Category Archives: Reviews

Review How To Learn Any Language

Review: How To Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own by Barry Farber

[amazon_link id=”0806512717″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]How To Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own[/amazon_link]

Barry Farber was born in Baltimore Maryland in 1930.  His language career started when he nearly failed Latin in the 9th grade.  Soon after he tasted his first linguistics success learning Mandarin Chinese by speaking speaking to Chinese sailors during a trip to his grandparents in Miami Beach.  He has studied 25 languages, which he speaks to varying degrees of fluency, including Bulgarian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish.  He spent most of his professional life as a conservative talk-show host.

If you’re looking for the memoirs of a polyglot with a sprinkle of anecdotal advice on how to learn a language this is a fascinating book.  Barry Farber truly lead an interesting life.  He learned Italian on the streets playing with neighborhood children, learned Serbo-Croatian on a 16 day boat trip, smuggled Hungarians into Austria, among other linguistically involved escapades.  Perhaps after reading “How to Learn Any Language” you’ll want to be Barry Farber more than learn another language.

His approach to learning a language is battle tested, challenging, and unforgiving old school.  He instructs you to get a basic grammar, a dictionary, a phrase book, and a magazine newspaper or simple book in your target language, language tapes, blank tapes, and flash cards (including homemade ones).  The first assignment is to read the first five chapters of the grammar and mark anything that doesn’t make sense to ask a native speaker later. Second step: start reading authentic material in your target language, highlight the words you don’t know, and make flashcards for those words.  The theory behind this is that if a word appears in an authentic text it must be an important words to know.  I’ve personally skipped learning the names for fruits and vegetables because I know I won’t need those words (which is a reflection of my needs for using a language, not necessarily my dietary habits).  He then motivates you to militantly review  flashcards utilizing every spare minute.  Step three: use your phrase book to find the most common phrases you’ll need, like “hello, how are you, what’s your name, how do you get to the…” I’ve recommended using a phrase book to several people to quickly sound more authentic and natural when speaking.  Being able to pepper your speech with natural sounding phrases, even if they’re canned, goes very far when trying to prove language competency.  Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to pretend to have conversations, don’t just memorize the phrases.  Lastly, continue to read more of the grammar and the authentic text.  Around chapter eight or so he advises you find a native speaker and start conversing.  He also recommends listening to audio while doing chores, driving, or the like.  He also suggests that people record themselves, one for speaking practice and two for monitoring pronunciation and accent.  Farber also praises highly praises the Pimsleur Series as being high quality and extremely effective. Having used them myself, my only complaints are the price and the fact that they didn’t make more levels. Farber calls this method the `multiple track attack,’ because it uses several different mediums.

For learning new vocabulary words he tells you to use mnemonics.  I believe this is an extremely effective way to learn a lot of vocabulary very fast.  The only draw back is that you might not be able to come up with enough mnemonics or spend a lot of time trying to invent them.  If you’re learning a language that people have already made mnemonics use those, even if you have to buy them, like Linkword.  Mnemonics can be extremely fun and entertaining, which is desperately needed in one of the most tedious areas of language study.  For example:  ‘kar lo’ means ‘he is cold’ in Hebrew by imagining my friend Carlo shivering.

The book was published in 1991 and needs to be updated to incorporate the use of computers, mp3 players, skype tutors etc.  The novelty of finding a Spanish speaking maid is lessened by living in a connected world of skype. Do a quick search for ‘language exchange’ or ‘language pen pals,’ and you’ll discover tens of sites and communities that link language partners together.  With a little common sense his methods can be easily adapted to the modern age.  Farber suggests using a tape recorder to record yourself, obviously, using an mp3 player or computer is the better modern option.  He recommends using flashcards, again, pre-made flash cards or free software like Anki are the modern equivalents. Also, YouTube offers a ton of language learning material, often subtitled and with translations.

Farber does offer a glimpse into what it’s like to actually learn a language, exciting, fun, challenging, at times difficult, and extremely rewarding.  Perhaps more valuable, Farber tells us how to not learn a language.  Though he did learn Russian in college, he didn’t learn 25 languages by taking seven courses in college to become fluent in his target languages.  Reading “How to Learn Any Language” offers the knowledge and experience of years of language learning in an easy read.  Past his easy to use and useful learning techniques his personal insights are invaluable.

The author is a little vague concerning several details. The book never lists the 25 languages he claims to speak nor does it fully explain what level of fluency he’s reached in any of the 25 languages.  I’m assuming that he does speak 25 languages to a reasonable level for several reasons.  One: Being known as language expert invites people to converse with you in their native tongues, as far as I know he hasn’t been caught out. Two: He could have stopped counting far before 25 and he still would have been impressive. Three: The majority of his livelihood was from being a radio personality, not a renowned linguist leaving him no financial incentive (aside from this book, he’s published two others) to exaggerate his abilities.

