Almost Fearless

Can You Become Fluent in Three Months?

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Recently, a blogger buddy of mine, Benny from Fluent in 3 Months sent me a copy of his Language Hacking Guide for review.  I was excited to read it, hoping to uncover the secret that was going to unleash my inner polyglot.  I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who just know another language.  Someone who dashes off a note to their Spanish Facebook friends, while watching French films on the weekends.  Or knows the right thing to say when greeting someone in Thai, and when their Vietnamese neighbor gossips about them, they respond in with some witty bon mot in their own language.

Do you see the common thread in this fantasy?  It’s effortless.  I didn’t dream about memorizing verb tenses or awkwardly talking my way around vocabulary I didn’t have, “You know… the thing…  on the street… you’re in the street then go up…”  Um, did you mean curb?

To the uninitiated, fluency means speaking like a native – complete and effortless mastery of the language.

Is that possible in three months?  No.  In three years?  Not likely.

Becoming fluent

I learned this the hard way, as anyone does who seriously attempts to gain fluency.  At first, you’re working towards the ability to just have a conversation.  Then you’re focusing on being able to get around in the world: order things correctly, read the paper, translate bus schedules.  If you continue at it, you begin acquiring specialized vocabulary, related to your job or interests.  Finally you begin to understand enough of the culture, the language and history to get jokes.  But that takes a really long time.

To be fair, Benny doesn’t claim to teach the kind of fluency I was talking about.  Instead, he reveals what I consider to be the “how to learn a language” skills that I think most people learn in immersion programs.  You have to work in the language constantly.  You must speak it, even if it pains you (but don’t let it).  You should give yourself opportunities to learn in as many different formats as possible… watch movies, listen to music, play games, talk to people, read, interact online, take a course, memorize strategic vocabulary and so on.

Becoming an efficient learner

The revelation to me was that in hindsight, I wasted so much time trying to learn Spanish.  I spent three months with a private tutor, who was drilling me on vocab and having me memorize grammar rules – all before I began speaking the language.  It took me a really long time to figure out how to learn.  To really learn, not just cobble together high school Spanish sentences based on vocabulary and grammar that no one actually uses.  In the last two weeks of my immersion program in Guatemala, it all clicked.  I had an organized framework for approaching new vocabulary.  I understood how things fit together and what all the pieces were.  I still had (and have) work to do, but I knew where I was going.

I think one of the draws to learning a language is that it’s so mysterious.  Until you learn one.  Then you get it and it all makes sense, but good luck explaining to first-timers what that means.  Benny has come as close as anyone to really breaking down what every language learner eventually figures out: how to break down a language and learn it in a way to works with you, not against you.  It’s what these high-priced language programs don’t seem to get.  It’s not about vocab lists, it’s about using the language in as many ways a possible, as much as possible, for as long as possible.  Then you will learn.  You won’t notice your progress, until one day (and it will literally feel like that) the switch goes on.  Someone is talking to you in another language and you’re not actively translating.  You’re not getting in between the words and inserting the English equivalent.  To me, it felt like it was washing over me.  I understood, but I didn’t know how.

Can you get there in three months?  Probably.  If you have learned another language in the past.  Or maybe if you read Benny’s ebook, although I suspect, like all things with language acquisition, there is no substitute for personal experience.

Have you ever tried to learn a second language?  How long did it take?

Pic: bmhkim

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • I took three years of Spanish in high school and order food at a Spanish restaurant. That’s about it.

    I took one year of Japanese in college and can only remember a few of the hundreds of characters in their three writing systems. Sadly, I can’t even form a sentence in Japanese anymore.

    It’s true: if you don’t use it, you lose it.
    .-= The Jetpacker´s last blog ..Guest Post: Traveling Solo In Kuala Lumpur =-.

