Benny Lewis and Fluent in 3 months… possible, scam or what?

fluent

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.

About Sam

Hi I'm Sam and I write here exclusively at Samuel's Travels. Exclusively as by and large no-one wants me writing anywhere else. Please enjoy yourself while reading.
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20 Responses to Benny Lewis and Fluent in 3 months… possible, scam or what?

  1. I agree with you in so far as I’ve never believed you can become fluent in a language in just 3 months. It’s a positive, optimistic and fun goal, but I’m completely sold on setting realistic goals rather than unattainable ones. The Fi3M blog is a great resource for motivating people to just try learning a language, and I admire Benny’s commitment to just trying it out and having a conversation. It seems to get harder as he gets busier.

    The other thing is, you can see languages get forgotten. It’s not the magic way to become a polyglot, but in the end AH WELL – it got people like you into language learning! Benny’s blog might be that delicious thing – A gateway drug!!!

    • Sam says:

      hey fluentkerstin, didn’t you realise you ever still read this old thing. Nice to have you back.

      Yeah a gateway drug indeed and couldn’t agree more; realistic goals kick ass, largely because you can achieve them.

  2. Whaaat, I think this is a great little blog! Of course I read…when I get time…it’s high up in my feedly for sure. I think you write with some great honesty that’s really needed out there in internet land! (Perhaps also a gateway drug for someone to read my blog or pop in, http://www.fluentlanguage.co.uk/blog, end of plug thankyou!)

    • Sam says:

      haha, well your English is incredible, it sounds very coloquial and natural, it was surprising when you told me it wasn’t your first language. I have to say I find this much more impressive than someone who can speak 9 languages, and this is also more relevant to my cause. I will be popping by soon, good plug 🙂

  3. Francis says:

    Gosh! You’re both so kind to this Benny guy. He’s a total fraud! He’s about as fluent in French (my native language), German or Italian, as I am in Sanskrit… He’s an internet scammer period. I can understand that many people fall for it, but ted.com… honestly!

    Thank YOU both for your great work!

    • Sam says:

      Hi Francis,

      I do agree that this article may have been too kind, and also that he is not fluent in any foreign language (judging from anything I’ve seen on his site or elsewhere). Though in fact, that is what I was commenting on and rebuking here in this post; his statements of obtaining fluency, and their damaging effect on people who have been slaving over languages for much longer than 3 months. However I’ve watched his recent progress in Japanese, and while he won’t be getting anywhere near fluency, his progress is nonetheless very impressive and even better than mine was. This is really my point; the guy knows how to start learning languages incredibly well, but I’m not sure if he knows anything about fluency. This is the misleading and fraudulent thing, especially given the name of his site. He is a motivator and nothing much more, but his motivation helped me once upon a time, so I can’t knock him too much.

    • Anna says:

      Benny’s definitely a fraud. The definition of “fluent” isn’t subjective and he definitely does not become fluent in 3 months, or even in more months, at least not in any of the languages I speak and he claims to speak. I’m sure his website makes him a bit of money though, and now he even has a book.

      Too many people evidently like to be duped.

      I agree with Francis about TED. In fact, his TED talk gave me serious doubts about that organization.

      • nickmeister says:

        I’m not sure how he’s a “scammer”? I mean, what does he get out of it? His site doesn’t make him big money, neither has his recent book, actually. His only stated goal is engaging in basic conversations without stopping someone and flipping through a book or something.

      • tanitmoon says:

        I completely agree with you, Anne. Benny is a total fraud.

  4. Scott Schram says:

    It just depends on your definition of fluent… C1 is going to require a lot of time, unless you are some kind of savant.

    But, in about 3 months I learned plenty of French to enjoy a trip, make friends and set up the framework for learning a lot more.

    I think Benny has some good advice and inspiration for those 3 months…

    • Sam says:

      Yup, that’s what I said. He basically goes a long the Michel Thomas method of just get yourself speaking. I have some of the best Italian out of the stranieri here in Italy, and people always asked me how I got there. The answer is following Benny’s ‘method’ (as in just try really hard). So I don’t disagree with what he preaches. However the fluent in 3 months stuff is just a load of crap, I’m still not fluent now, and I would bargain my Italian is much better than the majority of Benny’s languages.

  5. M. Aicart says:

    Language learning is not easy. Although a few gifted language learners do exist, most people arrive at their fluency only as a result of hard work, expanded over a long period of time. Just because he is able to do it does not mean that everybody can do it in the same way. Making people believe that they can reach fluency in that way is misleading, unless you want to sell your book. If language learning was easy, there would be many more polyglots around and less people pondering on it. Why would people write so many books and blogs about “how easy it is to learn a language” if we could learn any language “better than children” – as he also claims? Applying that logic, there would be no need for language schools or language teachers.

  6. Taylor Quinn says:

    OK great. Now tell us what accredited or respectable institution were they tested at to claim a rating of C1 or C2? That’s right, none. They never get tested. I was surprised TED put him on and just let him make wild claims. Native French speakers tell me he is a maybe a B1 at French and that is being kind. He has also had more time with French then other languages. He is a fraud.

  7. James Palmer says:

    The guy is a joke. Three months of full time study by a motivated and gifted student still won’t get anywhere near fluent, even with the diluted definitions that are thrown around online. ESPECIALLY in Japanese or Chinese, which are so alien for a westerner.

    As for TED, they just want views, so they’ll invite anyone who has a catchy title. Tim “You can learn rocket science in 4 hours” Ferriss featured this guy as well, which further confirmed my belief that he’s a shyster. Looking at his site, I’ve never once seen him admit to being wrong, or even back down when presented with a compelling counterargument.

    You have to hand it to him for one thing though: he knows what makes people tick. The average schmoe wants everything – money, health, career advancement – fast and without effort, and languages are no different.

    Another thing he will probably never learn is the pleasure gained from doing something over a long period and seeing your progress.

  8. Michelle says:

    Just as an additional note: His American Sign Language is PAINFUL to watch and I am neither Deaf not fluent–but I attend a Deaf church. His signing ability is a joke–he doesn’t understand at all the word order or the importance of facial expressions. Honestly I’m surprised the people at Gallaudet didn’t kick his butt off campus.

  9. tanitmoon says:

    But his Japanese is really bad. Sorry but I think your Japanese must be pretty remedial if you think otherwise.

  10. Zach says:

    Wow, this article is very fair. Yes, Benny does go out there and speak to people. You have to learn the language from people in the environment. Is he fluent in 3 months? Some of his language is fluent. Is it at a high functioning level? Nope, not at all. Does he prey on the dreams of people? Yep, just like all great marketers. 🙂 Benny is a wonderful marketer, and an entertaining guy. Despite his misleading image we must agree that yes he is does inspire people, and he goes out there and uses the language in the environment.

  11. Karagounis says:

    He is a total fraud. Maybe he does not make a shitload of money out of it, but he definetly has gained a lot of notoriety and popularity in the web, which probably gets him a lot of work offers. On the other hand, he earns money with his book and doing coaching so yeah. Its all a big fucking circus, nothing else. Im spanish and let me tell you: his spanish sucks big balls, specially if you keep in mind that it is one of his most practiced languages, and one of the easiests as well.

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