Becoming a Man of the World: How to Learn Another Language

by A Manly Guest Contributor on July 1, 2011 · 71 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Benny the Irish polyglot who writes at Fluent in 3 Months.

Imagine being able to blend in undetected in another country.

Imagine exchanging inside jokes at a foreign restaurant in another language.

Imagine being invited to a festival in the countryside on the other side of the planet, eating with a local family and having no need for an interpreter.

Sounds like something out of a Jason Bourne novel, doesn’t it? Fortunately, fiction this is not. Today, you’re going to learn how and why you should start learning a foreign language to become a better man. This information could save your life one day. Or at the very least it could make it way more interesting.

Your education starts now.


Why is that when we think of languages and language learning, we tend to think more of women? I used to be a translator and the vast majority of those in the industry of translation and interpretation are indeed women.

If you think back to school, you may remember the girls having a better knack for languages than the boys. It must be genetic, or have something to do with women’s better ability to communicate, right?

Hogwash! Men are excellent language learners, and there are ways we can use our manly differences to our advantage. The sad truth is that most of us don’t.

Many Famous Language Learners Were Men

The majority of the world’s most famous polyglots (someone who speaks multiple languages) throughout history were actually men. William James Sidis (1898 – 1944) estimated that he could speak more than forty languages. Harold Williams (1876 – 1928), a New Zealand journalist is said to have known 58 languages, including several dialects.

More recently, Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) used 9 of the 12 languages he had learned quite extensively during his time in the church, regularly giving Mass in these languages.

If there is a language gene reserved exclusively for ladies, someone forgot to tell these guys!

“Language-Talent” Is Used as an Excuse, Let It Go

I grew up with this same idea that foreign languages are for girls, but in recent years I am glad to say that I’ve learned to ignore such a useless de-motivator. Right now I can speak fluently and socialize actively and regularly in eight languages (and even know some American Sign Language). At the moment I’m learning yet another one and plan on speaking it at a confident conversational level in just two months. Crazy, right?

While you may be tempted to dismiss me and others as savants, irrelevant to your situation as an adult that may just speak one language, it’s important that you know in my case, I actually had to take speech therapy when I was younger for simple issues learning English (my mother tongue; I’m from Ireland). I actually did quite poorly in languages in school.

When I was 21 years old, I still only spoke English. The German level I had reached from years of schooling resulted in barely a pass in my final exams, and I was not able to use the language even when opportunities presented themselves. I later even managed to spend almost six months living in Spain without learning any Spanish.

So what changed?

I stopped making excuses, giving in to self-fulfilling prophecies (“I’m bad at languages, therefore what’s the point in even trying?”) and I started to be a man about this language learning thing. One day in Spain, I just swallowed my pride and started using the very little I knew actively until I had no choice but to improve quickly.

I took control of the situation, knew that I could do it, and was successful because of that.

The advice I want to give you today has nothing to do with studying right, or which books or software you should buy; instead,  it’s about embracing your manliness and getting over lazy excuses that are the real reason you haven’t been able to learn a second language.

Speak It from Day One


Yes, from day one. I’m serious.


Stop planning the language into the ground and stop holding off until someday when your level is perfect. There are seven days in a week and someday isn’t one of them! You are ready whenever you decide you are.


Perfectionism will kill your ability to ever use a language. Don’t be afraid of a few mistakes; you really do need to speak it now if you are serious about making rapid progress.


But I only know five words! How can I speak now?


If you know five words then use them! Sprinkle gracias or s’il vous plaît or Buongiorno into your normal conversation. It’s a simple step, but it’s a very important one.


The Thousands of Words You Know Before You Even Start


Actually, you know way more than that, especially in European languages!


Due to centuries of Norman-French rule in England (starting in 1066), English received a huge influx of French vocabulary. This vocabulary also happens to be vastly the same or very similar in many other languages like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc.


You see, in these centuries during the “Dark Ages,” the lower class would maintain their “Germanic” Olde English, while the noblemen and rulers would be speaking in something very related to French. Eventually this led to a single language, leading to modern English, where formal register would require the French-style words, and informal would use the older “original” English ones.


So if someone knocks on your door, you could say “come in,” or if you think about it, the more formal (somewhat pompous on occasion) way would be “enter.” This alternative is actually the way to say “to come in” in Romance languages (entrer, entrar, entrare).


Instead of saying you want to give someone a piece of your mind (a phrase used in informal register), you could think to share your opinion, perspective, or point of view. In French: point de vue, in Portuguese: perspectiva, in Italian: opinione. These cognates actually give you a dramatic boost in the language before you’ve even started!


You start off with literally thousands of words. It’s true that you have to get used to pronouncing them differently and recognizing them, but with some in-the-field practice this really becomes second nature.


If the language you are learning comes from some other language family, then rather than say you will be stumped, keep in mind that nowadays there are no impenetrable barriers, especially in languages. Most words for technology and the Internet, as well as brand names, truly are international. Nearly every language in the world says Internet, Facebook, Pepsi etc. even if they might do it slightly differently.


Starting from absolute scratch is impossible. Find out the words you already know and then use them!


Next, Learn What You NEED, Not What the Grammar Book Says


So many of us have studied a language before, possibly even for years. The problem is that the academic approach is based on a black-and-white/right-or-wrong attitude. Every mistake is punished, rather than good attempts that get the job done being rewarded as they are in the real world.


There is a much more practical hands-on approach than simply trying to learn the entire language’s structure. If you are good with your hands, can repair things, or have ever employed temporary duct-tape style fixes, you’ll know what to do here!


