Tim Ferriss, interview on language learning

Today I’m very happy to share an interview I did with New York Times best selling author, Tim Ferriss.

(This video is captioned in English on Youtube, and you can also read the full transcript below).

He got his fame initially for writing the 4 hour workweek, followed it up with the 4 hour body, and has just released the third in the series, the 4 hour chef.

The first book was about working well, and he inspired a lot of people to go location independent and start their own businesses after reading it (although I had been travelling for several years already myself when I first read his book), his second book was about living healthily, and to complete his healthy-wealthy-wise series, his final book is about how to learn.

The “chef” in the title, as well as being an allusion to the Spanish jefe (boss), is because he wanted to share his story of starting to learn a completely new skill from scratch, using cooking as an example, but keeping the book about learning in general. He mentions language learning specifically many times in the book.

He is one of the most famous bloggers online, a genius marketer, a constant guinea-pig to his own mental and physical experiments, and he has learned several languages very quickly, several of which you can hear him speak on this page, and he even used his Japanese to become one of the few foreigners to learn Yabusame (horseback archery).

I decided it would be a great time for us to finally sit down and talk language learning, and as he said himself in the interview that us two chatting like this has been a long time coming, since people have been comparing our approaches a lot over the years. Of course, I was interested in seeing what we share in common, and finding out more about his language learning philosophy. The result is a very interesting 42 minute chat!

Check it out above, or read the (grammatically unedited) transcript below.

Ten free copies of the 4-hour chef, for those who leave a comment

I was told that I can give away ten copies of the 4 hour chef to people with US postal addresses (so that shipping is paid for already), so after checking out the interview, write a comment below about the most valuable experience you have had thanks to using a foreign language, no matter what your level may have been.

If you like a comment you read, make sure to vote it up! I’ll pick my favourite ten ones (the most inspirational, funny, or life-altering ones) by Monday, and get in touch to ask for your address, or that of a friend in the states.

Otherwise, you can check out the video trailer and read a sample of his book on fourhourchef.com, and can buy the book on Amazon US or UK, or on Amazon’s Kindle store to read it instantly. Chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble have actually banned his book, because they don’t like the idea of Amazon publishing books, which I think is very strange because this restrictive move makes people like me tell you even more enthusiastically to go to Amazon instead.

I hope you enjoyed the interview! Make sure to share your thoughts below!

Transcript of the entire interview:

Benny:           Hey everybody today I have got a very interesting interview for you. I am talking to Tim Ferriss who is very well known initially for writing the 4-Hour work week but he has since expanded on that, he has written about the 4-Hour body and now the 4-hour chef and I like the way he talks about this trio of books it’s Benjamin Franklin’s healthy, wealthy, wise, isn’t that it?


Tim:                 That’s right you got it.


Benny:           Ok so most people talk to you relevant to these kind of “life hacking” things, business ideas and so on but today I want to focus almost entirely on language learning because what you have done in other areas is very impressive but just looking at your background it’s very relevant to languages because you did your degree in East Asian studies and your thesis was in Neuro science and unorthodox acquisition of Japanese by native English speakers, if I got that right?


Tim:                 Right.


Benny:           And just before you graduated you were the curriculum designer at Berlitz International?


Tim:                 I worked on Japanese and English curriculum re-design.


Benny:           I actually work for Berlitz myself too but just as an English teacher and from then you…well before all this you as a teenager you had done a year abroad in Japan and you kind of changed your language learning process over time and I think if I have got this you reached a certain stage that I want to ask you about, in Japanese in one year, Mandarin Chinese in six months, German in three months and Spanish in eight weeks, so we will get into the meat of that very shortly but the first thing that I am really curious is how did you get interested in Japanese in the first place because you as a teenager you went to Japan so obviously something kicked that off in advance before you went over there?


Tim:                 It was really simple. In my particular case I concluded I was bad at languages after my Spanish experience in the few years prior to that because like everyone, well I shouldn’t say everyone but most people who go through the normal formal schooling approach couldn’t string more than a few sentences together, certainly couldn’t have a conversation and I ended up switching to Japanese when I switched schools and I had the opportunity to study other languages and my thought was well I am going to be bad at languages no matter which one I choose I might as well, number one study something related to a culture that I am fascinated by, so Ninjas and all that stuff, Samurai and what have you and secondly my friends were in and one or two of my new friends at that school were in the Japanese class, so I jumped into Japanese. And actually what people don’t realise is it was sold or described in the course handbook as conversational Japanese and so as soon as they started introducing (Japanese terms) you know the two sylaberries I was like whoa what is this, what is this nonsense so I had like two big meetings with my resin advisor and the Japanese teacher because I was considering very seriously quitting Japanese on two different occasions because of the writing which is hysterical looking back because I was so phobic, I was like if I have trouble with Spanish I don’t want to do something that is already harder than Spanish plus all this crazy character stuff, but that is how the Japanese class came to be and Mr Shimonu who is the teacher was great he was actually very different from my previous Spanish teacher so for instance anytime he could see our faces falling or we were having trouble with Japanese he would say “ok time out” and his English was still very Japanese English he would go “right time out” and then he would say “squirrel” in English to make us laugh because that is probably the hardest word possible for a Japanese person to say, so we would go “ok watch” and he would go “squirr..” and everyone would crack up and the mood would improve and then we would continue with the lesson and I think he understood really well that it’s not just having the right method on paper you need to deal with the psychological emotional aspect of it.


Benny:           Absolutely.


Tim:                 There is always going to be frustrations as you know. So that is how the class came to be and then at some point I actually ended up doing quite well it and I think partially because the class was very frequently after sports and I have some thoughts on how physical activity pairs with language learning really well but I did progress in it really quickly and at one point he said we had this sister programme at Saiki University or Saiki High School in this case in Tokyo would you like to be an exchange student and that just came out of that field for me and I talked to my parents and off I went for my first major overseas trip.


Benny:           Excellent and one thing I didn’t know before or I would have missed it in your previous books, is you said that you had actually spent six months at first in Japan where you didn’t feel that you had made that much progress and you were still very frustrated, so what happened to change this because the same thing happened to me I actually…and I don’t have the same kind of background, I wasn’t you know I didn’t have such a good language education at first and I have got a degree in electronic engineering but after graduation I moved to Spain and I lived in Spain for six months without actually learning Spanish to any kind of degree so I know you said something similar to this, so what happened?


Tim:                 I think there are two things so I don’t have a lot of data to support this but I do think the six month point there was something like related to neuroplasticity about that six month point, there was something really unusual about it but secondly I gave up on trying to mimic what I done in school because it wasn’t working. When I went to Saiki I remember the first day of classes so I had been measured for my school uniform I looked like a WestPoint cadet and went into the English department office because I was basically their pet for the year and this guy came up to me and he goes you know and he gives me this paper and I couldn’t…I was like sorry I can’t read this what does it say and he is like ok, ok traditional Japanese [Japanese] physics ok and read through the whole list and I was just puzzled by this and it turned out that what I had been told before I went because I was very nervous he said don’t worry you will have plenty of Japanese classes and lost in translation was that they were all regular high school Japanese classes, so I went to book stores and I bought what I thought appeared to be Japanese text books like my Spanish text books had been and it just didn’t work at the end of the day, whether I was bored by the material or the books themselves were a problem in the progression, either way it didn’t work and around the six month point is when I really embraced judo text books and comic books and I found that the judo text books because I was interested in the subject matter gave me the grammar because the grammar transfers of course between subject matter and I actually think electrical engineering would be really good training for languages but at least as good as an East Asian studies degree but we can come out with the comic so I have a little show and tell, the comic books turned into a real outlet for me because it’s all dialogue it’s almost all dialogue and not only is it almost all dialogue but it doesn’t try to be, it does not attempt to be formal there is some formality but it’s mostly very informal so for a high school kid that was perfect. So here is one example this is “one piece” I have… the covers are the same so once I did that in Japanese this is one piece in German and one piece in Spanish and it’s a very popular series as you can get it in every language but the main difference was focussing on native materials that were not intended to teach language in the first place if that makes sense?


Benny:           Yeah.


Tim:                 So that was a big breakthrough point and I think that much like physical adaptation for sports there is a neuroplasticity aspect that does take time and there are ways to compress it but in my case with Japanese is was between that six and eight month point where there was a real inflexion point and that’s pretty much how it turned out.


Benny:           Yeah and for me it was mostly a mentality shift because I think those six months weren’t necessarily helping me when I was learning Spanish but something I am sure you have written about this, one of the major issues in languages is in a traditional education people look at a native speaker and that is kind of the goal and the presumption is let’s say for example that mastering a language a hundred per cent to sound like a native, let’s say it takes 15 years I mean I don’t know how long it takes, let’s say it takes that and then they kind of think logically it has to take 15 years so to get fifty per cent of that you would need seven and a half years?


Tim:                 Right that’s a great point.


Benny:           So what is wrong with this logic?


