The irrepressible Benny – Germany mastery in 3 months – no way.

Chris brought Benny The Irish Polyglot’s latest challenge to my attention. Benny intends to spend 3 months in Berlin and achieve the following; 1) to learn to speak German so well that he would be mistaken for a native Berliner, by Berliners; and 2)  to pass the highest level of a tough German language competence exam. And he won’t even be able to study full time since he has other work related things to do, if I remember what he said correctly.

I did not want to comment at his site since there is such a happy atmosphere of support from his fans there. I am surprised at the level of enthusiasm and obvious support that he can garner from so many people for a task that does not make sense, particularly given that he has not yet demonstrated that his language hacking method works. I guess people want to believe in the tooth fairy.

I will make my prediction here.

He will fail on both counts.

1) Even the most outstanding linguists are rarely mistaken for natives. They may speak well, with little accent, but a native can tell. In Benny’s case, to judge by the one natural conversation I have heard, the one in Spanish, he speaks well but is obviously a foreigner speaking Spanish. His other languages, where we only have recordings of him reading,  strike me the same way, a foreigner with a good accent. And what is wrong with that!

It is OK to want to sound like a local, as long as we realize that we will not achieve it. I could add that much of the German that he will hear in Berlin, from people he meets, and on radio/TV, will probably not be “Berlin accent.”

2) I had a quick look at the German test. No way. Languages take time to learn. There is no hacking, no quick fix. In order to even have a chance at this test, Benny will have to spend most of his time on input activities, listening, reading and learning vocabulary, and writing. There would be much less time available for wandering around and talking to people, which I thought was his secret to success.

Benny has studied German in school for 5 years. This means that he has a sense of what to expect in the grammar, even if he cannot remember his declensions, and does not speak well. He has also spent 6 weeks in Germany previously. So he is not starting from scratch. There is no doubt that in three months of full time study he can achieve a lot. He can become comfortably fluent on a limited range of subjects. He could probably achieve a lot of that even staying at home, if he applied himself, but being in the country will make it even easier to stay focused and stay motivated.

However, the big problem is vocabulary. It is relatively easy to reach a basic level of comfort with easy familiar themes. Beyond that, there is that long, long,  road of vocabulary accumulation that we need to travel, in order to be able to understand and converse on a wide variety of subjects. This takes lots of input. There is not other way. Aside from any shortfall in Benny’s grammar, I think it is the lack of vocabulary that will be the biggest obstacle to passing the highest level in this German test.

Vocabulary is king. This is largely supported in this interesting article by James Milton of Swansea University, which talks about vocabulary and language learning. That is why we designed LingQ the way we did. Benny’s best shortcut to success on his stated goal would be to join LingQ.

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