Reviewed by Danya Al-Saleh, Fall 2017
Part self-help book, part treatise on the ability of anyone to learn a language, Fluent in 3 Months elaborates on Benny Lewis’s experience becoming a polyglot after a series of “failures” in language learning. This book expands on the language learning philosophy outlined on his website (fluentin3months.com), which he declares to be the “world’s largest language learning blog” (3). This book is for primarily monolingual English speakers who are seeking to self-instruct themselves in any language. The fundamental component of his formula for success is quite simple: language learners must start speaking from day one and focus most of their energies on oral communication, rather than grammar or reading and writing. This approach, according to Lewis, does not require traveling abroad, excessive funds, or loads of free time.
Lewis begins with his own story of learning languages, starting with his high-school language learning experiences in German and Irish (Gaeilge) classes, and his move to Spain during his early 20s. In both these early experiences, he took many language courses and ultimately left them without the ability to speak. Fast forward to the present and Lewis is a self-described “language self-help guru” and polyglot. Throughout the book, Lewis emphasizes the importance of mindset and passion in contributing to successful language learning, particularly through “living a language,” as opposed to traditional classroom-based learning. This traditional classroom-based approach emphasizes that there are many things that students need to learn, such as grammar drills and vocabulary memorization before “knowing” the language. Pointing out that this approach rarely produces actual speakers of the language, Lewis considers this pedagogy to be stale because it is delinked from what language is: a means of connection and communication.
The book is composed of ten chapters, including an introduction and a short conclusion. Chapter 1 breaks down 20 common language learning myths, calling them excuses rather than truths. Some of these myths include: the language gene, lack of time, expense, disadvantages of learning as an adult, the need to study in a language course before speaking, certain languages are too difficult to learn, perfect mastery, and inability to break from perpetual cycles of failure. Providing short responses to these myths in the first chapter, the rest of the book expands and builds on them.
Chapter 2 focuses on goals and the meaning of fluency, expanding on the book’s title—three months as a target goal to achieve fluency. Lewis argues that most expectations surrounding fluency are both excessive and vague. Some of these criteria, such as speaking without hesitation or the ability to debate a complex philosophical topic, ask learners to do things in a target language that they cannot necessarily do in their own native language. Lewis redefines fluency by drawing on the CEFRL System (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), which seems comparable to the ACTFL system. The CEFRL System includes three levels (A, B, C for beginner, intermediate, and advanced) and two grades (1 and 2 for lower and upper). Lewis defines A as a functional tourist and C as mastery. According to Lewis, B2 level is where fluency starts. Those who have reached B2 can interact in the target language with spontaneity, fluently participating in conversations that are not strained for either party. B2, for Lewis, is close to his fluency in everyday life in English. With this redefined and realistic sense of fluency, Lewis argues that the three-month timescale is doable with a lot of focused work, at least two hours a day. However, admitting that this time scale might be more difficult if you’ve never studied a language before, he explains that a more realistic time-scale would be 3 months to reach B1 conversational or A2 advanced beginner.
When I first read the title of the book, Fluent in 3 months, I scoffed. However, the program advocated by Lewis is actually not that ridiculous and quite flexible. Lewis recognizes that fluency itself is a vague concept that must be re-evaluated by each language learner.While his philosophy is not necessarily glued to a three-month time frame, what is critical is setting specific short-term goals that are achievable in a specific period of time. Lewis emphasizes focusing mini-missions related to language learning through specific action plans that fit your language need, rather than vague missions of learning vocab that week. He also finds that “brain melting mini-missions” are vital to pushing you outside of your comfort zone. However, too much “brain melting” can be bad; you need to have fun with your language every day (watch soap operas, read comic, etc.). The plan of action Lewis outlines looks like this (and shares a lot with this course’s ISP-oriented plan):
- Decide what level you are aiming for (pay attention to what is required and not required at that level)
- Set aside time where language learning is high priority
- Focus on the biggest issue you have and try to solve it or reduce it with mini-missions rather than going through a generic course which might not suit your precise goals
- Take breaks if this is a full-time project
- Announce your goals, document, and share your progress
The rest of the book outlines how to work on these specific goals at different points in language learning. First, for beginner learners, Lewis emphasizes speaking above all things. In fact, he contends that at this stage 80-90% of learning should be focused on speaking. Through a “triage system for learning,” study attempts work to make the next speaking session better. This active learning approach makes learning your language not about studying, but about using it. For this reason, textbooks should be selectively used for your specific language needs. Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 gives tips on how to learn as a beginner, such as the art of speaking from day one. Once you reach the B1 or B2 level, more traditional classroom learning comes into play (Chapter 7). At this stage, learning problems do not entail confidence or practice. Problems at this level are content problems, easily remedied through grammar, which Lewis compares to a strong pharmaceutical: “it’s helpful in small doses but fatal when overprescribed” (181). The idea is that at this point studying grammar is actually relevant because you have a skeleton to work from which enables you to shift to mastery. Grammar becomes human and meaningful.
