Benny Lewis: “Language Hacking” | Talks at Google


BENNY LEWIS: Thank
you very much. [APPLAUSE] Hey, everyone. I want to talk to you
today about a little bit of a life of adventure. I have the same background
many of you have. I studied electronic
engineering, right here in UC-D.
And I didn’t really know what that was
going to lead to. I just found the one
thing that I was good at. I was good at maths,
I was good at science, and I rolled with it. And I didn’t know where
that would take me. And what happened was I did
just OK in my final exams. And I kind of felt a
little disappointed. I didn’t want to be
just an OK engineer. And in the end, my engineering
did come back to help me a lot. And I want to talk
about how that ties in with this whole
Jason Bourne idea. So after I finished
my engineering degree, I started world travels. And I had been
homeless for 13 years. Everything I owned had to
weigh less than 23 kilograms, because that’s the weight limit. And I would go to places
for three months at a time, because that’s the
tourist visa limit. And I would just
keep hopping around. And as I did– come on in. As I was hopping around, I tried
to learn the local language. I know a lot of people
here have the ability to speak multiple languages. You might have done English
as you were growing up, if you’re from another country. You might have had an experience
living abroad as an intern, or done an Erasmus here. I didn’t have that myself. I barely passed German
for the leaving cert. I just got like
a low C. And then I moved to Spain after
I graduated, lived there for six months, and I just
spoke English the whole time. But something changed
along the way. I figured out what
I was doing wrong, and I figured out how I
could hack language learning. So I’ll get to that
in a little bit. But first I want to get
to the kind of stuff that I tried to
do with my career to see how I could find
this job that could really make a difference, how I could
feel like I am, like, having an adventure while I’m working. So I’ve had a lot of
different positions over the 13 years traveling. I’m a blogger. My blog gets a million
unique visitors per month, very big blog. I don’t have any background
in English– writing English, I should say. And I manage to do that. Professional speaker, like now. If I hold it in the
same hand, like this. Yeah. Of course, written a few books. I wrote these four books over
the last year, had another book before that. I was a professional translator. This is the first time that I
managed to have a lot of fun with engineering,
because for many years, I didn’t really know what to
do with my engineering degree. I thought maybe, you know,
it was fun, I studied it, but it’s not going to
tie in with something else I might want to do. But after I learned
the languages, and I did some certificates
in the languages, it turned out I was in a
unique position, because there are very few English-speaking
engineers who speak other languages. It’s one reason why they’re
so sought after in Google. You know? Obviously, you’re going
to bump into a lot of multilingual engineers
in this building. It’s not going to happen, as
likely, in other buildings. So I took that,
and I translated. I translated technical
documents from French, Spanish, and Italian to English. And that was the
first job that let me travel the world as a
location-independent worker. I’ve also been a consultant. Those are all recent jobs. But like I said, I’ve had
many, many, many jobs. I was a youth
hostel receptionist. I was an English teacher,
because you end up doing that a lot
while you travel. I was a maths teacher,
ended up using that. Worked for Johns
Hopkins University. This was for what we
lovingly call “nerd camp.” Happiest place on earth. You know? I loved it. I got to put some energy into
teaching them about Pythagoras. I was, like, you know,
saying, “In a world where this cult of people who
worshipped triangles,” and it’s great. It’s the kind of
place you can do that. So I used a lot of
that in my travels. I got to teach maths. I got to use
engineering principles. And of course, I actually
worked as an engineer. I worked in Paris at a–
this is my gorgeous desk with the chaotic
mess all over it, where I was translating
software and working as a pre-sales engineer. OK. But I’m still not done. There’s so many
other jobs I’ve had. My first job, when I was
12, was a FTSE 100 investor, because I was the
only guy in my town who knew how to use a computer. And someone just wanted to,
like, invest in the FTSE 100, and he didn’t know how
to use the software. So I stepped up to it. And I was tech support at
the local computer store. I had a lot of office jobs. This thing here? That is a laryngeal mask array,
that you put on your larynx after surgery. And the only reason I know
that is because I arranged the world’s literature
on laryngeal mask arrays alphabetically
and chronologically over two months. Yes. Very, very not fun, that job. I was a race car controller. Not in the Mario world. I wasn’t in that universe
of Super Nintendo. But I was someone
controlling the race cars, because I used my
engineering background to kind of explain that I
could use the equipment better. And then, nothing to do with
engineering, I ran a yoga shop. The only reason
I got that job is because it was in
California, and they found my Irish accent charming. They found it soothing. So I didn’t even know– it was
like, a pregnant lady might come in and say, which
yoga mat is better for me, as a pregnant lady? And I’d be, like, uh,
well, ah, you know, as an Irish lad, I would
say, this mat has good zen. Not really knowing what
I was talking about. And it worked. I was a first aid assistant. Do a quick first
aid course and you can work in, like, these camps,
like the one I was working at. And I could actually
help the kids when they ran into
medical problems. OK, so that’s kind of just an
overview of the kind of work that I’ve had. I’ve met people
who have used a lot of their technical abilities
to really get– like, get out there and travel
the world with it. You could do, like, web
development and coding. And you could be
an online coach. You can write, like I’ve done. Met people who earn a
living playing poker, you know, just on these
online forums and stuff. And there’s loads of other
location-independent jobs. But the big question I always
get is, when you’re traveling, is how you can afford it. So all those jobs I
mentioned, I didn’t have those lined up for me
when I arrived somewhere. I had to actually figure
out how to spend less money. So, in the whole kind of Jason
Bourne theme, this behind me is Palolem Beach. That’s the beach that
Jason Bourne was living in, in the second movie. It was shot there the same
summer that I was living there. I didn’t even realize it. This is back when
it was being shot. And I was– like,
I was kind of, see, I kind of have this
Jason Bourne lifestyle. And I have three passports. I managed to hack that one, too. And this beach? Never ran into him. Wish I did. But this hut here, on
this beach in India, I got it for about
four euro a night. And the thing that got it
for me was learning how to integrate with the culture. This, for me, is like the
feeling of being a spy, is I got to try to see
how well I can blend in. So I traveled India with
