Monday, April 26, 2010

Is it possible to become fluent in just three months? Yes. Will Benny pull it off in Germany? Probably not.

One of the points of contention in the ongoing back-and-forth between Steve Kaufmann and Benny the Irish Polyglot is whether Benny can truly pull off fluency in three months. Specifically, Benny is in Berlin studying German right now and will deem himself fluent if he can pass a really hard German test and if he can fool native speakers for 30 seconds that he is a Berliner.

Jelly donuts aside, Kennedy didn't fool anyone.
Here's what Steve thinks of Benny's plan:
Sounding like a native and amassing enough vocab to pass a difficult exam is impossible IMHO. Senseless hype.
I can confidently state that this is not impossible; I myself did with Portuguese exactly what Benny is trying to do with German. (And that's not even getting into wunderkinds like Daniel Tammet.) That said, I'm doubtful that Benny can pull this off in Berlin because there are some very important differences between his situation in Germany and mine in Brazil that will make it a harder task for him to accomplish than it was for me.

The tourist visa I got to go to Brazil was for exactly 90 days, and I stayed for the entire 90 days. I had never formally studied any Portuguese before arriving in Brazil, and in fact the only thing close to studying I had done at that point was reading some parts of a Portuguese grammar book more than a year before arriving in Brazil. And that book was for the Portuguese of Portugal, so it had a number of things that were useless for me in Brazil.

On the other hand, my Spanish was pretty good. I had studied Spanish throughout middle school and high school, and had previously spent a month in Mexico studying it more. Spanish is of course not Portuguese, but they are so close that the benefit of knowing one when studying the other shouldn't be downplayed; knowing Spanish was without a doubt a massive help in learning Portuguese.

On top of that, I had a great learning environment. I was living with a large Brazilian host family and there was almost always someone around to talk with. I also had a Brazilian girlfriend with whom I was constantly speaking. I didn't need to do anything but study Portuguese, so except for the occasional emails in other languages to my friends abroad (which was further limited by the hassle of a dial-up connection I had to use), it was all Portuguese all the time for me.

In terms of what I was doing to learn Portuguese, the first two weeks or so I focused on getting an understanding of the grammar. Then I moved onto exposure: music, comics (Spawn, in particular), books (a history of the Roman Empire was one I spent a lot of time on, but there were a number of others as well), television (which was always on when I was doing anything else), etc.

Naturally, I spent a lot of time getting the vocab down. I still have my digital Portuguese flashcards as they were when I left Brazil. The flashcards contained some 4,000 vocabulary words and phrases. Add to those a few thousand words that never made it to flashcards (because they were so much like English or Spanish that there was no need to do anything to memorize them, or that I just managed to pick up elsewhere) or that got deleted from the set once I knew them, and I'd estimate that I had at least 6,000 to 7,000 words in my head to some degree when I left Brazil.

Using Benny' standard for fluency—fooling native speakers for at least 30 seconds that you are a native speaker yourself and passing a really hard test—I seemed to have been fluent in Portuguese after my three months there.

When I was leaving Brazil, I managed to fool the lady at the airport check-in that I was Brazilian. I can't recall if it was precisely 30 seconds, but I'd venture that it was. I remember that I had said a few things to her, including something about having already weighed my bags and that they shouldn't be overweight, before giving her my passport. Once I gave it to her, she said, "You're not Brazilian?" When I told her I was there studying Portuguese, she was shocked to find out I had only been there for three months. I'm guessing somewhere in the course of our conversation I eventually said something non-Brazilian sounding, but, based on her reaction to my passport, I do think I had her fooled at the beginning.

Regarding the test, I came back from Brazil and took my university's Portuguese placement exam. I got placed out of all the language-learning classes and straight into the literature classes (i.e., the ones where you might be sitting next to a native Brazilian). I think that my experience shows that three months can prepare you quite well for difficult tests.

However, I'm doubtful that Benny will be able to pull it off. If you compare my situation in Brazil to Benny's situation in Germany, there are a number of things that gave me a big advantage. First, my Spanish abilities made Portuguese so (so, so, so) much easier. Benny doesn't have anything comparable with respect to German. Second, the only thing I was doing was learning or using Portuguese, whereas Benny is working (presumably not in German) and blogging in English, and that is likely eating up a big chunk of his time. Third, my guess is that the test that Benny wants to take is a heckuva lot harder than the test I took, so I'm not so sure that he'll be able to pass it as easily as I was able to pass the one I took.

Indeed, the only advantage that Benny has over me is that he's studied some German previously, but, based on what Benny himself as said, that recollection is faint at best, although it will nevertheless provide some familiarity.

So while I'd love to see Benny do exactly what he's going for, if I were a gambling man, I'd definitely be betting against him pulling it off.


  1. "...will deem himself fluent if he can pass a really hard German test..."
    "Using Benny' standard for fluency... and passing a really hard test..."

