Benny Lewis. Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World. New York: HarperOne, 2014. pp. vi, 250.
Much attention has been given recently to adapting modern language learning methods to classical languages. What is often missing from these discussions is that the internet, and social media in particular, has become an outlet for dissatisfaction over these very methods. That is, that while Latin and Greek to a certain extent are catching up to, say, the typical French classroom and its methods, apps like Duolingo, resources like Memrise, and ‘conversational’ spaces like Twitter, just to name a few, offer serious challenges and competition to, and have arguably made genuine improvements on, the very methods classics is trying to embrace. Benny Lewis AKA the “Irish polyglot” is a key figure in the alt language world, describing himself as a “language hacker” and running the popular (“almost 1 million monthly readers”!) website Fluent in 3 Months. Lewis has released his first book under the same name, Fluent in 3 Months, and given it the subtitle: “How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World.”
As a language enthusiast myself, I’ve followed the populist, charismatic Lewis for some time and found his advice generally helpful and practical. As a classical languages teacher, I have often wondered how his overtly social, dive-in-head-first approach to acquisition could be applied to Latin and Greek, languages which have traditionally been taught with heavy emphasis on reading and translating, and precisely not through speaking and listening. This is, however, beginning to change, as active/living Latin methods make increasing inroads into classical language instruction. Accordingly, Lewis’s approach perhaps will find as receptive an audience as ever with Latin/Greek teacher and students.
The review I offer below has two aims—1. to describe and evaluate the book’s strengths and weaknesses to language learners in general, but also, 2. to discuss how Lewis’s views, strategies and specific advice can be applied to learning classical languages.
Lewis begins his book with what he calls the “missing ingredient” in language learning—passion. Before any headway can be made in learning a language, Lewis makes it clear that you need to be clear about your motivation for doing so. Being clear on motivation helps in setting more specific, more reasonable goals and helps to establish an arc of steady improvement. Motivation should be intrinsic, e.g. “I want to learn Latin in order to read the philosophical works of Seneca.” Compare this with poorly defined motivation, e.g. “I want to learn Latin”, or extrinsic motivation, e.g. “I want to learn Latin in order to complete my university’s language requirement without having to speak or listen.” Asking students to consider carefully and define their own “why?” of undertaking Latin or Greek, even if it changes over time, gives them a clear idea of where they are headed.
All of this focus on motivation goes a long way toward rethinking language as a goal in and of itself. Rather, it is reformulated as an ongoing process with incremental goals, milestones and achievements along the way. The present progressive of “language learning” makes all the difference: we don’t talk about a “language having been learned”. (Or think of the pernicious idea of the exit-level university language course—What exactly have students learned after four semesters of, say, German? Something hopefully! But would we as teachers or they as student say that they learned German?) Lewis quotes another alt language personality on this point, All Japanese All the Time’s Khatzumoto: “You don’t learn a language, you get used to it.” Latin students, no different from any other language learners, would do well to latch onto this advice—worry less about being proficient and focus instead on becoming better and better. To put this in perspective, even a mediocre intro Latin student still knows more Latin than statistically speaking 99.9% of the population. Let this provide some sense of accomplishment, one which can form the stepping stone towards ever increasing comfort and facility with the language.
With the “passion” manifesto for language learning laid out, Chapter 1 moves immediately into dispelling twenty “common language learning myths.” While I would love to see more evidence-based research on these points, the chapter is a wonderfuly assertive statement of the potential of most students once they adopt a willingness to work hard, a challenge mindset, a tolerance for risk, and a genuine desire to acquire the language and improve their skills. Any language instructor who has despaired from overhearing a student boldly (proudly?) declare “I’m not good at languages” will find solace in Lewis’s words and perhaps find some helpful starting points for disarming students of such ungrounded, self-imposed limitations on their language abilities. This chapter alone could be assigned in the first week of Intro Greek simply to incline students toward what Prof. Carol Dweck has labelled a growth mindset. In a sense, much of Lewis’s argument here could be reduced to “Make the time and change your priorities.” Perhaps easier said than done, but a motivating reminder can often do wonders.