an Indian friend of mine. And he owed me a lot
of favors, because I was very active in couchsurfing,
if you guys have ever heard of that website. I’ve hosted over
2,000 couchsurfers. I used couchsurfing as a means
to practice languages for free, because as I would be living
somewhere for three months, since I had all
of those jobs, I’d be able to afford to get
an OK apartment to myself. But I found that when I
did that, I wasn’t actually interacting with
a lot of people, whereas before, when I would
be– I would have flatmates, I would be using them
as my circle of friends. Well, with couchsurfing, I would
just welcome people to my home. And I would try to practice
languages with them, or get to know their culture. And one time in Brazil, I hosted
55 people at the same time, during the Carnival,
for a whole week. Very, very long queues for
the bathroom that week. And that– those 55
people, one of them included Rahul,
my Indian friend. So years later, when
I met him in India, I said, I really want to
get to know the country. And he said, I’m not just going
to show you the country, Benny. I’m going to show you how
to think like an Indian. So a place like this, if
you were to walk up to it and have a white face, they
would say 20 euro a night, which actually seems like
a pretty good price, when you compare it to what we
would be used to paying. But my friend, he
said, no, no, no, no. That’s not how it
works in India. You’ve got to haggle. And I say, oh, haggle. OK. So if they say 20, I say 10,
and we meet in the middle. And he’s like, no, no,
no, no, no, no, no. That’s not how it works. The way it works, if
you’re ever in India, and you want to haggle a
price– and this has actually worked for me around the world. It’s a very good
psychological technique. You never mention
the price yourself. You just mention the
reasons it should go down. So I walked up to this place. The lady was ready
to share it with us. And I said, oh,
how much is this? And she said, the equivalent
in rupees of about 20 euro. And I was like, 20 euro? No, no, it’s OK. And I started walking away,
like, just disappointed. And then she said,
OK, OK, OK, OK. 15 euro. And I looked over my shoulder,
and I was like, I don’t know. It’s, like, right on the beach. How am I supposed
to sleep at night with all the waves crashing? You know? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. And I started
walking away again. And she said, OK, OK. 10 euro. 10 euro. And still I wasn’t
looking at her and, like, warmly showing, yeah, yeah, I’m
definitely going to get this. You’ve got to be
obnoxiously uninterested. So it’s, like, looking
over my shoulder like the place was, like,
smelling bad– looking at it, thinking, but isn’t
it facing the sun? How am I supposed to read
a book on this balcony with the sun in my eyes? And she’s like, ugh, OK, fine. And keep in mind,
this is the sun setting over a beautiful
landscape, you know, with a gorgeous, like, view
of an island and everything. But I reframed it. And I kept giving
more and more reasons. I was like, yeah, how’s the AC? Does it have, like,
various settings? And she was like,
there’s just a fun. It’s like, just a fan? OK, no way. And then eventually I got
it down to the three or four euro that it was. So a lot of what
I’ve tried to do to get the price
of everything lower is to try to understand
the local culture, try to integrate better. And this has given me
that Jason Bourne sense of being a spy, that
I’m almost going to be mistaken for a local. It’s not going to
happen in India, but what my goal has been in
countries like India and China, is be mistaken for
somebody who’s lived there for a very long time. And then they’re less likely
to take advantage of you. So in Egypt, for instance, I
wanted to get better prices. So the first thing I did was
try to learn a little bit of Egyptian Arabic in advance. And whenever people think
about learning a language, they think the best thing to
do is to go to the location. Fly to the country. And I didn’t find this
worked for me, because in– when I got to Spain
first, I got off the plane, and I just imagined, in my
head, I’m in the country. So I’m just going to
automatically learn the language. I’m going to inhale Spanish
air and exhale espanol. But that didn’t happen,
because I gravitated towards the English speakers. So I’ve skipped all of that,
and what I do now, that I feel is a lot more useful, is
I learn via the internet. I find someone and Google
Hangout, or I Skype them, or I text them, WhatsApp,
or whatever I can do. And I get in touch, and
we practice that way. I have a certain
virtual immersion. This, for me, has
been a game changer, because it means I put the time
into learning the language. But then when I get to the
country, I’m not in language learning mode. I’m in culture learning mode. So in Egypt, for instance,
when I first arrived, I had some basic
Egyptian Arabic, enough to get some conversations. And they still spoke
back to me in English. And I was like,
ugh, I don’t get it. What’s going on? I put all this work in. But then I tried
something different. I sat down in a
cafe, pen and paper, and I started making notes of
how Egyptian men around my age were different to me. And maybe I wasn’t
showing the culture enough of a– enough respect. I wasn’t trying to integrate. And I actually noticed
a lot of things. I noticed that they groom
themselves differently. I needed to grow
out, like, a beard. Didn’t do a very good job. My Facebook friends
called it a porn ‘tache. You know? But I got somewhere. I was trying. And I would wear, like,
t-shirts, shorts, cap. And they don’t dress
like that in Egypt. So I tried to
integrate everything, and I even learned how
to walk like an Egyptian. And it’s not this. If you’ve ever played
the old game “Frogger,” where you got to, like, hop
across the road, like this, and go between the cars, that’s
kind of what life in Egypt– in Cairo, especially– is like. You have eight lanes of traffic,
never a pedestrian crossing. So if you ever want to
walk like an Egyptian, just, like, grab your phone,
and just kind of stroll across like this. And the cars will
swerve around you. And everyone will think
that Egyptian guy, he knows what he’s doing. You know? And after I did that,
whenever I tried to find accommodation or
haggle the price of something, it changed a lot. Wasn’t just speaking
the language, it was speaking the culture. And that gets prices
down dramatically. So that’s kind of
something to keep in mind. If you wanted to travel,
you don’t actually have to have wads
of cash for it. You just have to try to get to
know how people do it locally. But the way you use the wads
of cash does make a difference. It’s all about mentality. So I do have to
admit, it’s true. I’m a millionaire. Let’s get that out there. This is proof. This is me holding one
million Indonesian rupiah, which is about 80 euro. So the lifestyle you lead makes
you feel like a millionaire sometimes, even if you’re just
an Indonesian millionaire. So I try to see, how
can I hack those things? How can I try to get things
that would not necessarily be that expensive, but
still feel expensive? And for that, I would try to
get the right connections. So I tried to learn to
be more outgoing, which was hard for me. I was a very shy person. Growing up, in