Since I didn’t have a talent for languages, I actually ended up studying and getting a degree in (electronic) engineering. An engineering philosophy involves tweaking something until it works. Then you ship it. When it does work, then you improve on it in later upgrades. This philosophy is simply more practical since you can use something now even if it isn’t perfect, and it works so well because of that.


This is what us men do when we learn so many things in the world, including our native language. Why not learn a foreign language in this way? Trying to learn everything before even using any of it is a recipe for disaster.


It’s true that being prepared is a huge advantage. It’s great when there are instructions for you on things like changing a flat tire, but most of us actually learned these things by trial and error and know them better because of this. We have a better feel for it thanks to the experience, an experience that no set of instructions can fully convey.


So put aside the grammar book and get yourself a travel phrasebook instead (they are small and only cost a couple of dollars). Learn the essentials in a few hours that would be pretty universally needed as the core of basic conversation, and then learn what you want to say.


A standardized word-list can’t cover this; I need to say that I studied “engineering,” and that word is usually a low priority in generic courses. I find what I talk about and learn that and talk about it with natives or other learners.


Learning Words


There are many ways to actually learn these words, and I’ll mention two that I like. The first is image association.


For example, if I want to remember the word playa is Spanish for beach, I’ll picture a player–some overconfident pick-up-artist with too much gel in his hair–walking along a beach in Spain trying to pick up girls in their bikinis, probably getting a few slaps in the face in the process.


It’s a silly image, but it works! The association of beach to player to playa works both ways; when you want to say it and when you want to recognize it. If I asked you what playa meant (presuming you didn’t know it already) this time tomorrow, it’s very likely you’ll remember if you properly visualized this story. Same as if I asked you how to say beach in Spanish.


After this, another trick for vocabulary is flashcards that you look at when you have a moment.


My favorite method to learn new words is a program that is free on your computer, and a free app on Android phones and jailbroken Apple devices (or a paid app on normal ones): Anki. Decks of vocabulary are prepared in advance and as they come up you can dismiss the easy ones and see the hard ones come back repeatedly until you know them. You can also simply delete words that are irrelevant to you, making your study time much more efficient.


Face Your Fear and Just Use the Language! Your Instinct Can Get You Far


With an intensive dive into the language, to learn what you absolutely require to get by, you should be ready to use it right away.


When someone speaks back to you, you may not understand everything they say, but you can try to be analytical outside of all the grammar and vocabulary. This is when intuition comes more into play. In the situation and context you can see what they are talking about and based on key words that you do understand, you can fill in the gaps.


For example, I’ve found that all over the world whenever I go shopping in a chain supermarket, before I hand them money they usually always ask me, “Blah blah blah blah?” I don’t need to actually know the specific language when this happens. I can see their finger hesitating over the till to close the receipt before telling me the price, in most countries there is no “paper or plastic” question, and I’ve heard this many times before: It’s: “Do you have our club-card?”


Of course they’ll phrase it differently or mention the name of the club-card, but the context is key here; it tells you so much that helps you fill in the gaps while you are learning. In this case going with your gut is essential because there are so many cues outside of pure language that we are excellent at picking up!


In school, not knowing every single word earned you a big red X. In the real world, you can still make comfortable progress without knowing everything and function at an incredibly high level of efficiency.


What it all comes down to is fear. A perfectionist (academic) approach to language learning is based on fear of being embarrassed, fear of disappointing people, fear that you aren’t good enough, etc. Every mistake is the end of the world!


But in reality, when you make mistakes, people are very forgiving. In fact they are usually so pleased to see an English speaker genuinely try to learn their language that they will encourage you to go on, and you’ll have the momentum to keep communicating. Progress is a natural consequence of this.


Resources to Speak with People


Of course this advice is hard to follow if you don’t have a native to practice with, so here are a few very useful resources:


  • Livemocha and Busuu. In my opinion, the courses presented on these sites are terrible and should be skipped. However, both sites are quite popular in many countries and can connect you with many natives of your target language on the other side of the world for free. Get their contact details and start Skyping to help one another!
  • In many cities you will find meet-ups arranged via this website specifically to practice the language you may be learning. Go meet up with other speakers face to face!
  • While this site is better known for helping young people travel without having to pay for accommodations, I have a very different use for it. I host those travelers, from all over the world, and practice the language with them! You can also attend the regular meetings arranged in many cities, and search per language within your city to see if a native or fluent speaker would be willing to meet up for a coffee.


Of course, going to the country would help, but this is not necessarily solving the problem. Too many people do move abroad and just fall into an expat trap and end up learning nothing; constantly reminding themselves that they aren’t good enough to try.


You can do most of everything you need in reaching fluency in a language without ever buying a plane ticket. If you do go to a country, then using the language confidently will ensure that you aren’t just another tourist, and that you genuinely do interact with locals.


Constant Use With Other People Is the Road to Fluency in a Short Time


There is no magic number of exactly how much time you need to reach fluency. What I do is give myself a very tight deadline of just two or three months. Then I have to make as much progress as possible! You can reach your target, or at least very close to it, if you simply don’t give yourself the choice.


A tight deadline will yield results.


With lots of practice and feedback, your initial mistakes soon disappear entirely.


To me learning a language is facing my fears, going with my gut, being confident enough to use what I have with people, and making sure that I talk about things that interest them. Aren’t these all the kinds of manly qualities that we are striving for on this site and in life?


They really do work in many fields, and I can tell you from living in many countries and having many local friends that language learning is definitely something that men can do well.


If you stop looking at a language as a list of grammar rules and words to learn to pass an examination, and more as a backyard project that you keep adding things to and tweaking, while constantly using it all the time, then you will start to use it for what it was meant for: communication with people.