For autodidacts—the overwhelming majority of Lewis’s target audience, one assumes—Lewis is refreshingly practical, not to mention frugal, on topics such as what the “perfect” intro language course might look like. Better to just get started with a phrase book supplemented by the increasingly numerous (and often free) online courses or mass-market books from the local library. Work your way through what is at hand and what holds your interest: “Any energy you put into researching the best possible way to begin would always be better spent on actually learning and using the language.” Momentum is a key word for Lewis. That is, building up and maintaining enthusiasm, gradually pushing ourselves to improve, doing whatever is needed not to backslide, not to grow bored, not to stagnate—these are the characteristics of language progress and improvement.
The next chapters begin to offer more pragmatic approaches and techniques for language learning. Chapter 2 introduces “missions,” i.e. sensible strategies for compartmentalizing language learning and creating achievable short-term goals. In a certain sense, what we have here is a David Allen-style “Getting Languages Done.” This project management approach to language avoids the trap of setting “Learn Latin” as a goal. From the perspective of the SMART model of setting goals, “Learn Latin” is not specific, measurable, achievable, relevant or time-bound. But “Learn 25% of the Latin Core Vocabulary this week” or “Spend this month reading the First Catilinarian” or “Have a five-minute Skype conversation in Latin about what I did over the summer” are. Setting reasonable parameters and benchmarks allows us to maintain momentum and maintain a true sense of what we know and where best to apply our energies in filling knowledge gaps and improving weaknesses.
Chapter 3 takes on memorization, a necessary skill for language acquisition and one which students often consider an obstacle. For Lewis, memorization—especially, since language should not be considered a collection of facts, but rather a social instrument—is unlikely to to be efficient, and probably unlikely to effective, at the level of the individual word. Instead, the benefit comes with memorizing large chunks of foreseeably useful material (e.g. introductions), something he refers to a “mini-scripts.” Rather than learn a handful of first- and second-declension nouns at the outset, it would be better to internalize a canned delivery along the lines of—Quid est nomen tibi? Unde venis? Quid novi? Quo fungeris? Cur linguae Latinae studes? Between these questions and the answers to these questions, through memorization of the scripts, one begins to develop a personalized, meaningful, and, most importantly, socially useful vocabulary.
Lewis recommends taking a video of yourself going through the scripts to build comfort and confidence. The video doesn’t lie—you see where you stand with your script, you provide yourself a mirror into your own language performance, and have immediate feedback on where to apply future efforts. Emphasis throughout the chapter—the book, in fact—is on “real conversations” regardless of other methods help to build fluency. So, in Chapter 4, Lewis warns against learning languages in isolation or in communities that do not force you to stretch your abilities, expand your skill set, and grow as a language learner. Speaking about avoiding immersion in potentially immersive environments, for example, moving to Athens and managing not to speak any Greek, he warns against the “expat bubble,” that is “a protective wheel of friendships that forms when a group of people live or work abroad for any length of time, and everyone within that bubble speaks your native language.” Latin classes have a sort of built-in version of the “expat bubble.” Students all want to succeed, they all want to help each other succeed, they all want to feel comfortable and, especially when grades are on the line, they all want to feel consistently in control of the course and its content. This makes it so tempting and so easy to fall back on English, i.e. to use English as the primary vehicle for teaching Latin and testing comprehension (traditionally by translation into English). The expat bubble can serve as a cautionary example of how to create learning environments that truly foster language growth.