university, I just– I became the best player of
Snake for the Nokia phone, because every time I
go out to socialize, I’d, like, pretend like
I’m texting, you know, my thousands of
friends that I’m, like, so busy texting all the
time, when I was just playing that game on the phone,
because I just– I couldn’t approach people. I was so scared of
what they would think. But I found that just letting
go of that a little bit, and trying to get to
know a lot of people, has given me a
lot of connections to get to do a lot of
things that I always thought only millionaires could do. So whenever people
would ask me, you know, how can I do that,
if I’m shy, you know? And the best example
I can think of that I was able to change
this for somebody was while I was learning
German in Berlin, one of my methods of
learning the language is to speak only in that language. Sticking to that– of never
switching to English while I’m in the several hours time
I’m using the language. So I met a German lady, and
she wanted to practice English. And she was introduced to
me by some friends of hers. And she never would
have walked up to me, because she told me,
the first thing she said is that she’s very shy. And she wanted to
practice English, but I was in German mode. So I still wanted to help her. I wanted to give
her some advice, and there were some
Americans in the same event, so I wanted to make sure
she could talk to them. And I said, yeah,
those guys there, I was talking to them before. They’re very friendly. You should go say hi. And she said, I can’t do that. I’m too shy. And I didn’t want to just,
like, do the work for her. I wanted to help her
get over this shyness. So I tried to think
to myself, how can I show this lady how she can
do it, so that when I’m gone, she’ll be able to
approach people and expand her social circle to
learn English better? And then I had an idea. So she was holding a glass
of something, some drink. And I said, do you know how
blood flow to your brain makes you smarter? And she was like, but
that doesn’t sound right. I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Trust me. Trust me. And like, if you were
to raise your arm, for instance, then more blood
goes down, up into your brain, and you will be smarter. And this whole time, like,
she was very, very confused, and wondering, you know,
this guy is kind of weird. What’s he talking about? But what she didn’t
know is we were kind of moving in a
particular direction. So I was moving her towards
those two American guys, and completely distracting her
with this nonsense about blood and hands and stuff. And then, at the right moment,
when we were close enough, and I was moving
her arm up and down, I clinked her glass against
theirs, and I ran away. Then, one hour later,
she came up to me and she said she had
the best night ever. She got to talk to these guys. She found out they live
in the same neighborhood. They’re going to be hanging
out all weekend long. And she made all of
these connections. And what she realized was that
the shyness she was feeling was mostly a lot of
self-fulfilling prophecy. She was telling herself,
if I go up to them, they’re going to laugh
at me for trying. They’re going to think
my English is bad. They’re going to think
my pronunciation is off. They’re going to think I’m
not an interesting person. But what I did is I took
all of that away from her. I took the ability to
talk herself out of it. I took it away. And by just presenting the
moment, she just said hello. And it went from there. And that’s the kind
of thing that I do when I want to expand
my network, to expand my opportunities to have
that different lifestyle. I see somebody that I
would like to talk to, and I don’t start an
inner dialogue of, OK, what’s a clever way to start a
conversation with that person? No, if I say that, they’re
going to think I’m an idiot. And I wouldn’t think that. I’d just see someone, hello. So try to think of that. If you want to, like,
get out of your shell, and you want to, you know,
experience different things, and you see an opportunity,
grab it immediately. Do not even think for a second. That is going to lead
to so many more things. It might lead to
some embarrassment. You might make a
couple of mistakes. But my whole lifestyle,
especially thanks to language learning, is I
have a goal to make at least 200 mistakes a day. And when you go up
to somebody, you try to talk to them, most
of the time, it’s fine. Everything works out great. And sometimes they
kind of are confused, why do you talk to them? Then you just be
like, OK, great. That’s one of my mistakes
ticked off the list. And it helps a lot
when you do that with so many aspects of life. OK, and then of
course, it helps you to feel like you get
to live a lot richer. I’ve– the kind of
people I’ve met, they’ve given me these kind
of different opportunities. When I went to
Japan, for instance, I tried to build a relationship
with my Airbnb host. You know, I was
emailing him in advance. But then we arrived, and the
keys were not left out for me. And I was tired,
exhausted from jet lag. And kind of sitting outside, I
couldn’t get in touch with him. And I was starting
to get frustrated. And I kind of knocked on the
neighbor’s door, and I said, is there any chance
you guys would have a key to this apartment? And it turned out that it’s kind
of illegal to do Airbnb hosting in the building he was at. So the police were called. They came in, and they wanted
to take a statement from me. And they weren’t–
I wasn’t in trouble. They were trying to
protect– because they were very protective of
the tourism industry. They didn’t want foreigners
to be taken advantage of. But they were like, did you
pay him money to stay here? And I kind of–
that was the moment when suddenly I forgot
all the Japanese that I had been learning. And I was like, what? Sorry, no. I just, like, forgot it all. I had spoken Japanese
up to that moment, and somehow it just
disappeared from my head. And so I wasn’t able to take a
very solid statement with them. And I called this guy the
next day, thinking, you know, I put myself out there for you. You did not give me
this accommodation for this tiny little
room that I wanted. And he was so appreciative
that I tried to help him, he put me up in a
penthouse apartment with a 270-degree
panoramic view of Kyoto. And I was there for
a week and a half. And that was from paying
the same amount for, like, a tiny little shoe box, like,
hidden away in a small street. So a lot of the time,
I make my travels about building these
relationships– trying to do people favors,
if I can, and then to see how that
comes back to me. Another way that
you can make sure that it doesn’t cost you as much
is to not make it about stuff, owning things. This, for instance, is
something I used to own. This is my bat’leth you
know, for my project speaking Klingon. I actually did attend
the Star Trek convention. I got to meet Leonard
Nimoy, the late and great. And I use this picture because I
actually had to buy a bat’leth. This is very sharp. You can’t travel with it. And it was interesting for
me, because it was so big, and I was just looking
at it, thinking, there’s no way this will fit in my bag. And I don’t tend to
get a lot of stuff. And that helps me
feel more free. I’ve found that when