Throughout the book, Lewis shares a variety of tips that are useful for both beginning and advanced learners. Chapter 3gives a range of tips for vocabulary memorization, arguing that rote memorization (often taught in school) is useful for recognizing, but not producing, words. Since we make memories through association, memorizing for speaking is much more difficult. He shares the keyword method (for building associations with words), spaced repetition (focusing on the vocabulary you do not know), and using music to learn phrases. For beginning speakers, Lewis emphasizes focusing on conjugating in a way that facilitates speaking (for examples instead of learning future tense, use I want in front of the verb form). For accent reduction, Lewis advises hiring a singing/voice trainer teacher or speech therapists who work in the target language and are familiar with enunciations, tongue positions, the musicality of a language, and tonality. He also points out the importance of intonation, and not just pronunciation, in achieving mastery in a language. These are just a few of the many tips Lewis covers in the book. Generally, he contends that successful language learners are those who use fewer materials, and instead figure out what approaches work best for them.
Lewis emphasizes two critical points throughout the book: 1) one does not have to travel to learn the language and 2) there is nothing wrong with accents. Regarding the first point, fleshed out in Chapter 4, Lewis shares his own stories of learning Egyptian Arabic in Brazil and Japanese while living in Spain. He contends that it is not always the case that going to the country will cause you to speak it. One reason for this is the expat bubble and the second is that it can be stressful moving to a new place. Lewis argues that it is better to go to the country after you’ve mastered the basics since the beginning part of learning is often less interesting. Lewis often uses the departure date as motivation to work hard on the language before traveling. In regard to the second point, Lewis discusses the goal of “being mistaken for a native speaker” in Chapter 8. While some of his advice gets a little problematic (i.e. dress and behave like native speakers), he does raise a few critical points about why speaking with no accent is not as important as people make it out to be. Lewis finds that learners need to differentiate the question of accent versus being able to do everything in the target language that you can in English. Again, one of the highlights of this book is the commitment to reworking unrealistic and unnecessary learning goals if the learners’ orientation to language involves communication.
Overall, this book is useful for people looking to self-instruct in a language. While it caters to complexes that seem to affect primarily mono-lingual English speakers, the book debunks many pervasive myths associated with language learning and provides a variety of useful tips. If you do not have time to read the book, the website associated with it provides a range of both free and priced services, including a blog with different language tips, a forum for language learners, and lists of resources that are specific to particular languages. In fact, the book is filled with links to the website; however, not all the links work (it seems like either you now have to pay for them or they are not active).
Although Fluent in 3 Months proposes a philosophy which Lewis argues is relevant to all language learners, the book points to something relevant to how Arabic is specifically taught and learned, especially in the United States. First, Arabic learners are often told it takes at least six years to be fluent; and second, many people studying for years still struggle with speaking. The book, emphasizing an experimental approach to language that encourages communication and speaking, would be especially useful to people who have achieved the B1 or B2 level in academic contexts working towards mastery and building confidence speaking. Since the philosophy of the book is oriented around fluency in communicating via speech, the book might not be relevant to learners with goals oriented around reading or writing. Lewis continually emphasizes that objectives which are not linked to oral communication are not sustainable enough to drive successful, long-term language learning. While this is not necessarily the case—communication is not limited to the oral/aural—the book might be refreshing for language learners trained in traditional and academically-oriented classroom settings and looking to continue their studies outside of formal instructional spaces.