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