people tie themselves down with the furniture
and the plants they have to water and the pets
they have to feed, you do a lot of
these things, you’ll find you don’t have the
same kind of freedom to maybe move to a different
place in the same city, or to go off on an
adventure for a week, because you’ll be thinking, ooh,
well, who’s going to feed Fido? You know? So apart from a bat’leth,
which I sold a week later– so I only kind of rented it, in
a way– I try to not own stuff. OK. And then, of course,
there’s the whole, how can you travel practically? So I wanted to just
give you some websites very quickly here. You want to get cheaper flights? Use these meta search engines. I’m sure you would have heard
of them, like Skyscanner and so on. Here’s two other ones,
Adioso– I like this one, because it kind of uses
natural English, you know? And Google Flights,
obviously, is taking a lot of, like, better
traffic away from these sites. I’ve found a lot of better
flights come up on that now. And even Flightfox– I
don’t know if you guys have heard of that one. That’s, like, a service
that you can pay somebody to try to research all of
the flight options for you. And, like, I have gotten
the most amazing, like, business class around the
world from some weird offer that only some experts
know, and I got that for, like, the extra $49. So there’s a lot of
tricks like that, that you can try to feel like
you’re always flying business class, or whatever. OK, so last thing to
talk about very quickly– and then I want to hear
any of your questions about travel and working and
language learning and so on– is the language learning aspect. So when I try to learn a
language, I try to see, how can I learn this
like an engineer? And I feel like that has been
the biggest advantage that I’ve had, my engineering background,
in language learning. Because a lot of
people I’ve met, when they try to
get into learning a language as an
adult, have too much of a perfectionist
attitude to it. They feel like they
can’t speak unless they don’t make any mistakes. Now, the problem with
that is a language is a means of communication
between people. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about getting
your point across. And I always tell people
that the first moment I realized I could speak
another language was in Spain. When I was just two
weeks into my project of trying to speak just Spanish,
my electric toothbrush broke. And I was furious. I couldn’t afford the
10 euro I spent on this. So I stormed down to the
supermarket to demand a refund. I found the manager,
and I said– I don’t know how to say
“toothbrush” in Spanish. Or “broken.” Or “refund.” So I didn’t actually– I
wasn’t actually able to express all those things. But something happened
in that moment. Just the fact that, like I said
before, I wasn’t overanalyzing. I wasn’t thinking
about it too much. In that moment, I realized,
I should just do what I can. I wanted to achieve this thing. So I said [SPEAKING SPANISH]. Tooth machine bad! [SPEAKING SPANISH]
Money return trip! And you know what? It worked. I got my money back. And, like, even with that
abysmal Tarzan Spanish, I was able to achieve something. And this is what I’ve learned
in terms of language hacking, is that I try to just achieve
the goal of communication. And as a beginner,
that’s what I try to do. Not perfectionism. And the reason that this
ties into the engineering is because from the
first jobs I’ve had, we as engineers have
a ship-it mentality. If you’re making software,
you have a deadline. And by the time that
deadline is reached, and you wrap up the
code, and it’s ready. And the same with
if you’re building a device, building
the next Nexus, you have to finish it by a date. But on that date, you
know there might be still things you can improve. Maybe the latest
chip just came out, and you could technically
kind of try to put it in. Or maybe you didn’t realize if
there was a part of the code that you could try to analyze
to make sure you could get the lines down by just
a couple, you know, because it always helps just
the speed ever so slightly. But we don’t do that. In engineering,
we try to ship it. You just get
something done so it’s very good, but not perfect. We have thermodynamics
and mechanical engineering and structural engineering. You lose things that way. Perfectionism can’t be the goal. Mistakes are inevitable. So just let them happen. And that’s what I
do with languages. I try to have a deadline, get
what I can done before then, and reach a
particular milestone, and be happy with that, rather
than aiming for perfectionism, because that’s impossible. There’s nobody in this room who
speaks any language perfectly, including me and English,
as a native speaker. There are always things I’m
learning, always new words. Like, I made the dumbest
mistake a few months ago, when my partner and
I were hanging out, and I said something
like, I love you, hubby. And she said, do you know
what that word means? And I was like, yeah, yeah,
it’s a term of endearment. And she said, yeah, for husband. You just called me your husband. And I was like, oh, OK. So I’m still learning English. So if you keep that in
mind, you will never reach a stage of
perfectionism, but maybe you can reach those milestones. And this, for me, is what I’ve
taken away from my engineering, especially, as I
apply it to languages. I try to have a
systematic approach, try to get the best
shortcuts, reach a goal, and then start a new project,
for the language 2.0. So that’s a little bit of
what I wanted to talk about. And I want to make sure I
get to any of your questions. So let me know if there’s
anything on your mind. One here. AUDIENCE: For me,
personally, one of the concerns when I’m
about to [INAUDIBLE] somebody somewhere is that they
will be afraid of me, because I’m kind
of tall [INAUDIBLE] [LAUGHTER] I don’t mean to be threatening,
but I just sometimes just notice this kind of look,
when, you know, I say hi. And they’re like, ooh. [LAUGHTER] Did you ever get that, and
how would you deal with this? BENNY LEWIS: Yeah, no. I have– believe it
or not, I’ve found that even when
I’m not trying to, I have come across as
threatening in some cultures. And when I was living
in Taiwan, for instance, I found that I was
kind of– people were kind of keeping
their distance from me. But then I realized a lot
of it was my body language. So it might not be
that you’re tall. It might be that you’re
walking confidently, you know? And maybe in these
countries, you actually walk a little bit meekly. And you kind of say, excuse me. You know? It depends on where you are. But then it could be your voice. Maybe you have a
very deep voice. And you might try to
soften it a little bit. Maybe it’s your
facial expression. I’ve found in some
places that I actually– if I raised my eyebrows–
and this is things that I’ve actually sat down and
tried to statistically analyze. I’ve been like,
OK, how many guys have their eyebrows up here? OK. Yeah, Tuesday was a good 73%. OK, interesting. You try to see that information. You might be surprised. Another thing,
before you travel, is try to watch some online
streamed television, you know? Maybe watch some telenovelas
from South America, or see if you can watch some,
like, news shows from Italy. Whatever country
