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Home » Hacking language learning by Benny Lewis at TEDxWarsaw (Transcript)

Hacking language learning by Benny Lewis at TEDxWarsaw (Transcript)

Benny Lewis

Full text of Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot talks on Hacking language learning at TEDxWarsaw

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Hacking language learning_ Benny Lewis at TEDxWarsaw


When I was 21 years old, I could only speak English, which is typical for those of us from English-speaking countries, and I had many reasons why this is going to be the case for me for the rest of my life. And I was very confident of this, because I had no natural talent, I had a very bad memory, I couldn’t travel to the country yet, I was too old, I felt too old and I was sure that I was going to frustrate the native speakers and embarrass myself. And on top of this, in school, I did really poorly with languages.

So, I did actually get the opportunity to get into languages after I graduated at university with a degree in Electronic Engineering, still only able to speak English, I moved to Spain. And I figured, this is it! This is going to solve my problems, living in the country.


Six months later of living in Spain, I couldn’t speak any Spanish. Now, a sensible person would have given up at this stage and gotten the point. I’m not very sensible though.

So I figured if I change my approach and change my attitude, maybe I can change my language skills. And what happened to inspire me to get into language learning was I met a polyglot. A polyglot is someone who can speak many languages. And the first time you meet someone like that, you can’t help but feel really impressed. Like, for instance there’s Richard from the UK, and there’s one video online where he speaks 16 languages.

Let me just show you a little clip here and you can see him:




and Catalan

which is pretty impressive.

We also have Luca from Italy, and here you can hear him speak in:


and Portuguese.

And we also have Susana, who goes through here:



And a very impressive video I saw once of this 16-year-old from America called Tim, goes through 20 languages in one video, and in this part here you can see him go through:




Arabic, Turkish,


and Hindi.

So wow! I met someone like this and I was so impressed. I thought to myself, “I want to be like that!” But the reason I wanted to be like that is because I wanted people to think I’m smart, to be impressed with me, and I met this polyglot at the start of my time in Spain and with this very superficial motivation, just because it will be cool to learn a language, I failed.

So, what I discovered after those 6 months is one of the biggest problems we have in language learning but we don’t know it, and that’s motivation. A lot of us start with the wrong motivation to learn a language. We are learning the language just to pass an exam, to improve our career prospects or, in my case, for superficial reasons to impress people.

And what I’ve found is that those polyglots that I’ve just shown in the video, the reason they’re learning the language is because they’re passionate about that language. They’re passionate about the literature, and the movies and being able to read in a language and of course to use it with people.

And when I changed that priority of use in the language of people, I was able to learn the languages myself.

But there are a lot of things that people feel will not allow them to learn a language. So I want to go through…I think there’s five, I asked a lot of people, there’s five major reasons they’d never get into language learning. So, let me go through some of these here.

The first is they’ve no language gene or talent.

No language gene or talent. Well, what does that mean? I mean, sometimes this is actually just a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my case, when I had to learn the language growing up, or the six months of failed learning Spanish, it was just me telling myself, “I don’t have the language gene, so there’s no point in doing any work in the language.” Because I didn’t put the work in I didn’t learn the language, it’s just a vicious circle, it’s all in your head.

There’s no language gene, we all have it already.

But let’s just imagine some people who do better, because we’ve seen in school, people advance faster than the rest of the crowd. So let’s say there’s some inborn trait to give somebody 20% advantage over the rest of the people. Good for them!

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t, it just means that you have to work 20% harder. And I’ve found that, at least in my case, when I work harder, I can catch up with the naturally talented and even overtake them. So, not having talent is not a good excuse.

The next reason is that you are too old to learn a second language. I certainly felt this myself because up to 21, I didn’t learn a language, and lot of us feel that children…their brains are hard wired to learn languages better.

But is it really neurology at play here or could it be the environment in which the child is learning the language? Well, a study at the University of Haifa in Israel actually found that under the right conditions, adults are better language learners than children. It sounds incredible but it’s about your environment, it’s about your motivation, it’s about the enthusiasm and encouragement you get from other people. And when you think of it, adults tend to be studying dusty old grammar books and doing boring exercises, while children are playing in the language, having fun in it.

So I found that when I changed this to live through the language, not making it by studying the language, but living the language, then I was much more successful. So you’re not too old to learn a language. I’ve met people in their 60s starting to learn a language and being successful with that.

The next excuse people would have, is that they can’t travel to the country right now. Now, maybe 20 years ago this would have been a valid excuse but nowadays the world is smaller than you think. Thanks to the internet, we can connect with native speakers from across the planet and you’ll see that in a lot of cases, they might want to learn your language, and then money isn’t even an issue, because you teach them a little and they teach you a little.

But even forgetting the internet for a moment, a lot of us live in cities or towns that are more international than what we think, and when I was travelling in America, I made it to Columbus, Ohio, of all places, to meet this very interesting polyglot called Moses, and he does what he likes to call “leveling up”, where he’ll go to some public place and just see if he can find some foreigners and practice the language with them.

