The only way to get far quickly is to get out of your comfort zone (my typical day learning Mandarin)

One problem with seeing the end-result of any feat, is not understanding the processes that went on to get to that point. As my friend Khatzumoto said to me once;

Olympic coverage really ticks me off… you can’t just go up to a person on game day and say how talented they are. So I came up with this rule, that in order to earn the right to watch the Olympics you should have to watch all of their training too!

This issue of ignoring the work that person had to go through to get to the point you see him is a huge problem in language learning. It’s easy to see someone speak a foreign language and dismiss that person as a “genius”, or say that it just comes naturally to them. As if it was their destiny, or a universe-conspired explosion of luck. This is discouraging as each of us thinks about how much we have to struggle, and study and fail because we don’t have natural talent.

While I will always strive to learn as quickly as I can, the fact of the matter is that I can’t, and no other learner can, skip the frustration involved and required to reach a useful level in a foreign language. One reason the title of this blog tends to annoy a lot of people is because of this presumption that I perhaps claim to go to the country, hang out with pretty girls and party all the time in glamorous James-Bond style and magically speak the language at the end; it’s just not fair, so it can’t be true. Learning a language takes hard work, and since spending “only” 3 months on it isn’t hard work, I must be lying.

But here’s the thing. Three months is a really long time. It’s not about counting the months, but counting the hours and the quality of those hours that makes the difference. A lot of my time, especially initially, is spent quite a bit outside of my comfort zone, and actually being tremendously frustrated, and this is something that very few learners do much, even if they spend “lots of time” studying.

The only way to get anywhere meaningful is through hard work

And I’ll let you in on a little secret that those who think I party my way to fluency don’t know: I’m pouring blood, sweat, tears and a crapload of sacrifices into this mission. More than the vast majority of those who have been “learning the language for years” can ever imagine. It’s about priorities and insane devotion to the task, not simply “working hard”. This is something that anyone else can do, but sadly most don’t.

One reason it will indeed take you years to learn a language is if you make sure you are comfortable the entire time. Stay indoors with software that mostly requires that you just click a few buttons, sit down with a book or go for a pleasant jog with a podcast on, go to a class and let the teacher do all the talking, or do exercises only at the level prescribed to you. Even if you are pouring everything into studying hard, is that really trying as hard as you can? Working hard is not the same as living hard.

In my mind, this isn’t good enough and it’s too academic. The real world presents you with problems and learning opportunities before you are ready. The more you are exposed to them, the faster you’ll be forced to learn.

To illustrate this, let me give you a comparison of what I am doing and what a typical expat learning the language might do:

My own long road through the shortcut: a typical day

Most expats: Get up, work, study some vocab in the break, after work get the weekly one hour private lesson, and speak in English the entire time, go home and study for an hour, then go out with your English speaking mates for the rest of the night, complaining about how hard Chinese is… in English. Satisfied that 2 or 3 entire hours of “hard” work mean he’s done his part on the “long road” to speak the language some day.

Me: Wake up to a radio in Mandarin telling me the news and desperately force myself to pick out as many words as I can, and wish I knew what was going on in the world after I understand only fragmented basic words. Start off grumpy.

Go somewhere completely different for breakfast today to force myself to get out of the lazy routine I was getting into, since my favourite place already knows what I want and I just confirm it with 2 or 3 of the same words. It’s possible I’ll order the wrong thing because of this. Order in broken Mandarin, with no more pointing and just saying “that” and consider it a success if I get what I wanted. Starting the day off with the wrong breakfast is damn annoying, but you can bet I won’t make the mistake again next time.

I really could have done with that filling hot egg and spinach muffin they have at the Starbucks across the road… but deal with the fact that a breakfast is a breakfast. At least I ordered it in a way that forced me to practice beyond repeating the same words I already know.

Study for several hours, then after doing work for several hours after that (yes, I have to work too! Luckily it’s part time for the moment) get out of the books and out of the house to do the important spoken project of that day (e.g. explain my way into having my cellphone repaired, go get a quick tea somewhere and force myself to ask a non-tea related question of the waitress, ask directions to something that I know the answer of to help me get used to expected vocab, record a video in Mandarin for Youtube commenters to take dumps on me etc. – anything that forces me to speak the language) Every experience is like pulling teeth as I am way out of my comfort zone, but each time I learn something important and remember the minor victories.

Then it’s time for the gym! But treadmills and dumbbells are boring. Instead I go to dance lessons included in my membership. An entire hour of instructions being shouted at me and others… in Mandarin of course. Trying to divide my attention between mimicking the instructor’s body movements precisely (luckily I have some experience dancing, so I keep up fine), and trying to figure out if I can contextually figure out what he’s saying and learn some new words. End the hour exhausted physically and mentally.

Go to a crowded cafe with lots of people speaking and try to study there until they close. Studying is the easy part. Sitting in a comfy chair with nice music and nobody pressuring me or waiting for me to say what I want to say… I could do this all day! Which is exactly why I shouldn’t…

An expat walks in with his local girlfriend, speaking in English, and is soon joined by several expat friends. I sigh about the fact that I still don’t know anyone in the city yet (I’m certainly not too shy to make new friends, just not able to do it effectively in the local language yet and not interested in the slippery slope of hanging out “just a little” with English speaking expats), and put my earphones on with the radio (some easy listening station, since love songs have much easier to distinguish slower lyrics) as I continue to study. My time to shine and really get into the meat of the part of language learning I love most will come in a few short weeks. All this studying is based on the issues I actually have with speaking, not on blindly going through courses.

Come home, and try to communicate with my terribly broken Chinese in an online chatroom. Succeed in convincing someone to meet up with me next week! :) Then realize how incredibly unprepared I am to sit down with someone and talk for more than 5 seconds in Mandarin. Anyway, I’ll figure that out when the time comes…

Then finally it’s time to “reward” myself with two hours of non-work-related English to end my day, but I keep it entirely online to make sure I actually speak as little as possible or no English at all in that day.