Immersion is one option for such an environment, but the internet has greatly expanded the availability of immersive possibilities. Lewis recommends extending your network of conversation partners via Skype, Couchsurfing.org, iTalki, etc. to which we could add several classically minded resources, like the Circulus Latinus Interretialis. Conversation with native speakers is particularly valued, something which seems at first sight to be an obvious disadvantage to Latin and Greek students. Still, Lewis reminds readers of the value of “learning with other non-natives,” that is, working with people who understand the learning curve of picking up Latin as a second language and have already worked through (or are currently working through) many of the same problems.
Chapter 5, “Speaking From Day One,” is the heart of the book, bringing together the motivational material of the opening chapters with the practical advice from the preceding three. Lewis has told you that anyone can learn to speak their chosen language and has given some tips from preparation, all that’s left is actually speaking. The next actions are straightforward: find someone online, write up a mini-script, learn the vocabulary that is likely to come up in conversation, and talk. “No conjugation tables, no lists of the top thousand most frequently used words, no memorizing every possible sequence of sentences—just a few phrases and words for a very limited first exchange.” All motivation is channelled toward lowering the learner’s affective filter. Use the wrong word, make an agreement mistake, fall into awkward pauses, but, despite all apparent difficulties, keep talking. No prior restraint, no mid-conversation flight back to English, keep talking. The conversation completed, now is the time for corrective action. Figure out where things went wrong. Look up the word you couldn’t latch on to. Review the subjunctive use you weren’t quite confident it. Act on any and all feedback from your partner. Do what ever you need to do at this point to avoid these problems in the future. Aim for “constant conversation practice”—channel your energy into making the next conversation better than the last.
This is where more traditional methods can become particular effective in Lewis’s opinion. He sees the benefits of more formal training after a certain intermediate level is attained. At this point, the student has an idea of what needs correction and which skills need honing. Courses allow us to do this as efficiently as possible, and Lewis in particular notes a few preferred speaking-focused series such as Teach Yourself, Colloquial, and Assimil. (One imagines that the Assimil Le Latin sans Peine would qualify.) Above all, though, emphasis must be on engagement with and growth in the target language. Lewis encourages what I’ve come to call the “English out” method, that is, it is necessary to work as much as possible in your target language without recourse to a language in which you are already very strong: “No English! This is the core of a truly communicative learning approach.” Ørberg’s “direct method” in the Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, though not conversational, would accordingly seem to be a valuable resource for someone trying to follow Lewis’s strategies in developing Latin fluency. Lewis concludes this chapter with a reminder to be “active” from the start—a key word that should resonate with like-minded Latinists who have rallied around exactly the same word.
Chapter 6, the weakest in the book for reasons I explain below, is another attempt at practical advice aimed at getting off to a solid start in specific languages, and since Latin and Greek are not discussed, I pass over the specifics.
In Chapter 7, Lewis considers what options are available to students once they attain a minimal level of “fluency” in a language, that is, how to turn a solid foundation into a permanent structure. Lewis unsurprisingly argues against excessive grammar study. Basically, grammar study needs to be a way of improving language skills, not a goal in its own right. The grammar-translation method traditionally associated with learning Latin or Greek would not be completely out of place. But for Lewis these types of exercises should be associated with pushing limits, training, reaching what language researchers call the “zone of proximal development.” Just as you can’t expect optimal fitness by over-training and over-conditioning, but rather through a regimen of physically demanding workouts followed by periods of rest, language acquisition can be more efficient and effective if balance is maintained between regular, sustained exposure to simpler input and rigorous, focused training sessions. Lewis suggests using just 10-20% of beginner efforts on reading and passive listening (and none to writing!); the remainder should be devoted to conversation—a striking difference between traditional classes in classical languages which can be nearly entirely focused on reading.
The next two chapters handle minor variations on themes which pop up earlier in the book: Chapter 8, on what it means to pass for a native speaker, and Chapter 9, on turning work in one language into a lifestyle of learning languages. Even the most devoted members of the grex Latinorum loquentium will find little genuine application for blending in and passing for a native Latin speaker (whatever that might mean). Still, Lewis rightly points out that some level of comfort with a new language comes from some place outside of the language itself. He advocates “observation and time spent with natives” and basically absorbing the cultural contexts of the language. Different Latin and Greek learners will have different ideas about what makes up the “cultural context” of the language, but the larger point holds. Learning Latin should not be divorced from learning Latinitas, learning Greek from Hellenismus.