  • I have a smattering of several languages from living in different places – Russian, German, French – but I am perfectly wretched at speaking. It boils down to me being afraid and having an utter inability to roll my R’s. 🙂 I stayed with a German-speaking family for two weeks one time, and by the end of the trip I could understand much of their conversation even though I couldn’t articulate much myself. That made me happy, and determine to be braver. 🙂
    .-= Krista´s last blog ..Markets and Gazpacho Salad =-.

  • It depends on what “fluent” means to each person. After 3 months, you can get directions, be basically polite and hopefully not engage in foot-in-mouth issues too often 🙂 but facility and the “click” come with practice. All your tv, radio, magazine suggestions are great. The best one is “go there; speak there; be there,” that’s how we really learn.

  • Gringo-

    I agree, there’s a certain “working” fluency that you can get pretty quickly with immersion. Beyond that it’s really a never ending process, in my opinion.

  • I’ve studied Spanish the past two to three years, determined to become fluent but with mixed success, so this topic is near and dear to me! My advice: take some traditional, textbook classes if you can because they provide an overall structure for learning the language and the motivation to practice regularly. But, what really helped me was a mix of online language podcasts (esp. the show Coffee Break Spanish by and its advanced courses) and listening to Spanish language radio and TV. Then, when we went to Argentina last fall, the conversational skills all clicked and I’m not necessarily fluent but certainly comfortable with the language. So my advice is to try to gain basic building blocks of the language before travel. And BTW I would not recommend Rosetta Stone; really didn’t work for me, and it’s so expensive.

  • I spent two years in high school attempting to learn Spanish. I passed all the exams, wrote the papers, had the small talk with the Senor, yet to this day – hardly remember any Spanish.

    Compare that to my three weeks I spent in Turkey. I was there living as a backpacker – exploring the baazars, eating out, drinking in the odd bar, and playing tavla with the locals. I picked up a great deal of Turkish simply by doing this and studying my phrase book.

    To be fair, I probably remember about as much Turkish as I do Spanish, but I got a lot farther in three weeks in the country than I did in two years in the classroom. Immersion is the way to go – and until I can commit myself to a country where English isn’t the language of choice, I won’t try to seriously learn another language.
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..Bungy Jumping at Night in Queenstown =-.

  • As said in comments above, the word fluency has such a variety of meanings. For me, I set the bar high: I wanted to be able to use my Spanish skills in professional communications.

    It took me five years, studying 2 hours a day and using it daily. It was a combination of grammar study and vocabulary building plus constant usage with speakers from various places in Latin America. I took some business Spanish courses too. It was very hard work, but it paid off.

  • Well im trying to improve my english reading blogs and watching movies with subtitles, but when i really learn it is when i put myself in situations like this (leaving a coment, in a chat). So im with Christine: this process never end.
    Greetings from Spain!!

  • I agree completely with the comments about immersion above!!

    I studied French for 5 years in secondary school and high school, then came to Geneva 2 years later and could not even buy a stamp in the post office! Now that’s bad!

    Living in Geneva and taking care of a 3-year old forced me to speak though – something we had hardly done in school – and I quickly started to learn French and with time became fluent.

    This is what I am hoping will happen with Spanish, as I am planning to do about 2 months of intensive Spanish classes also in Xela starting this September (any tips on where to study, what to see?). I just hope that it will go a bit faster this time – daydreaming that the fact that I am fluent in French somehow will help me to learn Spanish miraculously fast…

    Immersion is the best way for me as I do not like to learn things by heart when I do not see the direct reason for it. The only language I managed to learn through school was English – possibly because we stared already at 10 years, possibly because it is close to Swedish, possibly because we heard it all the time through music, movies and TV.
    .-= Helena´s last blog ..Things that make me smile… =-.

    • How long did it take for you to be reasonably good at French ? I am curious as I am living in France for 4 months and want to know how much improvement I will make! 🙂

  • after a month of learning spanish in panama, i could hold a two hour conversation with the local next to me in a bus. that, to me, is pretty close to being fluent.
    i was missing a lot of vocabulary, but i usually get to think/dream in a certain language pretty quickly.

