Pulling Back the “Magic” Curtain of Language Hacking

Here you go – my one month update into this Arabic project. I’m a third in, and as always you can follow along in my stumbling attempts to use the language, with subtitles in English/Arabic/Portuguese.

Big thanks to Sam (Egyptian living in the states) for joining me in the call, which was arranged at the last minute. If there are particular Egyptians you think I should talk to, or who can offer themselves to appear in future videos (preferably with experience on video), let me know.

This video is the first one that was entirely unscripted, and is unedited so you can see even when I don’t understand parts of what is said back to me.

Today I want to emphasize a controversial and extremely important point that I’m trying to make throughout this entire project: Learning a language is NOT impressive!!

A look behind the curtain

When I met my first polyglot at age 21, I was floored. It was like looking at a wizard! He jumped into various languages, and could express himself with ease in each language!

And unfortunately, this is how most monolinguals look at it. It’s as good as magic. (Never mind that most of the planet speaks more than one language, and you are looking through it from a culturally skewed perspective).

When I see the reaction to some language videos online, I see that even though the person recording the video is genuinely trying to encourage language learning, sometimes people do have to just give up and say “I wish I could do that, but I’m not as talented/young/have as much time/blessed by a virgin monkey” or whatever random other thought appears in their mind at that particular moment.

This is why I’m recording so many videos – I want to show, once and for all, that language learning is NOT about someone going into a magical black box, shrouded with other-worldly forces that only a privileged few have access to, and then coming out after of the box having learnt the language, for the world to appreciate in awe.

It’s time to look behind the curtain of these “magicians”.

When you know the trick, it’s not so impressive any more: But now YOU can do it

It really is like looking at a magician though – you see him on stage perform his trick and it seems out of this world. Maybe magic and eerie forces are real!

But what about when someone sits you down and walks you through the trick? Then you would react to say “Oh… really? Is that all it is? Sure I can do that!”

Sure, sometimes these magicians have some showmanship (see how I add nice graphical intros and outros to my videos?), assistants, smoke and mirrors (like selective editing or reciting a script), but sometimes what they are doing is actually pretty basic. I’ve seen impressed comments from people by those discussing their favourite colour in a foreign language – without subtitles, they may as well be arguing the moral dilemmas of killing a few people to save many, as far as you’re concerned.

Like my friend Khatzumoto says, it’s like watching the Olympics and presuming they are all superhuman. You wouldn’t think that if you watched every single hour of their training over years. Then you’d appreciate hard work instead of magic that’s out of your reach.

Is fluent in 3 months impressive wizardry?

I hope in making incremental improvements with these videos, some of this is conveyed.

If I disappeared off the face of the planet for three months, and came back speaking Arabic really well, you could guess that I perhaps consulted a witch-doctor, or used my wonderful language gene to do all the work for me.

What’s actually happening is achievable real incremental improvements, over an intensive period. That’s it. ACHIEVABLE improvements that anyone else can apply, but that I’m just doing intensively, which is indeed definitely a LOT of work. There is no quantum leap where [insert excuse that I have access to and you don’t] makes me do something you can’t.

[If you work 9 hours a day in the wrong language instead of 6-8 hours a day like me, (and I bet you work less than the 63 hours a week I’ve had in the past, while I was still learning a language) stop being such a cry baby and find a way to learn as fast and efficiently as you can, even if you don’t aim for a 3 month deadline.]

So in today’s video, unlike in the first month, I’m now ready to get into unscripted conversations. The merits of knowing things in advance, can get your foot in the door, but now I need to interact live with another human being, spontaneously.

Taking away the magic – do you really think you can’t do this?

In the last video, I was reading the entire script. A lot of people complimented me on how well I was doing, but seriously come on – I was reading a script. Practice it a few times and you’d be amazed at how easy it is.

In the two week video, I didn’t read a single word. Sounds fantastic, right? Well, firstly (as I was clear the entire time) I was following a script, just that I learned it in advance instead of reading it live. Secondly, I used memory association techniques to make it much easier to recall what I wanted to say despite not having anything remotely resembling a photographic memory, and thirdly, I practised it enough times that I was comfortable with it.

In today’s video however, I didn’t prepare anything in advance. In fact, I had never even talked to Sam before apart from very brief emails just to arrange the time of the call and the recording equipment. If you presume that means I had a fascinating discussion for the eight minutes of the video, then you are missing something crucial: I did pretty much all the talking.

