Polyglot Benny Lewis learned languages late in life. Through his experience, he challenges traditional notions of learning and believes that learning languages can be made easy if learners are passionate about literature, people and culture.
Instead of a formal method, he advocates a more PBL approach, where the problem is “how do I survive on holiday?” or “how do I communicate with people?” … but certainly the problem is not “how do I pass this exam?”.
In his recent TEDx video, he outlines some of his philosophy
- Speak the language out loud from day one. Beginners shouldn’t be afraid of mispronouncing things or sounding unpolished, Lewis says. It’s most important that they start practising — aloud — right away.
- Learn practical phrases first. New language learners should aim for phrases like “bathroom where?” that will help them communicate about basic needs. “That’s not very eloquent, but it’s totally understandable,” Lewis notes.
- Forget about learning strict grammar. As part of getting basic vocabulary and phrases down, Lewis says people shouldn’t worry too much initially about learning the rules of grammar. Those can be filled in later.
- Practice by Skyping with a native speaker. One of today’s best language learning tools, Lewis says, is the Internet — specifically video chats like Skype. Using these free services, an English speaker in New York can easily get free or cheap conversational lessons from a native speaker of another language elsewhere in the world.
- Listen to local radio stations. Another option for immersing yourself in a foreign language is to stream radio from a country that speaks it. To do this, Lewis recommends checking out TuneIn, an online repository of radio stations from around the world.
- Practice a one-minute introduction to yourself. One of Lewis’s favorite tricks for beginners is to have them write out a short introduction to themselves, and then work on translating it with a native speaker. This relatively quick activity teaches plenty about basic vocabulary and phrases.
- Avoid generic language courses. Lewis discourages people from signing up for classes like Rosetta Stone, which he feels are too generalized to help the average beginner. At that stage, he says personalized feedback is the most important thing to have.
- Instead, check out free language-learning tools online. Duolingo is one of Lewis’s favorites, as well as italiki, an online site that connects you with native speakers for personal language lessons.
- Be prepared to put in a lot of time and practice. Lewis believes that people who are willing to study a foreign language full-time could reach a B2 level in just a few months. On the other hand, he thinks the same level could be achieved in a year or two with one to two hours of practice each day.
- Don’t aim for perfection. The problem that most beginners run into, Lewis argues, is that they become so focused on reaching a perfect end-stage that they get discouraged and never get past the early stages. The best way to deal with this? Get comfortable with mistakes, and don’t try to be perfect.
These look remarkably like standard based PBL where projects are real-life and authentic, varied, multidisciplinary and FUN. And with respect to those GCSE exams, Lewis contends that after learning a language conversationally, it is then appropriate to return to a more formal learning of grammar / exam prep… but by this point, even that would look fun.
For a similar story, Joshua Foer uses Memrise to learn African tribal languages.