Benny Lewis and his website fluent in 3 months were a huge influence to me when I began learning my first new language. With school educations force-feeding you grammar, endless internet resources only providing you with further podcasts and learning materials, and internet forums dominated by language-learning problems and cynically predicted times for fluency acquisition, it was fantastic to have a voice of positivity shining through like Benny.
After reading his guide, I quickly stopped my saga of reading through piles of books on Italian and instead started to immediately find actual Italian people to go and talk to. From that day on my progress has been fantastic, and I used similar principles later on when I went on to learn Japanese. I have his book and advice to thank for that.
During my first three months of learning Italian I would read his blog everyday, hungry for new posts, monitoring my progress and craving to find out just how he was becoming fluent so quickly. Towards the end of those three months this excited craving started to turn more into disappointment as I realised I was never going to be anywhere near fluency by the time the 90 days were up. I wondered how he was managing to do it and I wasn’t.
This was about 2 years ago when Benny first embarked on his crusade to get a C1 in Chinese in just 3 months. I believe his blog has changed a bit since then. His definition of fluency is something along the lines of ‘being able to participate in conversations without having to slow natives down and being able to express myself clearly’. I felt this was a nice definition and target; something practical, unacademic and achievable. He too believed it was achievable, in three months at that, and I think when he started to learn Chinese he honestly believed he would get somewhere near in those 3 months.
To have him talking about reaching that level in a language like Chinese while I was still so far away from anything close in (the comparatively much easier) Italian, was a feeling that bred both intrigue and at times despair. I think it was why I read his blog so avidly, I wanted his secret.
But in the end the secret was simple; he just wasn’t getting fluent in 3 months. Of course in some ways this is no secret… he’ll be the first now to admit that his aim for C1 in Chinese or (recently) Arabic only acts as a high bar that he sets to push himself to go as far as possible.
However I still think that this is at heart a little deceitful and false. I can understand why you would set the bar high, but why to something impossible? An architect who lays down the plans for a building tries to give the shortest time possible for his construction, and a good architect achieves it in this shortest time possible. You don’t need to make ridiculously high aims in order to achieve your maximum, and if you do, why not just say a B2 in Arabic or Chinese? You’ll still be extremely unlikely to get there. One has to admit that in saying a ‘C1’, he is in some way admitting or alluding to that it is within his capability.
In this way he has a brand; fluent in 3 months, and hence he has to maintain the ‘C1’ in his endeavours. Though due to the trials presented to him, over the last 2 years I believe he’s had to change the brand into more of an aim than an actual feasible achievement.
But I must admit that it doesn’t feel nice to be negative about Benny, it makes me feel another naysayer like those I criticised in the first paragraph of this post. I don’t read his blog anymore because I don’t think it offers so much helpful advice once you’re past the initial jerk of getting going in a language, though for many – including myself once – this getting going is the hardest part, and there’s no-one better than him for getting you over that hurdle. For this he is a real great force on the internet, and I’ve met hundreds of expats in my travels who could greatly do with his advice.
I just wanted to spare you from feeling like I did once; being slightly disheartened as if I were – despite my hardest efforts – never able to come even close to this enigmatic authority of online language learning. No-one can get fluent (at least to what I feel is a worthy definition) in 3 months, languages by their nature take time. And I don’t believe admitting this makes me a naysayer, but just a reasonable person. However this doesn’t mean that you can’t still get super impressive after 3 months and be having conversations about anything with anyone you meet. So use Benny and his advice to get there, and have fun along the way, but don’t be bothered about the whole fluent in 3 months thing; it’s just a branding issue that he’s roped himself into.