I naively think that they Internet is going to be a warm friendly and encouraging place, and then see forums, blog posts, comments, youtube videos reminding me (as if I haven’t heard it enough already) that I’m going to fail miserably and am not “taking this seriously”. After a pretty rough day of taking it seriously I get angry with Internet trolls and waste my wind-down time feeding them. Ironically these comments are helping me because I’m getting great negative reinforcement about exposing myself to English. When I speak in Mandarin everyone is friendly, and smiling and encouraging… and I feel energised after each time I’ve tried to say something new to someone, despite how awkward it is. But when I discuss speaking Mandarin in English then it’s doom and gloom.

The solution to this problem is obvious. More Mandarin, less English. :)

I shrug off the discouragement, and filter it out for some useful comments and feedback and take that to heart. As well as this many people are indeed giving me useful encouragement, which is crucial, and something I really need after the day I’ve had. There is an important process of dealing with the immense amount of negativity I’ve been getting for this project, and your own doubts that slow you down, and a process that has been the core of helping me to learn faster that I’ll discuss in the next post.

Then I remember that there is a big X at the top right of the window and I can turn them off… and I go to bed to start the process all over again the next day.

Are you under pressure to improve all the time?

It’s not fun to be stuck in this stage, and the whole point of it is that if you want to stick to your guns and be 100% devoted, you can’t start sharing your frustrations with anyone in person yet, because you don’t even know the word for “frustration”. But I know from experience how much all this hard work can pay off in terms of friendships and exposure to sides of a culture many passers-through never get to see.

Despite the fact that I’m not enjoying myself much in this stage of the language learning process, I am enjoying the language. It’s the most logical, consistent and straightforward language I’ve ever come across!

Studying the grammar, vocab, tones, word order and characters are the easy part. The hard part is to force myself to actually use them instead of just sitting down with a book all day, which is so tempting as that is well within my comfort zone. The hard part is to go up to someone when I speak so desperately slowly still, and doing it anyway.

All of my frustrations are based on the interactions I force myself into, as it’s quite lonely to have to go through this rough stage of not being able to express myself at a useful level yet. Many expats don’t really have this frustration, because after a few brief attempts at trying, they will go back to their friends and vent in English. I know that if I can stay with this frustration a little longer, then the level of frustration will very quickly start to evaporate.

Since I didn’t make it clear before, I’ll specify it now: I’m learning Chinese so that I can speak it for the rest of my life. This is not like some other missions I had in the last year or two where I was just checking out a language and learning what I needed for that single experience. So all my work is focused on long term benefits for short term sacrifices. I am not hanging out with the many fun and interesting Taiwanese who speak English because this is only the first time I’ll be in the country, and I want to make sure I can see the many sides English speakers are prevented from seeing, in my last month here on this visit, as well as helping me fully appreciate mainland China when I get to visit it after these 3 months are up.

If this means I have to have a rough one or two months of really frustrating entire days and way less socialising than I like (but still plenty of speaking) before I can use the language confidently and start to make deep friendships, then it will have totally been worth it.

Everyone struggles, but some struggle more efficiently

Those of you who will have seen my first video attempt at Mandarin, will see in my face how much I’m trying to think to force basic words out of me (or in this case… ba…sic….syll…a…bles), and may appreciate that maybe there is no quantum leap of merrily skipping through frustration for anyone. This is why I shared that video with you, and will likely make another one again in two weeks – just one video at the end could not possibly tell the whole story.

Everyone struggles, and I hope you can see that I’m going through the same problems any language learner has to go through, and actually many other issues that most language learners don’t have to go through because of my intensity and avoiding of English speakers, leading to all of my interactions throughout the day being superficial.

There is a huge difference in how I’m approaching this. Instead of skipping frustration, I do what few others will – I charge into it and fill my entire day with it. It’s like tearing off a band-aid; most people do the “hard stuff” of feeling like an idiot in early stages of language learning in very small doses. I’m doing lots of study of course, but what really defines my day is what I do away from the books and audio and comfy chairs.

While I got the usual Internet “warmth” of people laughing at me, or reminding me… again… that what I’m aiming for is impossible (seriously people, look impossible up in a dictionary or figure out what it really means will you!) after uploading that video, I also got some useful feedback of what to focus on next, and having produced the video forced me to learn things I hadn’t before, that no book could EVER teach me.

The video isn’t so impressive and that’s the point. I’m not pulling any rabbits out of any hats in this mission and I’m not merrily skipping my way up to higher spoken levels overnight. I’m struggling, but doing so more efficiently and more consistently than most learners would. When learners tell me that it takes “at least 5 years” to speak Mandarin, I have to ask them frankly – what the hell were you doing for those five years? I’m not smarter than you, I’m just more willing to take more punishment and feel like a complete idiot most of the day.

I feel like the myth that you are “smart” if you learn languages, makes too many people unwilling to accept that they will not be able to argue politics and deeply share their feelings if they dared to speak in their first weeks, before they are “ready”. Any idiot can learn a language, and knowing this means that I can accept that perhaps I have to be that idiot.

You feel really stupid when you try to use a language in situations that are outside of your comfort zone, and that’s precisely why you need MORE of these situations, not less of them.

If you charge into the frustration, embrace it, and fill up all your free time with it, then you WILL get to the other side much quicker. Too many learners only do these annoying practice things, once in a while, and it’s what slows them down tremendously. Doing it the hard and intensive way is damn stressful, and I can confirm that. I’m not interested in the easiest way to learn a language, I want the most efficient way.

Enough of this easing yourself in gently nonsense. That’s precisely why it’s taking you so much time.

Hopefully my next video will be much more interesting (unlike the first one, something I’d be very happy to show to a native) and it will be because I’ve been through hell to get to it ;) But I’ve been to hell and back several times by now and know the path intimately.