Tim:                 Well I mean it’s a….


Benny:           I know it’s not logical that’s what’s wrong with it.


Tim:                 You’re preaching to the choir! Because languages are very front loaded but if you do an 80/20 analysis and you know this of course looking at the frequency of word occurrence then I mean if you just learn the word THE in English you cover a lot of ground, now you are not going to speak to anyone you are just using THE and drive you and them crazy but as you add words there is a dramatic point of diminishing returns, many points of diminishing returns so if you wanted to get…the explanation that I sometimes give to people is if you wanted to fool a native speaker into thinking that you are close to native or perhaps grew up there, let’s say 30 days out of a 30 day calendar month that might take 10 years, it might like  you said I don’t know maybe but to get to the point where you can do it 29 days out of 30 I think you could do that in a year or less without too much trouble if you really apply yourself. But it’s getting those final grains of salt, those final words that really requires that huge investment or so it would seem but yeah that is a good point I think the mathematical… when you run the mental arithmetic and distribute it across 15 years, oh well if I wanted to be even 50% is good which in most people’s minds is pretty crappy still, it will take seven and half years I am not even going to try like that is the way it’s…yeah that’s a good point I have never put it that way.


Benny:           Yeah because like what I found is when I am trying to learn a language something similar to the Parato principle you talk about a lot is I am much more focussed on the short term and what can I do in the short term and I think this is very very different to traditional methods that kind of see anything less than mastery of a language as a waste of time and useless and I mean realistically yeah it would be great if everyone thought I was I native 100% of the time but I mean why do I really need that, what I am looking for is I want to have good conversations with people, I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings and I have actually reached the stage where I can pass for a native speaker in particular situations for you know up to two minutes and there is a lot of restrictions there like I have to be in a situation that I am comfortable in and so on and so I can’t say you know you are going to confuse me for a native all the time but these are all realistic things if you look at what you want to work on and you know people can come up with silly things like you have to be able to debate Kantian philosophy and I am like you know I don’t do that in English, yet you have to like my standards for fluency are based on what I can do in English and when people start saying you know you have got to be able to talk politics, I am like I find politics boring you know if you talk to me in English about politics I am not going to be able to do that. So like in my understanding when I say I try to be “fluent” in a language I aiming to be socially equivalent to how I am in English so I can follow many people speaking amongst one and other, I can talk to them without slowing the conversation down, you know it’s as good as speaking to a native even though you know I am not a native because I am making a few mistakes and for me that’s fluency and then a little bit higher than that would be doing these things in professional contexts, so I have actually sat the Spanish DELE the C2 Diploma which is the professional level but I still think below that it’s still very very powerful and for me it counts as fluency, it’s what I aiming for what I think is realistic in three months is this social fluency. So one of the big questions people were asking me when I told them I was going to talk to you, is how do you define fluent because in a laymen’s context it’s very easy to throw these words around like you know I learned how to speak Spanish in so many weeks, I mean what does that even mean you know?


Tim:                 So I like your social equivalency explanation applied by that but the example that I use, like when in almost every language when you run through a typical training programme for busy business people…


Benny:           Yeah.


Tim:                 Alright let’s learn to read the financial times, if I grab the financial times on an airplane I can’t read the damn thing in English and I never going to talk about it certainly but that is a whole separate gripe session, so for fluency for me personally my marker has been can I have say a 10 or 15 minute conversation without slowing down the conversation where I can express any idea I want to express and if I don’t understand something immediately clarify it, so it’s really having like a 10 minute pleasant conversation where the other person would come away saying like yes, now it’s an ambiguous term but in their language to another native speaker he fluent in Spanish or he is fluent in fill-in-the-blank.


Benny:           Right.


Tim:                 In some cases I am aiming for something like when I was in German I was at the Hochfachschule which is actually a pretty good school and I was aiming for that Mittelstufe and at first and then moving beyond that and then when I was in Argentina I like having concrete objective goals I think it’s helpful, not everyone needs it but I like to where with Spanish I was aiming for, I guess it was like Nivel Avanzado in the University of Buenos Aires  but just a side not real fast because talk about mental shift I think part of the reason that people fail in languages is the same reason that they fail at many things like dieting, think of dieting like ok this is a permanent change forever how do I feel and it’s overwhelming. And so with dieting it’s a two week trial, just a two week trial if you don’t like it you can stop, and with languages I think for instance I never tackle any language thinking this is going to be a lifelong project ever, I don’t ever tackle a language thinking this is going to be a one year project, ever when I tackle a language if I go to let’s say Turkey and I study Turkish I don’t expect to ever use Turkish again after that trip but because even having 20 phrases makes that trip ten times more enjoyable and I learn ten times more I will put in the time and that is how…you know Japanese another reason Japanese came out is I had an exchange student at my house with my family and so we all learned five to ten sentences of Japanese and we got along really well.


Benny:           That’s actually exactly the same reason I got into Spanish because we hosted Spanish students in my home town in Ireland.


Tim:                 Right and for instance when I was in Galway, this is hysterical so when I was in Galway, I am not sure I wrote about this I studied Irish and people think Japanese is hard I would say Irish just due to the lack of materials and also if you want to practice with anyone because it was funny because very Irish person I would meet they would go what are you doing here and I would be like I am doing a hurling and they would be like that’s weird and then I would say Irish and they would go what the hell are you studying Irish for and you would have to go to like Spiddal down in the Gaeltacht and oh man…


Benny:           Yeah, yeah well you would actually be surprised I did read your mention this on the blog that you would consider Irish more difficult, I think in terms of materials to come across yes you are going to find a lot less but I know a lot of people who have actually learned it at a distance and I don’t think it’s necessarily, I mean comparing it to other European languages it’s not that intimidating and especially because we are less used to foreigners learning it, you give them way more flexibility in making mistakes and you don’t necessarily have to go to Spiddal, I mean there are quite large Gaeltacht communities especially in the North West it’s a different dialect to the one in Galway but no don’t give up hope on Irish just yet.


Tim:                 I know I haven’t given up on Irish but I would say…I went there partially to study Irish and I ended up learning hurling instead which I fell in love with.


Benny:           Right.


Tim:                 So I view learning as just an adventure and I read a quote once, sorry it’s in the book I can’t remember who said it but he said ‘you know writing a novel is a lot like driving with the headlights on” you can’t see your destination but you can get there that way. And I think learning is a lot like that, but I would also say that Irish whether…I think not all languages are equally hard or equally easy for all people so it can be a very personal thing right so one of the pet peeves that I have maybe is when something is Romanised but the phonetics of that language do not resemble English I get antsy and Irish is definitely that way, like…


Benny:           Ok well another time I have got to sit down and talk to you about this it’s not as bad as you think.


Tim:                 No, no I am not saying it’s bad I am saying like it’s a very personal thing like for me it’s like Chinese whatever after Japanese sure I will learn Chinese where as most people are like oh my god it’s the devil’s language and I am like it’s not that bad. Whereas just to point out how like hysterical that is that I went oh Chinese 5000 characters I can do that and then like oh my god like spelling “Go raibh maith agat” (thank you) like oh forget you know.


Benny:           I see where you are coming from because we do very uniquely among languages I have come across we have a lot of letters to describe very few sounds but you know it can be very intimidating but believe it or not I among Celtic languages Irish is one of the easiest because of that, I mean Welsh is much more phonetic from what I have heard and this introduces a whole lot of new problems. So you know…


Tim:                 I believe it.


Benny:           Yeah I read that you got into Irish I thought that was fantastic.


Benny:           Ok so just going back from what I read in the 4-Hour chef and of course your blog post about language learning I think the core aspect of how you tackle a language is two things, firstly you would focus on the top words like the top 100 words or the top 1000 words based on frequency that they appear in a conversation or in print or something and you have a particular set of sentences that you deconstruct grammatically to help you get an overall look at the language and you generally would apply this to any language, it helps you a lot. What would you say… how does conversation come into your learning technique?


Tim:                 Yeah there is a bunch of different ways I actually have some more show and tell but I forget one so hold on I will be right back.


Tim:                 All right so conversation is…everything I do is with the target outcome of speaking fluently it’s not that I don’t value reading and writing and I can read and write, well certainly could much better back in the day but I can still read and write quite well in Japanese and Chinese and I studied Korean for a year or two and I don’t mention that much but I can still read most Korean, that is a really fun one to get people over their fear of reading because you can learn how to read Korean in about two hours. But I focus on I guess I have a particular way I approach what the German’s call Tandem  so just two person sessions and I would love to hear your thoughts on this because I know you do a lot of it, but the common way that this is approached, so finding a language partner is I will teach you English and you teach my Portuguese and it never works, in my experience if it’s that broad it never works because native English speakers suck at teaching English just like people who are the best in the world at programming suck at teaching programming it’s second nature and also it’s true with someone who speaks your target language so there needs to be a framework of some type and the way that I as an English speaker, a native English speaker I am very unfairly given an advantage that almost everyone studies English, not everyone but almost everyone so I will go to English schools and find students who are at an intermediate or advanced level assuming that I am trying to learn their language at a basic level, ideally intermediate and we will come in and we will swap back and forth we might have a 20 minute session, a 20 minute session and the first thing that we do is we will…and I have a bunch of notes I took on this but one of the approaches is to always review materials beforehand and then come in with specific questions. The second approach which I borrowed from Chinese 101 at Princeton is having a…and this is one of the first things I do I don’t think have I talked about this much but I will get a bio, a self introduction of say one page in length down on paper so my little brother is this years old, he lives here, my parents do this, my blah blah, I grew up here and it is amazing how much mileage you get out of that one page because guess what that is the first three minutes of every single conversation you are going to have.