[amazon_link id=”0806512717″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]How To Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own[/amazon_link]

For a  more up to date product that offers effective practical advise to learn any language, check out the Language Hacking Guide by Benny the Polyglot


Review of Colloquial Hebrew

“Colloquial Hebrew” is one of my favorite introductory Hebrew books that teaches Modern Hebrew you’ll actually encounter in Israel; not the hodge-podge Biblical and out-dated Modern Hebrew normally found in introductory books.  It starts by introducing Hebrew script, both standard block and cursive and progresses from the basics to a fairly advanced level.  The book comes with two 60 minute CDs that teach proper pronunciation and the dialogues. The book starts with vowels and slowly moves towards voweless words as the book progresses, the book also contains transliterations.  In my opinion, if a person is starting with this book and doesn’t know the Hebrew alphabet, the book shouldn’t stop using vowels.

Hebrew is a language built on verb roots and patterns.  If you can successfully master roots and their conjugations (tense, gender, number, noun formation) you have mastered Hebrew (at least the grammar!).  Introducing students to this system is one of the most challenging parts of Hebrew.  “Colloquial Hebrew” does a masterful job of slowly and intelligently introducing verb forms.  It’s truly unmatched.

Other highlights:

1) Contains a quick grammar reference- no more flipping around a book for a grammar rule

2) Audio is clear and professionally produced, although at times rapid.  This can be an advantageous if you want to accustom yourself to understanding the way Hebrew is spoken in the street, fast.

3) Contains a verb table of the different forms used in the book.  No Hebrew verb table is every friendly to a beginner.

4) Solid Hebrew-English dictionary in the back of the book.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an English-Hebrew dictionary.

5)  Dialogues in language learning books have never been fascinating.  The dialogues in this book are at least entertaining.  For a beginner’s book, the dialogues are very authentic; this is really the way people speak.  I know it’s called “Colloquial Hebrew,” so I shouldn’t be surprised that it contains colloquial speech but I’m impressed that they pulled it off.

6) There’s an answer key.  It’s surprising the number of language books that don’t offer answer to exercises.  However, there are a large number of errors in the key and throughout the book for that matter.

[amazon_link id=”041543159X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Colloquial Hebrew (Colloquial Series)[/amazon_link]

Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar – The Classic by Wilhelm Gesenius

Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar is the standard reference grammar in English for Biblical Hebrew and remains as an undisputed classic in the field.  Anyone who is serious about reading and translating the Hebrew Bible will need a copy for reference.  It’s used in many advanced courses around the world.  Gesenius is legendary and immovable from it’s status as thee Hebrew Grammar of choice because of it’s exhaustive nature.  There is almost no match for it’s utter comprehensiveness.  Few have ever read it cover to cover; instead it stands as a reference for any grammatical point that might arise during serious translation study.

What the Gesnesius has in comprehensiveness it also holds in level of linguistic complexity.  People purchase the Gesenius to learn more about Hebrew grammar and more often than not walk away feeling that they know even less about English grammar.  The language used to describe grammatical and syntactic features might be unfamiliar to someone even with fairly advanced knowledge of English grammar and modern linguistics.

My advice when approaching the seemingly incomprehensible jargon is slow down and really absorb what is being said.  Often, with a quick pause and deep thought about what the passage actually means, comprehension naturally follows.

Historically, this work has been monumental in the formal study of Hebrew grammar.  It should be noted however that significant points have been proven to be untrue.  This doesn’t render the work obsolete but one should be made aware of that fact.  More up to date information can be found in Waltke & O’Connors An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax.

Here is a list of two available editions.  Both are scanned and enlarged versions with varying degrees of imperfections:

The first is the Nabu Press one based off of a newer edition so it has updated indices, however it’s 34.87$

[amazon_link id=”1176644777″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Gesenius' Hebrew grammar[/amazon_link]

The second is the Dover Press edition with out the newer indices but with a more moderate price of 17.98$

[amazon_link id=”0486443442″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar (Dover Language Guides)[/amazon_link]

How Languages Work by David Crystal

I know this isn’t necessarily about Hebrew but learning more about all languages and linguistics can really enhance someones understanding and appreciation of studying Hebrew.

I’m happy that this was one of my first introductions to Linguistics.  It’s fun to read and relatively non-technical but by no means lacking in serious content.  It’s also written by a trained linguist, not a pop non-fiction author.  Topics are covered in both a factual and anecdotal way. It’s an excellent comprehensive introduction for people interested in languages regardless of their background.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that this book is a mass paperback; it’s by no means lacking content.  Crystal covers every major aspect of linguistics from production of language, written language, structure, dialects, language acquisition and more.  At 484 pages one might expect to find more of a technical tome but Crystal’s style makes you feel like you’re being guided into the world of languages by a knowledgeable and personal Oxford professor.  How Languages Work has an impressive breadth of coverage and amount of terms introduced.  At times it’s surprising the detail covered without a loss clarity and readability.

