How Arnold Schwarzenegger learned English
Known as much for his physique as for his accent, bodybuilder, actor ( Conan , The Terminator ), successful entrepreneur even before he became famous, married to a Kennedy, and became governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger is out of the ordinary. He is certainly one of the embodiments of the American dream. Having finished reading his biography in English , Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story , this seems like a good opportunity to tell his story . This one is rich in life lessons and we will take the opportunity to see how he learned English to conquer America .
A small village in Austria
Arnold Schwarzenegger grew up in a small remote village in Austria, in a house without running water. The toilets were in the hut at the bottom of the garden and, on the bathroom side, you had to share the water in the bathtub – the nearest well being 400 meters away.
He grew up in a strict family, with his father, mother and younger brother. He has average results at school.
As a teenager, he discovered bodybuilding with friends. This nascent sport allows him to open up to the world and gain confidence and autonomy, as well as spending time with people who will become mentors. Schwarzenegger lends himself to the game, so much so that he develops an impressive musculature while his father, whom he nevertheless admires a lot, sees bodybuilding as a waste of time.
The young Arnold followed the bodybuilding news in the magazines of the time. The articles are in English and a friend of his translates the advice and training methods published there. Bodybuilding or bodybuilding is still in its infancy but the first competitions already exist and will allow it to get noticed.
What arguably set young Arnold apart at this time is that he already had a vision and a model of what he wanted to accomplish . He wants to go to the United States and he wants to do like his idols: become a body building champion and take the opportunity to get spotted and shoot in films. He already sees that his passion can allow him to realize his dreams.
He knows what he wants, while his strict upbringing has given him the self-discipline needed to carry out his plans and achieve his goals.
By the way, once he takes a job in the gym where he trains, he discovers the value of split workouts :
Being busy helping customers meant that I had no time to train the way I was used to, with an intense four- or five-hour workout each day. So I adopted the idea of training twice a day, two hours before work and two hours from seven to nine in the evening, when business slacked off and only the serious lifters were left. Split workouts seemed like an annoyance at first, but I realized I was onto something when I saw the results: I was concentrating better and recovering faster while grinding out longer and harder sets.
Interval workouts make it easier to do more, with more results in the end.
This is a principle that applies directly to English and modern languages, where it is better to spread your work over the day to learn better and faster.
Schwarzenegger continued to train and won award after award, eventually winning the Mr. Universe title in London – which opened the door for him to a career in the United States.
The American dream
Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in the United States in 1968, in California, in Los Angeles, in the middle of the hippie period, and the change of scenery was total.
He immediately enrolls in English classes at university and makes it a rule to only date American women, so that he will be forced to work on his English .
On the spot, he is sponsored by a magazine, which allows him to devote himself to bodybuilding in a professional way. He takes an important place in magazines on the subject, where many articles and covers are devoted to him and where he is presented as the rising star of the discipline.
Arnold also landed a starring role in a low-budget film, Hercules in New York . His accent being too strong for people to understand , he is dubbed during the editing. The film will never see the light of day because the production company goes bankrupt before the film’s release.
While, apparently, hardcore bodybuilders (bodybuilding fanatics) are usually lazy and try to do as little as possible, Arnold wants to make himself useful. This desire to learn – to learn English , to learn to sell, to learn a new trade – and to be productive is a motif that is repeated throughout his biography. For instance :
Plus, I was not a lazy bastard. The first thing I told him [Joe Weirder, son sponsor, NDLR] when I got to California was “I don’t want to hang around. I don’t want to take your money for nothing. Give me something to do where I can learn.” He had a retail store on Fifth Street in Santa Monica that sold nutritional supplements and weight-lifting equipment. So I asked if I could work there. “I want to help customers,” I told him. “It helps me to learn business and practice my English, and I like dealing with people.”
He thus works in a shop, which allows him to practice his English in immersion and to learn how to sell. Alongside this, he starts a masonry business ( bricklaying ) with a bodybuilder friend, out of a desire to be financially independent no matter what.
Becoming fluent in English was still the hardest thing on my to-do list. I envied my photographer friend Artie Zeller, who was the kind of person who could visit Italy for a week with Franco and come back speaking Italian. Not me. I couldn’t believe how difficult learning a new language could be.
Or his difficulties with contractions in English :
“Why do they have to make English so complicated?” There were things that I seemed unable to grasp no matter who explained them to me. Like contractions. Why couldn’t you say “I have” or “I will” rather than “I’ve” and “I’ll”?
Or this anecdote where he is on the verge of being kicked out of a restaurant because he insults the chef’s food by accident:
Pronunciations were especially dangerous. As a treat, Artie took me to a Jewish-Hungarian restaurant where the dishes were the same as Austrian food. The owner came to take our order, and I said, “I saw this one thing here on the menu which I like. Give me some of your garbage.” “What did you call my food?” “Just bring me some of your garbage.” Artie jumped in right away. “He’s from Austria,” he explained. “He means the cabbage. He’s used to the cabbage from Austria.”
However, he progressed thanks to his English lessons . Then he continues to progress further by learning new skills in English .
