Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

Benny Lewis: TEDx talk on Rapid Language Hacking

(rich tango music) (audience applause) – So, I want to start
off by telling the story that got me started in all this. Basically, I had just
graduated and I moved to Spain. I went to this dinner. There was an international exchange group. People from all around the world. And I sit beside this guy from Brazil. Very interesting guy. He gave me the most
impressive multilingual show I’d even seen in my life. Basically, another Brazilian came in. He turned to him and
he said something like, (speaking in a foreign language) And he turned immediately straight over to this French girl
who was chatting him up because he was a good-looking guy. He’s like, (speaking in a foreign language) And then he turned
directly to the organiser, the Spaniard, and he’s like, (speaking in a foreign language) And then he turned back to me and he says with a very strong American accent– Actually, I can’t do American accents. Sorry. (audience laughs) I asked him, “How did you do this? “How are you speaking
all these languages?” Because I was actually– I could only speak English. This is eight years ago. I had grown up thinking
I just don’t have… I just can’t do it. It’s not possible because I took German and Irish or Gaeilge in school. I did very badly at them. So I kind of figured I don’t
have the language talent, the language gene, you know. I figured I knew everything about genetics even though I didn’t study it. I figured I was sure I don’t
have the language gene. I had plenty of other excuses or reasons that many people can relate to. I didn’t really have the time or the resources. And I was too old. Even though I was 21, I figured that’s it. I’m too old because I’m past the age. It’s like I heard– Somebody told me that
14 is this cutoff age that you can’t learn a language anymore. I was sure of that. I figured you have to learn it as a child. That’s it. So these are reasons most people have. I had an extra reason. It was that I actually was
sick when I was growing up and I had to go to speech therapy. I actually had trouble learning English and I still kind of stumble and pronounce things incorrectly at times. Most of the things you’re hearing me pronouncing incorrectly now is actually my Irish accent. Don’t worry about that. I was sure. I was a hundred percent sure. It’s not possible. I asked this guy, “How are you doing this? “How are you speaking
all these languages?” And he just said, “I don’t know. “I’m just trying to speak them. “Going up to the person
and using the language.” And I said, “No, no. It can’t be that simple.” I challenged myself. I thought, “I’m going to do this. “I want to learn Spanish.” You know? Because I’d just moved
to Spain and I decided instead of just having a quick internship where I just speak in English because I’d just graduated as
an electronic engineer. So I was just all like right-left brain. I was good at mathematics. Bad at languages. But I figured, no, I can figure this out. I can find a way to learn this language. So I dived into everything
I could think of. I went to a course that
was very expensive. There was just three or four other people in the classroom. Went to that for several weeks. Didn’t work. I started studying a lot of books. Didn’t work. I got some CD courses, some software. It didn’t work. I tried to read a book. My first choice was not
particularly clever, I think. It was “El Señor de los Anillos”. The Lord of the Rings. I thought, “I’ll read this.
I’ll read this in Spanish.” I had my dictionary which I would consult every second word, basically. I made it to two pages and then I thought, “Okay. I’m not going to keep this up.” After six months living in Spain, I couldn’t speak Spanish. So, if anything, this just
convinced me even more that I don’t have this thing. This magic language gene that
people are just born with. And then I had an epiphany. This is what I want to share with people. This is where I’m trying
to convince the world it’s not actually about language talent. I really feel language
talent is irrelevant. Some people might do it a bit better but that doesn’t matter for you. What I did was I started to speak Spanish. I don’t know if that makes sense right now but hopefully it will. The problem was, for six whole months, I had been studying Spanish. I’d been studying it so much that it was making it harder for myself. I kept seeing all these subjunctives and definite articles and things that were just confusing me. After all the studying, I was nowhere further. I didn’t really know any words. Six months and I was still at the stage of just saying, “Hola.