There are two small minor imperfections that should be noted, but aren’t significant enough to prevent someone from buying this book.  One is the use of British pronunciation that can be confusing in some instances by people who aren’t familiar with RP (Received Pronunciation).   In fact, the publisher makes note of the use of British spelling and style.   Secondly, terms are introduced in italics throughout the book but in a few instances the exact definition of italicized word aren’t clear.

If you’re looking for a solid introduction to the study languages don’t overlook David Crystals How Languages work.  I highly recommend this title.

[amazon_link id=”158333291X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]How Language Works by David Crystal[/amazon_link]

Barron’s 501 Hebrew Verbs

This book fully declines 565 verb roots in the binyanim they commonly occur in yielding 1580 of the most common Hebrew verbs. Real world examples are given using the verbs and/or words derived from them. There is also a short essay that begins the book that discusses Hebrew verbs which is a good read.

It’s a physically a very dense book at 912 pages, slightly heavy (yet reasonable for a reference work). The only complaint about the book physically is that it lacks a lay-flat binding. I would like to see a hard-cover version.

As with any Hebrew grammar there are always questions about organization. The author chose to alphabetically list roots, which makes sense and makes it use friendly.

Obviously this is not a beginner book. In addition, it’s targeted to those learning Modern Hebrew. Being so, it follows Israeli spelling, it adds a lot of vavs and yods. So if you’re more familiar with Biblical Hebrew it might be slightly frustrating at times.

This book is essential if you want to master Hebrew verb conjugation. In such a verb based language like Hebrew, I recommend this book after a grammar book and dictionary.

[amazon_link id=”0764137484″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]501 Hebrew Verbs (Barron's Foreign Langage Guides)[/amazon_link]

Review of English Hebrew by Subject: Learn Hebrew Vocabulary

“English Hebrew by Subject” by Hanna G. Perez has recently become one of my favorite for learning Hebrew.  It’s part dictionary and part phrasebook, listing 41 categories of words from sciences, mathematics, animals, the town and everywhere in between.  It also has 12 other chapters on parts of speech adverbs, conjunctions, possessive adjectives etc. I now recommend this book to my students after a textbook, dictionary, and 501 Hebrew verbs.

The best aspect of this book is that it isn’t just limited to beginners/intermediate students.  It has words and phrases you simply won’t find in a dictionary. For example, unit 20 on the postal service.  Do you know how to say postal order (המחאת דואר), trackable (ניתן למעקב), certified mail (דואר רשום)?  Or lesson 27 on film, television, and performing arts, how do you say TV series (סדרה), sequel (סרט המשך), or remake (גרסה מחודשת).  Studying this dictionary or giving a section a once over before an upcoming encounter with one of the topics is a surefire way to go from whatever your current level is to being culturally savvy master of the topic.  Don’t worry it also has common words too.

The categories are really intuitive and simply listed by nouns, adjectives, and verbs.  Depending on the topic there are also sub-categories e.g. topic 15 “The House 1: Building and Real Estate” lists types of housing, construction & materials, structural elements, rooms & the garden, plumbing & fittings, professionals, and real estate.  Everything is fully vowelized.

The author also went to the trouble of listing the American and British equivalents i.e. מעלית is listed as an elevator and lift.  Aside from being very hand for speakers of all varieties of English, it’s quite entertaining learning how Brits say things, especially if you a language lover like myself.  The book also comes  with a 12 hour CD that helps you review vocabulary and check pronunciation.  I was very pleased to discover that a native English speaker read the English parts and a native Israeli read the Hebrew parts.

Physically the book is solid.  Comfortable size, quality paper, and good binding.  The publisher also has a keen eye for typography and layout.  The book really is bi-lingual (tri-lingual if you include the British-isms!).  There is a nice introduction, guide how to use the book, and a section where are abbreviations and conventions are spelled out.  Well done!

[amazon_link id=”9659068514″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]English Hebrew by Subject: Topic Dictionary for Learning and Reference[/amazon_link]

or check out the YouTube video demonstration

Hebrew for Dummies Review

I’m normally very pleased with the “For Dummies” series. This is a glaring exception.  This book is 100% in English, every Hebrew word is written out phonetically in English.  If you’re interested in “just getting into learning Hebrew already” and don’t want to learn the Hebrew alphabet this book might be good for you to test the waters if you really are interested.  However, I would very strongly advise anyone who is starting to learn Hebrew to learn the alphabet.  It’s one of the most interested aspects of learning Hebrew and it absolutely critical to getting past the absolute beginner mark.  Additionally, the author didn’t provide an adequate method of actually learning the Hebrew alphabet. Don’t be tempted by the inclusion of a CD, its quality is on par with the text itself. My quick google search revealed that she’s only put out one book on Hebrew.  Again, I’m a little shocked the people at “For Dummies” released this. I can really only recommend it to someone who doesn’t want to learn the Hebrew alphabet or can get it second hand and a very discounted price.

[amazon_link id=”0764554891″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Hebrew For Dummies[/amazon_link]