[quote style=”boxed”]Engage with your customers or readers very actively and take their feedback seriously. Give way more than you expect back and people will support you.[/quote]
Benny Lewis is a vegetarian from Cavan Ireland, who doesn’t drink. He likes to describe himself as a “technomad” – a full-time technology-enabled globe-trotter.
When he turned 21, the only language Benny spoke was English and he had done quite poorly with languages in school. In fact, he initially had problems even with English. He even had to go to speech therapy when he was younger because of it, and that’s the reason he assures people that he is not naturally talented with languages! In fact, he has a degree in Electronic Engineering.
Benny’s love affair with other cultures and speaking foreign languages began after his graduation in 2003, when he moved to Spain. After failing to learn the language for six months thanks to the expat bubble, he discovered that learning languages wasn’t so hard when you apply the right method. You also have to stop making excuses that you’re too old, don’t have time, are too shy to try to use it.
After finally successfully reaching a confident stage in speaking Spanish, his travels led him elsewhere. Dozens of countries and many languages (8 of which he speaks fluently) later, he is now a full-time language hacker and blogs about his travel and language learning adventures on fluentin3months.com. He has also given a TEDx talk, about speaking from day one, which summarizes his learning approach:
What are you working on right now?
I am currently traveling through China, applying the Mandarin I had learned in 3 months to give me a unique cultural experience and help me make non-English-speaking friends while here. I am documenting the most interesting ones (recently, a private tour of a monastery given by a Buddhist monk, and then getting my ass kicked by a Kung Fu master) on video to share on my blog, as well as continuing to improve my Chinese speaking level, and trying to inspire people to attempt to learn this and other languages, even if they are not naturally talented (since I certainly am not).
Where did the idea for fluentin3months.com come from?
I had already been traveling for about five years, and my Youtube channel where I share my multilingual videos was growing steadily. I thought that blogging wasn’t for me since I’m “not much of a writer”, but so many people had been telling me that they wanted me to share my tips, that I decided to start the site and document the experience.
One of my (many) suggestions is to take on an intensive learning project with a definite deadline and specific end goal, and to publicly announce it. A New Year’s resolution of “Learn Spanish” is doomed to failure, but something specific, in my case aim to speak a language fluently in 3 months, has way more potential. The name of my site isn’t a promise or magic formula, but the intensity of aiming as high as I do means that even if you are “only” 80% successful, you have achieved so much more than just vaguely going in the right direction.
With this in mind, I registered the domain name because it described such a mentality. Since then, every 3 months or so I have a new language learning or travel project that I announce and let others follow along with.
What does your typical day look like?
I don’t have a typical day, because as a “technomad”, I don’t have a home base. Right now in China, I move to a new city every few days, so familiarity and routine are pretty tough to come by!
Despite this, I do need to get a lot done, so I have a time sensitive action list app from which I try to tick off as many things as I can (write a blog post, study 3 chapters of language book, get some exercise, organize upcoming trip.) I like to spend a few hours in a cafe to read or study, eat out for lunch, and I spend most of the rest of the day up until the evening on the computer, since that is the one thing that stays consistent no matter where I go!
Once a week, I call my parents via Skype. I also make sure that I am having plenty of social interactions where I am, since meeting locals is what motivates me to travel in the first place. If I’m in a major city then I always go out to bars and nightclubs at the weekend, even though I don’t drink. In Asia, singing at Karaokes regularly is a must!
How do you bring ideas to life?
If anything comes to me at any moment, I take note of it on an app like Evernote. I get inspiration at random moments which is based on making sure I converse with as many varied people as I can.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The open community and connections created thanks to the Internet. The opportunities I have now that would not have been possible just a few years ago are mind boggling, and it’s just going to get better!
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I once worked at the reception in an International Youth Hostel in Rome. The pay was an abysmal 10 euro a day (free accommodation in the hostel included, but no food), and I had to work 24 hour shifts every second day (allowed to sleep for 6 hours, but was on call if a guest had problems), which added up to approximately 63 hours a week, excluding on-call hours.
Needless to say it was stressful and gave me next to no freedom.
However, the experience itself was wonderful! Before I discovered Couchsurfing, it was my first time to live with passers-through from many countries, and actively practice all my languages. I met some fantastic people, and made some friends for life. Even though I ended up needing to eat into my savings to support myself, it was worth every penny. Despite all the hours I worked, since I was free every second day, I got to explore the eternal city and really get to know it!