Once you’ve got your flow, then you can always come back to the academics to tidy it up a bit (as you would when you wanted to get more serious on mechanical projects) or work towards a more professional level. But to get that flow you need to dive in now!


Benny Lewis is a language hacker who takes on a new intensive language ‘mission’ every few months. Subscribe to his blog Fluent in 3 months to follow these stories and get his best tips. Read his best strategies for speaking any language in his Language Hacking Guide, which has been translated into over twenty languages. On the same page you can see a video of Benny introduce his guide while speaking in eight languages!

{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ewan July 1, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I’ve just started learning Swedish again. Cracking article. Many thanks :)

2 Bill July 1, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Thanks for the topic. I’ve made a “To Do” list, like a bucket list for myself and learning a couple languages is on it. I’ve knocked a few things off the list, like learning about farming/raising a garden (cows and goats are coming), finishing trade school (I’m a machinist CNC programmer now), and recently added learning a musical instrument, so I picked a tinwhistle.

I have started learning German and while it’s nearly dead, Gaelic is next, then Spanish. A friends dad is fluent in about 5 different languages. He had an international business and once I was at his house while he was cooking dinner and he was on two phones- one in German, the other in Japanese, and he was speaking English to us about the details of the dinner. I was amazed at the juggling.

3 Glen Allsopp July 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Congrats on getting a writing gig over here, Benny.

Great article!

4 Benny Lewis July 1, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Great to see my article here! Thanks a million again Brett for letting me share it with everyone :)
@Ewan Glad to hear it!
@Bill I’ve written about my experience learning German if you look through the archives on my site. Since I’m Irish, of course I’ve got Gaeilge too ;) You can read about how to learn the Irish language in this post.
I’ve also written about how to juggle languages as you described. Takes some practice, but it’s totally doable for us mere mortals ;)
@Glen Thanks mate :D

5 andyinsdca July 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I’m about to add French to my languages that I’ve learned. The Anki app looks very cool and I just put it on my phone. And yes, using it is really the only way a language sticks. I just tried to take Korean and it would NOT STICK for the life of me. My Japanese that I took 6 yrs ago, though has stuck much better.

6 Rich July 1, 2011 at 1:14 pm

A great free source for learning a language is language courses developed by the Foreign Service Institute.

7 Bryan July 1, 2011 at 1:43 pm

“What it all comes down to is fear. A perfectionist (academic) approach to language learning is based on fear of being embarrassed, fear of disappointing people, fear that you aren’t good enough, etc. Every mistake is the end of the world!”

In my experience, alcohol does wonders for this fear. During a trip to Mexico, Spanish came much more easily after a cervesa or two. I’m not talking about getting lit, just easing up on the inhibitions.

8 pcoq July 1, 2011 at 1:45 pm

The myth that speaking numerous languages is a woman’s thing has always exasperated me, given that most men the world over speak at least two or more languages.

I grew up speaking German and learned English when I went into grade one, and at grade three we started learning French, the other official language. Admittedly, my French is choppy, but I do speak it quite well, after two or three days. I am able to use my German pronunciation skills to great advantage when speaking French, and both my extensive English and large German vocabularies have helped a lot with French, since, when at a loss, I sometimes just say a German or English word, for example, but put a French ending on it and it works. If not, I try another word or just try to describe what I mean and the other person will say the word, and I usually think, how silly of me, I knew that word. Knowing French helps a lot with Spanish, but I don’t have much exposure to Spanish, but in reading when I encounter Spanish words, I often know what they mean. The same goes for Italian. Knowing German helps a lot with understanding the Scottish dialect, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages.

9 jg July 1, 2011 at 2:06 pm

-Befriend a speaker of your targeted language. Then have regular chats / lessons / language exchanges over Skype

-Marry a speaker of your targeted language; or at least fall in love with a woman who speaks the targeted language. Love is a great motivator.

-If you can, move to the country where the targeted language is spoken. (Too drastic? We only live once and if you are a fanatic about the language, culture and people, then moving there makes more sense than buying any audio tape and listening to it in an English-speaking culture. Besides, you can teach English, people will pay you just to hear you speak and help them learn English. A simple job.)

10 Greg K. July 1, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Watching the Great Escape made me want to learn German. One never knows when one could be conscripted into a world war and get shot down behind enemy lines, so it helps to be able to blend in.

Tongue in cheek aside, I’ve read extensively on various language-learning theories, and some actually advocate not speaking right away because it could ingrain mispronunciations and mistakes. Speaking from the get go is a popular method in a lot of schools today and how I initially learned Spanish. One method that intrigued me was a more “natural” way to learn languages – to listen to as much of the foreign language as possible by watching movies, television shows and listening to music, podcasts, and radio broadcasts, preferably for several hours a day. This method, in theory, helps you absorb the cadence and pronunciation as well as pick up the language similar to the way that children learn to speak. It’s also important to be interested in the culture of the language being learned as that’s really going to make the difference in whether you stick with it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is no right or wrong way to learn a language and that most methods will work better for some people and worse for others. Either way, I think everyone should learn three languages: their native language, the language of their ancestors, and a lingua franca-type language (e.g. English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese), but that’s just my humble opinion.

11 David July 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm

I’m a 17-year-old native English speaker. I took Spanish for three years when I was 14 and I love it. This summer I decided bilingual wasn’t enough to be awesome. I went to my local library and picked up a book on French, German, and Italian and I want to be able to count to ten in ten different languages by the end of the summer. The library is your best friend. If you’ve got a good one, you can get audio tapes and foreign films (which help with pronunciation). Languages are easiest before you become 24 when the brain stops developing, the library is one of the best places to go for resources, and immersion is the key to memory.