Benny:           Absolutely.


Tim:                 But the point is I will have them help me if need be to translate that or refine it and then I will read that aloud and have them circle any phoneme or any pronunciation problems that I have then work on those sounds and this is what we had to do every week in Chinese 101 at Princeton which at the time I think was the best Chinese 101 programme in the entire country it was extremely effective. We would have to go into a language lab and read out loud several different conversations and then the professors would take time separately identify where we would have trouble and we would spend an entire private session going through those sounds.  So the tandem very often will start off light for me which means helping someone identify specific issues in English and when I say identify specific English issues it’s not going to be…and I have a set of questions I will give you a couple of examples it wouldn’t be “hey Tim what’s the difference between anything and something” no that is not a good question because I will make up an answer, I don’t know the answer and I am not going to give the right answer, a better answer is which is more common this or this, which would you say this or this, what are some examples of how you would use this or this then I can give an answer that doesn’t have any speculation in it and then very often we would go back and forth but there are a few phrases I learned right off the bat so I can get to biking without training rules as early as possible so what is the difference between, that is one of the first things I learned and you know Was ist die Unterschied zwischen blah blah and then how do you pronounce this is another one right, or how does one say in another language Wie sagt man blah blah blah auf Deutsch blah blah or whatever and can you write it down, some of the basics. But in the tandems usually it’s questions bases on material you have reviewed already and then once we get a little more comfortable one of the things I like to do is practice constructions and then have to translate it yourself, so for instance what I would say is usually start…if they want to practice let’s say the subjunctive, so they will have to practice if I had a million dollars I would buy a Ferrari, ok fine so I will give them a few pairs like ok million dollars Ferrari, go! And then they will say it in English and I will correct them if need be and then I will have to try and translate that into Spanish and then we will do the next one, ok if I had a brother I would travel more, then I will have to translate it. So formatting a tandem there is definitely I think a craft to formatting tandem so it’s the most productive. The other thing that I do while I am taking the tandem and also when I am reviewing materials, this is an old one I don’t think anyone has seen this. So these are home made colour coded flash cards, I am a flash card guy some people aren’t, I am and these are broken down I haven’t looked at these in ages but these are for German and they are broken down by daily, weekly and monthly review so I know what I have hit consistently and I know what I haven’t hit consistently and I have time reviews but I will write down typically, let’s see here typically not single words I will write down phrases like at the beginning, I guarantee this probably came up at the beginning of a tandem where it Bitte bedienen Sie sich please help yourself, all right and I just find that you are bang for the buck in terms of acquiring vocabulary and also grammar is so much faster and so much more useful when you are memorising these phrases as opposed to just memorising examples that you would never use.


Benny:           Right no because you are learning the new vocabulary but you are also learning sentences in context and I am also a huge fan of flash cards and I see just the system you have got there is spaced repetition because you take a card and you would put it in the position that you know is when you are just before you are likely to forget and like I just use the app for this, Anki which you might have come across?


Tim:                 Anki is good, super memo is not bad either.


Benny:           Yeah that’s right.


Tim:                 I think Anki might actually use one of the later algorithms from super memo.


Benny:           Yeah, yeah it’s based on that and I think memrise also has a kind of a spaced repetition system built into it?


Tim:                 Yeah memorised does as well Ed Cook was in the 4-Hour…


Benny:           Yeah that’s right.


Tim:                 A really good guy and I actually know his co-founder too because he was initially in my class at one point at Prinston the high tech entrepreneurship and then duolingo which I am an investor in which also has some mechanisms for spaced repetitions which are pretty cool.


Benny:           You know I actually interviewed Luis a few weeks back…


Tim:                 Oh you did?


Benny:           Yeah, yeah in Spanish so you can see that on my channel if you like….


Tim:                 He is a smart guy, Luis is no joke he is a smart dude.


Benny:           Oh yeah very smart had a great time asking him how he got into the whole thing and something else I wanted to ask you like in the 4-Hour chef you broke down a Kanji character explaining the kind of memory technique you used to learn it which I think is very similar to James Heisig’s strategy in remember the Kanji?


Tim:                 It is I mean and he is certainly not the first person who to have done it but he did a fantastic job of putting it into a few books that give you a very high ROI on your time because left to your own devices I mean does take more time to create your own images and there has been some pretty interesting…


Benny:           Do you do that kind of stuff for like just learning Spanish or European languages where you see a word do you have some kind of mental association or is just about you see it so many times on the flash card that it kind of burns into your memory?


Tim:                 It depends on…the way that I like to think of mnenomics and these memory devices is like wrapping a package before you ship it so if it’s fragile you wrap it more, if it is not fragile at all you don’t have to put in all this extra padding and packaging. So if something comes to me very easily I am not going to create a mnemonic device just to create a pneumonic device I don’t do it by default I do it sort of just in time and not just in case, if that makes sense


Benny:           Yeah.


Tim:                 But I do use mnemonic a lot and one of the benefits of tackling multiple languages even if you are only doing multiple languages for two to four weeks at a time and I have done a lot of languages that way I mean Vietnamese, Thai you know I have tackled a lot of languages that I never have any intention of using again, just during trip is that they allow you to…you have more pegs to work with, so I want to show you two more things, just the two tricks, I don’t know if they are tricks but two things I found are useful.  So the first is linking languages together can be very helpful it can be confusing at times but for instance this book here this is relevant to you right now, not that you would use it but this is Espanhol Facil para falar right so this is a book for Brazil and Portuguese speakers who want to speak Spanish and guess what if I speak Spanish I can use this to learn Brazilian Portuguese and it’s a bit of misnomer but I call this reverse learning and what I mean by that is perhaps a more easier example is this, so this is for Mainland China, in simplified characters, and this is sort of 900 common phrases in English. The reason I like to use books intended for native speakers for learning English is because then you know your target language is accurate, it’s astonishing how many text books written for English speakers trying to learn Spanish or whatever have mistakes everywhere, it’s amazing so this is particularly valuable if let’s say you are going to Taiwan and you are going to be spending time in Taiwan, guess what, Chinese is not exactly the same as Mainland so you are better off getting a book written for Taiwanese people who are learning English.


Benny:           I am actually doing something similar here I am learning my Egyptian Arabic through French.


Tim:                 Oh nice yeah Assimil has some great stuff.


Benny:           Yeah that is why I picked it because I have used Assimil in the past, in this case it’s not a hundred per cent useful because I am not actually learning modern standard Arabic I am learning Egyptian so you know it’s not that great but just in general for presenting examples and so on, I am really appreciating it,  so definitely you know branching and using one language to help you learn another or doing what you are doing the reverse because I agree I found so much material and you can really feel that all they have really done is ask some translators to get these phrases for them and there is no context, like the translator doesn’t know what has come before or what has come after and I could see even as a beginner learner I can see mistakes in the target language and you know this leads for me dismissing a lot of stuff as irrelevant and you and I are both not exactly huge fans of that yellow box you can buy in airports and one of the reasons is because for me at least is because it’s all about translating the same content rather than giving it to you in a context specific for that language used by native speakers and I don’t like this translation aspect and this is why like the core of me learning my language is speaking with a native speaker, I mean I do have materials I go through but like my top 1000 words are generally based on conversations I have had and notes I make on those conversations because I found some top 1000 lists tend to be based on newspapers and the written word which is a lot less relevant to me as a beginning tourist and introducing myself and so on.


Tim:                 Yeah there is a lot of cross over but it isn’t all cross over but then of course there are the phrases that you hear all the time that are never going to pop up on these lists, like Valeu! like whatever in Brazil you are just not going to have those in a frequency list but I also tend to and I know I only have a few minutes left but I tend to separate my sort of out of country training and in country training and I know that there is a lot of really interesting workarounds but I will usually use the high frequency list prior to arriving in a country where I know I am going to focus in a really dedicated fashion on the language, so it’s more of an insurance policy, or a head start but yeah I think that people should look at this as language learning it’s almost, it’s a toolkit so there are two questions, number one is what are you building, number two what tools are you going to use to get there and you have to have a clear picture of both and I really find that the one or two week trial is a fun way to get people into it, it’s like ok look you have a trip coming up you are going to be in Barcelona or you are going to be in Madrid or whatever for a week I mean how can we get you to a point where you make everybody smile and people just treat you a hundred times better and you have more fun.