Gracias. Por Favour. Adios.” You know? Just running off like that. I just decided I’m going to
start speaking the language. I’m going to get all of these excuses and ignore them. That I’m not ready and I need to work more or I’m not intelligent
enough to learn a language. I just started speaking
it and everything changed. Very soon after that,
I was gaining momentum. A couple of weeks later,
I realised I’m actually doing everything in Spanish. I’m living my life through this language. Eventually, I reach the
stage where my level was pretty good. The thing is you will
find people who kind of would retort that, saying
how it’s not so possible for them. They always have many
reasons why they can’t just start speaking. Hopefully, I can go through a
list of the most famous ones and see if I can convince
you that it’s not quite… I really feel anybody
can learn a language. One thing people might say is that they just don’t have the words. You start learning a language, you’ve got no words. How can you have
conversations with somebody? But, actually, if you’re
learning a Latin language like Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, what people don’t realise
is that they’ve got, maybe, tens of thousands of
words before they even start. I think like in 1066, the
French Normans got into England and they hung around for a few centuries. You had like two layers of society. You had the poor peasants who would speak the old Germanic English. And you had the rich
noblemen who would speak something closer to French. Eventually, these things merged. So in English, we’ve got
a lot of French vocabulary which actually happens to
be very similar or the same in Spanish and Italian
and French and Portuguese and so on. If you learn some of these words, you get a headstart. You can figure out without
have to learn the language how you might say these things. So if you remember the different strata, the different levels of formality. Let’s say I wanted to
say the word “country” in like Spanish and I forget what it is. I forget or I don’t even know. I’ve never come across the word. Well, how about I try to
rephrase that in English. Can I go back to English? Instead of country, what’s
another way to say country? I could say “nation”. It means almost the same thing. It’s not exactly the same thing. It’s close enough. Nation is just “nación”. Or “nation or whatever is might be in the corresponding language. Or you might think if
somebody’s knocking on the door, you can say, “Come in.” And that’s fine. Or you could also say, “Enter.” And “Enter” is from the
old kind of French version. You’ve got “entrar”, “entrer” and so on. So you’ve already got some words but let’s say you’re going
to something far away, an Asian language. Middle-Eastern language. It’s not possible nowadays to
start a language from zero, from scratch. It’s not possible because
you always have something. Human beings are interacting all the time. You have maybe brand names
or you’ve got technology that uses the same words. So it would be very
hard to find a language where at least one or all of Coca-Cola, internet, Obama, where these words would not be pretty much the same. (audience laughs) You know? And this is pretty universal. If you can thinks of
this and kind of maybe… I’ve used brand names to explain myself and get a point across
initially with people. When you’ve got this vocabulary, you can really start getting into learning the words that obviously
have nothing to do with what’s you’ve come across before. You can try some memory techniques. I’ve got a very bad memory. I really feel that I’ve got censorship in my brain whenever
somebody tells me their name. It’s like, you know, “Nice
to meet you. I’m beep.” (audience laughs) I forget it immediately. I don’t have a good
memory but, despite that, I would learn words
quickly because I’d try to make it more fun. I’d think to myself, when
I was learning Spanish, I took the word for “beach”
and I saw it “playa”. I thought, okay. Well, “playa” kind of looks a bit like the English word, “player”. So I thought, well, imagine this. When I think of a player,
I think of this of like a cheesy pickup artist. And imagine this super over-confident guy walking down a beach in Spain and trying to pick up girls and
getting a slap in the face. You know, a very visual image. From then, I remembered if
I see the word, “playa”, that sounds like “player”, then the guy was on the beach. And it works the reverse as well. You think of beach, you
associate the player and you go backwards. So you can learn words very
quickly if you learn them with an association. It doesn’t matter how bad your memory is. And you can learn phrases. I like to maybe introduce a bit of music because I think it’s a good place to start with languages when you get
some basic phrases of like, “Where is the bathroom?”, and so on, things like this. What I would do if I was learning Italian, I took, “Where’s the bathroom?” (speaking in a foreign language) And I thought, I don’t know, I’ll take the Big Ben chime. I sang to myself a couple of times. (sings in a foreign language) And I kept doing that and
after a couple of times, it stuck. And this is despite the bad memory I have. Words are not a problem. You can learn a language
if you have no words in it yet. You have to accept that, actually, you do have a lot of words. Thousands if not tens of thousands. A problem always tell me is grammar. Now when you learn a language in school which many of us do, most of it is grammar. I have learned German
