Why it doesn’t matter whose or what method you follow

No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s learning a language, trying to become a writer, starting a business etc. it seems like everyone these days has a step-by-step layout about precisely how you can succeed in it. It’s hard to decide which one to follow, especially when some of them conflict with one another.

That’s why today I want to propose something that may seem strange, especially if you are devoted to particular techniques in many fields: while some of these ‘gurus’ you see floating around online or in books are giving you a great plan of action, many of those plans are crap and actually just a placebo encouraging you to progress in other ways.

Oh, but hold on, amn’t I supposedly promoting “the best” language learning “program” that you must follow or fail miserably?

Well… no.

It turns out that people have been learning languages pretty damn well for millennia before I came along, and some were even (and still are) doing things that I would advise against (blasphemy!!) and succeeding in speaking languages fluently.

So many options, which one to choose??

I ran a survey a few months back to see what people think is the best particular book/course for learning a language. As expected there was no dramatic winner.

However, I did see people answer that post or e-mail me at some time, especially when I was specific and gave a frank review of Livemocha & Busuu, Pimsleur and LingQ, to tell me “but I speak fluently and it’s all thanks to that course!”

I’ve also somehow found myself as a “representative” of the opposite end of this weird thing others are calling the “input-output debate”, which in my opinion shouldn’t even exist, and several people are indeed claiming to have reached an excellent level using “input only”.

Well, nobody religiously devoted to any method is going to like what I have to say in this post, but my advice is, of course, open to the same concept, and I’m pretty open about that – enthusiasm is power when it comes to language learning.

If you get encouraged by using a particular memory technique I use, then great! But the technique isn’t the magic here, it’s the fact that you have been encouraged to think “Hey, maybe I can remember new words after all!” You’ll get this out of many vocabulary learning techniques, whether I promote them or not!

So to some cynics, the encouraging “you can do it!” message I give on this blog may be cheesy and wasteful, but to me encouragement is the fuel of language learning, and it may even be the fuel of techniques that I feel are based on nonsense, but still somehow work for a small minority. It’s example time!

The latest amazing technique: the stand-on-your-head learning method!

Basically, I feel that any method that you apply enthusiastically enough will actually produce useful results. To demonstrate why this might work (in an attempt to get people to really think about why they might be making progress), let’s do another thought experiment:

According to this hypothetical scenario, let’s imagine I believe that by standing on your head for 20 minutes before studying or trying to speak a language, you will double the speed with which you will learn it. Bear with me here!

So, I can come up with all sorts of pseudo-science to say how this is the logical course of action; you are sending more blood to your brain and this clearly makes you smarter, your mind is closer to the earth’s core, which allows you to receive the positive quantum energy rays from it much better (hey, you can’t prove this isn’t happening!!) and you see the world from a different perspective (since it’s upside down) so this opens your mind to make you more susceptible to making progress.

OK, I’ll have lost most of you on the validity of this technique by now, but a small gullible percentage will still be hanging around. Great! So now I get really “scientific” and do a comparison of two groups, and I’ll even wear a labcoat while I do it! There will be a stand on head (SOD) and a non-SOD group. I’ll have explained my theories in great depth to the first group and monitor them closely, and the second group will be a basis of comparison for any fools who don’t apply my amazing technique.

Do you know what may actually happen? I could produce results “proving” that the SODs indeed learn the language better!! Seriously – give me the resources and I will prove this to you. But it won’t be scientific, and will actually have proven nothing to people who think logically about how the world works.

Be realistic and you’ll see why any method could “work”

I’ve seen “scientific” studies do this to “prove” all sorts of nonsense. It’s not scientific unless it rigorously applies something akin to a double-blind test (so the tester isn’t intentionally or unintentionally influencing the results), and ideally uses a placebo of some sort where both groups are equally convinced of how effective what they are applying works.

What I propose above and many proofs of why something “works” aren’t scientific because the SODs have gotten my (or someone else’s) pep talk about quantum energy rays, or maybe even just because they are doing something that feels like it could be helping they will be more enthusiastic than those doing nothing special as they apply the method. Don’t worry, I can give good pep talks, so I’m sure I could make this work. ;)

Enthusiastic people are more passionate about what they do. So after standing on their head, they will be more convinced that they are on the right track and will do something that really makes a difference like studying the right materials and, more importantly and actually applying them in real-life conversations to give them context, and they’ll do this very enthusiastically because they’ll be convinced they have science or guru-X behind them. This mentality is what really helps them progress.