Benny:           People need to embrace you know the lower end of language learning a little bit more because it’s got so much potential I mean you can get your foot in the door to start to get more things and I always feel disappointed when people only look at replicating a native you know. So I just have two final things I wanted to say before we run out of time, firstly just going to the 4-Hour chef now when I was reading about your motivation for writing it and I was kind of you know if you are going to write a book about learning I thought maybe it would be entirely about language learning, but I like your motivation for focussing on cooking a little bit more because if you were to write about language learning it’s something that you have been doing for years and you wouldn’t really have this fresh perspective anymore, but the whole point is in the book you are literally starting from scratch and you are applying your general how to learn techniques to cooking and I think people should appreciate that sometimes what you need is not actually a language learning book but you need to know how to learn, so you discuss a lot of things and you do discuss language learning but I think even when you are talking about something completely different in the book it’s the kind of philosophies people need to embrace if they are going to learn a foreign language. So I do think it is relevant to language learning and I would be very happy to tell people to check that out and I can’t wait to go through the rest of it myself, you know the real version that I can hold in my hands, so yeah the final question I wanted to ask you then is so with all of this you know you have learned a language in a couple of weeks and you have learned a language to a much higher level of fluency, what is the most valuable experience you have had from all this, what is the craziest and the most fun thing that speaking a non-English language which has opened up to you?


Tim:                 Oh man there is…


Benny:           I know its a million things.


Tim:                 I’ll say this – with just English my life would be and this is obviously very subjective but I mean 20% of the richness that I have had, I mean it’s incredible the impact that languages that have had and when I say that I don’t necessarily mean the ones I am necessarily fluent in, at all! I mean knowing ten words of Indonesian and basically getting adopted by an Indonesian family is not in Indonesia or learning just enough Arabic to communicate with a baker across the street from me in Berlin when I was there, just enough to order a little bit of food and say thank you I mean the impact that had on my daily relationship with this guy, well I will just give an unusual example and I want to underscore you said which is in the 4-Hour chef, chef is used in the sense of like jefe, sort of being a director in your life as opposed to a spectator and the recipe of the book is meta-learning, so it’s looking at how, there is sections on language learning, sections on sports and sections on everything and cooking is kind of used like Zen in the art of motorcycle maintenance but one of the oddest maybe examples I have was tackling Japanese horseback archery in Neco Japan and it would have been impossible without Japanese, absolutely completely impossible and the reason that example, there is so many I could bring up but one of the reasons I like that example is that again personal opinion but I think that Japanese are called xenophobic all the time, very unfairly because they are extremely self-conscious of their English because they lost the phone in lottery, like when god was given out sounds they just got kind of screwed they don’t have many so that is why they sound so funny when they speak other languages. And because they do this kind of thing when someone tries to speak to them in English doesn’t make them xenophobic and if you look at what has happened to me speaking Japanese it’s not just for white people either, look at like Khatzumoto on Twitter they are so open and so generous and I think people in general make the effort so learning Japanese horseback archery in Neco that was maybe the first, maybe the first foreigner or maybe the second every to train with the [Japanese name] family with these jackets, since 1147 I think I was the first if not the first then maybe the second like 50 years to train with them and it’s something I will always remember, it’s something I always remember and something I will tell my kids about and tell my grand kids about and you know it all came initially from comic books and judo text books and I think that is a stand out example.


Benny:           So I have really loved talking to you and I am definitely looking forward to reading the rest of your book and I hope other people will check it out and I think I am able to give away 10 copies if I am right, people I am going to say that…what I want to hear in the comments either here or on YouTube or on the blog post is what the most valuable (language learning) experience other people have had and I am going to take my 10 favourite ones and send them a copy of your book and then if they don’t see that by Monday they should got out and get one themselves.


Tim:                 Yeah and if people want sample chapters, table of contents… the video trailer is pretty fun it’s the most viewed non-fiction book trailer of all time now, just go to 4-Hour chef and you can get pretty good taste for what’s in there as well, so yeah thanks for having me man this has been a long time coming and I appreciate you taking the time.


Benny:           No thank you for taking the time and I am sure I will run into you somewhere around the world.


Tim:                 Absolutely Go raibh maith agat!


Benny:           Alright. Maith thú, maith thú! Great job, all right cheers.



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  • Tallshunshine094

    The most valuable experience I have had speaking another language has been when I went to visit distant family in New York. It was a year ago and I was in the city with my parents and I saw a girl who had long legs like myself and I wanted to find out where she got her jeans from(because it’s hard finding long jeans). When I asked her,”Where did you get your jeans?” she replied and said,”I French, no English” Knowing about an elementary students vocabulary from studying french in high school I replied saying,” Je parles un peut francais, je etudier a l’ecole.” The immediate burst of joy that she gave me and the fascination that an American took the time to study her language made me appreciate the decision to learn another language. Being around different cultures is a huge part of my life and just this small experience and also being around my diverse group of friends has inspired me to learn other languages and pursue a traveling lifestyle. Now I’m still trying to become even more fluent in French but I’m also studying Korean then after that I am learning Spanish and possibly Italian after :)

    Thanks for the inspirational video, it helps me remember that with hard work, I will become fluent in whatever language I desire!

  • juan

    “I can give away ten copies of the 4 hour chef to people with US postal addresses” :(

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Sorry about that. Someone working for Tim said I could give them away, but it must be US addresses for postal cost reasons. Remember, I’m writing this from Brazil, so it’s not me sending it ;)

      Otherwise, you can buy it yourself – it was cheap for me to get it for my Kindle!

    • http://amanofnonation.com/ Kevin Post

      Juan, if you happen to win the free copy and you don’t know anyone in the U.S. you can use my address and I’ll ship it out to you :)

  • Jerome Olaloye

    I took 3 years of college Spanish and declared myself fluent, lol. Not so much, but when I went to Italy for a summer with my girlfriend I was able to converse with a few locals in enough “Spanish” to get by.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessie.hernandez.10 Jessie Hernandez

    I’m learning Chinese now and would like to but the book Tim mentioned (900 English phrases for Chinese speakers). Couldn’t find it anywhere, is it available on Amazon?

  • Anthony

    “What is the most valuable experience you have had thanks to using a foreign language?”

    Well, for me, I think of this in the plural. A group of related experiences stand out to me as the most valuable; a treasured collection of gems that I can look back to for inspiration if my motivation is lagging. Those being: the outbursts of joy that people have when you use their native language.

    I have studied a few languages to date, but no where has this happened more often or with greater enthusiasm than Urdu. Almost every time someone hears my Urdu for the first time, they are overjoyed. Simply saying “khuda hafiz” (goodbye) causes a smile, and “ap se mil kar bahut khushi hui” (I am very pleased to meet you) caused a maulana (religious leader) to laugh and clap his hands, practically jumping up and down. How can you not love that? :-)

    Now, my Urdu still has a long way to go, but these experiences give me a renewed excitement for learning whenever I think about them. Everyone should cultivate a collection of these motivating memories to keep them going through hard linguistic times.

    Keep up the good work!


  • Joshua Muller

    I’ve been studying ancient Greek, and am putting together plans for studying both Turkish and Spanish for projects I’ll be embarking on in the future. Some of the most helpful things I’ve been learning (specifically in working with the dead language of ancient Greek), is the importance of getting the language in your mouth. It’s easy to memorize vocab with mnemonics and memory aids, and grammar is not too bad to drill into your brain, but unless you actually are using the language – speaking, listening, conversing, etc. – You’re just collecting puzzle pieces without practicing putting them together. It becomes suicide when you try to put it all together and use the language (in this example, by reading). With actual language usage, it becomes so much easier to learn and understand.

    This process has also increased my love for languages a fair bit. I’ve become known as a huge language nerd with my co-workers xD

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, Benny (or Tim if he ever reads this), on working with dead languages. I know of people who have studied ancient languages for years, and have a very minimal understanding of the language at any practical level. I expect there’s a much better way of doing things than the current methods. I know some have played with learning dead languages as living ones. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter! :)

  • sarahmchia

    The most valuable experience I have had learning Spanish is that I have enjoyed being able to help Spanish speakers in America feel more comfortable. Part of that is communicating to Latin Americans who know English, but might miss the opportunity to speak it in their daily lives, and part of that is to help others learn English. I’ve never lived in a different country, but I imagine I would miss speaking in my mother tongue at some points and would cherish that opportunity even if the person I spoke with wasn’t quite fluent. Also, it seems that it could be very intimidating to not speak the common language of the place you live (and in my city, there is not a great amount of diversity like larger American cities might have). So, in helping others learn English, I feel like I get to help them feel more comfortable throughout their daily activities in America.

  • Jared Wooten

    What is the most valuable experience you have had thanks to using a foreign language?