Totally worth it every time.

Your thoughts on this welcome in comments below as always!



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  • Matthew


    • Benny Lewis


  • Benny Lewis

    Go for it :)

  • Kasumi

    Ah, the confort zone…  I always try to overcome it. It’s wonderfull discovered that you didn’t have so many problems as expected… and embarrasing when you understood something completely different.

    But the problem uses to be other people. I remember London waitresses didn’t have any patience and they called to another one to talk with me in Spanish. It isn’t the only place but I remember it better because they were usually very rude when I couldn’t explain myself at once… :(

    I think your task is great, so… Good luck and hard work! :D

    • Benny Lewis

      London (and Paris in my experience) have a really bad reputation for being rude to people trying to speak the language.

      Luckily the vast majority of the world isn’t like this. Everyone has been really nice to me as I speak my very broken Mandarin to them :)

      • Charmaine Yip

        Oh no! I’m heading to Paris to continue on my French after experiencing a year of isolation in Quebec. I totally could relate to the frustration, and just running back to my English friends – it didn’t get me very far. I’m ready for the worse the second time around and I will try harder! This time, I’ll learn to do things differently. thanks for the inspiration!

  • Mirek Burnejko

    Great post. I must get out from my comfort zone and start my Italian lessons. I will be there (coincidence) for 3 months.

    • Benny Lewis

      In bocca al lupo!

  • Fritz larco

    Benny, Bravo. Just from the title, I could relate, as it applies to almost anything in life! Your wisdom is inspiring. I applaud your willingness to be vulnerable, as it will pay off big time. Keep it up!

  • Anonymous

    When I first started running, it was so hard. I could only go for about ten
    minutes before I was exhausted. I kept pushing that limit beyond my
    comfort level until within a matter of six weeks I was up to an hour.  If I had
    given in, I would not have reached that level. Going beyond your comfort
    zone isn’t easy and it’s not fun, but it sure works.

    There is a huge difference in studying a language as a “thing” and studying it in order to actually USE it.  What a powerful incentive it is to improve when you may go hungry because you don’t know how to ask for what you want when ordering in a restaurant, or you desperately need to get something repaired or get somewhere without paying a fortune to an English-speaking cabbie.

    People who study Mandarin at home out of country, don’t face those urgent necessities that you do right now.   They can afford the luxury of perfectionism, and, when the going gets tough they can give it a rest.  You don’t have those options. I will face a little of that when I go to Brazil for a few weeks in two weeks time. I wish I could stay for three months!

    • Benny Lewis

      Have fun in Brazil!! :)

  • Caoileann Appleby

    Maith thú! Is aoibheann liom d’abairt:
    “Any idiot can learn a language, and knowing this means that I can accept that perhaps I have to be that idiot.”
    Ní bhíonn daoine sásta é sin a dhéanamh chomh minic agus is féidir leo ach tá sé riachtanach chun teangacha nua a fhoghlaim.

  • Anthony Secco

    Keep up the good work.  You have your head on straight so I don’t suspect you’ll have any problems.

  • Alasdair

    Your newest Mandarin video was my favourite out of all of your videos. Why? Because it showed me you’re human! Okay, that was hyperbole. My point is that most of the time in your missions we saw a “I’m going to learn Swahili!” post and then three months down the line you’re speaking like a native and we just don’t appreciate you’re just as stumped as us at the start. We only see the end, normally, so it’s natural to get downhearted and think “how on earth did he do that?” simply because we had nothing to compare it to. 

    This has encouraged me immensely. I have a meet-up with Spanish-speakers on Wednesday. I’m not going to utter a word of English. 

    • Benny Lewis

      Glad to hear it :)

  • Spencer

    Benny, keep it up man!  I feel this article is applicable to so much more than just learning a language.  Reading your frustration makes me realize how little pain I have put myself through in learning spanish.  Talking with my wife in Spanish at home is not exactly a scary situation.  Time to step outside my comfort zone!
    “Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice.” – Martin Luther King

    • Benny Lewis

      Go for it! :)

  • Benny Lewis

    I loved that speech! :) My next post will hint to that kind of mentality.

  • Benny Lewis

    That’s what I’ve been hearing. I followed advice from people saying to focus a lot on tones and I think it has been less beneficial than getting a decent flow first, but time will tell.

    Although I find the word order to be no problem. I’ve been through so many word orders in so many languages, that I see Chinese’s as being very logical and easy to accept quickly! :)

  • b liddy

    Benny,  you just reminded me I need to get out of my comfort zone and go speak Mandarin with somebody today…  thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Ne güzel bir yazı! Turkce öğrenmem için, benim konfor bölgesimden daha fazla birakmam lazım.

  • numerodix

    I think this is the one of the best posts you’ve written. You really make it come alive. I’m sure many of us have had these experiences, but it’s easy to conclude from this that since everyone around you is functioning perfectly well (as natives of the place) there must be something wrong with *you*, so you ought to feel bad for sucking so much. In those moments I wish I had someone to encourage me and reinforce that I was doing the right thing by trying, painful as it was.

  • Anonymous

    Pursuit of Happyness is one of the best films of all time!

  • Anonymous

    Man, you do do a lot of work! I have anxiety issues, so I think it would be difficult for me to speak right off the bat with someone I don’t know. Also, you should ask your teacher about tone sandhi! It’s where tones change depending on what precedes or follows them. It’s a difficult part in Mandarin.

  • Seonaid Beckwith

    Good luck! Can’t wait to see how you progress.

  • Judith Meyer

    Thank you for explaining your approach in more detail. I don’t think you mentioned before how much time you’re investing in hard studying. It might be enlightening for those who mis-interpreted your posts so far as saying that they only needed to grab a flight and start chatting up foreign waitresses on day 1 in order to become fluent.