you’re in, you’ll find maybe you have to
actually be more outgoing, be more confident. And to this day,
I remember those– while I was studying for
a C2 exam in Spanish, one of the guys I was
studying with was Swedish, and his Spanish was
way better than mine. He knew the most obscure words. His accent, he sounded
like a radio announcer. If you closed your eyes, you
would think he’s Spanish. And yet, all the Spanish people
I hung out with, they said they kind of feel weird around him. And it’s because he kind of
walked around with– like this. His eyes were open very widely. And he had a very, like, stiff
way of talking to people, whereas me, with a
more noticeable accent, I was kind of like,
hey, [SPEAKING SPANISH] And people actually–
they liked that. They liked the
more relaxed style. So it depends. It depends on
where you’re going. But try to think
of those things. Don’t think of– because maybe
if it is in part the fact that you’re tall, well,
you can’t change that. So who cares? Just– that’s out
of the picture. What can you change? Let’s try to look into that. OK? Yeah. And I think you were next. Yeah, sorry. Oh. Sorry. AUDIENCE: I don’t
even need the mic. I have a smattering of, like,
Spanish, French, German, you know, little
bits of everything. I’ll always say I can never go
hungry or thirsty in a country. But every time I’m in
Germany, I can speak Spanish. When I’m in Spain,
I can speak German. So how do you prepare
your mind for the country that you’re actually going to? Is there a trick? Is there a little– BENNY LEWIS: Yeah, like,
for me, the projects I’ve tried to just
go to the country and, like, jump
into the language, it’s been very difficult. I’ve
found that, yeah, my brain is, like, in the wrong language. So you have to hit
the ground running. So before going, I
would get online. I would try to talk to people. So one of my favorite
resources is a website iTalki– I-T-A-L-K-I– dot com. We actually integrated them into
the language hacking courses that we’ve been working on. And this is an online community
of people that you can Skype. And you can, like, talk to
and whatever until you want. And you can have
a free exchange, doesn’t cost you a penny. If you do 20 minutes
in their language, 20 minutes in English. Or you can get teachers
who are actually very affordable because they
live in cheaper countries. So what I would do
before going to a country is get consistent practice
for weeks ahead of it. You know? I would not leave it
to the last minute, and then on the plane
over, I’d be like, oh, how do I say “I’m hungry” again? And, like, try to cram it. Because it’s too much pressure. And the whole thing
for me, especially, is you need momentum. So I would try to get
them up to that level. And then another thing is if
you have multiple languages, the best thing
I’ve found to have a solid enough level
that you don’t even need to worry about that. Like, you can still take
a break of a few months and be able to switch
back into speaking it, is to focus on
learning one language till you get it to
a very good level. Because I’ve never
had success in trying to learn multiple languages at
the same time at low levels. So my whole process has been,
like, a three-month project where I am intensively
studying this language to see how high I can get it. If I’m lucky, I’ll get it to,
like, a lower intermediate, or B1 as they call them on
the European common framework, or sometimes even a B2. I wouldn’t aim for the higher
ones in a shorter time, but I’d get to that stage
where I’m effectively fluent in social situations. But when I get to
that stage, I feel like I’ve built a very strong
wall around the language in my mind, so it’s less
likely to kind of leak into the other languages. So my whole process is
learn each language up to that B2, like,
solid level, and then maybe start the next language. And it’s OK if I take a break. Because having a bunch of
languages at a lower level, it’s very, very hard
to distinguish them. They’re going to
influence each other. But if you can build that
wall, that’s a lot better. Yeah. And if you want to jump
in with your question. AUDIENCE: Thank you. I just wanted to
know whether you think that this “fluent
in three months” process would work in
the same way [INAUDIBLE]. BENNY LEWIS: Absolutely. Whoops. So firstly, my whole
philosophy, like, the blog, “Fluent In Three Months,”
that’s based off specificity, because I found
when I first started to try to learn Spanish,
didn’t have any end goals. I just wanted to learn Spanish. And my blog, as you can
imagine, gets a big spike in traffic on January
1, from everyone saying, New Year’s resolution! I want to learn Italian. And I don’t think
that’s a very good idea. I think the specifics
[INAUDIBLE]. So maybe people get
to know those levels, and maybe they want
to aim for a B1 or B2, in three months or six
months or whatever. So that’s, like, what
my strategy would be. Before, the whole
process for me, to get to at least basic
conversation level, is speak from day one. And only speak. The whole reading and
writing and, like, tidying up your grammar, that I
think is– for a lot of people, it’s not useful as a beginner. It is useful later. So you can reach the stage
where your conversation in the language without having
to worry about reading it. And in fact, some methods
that I’ve found online intentionally get
people to not read, because you have a
big advantage there of not getting influenced
by English spelling. So if anything, you
should take that as seeing what kind of
strengths would that give you, because you can
avoid all of that. There are loads of listening
to’s, and if you just focus on the sounds of
the language, rather than trying to associate
spelling and so on, you don’t have to learn how
to read and write initially. You might want to do that later. And then maybe later you’ll
decide you don’t even want to, if the only
thing you care about is speaking the language. So I always try to see that. And I would only try to,
like, improve my reading and writing much later on. So you might want to
decide, you don’t even want to do that in a language. OK? And back here? OK. AUDIENCE: How do you
handle comprehension? BENNY LEWIS: Yes. Very good question,
because when you’re speaking to somebody
in a language, then they might
speak back to you. And you will hear
blah blah blah. So I think, again,
the perfectionist way of looking at that is, that
was a large bunch of noise that I don’t understand. So I give up. But what I try to do
is a couple of things. Like, once, for
instance, the TEDx picture I showed up,
that was in Warsaw. And I gave myself, like,
just a couple of hours, like literally an hour and
a half, to learn Polish. And after that, I got on Skype. And I was like, I’m
going to Skype in Polish. I’m going to not
speak any English. And of course, pretty
much everything that was said back to
me was gobbledygook. So I still managed to
have a conversation. I hacked that conversation,
because if you’re doing it on, like, an online voice call,
then you just text them. Or, like, text-type them. So what I would do is, I would
look up what I wanted to say, and, like, Tarzan
connect it all up. I’m sure it was, like,
a horrible sentence. But I would say something
like the equivalent of, me Benny, me Ireland. And they’d say, blah blah blah. And I’d be, OK. OK. And I type, I’m sorry,