    I was learning Japanese in college while earning my computer science undergraduate degree when my curiosity led me to discover I could spend two entire semesters in Japan and be on track to finish both CS and an East Asian Studies major. While I was at Nanzan University, I had many unforgettable experiences.

    One day while traveling the city with some other exchange students, we happened upon a street vendor selling gyros. The proprietor was himself Turkish and couldn’t speak English. Our only common language was Japanese, and recalling that friendly exchange amuses me to this day.

    I met a Japanese student at a club for Japanese students and foreign students to interact and she convinced me to come to the keiongakubu (the “rock band club”) since I am a musician. There I met another Japanese student, and then another, and we had quickly formed a band comprised of myself on drums/vocals, one other foreigner on guitar, and three Japanese student rockers filling out the vocals, bass, and keys. I’ll never forget playing a live show in downtown Nagoya to an audience of 50 or more, covering System of a Down and a bouncy Japanese song titled Aberukaiin. The lead singer of that band has gone on to tour Japan as a solo artist called Sekihan.

    Every moment in a little karaoke booth with my Japanese friends and all-you-can-drink alcohol will be forever imprinted on my memory. It changed my whole perspective on the world, and now I have begun to learn Brazilian Portuguese, thanks to a little band from Sao Paulo called Cabana Cafe and this very blog!

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.price.754 Bill Price

    Hey Benny,

    My most valuable experience with learning a language was around the time I was in High School in the early 90’s. It was for World Youth Day in Denver, CO when the Pope visited. I worked at a department store about a half mile from where the Pope was making his appearance and we were swamped with foreigners for the days leading up to his speech. These were mostly French speakers and I was the only employee in the store who could speak French.

    I had taken French in school since Kindergarten and at that time had about 11 years of French classes under my belt. I was probably a high B1/low B2. For the days leading up to the Pope’s appearance, I was working 12 hour days running back and forth around the checkout lanes (this was a very large department store) and all around the store helping to translate. Very few of the visitors spoke any English at all and most were adamant about bartering down prices and and other things that we, as a Corporate chain, were unable to do.

    It was an amazing experience for me to finally be able to put my French skills to a real test and to be able to help people. I learned so much during those few days and that experience really helped encourage me to push my French to the upper limits as I am now a high C1/low C2. It also really taught me a lot about other cultures as I had never been outside of the United States.

    Truthfully, without this experience, I probably would not have maintained my French after High School and would certainly not have taken up German (B2) or Spanish (currently A2).

    BTW, I loved the interview with Tim. Keep it up. You are an inspiration to a lot of people. Don’t listen to the naysayers and nitpickers!


  • http://www.facebook.com/GrahamMumm Graham Mumm

    I absolutely agree that the only way you truly can understand a culture or a people is through speaking the native or local language. I was in Germany earlier this year and had a mind-blowing experience connecting with an older, non-English speaking gentleman. I am nowhere near a master at Deutsch, but without my previous efforts with the languages, I wouldn’t have.

    The first was outside the town of Koblenz (There are the most beautiful walking paths behind Ehrenbreitstein) shortly after moving to Germany for a 3 month living abroad adventure. I happened to find a small bench overlooking the valley and the countryside, so I decided to site down and read as the sun set. As I did, a man approached on the path and quickly rattled off a few phrases at record pace. Not knowing what he had said, I quickly asked if he could repeat a little slower and explained I was American.

    Long story short, so he sat down next to me and started to talk very slowly and precisely. Despite my lack of confidence, we ended up talking entirely in German for well over an hour. He told me of his father in the war, of what it was like as a kid to have planes flying overhead, made jokes about the terrible food, and how he had worked his entire life to give back to the world for the actions of his forefathers. I stumbled through conversation word by word, but he seemed more than happy to take all the time in the world to help me understand. The natural curiosity and the desire to share his stories is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before…the guy didn’t owe me even a glance, yet here he was, putting up with my with my sub-par grasp of German for well over an hour.

    The entire experience was surreal at the time. I always had an interest in the wars but never had I actually dreamed I would actually talk with someone who had lived through it. It was by far one of my most “real” memories. One that renewed my passion for language and learning.

    It’s experiences like this that make every second of study worth it.

    Keep up the good work,
    (picture of the bench attached…be sure to explore that area if you’ve never gotten the chance)

  • Karl Malakoff

    I’ve had a many really valuable experiences because of being able to speak Japanese.

    The first that really made me realise how valuable leaning another language is was about 3 years in Osaka. I had just finished up working on a ski field in Nagano for 4 months so I had picked up some basic Japanese but was still far from being able to hold a ‘real’ conversation. But as I was touring streets of Osaka a random man asked me in Japanese if I could help him. I was pretty taken aback and with out thinking I found my self asking, in Japanese, what he needed help with. He said a bunch of stuff I didn’t really understand but at the end of it he asked me if I wanted to go to a cafe and he would get me a coffee while he tried to explain.

    I figured that there could be no harm, we were in a busy part of Osaka and going to a busy cafe so it wasn’t like he could have bad intentions. When we got there a bunch of his friends arrived and they all introduced them self in broken English, there was a jockey, a business man of some sort, a wrestler and a few others. I couldn’t work out if they were just trying to be funny or not, or what the connection between them all was, how were all these people from such varied backgrounds friends? There were all wearing black suits as well so I was getting a bit confused about what it was all about.

    The man who originally asked for help tried to explain again. As far as I could gather he wanted my help for a stand up comedy routine, the english word ‘comedian’ was used several times. He was going to tap me on the shoulder several times during his talk and I was going to say the Japanese phrase ‘はい、できる’ meaning ‘Yes, (someone) can (do something)’. The phrase is highly contextual so I had no idea who I would be saying could do what.

    I decided it could be fun so I agreed to go along. The man told me to stay in the cafe with a couple of his friends and they would bring me to the place when it was time. I waited for a few minutes drinking my coffee and having a basic Japanese conversation with the friends thinking how weird my day had just gotten just cause I knew one Japanese phrase. But the real weirdness was just about to come.

    After a few minutes one of the friends looked at his phone and said it was time and beckoned for me to follow. I followed them across the street and down a set of stairs to what I was assuming would be a basement bar. As I descended I noticed that there was pink and red balloons and streamers decorating the place. “Strange” I thought. Then I turned the corner and found my self in the foyer of the ‘bar’. There was balloons and streamers everywhere and directly in front of me mounted on the wall near the ceiling was a TV screen showing a slide show of what was obviously a wedding with the word ‘Congratulations’ written across every slide. “This isn’t a comedy act, it’s a wedding reception, all these people must be friends from school or something” I realised with all the strangeness of before falling into place, but I was committed now.

    Just as I was getting over the sudden turn of events I was told to go onto the stage as the man called my name. I could hear the man in the other room talking and understand exactly none of it when I heard him say, “… and now my friend Karl”, or something. I was giving a slight push and I walked though the entire reception onto the stage accompanied gasps of surprise and bouts of laughter. I hoped up on the stage was handed a cold beer by a waiter and the man continued his lightning fast speech pausing a couple times to tap me on the shoulder so I could say my phrase. Each time I said it I was meet with another bout of laughter although I really didn’t know the context of what I was saying. Then after it was all done we went off stage and he thanked me and even gave me 5000yen for my trouble, I remember thinking at the time ‘Hey I would of paid to do that!’.

    I still don’t really know what I said but I’m sure I made that reception a memorable one, for me at least. The fun thing about it was my lack of understanding made it all the better. Needless to this experience made my decision to keep up my study when entering university a very easy one. 3 years later I’m back in Japan as an exchange student and now know enough to talk several hours a day with out misunderstandings. I couldn’t count all the amazing experiences I’ve had just because I can speak Japanese. The highlight probably being becoming friends with a Chinese girl (Japanese being our common language) and travelling around China with her communicating entirely in Japanese. A truly surreal experience.

  • Jack

    Awesome! This is one of my favorite posts so far…looking forward to more interviews!

  • MacKensie Cornelius

    Tim’s awesome, thanks for doing this interview!

    My most valuable experience, easily, happened in a cafe in Luoyang, China. A table of Italians were trying unsuccessfully to order food, they saw me communicating with the waitstaff and asked for my help. I couldn’t say much in Italian but enough for us to figure out we had another common language, Spanish. I then helped relay their needs back and forth to the waitstaff in Mandarin. Besides making me feel like a badass that day, this is when it first hit home to me that you don’t have to speak the language perfectly to have great communication. I thought I sucked at both languages and was usually shy about speaking– helping someone out dragged me out of my shell that day- and good thing!

  • Kate Marolt

    What a cool interview.

