Photograph by Jessica Sample
Benny Lewis has some advice: “Learn the local language.” And he can say it in Portuguese, German, Mandarin, Italian, Esperanto, French, Dutch, Spanish, and at least a dozen other tongues.
Lewis is a self-described “language hacker.” The 31-year-old globe-trotter from Ireland has spent the past decade on a mission to prove that languages can be learned quickly. And he’s turned his discoveries into lessons, travel tips, and a $97 crash course online.
Ten years ago, Lewis spoke only English. But constant travel, along with a buoyant attitude, has unmasked the polyglot within. “I don’t have any special abilities,” he says. “When I learn, I’m hesitant, and when I speak, I sweat. But language is merely a means to communicate with other human beings. So I encourage people to make mistakes. It’s about trying.”
Lewis’s secret is simple: “I avoid English so that I have no choice but to learn my target language. It’s sink or swim. Because of this, I’ve had some incredible experiences. By putting in some intense effort over a few months, you can reach a stage where you get to know the locals, so that you can live in countries rather than merely visit them.”
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: Why is it important to study the local language?
Benny Lewis: If you travel with just one language, you restrict yourself. When you speak the local language you put the locals in a different frame of mind. Even a few words in the local tongue shows people you’re willing to make an effort to connect. It shows that you’re more than a superficial person—it creates a new connection. Locals see you’re worth getting to know.
NGT: Does one ever not need to learn a local language?
BL: If you’re traveling for ancient culture, language might not be key to understanding that history. But if you’re traveling to a modern culture—to Cairo, say—then an understanding of Egyptian Arabic is pretty essential.
NGT: Do you have a home base?
BL: Not for ten years straight. Everything I own in the world weighs 50 pounds and comes with me. I visit my parents in Ireland several times a year between travels, though.
NGT: Are you a tourist or an expat?
BL: Because of the way I travel—spending months in places—I’m in a weird twilight zone between tourist and expat. Tourism carved the path to let me do what I do, but I would have gotten bored with travel if it weren’t for my language studies. That said, if I’m not embracing my inner tourist, then I’ll miss very beautiful and interesting things.
NGT: What motivates you to keep traveling?
BL: For me, travel is all about the people. They take precedence over nice scenery and good food. I want to meet fascinating individuals from vastly different cultures, and really talk to them. There are so many interesting people on the planet, so we should all try our best to get to know them!
NGT: How did you get the courage to become “Benny the Irish Polyglot”?
BL: Rather than muster up the courage, my philosophy in life is to simply not think about the kind of things that cause fear. We dream up our fears out of nothing, so I keep this "nothing" in mind when it's time to go on an adventure, and act on a whim and figure it out as I go. Too many people would go through all worst-case scenarios in their head instead, and talk themselves out of doing anything interesting. They feel that even this "courage" is something they need to find through rational thinking. Courage may simply be acting on something, rather than overanalyzing why it's scary and what could go wrong.
NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?
BL: Purpose doesn't necessarily mean that you can't be spontaneous and get lost on the road and have serendipitous experiences. It does mean that you have some kind of theme to your travels though. As incredible as travel is, you can indeed get bored with it if you are simply snapping photos aimlessly and going on guided tours, if these aren't things you are passionate about. When we find an aspect of travel that makes our eyes light up and make that the focus, then everything changes. Without my language learning projects and cultural investigations by interviewing natives of all backgrounds, I may have lost the passion to travel long ago. Others travel for the food, or to take breathtaking photos to share with the world, or for the history. Find your passion and that will be your purpose in travel.
NGT: What’s your ultimate goal?
BL: To show people that as vastly different as the many fascinating cultures in the world are, deep down we all want the same things in life. We can relate to everyone in the world when we try, and one of the best ways by far to do that is to open your mouth and say something to them, and of course doing so in their language. Even if your conjugation is messy, you forget the right word, and you can't debate Kantian philosophy, we can get very far even with the basics of a language. Only by starting can we open the floodgates of progress to have deeper conversations.
NGT: What’s your approach to language learning?
BL: My "approach" to language learning is nothing more than avoiding English. I don't tend to spend any time with expat communities abroad. It's very effective! I am genuinely passionate about using my approach to encourage adult language learners to have more authentic travel experiences.
NGT: How can aspiring language learners follow you?
NGT: How is passion important to travel?
BL: When we find an aspect of travel that makes our eyes light up and make that the focus, then everything changes. For me, that’s language learning. Find your passion and that will be your purpose in travel.
NGT: What’s your best travel advice?
BL: Learn the local language! It will be hard, and you will feel like you may frustrate native speakers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even struggling with the basics opens up a whole new world to you!
NGT: Favorite motto?
BL: As Nelson Mandela says: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
NGT: Where are you headed next?
BL: I have no idea. My travels tend to be a proverbial spin of the globe and blindfolded point. But wherever I go, I will try to learn its language and will share my journey and videos online to show others that they can, too!
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.