That is to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger learned to speak English by studying subjects he already knew or on which he wanted to go further:
[The counselor] put together a little program for me. “Here are eight classes you should take besides English. They’re all business courses. If I were you, I would also take some math. You need to hear the language of math so that when someone says ‘division,’ you know what that means. Or ‘decimal,’ or ‘fraction.’ These are the terms you hear, and you may not understand them.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right, I don’t.” So I added a math class where we did some decimals and easy algebra, and I started relearning the language of math.
At the same time, Schwarzy continues to train five hours a day and win awards in bodybuilding .
On the strength of his success, he tried, as he had planned, to break into the cinema, as the idols of his childhood had done. But when he tries to land an agent in Hollywood to represent him, the agent tells him bluntly:
Look, you have an accent that scares people. You have a body that’s too big for movies. You have a name that wouldn’t even fit on a movie poster. Everything about you is too strange.
He is not deterred, however, and ironically, it will be precisely these characteristics that will make Arnold Schwarzenegger stand out from other actors and help him create his place in Hollywood.
Nevertheless, he begins lessons to reduce his accent , in order to make his spoken English understandable. This is in addition to his acting classes, his college classes, his business as an entrepreneur and his preparation for Mr. Olympia, the biggest competition in bodybuilding.
He hangs out at the time with the new generation of actors in Hollywood: Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda… He does not have their level of celebrity at all but spending time with this new social circle allows him to learn the tricks of the trade and continues to whet his appetite.
Bodybuilding becomes more and more well known, until it makes the front page of mainstream magazines and documentaries are devoted to it. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most iconic figure in sport. Promoting bodybuilding makes the sport more important and more professional, while promoting it increases its own fame.
It was also the period when fitness became fashionable, with people such as Jane Fonda and the birth of cult phrases such as No pain, no gain or Feel the burn .
Bodybuilding has gone from an obscure sport to a hip culture. Arnold Schwarzenegger then spends time in New York. There he met people such as Andy Warhol and rubbed shoulders with the cream of New York. His personality, positive attitude and sense of humor, along with an ability to sell his sport and his passion in a positive light, allow him to navigate this new world and stand out beyond his looks.
A documentary dedicated to him, then a film in which he plays set in the world of bodybuilding, brings him a little closer to celebrity status, while bodybuilding competitions are increasingly important in size and media coverage, and keep winning them.
He then refuses small roles in the cinema . Unlike many actors who want to break through, he goes straight for the main roles. He invests all of his earnings in himself, his business, and real estate , which allows him to be in a strong position financially. Once again, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a vision of what he wants.
You could argue that, no matter what the part, being in front of a camera was always good practice. But I felt that I was born to be a leading man. […] Of course I realized that this sounded crazy to everybody but me. But I believed that the only way you become a leading man is by treating yourself like a leading man and working your ass off. If you don’t believe in yourself, then how will anyone else believe in you?
His physique and his experience in front of the camera allow him to land the main role on a film project: Conan the Barbarian , a heroic-fantasy short story originally published in B series magazines. originally developed by Oliver Stone, then taken over by John Milius.
Arnold is preparing for the role on many levels: in terms of acting but also and above all physically. He must have the ideal physique for the role but also learn to do all the stunts himself because his physique is too atypical to use a stunt double. He thus learns to handle a sword, martial arts or to ride a horse.
He promotes the film as much as possible. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not only an actor or a bodybuilder, he is also a commercial. Throughout his career, his determination to promote the films in which he plays will contribute to his success. While some artists find this “dirty” or below them, Arnold understands that his films are only worth something if they are seen by the public . In the case of Conan , bodybuilding fans and fans of the original work will contribute to the success of the film, seeing it many times and talking about it around them.
The film is a success and leads him to be paid 1 million per film, a symbolic figure he was aiming for and which makes him one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood.
He is realistic that he will never be the next Dustin Hoffman or Marlon Brando but also realizes that he can forge his place in Hollywood by playing larger-than-life characters in movies. ‘stock.
This leads him to meet a young director named James Cameron . The project ? The Terminator . The role offered to Arnold is then that of the hero, while OJ Simpson is expected to play the role of the Terminator. The project thrills Schwarzenegger who finds the character of the Terminator very interesting. He identifies with the character and explains to James Cameron how the actor should prepare for the role. He is inspired in this by his experience during his military service in Austria and his training on Conan .
The character of the Terminator fascinates Schwarzy so much that Cameron offers him the role. Arnold refuses first because playing the role of the bad guys in the cinema is generally perceived as suicide: after such a role, you will be cataloged as a bad guy and will not be able to land any other roles. Moreover, he is afraid that Hollywood will perceive this as the fact that he is not able to play normal roles because of his English . He nevertheless ends up accepting, with the obligation that his next role is NOT that of the villain.
– James, are you sure I can’t say I will be back ?