    My most valuable, or at least most memorable, experience with language happened while I was studying abroad in Barcelona for a semester. I was studying Spanish in University, and was excited about the prospect of learning some Catalán in Barcelona while there. Honestly, I didn’t learn a lot, but I had an amazing experience while in Girona, a smaller town a couple of hours from Barcelona. We were walking through the streets and stopped at a tiny cart where an older man was selling homemade cheese. Approaching him, greeting him in Spanish, he said in very halting English “no Spanish”. Switching to Catalan, which was extremely limited to the most basic of sentences, he immediately lit up and began offering us samples and talking a million miles per hour. Of course, I could understand approximately 2% of what he was saying, but the joy he felt was contagious- and that was the moment. The moment I realized how important simple human connections are. Being able to connect with someone within their own context, their own language, meeting them where they are at and not asking them to be anyone but themselves (here in the form of the language they speak) is one of the most valuable things we can offer to one another.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ericfuse Eric J Phillipson

    Nice interview, always great to see new Tim Ferris stuff and I am a big fan of his. I’ve followed his blog for awhile and have enjoyed a few of his language posts.

    In terms of my most valuable experience in language learning, it would have to be the Summer of 2011 when I took my trip Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

    I traveled to Brazil to accompany my mother and little brother who were attending a climate change conference. Brazil was part of my trip and the other part I spent in Santiago, Chile (my avatar is from my visit to Valparaiso while in Chile) with my friend who is from there. Originally, while I was excited to go to Brazil, I was more enthusiastic for Chile where I figured I would be able to utilize all of the Spanish I had learned over 7 years studying in high school and the University.

    I ended up using more Brazilian Portuguese (a language I had no experience just 24 hours prior to arriving) than I did my Madrid influenced Spanish.

    The day before I boarded my airplane in Louisville, Kentucky to make the trip to Miami (for a 6 hour layover) followed by my flight to Rio De Janeiro, I printed off word lists and articles from google news (Brazil) as well as downloaded spoken phrases.

    As a quick note: I had watched City of God several times as it is my favorite movie but always paid attention to the subtitles rather than the language. This did give me a slight advantage in terms of pronunciation and stresses.

    On the flight to Rio De Janeiro, I studied my notes and listened to phrases the entire time. I had been hoping to speak to Brazilians on my flight but the two sitting next to me who were my age were both sick with colds and wanted to do nothing but sleep (understandably).

    Stepping off of the plane in Rio De Janeiro, I was considered an expert by my little brother and mom’s standards…both of whom have no language background (besides my brother’s two years of German that he has know recollection of). I wasn’t so sure of my language skills so my first sentence of spoken Brazilian Portuguese was asking whether the customs agent spoke English…this got me off of the hook.

    However, as we explored Copacabana in Rio De Janeiro we became hungry and sat down at a pizza place on Rua Santa Clara. Nobody there spoke English which was the best thing that could have happened. With that I did my best to order food for me, my little brother, and my mom. When I didn’t know a word that was asked I was able to draw connections between similar food items in Spanish, as well as what kinds of questions servers usually ask people. This was an amazing feeling. To be able to order food for my entire family in a language (though I only knew extreme basics) I learned while on an airplane.

    While in Brazil for two weeks I was able to purchase things from local shops, order some drinks, flirt with Brazilian women (who are absolutely gorgeous) who appreciated my struggle trying to learn their language, ask for my picture to be taken in front of Cristo De Redentor, and negotiate a rate for a taxi cab to take me to the airport in order to fly to Santiago de Chile.

    Probably one of the most helpful experiences was sitting in my Rio Rockers Hostel and conversing with a businessman who stays in Rio all week for work and flies to Sao Paulo on the weekends to spend time with his family. We conversed for a couple of hours every night of the week I was there. I helped him work on his English and he helped me learn more Brazilian Portuguese.

    Working to learn Brazilian Portuguese for practical usage helped me to appreciate Brazil much more than if I had gone there speaking nothing but English and I am very thankful that Brazilians are so welcoming. To be honest, I haven’t used my Brazilian Portuguese since I left but I was able to reconnect to a high school friend who is now a singer and songwriter in Brazil so we have been talking about ways to learn. My current goal is to learn Norwegian as I prepare for a study abroad to Oslo this Spring but when I return I am hoping to learn more Brazilian Portuguese so that I may return.

  • Greg

    Hey Tim and Benny, thanks for the excellent interview. Three things I am taking away for my current language learning mission in Germany are:
    1. Before each Sprachtandem session, prepare a list of questions and things I would like clarifications on.
    2. During Sprachtandems, spend time specifically to work on sounds. Especially the “r” sound in German – something that is still very challenging for me.
    3. Purchase a book designed for speakers of the target language to learn English. Great idea – headed to Hugendubel in Munich today to pick one up.

    Vielen Dank!

  • Leon R

    Helly Benny, verry interesting interview. I was wondering how you created the transcript, assuming you didn’t type it out yourself


    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Actually, inspired by Tim’s advice in the 4-hour-workweek, I got into hiring personal assistants for particular tasks, especially when they are pretty easy for other people to do, but time consuming if I were to do them myself. I discuss that in this post:

      This way I don’t have to deal with listening to the 45 minutes over and over to write out the transcript and then do it all AGAIN to get the timing right for Youtube captions.

  • Guest

    I spent one year learning German in Germany, and now as a result I am right now as I type this once again in Germany working on a short film about the first ever manned rocket launch with an awesome production company.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lauren.hartman4 Lauren Hartman

    I currently do not speak any other languages fluently, but I recently had a very moving experience using the little Spanish I possess.

    In my church congregation, there is a woman who is in the Army. She is originally from Chile, and while her husband was deployed, her mother came to the US to help out with the kids. Her mother speaks no English whatsoever, but she came every week to our church to sit with her daughter and grandchildren.

    On the final week she was in the US, the mother got up in front of the congregation and said, in Spanish, something to the effect of how happy she had been to be with her grandchildren, and that she was very grateful for all the help that those of us in the congregation had given to her daughter while the husband was deployed.

    Afterwords I went up to her and in my terribly clumsy Spanish thanked her for speaking, and told her I could tell she loved her family very much.

    She started crying; even though several of the other members of the congregation know Spanish, I think I was the first person to say anything to her in Spanish, and you could tell that even as clumsy as my Spanish was, she was so happy that I had tried to reach out to her in her own language. It made me feel sad that I hadn’t said anything earlier; she must have been so lonely, in a foreign country where only her daughter can talk to her.

    She has since gone back to Chile, but I will never forget how a few words of her language made such a difference to her that day.

  • Michael Miller

    Great interview. This may sound corny, but my best experience in another language has to be falling in love with a wonderful girl in Medellin, Colombia. I went to Colombia in 2010 with little to no background in Spanish. I’m quite extroverted and wanted badly to learn the language to communicate with the people around me. I began by watching movies in Spanish before going to bed and listening to podcasts that I found interesting as well as taking salsa lessons to supplement my already full day of conversation. I implemented a 30 minute policy, in which I would have to pay my host family the equivalent of a dollar if I spent a full half hour without reading (I was working at a local elementary school and read the children’s entire library. Kids books are great for beginners), listening to, or speaking Spanish. Unsurprisingly, it worked pretty well. I learned a tremendous amount about their culture, history, and humor. After a month or two, I really felt integrated into my community. “Gringo” or “mono”, terms that had scared me originally because they highlighted how different or foreign I was, soon became signs of endearment as all my friends greeted me with a hug, kiss, or the unique Colombian interpretation of a handshake that feels much more like a prolonged high-five. Needless to say, it was a great experience.

    My learning curve–cultural, linguistic, and personal–accelerated dramatically, however, when I met my girlfriend there about 2.5 months in. I felt MUCH more motivated and no longer needed games or tricks to stay engaged with the language. Indeed, life in Colombia had become my entire life. We went out four days a week to local clubs or cafes, went on hikes in neighboring towns, and spent countless hours in parks or our apartments clowning /chismoseando. She was honest, beautiful and compassionate. The eight months we had together reaffirmed my faith in the human spirit and young relationships–both of which had been damaged during my time at University in the US. While I did learn A LOT of Spanish from her, I learned a great deal more about love, life, and the power of human connection. I am sure she would say the same (minus the Spanish part). Although we have broken up because she was committed to stay in Colombia, and I wanted to return to the US, our shared experience will keep us close for the foreseeable future.

    I went to Colombia in an odd stage in my life. I was recovering from a pretty serious injury and had lost faith in the durability of human relationships. I arrived hoping to find an escape from the emotional intensity that had complicated the previous few years of my life. Ironically, in throwing myself into Colombian language (eyyy parcero!) and culture, I encountered a different brand of emotional intimacy–an extremely positive one–that has forever changed my perception of people, other cultures, and human relationships.

  • Brian

    My relationship with Asian languages (Japanese and Korean) has lasted nearly 20 years now since my junior high days. A lot of strange and wonderful things have happened in that time. I’ve had the stock set of strange man in a strange land experiences like falling in love with someone I can barely talk to (though nowadays my Korean is so good my mother-in-law calls me a “fake foreigner”), going out to dinner and partying with random people on the streets of a foreign country, and meeting foreigners who our only common language is a language foreign to us both.

