Reviewed by Sara Farsiu, Fall 2015
Barry Farber, the author of How to Learn any Language, is a legendary talk show hosts in the US, former host of “The Barry Farber Show.” His language learning enthusiasm and his intrinsic, extrinsic, instrumental, and integrative motivation (Leaver, Ehrman, & Shekhtman, 2005) helped him to learn many languages and express himself in twenty-five of them. How to Learn Any Language in Farber’s words is written for learners who do not intend to spend money and time on language classes but instead look for successful self-teaching methods.
Throughout the book, Farber sets a satirical tone and makes jokes about how Americans learn foreign languages. For example, right in the beginning he calls Americans “notoriously poor language learners” (3). He, like Marshall (1987), states that the reason for this deficiency is the absence of need for language learning and the “worthless” foreign language instruction at American schools. However, he maintains that two factors have recently changed this situation: one is modern commerce and communications; the other is his book. With this in mind, the author states that if he could go back to 1944, when he started learning the first foreign language, he would start all over again with the language learning system in the book. Indeed, the system that he introduces here originates from his own trial and error in learning twenty-five languages.
Here, like Leaver et al. (2005), Farber urges language learners to find motivation for learning a particular language among the many languages in the world. Therefore, according to Wenden (1998) when learners are goal oriented and when they know that they have the skills and competence to do particular tasks, it motivates them to expand their knowledge or gain new skills in the process of language learning. By the same token, Farber states that the motives for learning a language could be very simple. For example, he recommends that if learners are enthusiastic about diamond, they should learn Dutch and if they admire opera they should learn Italian. This, as he states, motivates them to acquire more material and get more engaged in conversation. I agree with Farber because in my own experience my enthusiasm for Spanish literature motivated me to read Spanish novels in the original language even at the beginning levels.
How to Learn any Language is divided into three parts. The first part is called My Story, a brief autobiography of Farber’s language learning journey. Throughout this chapter, he tells the story behind learning twelve of the twenty-five languages. In Part Two, entitled The System, the author teaches learners strategies to become successful self-teachers. By the same token, Farber tells learners how to motivate themselves and how to create learning environments to become successful language learners. The final part contains appendices that provide information about a language club in New York, and Farber’s review about languages of the world.
Farber starts the book by telling the story of his encounter with Latin at school, which was his least favorite language. He hated Latin mainly because it was a dead language, which he could not use in everyday conversation. This is understandable to many people, like me, who have the same experience with learning dead languages. I also did not enjoy my Latin courses at the university because I did not have the opportunity to use my knowledge in the real world (Marshall, 1987). Indeed, language is a device to communicate and if learners do not get the chance to use their knowledge very soon they may get frustrated.
However, during a summer vacation, the Chinese language came to Farber’s rescue. Farber learned it from Chinese sailors in Miami Beach and had the opportunity of applying his language knowledge in the real world. In fact, he became so fluent in Chinese that he worked as an interpreter for the Chinese navy. When the summer came to the end, Farber bought Hugo’s Italian Simplified and learned Italian on his way home.
What a reader misses throughout the book is Farber’s confession about his proficiency level in each language. For example, he states after he learned both Spanish and French at school, it was the time for him to learn another language. For this purpose, Farber’s love for Ingrid Bergman made him think about learning Swedish. However, instead of Swedish he learnt Norwegian because Hugo’s Norwegian Simplified was one dollar cheaper than the Swedish self-study books. Besides, in the words of the bookseller, Swedish people could understand any American who spoke Norwegian. Therefore, although in many places in the book Farber criticizes the ways that schools measure students’ proficiency levels, which are not a correct representation of their actual performance, he never mentions his level of proficiency in any of the languages he learned.
Nonetheless, with any level of proficiency, it should be mentioned that Farber’s pace in learning languages is astonishing. Although he does not provide details about how he learned Serbo-Croatian within sixteen days, in addition to Russian, and German, he explains how he learned Indonesian. He calls this language “the easiest language in the world” (25), which he learned within eight days from a bilingual Indonesian speaker on the deck of a ship. Apart from his pace in language learning, what is unique about this book is Farber’s honesty about his motivation in learning all these languages. Without making up any intellectual reason, Farber states that he had interest to learn many more languages “just enough to delight the heart of an Indian or African cab driver” (33). This example is what Leaver et al. (2005) call intrinsic motivation, being motivated to fulfil a desire or need.
Farber claims that the second part of the book is supposed to be the secret-revealing chapter. As mentioned before, Farber states that he wished he could do all over again completely different from the way he learned all these languages over the years. Nonetheless, I find this statement contradictory and paradoxical to the purpose and all the examples in the book. The whole book is based on Farber’s lived examples that are supposed to motivate readers to learn a foreign language like he once did. In other words, there is no example in the book that shows Farber’s regret about any method he used to learn foreign languages.
Farber also blames American schools and colleges for seeding the belief that learning foreign languages is hard. He states that the reason why most Americans think in that way is because the intensive grammar lessons at schools disappoint learners. In fact, although he agrees that grammar is an important part of any language, he suggests it is not necessary to learn it in the very beginning of one’s language learning journey. In his opinion, grammar should be learned along the way.