Headstanding just becomes a part of their routine to encourage them that they are doing what will best help them overall. It may also help them keep on schedule. By standing on their head every day at 8:35AM, they will immediately follow it up with something useful, so it actually does help.

But the thing is, this would also work if someone genuinely believed that drinking exactly 750ml of water before studying, or putting on their lucky shoe every second Thursday did the job.

And it would also work if they passionately believed that the magic number of 800 hours is how long you should wait until you’re “ready” before speaking. (People do take this one seriously) And I also totally believe that people have become fluent by “using” Pimsleur, and even Rosetta Stone. When you spend that much money on something, that’s one hell of a motivator, so as well as using it, you’ll also cover your bases and use other (cheaper) materials and start applying what you’ve learned, since you have nothing less than “the” magic solution behind you.

So even if the content of what you think is working isn’t actually helping at all, the fact that it’s motivating you because you believe so much in it, means technically… it is helping!

For example, I’m sure Rosetta Stone has definitely “helped” people to achieve fluency in a language, but so would paying that much for an actual large stone to hang over your door with the message “Learn the bloody language, and don’t forget how much you paid to get reminded of this!” chiselled into it. With that reminder, you can bet many people would get off their ass and do more!

And yes, this “amazing” input-only method (that I so “foolishly” claim is unnatural, inefficient, slow and antisocial) also definitely will get you to fluency if you believe in it enough, because when you are finally “ready” to speak, boy are you ever ready! You’ve got months or years of believing in the sacred “ready day” to reinforce it!

Experiment to find the best method for you

So if “everything works”, then does it really matter what you try? Well, sadly by reading this, you’ve broken the spell! That’s how placebos work I’m afraid! But there is a solution – rather than do what that guy or what I say, find an approach that suits you best and tweak it until it is clearly giving you real results.

One of the main things I propose in this blog (and in the LHG) is the communicative approach to language learning, rather than a study-based approach. I didn’t come up with this concept myself, nor was I convinced to try by someone else. I just experimented and even did my own research until I found what I felt was the best possible way to learn a language quickly.

Anything else I discuss on the blog are only suggestions based on my experimentation – I by no means feel I have the “magic solution” to everyone’s language learning woes, even if I’m confident that many of my suggestions would be a huge improvement over other options. You are free to feel that the communicative approach is somehow ‘flawed’ or not for you.

Scepticism is important, so don’t take my word for it – go out and try it for yourself! Last week I got several e-mails and comments from people saying that I encouraged them to finally try to use their language for real. The result? They are finally communicating in a language they’ve had on the shelf for years – now they’re hooked!

If it ‘feels awkward’ and you get embarrassed when you speak with a native and say lots of mistakes in your first days, then that’s fine – it’s all part of the journey. Getting used to that embarrassment and trying harder next time will ultimately lead to more progress.

But maybe you tried this and decided to mix it in with something else. The communicative approach is after all a style that works great for me, since my focus is on using my language with people (rather than listening to the radio or reading books etc.) and that is why I am so enthusiastic to encourage others to try; speaking with people in another language is pretty damn cool and I want others to experience that. :)

There is no ‘right’ way, but inaction is the wrong way

However, conversation is not everyone’s priority. Many readers have also told me that they have used a combination of my advice with someone’s like Khatzumoto from All Japanese All the Time, since a bit of both works out better for them for their goals.

The two of us might have different aspects to our approach (I like to start with a Lonely Planet phrasebook and to speak the phrases to a native immediately, and he likes to focus on input and consume as much as possible in a short time with things like Spaced Repetition Software). His approach has clearly worked for him!

Some people think our advice is conflicting, but we agree on some crucial points and he has written about concepts similar to this post himself. We are both aware of the power of injecting some positivity into your approach, whatever that approach may be. And we both want people to learn languages. Whatever way they do it is unimportant if they reach their target.

Trust me, I won’t lose any sleep if you decide that my advice could never work for you, as long as whatever you do apply does work. If you reached your target, that’s all that matters. Don’t stick to a method because he said so, or because you’re stuck in a routine. Stick with it because you are genuinely making progress.