12 Brian Driggs July 1, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I’ve heard of this Benny guy before and I’m no stranger to most of the excuses. :P

I took two years of Spanish while I lived in Texas, than continued taking Spanish when I moved to Germany for some reason. (Young and stupid?) Today, I live in Arizona, speak very little Spanish and even less German and have Rosetta Stone software for both.

Use it or lose it was never more true.

13 JHool July 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I lived with a family in Madrid for a semester of college. Getting over myself was the hardest part of learning a language; I had to accept that I wasn’t going to be perfect, would have trouble sometimes and at other times, would be able to have a good laugh.
Case in point:
Trying to use cognates I wanted to say I was “embarassed”, but ended up saying I was “pregnant”!
Embarazada – Pregnant
Embarazoso – Embarrassed
The family I was with and I had a great laughter over that one and it is actually one of the fun stories I always tell people back stateside.

14 Stephen July 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm

It’s worth being familiar with what “making an effort to speak a foreign language” counts as. You’re not likely to get much good will if you go for a loud and slow “do? you? have? chips? por favor?”

15 Leo July 1, 2011 at 5:02 pm

There’s no age to start learning new languages, I’m 15 and currently fluent in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, and I can’t emphasize enough how many times that has helped me going to a party, or formal event and being able to socialize with people in different languages, and for the guys that are trying to impress some girls it is a total deal breaker. I plan on learning Swedish over the summer and the tips i found here are really great!

16 Michael-James July 1, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I was excited to see that Benny “the Irish Polyglot” wrote this article, I’ve followed his blog, he’s quite an inspiration. I’m definitely all too familiar with the excuses like being a perfectionist and whatnot. Being born to German parents and to have a sister fluent in French gives me even less of an excuse to not be multilingual. I’ve put those aside however to learn Swedish because a friend and I are planning to spend a year in Uppsala, and I’ve got many family friends in Sweden so that helps, and this article comes at a good time!

Tack för inspirationen, Benny, skål kompis!

17 Ilana July 1, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Great post! My only disagreement is with the suggestion of using a site that comes with decks of flashcards already available–I find making my own flashcards is one of the best ways to reinforce the words, and that it takes much less effort to memorize flashcards I have written or typed myself than those provided by others.

I’ve spoken English, Japanese, and Spanish since a very young age. Starting last summer, I decided to learn a new language every summer (practicing 3-4 hours a day, every day, for 3 months). The catch is that I can’t afford to ignore grammar rules–I force a deadline by signing up for a college literature course (and I’m a college student, so grades count and things like writing good, correct essays are important) in the language the next semester. It worked beautifully for Italian last year. (Honestly, I was actually lazy about studying that because it’s so easy with fluent Spanish.) German is going well this summer, and next summer will definitely be devoted to French! Since I’m more interested in literacy than conversational fluency, the tactics are a bit different. But the overall strategy is the same: stop saying you can’t do it, start speaking/reading with what you know right away, and take every possible opportunity to practice your skills.

18 Rob July 1, 2011 at 7:35 pm

So many thanks for mentioning That website is a jewel of the internet, it is as essential as Wikipedia or Google. I have used CS many times and still have great friends through them. In fact, a host from Florida called me today to see if he could surf on my couch while on vacation/job-hunting. is truly great and I thoroughly advise any AoM reader to hop on it, it is so fantastic!

19 Drew July 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm

My first (second) language was Japanese. This was 9 years ago when I started. I now have a college education with a focus on that language. During that time, I took a full year sequence of German, and learned resources to pick up 8 other languages. My full list (in order of proficiency) is Japanese (advanced proficiency), German (beginner/intermediate), Russian (beginner), Swedish, Irish Gaelic, French, Spanish, Arabic, Welsh, and Persian. One site I use to make contacts to learn languages is a site called Interpals. It is useful, and it is definitely not just for women!

結局、このポーストをどうもありがとうございました。Danke für der Abschnitt.

20 Lee July 1, 2011 at 8:42 pm

I’ve been trying to learn Chinese and Spanish off and on for several years now. Thanks for the ideas on how to connect with native speakers, I’ll have to look into couchsurfing and mocha some more. I suppose I should get off my couch and try to meet local people too.

21 Yared July 1, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Being a native speaker of Swedish myself, I’m quiet surprised that there are so many who are interested in learning it :P
BTW If you can speak Swedish, you can understand a lot of Norwegian and, to a lesser extent (at least for me), Danish. Of course, you’ll have to work a little on it if you want to become good at really understanding them but knowing Swedish helps a lot.

Thanks for the article.

22 Abraham July 1, 2011 at 10:55 pm

There’s another website, it’s called This website is purely for the finding of language partners and speaking to them, face-to-face, prepare to download Skype!

23 Andrew July 2, 2011 at 1:32 am
24 Terry July 2, 2011 at 4:14 am

Great article! Thanks! When I was (much) younger I took a few years of German in jr high. I still “sprinkle” my vocabulary with phrases from it, as well as others I’ve picked up over the years from (mainly) Spanish, as well as French, Russian, & Cherokee.
I’m also returning to school next week to obtain a degree, and part of my studies will be more intensive Spanish. I’m also in the process of learning (Eastern) Arabic. I’m also going to be learning Persian soon. Thanks again.