    • I dont speak spanish, but I do speak Russian. I lived in Tashkent for about 4 years and it took me about 4 years to become fluent. I could get a taxi and order at a cafe in about 1 year. hold simple “simple” conversations at about 2 years. I still make a ton of mistakes and I wouldnt say I am anywhere near a native speaker. I understand 95% of whats said and can talk without any problems other than my occasional mistakes.
      having said that. i have friends that have lived in Tashkent for 10 years and still cant speak Russian. Most of them have asked me how I learned it. I think a lot of it is willing ness to try and learn, the effort you put into learning a new language. another part is ability. some people just cant learn a new language and will never learn. a good rule of thumb is what you can hear. if you have been learning a language for a while such as spanish, have someone play three tapes for you. one of spanish another of portuguese and another of…… italian. if you cant tell 9 out of ten times which one is spanish, you may be punching a brick wall trying to learn spanish. you HAVE to be able to hear a language to learn it. its essential.

  • Four years of french in high school for me was almost a waste. I could remember a few words/sentences but that’s about it. I would love to learn a third language but I think I would have to somehow immerse myself in order to really learn it.

  • It takes forever, learning never ends!
    I’m pretty sure my English will never be perfect, but I also think that very few people have a perfect English. As well as I still have my doubts on Portuguese sometimes (my first language).. and see, I love Portuguese and I study/read A LOT.

    I agree that immersion is extremely important, but I wouldn’t disregard grammar. To me grammar is so important, it’s how I try to understand the language itself.

    Anyway, learning a new language is always fascinating! I believe that the language and the different accents tell us a lot about certain culture.
    I have studied Italian, Spanish and French.. have spoken these languages around the world, but hey, they are all Latin languages! A real challenge would be deeply learning an eastern language (Hindi, Thai, Chinese…) beyond the “hello”, “thank you” and numbers.

  • I have tried and succeeded (to some extent at least) to learn a second, third, and fourth and fifth language and a bit of 6th yes (Mother tongue=Persian, 2nd=Turkish, 3rd=English, 4th=German, 5th=French, part of 6th=Portuguese but most of them I have forgotten for not practicing except the French :))!. I also heard about this three-months to fluency and much I like to believe otherwise, I am very skeptical that you can learn a language in that time-frame (even to some level of fluency) unless you immerse and do so for hours and hours at a time during the day! I think learning those fun expressions is the best. I know how to great someone in formal Japanese and I LOVE IT! 🙂

  • I’ve been learning spanish off and on for about eight years now, and I still don’t consider myself fluent. But I’ve never really tried as hard as I could, and I suspect the method and mindset I’m using isn’t exactly the best. I think I really need to check out this fluent in 3 months program, because this isn’t the first I’ve heard about it.

    I enjoyed your review a lot, thank you!
    .-= Eli´s last blog ..Madam’s Organ…The Best Place to Be =-.

  • Fluent? No way, no how. I think you can learn a lot, but fluent is when you don’t have to think about the language – it just happens naturally.

    In 3 months, you can do a bit, and if that language is close to another language you already have a prior knowledge of, you can probably learn a lot more. But, trying a language with a new alphabet, new sounds, and new structures — eek.
    .-= Brooke vs. the World´s last blog ..My Favorite Hostels RTW =-.

  • I’m always so envious and in awe of the people I meet that can speak 5 or 6 languages. It seems like it just comes naturally to some people, but not for me. I took Spanish in high school and some at Ohio University, but it just doesn’t seem to click fully. I really would like to be fluent in at least one other language. That is one reason we are moving to Madrid next month. One of my goals is to be fluent in Spanish, so hopefully I can accomplish this by full immersion in Spain. Pond Jumpers: Croatia will soon need to be Pond Jumpers: Spain. Oh, how I will miss Croatia though.

    • Some people can’t achieve fluency quickly. It’s pretty understandable. Not many people have the gift of being talented language learners. Of course attaining fluency quick doesn’t mean of course that you can keep it up that way for a long time without studying.

