12 - Optional Interview with Benny the Irish Polyglotدوره: Coursera – Learning How to Learn / درس 12
12 - Optional Interview with Benny the Irish Polyglot
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When Benny Lewis turned 21,
the only language he spoke was English.
Actually, he’s done quite poorly
with languages in school.
Truth be told, he initially had
problems even with English, and
had to go to speech therapy when
he was young because of it.
So Benny’s not naturally
gifted with languages.
He has a degree in electronic engineering.
So, where I went from
language to engineering,
Benny went the other way around.
Benny’s love affair
with other cultures and
speaking foreign languages began in 2003
after graduation from the university.
When he moved to Spain, he discovered
that learning languages wasn’t so
hard when you apply the right method.
In his current career as a full
time language hacker, over the last
dozen years, he has discovered people from
all around the world who have learned to
stop making excuses about why
they can’t learn a language.
And have instead learned,
how to learn a new language.
I’ve read Benny’s book, which is the best
book on language learning I’ve ever read.
His advice is absolutely brilliant.
If you think you don’t have the language
gene, or you’re too old and don’t have
time or are just too shy to try, Benny’s
book will help you get past these hurdles.
So it’s a pleasure to welcome here,
Benny, your life is always filled with so
So, tell me what is your latest adventure?
My latest adventure is that this year I
am trying to make America multilingual and
other countries multilingual that
generally only speak English.
And I am currently about one,
or 2,000 miles
into my 7,000 mile,
road trip across America.
I did the whole West coast to Northeast
and I’m going to every single state, and
I’m trying to encourage
people to learn languages.
Wow, what an endeavor, and
what an important endeavor.
You know, you talk about people
sometimes wanting to learn languages for
the wrong reasons.
What are those wrong reasons, and
what have you discovered is a more
motivating factor for learning languages?
there are quite a lot of wrong reasons.
The worst of all is to show off, if you
think that I will learn this language so
people will think I’m smart, or people
will like me more or I’ll be able to pick
up girls or anything along those lines,
then it’s, it’s not going to work because
I found that what you really do need,
is a passion for that language.
For the culture, you want to really
speak that language inherently for
of how fascinating that language is.
And that’s going to motivate you to,
to speak it.
If you have other things like you just
want, you just want to get an A in
an exam, or a B just so you can get into
university, then that’s not a very good
motivator, because you are not actually
interested in using that language.
So, I highly recommend people
try to embrace the culture,
try to spend time speaking with other
human beings, and then you’ll get the,
the motivation that’s going to help
you to skyrocket your progress.
I like that approach.
You’ve talked about how children
have one big advantage,
can you tell us what that advantage is?
So, I think that the fact that
children are not so
much perfectionist like adults tend to be,
children are okay with making mistakes.
They kind of stumble and fall and
we, we help them along and
they play games in the language and
they live the language whereas,
in language learning adults tend to
study dusty old grammar books, and
can be so afraid of making mistakes
that they won’t speak at all.
And this is a huge mistake because,
in language learning it’s not
like we visualize this in an academic
setting, where every mistake you
make gives you a red X and
if you make enough you make an F.
That’s not the real world, in the real
world you can make lots of mistakes but
people will still understand you.
If I have just started to learn language,
you may think I should wait until I say,
excuse me kind sir, could you direct
me to the nearest bathroom please?
Or, I could just say bathroom, where?
And people understand that, that’s
not a perfectly formed sentence, but
you have to be a good beginner learner.
And a good beginner learner, knows to make
a few mistakes, or a lot of mistakes,
to get their point across.
And I find children, that’s the,
their main advantage is that they’re,
they’re okay with just saying something.
And they’re not going to over analyze
everything that comes out of their mouth.
The good news is, this is not an inherent
advantage that is built into them,
and not built into us.
It’s just kind of the way children act,
and we can learn from that.
We can learn to,
try to have some fun with our language.
Laugh at the fact that we’re making
mistakes, and realize people are a lot
nicer that you think and
they’re going to be very patient with you.
I, I think that’s an important point,
is well of course,
just being willing to make mistakes,
making those mistakes, and
then realizing that most people
are actually pretty friendly and
accommodating, as you’re learning and
adjusting and getting situated.
One, one thing that you’ve
talked about that I, I think is
a really important point is the idea
of self-fulfilling prophet, prophecies.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
Well for myself for instance,
I got into language learning as an adult.
But, I failed at five years
learning German in school.
I barely passed my exams after ten or
eleven years learning Irish And
I lived in Spain for six months and
I did not pick up, pick up any Spanish.
And I really truly, genuinely feel that
the reason this happened was because of
a series of self fulfilling prophecies.
When I was in Spain and 21 years old,
I told myself, you know,
I’m too old to learn a language now.
I passed this cut-off age 14, and
the thing is, it’s a self fulfilling
prophecy because I believed this was true,
so I thought, okay, well there’s
no point in doing any work now, so
I only put like minimal effort in and
because of that I don’t make any progress.