25 Michael A. Robson July 2, 2011 at 5:00 am

I’m interested to know what you think of learning to SPEAK vs READ/WRITE… For example most European languages are a no brainer to read, because of the ‘English’ alphabet… but when you learn Chinese… reading is a lifetime challenge. Actually speaking Chinese is quite easy and fun, but they have the most bizarre, inconvenient (Japanese learners will agree) written languages on the planet.

The other thing I would advise is for people to live in the country of choice.. really have fun with the language by moving there. If you can get your company to help you out, and your spouse is up for it, even better!

26 Don E. Chute July 2, 2011 at 5:24 am

Screw that…Why don’t we all just learn English instead?


Aloha From Sunny South Florida!

27 알렉스 July 2, 2011 at 9:52 am

대박! “아트어브만리네스” 노무좋아해요.
Awesome! I really like the Art of Manliness.

I find that learning a different language is a little bit easier as a native English speaker, since English has saturated so many other places around the world.

As an English teacher in Seoul I’ve acquired a functional grasp of Korean, but sadly I’ve lost most of the Spanish that I spent five years studying. Next I plan is to study Latin.

28 Actiondoc July 2, 2011 at 12:18 pm

I really like this blog. I look forward to it and it never disappoints. The information is great. thanks and keep up the great work….

29 Steve July 2, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Here is one of the best free resources out there for learning another language:

30 jm July 2, 2011 at 2:57 pm

This article focuses mainly on Western languages. I’d like to see how becoming a man of the world only focuses on Western languages. Try your hand at Vietnamese yet?

31 Ike July 2, 2011 at 10:36 pm

I find that when I hear a new word I like to have it repeated twice by a native speaker. This means that I heard it three times before I pronounce it for the first time. This helps to avoid mispronunciation.

I don’t believe one can be fluent in three months. But I like what he says about just trying to talk with people and not being afraid to make mistakes. I speak Bosno-Croato-Serbian quite effectively.

32 Craig July 2, 2011 at 10:43 pm

I have learned Koine Greek and Hebrew the academic way and it was extremely difficult because it is written. What is said in this article about “cognates” makes Greek much easier in the Vocab department, but the Hebrew syntax is easier.

When I was in Seminary, I had a couple of friends from Germany. They would mock my German to no end because I would get my feminine and masculine endings bass ackward, of course, they slaughtered English, but I didn’t care because I could understand them.

I think that this is one other thing to be aware of, some cultures are more difficult than others when it comes to cutting you slack. For instance, in much of France, if you are trying, they are very gracious and will be helpful, whereas in certain circles in Paris, unless you speak French flawlessly, many people will be complete jerks to you. It is especially good fun if you come off like you’re just another American idiot and you can actually speak French. It’s good fun when you answer them in French when they have just mocked you.

Italians, Greeks, Spaniards… tend to be much more gracious and accommodating.

33 Austin July 2, 2011 at 10:51 pm

I just downloaded the anki program and will check out some of these other links. I’m teaching English in South Korea right now, and I’ve picked up a lot of Korean using Rosetta Stone. It’s an expensive program but it works extremely well if you put in the time to use it. You’re right on about schools marking every mistake wrong instead of encouraging students to take risks and use the language. Each week we get journals from the students where they have a different writing prompt to write about, and we’re instructed to mark every little mistake wrong because that’s what the parents want. Visualizing what the words mean and jumping in is really the only way to do it. As a teacher and as someone who has studied a little Spanish, German, and Korean, I’ve found that translation is the absolute worst way to try to learn a language. It’s like you have to shut off your English or native language speaking brain and find ways to think in the language before you can fluidly use it.

34 Zeke July 3, 2011 at 1:02 am

17-year-old and trilingual! Excellent article, AoM. I’m working on my fourth and fifth languages at the moment, and most of my problem is procrastination. It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish, eh?

Cheers, all! Glad to see that my fellow men are taking an interesting in the world around them.

35 Mike July 3, 2011 at 1:29 am

You sir, hit the nail on the head. I am currently learning Korean, and have been for the last three years. It has been slow because I haven’t pushed myself. I have been afraid to speak for fear of messing up words. On top of that, I haven’t set any deadline or tangible goals. When I was in high school, I spoke German. I was quite good at it, because my teacher pushed us to speak it early and often. That class was hell, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t speak German well. I need to use that same mentallity for tackling Korean. Great article.

36 Someone July 3, 2011 at 2:27 am

I really recommend “How to Learn Any Language,” by Barry Farber

37 Tim July 3, 2011 at 8:08 am

Great article. I like the real world approach to language learning. I’ve recently been learning French and have traveled to Europe twice in the last 4 years. This article has re-inspired me .

38 Andy O July 3, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Great article with solid advice.

When I was 11 my parents made me learn french with no “training wheels”: They sent me to a french high school. Basically, I had to get fluent in 3 months, or fail the term. Worked.

Since then I’ve added more languages, usually with the same techniques that worked in school. I get my hands on kindergarten storybooks with simple sentences that are constructed to teach native speakers how to READ (not to teach non-natives how to SPEAK). Between the illustrations and context, you can usually make out the meanings of new words, and you get a feel for the way thoughts in the language are put together. I’m a writer so at the same time I usually start trying to write sketches, short stories, comicbooks, whatever I can, in the language.

It used to be a pain to get subtitled movies, but in the multi-track DVD era, it’s a breeze. Start by watching the movie in english, with subs in the new tongue. Reading along with the dialogue will help you pick up some nuances. The biggest payday however comes from watching a movie you know VERY well in the new language. Now you can HEAR the dialogue you know almost by heart in the language you are studying. “Lawrence of Arabia” has come through for me as Laurence AND Lorenzo :D

But nothing comes close to practicing the language with native speakers.