  • Christine – while I definitely appreciate the mention, I think you missed the point of the guide… it has nothing to do with becoming fluent in 3 months! That’s my blog and my own personal missions, not something I suggest everyone can definitely do, although I think more should try.

    Which typical immersion courses talk about what I do in the book? I go into extrapolation techniques, use interesting pauses rather than endless “umms”, important mentality shifts that take a long time to sink in naturally and a host of other things you would never see in an immersion course. This isn’t a “book” either, there is 3 hours of audio with some very famous language learners. That’s as an important part of the guide as the PDF file is. What they have to say adds a lot to what I was trying to convey.

    I’m afraid I disagree with you that the book covers what “most people learn”. You told me yourself that your own Spanish is quite rusty. None of my regularly maintained languages are rusty despite also being quite busy and also not living in the countries, precisely because of applying what I talk about.

    Sorry but I’m a little disappointed to be honest. You make the guide sound like something anyone with immersion experience could come up with (I just happen to “explain” it better than they would). I’m sorry you didn’t get anything useful out of it.

    I’m glad to see some discussion has come from the “fluent in 3 months” idea, but that is a very very tiny part of the messages I am trying to get out there…
    .-= Benny the Irish polyglot´s last blog ..Just 2 weeks learning Esperanto can get you months ahead in your target language =-.

  • I love all the discussion… it’s fascinating to me to read everyone’s experiences learning languages.

    Benny- RE: my Spanish skills getting rusty, it’s true! But I will say it’s not because I don’t know how to maintain them… it’s that I’m too busy.

  • I’m currently living in Uruguay in a Spanish immersion program (My first language is English), so this topic is very relevant for me!

    I think have some textbook work is very useful–It allows you to learn the structure in a very academic way so that you can than build on that later. For people who already have learned a second language, I don’t think this is as necessary because you’ve already got two different ways of thinking about the same concepts.

    To take it to the next level, though, I think only immersion can really do that. My best tip for this is to carry around a small notebook or address book and for every word that you hear or see and don’t understand, write it down in the book and go look it up later. You build your own personal dictionary that you can use to look up words that you recognize but don’t remember, but it also is perfect for visual learners.

    I also agree that seeking out different media–tv, radio, print really help out in all sorts of ways. Each use a distinct vocabulary and help build your comprehension.

    On a final note, what is fluency anyway? I’m at the point where I can communicate anything I need to and understand jokes, but then some days I feel like I can’t talk and I never dream in Spanish or English.

    I think really getting rid of the rest of my common mistake and/or getting to the point where I could express my emotions or argue in Spanish would take living in a Spanish-speaking country for a much larger period that just a year. But how great would it be to argue or persuade someone in a second language! It’s an inspiring but tough goal.

    What are you guys’ language-learning goals? What’s “fluency” to you?

  • I’m italian, I’ve learnt spanish, english and german…and next year I’m going to try france. I believe the amount of time it takes to learn a language, depends mostly on how much the language is similar to yours (grammatic, sounds, etc)
    It took me just three months to be more than decent in spanish, one year to speak german…and I still make all sorts of mistakes!
    I think that adults should learn a language like children do: first you listen, listen and listen and then you try to speak. That is why films, podcasts, radio, music and tv are my best friends every time I try to pick up a new language.
    The most important thing is having fun by learning!To me languages are like music and I’m always so much fascinated by the sound of the words….and of course I get it wrong a lot of times….but I don’t mind: I’m learning!

  • Hi, I am currently living in France and I have been here only 4 weeks now. I don’t speak any other langauge apart from my own, English, and I’m finding it very hard to learn French. I don’t know if it’s because I live with my English family which also happen to speak no French, Or maybe it’s because I’m not trying hard anough or expecting to much of myself, but for any one who wants to learn a langauge I recommend living in the country because it DOES help to be IN the langauge, even though I have been here a very short time, I am picking it up day by day. You may feel a bit fustrated at times(like me) but I just try to think that sooner or later I WILL know what they are saying, because learning is fun when you make it fun, and if you don’t WANT to learn it, you never will. So all that want to learn, go to that country and listen to the langauge, read the langauge,breath the langauge, and then sooner anough, you WILL speak the langauge!
    Sky x

  • Christine I really enjoyed reading this post, you hit the nail on the head, succinctly, in so many ways.

