Conversation Countdown by Benny Lewis: Can You Start Any Language In A Week?

benny lewis countdown

If you're a regular Fluent reader, you'll know that my advice to any language learner is always to find a routine that feels steady and joyful. I've previously shared my own Welsh learning routine, which is designed for learning a language for life, not just for right now.

But every now and then, it's time to step it up and see what can be done when you start from zero.

A High Speed Language Fling

I'm currently speeding my way through the basics of a new language with with Icelandic, because next month I'll be spending 4 days in Reykjavik. You might say that 4 days of travel is hardly worth the effort. But for me, this is a lifelong daydream becoming reality. Before I even moved to England, I spent hours in my college room listening to Sigur Rós and staring at pics in this travel calendar.

When you learn a language for an upcoming trip, the purpose is not just to "look a little more polite as you meet the locals". Researcher Elizabeth Dunn has found that language learning for travel can boost your happiness when you make it part of anticipating your trip.

So when it comes to my little high-speed language adventure, the point is way more than just being able to ask where the Hallgrímskirkja is. This is about getting excited for the trip. The more Icelandic I play with right now, the more I can feel as if I'm already in the country. And once I get there, it's going to pay off.

Start A New Language In 5 Days

To get myself started, I went ahead and researched some tips from the main voice in speedy language: Benny Lewis. He offers a little course called Conversation Countdown, which I used to get added inspiration beyond what I would normally do.

I feel like I got to a nice little routine for "survival Icelandic" in just a few hours of work. I did not complete every action within the seven days suggested, but overall it felt like a realistic course with very well-produced videos.

Here are the actions I did take in Week 1:

Day 1

I got myself over to Omniglot, picked out a few polite phrases in the language and filmed yourself speaking immediately.

For me personally, the "immediately" aspect didn't feel as important as the course made it out to be. I'm confident speaking a language, no matter how little I know. But if you're a language learner just starting out, the effect is not just that you've got a nice thing to share online. This is also about your commitment to really doing this thing - invaluable!

So here is the result of day 1:

Yes, that's a dragon necklace.

Day 2

This day was about kicking into gear and creating vocabulary that will be relevant to my own situation. So instead of handy phrases from the phrasebook, the Conversation Countdown way sends you off to the dictionary.

Benny's instructions revolve around getting a great personal introduction onto paper. To be honest, I wish that I had also had a phrasebook available to pick up important travel patterns like Could I have a..., Excuse me, where is the.. and things like that. They are not so specific to me, but will allow me to navigate the typical situations with more comfort.

The selection of dictionaries I found for Icelandic didn't quite live up to my usual standards - it was Google Translate to the rescue. Here are the basics I decided to use:

Eg er fra Tyskaland --German
tungumál ithöfundur - language writer
I like learning languages - Mer líkar laera tungumál
fara í raektina - Going to the Gym
gera zumba - doing zumba
Ég eins og ferðalag - I like travel
elda - cooking
ég by i öðru landi - living in another country
sjónvarp i netflix - television and netflix
ég er gift - married
grænmetisæta - vegetarian
Eg hef by i Norður England i 2003 --- I've lived in England since 2003

How To Pronounce New Words?

Icelandic doesn't seem like a "say what you see" language, so I used Forvo where I could find the relevant words. For me personally, that was not really enough. This is one step in Benny's plan that didn't work so well for me - it didn't make me comfortable. I am better at picking up a language when I can spend 20 minutes on learning its sounds (guess that's why I created a German pronunciation course!). I ended up wishing I had a little dictionary with annotations and a phrasebook, and will be adding the Wikivoyage page to Forvo for future practice.

Day 3

After getting quite a few words of Icelandic onto paper, there's no more reason to wait. The Conversation Countdown course recommends getting out there with a native speaker.

If you are at the stage where you've said a few things in your new language to yourself only, there is no more reason to wait. Find yourself someone who will be happy to take half an hour to let you loose on them with that list of phrases, as this really will do wonders for your confidence.

Since I can't think of any friends who know the language, I hopped on italki and booked a trial lesson with an Icelandic tutor. Big props to italki there for its variety of native speakers in languages as rare as this one. My lesson was booked in just a few minutes, and Óskar sent me a message within minutes.

I sent him my vocab list from Day 2 - trust me when I say I got 85% of it somewhat wrong, but he still understood what I was trying to say.

Another great resource you should use for connecting with helpful native speakers is Hello Talk, which is the best free smartphone app for language learning.

Day 4 -> Day 6

I admit it - at day 4 in Benny's course, my daily responsibilities took over and Icelandic dropped off the radar for a short while. This is a great time to fast forward to the lesson he includes at Day 6 - just practice what you are learning and find what is fun for you.

This lesson is crucial. You're never going to learn a language if all you do is follow someone else's roadmap, so go ahead and make your own. Out of the suggested tips, a few were downright silly but I gravitated to what felt perfect for me: learning Icelandic through music. I dug out one of my favourite albums, Ágætis byrjun, and studied the lyrics to "smash hit" Svefn-g-englar.

Now I just have to work out who will want to listen to my poetry recital about childbirth.

Day 7

In this course which is totally focused on pushing learners to speak to a native speaker or tutor in 7 days, this day is obviously the highlight. And if that is the goal you have set yourself by signing up, I think you're going to be both awesome and ready. Benny emphasized how scary the whole experience is going to be - that cannot be avoided, right? But it's as scary as it is rewarding.

In Icelandic, I'm booked in for my first live class in 7 days. Cheating? No! Read on to find out what I think of that word.

Conversation Countdown: Yay or Nay?

Benny Lewis's course is completely and utterly focused on conversation. It instils a significant amount of bravado and holds you to your promise to yourself throughout, making language about being outgoing and connecting quickly with other people. He provides a lot of scripts and specific steps, and the pacing of daily emails is a nice way to move learners along.

What I didn't like so much was this idea of cheating in another language. When you come out and speak badly, there is no need to be ashamed.

In the course, he does provide some excellent sentences that you totally know you're going to need (things like Can you say this slower please? It's my first day.).

So if you set yourself up for stock phrases and practice a conversation that is somewhat predictable, you are not cheating. You're learning just as much, no need to pretend that you're a fluent genius of fluency.

If what you're after is this remarkable feeling of conversing in another language, feeling proud of yourself and having a breakthrough, then go and sign yourself up to Conversation Countdown. It's a good place to get started and deliver that early success experience.

If talking to a native speaker is not on your immediate to-do list right now, the steps are still useful and fun, but you may feel a little bit of pressure to do that conversation thing throughout.

Have You Had A Conversation Countdown?

If you have ever pushed yourself to learn a new language and speak to a native speaker in a very short time, how did you get on? Which other tips do you have for me in my mini Icelandic project?

Let me know in the comments below!