in school and, for me, German was just “Der/Die/Das” tables of complicated structures and it just totally intimidated me. And this is not a language. This is not a language. This is a list of rules that are as good as mathematics or something like that. It doesn’t work. The thing about language is language is a means of communication. When you try to put it
in a box of grammar, then you’re not allowing
yourself the freedom to communicate freely. I actually like grammar. I’m not anti-grammar. I’m not going to say to burn all the grammar books or whatever. But what I’ve found is
a lot more effective is if you embrace speaking
and speaking wrongly. I encourage people to speak with as many mistakes as possible. I aim to make at least
a hundred mistakes a day if I’m learning a language. Then I know I’m getting somewhere because I’m using it with people. And I know my grammar is bad at first but something very interesting happens. I hated grammar in school. I took grammar in English, grammar in Irish Gaeilge, and grammar in German. I hated it. It was so boring. But now, I love grammar because what happens is I put it aside. I don’t leave it away forever. I put it aside. I embrace the language. I start learning some phrases. I start meeting some people and I start using it. And then, after a couple
of months of that, when I feel the language is a part of me, where I can communicate and
use it with human beings, I go back to grammar and it’s
actually very interesting. It’s like an explanation of the story. It’s like, “Ah, that’s
why they say it that way. “It’s really cool.” Grammar can be very nice
if you treat it like that. Another one is money. People say I don’t have the money. I’ve got to go to buy
this expensive software. I have to go to this course I heard about. I actually find all of these,
what they have in common, is more like the placebo effect. That you’ve spent so
much money that perhaps you’re going to put in
more work because of that. I think there are components
of so many courses that kind of, unless
it’s an immersion course, they miss out a lot on what
they really need to discuss. People guess at what they want. A few people do get success
out of these courses because they spend so much money. They hold themselves
kind of liable for that. Something I find is a lot more effective is if you’re just public about it. I think the reason I did learn Spanish that first time is
because I told everybody. I didn’t just promise myself. I didn’t like make a
New Year’s resolution: Speak Spanish someday. There’s seven days in a week and someday is not one of them. You need to start now. I started and I told everybody. I told all my friends,
my family, everybody. Because I was liable. I felt responsible. I had to deliver, otherwise,
I’d feel embarrassed. That’s way more powerful than, “I spent the money so I
feel I have to use it.” So money isn’t the issue. You can do all of this for free. You can meet people
for free without having to travel to a foreign country. There’s such good connexions now. A lot of social networking sites let you search per language or, if there’s nobody in your town, you can actually talk to them over Skype. So you can learn any language this way. And another thing I think is very– I think the biggest thing for people is that they feel they’re
going to frustrate the person they’re speaking to. That’s the biggest problem I hear. You’re going to talk to this person and they’re going to get angry. “You’re butchering my language. “How dare you?” It doesn’t work like that. I kind of feel this is
ironic when I hear people tell me this. That they’re going to annoy
the person they’re speaking to. Well, actually, most people I’ve talked to who are kind of considering
learning a language, I see a lot of frustration in their eyes just from the fact that
they don’t speak it yet. I’ve actually met people here who are in San Antonio and they are
surrounding by Spanish speakers and they can never communicate with them. They feel so frustrated by this. And this is a lifelong
amount of frustration that I feel is so much
bigger than any kind of a… You know, talking to somebody, that they might kind of
roll their eyes or whatever. But that doesn’t happen. It’s actually, among non-English speakers, I find all around the world, when you try to speak
the language with them, they’re so overjoyed. They’re like, “Wow. He’s
trying to learn my language. “He’s not expecting everyone in the world “to speak English.” You actually get encouragement. People keep telling you, “You’re doing a great job.” Even though you’re aware
your grammar is bad. You’re using the same ten
words over and over again for the first few days. But that’s fine because you’re starting to communicate with people. This is the thing that’s missing is this idea of communication. A language is not this kind of thing that you test for and that you can either be right or wrong. It’s not a black or white thing. It’s how human beings talk to one another and there’s no wrong way of doing that. If your words are a little strange or you forget to conjugate
your verbs or whatever, people will always understand you. I’m sure you’ve heard
people speaking English to you that was a little broken. You always understand it. So I think the problem people
have with the frustration is they feel that the whole world will end if they try to speak the language. If they go up to this
person and try to speak it, the world will end. I actually think the opposite. I think a whole new world will begin if you try and speak a
new language with people. I really hope that you’ll give it a try. Thank you very much. (audience applauds)

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