You should be passionate and efficient in whatever you do, and that will bring you furthest ahead. The only way to not make progress in your language is to do nothing with it. Pretty much every failure-story about learning a language ultimately boils down to giving up too quickly rather than actually due to the empty excuses the person uses to justify doing so.

So try to think really about why some strategies work and ask yourself if something encouraging you (in whatever form that may be) may actually be precisely what you need.


If you believe in some program/software/book because it has the magic solution, try to really think about why it might be helping you. Religiously following any one method for the wrong reasons may be what is slowing you down.

Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments! :)



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  • http://twitter.com/cmsadler cmsadler

    I think experimentation is the key. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on things, but you can try out different methods to see what works for you. I am also in complete agreeance that conversation from the beginning will definitely help. But it doesn’t matter if you supplement with flashcards or not, videos or not, music or not, etc.

    Thanks for all of your encouragement. It may be cheesy, but it also, in fact, helps me. :-)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Glad to see I’m helping :)

  • WC

    While I have a few programs I use and have found invaluable, I think my success did ultimately come from keeping at it. Whenever one method got boring or tedious, I’d change to something else, or quit ‘methods’ altogether and just read a book.

    In fact, my initial strategy was to do enough studying to be able to read basic books, and then just start reading. Because I LOVE reading.

    Recently, I managed to get to a level of both Japanese and Esperanto that I could read books enough to enjoy them, even though I don’t fully understand. It’s been awesome. (Obviously I got to this point much quicker with Esperanto!)

    That fun and success has re-motivated me to continue studying on the side as well, which is a bonus I didn’t expect.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Great to see you tweak your approach to suit your goals!! And it comes with the bonus of course :)

  • Anonymous

    Just a short comment- I did write a longish one but that never showed up.

    Anyway, it is important to expirement with methods to find which one is best. Lots of people disagree and argue that there is only one way to learn. I found that people were arguing about that on LingQ a lot. I got bored of it and decided to delete my account.

    I’ve gone through a few methods to see which works best for me. First, it was podcasts. Second, it was your method. Third it was input-output (I agree with you on the debate. I don’t get the logic behind arguing that speaking early is detrimental to you speaking). Lastly, I’m following the Barry Farber method. Have you read his book? It has some interesting ideas in it.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haven’t come across that yet! I’ll have to check it out.
      Yes, the endless arguing with LingQers (or Kaufmänner as I like to call them) gets tiresome. They spend more time arguing and nitpicking than actually using their language.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haven’t come across that yet! I’ll have to check it out.
      Yes, the endless arguing with LingQers (or Kaufmänner as I like to call them) gets tiresome. They spend more time arguing and nitpicking than actually using their language.

      • Anonymous

        You’ll be able to find a PDF online for free or if you like I’ll send one to you.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          A link would be great!! I’ll add it to my Kindle :)

          • Anonymous

            I’ve just sent you an e-mail as I can’t find the website. If you reply, I’ll send another back but with the attachment :)

  • PeteD

    I agree. Rosetta Stone is great but it helps to supplement it with other CDs and even TV. The best aid is to have a native speaker who’s willing to practice with you.
    I got Rosetta Stone through a college ( http://www. cbcwebcollege.com ) where it’s $48 for three months with unlimited access to all the languages and all the levels. It’s even accessible from any computer that’s connected to the World Wide Web.
    I like that I can talk to it and get feedback on pronunciation.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I think you misread the post quite a lot if you think “Rosetta Stone is great” is somehow agreeing with me! :-P I’d say that the supplements are what really get you ahead!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I think you misread the post quite a lot if you think “Rosetta Stone is great” is somehow agreeing with me! :-P I’d say that the supplements are what really get you ahead!

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/FluentCzech FluentCzech

    I think there is a lot of wisdom in your article. Certainly, there are lots of ways to learn languages – and mixing, jumping, juggling, and toe-dipping between them all probably works pretty well too. The problem I see isn’t that people choose the wrong method, but that they throw the towel in too early. The one consistent “meta-method” has to be “don’t give up when you reach a sticking point – it will eventually pass”.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well said! There’s also the danger of people trying out TOO MANY methods and getting caught up in experimentation indefinitely rather than trying to efficiently find something that produces results quicker.

