elusiveness because customers can project their own illusions into it.

Again: not only a Benny, but also a systematic problem…

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“He didn’t pass the C2 exam in German.”

You can say that again!

Still, you are right as always. I misremembered. I don’t believe his actual claim for a second either. Anyway, I didn’t really mean to bring all this old school stuff up. I was just shitposting.

Fluent is not in the slightest vague in my view.
Fluency is C1 or C2 as defined by CEFR.

The level of C1 or C2 is that of a proficient user. A fluent speaker is an experienced speaker - hence at a C1+ level.

In contrast B1 and B2 as defined by CEFR is not fluent but rather the level of an independent learner.

I referred to Benny’s German as fluent and his 3-month spurt in Chinese as not fluent. I am positive everyone would agree with me :wink:

“Anyway, I didn’t really mean to bring all this old school stuff up”
Yes, that’s water under the bridge now. And Benny has changed a lot in the last 12 years since he conducted the C2 experiment in German.

Unfortunately, not only the North, but also the Internet remembers :slight_smile:

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That said, I think it is fair to determine fluency in your own way if it is measurable and repeatable.
Like e.g. if I define fluency for me as being:
“I want to be able to understand netflix scifi shows/crime shows/telenovelas in my target language without needing subtitles or having to look words up”.
or
“I want to be able to read fiction books in my target language at middle school reading level without having to look words up in a dictionary”

etc etc
I think those are legitimate definitions if you take “fluent” in it’s broadest possible sense as having no blockers/stumblers when trying to understand/output.

Thanks!glad you liked it :slight_smile: