There is a really interesting book out just now. Called “Fluent In 3 Months”, it’s based on a blog by Benny Lewis, which has 500,000 readers every month. They follow his language-learning exploits and the digital/nomadic lifestyle that earned him the title of National Geographic Traveller of the Year in 2013.
Benny is interesting to us as a language company because he believes, “Language books are generally written by people with PhDs in linguistics or born into multilingual environments … I did poorly in school – barely passed German – and felt people would relate to that”.
His approach doesn’t necessarily endear him to every language expert. A review of his book on thelinguist.com, admittedly by someone from a company which takes a more “input-based approach”, challenges Lewis but does acknowledge that there is a lot to what he says and writes.
It’s not my intention to get bogged down in the argument over the best way to learn a foreign language. Fluency is one thing, but real bi-lingualism is another matter entirely and no-one should entrust sensitive business translations or interpretation in a court of law to someone who is ‘fluent in three months’. What I want to concentrate upon is the value of this approach for many of our clients, specifically those whose business involves exporting and, as a result, takes them abroad regularly.
A friend of mine has recently learned Japanese (respect!), but even he, a good linguist, was impressed by Lewis’s methods. One of Lewis’s top tips is to associate foreign words with (obscure) mind pictures or something else easily remembered (a standard practice for memorising speeches). For example, he suggests the word ‘gare’ (French for station) reminds him of Garfield the comic-strip cat, so he pictures the feline running for a train. He also says that if someone speaks to you in their own language you shouldn’t worry about understanding the whole sentence but should just pick out he words or phrases you recognise.
He also dismisses concentrating too much on grammar in the early stages, but to speak as much as possible and study the grammar after you can communicate a little. He also says that you ought to “get as much frustrating study work out of the way as you can in your home country; especially phrases and vocabulary”. It’s when you are in another country and speaking to lots of people lots of the time that your language skills dramatically improve according to Lewis.
If you are in an exporting business and spend a lot of time in your customers’ countries then you are in the ideal environment for learning their language. Benny Lewis’s success has been principally down to speaking straight away rather than holding back for fear of getting it wrong, and due to the time he spent in the countries concerned rather than in front of a text-book ‘back home’. I’d encourage you to give it a go. Your customers will like you better for it, you’ll be more confident, and if you get a reputation as someone who really tries hard to speak the local language, while your competitors are still assuming that English, being the world’s main business language, is all they need (and losing clients on all sides) then you will be the ultimate winner!
David Orr, Director, Global Connects