Small anecdote: during the filming of Terminator , he does not understand why he has to say I’ll be back and wants to say, instead, I will be back . Not having yet fully understood the use of contractions in English , he insists, thinking that it would be better that way. Once James Cameron, who is also the writer of the screenplay, starts yelling at him, the debate won’t last long. As Schwarzenegger recounts:
The truth was that, even after all these years of speaking English, I still didn’t understand contractions. But the lesson I took away was that writers never change anything. This was not somebody else’s script that Jim was shooting, it was his own. He was even worse than Milius. He was unwilling to change a single apostrophe.
With its surprising scenario, its special effects, its mixture of action and touches of comedy, The Terminator is a hit and confirms that Arnold Schwarzenegger has his place in Hollywood.
Reps, reps, reps…
I’ll let you turn to his autobiography in English for the rest. You will discover how he met his wife (a Kennedy ), his success in business, his career in politics as governor of California , or simply behind the scenes of the cinema.
What I would like to talk to you about before concluding on his bio is the concept of reps or repetitions . This is arguably the most important idea of this article .
It doesn’t matter whether it’s in bodybuilding, to play the role of the hero in action movies, or to prepare a speech as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger uses the same recipe :
[It’s all about] reps, reps, reps
(Translation: “It’s all about repetitions, repetitions, repetitions”)
- At his first gym, as a teenager, there was a wall where everyone wrote down the sets they were going to do. Once a series was completed, it was crossed out and moved on to the next.
- To practice playing the Terminator like a machine, he practiced reloading again and again with his eyes closed, with each hand, until it became automatic.
- In preparation for a televised political debate, he trained with his team to answer all possible and imaginable questions. Reps, reps, reps…
- For a speech in front of the United Nations, he practiced repeating, repeating and repeating his speech again, no less than fifty times, to improve with each iteration.
We are talking about hundreds and hundreds, in some cases thousands, of repetitions, to develop and acquire a skill. It’s work – it ‘s work! – and that’s how it goes.
It’s the same regardless of the field.
And so it’s the same thing in English. To be good, you need to spend time practicing English . And this time, you can count it in hours, in minutes… Or also in repetitions , keeping in mind, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, that each repetition brings you closer to your goal . As he says:
[E]very rep and every set is getting me one step closer to my goal.
Nothing replaces that.
To conclude, some information and supplements to accompany this biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
History to conclude with audio, you can find an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the excellent podcast the Tim Ferriss Show . That happens here :
- Audio: Ep 60: Tim Ferriss Interviews Arnold Schwarzenegger… on Overcast.
- The text if necessary: Transcript of the interview
Finally, a little bonus, a few quotes, taken from the biography, which I found interesting:
On writing down your goals :
I always wrote down my goals, like I’d learned to do in the weight-lifting club back in Graz. It wasn’t sufficient just to tell myself something like “My New Year’s resolution is to lose twenty pounds and learn better English and read a little bit more.” No. That was only a start. Now I had to make it very specific so that all those fine intentions were not just floating around. I would take out index cards and write that I was going to:
• get twelve more units in college;
• earn enough money to save $5,000;
• work out five hours a day;
• gain seven pounds of solid muscle weight; and
• find an apartment building to buy and move into.
It might seem like I was handcuffing myself by setting such specific goals, but it was actually just the opposite: I found it liberating. Knowing exactly where I wanted to end up freed me totally to improvise how to get there.
On her accent and playing on her differences:
Every time I was on the radio or TV, people became a little more familiar with my accent, the Arnold way of talking, and a little more comfortable and at ease with me. The effect was the opposite of what the Hollywood agents had warned. I was making my size, accent, and funny name into assets instead of peculiarities that put people off. Before long people were able to recognize me without seeing me, just by name or by the sound of my voice.
On building confidence through repetition :
weight training was a better confidence builder than, say, soccer. In soccer, sometimes you make a good kick and sometimes not, but in weight training, you know when you lift four plates that the next time you will be able to lift four plates. This predictability helped the kids gain confidence quickly.
On using role models and mentors :
When I wanted to know more about business and politics, I used the same approach I did when I wanted to learn about acting: I got to know as many people as I could who were really good at it.
On ambition and forging your own path:
“What if I shoot to become one of Hollywood’s top five leading men?” People were always talking about how few performers there are at the top of the ladder, but I was always convinced there was room for one more. I felt that, because there was so little room, people got intimidated and felt more comfortable staying on the bottom of the ladder. But, in fact, the more people that think that, the more crowded the bottom of the ladder becomes! Don’t go where it’s crowded. Go where it’s empty. Even though it’s harder to get there, that’s where you belong and where there’s less competition.
On what other people think :
I never argued with people who underestimated me. If the accent and the muscles and the movies made people think I was stupid, it worked to my advantage.
On the power of repetition :
Then, as soon as you were done with the first set, you went to the wall and crossed off the first line so it became an X. All five lines would have to be turned into Xs before that exercise was done. This practice had a huge impact on my motivation. I always had the visual feedback of “Wow, an accomplishment. I did what I said I had to do. Now I will go for the next set, and the next set.” Writing out my goals became second nature, and so did the conviction that there are no shortcuts.
On childhood :
Don’t blame your parents. They’ve done their best for you, and if they’ve left you with problems, those problems are now yours to solve.