Can Your ESL Students Become Fluent in 3 Months?

I recently finished Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis. As a teacher of language, I’m interested in books that claim to have tips, tricks, and yes, even “language hacks” that can help people learn a language quickly.

This book, on the surface, looks quite different than the last book I reviewed. Becoming Fluent was written by a Foreign Service Officer in the US Department of State and a professor of psychology at a major university. What are Benny Lewis’s credentials? Well, just take a look:

 

Pretty impressive, right? So, what are his methods?

Actually, what he writes in Fluent in 3 Months isn’t too different from some of the content in Becoming Fluent, with some basic language learning/teaching tips thrown in.

And while I  believe that it really is possible to become very good (“fluent” is tricky to define) in just three months, I don’t think we language teachers are in danger of losing our jobs due to a sudden rise in language autodidacticism.

As I did when I read Becoming Fluent, I looked at Fluent in 3 Months through the lens of an ESL teacher, hoping to find things that could help me as a teacher rather than a learner.

So let’s look at the main concepts of Fluent in 3 Months and see how they apply to teaching English as a second language.

Motivation: Removing language aversion and setting goals

A good chunk of the book is devoted to addressing myths that people believe about learning language, such as “adults can’t learn a foreign language,” “language learning is all boring grammar,” and “I don’t have the time.” There is a lot of encouragement and pep talk. The author talks about his own failures and late start in language learning to prove that language learning is possible for anybody.

Teachers need to provide similar motivation and encouragement to their students. But of course, a lot of whether or not they internalize it is dependent on their individual personalities.

The other side of the motivation coin is setting realistic goals. Goals that are too lofty will lead to discouragement if they’re not met, and goals set too low don’t get you anywhere. This is an area where teachers can definitely help their students. By assessing students accurately and helping them improve at a consistent pace, teachers can help their students stay on track without getting discouraged.

Speaking the target language from day one.

This is Benny’s main tip and something I actually agree with a great deal.

He recommends picking up a phrase book, learning some basic phrases, and then just going out into the world and interacting with people.

In my situation, at an intensive English program in the U.S., students need to speak the target language from day one. Even at the lowest level, they are mostly false beginners, so they have some basics that they can use. To communicate with their teachers and outside of the classroom, they need to use English.

However, some of my students manage to get away with speaking very little English at all. They might hide in the back of class, give short answers, and participate very little in groups. When they go home after class, they just speak with others who speak their language.

I’ve known very few students who were motivated and patient enough to go through an experience like this. Benny again:

 

This kind of approach is effective with a confident, motivated learner. But it’s also grueling, difficult, and requires a great amount of perseverance. Most students will avoid situations like this, and teachers are hesitant to put their students through it as well. And not to mention: it’s difficult to find interlocutors who are so kind and patient!

As teachers, we can try to structure these types of conversations for students after they we have given them enough tools to succeed. Discussing new topics in small groups or pairs in classrooms is one way. Programs like conversation partners with native speakers is another. But how much the student benefits from those interactions all depends on how much the student is willing to push themselves out of their comfort zone.

Vocabulary learning: mnemonics

The vocabulary tips from Benny were very similar to what was covered in Becoming Fluent, and pretty well known for anyone studying how to memorize almost anything.

Benny argues that coming up with a wacky story for mnemonics makes new vocabulary stick in your brain easier. He comes up with a full sequence of events for every new word he learns. In my estimation, these stories that he makes up for each word are too long. He counters this argument by saying that you become better and faster at coming up with stories for mnemonics the more you practice it.

I actually have many stories associated with words in different languages, but they’re stories that I lived out myself. For example, in Mexico, I needed an iron, and the first translation that came up in my phone was “hierro,” which is the Spanish word for the material, not the appliance. When the woman I was speaking to said “Oh, necesitas una plancha,” I knew I’d never forget that word.

Another good resource that Benny recommends is Memrise, which I hadn’t used before. It allows you to set pictures or little phrases to each word so that you can remember them better. There are good lists for different tests (GRE, TOEFL, etc.) and different levels of English. Try it out to learn another language and see how it works.

Vocabulary learning: Spaced Repetition

This is another concept from Becoming Fluent. Spaced Repetition and the Forgetting Curve are concepts that are important for language teachers to know about. But they’re also built into a good teacher’s approach anyway.

Reminding students of learned vocabulary by including it in activities and on quizzes long after it’s first introduced is something all teachers should do.

Like most of the things Benny discusses it the book, they certainly can be undertaken alone. But having a teacher act as your “language coach” is much more effective. Organizing a semester-long study of a language and making sure that you’re covering and re-covering the parts of language you need to learn is much easier for (and done more effectively by) a professional teacher of that language.

Addressing grammar

Fluent in 3 Months actually does address grammar later in the book, despite the author’s aversion to it.  He includes familiar grammar charts in the section on “tips for starting specific languages.” Of course, since he addresses many different languages, he breezes over these grammatical concepts so quickly that it’s almost a waste of time. He encourages you to research more about your specific language online, which is actually what you should do in the first place rather than reading this section of the book.

One interesting thing that Benny suggests is to learn some modals in the target language and use those consistently while learning the rest of the grammar. Since modals don’t need to be conjugated in most languages (including English), you’re less likely to make a mistake in using them. So being creative with the use of modals can allow students to communicate quite a bit while still learning the more complicated bits of grammar.

Addressing pronunciation

Again, Benny’s big thing is communicating with native speakers from day one. This provides plenty of listening input and therefore allows students to hear a lot of correct pronunciation.

But he also talks about intonation quite a bit and how important it is to focus on if you want to improve your pronunciation in your target language. I actually never took a foreign language class that addressed the intonation of that language – my Spanish classes hardly covered pronunciation at all, and my German classes focused more on the difficult segmentals of that language. But intonation is something that I include at least a little of in my speaking and pronunciation classes when I teach English. These days, I think more and more ESL teachers are becoming more aware of how important that part of pronunciation is and are teaching it in their classes.

What does this book mean for ESL and other language teachers?

In reality, not much. It seems too good to be true and it mostly is.

It takes at least four semesters, or two years, for the adult ESL students I’ve worked with to be able to start as a false beginner and end up entering an American university. And those are the good, highly motivated students.

The Foreign Service Institute has a list of how long it takes to learn certain languages if you’re a native English speaker. You could switch this around and reasonably assume that a native speaker of one of those languages would take a similar amount of time to learn English. And even the easiest languages to learn can’t be learned in three months in FSI’s notoriously rigorous program.

(I’m actually a little surprised Benny didn’t mention FSI in his book, considering this list is pretty popular among language learners and teachers.)

Who should read this book?

This book is for people, specifically monolingual native English speakers, who want to learn another language.

It really is pretty inspiring – I wanted to reignite some of my language learning after reading it!

But as far as magic bullets or “language hacks” go, there’s nothing special.

Thanks for reading.

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Featured Image Credit: Barta IV

 

2 thoughts on “Can Your ESL Students Become Fluent in 3 Months?

  1. You should review Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner next. I’m curious to see what your thoughts are on that book.

    1. I just started reading it today! So far, so good. I expect some of the same concepts covered in “Becoming Fluent” and “Fluent in 3 months”, but I like Wyner’s style of writing the best out of the three so far!

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