    It is easy to see why a number of people react negatively to hearing your missions, especially when they concern a language like Chinese. You are like the guy who walks up to a piano player after he finishes a piece and says “Hey, I just inherited a piano. I can’t play anything yet, but three months from now, I’ll be playing as good as you or better, and then I’ll write a post about how playing the piano isn’t any more difficult than playing the flute or the guitar.”    Maybe your readiness to embrace a lot of pain will really allow you to make progress so much faster than everybody else who ever tried, and people will be in awe. Until then, those piano players will be grumpy that you’re not defering to their experience and listening to their advice. Just do your thing!

    If you do reach level C1 in Mandarin after just 3 months, even excluding the “academic and professional purposes” bit of the requirements, and prove it to my satisfaction, I will issue you a public apology on Youtube the likes of which you’ve never seen.

    • Benny Lewis

      Thanks Judith. But rather than make this about I was right or I was wrong at the end with a video either/or publicly apologising or pointing out how foolish I was to try to aim so high, I’d much rather some soft encouragement while I’m actually trying. :)

      This mission isn’t about C1. That’s just a target that I’m aiming for. It’s about me speaking Chinese as best as I possibly can in 3 months, and to have lots of friends who don’t speak English through Mandarin here and for the rest of my life. This is something that I feel academics with a fail or not fail attitude are missing about language learning and something I’ll continue to emphasise throughout this mission.

      • Judith Meyer

        I actually find a lot of your posts discouraging for me personally, because you  make it sound like studying a language bit by bit, day by day, year after year is a bad thing. I rather think it’s something admirable to doggedly carve out 1 or 2 hours of foreign language study every day after an 8-hour work day, and to keep doing that for years independent of the things life throws at you. After reading some of your posts, it sounds inadequate and a waste of time; might as well not be studying at all. I wish you would be more supportive of this style of learning, especially as many people don’t actually have a choice about it. 

        I could whole-heartedly second your call for people to speak more and to get out of their comfort zone if you didn’t combine that with a negative view of those who achieved fluency the old-fashioned way, and the omni-present quips against all academic learning. Some of it is obviously bad, and anglophone countries have particularly bad track records when it comes to language education, but there are also classes that show consistently good turn-out. I would wager that if you had attended a few hours of Duisburg University’s intensive Chinese classes for East Asia Studies, your Chinese pronunciation would have been just as accurate but a lot less choppy in that video. (That is at the heart of why I posted a disappointed comment on Youtube.) Then again, I don’t know how much else you learned in this time, because the video only shows us your pronunciation and nothing else.

        • Benny Lewis

          When I see something discouraging (as I explain in the next post) then I ignore it or remove it from my life. I find it strange that you feel that way about my blog, but stop reading it then :)

          I’m trying to make a difference in the lives of people who have NOT got into language learning yet. If it means I step on some toes of those who have already (which is unfortunately a drastic minority, especially in the English speaking world), then so be it. Speaking just WORKS, and I DO think that a 90-100% study-focused approach is terribly inefficient if the goal is to speak the language and will continue to say this.

          Some more academic-minded people prefer to learn a language for the love of it, to read, or to listen, without any interaction. In that case, I will always say that my communicative advice is inefficient and sitting alone with a book and audio is the way.

          Sorry if you feel I’m being negative towards those who have learned a language the old fashioned way. But a lot of those people have been terribly negative towards me, and that doesn’t help. I get dismissed because of lack of credentials and because I have an unprofessional focus, by many.

          You are probably right that if I went to this university I’d improve my language abilities a lot. Many courses are very useful. But the difference I’m trying to make is to get people out of classrooms. They are too comfortable.

          Frankly, I feel like languages needs to be taken back from linguists and professors, and this is what I’m trying to do – to make it a more human thing of socialising and interacting. This requires saying bluntly that studying ALL the time is wasteful. But I do indeed study, and will probably write a post framing it positively soon to clear any confusion. I am also getting lessons (privately), but am steering the class towards what *I* want and need to learn, rather than getting generic advice for any learner.

          Classes and teaching in itself is not a bad thing (I was an English teacher for a long time and really felt like I made a difference), and maybe that course and a few others you mention are fantastic. But too many leave a lot to be desired, and if there are some really great courses they are too expensive or too far away for the vast majority of people. Opening your mouth and saying something, in person or via Skype, is open to the entire world, regardless of budget and location.

        • Crno Srce

          I would say that I’m perhaps in a similar boat to you, Judith, with a full-time English-speaking job in an English-speaking country, trying to learn German, with a family and other commitments like every one. I have some German-speaking friends, and this is some of how I use my precious time. Luckily, one of them is at work so I can chat once a week. I also study with books – not necessarily because it’s easy (it’s actually often easier to just have a friendly chat in German than to study it intensively :-) ) but because I have to to achieve my current goal.

          However, unlike you, it doesn’t offend or upset me when he sets a goal that he doesn’t exactly achieve, or whatever, or when he says that you need to put your books down and start talking to people, anymore than it could possibly offend me when I watch some of his great successes. Maybe it’s because I understand where he’s coming from – having previously gone the language school route once or twice and not really getting anywhere with it for a variety of reasons similar to those Benny has posted about. If those aren’t your experiences, then I think that’s great for you!

          If you read more than a few of Benny’s post, you’ll see that he always does quite a lot of studying, along with trying to just meet up with people. He is really just trying to push people to bump “socialising” up their list of priorities, which I think should be applauded. 

          Forget the man, forget the things that annoy you. If there’s something here that interests you, encourages you, or helps you, read it and incorporate it. Otherwise, just ignore it and/or stop reading it as it’ll just angry up your blood :-)

  • Fiel Sahir

    Benny, you are a man with a lot of balls and I heavily salut you for it. Frikkin douchebagging trolls that have nothing better to do. What’s the quote again?