And then I look at that lack of progress
and I’m like, you see, this just goes to
prove that adults are not good language
learners and it makes no sense,
when you actually look at it that way,
and it was the same in school.
In school I initially didn’t do so
well on my exams, and I was thinking,
oh I can’t do so well on these exams so I
guess there’s no point in really studying.
And then of course I did
worse in my exams, and
it was just a constant feedback loop.
And like there’s a quote from Henry Ford
that I like relevant to this,
he says, whether you think you can or
think you can’t, you’re right.
And I think that’s the case with
self fulfilling prophecies.
People need to put these excuses aside,
that I don’t have any time, you have,
you make the time.
I’m too old, you’re not too old.
There are so many ways you can realize
that none of these are real issues,
that the actual reason you
haven’t learned the language,
is your devotion to these reasons.
You say that successful language
learners learn, despite the challenges.
What did you mean by that?
So people have this idealized vision.
You know, the grass is always
greener on the other side.
They see someone who successfully
learned the language, and
they think to themselves,
this person has had it easy.
They must have had rich parents who,
who paid for tuition their whole life.
They must have just been
blessed to have had the right,
DNA to give them
the language learning gene.
They must have had it so easy and
just stumbled across native speakers and,
had a perfect situation,
this is simply not the case.
This is what we like to
tell ourselves once again,
in our self-fulfilling prophecies.
I don’t have the ideal situation,
I don’t have good luck in all of this and
the other person does.
And in talking to a lot
of language learners,
I have found each one of them have
their own challenges to to go through.
There are some really, well known
language learners on YouTube who are,
very impressive in their language
skills but they, they’re family people,
they have a family to raise,
they may be working one or two jobs.
You know, it’s not like they laze
around with millions of dollars and
just spend all day long learning
languages, they have their own challenges.
And I even came across a very
inspirational story of a lady
who’s partially deaf and
clinically blind at the same time, and
she still managed to learn five languages.
So this shows me,
that no mater what the set backs people
have, they find a way around them.
And you know, and you can say oh, that guy
has it easy, because he can travel, and
I can’t, but then find a way to learn
a language despite not traveling.
There are actually great ways
to get immersion virtually,
you can get Skype based
you can listen to streamed radio
24 hours a day if you wanted to.
You could create a virtual
But any one of the things are issues
that other people may have.
You may have advantages that other
successful language learners,
may not have had.
You may be able to afford
a private teacher, you may be,
you may have spare time on your weekends,
when someone has worked two jobs, or
has a family to support, and
has less time flexibility.
So, every single person in the world,
has had challenges to go through.
And it’s just unrealistic
to think woe is me,
I have this unfortunate situation
no one else understand.
I guarantee you no matter what your
problem is a successful language
learner has had that if not more
problems and still manage to overcome.
people sometimes have a history of
failure when they’ve tried to learn a new
languages, what do you say to someone
whose is failing when they’re learning
a new language, and have you ever felt
like giving up in your language studies.
I felt like giving
up millions of times.
And even in my more experienced stages of
learning a language, and the thing is,
it’s like I said before nobody has it,
has it super duper easy.
Including successful and
experienced language learners.
So at the very start, for instance,
when I tried to learn Spanish,
I tested out a lot of things that,
that were huge failures.
I spent six months trying to learn
Spanish, and I got nowhere in that time,
one of the things I did was I, I bought
El SeĂąor de los Anillos, which is The Lord of the Rings.
And I thought if I just went
through this book page by page,
with the dictionary, then after I reach
page 700 I’d be fluent in Spanish.
I had this like, ridiculous idea and it
took me a whole week to get to page two.
So, when I was on page two,
I was thinking to myself,
it’s going to take me a decade
to read this book at this rate.
And I was thinking,
I’m just, I’m just an idiot,
I’m not destined to learn Spanish or
any other language.
And even, like more recently a couple of
years ago I was learning Mandarin, and
I didn’t find the Mandarin language
itself to be so complicated.
It’s actually a lot,
straight forward than you may think.
But I was, learning it in the country,
which I actually do not recommend to
people, I recommend you learn
the language in advance via the internet.
So, that when you’re in the country
you can experience the culture.
I think it’s kind of a bit of a waste to,
be in the country to be in study mode when
you should out enjoying it, but
I at the time I was not, doing that and
I found it very difficult to adjust
to the cultural side of things.
And that slowed me down dramatically
on the language side of things.
So, no matter how experienced some one is,
they’re going to run into problems,
they’re going to get slowed down and
it’s it’s like anything.
If you’ve, if at first you don’t succeed,
try, try, try again.
And like a lot of people in language
learning would reach a plateau, as well,
they may make a bit of progress and
And then they think I’m broken,
I’m not a good language learner.
And I found that,
that it’s the exact opposite,
people need to try different techniques.
So my suggestion is people get into
speaking the language immediately.
I give tips for
people to speak from the very first day,
and then that may work for
you it may not work for you.
But you try something else and
if you still say after trying this out for
a few weeks,
I’m still not making any progress at all.