    I’ve also had even more random experiences like appearing in a Japanese fashion magazine, discovering that I had unwittingly stayed at a hotel next to a row of brothels the first night I was in Korea, and practicing direct response marketing by using prospecting and tracking techniques to get dates on online dating sites abroad.

    The experience that sticks out for me the most, however, was going to a Korean dentist for some cosmetic dentistry–BzzZzzzZ! If you’ve ever thought that getting your hair cut abroad was a frightening experience, it simply doesn’t hold a candle to going to the dentist.

    I already spoke Korean at a pretty high level by this point–I’d been doing it for 10 years, but even from the dental consultation I had a difficult time understanding what was happening. One of the things I’ve learned is that language mastery takes so long because so many words are context dependent. I’d never really had a reason to talk about cavities, molars, pre-molars, incisors, dental crowns, dental inlays and onlays, resin and porcelain bonding in everyday Korean conversation so I had to pick up all these words as we went along–hell, I didn’t even really know what the English terms for a lot of this stuff were.

    After arriving at what I hoped was a mutually agreed upon plan of treatment, they walked me over to a chair. Apparently seeing your eyes darting back and forth in panic is distracting to Korean dentists, so the first thing they did was put a towel over my head that covered my face and eyes except for a slit for my mouth.

    Then began another onslaught of unfamiliar Korean. The dentist kept telling me to go “ang.” Figuring this must be something like going “ah” I opened my mouth wide. Exasperated the dentist repeated, “No, no, ‘ang,'” which turned out to be the opposite and she wanted me to bite my teeth together.

    After inspecting my teeth the work then proceeded with a flurry of dental technobabble in Korean as I sat there blinded, pumped full of novocaine, and nervously hoping for the best–BzZzZZzz! From time to time the dentist would get frustrated about something and I would realize it was because she was asking me to do something and I hadn’t realized she was talking to me and not her assistant. Though occasionally I would catch bits of what she was saying like, “uh oh, I don’t think this is going to work.”

    When the drilling and filling finally stopped, I was handed a mirror, and much to my relief the dentist had done an outstanding job and my teeth looked great.

  • Kevin

    Hey Benny, for one…I can’t believe I sat through this entire 42 minute interview. I typically need to take a break after 5-6 minutes but I only pause once or twice. I definitely the conversation regarding “fluency.” It’s really unfortunate that some people likes to invent their own specific criteria on what’s considered fluent or C1. I still remember some guy on reddit said that a C1 in German should have be able to negotiate a multimillion dollar contract or discuss a mortgage deal. That was probably one of the most ridiculous things I have ever read. I don’t even think I am comfortable negotiating a multimillion dollar contract in English! That was also your response as well (which I upvoted) to that ridiculous criteria. I mean, there’s a reason why people hire lawyers when it comes to discussing a multimillion dollar project or deal. And I also like how you mentioned fluency doesn’t mean being able to discuss Kantian philosophy in the targeted language.

    My most valuable experience with speaking a foreign language was actually within the United States (where I reside). I was in college at the time and I was looking for a room within a building in the School of Arts at night for an event. I have only been to this section of campus once so I did not know where anything was. After looking around for half an hour, I decided to ask a custodian on where a specific building is. She immediately told me “no English” in a Latino accent. I took Spanish for 5 years in school but I was always shy when it comes to speaking Spanish. However, I figure now is the not the time to be shy since I am looking for a place. I then replied “Ohhh, Ud. habla español?” When she said “Sí,” I then asked “Sabe que dónde está el cuarto de 192?” She didn’t know but she recommended checking the west side of the School of Arts. I then did that but to no avail. Couple minutes later, I told her “No encontré el cuarto.” She then stopped what she was doing and walked me around the School of Arts in an attempt to try to find the room I was looking for. This took 20 minutes but we still didn’t find the room. I then thank her for her help! I have a feeling she actually walked around with me to try to find the room I was looking for because I show respect by speaking Spanish to her. In the US, some definitely have the mindset of “You are in the US…speak English!” but I don’t subscribe to that mindset. If the person doesn’t speak English, I don’t mind using Spanish with the person (If the person is a Spanish speaker). It’s interesting, I have been to different countries like Spain, Mexico, Italy, and France but my most memorable language-speaking experience happened within the United States. This experience further taught me that people really respect it if I speak their language to them…even if we were both residing in a country that speaks a different language.

  • JBT

    I’m definitely going to have to get online and order this book. I’ve just started a ski season in Italy and I am focusing on becoming fluent in Italian while I’m out here. It seems silly to spend 5 months here and not give it a shot. The bosses husband isn’t fluent in English but he is conversational. So far I’ve tried to make an attempt at speaking Italian with him rather than English in whatever situations I can. Just little things like what time we would like to stop and eat. He appreciates my efforts anyway and he’s corrected slip ups which has helped me :)

  • http://twitter.com/jeremy_page Jeremy Page

    Ferriss is the truth. He is the reason why I was a digital nomad for 6 months this year in central america.

    My language learning consists of learning portuguese back in 2004 – as a Christian missionary in Brazil – and now, more recently, learning Spanish and surf on the beaches of El Salvador.

    Learning Spanish has opened up my eyes. Now I don’t want to get too political here, but being able to have conversations with the people of Panama and Nicaragua (specifically) opened up a different ‘history book’ for me.

    Growing up, I was always taught (in my family, school, etc) that the USA were the ‘good guys’…the ‘world’s helper’ is how I envisioned it…

    And then you start talking to the people down here (the older ones) and you here a whole different story. (I am sure media plays a part, but some people saw things first hand.)

    I was lucky enough to get a first-hand account of the Iran-contra affair with an older man (maybe mid sixties) from Esteli, Nicaragua. He was connected to the Sandinistas, and was pushed out of his city….basically the USA was secretly funding armed groups in Nicaragua to influence the elections. The money came from selling arms to Iran.

    Why did I never learn about this in history books? (maybe some of you history buffs knew this — i didn’t. Google ‘Iran Contra affair’ and you can read all about it.

    Anyways, not to ramble too much, but I had similar conversations about the bullying of Panama and the canal — just good to hear other countries perspectives.

    Not saying one way is right — but there is always another side. And to hear it in their tongue is powerful.

    • Gus Mueller

      It was all over tv at the time, daily televised hearings, Ollie North, Hassenfuss the pilot, Fawn Hall, “I am not a potted plant” the cake in the shape of a key, Ghorbanifar, etc.

      I had a similar experience when I cooked in a mexican restaurant outside Wash DC in the 80s hearing about the Salvadoran death squads. It just sounds different hearing the news in Spanish. The way we bullied Panama into taking back the canal makes me en fuerte!

  • nbehailu

    Hi, I know many have written paragraphs about their most interesting experience. I will try to keep it short. I am an Ethiopian born and raised in the US, with elementary knowledge of Amharic, and more intermediate understanding of French. My background linguistically in Amharic better connected me with my roots, and actually has landed me some awesome discounts in cuisine. In French, it better connected me with my past employer, and actually earned me the job, at the World Bank, working as an assistant for Translation and Interpretation. Although I did not partake in the translating, I did have to do verification of Spanish/French and once even Italian transcriptions/translations. Tim Ferriss is one of my rolemodels today since he essentially explained how I kind of go about learning, as I learned how to learn about leadership correctly, and have been told that I am a natural-born leader. I hope that I can get one of his 4 hour chef books, and I hope that someone can vote me up because I’m really wanting to read it. Thank you so much for all that you do. And thank you Tim, for showing me that what I’m doing can produce great results, even when the world might tell you no. You are proof that my logic is actually true, and that people can do things that might seem impossible in short time. I am a Computer Engineer, and I rock digital logic because the way that I solve problems is very similar. Anywho, thank you both again for being amazing, and hopefully I get to read the 4-hour chef soon (already have 4-hour workweek/body)

  • Nithin Vejendla

    The most valuable experience has had to be the look in the eyes of every native speaker of spanish when they here a tourist actually speak to them in spanish, instead of jumping straight to English. The glow of their face when they can speak in their native language, and not in another one alien to them. That feeling, that look makes up for all the hours of toil and difficulty.

    A more specific experience is when I visited Peru with my family and became the “translator” of the group. It was amazing to be the person who effectively linked two different cultures together, someone who changed a collection of sounds into another collection of sounds that made sense. It truly was incredible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000704616791 Edmund Yong

    I live in Malaysia. too bad :( good post though.
    Actually, I think all the comments are as motivating as the post itself. I don’t have a good story of myself since I just learn French for a year and my French is still not good. Still, there’re a lot times when I’m so glad I know a bit of French. for example,
    when I ran into a Spanish site or read a English book that contains a lot of French…

  • t. wright

    At 17, during the summer between my Junior and Senior year of high school, I lived with a Catalan family in Barcelona.

    having flown across the Atlantic for this incredible immersion
    opportunity, I then spent the next six weeks speaking exclusively
    English with my European classmates, ordering the same food, and
    wasting a childhood’s worth of lawnmowing money on alcohol and club
    fees. I returned to the United States with great memories yet unable to
    converse with the family who showed me such generous hospitality.