Now, to the untrained language learner, this may seem like it’s even more impressive than letting the other guy do all the talking. In fact, a major issue I have right now in Arabic is in comprehension. This is due to how words you already know morph with different vowel sounds and extra consonants. It’s actually not complicated at all, and follows very predictable patterns – I just need to get used to these patterns.

But the point of my one month progress point wasn’t to have a deep conversation, just to have my end of the conversation to be entirely spontaneous rather than scripted. So I said as much as I could, and asked questions that I was really only looking for confirmation (that he was a sports photographer etc.) I took control of the conversation in such a way that would allow me to do as much talking as possible, as that’s my level of capabilities for now.

Nothing in the dialogue is that complex, and I’m still making basic mistakes.

It’s like this all the way up to fluency

The point of all of these videos, all the way up to the ones I’ll make when having complex discussions with Egyptians in person in January, is to show that fluency is just a collection of achievable incremental changes.

In the next video (in about a week and a half) I’ll use my solve specific problems philosophy and aim to turn it more into a Q&A format so real interaction comes through.

The key is that I won’t need to work on speaking spontaneously, because I’ve already done that. I need to work on recognizing words I already know from changes in how they are formed, so that I recognize the question well enough to make a useful answer to it.

That’s something specific I can practise (NOW it’s time to hit some grammar books, only because I specifically need to – you can bet it will hold my interest much more than it would have at week 1). And of course I’ll continue learning vocabulary in general, so I can say more and potentially recognize more.

The next video may look exactly like this one in terms of simplicity of the conversation, and my amount of hesitations or mispronunciations (despite plenty of nagging from perfectionists, I’m NOT going to prioritise those until they are my “biggest” problem, and when the person I’m speaking to understands me anyway, this is not the top of my triage of issues that need solving. Think practically and prioritise things that are genuinely hindering communication).

After that, I’ll continue to make the videos (and my general level) that little bit better, hopefully with each video. And if I do reach my target, or something close to it, then I hope you’ll see that it wasn’t impressive in any mystical sort of way. It’s just a lot of purposeful work, that when you break it up, involves no wizardry, genes or advantages that I have over you.

I was convinced that first polyglot I met had mystical powers, until I got off my lazy ass and tried to realistically emulate what he did myself. I hope some of you are trying this out for yourself! Let me know in the comments!




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  • JasonChen

    why language a learning? i believe there’s a typo there

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

      Whoops! Yes fixed – I re-read all posts a couple of times to remove as many mistakes as I can, but skip rereading the titles :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/arvinrm Arvin Rāj Māthūr

    I’m not gonna lie, you’re doing pretty well! I’ve been taking Arabic classes for a while and I feel like your level is creeping up to mine!

    Did you also learn some standard arabic? I’m not that great at differintiating between the two all the time (I usually speak a mix of the two), but I feel like sometimes you say things in standard arabic and sometimes you say them in dialect.

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

      Yes, this is because the native I’m getting to help me create my flashcards messed up. I told him to stop putting in standard Arabic words randomly. I’m learning my vocabulary almost exclusively from flashcards at the moment.

      It seems that Egyptians themselves will get confused when sitting down at a computer to write something, compared to how they’d naturally speak it, and they may mix them up then. Hopefully this happens less frequently in future.

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

    People look down on me because they are incredibly afraid that I’d actually be successful and challenge their status quo. If I am successful, they’ll just say that I knew Arabic in advance or something, and if I fall a little short of my target, and still speak Arabic quite well, but not fluently, they’ll announce the entire project a total failure.

    It’s a strange narrow-mindedness – but that’s what the block button is for :)

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

    What a wonderful story! I definitely appreciate you referring people here!! :D Great job JR – let’s show everyone that this “magic” is just following very simple steps that involve a lot of work, but is still totally doable for mere mortals!

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

    I’m finding your comments really strange lately. This one seems nice at the start and end…, but then you say you have always believed and still believe that I’m a fraud.

    Please stop and think in future before writing comments. Also, if you are really so devoted to defeatism despite reading so many of my blog posts, then please don’t share it here any more.

    I don’t know what’s with you lately. Usually your comments and forum posts are much less negative. This one is all over the place – encouraging and then insulting and hopeless. If this and the previous comment are an attempt at trying to be ironic, then you didn’t do a good job, so please stop.