could you type that? And then they’d type it. And I would copy and paste
it into Google Translate, see what the– effectively
what they’re saying, and then be like, OK. All right. And then I would, like, try
to come up with my reply using some dictionaries. And so I kind of
cheated that way. And that got me the
initial momentum. So that’s one way
to do it online. But then in person, you have
to let go of the perfectionism. So instead, I would think of
it as a guesstimation process. So I wrote my
undergraduate thesis in Trellis code modulation. This is a style of encoding we
have in telephone calls that decides that some information
is going to be lost, because no system is perfect. So I imagine language learning
to be a little bit like that. So imagine this. Imagine you are having
a telephone call with somebody in
English, and it was very– it was a very bad line. And all you heard was
[WHOOSHING NOISE] dinner [WHOOSH] Friday [WHOOSH]. So you could decide, didn’t
understand that at all. Like, pointless. You’ll just have to tell them
to start over, or say look, we’ll just text each other. But there’s another
thing you can do. You can guess. You know, it’s probable that
they’re saying something like, would you like to go out
for dinner on Friday? It’s likely. It’s less likely that
they’re going to say, the alien invasion
begins on Friday, and you are going
to be their dinner. You know? So you think to yourself,
in terms of probability, it’s likely they’re saying that. So when I’m learning
another language, I’ll hear this stream of noise,
that there’s no possible way I can give a good translation of. But maybe there’s one
word that I try to catch. So I never think to
myself– as they’re speaking, I’m not thinking,
how can I understand this entire sentence? I’m thinking, can I catch
a single word out of that? And maybe they will
say the single word that I happen to understand. And if I don’t, then
I’ll try to say, could you say that again,
using different words, please? And they may in fact
actually say the word that I need to guess. And sometimes, when you
guess, you’ll guess wrong. And the earth has never opened
up and swallowed me whole when that happens. I just– they see
I’m misunderstanding and we work around it. So in terms of comprehension,
you could do that. And then final
little trick I’d say is I would listen to
slowly spoken-out language. And there’s, like, a
lot of online podcast series that do this very well. So what they do is they start
by giving a 15-second exchange, like maybe just buying
something and saying, that costs that much, thank you. And they spend 15
minutes explaining that, explaining each word. And you start with that, and
then you push yourself up. And they’re like– they actually
follow the European framework. And you get to the A2
level, and maybe they have a 30-second
exchange, and they only explain the hardest parts. So pushing yourself up
in notches helps a lot. When I first moved to Spain,
and they spoke this machine gun Spanish at me, it was
impossible for me to understand. But I found that if I had these
kind of slower conversations, I started to speak with
other learners, not just native speakers. I learned most of my Spanish
from Erasmus students, from French and German and
Italian students, because they would speak slowly to me. And that didn’t mean I
was going to speak slowly for the rest of my life. It meant I got that initial
momentum to work my way up, to eventually be able
to have more confident, fast conversations. So a few different
suggestions for you there. OK? AUDIENCE: Thanks. You probably have been to
many interesting situations during your world travel. If you can share, how
have your Jason Bourne and your culture
or language skills helped you to get out of
some of the tricky ones? BENNY LEWIS: OK. All right. I’d say the trickiest
situation I had was in Brazil, where
I– essentially, I got detained by
the federal police. What happened was I had been
in Brazil for three months, and I was having
the best time ever. And I wanted to stay longer. And you don’t have
to do a visa run. If you’re a tourist, you could
just go to the federal police and ask them if you
can stay longer. And they stamp your
passport and that’s it. And I decided I
wanted to do that. I went in, and of course, I
had to queue for five hours. Very slow bureaucratic process. I finally got to my turn,
and she said, where’s your 20 [INAUDIBLE] payment? And I was like, here. Here you go. And she’s like no, no, no. You’ve got to go to the bank,
pay them, and then give us the receipt. So I did that. I came back, and I had
to start over again. So by the time it was my
turn, I was so frustrated that I was in a very bad mood. I was angry. And I was like, I’m back. Here’s the payment. Stamp my passport, please. And she was like, in
Portuguese, she’s saying, you can’t speak to me like that. I’m a federal police officer. And I was like,
ugh, I’m so sorry. Here. Please, pretty please. She said, OK, if you’re
going to be like that– and she stamped my passport
for one day, which meant there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t go to another
place to get it extended. I was furious. I had so many
things outlined, you know, things I had
paid for in advance, and, like, flights
and everything. So mad that I went
out into the queue, and I was, like, cursing
all of my worst Portuguese, saying this you-know-what has
a stick up her you-know-what and she’s blah blah blah. And so, like, I said
horrible, horrible things. And I didn’t realize
that the window was open and she heard everything. So she came out, grabbed
me, threw me in a room, and locked me there. And she said, we’re going
to officially arrest you. Now, being arrested was
not on my itinerary. That was going to mess up
my travel plans very much. So I had to think quickly. I had to think, OK, what
would Jason Bourne do? Or what would MacGyver do
in this situation to escape? You know, is there,
like, a paper clip I can use to get
out of this place? And then I was thinking,
thinking, thinking. And then I realized
what I had to do. I had a plan, through what
I had learned those three months in trying to
understand Brazilian culture. And instead of herself, I
knew that another police officer, a guy, he was going
to come in, and he looked mad. He looked like he was
probably her brother, and he had heard what I said. So he was ready to give me hell. But while he was kind of,
like, leaving the papers and coming back, I
thought to myself, OK. I concentrated
really, really hard on Torlinus, the pet turtle I
had when I was six years old, who died. And I thought really hard, and
I was, like, poor Torlinus, I remember burying him. And, like, the tears
started coming down. So he came back in, and he was
like, you arrogant foreigners, you don’t know what’s going on. And I was, I’m so sorry. And I bawled in tears. And the reason I did that is
because I realized this macho culture didn’t really know
how to handle men crying. And he started
getting very awkward. And he was like, uh,
stop crying this instant. We need to talk about this. And I’m like, [CRYING]. I want my mommy. And I kept replying that
way, and eventually, since he didn’t know
how to handle it, he grabbed my passport,
