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15 minutes to learn a new language

  • BennyLewis15minutestolearnalanguage
  • 17 Sep 2014

Wouldn’t it be great to speak a new language? But how do you find the time and get over that initial shyness? We asked globetrotting polyglot and language ‘hacker’ Benny Lewis how to hit the ground running.

15 minutes – that's all it takes to get between Heathrow and central London on our high speed train services. It got us thinking… what else can you do in 15 minutes? This issue: speak a new language.

Ditch the excuses

First off, ditch your excuses. I’ve talked with and interviewed thousands of successful (and unsuccessful) language learners, and I've found that the greatest challenge in language learning is mental. There really is no good reason you can’t learn a new language. And if you believe you are too old to start learning a language, remember this: according to a study by the University of Haifa, adults can be better language learners than children. No matter what setback you may think you have, there is a way around it. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right”.

Learn basic pleasantries

Take it step by step. The first things you’ll need to say are the openers in any normal conversation. Start with Hello, Nice to meet you, My name is and work from there. Learning set phrases gives you much less to think about, and you can avoid stressing about how to form the grammar yourself. You can find many of them in travel books and you can also find basic phrases for any language online for free at

Memorize key words about yourself

Phrases are good to get things started, but you will need to say things that are more relevant to you. When I'm starting to learn a language, I like to write out a short 30-second introduction to myself in English, and then find the keywords and look them up in a dictionary of that language. Mine are “Irish”, “vegetarian”, “engineer”, “travel writer” and so on. Think about: What is your line of work? How old are you? What are your hobbies? Where have you travelled? A pocket dictionary or app dictionary will help, and you can also use completely free online dictionaries.

Speak from day one – find someone to Skype

Traditionally, languages are learned over the long term and people don't think about speaking them until they are ‘ready’. The problem with this is that the ready-day can get postponed indefinitely. There will always be more to learn. I like to turn this on its head and suggest that people speak the target language from day one. Do this easily by visiting a site like and find a free language exchange partner (or paid teacher – from as little as £3/hour thanks to leveraging currency differences). Book a session with them and get started speaking the little you know so you progress quicker.

Prepare your notes and keep that dictionary handy

Of course, the idea of speaking from day one can sound daunting, but if you are on Skype you can get a huge boost by having a window o.
pen to an online dictionary – or your printed dictionary at hand. Simply ask your teacher or exchange partner to wait a moment while you look up the word. If you don't understand what they say, ask them to type it out in the Skype chat window and look it up from there. Try to avoid English entirely; by going through a dictionary you are learning the words you actually tend to use in beginner-level chats – and you will remember them out of necessity. The first conversation will be slow, but you will progress quickly because of this ‘virtual immersion’ mentality.

Make your goal communication – not perfection

You may be worried about perfect conjugation, word-order, preposition use and so on. But I assure you that even if you ‘butcher’ the language – and say the equivalent of “Your name what?” or “Me age 32” – you will still be understood perfectly well. Ultimately, our goal should not be to speak a language perfectly as beginners. A language exists as a means of communication, so use it as just that. This is not a situation where every mistake you make is another red X that brings you closer to a fail. On the contrary, I have a goal of making at least two hundred mistakes per day when I'm learning a new language. This means that I am opening myself up to opportunities to learn.

Have fun with it!

Thanks to the Internet, we have so many incredible resources available to have fun with our languages. As well as spoken sessions, make sure you enjoy silly viral Youtube videos from your target country (search for a channel called ‘Popular on Youtube [country name]’ to subscribe to). You can also listen to streamed radio by finding your language on for your favourite style of music, or even talk shows if you feel up to it. And why not get TV series or movies originally in that language or dubbed to that language? Have fun with it and remember that languages were meant to be lived rather than learned. Enjoy living it!

Read more of Benny’s tips and advice at

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