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

    Glad to hear it! Work hard and you’ll get the results. Simple as that. Glad my encouragement is emphasising this for you!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    “And unfortunately, this is how most monolinguals look at it. It’s as good as magic.”

    One of the things I love about living in America :D

    As you probably know, the U.S. is one of the most monolingual countries in the world and our foreign language education sucks. The benefit of this is that if you’re multilingual people are impressed and think you’re brilliant and girls find it attractive.

    Mastering anything is about making a bunch of little incremental improvements. Sort of like “death by a thousand little paper cuts” except in reverse.

    Very few people really have the necessary drive and discipline to do this, and consequently most never really master anything.


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

      Is that why? I always presumed American girls liked me so much because of my accent :)

      • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

        Oh I’m sure that helps, too. Accents help with that almost everywhere. It’s why I’ve never really been that big on getting my Spanish just absolutely perfect so that I sound like a native and lose my accent: first of all it would take years and a huge amount of effort with no real pay-off (there’s no real upside to being a foreigner who sounds precisely like a native presuming you can otherwise communicate well and have solid pronunciation), and secondly…I don’t want to lose my accent for the reason just discussed :D

        I knew a French guy in college (spoke excellent English), it was hilarious to watch him talk to girls: the hotter the girl, the thicker the accent. Sometimes he became almost completely incomprehensible. It worked, too.


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

          Sorry but an Irish and a French guy speaking with American girls is not the same as an American speaking with Spanish speakers. I don’t think you’ve thought this out very well…

          Sadly “any accent” is not seen as sexy, (and for cultural/political reasons, this includes an American accent, which I’ve met many confirming that it’s not appealing at all, depending on the country) and in many cases the reverse is actually true of it working against you, so I wouldn’t avoid eliminating your accent if I were you. If your Spanish is really good, this should be something to work on.

          When I was working on my own Spanish and French (my two C2 languages) over the summer, I was going through sentence rhythm patterns with my teachers, precisely to reduce my accent as much as I could.

          You can always force the accent later if getting girls is such a priority, and you see it as working like that French guy did. An American I met here in BH with no accent at all on his Portuguese is way more impressive to girls, because of having eliminated his accent.

          Personally I don’t concern myself with impressing girls. Accents and speaking lots of languages etc. are only something to pique their curiosity in the first few minutes. Being a nice and interesting and interested person is way more effective in charming girls, and I have very little patience for girls who are easily impressed by superficial things. When American girls only liked me because of my accent, I got bored with them incredibly quickly, and wouldn’t pursue anything even if they were pretty.

          Just my 2c.

          • http://amanofnonation.com/ Kevin Post

            Almost every girl I’ve met abroad (no matter the country) finds a thick north american accent in her native tongue to be a bit of a turn off. My wife (who is Colombian) loves that I have a thick Colombian accent and expresses to me how unpleasant it is to listen to someone speaking Spanish with a thick gringo accent.

            I’m going to have to completely agree with Benny’s 2c here.

  • http://twitter.com/RonStewartPhoto Ronald Stewart

    You’re doing really well from what I can tell. Arabic is on my list to start at the new year. For an interview, maybe you could speak with Tim (PolyglotPal from Youtube)?

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

      Tim isn’t Egyptian though. However good his level is, it’s not a native (and perhaps isn’t even Egyptian dialect), and this doesn’t demonstrate my progress well enough. I want to share how far I’m going, by having to communicate with a real native.

      • http://twitter.com/RonStewartPhoto Ronald Stewart

        I believe he’s made video speaking in both, modern standard and Egyptian, but like you said, he isn’t native.

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

    Aber Timothy ist kein Ägypter!

  • Cory

    When I first came to your blog a few months ago, I was amazed at your magical abilities!
    I was only able to read/speak in English and found myself in the same situation you described yourself at 21. Now I’m able to understand most of this post in German and I’m hoping to tackle Russian, Malay and Dutch in the future.
    You’re a big inspiration Benny, thank you! Keep up the hardwork!

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

      That’s precisely what I was hoping to hear! Excellent work Cody! Keep turning the magic into reality, and soon enough people will learn that there’s no magic to it at all ;)

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

    Great to hear from you, and I’m so pleased that this humble electronic engineer is getting through to linguists :)

    Best of luck in learning French! I hope you keep this communicative focus up – you’ll learn it super fast that way.

