The Impossible Book

– Hey, let’s go for a walk or something!

– Oh, I’m kind of busy here…

– Busy bee as always. What are you doing? Reading again? Let me see the title.

– It’s a bit silly, actually. You’re gonna laugh. The title is “It is impossible to teach you a foreign language”.

– So? Like I didn’t know. I always knew there was no way I could be taught a foreign language.

– That’s exactly the point the author makes. His whole argument is that you must teach yourself. You can learn it only yourself, from within; no one can teach you, from without. No teacher, no professor, no one.

– Well, hmm… maybe, it’s not as stupid as the title sounds.

– No, it’s not. It’s pretty funny but also smart at the same time. I think you’d like it.

– I’m suspicious. The guy probably sells you some snake oil in the end. One of those scam artists.

– Nothing of the kind. You just are being cynical. You’ve got to trust people a little more.

– If you say so, but I’m intrigued. Maybe, I can borrow the book from you sometime.

– Sure. When I’m done with it. By the way, you can download it from the Web. For free.

– Really? Maybe, I’ll do that. You can’t beat free

So, what does it mean? When is it used?

What is the origin of this expression?

  • "You can learn it only yourself, from within; no one can teach you, from without." Your actual question aside, the grammar of this sentence bothers me. Where did you find this text?
    – Stephan B
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 8:23
  • It is one of the latest dialogues from "matrix language course" for American English (which I used to learn). Read the impossible book to learn more about what the "matrix language course" is. The book is free (I posted the link). Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 8:31
  • Thanks. I just wanted to warn you of the dubious grammar that appears in that extract. Fortunately, the book itself doesn't seem plagued by the same problem.
    – Stephan B
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 8:49
  • @Stephan That's perfectly fine grammar (well the punctuation could be argued about). If it's the without that bothers you check out points 9/10
    – blgt
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 9:54
  • 2
    @blgt: I'll admit I've never encountered such usage of "without". Regardless, I would not expect to hear a construction like "you can learn it only yourself" from anyone other than a foreign student or perhaps a poet.
    – Stephan B
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 10:27

2 Answers 2


You can't beat is an idiom meaning "There is nothing better than"; it derives from the use of beat in the sense defeat, prove superior to.

You can't beat bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Whatever you think of the Beatles, you can't beat the Stones for longevity.

In this case, your interlocutor means "There is no better price than free".

  • 13
    You can't beat StoneyB; he's too quick. Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 22:06
  • 3
    Side note... you can beat eggs :P
    – Dancrumb
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 19:24

It is using beat definition 12 here.

Beat can mean to win, as in a sporting competition. One team beats another. In this case, the competing entities are monetary prices. The book costs nothing (it is free), and with prices you can't win against a price of nothing, so you "can't beat free."

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