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Hi there! My name is Benny Lewis, and I’ve been travelling the world for ten years straight, and have lived in 23 different countries so far, picking up their interesting customs and of course learning their languages.
But there’s a catch! Even though I have a C2 diploma in Spanish, have worked as a professional freelance translator from French, made hundreds of videos in dozens of languages while in those countries, and actually spend about half of the year learning a new language full time… I don’t actually like learning languages!
This is of course, quite an oddity! When you find well known language learners in books or online, their story tends to be one where they promote the beautiful process of learning the language, which they have been passionate about their whole lives. Take your time, appreciate the journey, use it when you feel ready, or the more traditional academic concept of don’t you dare sully the language by using it before you have mastered its grammar!
Today I want to present the controversial point of view that maybe, just maybe, those of us who don’t like learning languages have a huge advantage over those who do.
I barely passed languages in school (I studied both German and Irish/Gaeilge), and even managed to live in Spain for six entire months without being able to say more than just the basics, so I’m as far as you can get from the naturally talented or someone who adores the process of language learning.
While I find the idea of doing exercises in course books, studying grammar tables or learning vocabulary lists to be quite tedious, I have one major advantage over those who adore the process of learning languages: I’m an imperfectionist.
What this means is that I really don’t care if I sound like a cultured poet with an IQ of 200 if I were to speak a given language, all I want to do is to communicate in it for whatever I need to do at the time.
I’m not passionate about learning languages, I’m passionate about using them.
I see a language as a means to an end. If I want to know where the bathroom is, then saying “Bathroom where please?” works to me just as well as “Excuse me kind sir, would you trouble yourself as to direct me to the nearest bathroom. Thank you kindly!”
To utter the first phrase, all I essentially do is learn the words and then say them. No grammatical deconstruction and no flowery beautifying additions.
And in doing so as a beginner learner in dozens of countries over an entire decade, I can confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that you will not frustrate native speakers by doing so, if your body language and personality balance out the awkwardness with a friendly and patient smile. This idea of angering native speakers is a delusion that we tell ourselves to provide a lazy excuse to not use the language.
So if I don’t like studying my way to speaking the language, what is my strategy then?
Well, the way I see it, if my goal is to speak, why waste time with tertiary activities? I simply speak from day one.
This turns language learning completely on its head for me, and I learn it by using it, rather than learn it to later use it.
So on day one, I will grab a phrasebook, learn the essentials for a couple of hours, jump on Skype or meet up with a native in person and then use them. Will they be wowed by my abilities to debate Kantian philosophy? No. Will I be able to ask what their name is and tell them mine? Why yes, I do believe you can learn this simple dialogue in less than a few hours.
You’ll mess it up with confusing pronunciation and poor conjugation, but ultimately the other person will understand you. If they don’t then it turns out the world won’t end, and you can see why they don’t understand you, fix it and try again.
Rinse and repeat and then you can have some basic conversations.
When you reach a particular barrier, then you will be very passionate about solving this particular problem, and your coursebooks will come in handy to present the solution. Presenting solutions before we even know the problem is much less interesting.
This approach is as rich in your ability to actually use the language as it is in its quantity of mistakes. It turns out that if you conjugate your verbs wrong people understand you anyway.
The hardest part of learning a language isn’t its grammar, tones, vocabulary, consonant clusters and writing system, it’s gaining the confidence to actually use what you have. This is all a matter of overcoming your own fears than necessarily learning thousands of words.
You can study a language forever and still have parts left over to learn (there will never be a day when you are 100% ready), or you can use a language now and get used to it and gain confidence in participating in some form of conversations in it.
Once you have this confidence, then if you go back to grammar to tidy up what you have, all those boring tables and lists of conjugations suddenly become fascinating pieces of the puzzle in the full picture of the language that you are already now familiar with. You have the context to attach those rules to something real, which you don’t if you learn grammar rules from the very start.
Learning grammar doesn’t help you speak a language, it only helps you express yourself without grammar mistakes.
This is why I tell those of you who, like me, never had that spark of passion for modal verbs, preposition influences on case, conjugations, and endless word frequency lists, to just put those aside and enjoy speaking the language. Studying is not the be all and end all of language learning.
There are dozens of excuses, but not a single valid reason why you shouldn’t start using your language today, no matter who you are or how passionate you are about the learning process itself.