39 henrique rosso July 3, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I came from Brazil to the United States last year and I had join to the football team of my school… After 9 months learning the football team made me speak it up way more faster than I though…
I had a little notion about english when I first came but that experience was the best….
So, I just have to confirm that the best way to learn a new language is to speak it from day one!

40 Harriet D July 4, 2011 at 12:46 am

Great article, very honest and accurate. It’s really encouraging to hear that learning so many languages is doable. I’m at an intermediate level of Spanish and a beginner level at Russian, Japanese, and French. My dad is a beginner at Russian, and he’s also taken interest in Arabic. It took him such a long time to learn the Arabic alphabet. What a challenging language it is!

41 fuchikoma July 4, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Great advice. I’m too much of a perfectionist usually, but I like learning languages. I started teaching myself to program computers when I was around grade 4 or 5, and since then I’ve gone on to learn around a dozen programming, scripting, and query languages.

As I see it, a language is a language though, so I’ve started studying written/spoken ones for fun. My native tongue is English, and I had to take a few years of French in elementary school. It was fun, but I’ve forgotten most of it now. I took Japanese though high school, and kept on studying at home. On the side, I learned Hangul, the Korean alphabet – want to impress people with little effort? That’s the way – Hangul is dead simple to learn, by design! I’m talking 1-2 days for a dedicated student once you’ve figured out the vowels. I’ve gotten my feet wet studying Farsi, Cyrillic, and Tengwar – one of the scripts from Lord of the Rings. I’ve also done a bunch of audiobook learning for Korean and Cantonese (careful – it’s hard to find current Cantonese references. One marker I heard of was the word for “I,” said with a rising tone: “ngo” in older form, “lo” in one that’s at least within a couple decades of the present.)

Anyway, I always like to start a language by learning the alphabet, and the correct pronunciation for all the letters, so I don’t build on a shoddy foundation. (The only reason I broke this rule for Cantonese is because, like Kanji, you could make it your life’s work just to learn the useful ones because there are so many.) Then I go to basic phrases and grammar, and once the quirks of grammar are pretty much down, I start filling up on vocabulary words. Cracking the grammar is great for mentally processing the sentences and picking up things by context.

Also, they say that it’s harder to learn a language after you’re about 11 or so… That’s another excuse (though going accent-free will be hard.) I started Japanese around 15 or 16, and most of the others I started in my mid-20s. You just can’t count on overnight results. Fluency takes years, and if you give up on it, you’ll lose it again, so keep it fresh in your mind! Learn the culture you’re studying too, and consume the media you like (music, TV, comics, etc) for practice.

42 hi_der July 5, 2011 at 12:39 am

To be honest, while the author’s linguistic abilities are commendable, I would be more impressed if they weren’t all the same type of “romance languages”. I rarely have met a European person who spoke less than a few languages, in part due to the similarities between them.

43 Pancho July 5, 2011 at 2:16 pm

He doesn’t just speak Romance languages. He also speaks German and Irish. He has also attempted Hungarian (a non-Indo-European language) and I believe Thai and Tagalog. He is currently working on Turkish.

44 James Alonso July 5, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Wanted to mention another resource- it let’s you read foreign literature in it’s original language and easily translate to learn vocab as you go.

45 SK July 6, 2011 at 1:42 am

@andyinsdca: Japanese is much, much easier than Korean. However, I found that the best way to learn Korean was drinking. Seriously. Make a bunch of Korean friends, and go drinking with them. Fluency in no time~*

46 Joe Stilwell July 6, 2011 at 5:31 am

Learning a second language in the west is no longer important to the masses. The smart ones already know its gives you an advantage in ALL aspects of life. It opens doors and creates opportunities, but most important it gives you the confidence to know you can live in another part of the world and become successful. Having moved to Shenzhen China many years ago I made a point to surround myself with only Chinese and can now speak the language. If anyone happens to make the move to this amazing part of the world….look me up

47 Michael July 6, 2011 at 5:49 am

Great article – many thanks! I have lived and worked in several non-native-English-speaking countries and I always attempt to pick up as much of the local language as possible no matter how little time I am planning to spend there – it always pays dividends because, as the author says, the locals are usually very pleasantly surprised that an English speaker is making the effort. I would add 2 techniques to those already described: (1) spend time listening to the language as it is spoken. With the advent of the internet, it is very easy to listen to radio, watch tv etc in practically any language. The key here is that you are NOT listening in order to understand (at least initially). You are listening just so your brain can begin to pick out words in the jumble of sounds. This can seem tedious to start with but, believe me, in the end it will pay dividends. One of my favourite methods is to listen to lyrics of local bands. This has the advantage that the chorus is repeated several times. You may well find that you can actually sing the chorus of your favourite songs in that language – even if you have no idea what they mean! (But it won’t be long before you know the meaning too). If you can, watch a movie in the native language with English subtitles – this is very good for comprehension. (2) Date a local. Ideally one who speaks little or no English. There is no greater motivator to become fluent in a foreign language than love!

48 Sir Paul July 6, 2011 at 11:12 am

Que articulo fantastico!

Ahora me voy a practicar mi espanol mas, no tengo excusas!

49 cfugs81 July 6, 2011 at 11:27 am

Great article. i began learning and fell off a bit. This has helped re-motivate me!

50 Alan July 6, 2011 at 11:44 am

Well I have to say I’m, totally underwhelmed by the article – and all the gushing about it.

I’ve lived in Malaysia for 7 years now, married to a local Malaysian lady and STILL can’t understand the high-speed babbling of local conversation.