Then that doesn’t mean you’re
not a good language learner,
it means you’re using a system
that is not good for you.
If you’re studying a lot, and you’re
not making progress, you may need to
abandon a study based approach, and try
to interact with the language a lot more.
So that’s, that’s what I’d suggest.
I love these ideas and
I know they were very helpful for
me with Russian.
In, in this course, one of the things
we talk about is the importance of
pushing your attention very hard.
For example when you’re using something
like the Pomodoro Technique, and
You talk about something like that, with
your mini-mission brain melting technique,
could you tell us a little about that?
Right, yeah, I, I’m actually a big
fan of the Pomodoro Technique as well,
I’ve used that a lot during
my intensive study days.
So I definitely agree with that,
I’ve tried to study all day, it just
doesn’t work, you need little breaks.
But they then, that also applies over
the longer term, so when I was learning
some languages intensely over a couple
of months, then that’s all my focus.
I’m like, I’ve given up TV, I’ve given
up like, you know, going to the cinema,
going out and so on and I find, I reach
a certain point, where my brain just
feels saturated, and I can’t really take
it anymore, and it’s unfortunate, and
I try to study, but it just goes
in one ear, and out the other.
So, I applied this to the kind
of medium term scale.
And what I would do is, I would start,
like if I’m in an intensive learning
period, so this is not people who
are studying an hour a week, but people
who are studying like three or four or
more hours a day, so you’re putting
every spare second you have in to it.
Then I would be working hard for five or
six days a week, and
then I would take one day off.
And I just repeat that process,
because if you it consistently for
too long, you you may over exert yourself.
So I’m, I kind of I find that I kind of
apply this Pomodoro Technique in over,
over several days.
And then, even bigger than that,
I would repeat this process for
four weeks, and then on at the end once a
month, I would take the whole weekend off.
So, so it’s weird,
you would think you know, oh,
I just have to study intensively.
And once again, this is not something
necessarily true for everybody, but
I found that I, my limit is about
six days of consistent study, and
I need a little break, and then three or
four weeks of consistent study,
and I need a proper longer break.
Well, boring into some of
the specific details of how you learn,
you mention that, that rote rehearsal,
just repeating a word over and
over again, for example,
is not a good way to remember.
What is a better way?
It’s not a good way to remember, but
it kind of, it kind of works a little bit,
I mean repetition is part
of learning any language.
But the catch is I see rote
repetition as very asymmetrical.
So, for instance,
when I was learning German, and
I saw that the word for
[NOISE] table is tisch.
So I just said to myself, tisch, table,
tisch, table, tisch, table, tisch, table,
whatever it was,
100 times, or 1,000 times.
And it kind of works such that when I was
reading German and I saw the word tisch,
I was like table, because I kind of
had that repetitive association.
And if I heard it spoken,
I would remember it, but there’s a huge
downside is it doesn’t work symmetrically.
It doesn’t work the other way, if you
want to say the word table in German,
you don’t have anything
that latches you to that,
you just have the tisch
kind of association.
So, in that case, I highly recommend
people consider using mnemonics,
because this kind of glues the word.
to your memory.
So for instance,
in that example with the German tisch.
I would think to myself, okay let’s
imagine, a table made out of tissues.
So I have you know, a table made out
of kitchen roll or whatever it is,
and I put a drink on it, and the table
collapses, the drink spills everywhere,
I have to get all of this,
all of these tissues and
I have to wipe it up because
it’s created a huge mess.
So what that does,
is it puts this association in my mind of
visualizing a table made out of tissues,
so that when I’m speaking German, and
I want to say table, I can just think for
a second, the table was made out of
tissues, and I have that association.
So, you have a link that
connects the words you want,
to, to the words you want to say,
to the translation.
Now, the thing is,
you don’t need to do this forever,
because you only need
the association a couple of times.
And then the word just becomes
a natural part of you.
So, there’s a great website,
memrise.com, M E M (O) R I S E, and
this has people voting up their favorite
mnemonics, that’s a great system.
Another one is, other than mnemonics,
I’m a big fan of spaced repetition,
so there’s an app you can install
on your smart phone, called Anki.
And this presents
the words to you in a way,
that you see them just before
you would forget them.
And that’s another problem with,
like memorizing a big list.
Is you may see a word that’s important
to you, but you may not see it again for
a very long time.
And you may see the simple words over and
So when you use a particular system it
shows you the harder words way more
the easier words way less frequently.
I, I like your ideas of, not only
mnemonics but, creative mnemonics for
example with tonal languages.
You use the idea of something falling or
something rising in your memory tricks,
and I’d never thought of doing
something like that before, so
I think these kinds of ideas
are enormously helpful.
And actually in your book,
I have read your book, I love your book.
There are dozens and
dozens more helpful ideas, and
I could ask you dozens and
dozens more questions, but
I want people to actually read your book,
so I guess I’ll leave off here.
And with that, I’d just like to thank
you so much for your wonderful and
very insightful answers.
Thank you very much, really appreciate
you having me on to talk to everybody,
giving them some inspiration.
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