    “Those who say it CANT be done shouldnt interrupt those who are doing it!” 
    BTW I think the 50 impossible quotes from Joel Runyon would be an awesome thing to look at when things are down. Bravo Benny! Best of luck! Screw the douchebags, they can only laugh for so long…

    • Benny Lewis

      Thanks, that’s a good list!
      Yes, I’ve referred to that one quote you gave a lot ;)

  • Joseph Lemien


  • Jim Morrison

    Inspiring stuff! I admire your attitude and I think it is starting to rub off on me with my learning Catalan.

  • Artur

    Adoro seus posts, grandes e cheios de links, é como se fosse uma wiki =P
    No mais, estou adorando acompanhar essa missão, só desejo que você tenha grande sucesso e consiga fazer muitos amigos em mandarim!
    Saiba que seu blog é grande fonte de inspiração pros estudantes de outras línguas :)

    • Benny Lewis

      Valeu!! Gostei do comentário :)

  • Suhail

    Kudos, Benny!

    I am studying Mandarin (simplified, though) too, but I’m studying it from home, by myself, and can hardly invest 5% of the time you are in learning it, but it is a very intriguing language and I hope you reach your goal. I’m sure you can do it.

    • Benny Lewis

      Get on a site like Livemocha (skip the course) and find a native to practice with for free. Even if you have 5% of the time I do, you can still make that a very efficient 5% ;)

  • Benny Lewis

    Glad to have clarified that! I don’t pick anything up casually and easily – I don’t have any talents in languages!! It’s simply about not giving up.

  • Benny Lewis

    Yes, the Poles are notorious for reminding people how impossible their language is :) Slap some sense into them ;)

  • Anonymous

    When we met in Gdansk on the New Year celebration I’ve been sick and stuffed with medicines. You’ve seen it yourself. I was sick on and off most of the week before it which I’ve spent there with learners of esperanto. I could argue it stopped me from learning much of the language, but it would be an excuse – because I wasn’t sick all that time. I could try and speak with others in esperanto, but it was too frustrating as I could easily express myself in english and most of people I met there have spoken at least a little english. So I’ve given up, hide behind an excuse and did’t try harder – or frankly – at all.

    Lesson learned – next time I will put myself in awkward spots as much as I can handle.

    Greetings from Poland, Benny and I wish you a lot of energy to deal with the awkward :)

    • Benny Lewis

      Keep at it! ;)

  • Kevin Post

    Probably one of the best posts I’ve read on Fi3m. 

    • Benny Lewis

      Thanks!! :)

  • Gosxka

    that is a really great post! it shows indeedhow the frustration stage looks like, maybe earlier it wasn’t visible enough. I can see calling you ‘genius’ is dismissal as you said, so I’ll correct anyone who would call you that and emphasize the work you put into.
    you said Poles keep on telling our language is impossible, I remember not to, so even when a foreigner says so, I say that there are patterns indeed for declinations and conjugations.

    • Benny Lewis

      Good! This way you will encourage more people to learn the language, and spread it around the world :)

  • Susan

    It is like you wrote this post exactly for me. I’m in Thailand, trying to learn Thai, but I tend to get shy, feel awkward, or otherwise let embarrassment and the perceived judgement of others get in the way of speaking. I think that conceptualizing these awkward interactions as “punishment” will actually help me. Dive in,  get my ass handed to me, and LEARN from it! 

    • Benny Lewis

      Judgement, from the Thais?? :D Definitely dive in, that’s quite silly and only in your head ;) They’ll be happy to hear you try!

  • Lan Ya Chang

    You are seriously amazing :) I’m pleasantly surprised(and a little frustrated) that you’re in a place I’ve left just 3 days ago. But I’ll be back in 2 weeks! Here’s a lot of Chinese for you to work on:

    你好!我關注你的部落格幾個月了,曾經留言(但我現在找不到它了). 關於我和我學習語言的故事很長,你只需知道中文是我的母語. 不知道你有沒有興趣見面呢? 到時你可以展示你學習一個月的成果 :) 你住在台北哪裡?

  • Daniel Hill

    This post gives me so much respect for you, my fellow language learner!! It also sheds some light on what before seemed like an impossible task!

    • Benny Lewis

      Thanks! With hard work and dedication, much less is impossible ;)

      • Stian Håklev

        Hi Benny, I’ll write you a long post in Chinese, I’m sure you’ll enjoy working through it (and there are nice mouseover tools that can help you :))




  • Benny Lewis

    When living in frustration AND going in the right direction, you’ll get through it. Strong will is needed for this, much more than language talent. Abandoning it is for people who are simply not passionate enough in the first place, or who only want the easy way to learn something new.

  • Benny Lewis


  • Benny Lewis

    Glad you agree Shashi! Yes, the counting of “how many years” is idiotic, and something I discussed in more detail here:

  • Benny Lewis

    Excellent work :D I also spent the majority of my first time in San Francisco (a whole month) speaking in Spanish ;)

    And I appreciate you spreading the good news and encouraging others ;)

  • Benny Lewis

    I start next week, don’t worry – I don’t have trouble – I just needed a few weeks of single sentence interactions to help me get some basic flow so that I can make an actual exchange more useful :)

  • Benny Lewis

    Escrevi um pouquinho sobre o DELE e como fiz no meu post sobre o que fiz em alemão aqui:

    Boa sorte pra vc!! :) Valeu!

  • Benny Lewis

    I noticed that :D

  • erik

    대박이에요 . . .  Benny . . your posts are damn encouraging for me. As an expat living in Korea I have been taking the easy road to learning the language . . . My girlfriend easily translates for me (she speaks fluent English because she is a lot like you!) . . . So, I must say, after reading your blog (btw, this is the ONLY blog I’ve read that I’ve wanted to return to . . ) I am aiming high to achieve waht I want in this language. You rock my friend . . . I’ll be watching . . .

    감사합니다 . .

    • Benny Lewis

      Have fun and take a leaf out of your gf’s book!

