Interview: Meet Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot
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Interview: Meet Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot

ON THE OTHER end of the line, about as far from the January blues as you can get, is linguistic wonder boy and self-professed nomad Benny Lewis.

Currently in Goa, southern India, he is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip flops and “the sun is splitting the stones”.

It’s a long way from home in Cavan, where Lewis grew up and stayed put until his late teens. “I hadn’t been outside Ireland until I was 19,” he explains.

Lewis did the rite-of-passage J1 visa trip to upstate New York twice on summer break while studying engineering at UCD. After that he moved to Spain to work but he made no inroads learning Spanish until he had been in Valencia for six months.

Today, Lewis can boast (although he doesn’t) fluently in Italian, French, Spanish, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Irish and Esperanto.

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He can hold his own in Mandarin Chinese, Dutch, and American Sign Language and has dabbled in Hungarian, Egyptian Arabic, Quechua, Polish, Turkish, Thai, Czech, Tagalog, Japanese, and if he ever gets caught short at a Star Trek convention, he can fall back on his Klingon.

Despite the impressive list, Lewis insists he doesn’t have a knack for languages. “I was completely miserable at languages [in school], I did pass Irish but barely passed that… and I got a C in German.” By 21, he was still very much a mono linguist. So was in living in Spain that did it?

That living abroad is the best way to learn a language in a common misconception, says Lewis. “I always tell people you don’t have to travel to learn languages, just hop on Skype", he says.

That’s not just a nice soundbyte; Lewis practises what he preaches and has just finished a Skype call with a teacher to keep his mastery level French ‘polished’. “I don’t need to fly to France for that, I just need a French speaker, that’s the trick I’ve learned.”

Lewis’ ‘tricks’, refined by trial and error, for learning languages are more revolutionary that he gives himself credit for.

After a few years on the road as a freelance translator, he got fed up of people telling him he was a ‘genius’, something he genuinely refutes. “It’s not about me being clever, it’s about throwing yourself at it, so you have no choice but to learn the language.”

After convincing many fellow travellers about his approach to learning and seeing the impact it made on their lives, he wanted to get through to more people. Using himself as a guinea pig, he blogged his efforts — learning languages by speaking, uploading videos to YouTube and sharing “the success and the failures”.

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His blog, Fluent in 3 Months, blew up, and a book followed.

“I wanted to get through to as many people as possible with encouragement and advice — especially to adults who didn’t do well at languages in school. It’s not about talent — talent is irrelevant.”

The book became an immediate bestseller on Amazon and attention from The New York Times and Forbes followed.

Lewis says he receives “hundreds of emails a day” from people thanking him for the push they needed to “talk to their family, for work or travel… It really reminds me I have to keep this up.”

In 2013, Lewis was named National Geographic’s Traveller of the Year but life on the road is something that he knows he can’t keep up. “I’ve been on the road without a base for the last 12 years… At this stage I’m running low on motivation to keep it up forever. I’m definitely looking forward to stepping down,” he says.

benny great wall-n Benny speeding along The Great Wall of China
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Speaking the local language has allowed Lewis to go native, avoiding the expat scene and getting a fully immersive cultural experience wherever he goes, and it’s also meant bagging the best deals but there are catches.

“Everything you own has to weigh 23kg or less so that’s a big limitation.”

As far as terrible travel tales go, he says the worst was running out of money in Italy and having to sleep on a rock with no bedding, no blanket and a backpack as a pillow. It’s something that has made the ever-upbeat explorer appreciate the comfort of a bed eternally.

In happier times, Lewis met his girlfriend on the road two years ago and convinced her to join him on his adventure. “It’s great when you travel as much as I do to find someone you can spend the rest of your days with,” he says.

Still, homesickness creeps in. “In India I miss that the tap water isn’t drinkable and mashed potatoes don’t taste like mashed potatoes, but they are little things… In Ireland we take it for granted but the old expression that ‘A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met’… I find that’s more valid in Ireland than it is in other places.”

Having come through the Leaving Certificate in Ireland, Lewis is adamant that the bad reputation the Irish have for learning new languages is unfair, and entirely down to the way we are taught in school. The good news, he says, is things are changing, especially with our native tongue.

“I’m not going to debate Kantian philosophy in Irish any day soon but I am happy to chat,” says Lewis about his “intermediate” level Irish. After the full Peig Sayers experience in school he got back into the language at age 25, moved to the Gaeltacht for two months and spent his time “living and breathing Irish and refusing to do anything else”.

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His hopes for the language are optimistic. It’s consistently in the top languages people on his website say they are learning and with TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta he sees the “dead language with no relevance” taught at school coming back to life.

Technology has had an enormous effect on the way we learn too according to the tech-savvy traveller. “Now you’ve got soap operas and podcasts in Irish. I can change my smart phone and my computer to only be in Irish if I want to. I’m sitting in India right now but I can click two buttons and watch Ros na Rún.”

For anyone who has resolved to take up a new language in 2015, Lewis’ advice is this: “The first thing I always say is you have to speak the language from day one.

A lot of people think ‘I have to study and buy a book and learn all the grammar and words’. I would say that’s important but what’s much more important is that you are using the language, so find a native speaker or another learner and just try to talk to them.”

And the key to his approach? Forget about making mistakes.

“My goal when I start off is to make 200 mistakes a day. I speak like Tarzan — “me want go supermarket” — people don’t care about it if you are messing up their language, it’s not about being a perfectionist, it’s about speaking.”