How to travel the world as a full-time language hacker: An interview with Irish polyglot Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis is quite the story. Like myself, he grew up in Ireland and was never much good at languages in school. At age 21, he spoke just English fluently. Fast forward several years and Benny now speaks eight (yes, eight!) languages fluently, and is competent in many more. He helps other people reach rapid fluency via his blog Fluent in 3 Months.

Here’s Benny demonstrating his skills in a promo video for his excellent Language Hacking Guide

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Benny has been traveling the world for many years now, assigning himself regular 3-month language learning missions and immersing in a bunch of different cultures. He funds his adventures via sales of his guide and by giving private Skype and telephone consultations/coaching. Right now he’s living in the Philippines and finding out that the locals point with their lips.

I checked in with Benny to see what he could teach us about building a personal brand that travels with you…

1. Benny, you’re becoming very well known now as an expert language hacker, even landing a guest post on mega-blog Zen Habits a few weeks back. Besides that post, what have been the biggest breaks that have helped you build your online audience, and how did you set yourself up for them?

Right from the start, I have constantly engaged with the online community – replying to relevant forum threads, commenting on other blogs, and – most importantly – replying to all comments on my blog. I have also done something I don’t see anywhere else in the blogging community of including a picture of myself in all posts. Rather than using stock images, I will make a silly pose or do something relevant to the topic each time. All of this meant that people could see my personality tied deeply into what I’m doing, so this isn’t just another faceless generic blog, which there are sadly many of.

Other than that I have of course focused on the best content I could. I know “content is king” is a cliché by now, but SEO strategies, WordPress plugins and the like do nothing if your site isn’t worth sharing. Facebook and stumbleupon send me the vast majority of my traffic without me pushing them that much, simply because I try to produce as unique and engaging content as I can that people genuinely want to share with their friends after reading it.

Zen Habits was actually my second ever guest post, so I’m not applying this strategy enough and will be doing more of it. But interviews like this one (written and video) on blogs from friends of mine and fellow bloggers I collaborate with have been great at getting me recognised in the online community. Meeting people in person and just hanging out as friends was essential for this. There’s no better way to get on someone’s “radar” than to invite them out for lunch!

2. Tell us about the early days of building your business. Did you have to work a lot of odd jobs to make ends meet before you started earning decent income via Fluent in 3 Months?

I have long lost count of the number of jobs I’ve had in the last eight years on the road. Perhaps 30 or 40? “Odd” doesn’t even begin to describe it: Maths teacher, photographer, engineering intern, yoga store manager, hostel receptionist – whatever I could find, I’d take it. I was always honest about staying temporarily from the start and this was quite limiting. It’s why finding online work (as a translator) was great since it gave me consistency.

My plans were never initially to monetise on Fluent in 3 months, but financial woes motivated me to make something of my site that had already grown more than I could have imagined it would, so I invested the time to create something that would supply my best advice in one place and people have been loving it! Amazingly, since I released it back in May, I have been living entirely off sales of the Language Hacking Guide!

3. You obviously travel a lot but have set up your business so you can work from anywhere. What common challenges do you run into as a location independent professional?

Surprisingly enough – accommodation is not a major challenge for me. Long before becoming a “LIP”, I was a long-term traveller and had learned tricks of the trade for finding accommodation fast after doing it dozens of times already. I usually have my own home within 24 hours of arriving in a new country. I put all my energy into that – no siteseeing etc. All I care about when I arrive is finding my new home, and buying a SIM card (3G access simplifies navigation so I can use Google Maps as I go through a new unknown city). My apartment always has wifi, so I’m good to work.

One major challenge of this lifestyle is setting up a nice social circle of reliable friends as quickly as possible. The unique nature of my own style of travelling means this cannot be with other expats – if I did that, I’d never learn the language. And to make things harder, I barely speak the language on arrival (it’s only when leaving that my level is so much better!) I’ve got lots of international tools I use like Couchsurfing to make new local friends and pick the brains of people for advice on places to live and eat, but it usually takes me several weeks before I really have a consistent social life. Several weeks is a big chunk out of a 3-month stay, and something I hope to reduce with time!