And the hostel was ideally located right by the Vatican city, so I had a breathtaking view of the Sistine Chapel from my bed, which would have been impossible with my puny budget otherwise.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I’ve made an incredible amount of mistakes, but each one was a learning opportunity. I’d only tell myself “make more mistakes”.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Engage with your customers or readers very actively and take their feedback seriously. Give way more than you expect back and people will support you.
What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
As in the previous question, constant feedback is key. I’ve had issues with the product I was selling, the sales pages etc., but people’s feedback has helped me improve upon it.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Don’t be an entrepreneur or businessman. I never look at myself that way. I focus on helping people for free via my blog and it gets shared so much, that a means of earning I don’t even push that hard does indeed earn me good money. All my work is related to the blog, rather than promoting the product, and this has trickled down to help my earnings improve!
If you could change on thing in the world – what would it be – and how would you go about it?
What I’m trying to change, is people’s pessimism about their abilities to learn foreign languages. I try to reframe “hard” languages as quite straightforward, and give people encouragement that learning as an adult is easier than they think. If I could, I’d have everyone see the many learners I’ve seen, who have succeeded despite challenges. Sometimes we think we are alone in our struggles, and when we see others are going through the same things as us, it makes it seem more manageable.
In a world where people are open to visiting a foreign country and speak to random people in the street and make real friends outside of the university educated elite, many wonderful things are possible, and that is why I like to encourage language learning.
Tell us a secret.
As a single guy, who likes to go on dates despite being on the road, I am active on dating websites, and have seen this very question asked there too.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
So many, and it depends on the context! I love couchsurfing.org because it helps me connect with like minded travelers in a city that I’m living in or passing through, as well as helping me get in touch with natives of any given language.
With the ridiculous amount of email that I get, the browser plugin Boomerang has been so useful to take control of it, by having messages come back later, or sending messages later. I can defer messages to a more convenient time, or send them immediately after receiving them, even though they’ll actually get sent a few days later (slowing down less essential conversations) and so on. At one stage, I had a monstrous 800 emails in my inbox, but now every single day my inbox is empty, and I manage it much better.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman. Luck isn’t some mysterious force in the universe, but is a product of mentality, open-mindedness, and persistence. Any successful person knows this, but those who don’t, talk themselves into self fulfilling prophecies. This book is by a psychologist who statistically analyzed hundreds of “lucky” and “unlucky” people to see what really separates them, and it turns out it’s all stuff that we can change in the way we live our lives. This impacts both business and personal dealings.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
That depends on what you want to learn! I unfollow everyone on twitter and start over every few months, depending on my focus. Generally, those that live in the same city as you, are in the same niche as you, or are people you admire. Any suggestions I could give wouldn’t be relevant to people here.
Rather than look for other people to admire, try to be someone worth following yourself.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I laughed out loud 10 minutes before starting to answer these questions, and probably another 20 minutes before that. Life is fun! Anything from an amusing thought, to a comfortable glance at a friend, to a grammatically questionable captioned image of a cat is worth it.
I’m happy to say that I don’t know what made me laugh last, because I do it too often to make it a special occasion.
Who is your hero?
I really liked the main character, Sam, on Quantum Leap, a TV show from 20 or so years ago. He may not be real, but you get inspiration from what you can! I try to be adventurous, intelligent, and as helpful as possible. I don’t like to idolize real people. We’re all made of the same stuff, and are all human. Every single person I meet has something I can take inspiration from.
Do you have tips for how to learn a language more effectively if you can’t move to the country?
Indeed I do! Travel is not the be-all-do-all of language learning. It’s more about how much time you put into it – people can and do spend years in a country that speaks a language without learning any of it, thanks to expat bubbles.
You start with a good phrasebook, not a grammar book. I am a fan of the Lonely Planet phrasebook series. Learn as much as that as you can, and then try to meet up with a native speaker asap. It doesn’t have to be in person. There are many fantastic networks online that connect you to foreigners. You can either get a Skype based teacher, or you can get a completely free language exchange, since plenty of people want to improve their English. There is actually a major lack of English help on language exchange sites.
Make it all about speaking and communicating in the language, and you’ll progress way faster than if it was about doing exercises in a book, about contexts that are not relevant to you.
What’s your favorite language and why?
Brazilian Portuguese – and not necessarily because of the language. I love Brazilian culture, warmth, music, dance, mentality and everything else. This makes me incredibly biased and say that Portuguese is my favorite language, as it helps me speak to them! I’d highly recommend everyone check out Brazil – especially less visited places and in times outside of the Carnaval.
Fluent in 3 Months’ blog:
Benny Lewis’s Youtube channel:
Benny Lewis on Facebook:
Benny Lewis on Twitter:
TEDx talk for concise summary of how I learn languages: