It’s a fact, life is short and if someone has understood this concept very well, it’s Benny Lewis. Irish polyglot, he left his native land 8 years ago and keeps traveling around the world since then. But more than your average globetrotter, Benny has made its principal mission to learn the language of each country he is visiting. Now fluent in 8 languages, Benny is sharing with you his secrets and knowledges through his blog Fluent in 3 months and his brand new Language Hacking Guide. Always convinced that you couldn’t learn a language? Forget your prejudices and check his story out!
If you could only use 3 words to describe Benny, what would they be?
Ambitious, ridiculous, optimist.
What is Benny’s story?
I studied electronic engineering and when I graduated I could only speak English. I moved to Spain and only spent time with other expats and learned very little Spanish for 6 months. Then I took the language seriously and saw that it wasn’t that bad after all, despite believing I wasn’t talented. After several years I’ve applied the same attitude to learning other languages and hope to convince as many people as possible that they can do the same thing too.
“You don’t have to be rich to travel the world”, is that true?
Absolutely. For most of my travels I had a very tight budget, but could get by on very little. In fact, when you travel and don’t have a mortgage or car insurance, or don’t get bored and waste money on TVs and fancy clothes, you realise that the travel lifestyle is cheaper than most people’s lifestyles. If people learned to spend wisely, they’d realise how far their money can take them.
Flights are not expensive nowadays. My flight home from Colombia to Ireland is €300, and most flights within Europe are next to nothing on cheap airlines. You can save money on accommodation by Couchsurfing, and you can always find a kitchen to cook in to avoid restaurants.
What sort of jobs are you doing to support yourself?
I’ve had dozens of jobs. My favourite (and worst paid) was working at the reception of an International Youth Hostel. I’ve also taught English and worked in office jobs and as an engineer. For most of the last few years I was a freelance translator. Since my work was all e-mail based, I could do this from anywhere. Now I am attempting to earn from my website.
How many countries did you visit? Any funny anecdote to share with us during your trips…
I’ve lived in about twenty countries. Other travellers have much higher numbers than that, but I have genuinely lived in all countries and spoken their language, with the exception of week-long trips to 3 or 4 countries.
There are way too many anecdotes. I nearly died seven times, I danced with a president, got recognised dozens of times by strangers who read my blog etc., but I think the best stories are simply the friendships I’ve made along the way.
For those who don’t know it yet, what is the Language Hacking Guide all about?
It explains in great detail how I approach learning a new language so that I will end up speaking it very well in just a few months. The focus is on speaking and on showing people how easy it really is.
It’s not about studying. Studying helps you pass exams, but if you want to be able to communicate with human beings you need a lot of speaking practice.
I put a great deal of time into writing the guide and researching to interview some well-known other successful language learners, and I also had a team of natives translate the contents entirely into almost 20 languages. This way the reader can attempt to read in the target language immediately. More details of the contents of the Language Hacking Guide are given on my site.
From Electronic Engineer to full time Language Hacker, how did you make it happen?
Travel exposed me to many different jobs and showed me that you really can try anything if you put your mind to it. This year I decided to write the Language Hacking Guide and to focus all my energy and writing to help others to learn languages. By being genuine in wanting to make this difference and giving unique advice, people have been buying the guide and this has been (for the moment) supporting me so that I can continue doing this!
3 Tips that you could give to our readers who wish to become location independent translators?
1. Focus on a specialisation. If you just study translation, then you are the same as thousands of others. My focus on translating only electronic engineering documents made me stand out and I got a large volume of work because of that.
2. From this, target your applications to companies that translate your type of documents (technical in my case). You can find them on Proz.com.
3. Finally, get some good translation software to help you to do it quicker. Trados is very expensive, but the free open source OmegaT has almost all of its features and is especially useful for helping you work faster. Since most translators earn per word, faster translation means a better hourly wage.
I went through your posts and read that you didn’t like Paris, any reason? Have you changed your mind about it?
Correction: I love Paris. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world with a great transportation system and lots to do. What I don’t like is Parisians. I always joke that if you replaced Parisians with Brazilians, Paris would be the best place in the world.
My reason was that it was the only place in the world where I was given grief for trying to learn the local language. In 8 years travel, everywhere else has been very nice to me, but Parisians grimaced any time I tried to speak French to them. It was very hard to make local friends and this is important for my language mission, so I spent a very lonely 9 months there.
Finally in a recent trip I understood how the système-D (débrouiller – get by) really works and realised what I needed to do: Apologise for existing. When I gave Parisians the impression that I was a pathetic slug barely worthy of their attention, then they would somewhat build me up and I got more respect from them. And since my French is much better now, they have more patience to listen to me. So I have indeed changed my mind. Parisians aren’t the worst people in the world – they are just the most annoying to please.
Would you change your lifestyle in any way and why?
I am very happy with how my life is going at the moment. Maintaining deep relationships is always an issue as a constant traveller, but I have accepted that a 100% perfect life is a pipedream and that many new adventures await me when my travels will end.
What is your next adventure and where do you see yourself in 3 months?
Part of what makes my story interesting is not the advice, but the actual language and destination I choose. As part of that story and my general personality, I like to maintain suspense! I am pretty sure I know where I’ll be in 3 months, but if you want to find out, you’ll have to read the blog 😉
Thanks for the interview!