4. You put a lot of your own character and personality into your business. Why is this important?

Well, actually, I don’t like to call it a “business”. The blog and my travels are just my current lifestyle. Because of this, it’s only natural that it is full to the brim of my personality. I don’t take it that seriously, and joke around (hence the silly photos constantly in blog posts), and make sure Irish humour is coming through in my writing. Even in the sales page for my book, I decided to be more subtle rather than bombard people with endless squeezing bullet points of why they should buy it and annoy new readers with pop-up sign-up forms on random blog posts. This aggressive style would likely be a “good business decision” since I’d multiply my sales, but it’s not how I live my life.

Because of this, I feel people can read my genuine passion for what I am attempting to do: convince the world that learning a second language isn’t actually that bad. Rather than learning techniques, this comes down to mentality and open-mindedness that are of course personality traits. If someone wants a 10 step programme to speaking a language, they won’t get that off me. You have to be passionate about it – if I don’t prove that in my writing, videos and lifestyle, then anything I sell (which talks a lot about how important your attitude is as a “learning technique”) would just be a lie.

5. If you could travel back in time and give 21-year-old Benny a few quick tips about how to make a living online, what would you tell him?

I never made any money online for my first seven years on the road. One aspect of my philosophy on life is no regrets. Wishing that I had more money, or more RSS subscribers, or had released a product sooner or whatever does nothing to improve my life now. I made a lot of mistakes to get to where I am now, and that is the best way to do it. Too many people wait for their roadmap before getting busy. You need to just do it. Do it wrong, but do something. With time you’ll self-adjust until you are where you want to be.

So if I could give my 21 year old self any advice, I would sum it up in one tip: Make more mistakes.

This is important in my language-learning strategy as well as my “life strategy”. The only way you can make no progress is by doing nothing. If you want to live your dreams of working online, travelling or whatever it is, stop reading all about other people doing it, stop waiting until you have exactly the right amount of money and definitely stop waiting for “signs” from the universe. Don’t think too much about what can go wrong and just go get your hands dirty!

Wrap up

Mucho grazie to Monsieur Lewis for all the above (three languages in one sentence baby, aw yeah!). I highly recommend you check out his site for lots of great language and travel tips. One of my favorite things about Benny is his attitude towards challenges; he sees them as opportunities rather than problems. I believe that mindset is largely responsible for his success with languages and helps explain how he lives such a kick-ass lifestyle.

Get more Benny

Follow the links below to find out more about the Irish polyglot and learn a thing or two about language hacking:

More interviews

I post an interview relating to small online business every two weeks. Let me know in the comments what type of questions you’d like to have answered by future cool people. If you can recommend a good interview candidate, drop me a line here.

Past interviews:

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  1. Just wanted to say that knowing so many languages seems like an awesome skill! I’ve always wanted to be fluent in more languages. I’m actually learning about just how valuable every culture around the world is, even though many of them will seem so different from our own. I will be sure to check out your blog Benny. Thanks for sharing and thanks for posting Niall!

  2. Hello, I visited this page and I am impressed! I followed the video om youtube and searched for some more videos of Benny Lewis. Good job! I really liked what he does. I am a linguist myself, but the thing is that I do not travel much. I agree that studying languages is nothing without understanding and feeling this so-called ‘human aspect’ of any language. Keep up the good job! And study russian 😉

    1. Thanks, Lucy. I’ve heard good advice from Benny about learning languages even if you don’t travel. You can still immerse yourself to an extent. There are Vietnamese people who have been living in New Orleans for decades yet don’t speak any English. Why? Because they surround themselves with Vietnamese people and can get by fine without the first language of the USA.

      Likewise, if you want to learn Italian in Ireland (for example), you can make an effort to surround yourself with as many Italian people as possible, only watch movies in Italian, change your computer language to Italian, read books in Italian, etc.

  3. Good man Benny boy. Very impressive dude! I always wondered though: “Do you ever just want to sit still in one place for a while?”…..apparently the answer that is: NO!

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