  • Lplechaty12

    Thank you Benny for showing us your
    struggle with begining to learn an unfamiliar language. Some people  try
    to show only a glamorous picture of their successes, and try to hide the
    struggle it took them to achieve success. As you pointed out, many people try
    to explain success (i.e. being multi-lingual) as genetic or a extraordinary
    talent that a only limited number of people have, which makes success (learning
    a language) effortless to them. This idea of an innate ability for success appeals
    to  underachievers to justify their failures (just didn’t have the language
    gene) and achievers to justify
    feelings of superiority (success came easily to them because they have an
    innate ability, therefore they are better than others). How much is success the
    result of natural talent and  how much is
    it the result of effort? Definitely, success does not come 100% effortlessly. Everyone
    who has ever learned a language has struggled, yet anyone can learn a language.


        My respect for you has just grown because you have the
    courage to make mistakes,  show your
    mistakes to other people. Making mistakes at least can learn from them, it is
    productive, but saying or doing nothing out of fear of making mistakes is much
    less productive. This blog gave me the slap on the cheek I needed to realize
    the difference between struggling unproductively and struggle efficiently. I
    was impressed when I saw  the video in which you speak 8 languages, but
    I’m much more impressed because I’m beginning appreciate to the immense
    dedication and effort you put into that success.


    you for the amount of work you put into the blog, and for sharing your valuable
    insights and experiences in this free resource. I hope you don’t let the
    naysayers of your Mandrian-learning mission bring you down. I wish the best for
    you! J

  • Lplechaty12

    Thank you Benny for showing us your
    struggle with begining to learn an unfamiliar language. Some people  try
    to show only a glamorous picture of their successes, and try to hide the
    struggle it took them to achieve success. As you pointed out, many people try
    to explain success (i.e. being multi-lingual) as genetic or a extraordinary
    talent that a only limited number of people have, which makes success (learning
    a language) effortless to them. This idea of an innate ability for success appeals
    to  underachievers to justify their failures (just didn’t have the language
    gene) and achievers to justify
    feelings of superiority (success came easily to them because they have an
    innate ability, therefore they are better than others). How much is success the
    result of natural talent and  how much is
    it the result of effort? Definitely, success does not come 100% effortlessly. Everyone
    who has ever learned a language has struggled, yet anyone can learn a language.


        My respect for you has just grown because you have the
    courage to make mistakes,  show your
    mistakes to other people. Making mistakes at least can learn from them, it is
    productive, but saying or doing nothing out of fear of making mistakes is much
    less productive. This blog gave me the slap on the cheek I needed to realize
    the difference between struggling unproductively and struggle efficiently. I
    was impressed when I saw  the video in which you speak 8 languages, but
    I’m much more impressed because I’m beginning appreciate to the immense
    dedication and effort you put into that success.


    you for the amount of work you put into the blog, and for sharing your valuable
    insights and experiences in this free resource. I hope you don’t let the
    naysayers of your Mandrian-learning mission bring you down. I wish the best for
    you! J

  • Stuart Hughes

    This should be required reading to every Mandarin major on their year abroad. I’ve felt all these things and more only too keenly, and I can concur that what you are putting yourself through is the ONLY arbiter of long-term success. 加油 Benny, you’re going to blow it out of the water!

  • Vandermerwehein

    Well done! Keep up the good work!
    我覺得你的想法是對的. 謝謝你給大家看你的進步, 好辛苦了. 加油! 我鼓勵你!

  • Benny Lewis


  • Benny Lewis

    Thanks! After many long years on the road, I’m very much aware of the fact that there are many others going through a similar struggle. Glad to hear from one directly! Great job with Thai!

  • Benny Lewis

    If I picked any number, you could say “Why 6 months, why 10 months…” etc. They are just random numbers, but 3 months happens to be my goldilock’s zone of the amount of time I like living in a place, after a LOT of travel experience, and still feel like I’m getting to know the world before I truly settle down.

    You are asking the wrong question. I haven’t decided that I’ll invest 3 months into learning the language. I’ve GOT 3 months in Taiwan, so I’m learning as much as I can in those 3 months. My deadline is 3 months for lifestyle reasons, so I’m working with that. Also, visa issues get annoying if I want to stay longer in most non EU countries.

  • Benny Lewis

    “you _seem_ to be knocking people who put in as much effort as they can into learning languages.”

    I find sentences like this terribly annoying. Wasn’t it clear that *I* am putting a shitload of effort into learning the language? Did you even read this post?

    And yes, I’ve also heard the tired old excuse of “you can travel, and that’s the only reason you can learn so much” and answered it many times in many posts.

    I am knocking and will always knock (or more appropriately: knock some sense into), people who make EXCUSES.

  • Allan Ngo

    Probably the best blog post I read about good old hard work given straight and to the point. I am guilty of avoiding uncomfortable situations and being an introvert doesn’t help at all.

    I’ll be embarrassed and frustrated whether I take it fast or slow so why not choose the former and not waste time?

    Thanks for this post, Benny!

    继续努力! 加油哥们!

  • Ken Seeroi

    I must say you have an amazingly high pain threshold.  You really put yourself out there, both in this blog and in real life, and it seems to be working for you.  I’ve tried to do the same in Japanese for many years, but I can also understand why somebody wouldn’t want to. 

    I’ve noticed that not comprehending language invokes a sort of primitive fight-or-flight response.  I’ve seen it hundreds of times.  When someone doesn’t understand something I say, there’s that look of panic.  Conversely, when I don’t understand something (particularly when it’s a question that requires a specific answer), I have to fight the urge to simply say “Sorry, nevermind!” and run out the door.  (I literally did that in a French bank one time.)  Over time, I’ve gotten better at dialing back that feeling.