threw it at me, and said, get out of my sight! You’re pathetic! And I escaped from
prison, as it were, using a little bit of that
kind of cultural understanding. So sometimes, you know, I got
myself into bad situations. But sometimes I can
get myself out of them. Yeah. AUDIENCE: So I was studying
Chinese for around two years, studying on my own,
and [INAUDIBLE] I had my first
conversation with somebody, I realized I didn’t know
the word– the sentence for “Can you repeat again?” or
“Please [INAUDIBLE] slower.” Do you have a list of basic
sentences that help you, like, [INAUDIBLE] a language,
as in, you know, these kinds of words that– BENNY LEWIS: Yeah. AUDIENCE: –that
you find that you need to use more often than not
when you start a new language? BENNY LEWIS: Absolutely. No, no, no. I always try to learn those. But instead of
saying, I’m sorry, can you repeat that again? I just learn the word “again.” It’s a lot easier. It’s a lot less complicated. It’s a lot less intimidating. So I would say,
[SPEAKING CHINESE], again. And then they know. And then maybe
after a month or so, I’ll actually give a more
proper way of saying that. But I would learn single words. What single word can get you
the best bang for your buck? I always think Pareto
principle-wise, what 20% can give me
80% of the results? And I’m not trying
to get it perfect. I just want to
achieve something. And then another thing,
with Mandarin especially– people always forget this– with
any language that you learn, and something that I
tried to really dive into in these
courses, was to get people to see all the
words they already know. And this is very prominent
in European languages. We have a lot of loan
words people use. But in Mandarin, I
tried to see, what are the words I already know? And there are words
you know already. There are loan words. There are some
words that are kind of building up and getting used
in kind of slang situations. So like on phone calls,
you could say, bye-bye. You know? When people would ask
me where I’m from, I would say “Ireland.” And you have, like, not just
country names, but brand names. And you have people’s
names, like, if you don’t know how to say
the word for “president,” then use the word for
Obama, because that’s going to be the same. So I would try to think along
those lines, because then that is the thing
I would do before I need to memorize things. And then with
memorizing them, I would try to come up with
quirky mnemonics. I try to see, is
there some way I could tie in the vocabulary
with something else that I know? And that helps to just,
like, have something ready to spit out, because the
last thing you want to be doing is to overthink it when
the situation comes up. But yeah, for
generally, what I do when I’m starting
to learn a language, is come up with things
I’m likely to say often. So I do not try
to learn the word for “curtain,” because that’s
very unlikely to come up in conversation. But on a call,
like a video call, I’m going to very likely need
to say, “Repeat, please,” and “Can you write?” “Can you write?” is a very
good one, or “Can you type?” because then they’re going to
have something you can actually go off and use very quickly. And I don’t feel bad
about having them wait. If I’m, like, paying
for the lesson, then they’re just
going to have to wait. You know? And I go off and look
it up, and then I continue the conversation. So yeah, I would try
to come up with things. I do have a baseline list. But a lot of the stuff
I come up with initially isn’t necessarily something
I say, OK, everyone. Here are the magic words I use. Here they go for you,
because in every language, I’ve never ever come across
a course that teaches me how to say, “I’m Benny,
a blogger from Ireland.” So I– when I’m, like, making–
when I made this course, I tried to make it a
more me-specific thing, to give people the
tools they needed to figure out how to
fill in those gaps with something relevant to them. OK? MODERATOR: OK, I
think we’ve got time for one more quick question. AUDIENCE: Thank you very
much for the information. It’s really useful. So I’m Austrian, and
as foreign languages, I have some, like, for example,
Italian, French, and Spanish. And to me it was always really
difficult to mix those up, because you have all those
words which are really similar. So my question is, would
you say it’s easier if I learn a language
really well, to start off with another language
that’s really similar, like going from
French to Spanish, or would you say, like, do
something completely else afterwards, so the brain can
not do something similar? BENNY LEWIS: I would
say, like, whenever people say, which language
should I learn next? And they say, should
it be based on similar? Or should it be based on
what’s harder, what’s easier? I always think of this
guy I met in Spain while I was learning Spanish, and he had
to learn French and Japanese. And he was doing a lot
better with Japanese, and I was confused. I was, like, well, wouldn’t
French be easier for you? And he said, no,
because I love anime, and I, like, can’t wait for
the next manga to come out, and I find Japanese girls hot. And, like, that
was his motivation. And I find, whenever you
start a new language, if you start thinking
of, you know, will I learn this
language better, because, you know, it
has vowel agreements, and because some of
the words are formed in an agglutinative
way, or because of this, or it’s in the same
language family, that’s a very impersonal
way of looking at it. That might make
sense, you’d think, from a logical perspective. But I’ve found the next
language you should learn should be the language
you’re most passionate about. And that should be
what’s driving you, regardless of if it’s similar,
because if it’s similar, you’ll find a way. Maybe technically,
it will be, like, 5% harder because it’s similar. But maybe it’ll be 20% easier
because you care about it more. So all of those things. The same when people ask
me, what’s the hardest language you’ve ever learned? I always tell them it
was kind of Spanish. It wasn’t Chinese or
Hungarian or Quechua. It was Spanish,
because I didn’t really care about it for
the first six months that I was trying to learn. I was just kind of
putting in the work. And I put in a lot of hours
to get nothing out of it. So, but since then, I’ve
cared about the culture. I’ve seen a language–
like, people are surprised when
I tell them this. I actually don’t care
about language learning. I care about talking to people. For me, a language
is a means to an end. It’s my tool that
lets me open doors. That lets me get
through it quicker. So I don’t care if it’s
similar to this language, or if it’s in a different
language family, or anything like that,
or does it have tones, or does it have seven cases? I don’t care, because
regardless, I’ll find a way to figure out
those issues if they come up. What matters is, do I want
to learn that language? So I would try to see that. I would try to see,
is there some part of the culture,
is there somebody you know you really
want to talk to, would you like to
visit the country soon? Whatever it is, focus
on that, if you’re comparing two languages. And say, which one comes
out on top as the one you want to learn more? OK? So that’s it. Thank you very much
for coming, everybody. [APPLAUSE]