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

    That’s incredible!! Thanks for sharing and best of luck with your Chinese :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/arvinrm Arvin Rāj Māthūr

    Hey Benny, I’m currently learning Arabic and I was wondering if you could give me more details on how you’re going about it. If you’d like, I can share my methods as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sofie.esther Sofie Clara Esther

    Your blog is always so encouraging for me!! Throughout my childhood, I was a linguist in the making: I was always fascinated when foreigners spoke to each other in a bunch of weird, nonsense noises – and UNDERSTOOD each other. I grew up in Vancouver (a city in Canada) with a very high Asian population. So we had many Chinese and Japanese restaurants, and I was always blown away that those intricate characters – a bunch of random lines and swirls stuck together – were actually readable. I decided that English was boring and dull in comparison. But I did not enjoy French in school at all, and resigned myself to the idea that I would never learn a foreign language or understand language at all. At age 18, in my first year of university, I decided to change my attitude. I signed up for a Minor in German, and switched my Major from Film Studies to Linguistics. Because I love German a lot, I am learning it very well and I don’t find it nearly as hard as I thought I would. In fact, some things are actually easy. By keeping a positive attitude (like you said we should,) I find that it actually helps me learn the material better and faster. I hope to do an international student exchange in my junior year to Germany, and afterwards I am tackling Japanese! Because I think it is the most beautiful language in the world, and the only difficult parts are Kanji and the VERY different sentence structure. Yikes! Hiragana and Katakana are like the easiest part.

    Anyways, I am so glad I found your blog because I never thought I could hope to achieve even a little bit of fluency in Japanese, but after seeing you succeed with Chinese, I may have changed my mind. :) And thank you for differentiating between a linguist and a polyglot – I am both a linguist, and hope to be a polyglot, but at the start of the term, ALL teachers gave the class a big lecture on how knowing a certain amount of languages has nothing to do with being a good linguist. lol. And thank you, thank you for this amazing blog. :)

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

      Thanks for the kind words Sofie!

  • das_garry

    This is a brilliant post and I’ve shared it with a lot of friends! I found it funny because the reaction you outlined to language learning is the exact same reaction my friends enacted when I was in Berlin with them and had a chat with a waitress at the bar. One said “wow, Conor, how on earth did you do that?”, as if it was something I’d just picked up on the spot and put into action – later on at the hostel I showed them just how much practise (I wouldn’t call it work as it’s enjoyable) I do each night; maybe this blog will be what they need to realise what they need to learn a language!

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

      Great job! Yes, the more that we show everyone that it’s just about putting the work in, the more maybe they’ll decide to put that work in themselves ;)

  • LaraLogic

    Nice job, Benny.

    However, I do find it a *little* offensive to claim “it’s not impressive at all” — as an aspiring translator and interpreter who has worked hard to excel in formal Arabic (not something you can speak and write at a high level perfectly without years of practice and deep studying) and formal versions of other languages. You didn’t offend me personally, but it came across as a bit weird to me. ANYONE can learn a language, of course. But to be as superior as someone who grew up bilingual because it was present in the home or they lived in another country for half their life is what’s impressive, and the amount of dedication that you put in it will make you stand out above your peers (speech fluency also extends to talking with confidence, beyond other factors, and it shows over time among those who are spectacular and those who are simply good). That’s the difference. Anyway, good luck to you and maybe I’ll catch you on ITalki one day.

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

      I don’t like putting things unnecessarily on pedestals, and I hate it when language learning is framed as impressive, rather than practical and something anyone can do.

      Commitment is an admirable skill for learning ANY skill. Language learning isn’t special in this sense.

      Being impressed is a spectator sport. This is not something I care to promote. I’ll be happier when speaking a language is a run of the mill thing, like anything else many people learn such as driving a car that it only “impressive” to those who have never tried.

      • http://www.facebook.com/chrislewispac Christopher Lewis

        This is true with everything Benny. I have tried just about everything. I have my pilots license, am three years into law school, have a license to practice medicine, and am now learning to speak Dutch. People always seem amazed that a person can know all of these things or “be” all of these things but the truth is that lawyers, doctors, polyglots, etc. just put up a wall by creating distance and the impressions that THEIR body of knowledge is somehow superior and more difficult to grasp. The truth is it is all the same and it is all easy so long as you don’t get too frustrated and stick with it. That is why I like you blog despite my disagreements on your cultural perspectives. When you stick to bringing people up and encouraging them to continue learning and they really CAN do it… that is when you shine.

  • Phil

    How were you able to record your screen as well as the audio of both your language partner and yourself?