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Review of “How to learn any language” by Barry Farber

The last week or two, I’ve spent my morning bus rides on reading “How to learn any language” by Barry Farber, a book, originally published in 1991 which has become quite a classic recommended to people wanting to take up a new language.


Why Barry Farber learns languages

Farber dedicates the first part of the book to describing his life with languages, why he learns them and where they have taken him. I quite enjoyed this part. His language learning adventures started where it ends for most people – with classroom learning in school. Young Farber, who was fascinated by everything foreign, had to face the Latin language and the way it was taught in the US in the 40’s. Although he excelled due to his motivation in the beginning, he fell behind as grammar was introduced. Farber then took it upon himself to learn Chinese, on his own, in order to prove to himself that he could. This reminds me of why I originally took up learning French. I’ve had success with English, so I wanted to prove that I could learn another language too.
Farber soon adds Norwegian to his language learning list. He wanted to be able to speak with the likes of (Swedish!) Ingrid Bergman, but he could only afford the Norwegian book. Later on he actually did get the opportunity to interview Bergman, but I forgot wether it was in Norwegian or Swedish. Each language Farber has studied, has taken him new places, like he went on a student exchange program to the Balkans or when he helped Hungarian refugees cross the border to Austria.

If reading about where each new language has taken the author isn’t enough, then Farber’s colorful and anecdotal descriptions of the different tongues certainly does the trick. He describes Indonesian as the easiest language in the world, and the examples he includes really makes you want to study it. Did you know that “Orangutan” means “man of the forest? Hungarian, seems to have been more of a challenge. He describes this one as the sound of a pneumatic drill, because it always stresses the first syllable of the word. And Italian is simply “easy Latin”.
This mixture of anecdotes from a life with languages, the specifics of what’s to love about each one as well as the meetings with its speakers really does it for me. This is great motivation for someone who is thinking about picking up another language!

Barry Farber’s language-learning methods

Under the heading of “Do as I now say, not as I then did”, Farber leads us to the main part of the book, namely in which he tells us how he’d go about learning languages if he were to start all over. The advancement in technology from the beginning of Farber’s journey to the 90’s when the book was published were tremendous. Today, however, we’re much farther, but for many points, his methods can be seen through a present-time lens. Cardboard flashcards can be exchanged for Anki’s mobile app, the tape recorder for more modern portable technology, and the difficulty of obtaining a foreign language newspaper to study no longer exists due to the internet. I encourage readers to try and read the tips through a present day lens, which keeps the methods useful.

The multi-track attack

Farber argues that one should always attack the language from several fronts. I’ve written a separate blog post about the multi-track approach but the general idea is that a new concept or idea (or word) is enforced by seeing it in different contexts. If you spend your mornings studying the same book, and you just can’t wrap your head around some specific points, try listening to a radio show in that language, or watching a move, or picking up a magazine. Chances are, that once you see the same word in another context, you’ll recognize it and you’ll feel like you’re reunited with a long lost bother. The victory of seeing what you studied exemplified in another situation cannot be underestimated. It’ll bring your attention back to the word and have you never forget it again.
Farber argues that you should get a bunch of learning material right from the beginning and work five lessons into it. Then start studying “real life” material like a newspaper. I agree with Farber that it’s helpful to jump right into native stuff. It’s what he calls “the plunge”, and when it’s paired with beginner material, it isn’t too intimidating. Just don’t spent all your time with native-level newspapers.

Flashcards, Pimsleur etc.

I’m not going to spend a lot of energy describing Farber’s language learning approach. Namely because I don’t agree that much of it. Farber advices his reader to use flashcards (old fashioned cardboard ones, but if you’re interested you might want to make a google search for language learning with Anki flash-cards.) Language learning courses on audio cassettes were a great technological advancement in his time, which is why he warmly recommends the Pimsleur audio courses. I find both of these approaches quite tedious, and I think that there are better ways to study languages. Have a look at my blog post about how I’d go about studying Arabic if I were to start over: How I’d study Arabic.

Is grammar study important?

Barry Farber, like most people, isn’t big on grammar, and he knows that his reader probable isn’t too. He does however encourage his reader to never “skip” difficult grammar explanations in the book, or to leave grammar study for later. It makes sense to some extent. You can’t expect any language learning method to teach you anything just by leafing through it. You have to do the work. On the other hand, I’d argue that the emphasis on grammar is unnecessary. There is absolutely no need to sit down and study grammar specifically. These kinds of things are much better understood through context. When you get the habit of seeing patterns, you develop an automatic and instantaneous understanding of grammar without having to think about it. Think of your first language. How did you learn to speak it correctly?

Memorization tricks

Farber goes into detail on how he tries to memorize difficult words. He accredits memorization techniques to a certain “Memory Magician” called Harry Lorayne. It’s quite simple really. If a word is difficult to remember, try making an association. The more weird, absurd, outrageous or even vulgar the association, the better!

There are tons of ways that this could be done. You need to spend a few seconds coming up with an association, and some may argue that this adds up to a substantial amount of time that could otherwise have been done studying in the conventional sense. But do you have any idea how much time you spend revising, looking up and taking notes for each word you need to remember? Chances are that it’s a lot. Farber assures the reader that the association, eventually, will fade, even when you remember the word. I still can’t seem to remember my strange train of thought for remembering the name of “the categorical imperative” back in philosophy class ten years ago, but I don’t think it matters much.

Now let’s take an example (and there are many more in the book). The French word for bicycle, “velo”. I imagine a French bicycle rider in the Tour de France who suddenly has a mechanical malfunction. He was in the lead, so when seeing the other competitors surpass him, he gets really frustrated and angrily throws his bicycle into a well. Then he realizes how stupid that was, and goes “oh…” well-oh, velo.

You don’t need any more than that, and you don’t need to write like Hemingway either. The more ridiculous or stupid your association, the better you’ll remember it.

Hidden moments

Farber also dedicated a chapter to taking advantage of all the “hidden moments” during the day, in which you could review a flashcard or otherwise get a little studying done. I think that it’s great to sorround yourself with the language at all times, and this way of constantly “getting back” to the language when you have a few seconds to spare is great. But I don’t think that this is where the serious learning takes place. I just can’t concentrate on studying Arabic while waiting in line in the supermarket, but overall, it’s a good idea. Bring some study material with you at all times, and make good use of your time in the bus or the waiting room. But doing flashcards while waiting for your friend to pick up the phone might be overdoing it.

To sum up

“How to learn any language” by Barry Farber is a great book for motivation, inspiration and great language learning anecdotes from a fellow enthusiast. I wouldn’t use it as an end-all guide to acquireing a foreign language, though. Many of the methods and method-specific points I don’t agree with, and some seem a little outdated. The book also seems to address a mostly american audience, but it can be useful to anyone. The book is an easy read. It’s humerous, and you quickly start to like the style and personality that shines through. Buy this book if you enjoy reading about other people’s experiences in language learning, but if you’re looking for a guide to learning languages, I’d suggest that you have a look at some other methods too. I recently did a review of another book by the accomplished hungarian poliglot Kato Lomb that I also recommend. Polyglot: How I learn languages by Kató Lomb

As for Barry Farber’s book, you can get it on Amazon here: How to learn any language by Barry Farber


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