20 Replies to “Benny Lewis: “Language Hacking” | Talks at Google

  1. Thanks for sharing guys – great audience! I was so pleased to give a talk to a majority audience of engineers, coming from that background myself. Love Google!!

  2. Oi Benny!

    Sua experiencia na Policia Federal eh um otimo exemplo de como o Brasi funciona!

    No seu caso a experiencia ruim virou uma estoria boa!

    Abracos,
    Marcio Silveira – Arlington, Virginia

  3. I am grateful to listen you, I am spending too long to get good level of English , this time I catch and follow your advice.. Thanks

  4. I am learning two languages at the same time with no worries. But I am learning them both for the long haul, no three month dead lines. BTW I started my second language ( of Esperanto) thanks to your influence!

  5. There's no such thing as a "language hack", obviously. There are common sense tips that any decent teacher, book, or resource will teach you. Immersing yourself in another language is obviously the best way.

  6. these "Polyglots" are fools. They learn basic beginner's phrases from 20 languages and claim fluency and idiots buy it LMAO.

    You're going to spend 2-5 years perfecting ONE new language, period, no way around it.

    this dude is a known fraud amongst real language learners, how he still gets bookings is beyond me, he's shit at languages but a great con artist, I'll give him that. Watch any of his videos to see he has shit pronunciation, limited vocab, and all his shit is pre-planned monologues, much like how the "Pickup artists" hire women to pretend to be swept off their feet. Drop this dude off in a country of language he supposedly knows and he won't be able to do anything beyond basic tourist shit anyone can learn in 5 minutes with pimsleur.

    if you really want to learn a language, get ready to spend YEARS & YEARS learning.

    Master one and you'll be impressive, know how to say hello and not much else in 50 languages is kids shit.

  7. The Q&A should be a very juicy part of those Talks at Google. Especially if one realizes that there are very intelligent and avid-to-learn people in the audience. However, the quality of those parts in several of the videos are so low that make it quite useless. So, Google people, please try something. Subtitling those questions(less effective) or let the organizer(host) restate the questions(maybe more effective). I'm sure you guys can come up with something better.

  8. Do any of the people who claim to speak many languages know how to write and read in these languages?

  9. The people from almighty Google can't set up a microphone propperly, so that the viewer can actually understand, what they ar saying!

  10. I find it interesting seeing many of the negative comments about Benny. Let me start by saying I'm not sure what level Benny has in many languages but as an American it is impressive that he at least attempts to learn languages. The whole reason I started studying Spanish a little over two years ago is because I came across a Benny vid that inspired me to do so. I am in no way fluent but I have an intermediate speaking level now and also now know quite a bit in Mandarin and only basics in Arabic. My point being is I feel it is important to build people up than tear them down. Best of luck to everyone with your language learning.

  11. Some decent advice for language learning, however, I find the presenter blows smoke into our faces with his stories full of fanciful half-truths and hyperbole – Also, I checked out some of his other videos and It seems apparent that this presenter is not a polyglot – his Spanish is decent but far from comfortable. What I like about him is the confidence he gives a new language learner to not hold back. He also made a great point about learning a language you're most passionate about but if one is serious about learning a language to a high level I would absolutely not follow his methodology. If you care to learn a language to a basic/intermediate level then this may suffice but that would be the limit. Personally I prefer to learn several languages very well rather than a bit of everything and never truly command another tongue.

  12. What really surprised me in this video was that this man's accent was very similar to the English accent I have adopted as a non-native speaker. I always tried to avoid the extremes of British or American accent and I ended up speaking with an Irish accent, without realizing it!

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