    I think the “special talent” you have isn’t one of language, or even hard work, although I applaud you for both.  A lot of people have those qualities.  You’re just not afraid to stand somewhere uncomfortable for long stretches of time.  Maybe that’s the key to learning language after all.  Huge balls.  If so, it’s not grammar and vocabulary we need to be teaching, it’s successfully handling fear.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Allan Ngo

      Hey Ken,

      Very well put indeed. And I like this line the best.

      “Maybe that’s the key to learning language after all.  Huge balls.  If so, it’s not grammar and vocabulary we need to be teaching, it’s successfully handling fear.”


    • Benny Lewis

      Thanks for the great comment :)

  • Nick McIntosh

    I’m seriously impressed Benny.  I’m in a similar position to you right now. I have just moved to Beijing and have been here for 7 weeks, focusing on language learning.  Or rather, I thought I was focusing on it until I read the above.

    I was very happy with myself when I was able recharge my phone credit last week without help!

    How have you gone connecting with locals?

    I’m really struggling to have more than 2 lines of conversation, my standard question is:

    How are you today? (jin tian zen me yang)
    followed by, a statement about how cold it is and asking if they are also cold. Makes me feel like an idiot :P

  • Gweipo Ster

    You are completely right about getting out of your comfort zone in order to learn.  There is such a difference between “working” as in doing stuff for the sake of doing it, and working so that you literally can feel your brain creaking with the effort – seriously – when I studies chinese effectively I really felt like my brain was creaking!  You’ll get there. Or you’ll get somewhere.  Ignore the trolls.

  • Benny Lewis

    Go for it! :)

  • Benny Lewis

    It was impossible to not notice it. My cultural posts will come later, and I’ll have plenty of them ;) For the moment I’m language focused so that I can be 100% culture focused sooner.

  • Benny Lewis

    Was hoping people would take that quote to heart! Copyright Benny Lewis 2012 ;)

  • Benny Lewis

    I retain some and don’t retain others, and accept it when it happens. It’s explained here:
    In some cases I decided just after the mission that I know it’s going to happen and my purpose learning it was for that one travel project. However, I’m adding Chinese to my list permanently and will maintain it and improve on it after these 3 months.

  • Morgan Taschuk

    Hey, don’t let the haters get you down. You’ve been a great inspiration to a lot of people (me included!) with learning another language.

    • Benny Lewis

      Aw ,thanks! :)

  • Benny Lewis

    Thanks for sharing it!! Keep up the good work :)

  • Matt Krems


  • The ESL Chronicle

    I am stuck on a stage right now. It sucks when you study a language for awhile and put in a lot of effort then you suddenly lose interest.

  • Marcus

    I actually found your day to be unimpressive and well within anyone’s comfort zone. Also, most site will tell you that it takes one year to be fluent(in spoken Mandarin) not five. 

  • Benny Lewis

    Glad to hear it :) Get your teeth into it and you will be speaking German very soon ;)

  • Alejandro Gonzalez Filipuzzi

    Las últimas vacaciones he ido solo para poder practicar idiomas, ya que al ir con amigos te lleva a estar hablando en español todo el tiempo. Ahora no desaprovecho la oportunidad cuando voy a un hostel en vacaciones para practicar. (cualquier excusa para entablar conversacion es valida). El año pasado en Brasil, aun sabiendo donde debia tomar el ómnibus, preguntaba a los transeuntes donde quedaba la estacion de omnibus sólo para exponerme al idioma. Creo que cada uno le imprime fuerza al aprendizaje de un idioma en funcion de su propia motivación. Hay gente que vive por años en paises en los que no se habla su idioma materno y no aprenden el idioma del pais (aprenden a hablar un poco como para salvar las situaciones cotidianas). Y otras personas cuando aprenden un idioma no solo estudian el lenguaje sino todo lo que lo rodea, o sea cultura, comidas tipicas, escritores famosos. Mis nuevos idiomas son ruso (hace un año y medio) y Mandarin que comencé este año, y para mi comenzar un nuevo idioma es como abrir una gran puerta…. hacia muchas posibilidades. Benny te felicito por la página!!

  • Elodie Quinet

    “Getting out of your comfort zone”. Besides the fact that now, Benny, you’re my super cool talented with huge balls (as Ken extremely well said! ) hero ;) , I think this is exactely what every people should do every second of their life if they want to get what they’ve always dreamed of.
    And thanks to you, at the beginning I was afraid of learning Mandarin, now I’ll just go for it !
    I know the three months are already over, but well…wanted to comment and support you anyway ;)

  • Eunhyo Woo

    Hi Benny, I stumbled onto your blog from Maneesh’s. I saw your title and was interested because I’m aspiring to be an opera coach. (They need to know at least Italian, French and German, and I don’t know any of them!) I really appreciate that you’re so open and humble. I play several instruments and when people get jealous or dismiss it as pure talent, I get really pissed off because they don’t know that I missed out on a lot of fun things growing up because I had to practice. This was a big wake up call and it really helped me in forming an approach to learning those languages. Thanks for showing us the ugly truth and keep up the great work!

  • Tim Greig

    What if you knew you couldn’t fail…
    Ah. What then?

  • Richard Crest

    When I traveled in Macau I felt out of space since I don’t understand mandarin or even Cantonese that’s why I looked for short study to learn about it. I know its hard to be fluent well at least get to learn sort of it.

  • kosourka

    Such a wonderful and inspiring kick! You are great at giving those. Must. Embarass. Myself. And. Speak. It. Particulrly because half my school is Chinese, so there isn’t any excuses really.

  • Aaron Posehn

    Great article. You’re right that you need to work hard for what you are trying to do, ie, become good in a language. The hard work always pays off though! I was quite impressed with your Mandarin progress when you were doing those three months last year.

  • zombie_i

    很好!very well. i should have learning my french in your way like learned mandarin too. No pressure no gain. i love the way you described yourself not to ordered the wrong breakfast! :)

  • Bo Sam


    Thanks for the encouragent
    Jia You

  • Ali

    I am going through the same punishment and frustration for learning German. Forcing myself to only speak German, most of time make me feel dumb and idiot. Unable to express my feelings in German all day, this week after accepting your challenge, make me cry. It is way out of my comfort zone. What should I do?