    Fast forward five years.

    I returned to visit my host family in Barcelona after gaining
    hard-earned Spanish fluency by SPEAKING IT at every opportunity, both in
    the U.S. and in the Latin American countries I had visited.

    Catalan family was shocked with my language abilities, as if a
    different person stood before them. The daughter, now 9, told me story
    after story of how awkward I was in their home and how oblivious I was
    to their customs, including how she once watched in horror—literally
    scared to death—as I ate 8 hamburgers in one sitting.

    The kids
    and I stay still stay in touch. They say they now believe English
    fluency is possible after watching this dumb American learn their
    language, ha.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.lauser Sarah Lauser

    Sometimes even learning a few words can pay off. Before my honeymoon in Italy, I made an effort to learn “tourist” Italian at a local Pasticceria. While on the island of Murano, my new husband and I walked into a small café for lunch. I asked for “due panini con prosciutto, per piacere” and the shop owner was so delighted that I made the effort that he immediately went to the back of the shop to get some fresh product instead of just warming up the sandwiches that were in the case already. Sometimes it’s the little things that make your traveling experiences so much better!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Boy, that bit in the beginning where he talked about how using material in the native language (intended for native speakers, e.g. the judo textbooks and comic books) that you’re interested in and enjoy made THE difference between failure and success for him, that just struck me like a ton of bricks, that’s what I’ve been preaching forever now and now I’ve got Tim Ferriss on video saying how well it works and how important it is.

    Fantastic interview, Benny (you asked great questions and then let him talk as much as he wanted, that’s how you do it!), thanks a lot.


  • http://amanofnonation.com/ Kevin Post

    Benny, first of all thanks for taking the time to read all of these comments. I’ll try to keep it short so that you can get back to your dancing, charming of young ladies and orange juice drinking.

    The old cliché is that I’ve had too many valuable experiences in my lifetime to name them all due to languages (Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish) and I even met my wife who spoke no English at the time which is an incredibly valuable experience in itself. But this one example is an experience I couldn’t have done without knowing some of the language:

    I went to Turkey in 2008 and ended up learning a lot of Turkish and Kurdish without even planning on it. While in Eastern Turkey (were the majority is Kurdish) I began learning Kurdish without any learning material and I learned enough to have simple conversations with the farmers without any background in English; I didn’t have much of a choice. I was invited to weddings and even my transportation for weeks was paid for (even by the bus drivers themselves) just because they were so honored that I was an American learning Kurdish and actually giving a shit about their culture. After meeting so many Kurds they gave me contacts of relatives and friends living in Iraq and I found myself in a country that I thought estadounidenses like myself were forbidden to go to. I was nervous about going but was then welcomed with open arms. I couldn’t believe that a country that had been invaded and occupied by my country’s armed forces was so friendly and hospitable with me. I meet Kurds from all walks of life and was invited to numerous towns and villages throughout Iraq. As I sat with a group of sheep herders eating a delicious meal they even gave me a Kurdish name. It was a profound moment in my life.

    People to this day ask me, “Why are you learning Turkish?” or “What is Kurdish? Why don’t you learn Arabic, there’s more money with Arabic.” All I can say is that I know by further improving my Turkish and Kurdish language abilities they will only add quality to my life.

  • Kevin

    I’m a twenty-four year old, soon-to-be
    Italian teacher. I started learning Italian when I was eleven. I studied it all
    the way through middle school, high school, college, and graduate school, and
    even studied at an Italian university a few years ago. For many years, I kept
    my language use to myself, rarely speaking it unless I absolutely had to. Even
    when I lived in Italy, I was often plagued with “perfectionist paralysis,” as
    you call it, and would only speak the language in situations where I felt
    comfortable. For a long while, I had no problems with keeping the language to
    myself, especially since I considered myself an introvert and would rarely even
    speak out in English, my native language.

    But one day, something happened. I don’t know exactly what caused it, but I had
    an epiphany. I thought to myself “What’s the point of knowing a language if I
    hardly ever use it? Language is communicative by nature, so why am I not using
    it to communicate?”

    The funny thing about all this, Benny, is that I wasn’t only talking about speaking
    Italian. I was talking about English too! For years and years I had been gifted
    with the knowledge of two languages,
    and hardly used either one to make a serious impact on my world. So, I decided
    to make a change; I decided to use my voice.

    From that moment on, I read books on goal setting, confidence building, and
    autodidactic learning. I dived headfirst into my preparations to be an Italian
    teacher, because I knew that if I put the right effort in, I would come out
    more confident, more poised, and ready to take on the world. I bought language
    courses, read language learning e-books (including yours), and watched hundreds
    of hours of video on how to be a better language learner and a more outgoing
    person. I used my Italian skills more than ever with friends, colleagues, and
    even new acquaintances. Over the past year, I’ve put all that I’ve learned into
    practice, and now I’m more social and more active with my language use than I
    ever have been. In the end, it’s all because I made a conscious decision to not
    let two beautiful languages languish in my head. In other words, all of this
    happened because I made a conscious choice to speak.

    That’s the long story. If you wanted the short version, it’s this:

    What’s the most valuable experience learning Italian has ever given me?

    Italian gave me a voice, and the strength
    to use it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/TIm-Jordan/1327908587 TIm Jordan

    Tim meets Benny. Love the video. I dont have any stories yet but I hope to make some awesome ones in Chinese, Korean and Spanish one day

  • Suzzane Lobo

    the Transcription helped me explain the interview to some of my fellows. thanks for it

  • Dave

    Hi Benny, do you still accept donations? I can’t find the link to buy you an orangu juice. Keep up the good work!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Sure! Send it to paypal [AT] irishpolyglot [DOT] com. Thanks a bunch :) I took it off because it had been there an entire year without anyone ever clicking it :P

  • http://jadenomadtravelwear.com/ Karen Chow

    Thanks Benny for a really interesting interview with Tim Ferriss. For me, the most interesting experiences I have with language learning come when I use a language unexpectedly. For example, when I was travelling in a small town in the Czech Republic, I discovered that some younger Czechs do speak English, but that some of the older generation actually studied French in school. I was able to talk with a storeowner in her 60s in French, while in the Czech Republic. There are also other unexpected examples, like getting directions in Cantonese while in Paris. These small spontaneous interactions are what makes me love language learning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LeeFG Lee Frankel-Goldwater

    While hiking in Central America I chanced upon meeting a lovely Taiwanese girl who helped me make a dream come true to be a multi-lingual translator. Having studied abroad in China a year back I made a quick friend with my Mandarin skills and had learned a decent amount of Spanish in my travels. When the young lady and I went to share a meal together at a local’s home the three of us started a conversation about the Pope. As the Taiwanese girl did not speak much English or Spanish and our host did not speak English or Chinese, I was defacto translator!

    It was an experience of my life to speak with one person in Chinese, translate to Spanish for another person, hear the response, and go back to Chinese. I’ll never forget this and hope it happens again. Cheers! Gan Bei! Salud!

  • http://twitter.com/jennyshen Jenny Shen

    I learned English! With that I have the opportunity to work in Canada and make friends with friends around the world!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.shock Jonathan Shock

    Hi Benny, I sent a message on FB and posted a comment there. I don’t want to hound you but wanted to give it another shot here. You asked before for your fans to post possible questions for you to ask Tim, a great idea. We did, and you chose mine (word for word: “When I learnt languages at school I didn’t know why we were learning them. I have since found my own reasons through living abroad. I’d like to know what the most valuable thing learning languages has brought to his life.”). It would be nice to have recognition when we give you ideas, when you have asked us specifically. I don’t want this to sound too petty, but I think these things are important when you use (with consent, of course) other people’s ideas. Just saying…

    Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leslierins Erin Roca

    For Christmas, my parents bought me The 4-Hour Chef and I was kinda like, um, mom, I already know how to cook! Then she told me, no, Erin, it’s a book about learning and there’s bits about language learning too. So, I dove right in and the first thing I thought was, hey, his philosophies are very similar to Benny’s! I am loving the book. Thanks for the great interview!

  • Emily

    I can’t wait to try this technique. I’ve always struggled to learn foreign languages. I hope this helps!

  • James Na Nakornpanom

    I enjoyed the video a lot and its helping me write some new ideas for a book and some videos that I will be making soon. The enjoyment of learning languages has come since I was a boy…when I was 10 years old I told my mother I want to speak 6 languages fluently….21 years later I can speak 6 languages and have worked in all 6 languages and i didnt start until I was 20 to dive into langauge learning…..The doors that learning a language has opened and still opens and the joy it brings as others have shared when you suprise them by speaking their language is priceless…i completly agree with your tips about learning the right words and speaking with native speakers as the best way to get the right vocab and correction and fastest way to fluency.
    thanks.. enjoyed the video