However, in the middle of the book, Farber contradicts his own suggestion, now suggesting that learners start with grammar. Indeed, on the contrary to what he said before, he suggests not to use any other helping tools, or in his words “toys” (63), until the learners finish at least the first five chapters of the grammar book. He does, however, suggest that whatever the learners do not understand they write down and save for the time they meet with their mentor to ask them.
In fact, the mentor, he states, could be a target language native speaker grocer, waiter, or a secretary of a doctor, who in most cases are willing to help language learners. Both Marshall (1987) and Farber encourage learners to find help in the community, although, Marshall calls them “language advisors” and not “mentors,” with the former trained and the latter not.
Farber’s next suggestion is very useful for learners at the beginning and the intermediate levels. Like Marshall (1989), Farber encourages learners to try to read newspaper articles. He suggests that they should start with the first paragraph and look up the meaning of each new word in a dictionary. Then it should be easier for them to understand the rest of the article because of the words they found in the first paragraph. I remember that I used the same strategy when I was learning English. My father had an annual subscription for TIME magazine and I enthusiastically read the articles by looking up almost every word in an English-Persian dictionary.
Additionally, Farber maintains that in order to see the best results of the methods he suggests in this book, learners should dedicate at least one hour a day to language learning and use the hidden moments of their lives. Similarly, Marshall (1989) claims that learners should determine the best part of day to learn a language. Both authors encourage learners to harmonize language study with other activities to create a fun environment for learning. For example, they could follow Harry Lorayne’s “Magic Memory Aid” (Farber, 1991, p. 81). Lorayne states that in order to memories new vocabulary or the gender of words learners should find vivid associations around words. For instance, to memorize the word Kartoffel (potato) in German, learners should find associations between the pronunciation of the word and its meaning. Therefore, since the word Kartoffel is pronounced (as Farber says) “cart-AW-ful,” learners could imagine buying potato from a cart, which turn out to be awful.
After learning words and phrases, both Leaver et al. and Farber highlight making new connections with speakers of the target language. Farber gives good suggestions about learning useful phrases to get prepared for the time learners encounter native speakers. For example, learners should learn to say phrases like “I’m just a beginner,” to engage in conversation with target language speakers. Leaver et al. (2005) also indicate that there are many learners who have limited knowledge but can engage in a conversation. However, there are also learners who know a lot but fail in communication. In this regard, Farber maintains that if people’s motive in learning a language is social, they should learn languages spoken by people to whom they are attracted. Although I find the whole idea appealing, I wonder whether the examples he provides are appropriate. For instance, Farber divides languages into two groups of “blond and brunette languages” (Farber, 1991, p. 109). In this regard, he states that blondes are advised to learn German, Finnish, and Swedish, while brunettes should learn Italian, Greek, and Turkish. In general, blonde or brunette, Farber names two kinds of integrative motivation (Leaver et al., 2005) to his native English speaker audience when they make new connections in the target community. First, he states learners become like a celebrity among less popular language speakers. Second, they receive honor, love, and respect.
In the appendices, Farber encourages readers to become a member of the Language Club in New York that was run by him and other language lovers at the time he wrote the book. He states that many members are single and therefore this will be a good opportunity for learners to not only learn a language but also find a partner. Accordingly, he gives the number and the address of their language club for learners to contact. Finally, he gives a list of the total number of the native and non-native speakers of all languages in 1989 and reviews thirty-three languages.
Barry Farber’s How to Learn any Language is a well-written book, and since he had been a talk show host for many years, his writing style is very friendly, funny, and attractive. Besides, it is obvious from the examples he provides that he had experience learning several foreign languages. Another reason why I find this book interesting is the topics and the examples in the book that are very similar to the discussions we had in the seminar Theory and Methods of Learning a LCTL at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Fall 2015. For example, the suggestions that Farber makes about immersing in a target language environment are very similar to the discussions we had in the seminar on Terry Marshall’s The Whole World Guide to Language Learning.
However, I should also mention that my first reaction to the title of the book was very suspicious. Nevertheless, after reading the introduction, I knew that the author used a satirical and informal tone to motivate and to entertain learners. Accordingly, in his final chapter, Farber addresses his target audience and states that he hopes that those who never had the courage to learn a foreign language become motivated and start right away. Therefore, in my opinion, the style he used to write this book and the autobiographical examples may be very successful in inspiring readers.
Finally, I believe that this is a very useful book for learners, as Farber said, who want to learn a foreign language for the first time. However, if readers have already gone through the barriers of foreign language learning, this book may be useful for them to compare and contrast their experiences with another language learner.
Farber, B. (1991). How to Learn Any Language. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble.
Leaver, B.L., Erhman M., & Shekhtman B. (2005). Achieving success in second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marshall, T. L. (1987). “The multi-language seminar: An approach to offering more of the ‘less commonly taught’ languages.” Foreign Language Annals, 20, 155–163.
Marshall, T. L. (1989). The whole world guide to language learning: How to live and learn any foreign language. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.
Wenden, A. L. (1998). “Metacognitive knowledge and language learning.” Applied Linguistics, 19(4), 515-537.