  • Jake

    You can set your goal to always be out of your comfort zone, or you can set your comfort zone to include EVERYTHING.

  • Demi

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot! I’ve been learning English for about a year now, every person I know says I’m fluent even my Eng. teacher, I also have the highest scores in my school but lately I noticed that I’m always in my comfort zone…I mean I’m fluent but only in things I studied at the time like food and clothing for example but there’s just so much more I need to learn to be as good as a native speaker. I wanna be able to talk about anything in English with no hesitation, could you give a little list about things you should learn to be 100% fluent eg. sports, kitchen utensils, domestic chores, etc….Thank you in advance

  • Saurabh

    Wonderful story and so well written. Felt like I was
    right beside you, cringing at the prospect of being punched.

  • Abdul Razzak

    Yes, Getting out of comfort zone can be really uncomfortable but sometimes you just have to think otherwise and got to do it. Once you’ve done it then only will you realize that well indeed good you did it :)

  • Maximuz

    I must admit, I wasnt a believer when I first ran into your blog. But after reading many of your posts, and teaching English as a second language to pre-schoolers, I think I have become a believer.
    Awesome blog man.
    Do you have a post about upcoming goals?

  • Andrew Davison

    I’ve met a few people now who swear by the total immersion technique for learning… scary as it sounds avoiding your native tongue for weeks/months on end… I’ve always been impressed with the end result… fluency way beyond their colleagues who learn in their spare time.

  • Kelli Griffith

    I’ve been taking Spanish all of my life, I can read and write, however I cannot speak it, because I’m afraid to mess up. I’ve been reading your blog and receiving your emails, and it really has encouraged me to finally master this language so I can move on to the next one. The only problem is I’m in college and I’m unsure how to exercise what you have told us about talking to people and etc. while studying and being apart of several clubs. I’m not sure how to maintain learning a language and focusing on school. Could you please help me? =^^=

  • Jackson Rosembach

    Based on your text, I believe someone have to be emotionally intelligent to learn quicly a new language. I don’t know if I am…

  • garrett







  • Woody Lord

    Muy bien video Banny! Me encanta sus maneras de aprender. Soy un estudiante de espanol en una universidad de Chicago y quierro aprender much mas espanol. Hay otras estudiantes en mis clses quein parece mucho como los “xpats” y yo era uno hasta vei su video en TEDTALKS. Muchas gracias para el trabaja duro que ha hecho. Tengo una pregunta para ti. Si estoy en Los estados unidos y no puedo viajar a una otra pais todavia, que puedo hacer aqui para mejorar mi espanol?

  • David Abbott

    Tu as raison Benny. Mais tu vas bien! Moi, J’apprends le francais.

  • Francis Collier

    Awesome article Benny! I have been tossing up whether to go to England and have an easy and awesome time for six months or whether to go to Colombia and have very different and almost definitely harder experience for 6 months. Strangely reading the story of your difficulties has encouraged me to do the latter! I am from New Zealand by the way so England would be the easier choice, strangely and you may find this interesting the local language here Maori has the same vowels and a lot of the same pronunciation as Spanish so hopefully that will help. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Samir

    I guess I’ll be watching some spanish movies on youtube to work on my vocab

  • darameja

    hi, Benny. I am learning Mandarin and I totally agree with you – it doesnt take 5 years to learn it, unless you just sit in classes and never speak beyond that.
    I did learn Mandarin 2 years ago while in Taiwan for 6 months and got quite good. Now I am back in Taiwan to actually speak fluent. You inspired me to take up the challenge “no English for 30 days”.
    By the way, what do you think about courses Chinese101? I really like their style, I wonder what is your opinion.

  • Erric Suryadi

    Great Article :D

    It is encourage me more to learn language especially english and japanese.

    Thanks Ben :)

  • Ciara Hogan

    Dia Duit Benny!

    Cailín Eireannach anseo, i Panama i láthair.
    Me encanta su blog, es muuuuuy bien, tus ideas son fantasticos, estoy aprendiendo espanol para 3 meses acá para mi tesis y que lastimo que yo encontro tu blog soló ahora!
    Je parle francais aussi mais maintenant je trouve que francais et espanol son en desordre en ma tete, je n’arrive plus a parler en francais quand je tombe sur des francais en Panama! Celui t’arrive aussi? Comment- tu le fais pour separer eux?

    Ciara :)

    • Kevin Iga

      Ciara, j’ai fait la même chose, mais à l’envers. Je parle l’espagnol depuis longtemps, et l’année dernière j’ai appris le français. J’habitais en Suisse Romande, mais un employée colombien là-bas parlait espagnol. Entonces era dificil cambiar entre las dos lenguas. Pero hallé que se nécesita practicarlo. Un ejercicio útil es, cuando oyes algo o lees algo en español, tradúcelo en francés. De temps en temps, essaye de lire quelque chose en français (website, wikipedia, un livre). No creo que tengo todas las respuestas. Díme si hallas algo que funciona.

  • quaintlee

    Not sure how old this is and perhaps you have already done this – you can increase the frustration by changing your computer/phone language to whatever language you are learning :). Fantastic lesson for all things in live – feel the frustration, don’t run from it, charge into it and fill your day with it. Loving your writing!

  • Endlessfoulu .

    I think you can still be comfortable and serious about your studies. I would rather love every day of learning a new language than self-flagellate towards intense progress. I respect your dedication though.

  • أمريكي الأصل

    so true. Embarrassment can be my biggest struggle right now, I’m doing French.

    I want to sound native so bad, that I think too hard about what I say and sound like a very slow, dumb person with a great accent.

  • Benny Lewis

    Well said!