    Actually, after Benny's very first post stating his German mission, he has repeatedly clarified in subsequent posts that he didn't mean necessarily *passing* the test.

    His criteria for success on this German mission is:
    - pass off as a native Berliner during a 30-second conversation, like you have said, and,
    - *sit* the C2 exam

    Many others have mistakenly assumed, like you have, that his goal of *sitting* the exam meant actually *passing* it. But, no, he does not mean that.

    Also, though he might be starting at a possibly lower point that you did with your Portuguese, he's not starting from square one. Actually, it's tough to actually know where his real starting point is from reading his blog. He says he took German during high school and that he speaks no German, but yet he's posted a bit of German on his blog and other places. I'm not familiar with German, so I can't evaluate the language level of his writing. However, if he already has a decent background in the language and it's just a matter of massive review + speaking output, he might not have as harsh of a road ahead of him as many readers think.

  2. Benny doesn't seem to be intending just to sit it. Per his comment on his blog in reply to this post:

    "It's not a simple case of me sitting it for the sake of it, as some have suggested, but I do genuinely have a plan of action. Since I passed the equivalent exam in Spanish with less than a year's exposure total (starting from scratch, and with no other prior language learning experience), I think that there may just be a chance of me pulling this off!"

  3. I think it's funny because he pretty much failed the Brazil mission too. His goal was "to converse for about 2 minutes in several casual social situations with the result of the other person being surprised when I made a mistake or mentioned naturally where I was from." What he did was have "a few (6 at last count) locals that I had just met, who genuinely thought I was from here, each in isolated events, for up to 20-30 seconds and when I was very focussed and intentionally trying."

    Then shortly after he says "I was successful in convincing several Cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro) that I was one of them." I mean, in 20-30 seconds how much can you actually say? I'd like to hear his new accent because the old Portuguese videos don't sound too great to me.

    The whole fight between Steve and Benny has been pretty annoying. I'm always tempted to unsubscribe from Steve's feed. One of these days...

    I never knew your story about Portuguese. I pretty much did the same thing. 90 days, had a girlfriend, lived w/ her family... The first day I couldn't ask for a drink on the plane and in the end I was talking to bums on the street. In Salvador I couldn't really pass as a native since I'm definitely white, but some people were surprised that I'm Canadian at different times. Nowadays, online, Brazilians rarely believe I'm not Brazilian in text or voice chat. :-P It's neat.

    I've always been able to capture accents pretty well. It caused me problems in Russia because I would be telling them I didn't understand and don't speak Russian in Russian w/ an apparently near-native accent and they would get so confused. They didn't believe me and would just keep on talking.

    Enough of the ramble. Thanks for the amusing post. Rock on.

  4. I was actually enjoying the back-and-forth between Steve and Benny, and not because of the fireworks, but because amidst all the distractions there was an actual debate in methods going on there. And since I seem to fall somewhere between their two positions, it was interesting for me to watch the debate.

    The way you and I tackled Portuguese is a pretty damn good way to do it, huh? I was down in Curitiba, so there were plenty of white Brazilians down there for me to blend in with. I can still fool Brazilians for a while in text chat, but I doubt I could pull it off in voice chat (text chat allows me to have a dictionary and a verb conjugator open in browser windows that compensate for what I've forgotten).

  5. Hahah that picture of Steve and Benny is awesome!!!

  6. I think that Benny said five years, study in High School which is a lot, it is a heck of a lot.

    I Don't know much about Irish education system, but in England that usually equates to a very good backing in grammar, for a school student who is reasonably academic (Benny is degree standard in one of the harder subject areas so lets assume he wasn't in the bottom stream even if he feels he didn't try or score very well in tests at the time).

    The typical English student with those five years in a language will still be very poor at the language but they may have a better technical understanding of German grammar than a typical German the same age. My sister was in a similar position and came top of a German grammar test in a German High School in German for Germans (but was functionally useless in real time German), most Chinese I meet have a much better understanding of English grammar than I do ;).

    If Benny can re-hydrate that latent Grammar knowledge then he probably does have a very good start already.

  7. To the extent you're right, that is definitely going to make it a lot easier for him. If he does manage to get German grammar licked quickly, then it just pretty much comes down to getting his vocab up there.

  8. To each their own, I suppose, but I don't really understand how being able to trick a native for half a minute means you've achieved fluency. I watched some of Benny's videos where he recorded himself interacting with natives in, I believe, Thai. The thing that struck me as a bit odd was that he wrote / talked about the fact that a friend of his had coached him on his lines, and he had practiced them over and over before interacting with the people. If I remember correctly, they even did multiple takes when he made mistakes / was asked something he didn't understand.

    So does that mean when an actor speaks a foreign language decently in a movie, they're considered "fluent"?

  9. The definition of fluency is all over the place, and I adopted Benny's for the purpose of this article, but I would agree that that's insufficient to show fluency. I don't put much weight in tests either; I've met plenty of Japanese speakers who've rocked English-language tests but can barely speak. And your actor example is an apt one.