In theory I know and can speak over 1000 words. Totally useless.

Yumpe wasso toone oit ott vay mooorantinapitak oto.

Did the above make any sense to you? Me neither. Explain to me, how long does one have to listen to something like that before it magically DOES makes sense?

Watch TV to learn? Sure, watch TV – with no idea what the *heck* they’re talking about! Listen to conversations around you, same thing. Oh yes, you’ll pick up the odd word here and there:

Babblebabblebabble going babblebabble she babblebabblebabble expensive? babblebabble…

Tell me again, how exactly that helps?

Going, she, expensive. Great, there ya go, smarter already! And..?

No, screw this idea. Let’s get the world to speak English! Vastly easier for everyone.

You know, when I first arrived here I had a bunch of books, would devote a couple of hours each day to this language thing… went to a local shop (saya pergi ke kedai local) and asked the price of a tie… (dan tanya harga tali…) “How much is that tie?” (“Berapa harga tali itu?”)

The Chinese storekeeper, who didn’t speak Malay either, asked “Do you speak English?”

That was the point that I just gave up on the (stupid) idea.

So remind me again why I should beat my brains out trying to learn a language that even the native speakers want to get rid of while embracing English? It strikes me that such efforts merely slow down the rate in which the world learns English – possibly to the point such efforts stall before we’re all expected to learn Chinese…

If we DO find ourselves having to learn Chinese, know whom I’m gonna blame? Not the Chinese, nope. Not their fault. I’m gonna blame people like YOU who think, and promote, the idea that learning some dying language and keeping the thing alive is a good thing.

No, it’s not. Kill it off gracefully and let the world settle on ONE language. That would REALLY be a step forward, as opposed to the selfish elitism of mastering some obscure damn language just to be a smarty-pants and impress those of us with less idle time. Actually I’m NOT impressed, because I know just how much effort goes into learning another lingo, I know even if you’ve been doing it for years and sound all manner of impressive to your mates, to a native you still sound like a dick. I know you get at least half your grammar wrong and when natives tell you how great your language skills are they’re just being polite – just as you are when someone mangles English.

I know you’ll rarely if ever use if for any in-depth conversation beyond the kind of banal mumbling you’d expect from a drunk, I know the ‘delighted surprise’ lasts for about 20 seconds, ie until they realise that no, you can’t REALLY speak their language, not properly.

And no, I don’t want to go through life as the little engine that tries hard, bless his dumb little efforts… I’d rather be the orang putih that speaks orang putih, alright?

You no speakee the English? Well go find a friend that *does*.

Seriously, there’s very few places in the world where you can’t find someone who speaks English. I honestly do think the world would be a smaller, friendlier, happier and ultimately more peaceful place if we could all speak to each other. That means one language, and as English is currently the most popular, let’s use that one.

You know, like this website does? Like YOU do, since you’re reading this.

One world, one language. English.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.


51 Emily July 6, 2011 at 3:36 pm

My family loves learning new languages. My father is almost fluent in 2 extra languages now (Spanish and German)! He got these great tapes called “Pimsleur” and listened to a disk in the car each day on the way to work. He learned how to get by, and after visiting Costa Rica and German he came home fluent! He’s an admirable man!

Also, have you seen this? It’s incredible to watch! Sounds just like you :)

52 Carlita July 6, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Excellent article. I speak English, with rudimentary Spanish and French, and I need to acquire the patience to learn more.

@Alan, actually what is selfish is to expect everyone else in the world to speak YOUR language, to understand YOU. Perhaps they are wishing that everyone in the world would just learn THEIR language. If you don’t want to learn another language, then don’t. It’s a personal choice. And maybe you don’t have the ability to learn and retain another language. That’s life. You don’t need to berate the rest of us.

53 Bernard Brandt July 6, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Okay, at least two other people have recommended this website:

You commenters have ignored that recommendation.

You idiots.

The website mentioned above has pdfs and mp3s of the Foreign Service Institute courses for the following languages:


I hear a lot of talk about how y’all are going to start learning languages and get out there.

Put up or shut up. Try the website. Now.

54 Bernard Brandt July 6, 2011 at 7:43 pm

And, Alan, go and do naughty things with yourself.

It’s probably the only thing you know how to do well.

55 Mark July 8, 2011 at 2:59 am

The fear factor is the biggest hurdle. Thinking you’ll sound an idiot. Well guess what, most people don’t even speak their native tongue correctly. So take the plunge. Total immersion is always best, but a little each does yield results. Watch films with subtitles as well. It’s how a lot of my foreign friends picked up English much quicker.

56 LS July 8, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Knowing that some languages I will never fully learn to speak, I decided instead to try to learn to read them. Learned the Japanese kana and some kanji. Can transliterate some Russian. Reading up on some Latin makes it easier to decipher French/Spanish/Italian.

57 Pasha July 8, 2011 at 7:12 pm

I have a B.A. in Russian, and I’m moving to Kiev in a few weeks. Currently, I’m an English teacher at a school for mostly Spanish speaking immigrants in Texas. I’m totally with y’all on this article.
Laying aside your excuses and just speaking another language is the biggest part of learning another language. 10 years ago, my boss (a Mexican immigrant) didn’t speak a lick of English, and now he’s running an English school and speaks better English than a lot of Americans that I know.
I would like to add one thing. Write in the language you’re learning. I recently started a blog where I write about things that aren’t generally all that important, but it’s an opportunity to practice. I’m certain that there are all sorts of errors in my Russian as I write, but hey, that all part of the learning process. Looking back, some of the odd Russian grammar and vocabulary rules that I have learned the best came as a result of humiliating myself by making a mistake. Just today, I accidentally used a word that meant “naked fighting” instead of the word that I meant to use. Never again will I make that mistake.
It’s hard work, but keep it up!