    I’ve got a Linguistics degree and have spent time learning French, German, Italian, Swedish and Latin (and teaching Italian) so I read a lot of articles about language learning. Well done for writing something interesting, brief, and on the mark.

  • There is an application on my Droid that lets me speak what I want to say, choose a language to translate it in and then it will speak it. I attempted to learn a few languages, but figured why not use my time on something else and let technology handle my weaknesses.
    .-= Anthony Tori´s last blog ..What Team USA Can Teach You =-.

  • I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who experienced the total confusion of being a good student in several years of a foreign language in school only to actually go to a country where you are totally incapable of even basic conversation.

  • Its really takes a great deal of dedication and interest to get fluency in any language. In my opinion try to surround yourself with similar environment which will really help you.

  • Impossible to try and be fluent in three months. I think it depends a lot on the language as well. What about Chinese? You have to learn a whole new alphabet as well.

  • As someone who was born in China, and moved to Australia when I was 8 years old. So I suppose I am what they consider as ‘bilingual’.

    I do not remember how I learnt English. But what I do remember is that it was about 2 months after I came to Australia did I start to understand what everyone was talking about (before I came to Australia, the only English I knew was literally, the alphabet).

    Then when I started university, I took Japanese classes. I went on exchange to Japan after 1.5 years of studying the language there. At the time, I could barely order food at a restaurant, or even ask for directions.

    But within 2-3 months of putting myself in this situation where no one around me can/is willing to speak English with me, I was forced to learn it faster and before I knew it, I’m no longer afraid of having a long (and sometimes even meaningful) conversation with a Japanese person without any English skills.

    People say learning Chinese or Japanese is difficult, but I say it’s not. While true that the boxed writings look intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of its writing system, the grammar is no where near as complicated as some of the European languages with genders and cases (think Polish! And Finnish has a lot of them too…).

    I’m currently slowly teaching myself Finnish (the materials are pretty scarce… in comparison to more popular languages like Spanish and Chinese) and is going to enroll myself in French classes next semester… and hopefully live in France for a while. You can say I’m reaaally addicted.

    • Being a dedicated hard-working polyglot and learning different kind of language even the most remote non-commercialized ones isn’t a bad thing. In fact it enriches your whole understanding of how human sounds work and it really enlarges your speaking ease, your mental capacity and your mental horizons. It REALLY makes you a hell lot smarter and more eloquent.

      Also your tongue, your throat, your mouth evolves adjusting to new structures and new sounds making you more efficient at delivering a sentence.

  • Benny’s site should be called “how to be conversational in 3 months”. The whole fluency thing is silly, non-natives never stop learning. as well as natives. I know plenty of immigrants who lived here for years who I wouldn’t consider fluent by the word meaning flowing, easy to understand. Most polyglots claims are gross exaggerations, very few people in my opinion are truly fluent in multiply 5 or more languages. It would be much more honest to say I can speak to some level x amount of languages.

    • I completely agree. A lot of these “polyglots” actually have a very superficial knowledge of their L2 languages. Can they express themselves as well as in their native tongue? Can they say basic words such as vest, shoelaces, gym locker, seat belt and the like?

      What about more advanced words such as sunroof, wisdom teeth, test tube baby, rash, cotton swab, fencing?

      I’ve been studying a romance language for years, lived abroad for almost a year, and was always speaking the language in college with natives. Even so, I forget words such as “sled” and just learned the word “cotton swab” yesterday. The people that say they are “fluent” are usually arrogant and act like they have learned it all to cover up their lack of knowledge. My two cents.