Chapter 9 looks at the aspirations of the potential polyglot. By this point in the book, Lewis hopes to have demystified the seemingly awesome, once unattainable mammoth project of learning a language. So, of course, now that learning one language has been placed within reach, why not two, three, sixteen, etc. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to assume that many people attracted to studying the classical languages might have a broader interest in language in general and will find this chapter relatable. As far as practical advice, I think that Lewis’s discussion of “laddering,” namely using one language to study another, is particular interesting. Classical language learning ought to make better use of laddering, either teaching Latin through Greek or vice versa, or perhaps with a more coordinated, simultaneous teaching of both languages. Lewis writes: “”You don’t have to go through learning an oblique language of terminology every time.” Subjects and objects are subjects and objects. Purpose clauses are purpose clauses. Indirect statement is a feature of both languages. And so on and so on. Valuable instructional time is lost in Latin and Greek classrooms through repeating this material. An autodidact learning both languages at the same time could work through these points of syntax and constructions efficiently, using both the similarities between the languages and their differences to gain a more thorough, comparative understanding and greater overall proficiency.
If Chapter 5 is the theoretical heart of the book, the last chapter, Chapter 10 is its pragmatic heart. The secret to language success in 2014 largely stems from the information sharing and social primacy of the information age. Lewis’s social approach to language learning has of course always been possible. That said, the internet—and the social internet specifically—has dramatically reduced the friction, not to mention the cost, involved in initiating and developing these relationships. This final chapter is a catch-all clearing house of budget-friendly tools and resources. Most of what is presented here has already popped up here and there throughout the book, but it is helpful to have it presented together as the book winds down. The chapter includes a particularly helpful set of “conversation connectors,” not substantive vocabulary but transitional formulas and, well, filler designed to prevent conversation from stalling. The Living Latin community could benefit from a translation of these connectors and the addition of Latin specific formulas.
In a very brief conclusion, Lewis reminds readers that this book is not just an opportunity for him to pontificate on language miscellany, but rather that he is devoted language learner himself, regularly putting these ideas into practice, out there on fluentin3months.com, out there as @irishpolyglot on Twitter, etc. Like many authors, he asks his readers for anecdotes, feedback, etc.—but given his extremely public lifestyle and persona, the appeal seems particularly sincere. He writes that “the most important” thing that could come out of the book is for readers to “share [their] newfound encouragement and enthusiasm with other potential language learners so that we can help bridge the gaps between cultures and remove barriers by learning one another’s language.” A respectable mission and one which, if Lewis is correct, is more practical than ever because of the proliferation of low-cost, good-quality language resources and, of course, social media.
Now to risk a critical cliche—judging the book by its cover. The book is designed to look like an oversized American passport. Dark blue with matte texture—it even has die-cut rounded corners. The whole thing seems a bit heavy handed. The European edition on the other hand has an inviting white cover in a traditional format. If this version has the weakness of seeming a bit Internet 2.0, it also fits the book better.
Another minor quibble is Lewis’s tendency towards anecdote. Lewis is clearly a talented and inspiring figure and, based on the popularity of his website/blog, in particularly the very active forums, as good as any other language populist. But what works for one person does not necessarily work for all and when the book is at its most anecdotal, it is at its weakest. The section on the “keyword method” and mnemonic devices for vocabulary acquisition in Chapter 3 is one example. I have never found mnemonics effective personally, but that said, I’m not fundamentally opposed to them either. It is just that the discussion of specific examples has an effect similar to discussing weird dreams: they are so specific, so personal, that they can be tedious to read about. A similar problem of specificity crops up in Chapter 6—it’s right there in the title, “Tips for Starting Specific Languages”—a tiresome chapter too short to be anything but general and too long to be casually interesting. This kind of material on bootstrapping any given language is something Lewis’s website excels at, especially in the forums, and that is where the contents of this chapter ought to have stayed.