  • Judy

    I’m one of those people who was inspired to jump into learning another language (and polishing the ones I have) by reading your posts. If you want to language for communicating then speaking a lot really helps. And Meetups for speaking was also a great suggestion. Now I feel as if I can improve my Spanish and learn Portuguese at the same time. Thanks! Judy

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Great to see another affirmation :)

  • Robert Richardson

    You’ve definitely got a point that approaches that encourage you to apply some self-discipline and habit to your learning are going to tend to get some results. I suspect there’s also something to be said to focusing on doing a relatively small number of projects at the same time. Some of us tend to try to tackle all the things that seem like great projects all at once, which just gets things spread too thin. You seem to focus on learning one language in a very fast, highly focused way. My guess is that there are lots of other projects that you aren’t tackling at the same time. So one thing that even buying Rosetta Stone (which seems a bit hopeless, based on the trial disk I ran through) will give you–beyond just giving you a financial stake in getting some results–is that the commitment to that program will enforce that enough time gets spent on the venture while some other projects have to wait a while.

    Thanks for the site and for your efforts!

    Robert Richardson

  • Yael

    I agree it doesn’t matter too much what method you follow, in the sense that there is no “perfect method” out there that will magically catapult you to fluency.

    So much depends on your own personal learning styles, e.g. I speak two languages as well as my native one fluently (have lived and worked in those languages, can read literature etc) but I cannot memorize vocab lists/ flashcards AT ALL. Doesn’t work. Ditto grammar tables.

    It’s crucial to have a clear personal idea of what “success” is, e.g. if you want to achieve being able to spend time in a country and speak the language in your everyday life, you will need to focus on learning how to speak (as you do in your missions….) Spending vast amounts of cash on an academic language program in that country might get you a grade A at the end of the course, and you might have a great knowledge of grammar and some cool word lists but if your aim was to communicate then that method failed unless you supplemented it by going out and speaking…with humans.

    I have met far too many ex-pats who have studied endless academic-style courses and cannot SPEAK the language because they only follow the academic course and don’t do anything else. And what’s worse they are terrified to open their mouths and make mistakes because if they made a mistake in class, they lost a mark/ got a lower grade.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, unfortunately it doesn’t matter what you follow *as long as it encourages you*, that’s why I mentioned some strange methods, but didn’t get to the academic approach. Unfortunately that approach is about discouraging people exactly as you described, so things like that are definitely NOT recommendable!

  • Bree

    Very interesting article. I find a lot of similarities between your perspective on learning a language and my own career in nutrition. Many people come to me looking for “the best” way to meet their nutrition goals or my opinion about whatever method they are using at the time. Different approaches work for different people depending on their time frame, psychological barriers, etc. There is no “best” there is just what an individual feels comfortable with and what produces the best long term results.

    Additionally, there will always be individuals (some of whom are co-workers of mine) who feel that whatever worked for them is “best”, and all other approaches are obviously inferior. In the end, it’s likely to take a lot of trial and error along with some modification of any existing plan to achieve success in any goal. Sometimes, debating and comparing approaches is just a way to put off taking any action and it’s important to recognize when this happens and change your mindset. Just as you said, having a good attitude and strong reasons for doing it is really the key longterm.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You’ll notice I write many of my articles for general fields, not just languages (I’ve worked in quite a wide range of jobs and use my mentalities discussed on this blog in all of them). I just put a language spin on things to be consistent :P

      So I totally agree and understand how this would work in nutrition!!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I’ve been adding a simple caveat to all my advice for years that fits quite well with what you say: “If it works, and it’s stupid, then guess what: it’s not stupid.” Meaning, of course, that if it works for you then everyone else’s advice be damned: use it!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I’ve been adding a simple caveat to all my advice for years that fits quite well with what you say: “If it works, and it’s stupid, then guess what: it’s not stupid.” Meaning, of course, that if it works for you then everyone else’s advice be damned: use it!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haha, not sure if that’s quite how I phrase it. My engineering/scientific background means that I prefer to see the logical reason for why something would work well, as well as experimenting with it. If it would work well and is the logical course of action (unlike bogus examples as I mentioned here), then there’s nothing stupid about it :)

      But others saying it’s stupid on the other hand means very little if that’s not based on sensible thought. Many things I do in language learning are perhaps “stupid” at first glance, but actually pretty logical when thought about clearly.