58 BB July 9, 2011 at 10:43 am

Another thing is, especially if you visit Europe is not to be dissuaded by people speaking English. most of the younger people this side of the pond speak at least a passable amount of English, more so in countries whose own language base is small (the Netherlands is an example) and we will usually switch to english if we notice someone is a foreigner. this is not an excuse not to attempt to speak the language. Even smattering around a danke or merci is a great bonus to how people think of you.

59 Wan July 12, 2011 at 9:07 am

Benny…you have presented language learning based on gender factor which is interesting to female readers like me. ( Sometimes women really want to know what is in men’s minds ). My native language Malay is one of the easiest languages yet I keep meeting people who can never learn it well. Coming to think of it, most of these people are females. Your pragmatic suggestions especially dealing with grammar is definitely helpful and enjoyable. Thanks for the insight and fun!

60 Nusy July 13, 2011 at 10:14 pm

I’m Hungarian by birth – back home, we had to master 2 other languages before we graduated high school; hence I speak fluent English and still-mostly-fluent Italian. I also took a year of Latin, which proved to be a great help with Italian.
I learned English when I was really young, so it imprinted in me as a second native language, however, Italian took some effort. What I liked to do to learn words was to name anything and everything I saw in Italian to myself; up to and including “guessing” the jobs of the people on the bus around me.
Now I’m trying to help my (American) husband learn Hungarian – he tends to make the excuse of not being good with languages, too, so I think I just found the right article for him.

Bernard B. – thank you for the link, I’ll definitely take a look at the Hungarian course for the man!

61 Malienation July 14, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Trouble finding media in your choice of language that is both intellectually engaging yet simple enough for a beginner? Try this next time you go to Wikipedia: at your Wikipage of choice, go down to the foreign language choices at the side. No, don’t choose the language you want to see displayed; the end result will likely be too difficult for a beginner. Choose “Simple English”, which is exactly what it sounds like, a simpler version of English that uses shorter sentences and less sophisticated vocabulary. Copy the URL into the clipboard and paste into Google’s Translation box, making sure to choose the appropriate target language. Hit the blue “Translate” link and you’ll get back a translated version that will be as simple in your target language as the original was in Simple English. Since the sentences are short and uncomplicated, inappropriate translations are less likely to occur.

62 David July 14, 2011 at 7:23 pm

I read your post after already having the intention of learning several languages, but it really got me to want to do it. I went out and borrowed some books from a friend and I’m teaching myself Japanese, and possibly another language this year. Thanks for the motivation

63 Marcelo July 16, 2011 at 2:34 am

I’m brazilian, and I have been studing english for a time. I found this text and liked so much, thanks. If someone want to help me, send me a e-mail please.

64 Ben July 19, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I think that is a great observation that women DO tend to be in many translation positions. However I am not surprised that as an engineer you are good at languages. Neuro-scientists have proven that we use *THE SAME* part of brain to learn foreign languages as we use to learn math. It’s all just a ridiculous double standard (unless of course you majored in English)

65 fish July 22, 2011 at 3:40 am

Malienation,you have given us a really good advice,gracias

66 Brian M. July 22, 2011 at 8:44 am

It takes guts to just go ahead and start speaking in day one. I took up Polish after a visit to Krakow and immediately began learning Polish the minute my plane touched down in Chicago. Benny’s right: the more you try, the better off you are. In less than a year, I went back to Poland was able to converse with teenagers (not fluent, had to use English) – not bad for someone who lived in Chicago!

One of the things I observed is grammar. Grammatical rules are the same for most languages. Romance? Nearly the same. Slavic? Nearly the same. There are crossovers due to years of conquests. Pay attention, see the details, it makes language learning easier.

67 Juan July 23, 2011 at 3:37 am

Thanks for the article, it’s very inspiring. I’m right now in Japan preparing for my admissions exam to the Master Course, which is going to be fully in japanese in less than 2 months. My language proficiency is close to that of a primary schooler, so I’m working pretty hard to be proficient enough to pass. My mother tongue is spanish and can speak a decent english.


68 Rodrigo S July 24, 2011 at 9:35 pm

@Alan: Let me borrow a quote from a movie, Billy Madison, with the proper corrections.

Mr. Alan, what you’ve just written is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever seen. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this website is now dumber for having read it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

And to finish it off… Alan, you’re being a complete idiot, selfish and arrogant, who blames other people for your own stupidity and ignorance. Yes, there are languages that are hard to master. But blaming other people for your own weakness is no solution.

69 Marcus November 20, 2012 at 4:28 am

Very inspiring article! There’s so much fun learning using a new language to go deeper into the world/country where they speak it. Cheers!

70 Kyle March 1, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Hey Benny,
Thanks for the article. I’ve been studying Swedish for the past couple of months and you are absolutely right when you talk about taking chances and working through the mistakes. My girlfriend is Swedish and we speak it at home all the time but I can’t hack the class but Im learning anyway. Thanks for the article, always good to read something positive when I’m struggling through the class.

71 Stefan July 1, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I just wanted to add my favorite tool to the list. There is a app on the android market called “Manga Reader 2″. Manga is a popular category of comics young people read. The app supports seven languages (English, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Indian, and some language marked as “VI”). I like it because manga is dialogue focused and the vocabulary shifts from high end narration to simple commands that you need to know. (ex. Get out of there!) It fits in my pocket and is not as boring as flashcards. Hope this helps someone.

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