And I joined him when we went to a mall in Columbus, and the two of us managed to practice twelve languages, and just here in this clip you can see he goes through:


and here’s Cambodian,

and you can see that the guy really appreciated him trying.

So, you can learn a language anywhere, and I wanted to push this to the limit, in my most recent project I went to the middle of Brazil, of all places, to learn Egyptian Arabic. And I succeeded, because even though there were no Egyptians around me, I got on Skype and I talked for one or two hours a day and I managed to go up towards conversation levels. So no! Not being able to travel to the country is not a good excuse.

The next one people might give is that they’ve got bad memory for learning all the vocabulary. And this was certainly what I felt because when I first tried to learn Spanish, I get a big list of words, I tried to go through them and I forget them very quickly.

But research on memory capacity has found that it’s better when you revise these words with the right frequency, and there’s this technique called Spaced repetition, where you revise the word just before you’ll forget it. And it looks something like this forgetting curve, the red line is what typically happens when you first see a word but to get it into your head and stuck there permanently then just review it to make sure it goes, like review it one day later, then a week later and then a month later. And there are apps in your Smartphone and there’s free programs that you can download that help you time all of this. And that’s great but you can learn the words faster and better if you combine this with an image association technique.

So, for instance, let’s say I wanted to learn that the Spanish word for “to fit” is caber. Well, what if I imagine then that’s barely possible to fit a bear in a cab? “Cab-bear” it’s “caber”, it’s “to fit”.

So you do this for a lot of words and it actually gets very easy with time and you can learn vocabulary instantly. So no, having a bad memory is not a good excuse.

Next, and I think the most important one that the people always say, is that they’re going to frustrate native speakers. And this is just so not true. I’ve been to many places, I’ve spoken to many people and every time I attempt to use their language, they’re overjoyed, they’re so pleased that I’m even trying. And I just feel like, especially adults, when we learn a language, we are such perfectionists, we want everything to be just right, and perfectionism is a really bad thing in language learning, because a language is a means of communication, it’s a way to get to know new people and new cultures, and when you embrace this, it’s okay to make mistakes. And I actually have a goal to make at least 200 mistakes a day because then I know I’m getting somewhere, I’m using the language. So embarrass yourself, go out there, talk to people, it’s okay.

When do you think I was learning a language better: here? or here?

So, anyone can indeed learn a language when you use it with people, and it’s okay to use it early. And this is so important, that you don’t have to wait until you speak the language perfectly and fluently and so on. You can get into it sooner than you’d expect and it opens up so many doors to these other cultures.

So for instance, after I’d learned that Arabic in Brazil, I made it to Egypt and I made all the way deep into the Sahara desert, I sat down in the sand with an Egyptian and we had some tea, we had this nice little chat here:

(In Arabic)

and there I’m just saying that Egypt is so much, so vast, so great, it’s so much more than just Tahrir Square in Cairo. And, now when I was speaking with him, I used the wrong word here and there and I conjugated the wrong verb every now and again, but that’s okay, because even with this conversation level, I had this fascinating conversation with him. And I’ve done this with other cultures and other languages and I even managed to learn a little American sign language.

And here you can see Juliana had asked me why I didn’t learn Irish sign language, and I said, because when I’m in Ireland I like to improve my Irish and my Gaelic which I can then speak here:

(In Irish)

so that was me on Irish radio saying about my travels and whatever, and I learned Irish for ten years in school and I wasn’t able to say the most basic phrases after that. But as an adult, I went back to Ireland and I embraced using the language as a beginner. And that helped me to reach this stage. And it’s okay to be a beginner, it’s okay to be conversational, but when you take this on, you take it to the next level, then you can reach very well. I mean, I’ve got a very good level in French, Spanish and a couple of languages. I’ve worked as a professional translator like here I’m having a chat in French:

(In French)

and that’s great, that’s what everybody thinks of when they’re getting into language learning, they think, “That’s what I want to be, I want to be at this very high professional level, have deep philosophical conversations.” and that’s fantastic and yeah, it’s impressive when you see people like that.

But rather than being impressive, I think it’s so much better when you embrace the beginning stage of language learning. And one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had, was when I was in China, on the train, at 2000 kilometers deep into China, and I had a basic conversation of “What’s your name?” and it turned out I was given my Chinese name there on the train, and look, this is how it went:

(In Chinese)

“What’s your name?”

1″I’m Benny.”

(In Chinese)

“I don’t have a Chinese name.”

and then [Li Hwei] says, “I tell you your name is Pun Li.”

because this sounds like your normal name and it means ability or skill.

And you know, just I could have that conversation, even with a basic conversation level of Chinese. And I do have the ability, I do have the skill to learn a language. But I always did, we all always do. And the reason I have this skill is not because I was born with it and others weren’t, it’s a decision I made. And the problem a lot of us face is we feel that we’re better studying and preparing for speaking a language some day, because if we do it too early the world would end from all this frustration we cause people.

There are seven days in a week and some day is not one of them. I say, rather than see if the world will end, a whole new world will begin if you try to learn a new language.

So I hope you’ll give it a try.

Thank you.


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