Lewis defines fluency as “speaking a language accurately and with facility.” It is not meant to be mastery or expertise and Lewis would argue that these characteristics better describe a life spent with a language, not any sort of introductory or even intermediate exposure. But Lewis’s idea of fluency as a minimal standard aiming for basic conversation can be attained in a reasonable amount of time—the title says “three months,” but I think it’s best to consider this a sliding window based on how much time and effort you put in. So all this boils down to the question: Can you become “fluent” in Latin or Greek in “3 months”? I think so and, despite the fact that these languages are not treated in the book, with only minor variation of what’s offered here. And with the rise in interest in spoken Latin (and to a lesser degree, spoken Greek) there is even a ready audience for these ideas.
As opposed to many modern language students, Latin and Greek students might not be so distraught by sentences like “I’ve been studying X language for Y years and I can’t even hold a basic conversation.” The fact is that the majority of classical language students (now and in the generations where most of our teachers learned the language) received very little spoken Latin practice and consequently a limited opportunity to hear the language, especially outside of recitation of existing material or exercise work. This is changing and the rise of Living/Active Latin methods, practices, activities, etc. have passionate devotees. Nevertheless there should be some relief in the idea that despite limited emphasis on speaking/hearing Latin and Greek, we are perhaps no worse off than modern language students who learned how to introduce themselves to a new business client or order coffee in a restaurant in week one. From this perspective, as it stands, we are in good company. If we have anxieties about speaking Latin, its helpful to remember that there are even more people anxious about speaking Arabic or Russian or Mandarin or… well, the list goes on.
Moreover, the very limitations that seem most obvious to a student willing to dive into spoken Latin—i.e. limited supply of language partners, geographically dispersed, with different interests and widely varying skill levels—are precisely the limitations for which Lewis proposes remedies, even for languages with millions of native speakers. The internet has had a leveling effect and, while it still may be more difficult to find a willing Latin-language partner than, say, a Spanish one, it is by no means impossible. The people are there, the interest is there, and people plus interest equals community. The rise in recent years of conventicula, cenae Latinae, and internet courses delivered in the target language like Telepaideia all testify to this. Lewis’s motivational psychology is perhaps better suited to Latin and Greek now than at any time in the past, because we now live in a time when I can open up Twitter, pose a question Latine to the world at large, perhaps with the hashtag #loqlat or #TweetInLatin, and can be reasonably certain that I will get a response.
Lewis is a compelling motivator—he genuinely seems concerned with normalizing second-language learning and bringing a polyglot mentality to a mass audience by overcoming long-held assumptions about how languages should be acquired. Moreover—and this is key—he has put these methods into practice himself, documenting publicly his wins and losses, and building a community around his ideas. The social web has been not just the vehicle for his fluency campaigns but really the product itself, all of which makes this book a convenient distillation of Lewis’s ideas at a moment in time. It is a quick read. It has to be—every minute spent here is a minute not devoted to using your new language.
Lewis is at his best when he is telling you what you already know. Focus. Dig in and do the work. Surround yourself with experts, enthusiasts, and other like-minded people who will support your new habit. Lewis is very good at keeping these persistent reminders in the forefront without becoming a nag. His language slips occasionally toward corny—“There are seven days in a week, and ‘someday’ is not one of them.”—but these can be forgiven when balanced against the common-sense tone and immediate practicability of the majority of his advice. I could easily see myself recommending this book to a student. A quick read that reinforces confidence and purpose in language study while dispelling the rationalizing behind the most common, but also rather frequently encountered, excuses could make a real difference in a beginner’s outlook and subsequent progress.