      Then again what “works” for someone else… might not even be “working” in my definition. So I’m all about attacking this “wait x hours myth” because during the waiting, by definition nothing is actually working. Then again I prefer applicable results quicker, and I know others have other priorities!

  • TheGourmetCoffeeGuy

    Very interesting and realistic point of view about language learning. Most important is having fun, enjoying the process, listening to the pronunciation and having the satisfaction of sounding like a native (or trying to), and actually understanding what people are saying around you. Thank you for sharing such great points and encouraging experimentation in language learning.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks for the comment, but please read the comment rules clearly shown at the end of the post. I’ve had to edit your comment as you are spamming your link irrelevantly. Next time use a real name please.
      Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  • http://facemot.blogspot.com Facemot

    I Follow what i think i must follow!

  • Sie

    Good artical… I really like you tip of learning phrases from phrase books and speaking them straight away… By doing that you trick yourself into thinking your fluent for a moment andthat is a great place to start for confidence…

    I laughed madly at your hanging a stone gag lol…

    If I could give a tip, i’d say draw out a template of 40 boxes on an A4 sheet and cut out as many flashcards as you can handle… Write a word or small sentence on one side in black ink and then the englisg translation in red on the other… Group the into subjects. When you’ve done 20
    or so put in a heading card and clasp them with a paper clip… This is a hyper fast way to build vocab if you have the patience… I’ve learned over 300 Spanish words ina few days doing this…

  • http://www.facebook.com/TopEnglish Doris Seibert

    I have just discovered your blog and it is GREAT!!! Thanks for sharing your ideas, I am an English teacher but my native language is Portuguese. I have learnt English, Spanish, Catalan and now I am going for German in the same way you describe it here. I will definitely share your posts. :)
    Um abraço!
    Doris Seibert

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks, glad you’re enjoying the site :)

  • Gosxka

    and this is why I praise and like Pimsleur much, although I can see all the disadvantages – limited vocabulary, not being able to write even ‘hello’ to a friend on facebook..
    but it’s *the only one material I’ve used which really made me wanna go out and talk to natives* :). it encouraged me because it was very well recorded so it was pleasure to listen to, repeat and learn it

  • Alwyn

    Onder in Suid-Afrika praat ons elf (11) tale, en in Zambia moet onderwysers 72 dialekte ken.
    Dis mos jou soort plek om te kom kuier.
    Kry my op CS en maak ‘n afspraak.
    Alwyn in KwaZulu-Natal, Suid-Afrika

  • Alwyn

    Onder in Suid-Afrika praat ons elf (11) tale, en in Zambia moet onderwysers 72 dialekte ken.
    Dis mos jou soort plek om te kom kuier.
    Kry my op CS en maak ‘n afspraak.
    Alwyn in KwaZulu-Natal, Suid-Afrika

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

    Nice method :D

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

    Nice method :D

  • juanito

    Hey Benny, but this kinda contradicts your arguments as to why drinking alcohol doesn’t help. According to this post, it would actually help because it would act as a placebo. Beer drinking would be akin to headstanding. It would give you “motivation” and put you in the right mindset to actually start talking to people. So why did you take a hard stance on it? Why not just advise people to drink as much as they see fit as long as that helps them somehow and gives them the placebo effect.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hahaha, I just checked and you e-mailed me 2 days ago. You’ll have to be a bit more patient than that – I currently have several hundred e-mails awaiting reply over a couple of weeks since I haven’t had consistent Internet since I left Ireland after Christmas – this may surprise people, but constantly travelling makes connectivity an issue ;)
    I don’t imagine getting through my e-mail backlog until I find an apartment and stay put a few weeks. Looks like I’ll have to do this sooner rather than later, hopefully next week, since I can’t make much progress in Tagalog with all of the moving around complications.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Georgina!! Glad to see a long-term reader is noticing an improvement :) :)
    A few Internet trolls are saying that I think I’m a guru, so I’d like to refer them to this post since I’m happy to say that may way isn’t the only way, no matter how good I might think it is!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    My tips for the classroom are to make it all about conversation rather than books. I used to be an English teacher and made sure and pushed my students into English conversations rather than having them do grammar exercises.