I saw an interesting and controversial article on Twitter, published on the Loving Language Blog (a blog I follow but apparently missed this the first time around!). The author, Richard Benton, seems really cool and I like his approach to learning languages and building communities in general but in this case I think he has picked the wrong target and maybe also been a little pessimistic and since twitter is a bit limited in space allowed for a reply I thought I’d do a blog post to say why I think so.
Intro: The Benny Lewis Phenomenon
Firstly, let’s start with the man mentioned in the first paragraph – Benny Lewis, aka Benny the Irish Polyglot, author of “Fluent in 3 Months“. Benny is the best known example of what I would call a “celebrity polyglot”. In other words, he is mainly famous for learning languages, quickly and publicly, watched by a huge audience on all social media channels. He has written books and in the process inspired a lot of people to change how they learn languages. Cards on the table, I am one of those people. I used to learn languages mainly from books. It didn’t work out too well I’m afraid, but I’m having a lot more success these days. largely thanks to him. I’m not a full-blown disciple, and I don’t follow him very closely, mainly because one of the languages he speaks is a hideous travesty called Brazilian Portuguese, but I have to admit if I hadn’t stumbled across his website I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got as far as I have.
Benny and Tim
Lewis himself is part of the digital nomad movement but I wouldn’t say he was the author of it. That honour seems to go primarily to Tim Ferriss, author of “The Four Hour Work Week“, a guide for people who want to live carefree in the world by farming out their work to a third world underling. To be honest, I haven’t read any of his 6,729 published works so I am probably being unfair, but this seems to be the buzz around it. Ferriss himself started a hands-off business selling supplements through a website which apparently was nice little earner, but I bet his income as an author and speaker has eclipsed that a long time ago. So when I read about a gathering of digital nomads who were all “white people” (I’ll come back to that later) it was Ferriss I was thinking of, not Lewis.
I share the view that encouraging people to produce as little actual value as possible and just ponce off the labour of others seems like a recipe for the worst kind of douchebaggery but I must admit that some of the followers of the four hour workweek have spawned some interesting and useful business ideas that have actually made the world better without any real harm. Benny is a pretty good example of that, and I can also think of Steve Kamb, creator of Nerd Fitness, who turns couch potatoes into ACTUAL SUPER HEROES! And I’m sure they’re not the only ones.
The Case For Benny
Shelving the wider question of digital nomads, let’s focus specifically on the polyglot angle to this. The case against Benny seems to be largely that he “gave people the tools to exploit more people in more countries”. I don’t think this is entirely fair. Rich people have always been able to exploit poor people – that’s usually how they got rich. Now maybe more knowledge is more power, but I don’t think learning language from someone makes your hosts poorer or makes you a worse human. Moreover, I don’t actually see why people shouldn’t travel while they work.
This brings me back to the “Notice how many white people are there?” comment. I find this irritating, to be honest. If someone posted a picture of a café in London and said “Look how many Asians are there?” I would find it annoying for exactly the same reasons. Being foreign doesn’t make you bad. Let’s stick to what people are doing while they’re there. Maybe there’s a case to answer for the behaviour of the white people (and Richard certainly seems to think so, as we’ll see below) but I think starting with the skin colour is unhelpful.
The observation does have some light to shed though, in one important way: what it tells us is that here we have a lot of people from Oz, from the UK, from America, who have – so we’re told – read “Fluent in 3 Months” and spent enough time listening to locals that they can now hold a conversation. Well hallelujah! Back when I was slumming it around the world, my method of communication consisted of “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I’m not proud of that but it’s true. And all my fellow travellers – Kiwis, Yanks, Aussies, Brits – were just as bad because historically English speakers have been absolutely terrible at learning languages. Wherever we go we’ll find someone who is able to speak English well enough to direct us to the nearest photo opportunity, so why bother, right? The fact that that’s changing seems like a huge step forward. Not the whole answer but a start.
The Problems with Polyglot Culture
From a survey of various Polyglot sites and podcasts, I can see there are a few things about the whole “polyglot” thing that rub me up the wrong way. Some of those things are related to “digital nomad” culture, but when I think them through, more often than not, they are usually just aspects of the wider cult of hedonism and self-actualisation in western society, and particularly younger people of the American persuasion (I’m 47 and British so maybe I’m biased!)
- I feel there’s an element of “trophy hunting” about it. Often the number of languages a person speaks is dropped into the conversation, with points seemingly attributed not to how they have used the knowledge but for how difficult it was to conquer.
- It doesn’t really offer a critique of selfish, heedless attitudes to other societies. True, there are often asides about learning other cultures but they often feel like they’ve been tacked on and that often the person is more interested in getting laid* in as many countries as possible because they are the guy in the nightclub who can actually speak _______ (insert name of local language) with a cute ______ (insert own nationality) accent.
- Generalised disapproval of the idea of global jet travel and environmental impact of travel generally. These objections are set out more clearly in a follow-up post in which Richard discusses some other people’s critiques of his ideas and sets out some of the detrimental effects of tourism bringing money into a poor economy.
However, I can’t lay any of these problems at the door of language-hacking; they’re all things that were happening anyway, but in the past they were done by people speaking (or shouting) only English and unable to understand any objections put to them. Encouraging English speakers to pay attention to people from other cultures is a huge benefit, because contrary to what the blog post implies, language-hacking doesn’t consist of drinking by the pool; you have to speak to other humans, and little by little, those language students will absorb enough actual experience from their interlocutors that in time they will come to have a broader appreciation of other cultures. And oh my god, is that ever something our world needs right now! This, to me, seems like the truly good and important thing about the trend for learning languages. It’s small but it’s significant, and I think we should encourage it.
And for those of us who don’t travel, the internet is such a huge help. I’m learning Portuguese and my daughter is learning Japanese from a native speaker on the other side of the globe. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it would have been for me, age eleven, in Preston at the dawn of the eighties to learn Japanese. That’s a whole window open in her mind that was never opened in mine. And it’s happening more and more in the Anglosphere. Thank you internet. Thank you! And thank you Benny Lewis! For all your imperfections, you beautiful Irish moustache owner. Thank you! Thank you!
*=Sorry, this isn’t an expression I use often but it seems to fit in this context!
It’s too easy, when discussing things like colonialism and race, to stray the wrong side of the line that divides debate from incivility. I hope I have stayed on the right side of that line. I am not in any way intending to disrespect the blog post or – God forbid – make any sort of daft reverse-racism aspersion about the comments about the white people in the photograph. I’ll leave such tactics to the knuckle-draggers, Alt-Right and Trump supporters, but if I haven’t expressed any of it properly then I hope you’ll not hold my poor prose style against me!