    • Saying that “fluency” thing is silly is a dumb poor judgment of that word alone. It’s pretty ridiculous to attempt to make “fluency” sound like those black belts at McDojo. That’s dead wrong. “Fluency” is actually a smart qualification that means you are “advanced at any more-than-basic level at any level of one or more languages” such as grammar, pronunciation, rich dictionary, syntax and many more areas. Of course nobody stops learning more and more. LEARNING is obviously a never-ending journey that you have to walk. POLYGLOT actually means someone who speaks on BASIC LEVEL more than two languages, so your understanding what’s a polyglot is outright false.

  • Despite studying Chinese for 6 months the number one comment for Benny’s latest Chinese video is ‘your chinese is not good.’

    Even if you don’t understand Chinese you can probably tell he doesn’t sound confident. Even when he says ni hao it is without two high flat tones, basically English pronunciation.

    I would never make fun of people’s language ability. Language learning is hard and people should be celebrated for just trying. But Benny charges money for a very expensive ebook he sells on his website. At the moment you sell a product you open yourself up to this kind of evaluation and criticism.

    He tries to pass himself off as some kind of language learning Tony Robbins but he’s just trying to sell a book that helps you learn languages. He doesn’t teach languages so it’s nothing more than personal anecdotes.

    If you ever try to claim that he has never become fluent in 3 months he simply replies that he never made such a claim. He does however run a website with the name “fluentin3months” so it’s not hard to see how people could draw this conclusion.

  • I studied Chinese at university for three years before I could hear the tones. Things became a lot easier after that clicked. I studied French for two years in university classes until my teacher told me how she learned English. She told me to read French novels without using a dictionary. She said as long as I could catch the jist of what was happening I was learning French. I read and read and now I am pretty comfortable reading French in certain contexts. I started doing the same thing with Spanish soap operas. After two years of listening to Spanish about two hours a day it all clcked and I can comprend 90 % of Mexican Spanish in certain contexts like Soap Opera contexts. I can understand “Somethings Got to Give” in Spanish and I just Listened to “Inception” and understood 90%. I have a passive competence in Spanish. I have learnt how to listen to Spanish and understand what I hear

  • I have been taking French lessons for a total of 7 weeks now. I am at a B1/B2 (threshod/upper intermediate level). My conversations skills are significantly better than my written skills, and yes, I’m in France. I don’t think it’s impossible to learn languages very quickly but it depends on how one approaches them and how dedicated one is. I took Spanish for 3 years, between college and high school. I never got it to a speaking level because I never lived in a Spanish speaking place for long enough. However, recently I traveled in Argentina, and it was amazing how much I could get by when I was left alone, and how quickly my command of the language progressed.
    The way I take on French these days, I find, is very different from my classmates. For example, in class, if the teacher says words and grammar I do not understand, even in passing, I write it down. Every single new word. I am the only person in the class who, for the entire duration of the class, is writing something. If there isn’t something I want to write down from the teacher, then I look up words that I don’t understand from passages we’re reading.
    When I was studying Spanish, probably I was, like my current classmates, half napping in class. Being in France, plus my new attitude to language classes, is sure paying dividends.

  • I dont speak spanish, but I do speak Russian. I lived in Tashkent for about 4 years and it took me about 4 years to become fluent. I could get a taxi and order at a cafe in about 1 year. hold simple “simple” conversations at about 2 years. I still make a ton of mistakes and I wouldnt say I am anywhere near a native speaker. I understand 95% of whats said and can talk without any problems other than my occasional mistakes.
    having said that. i have friends that have lived in Tashkent for 10 years and still cant speak Russian. Most of them have asked me how I learned it. I think a lot of it is willing ness to try and learn, the effort you put into learning a new language. another part is ability. some people just cant learn a new language and will never learn. a good rule of thumb is what you can hear. if you have been learning a language for a while such as spanish, have someone play three tapes for you. one of spanish another of portuguese and another of…… italian. if you cant tell 9 out of ten times which one is spanish, you may be punching a brick wall trying to learn spanish. you HAVE to be able to hear a language to learn it. its essential.