Farber, Barry. How to Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively Enjoyable, and on Your Own. Bethesda, Maryland: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.

Reviewed by Sarah Bishop, October 2016

Barry Farber is a self-taught speaker of multiple languages, founder of “The Language Club,” and a talk show host. His first language experience was actually quite unpleasant. He took a Latin class in high school and barely passed, struggling with the grammar and disillusioned with the dryness of the classroom setting. Around the same time period, however, he met a group of Chinese sailors stationed in Miami Beach and began to learn Chinese from them. He subsequently became addicted to acquiring new languages, later going on to learn Italian, Norwegian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Indonesian, Dutch, Hungarian, and many others. In a witty and motivational writing style, Farber outlines study plans and techniques that are accessible for a diverse array of self-learners, although the text lacks adequate recommendations for learning from native speakers.

Farber is an engaging author, humorous, and aims to “minimize grammar and maximize fun” (6) in his approach. The book occasionally becomes a bit sales-pitchy (“Follow the steps herein, and you will learn the language of your choice quickly, easily, inexpensively, enjoyably and on your own” 6, emphasis in original). That being said, his narrative style makes for an engaging read and gets one excited about language-learning. Farber presents language-learning as accessible to anyone and emphasizes that acquiring a new language need not entail suffering. His learning system is organized around four main points: “the multiple track attack” (using numerous curricula and pedagogical tools), utilizing hidden moments for study, “Harry Lorayne’s magic memory aid” (memorizing vocabulary via associations,) and early immersion in the language through reading and social interaction.

The first major component of Farber’s approach is the “multiple track attack.” He proposes not limiting oneself to one curriculum but rather gathering as many materials as possible. At a minimum, one needs a textbook, a dictionary, a travel phrase book, newspapers and magazines in the target language, a late-elementary/middle-school level student reader, cassette courses, and flashcards. He proposes also having blank cassettes to record phrases, vocabulary, and exercises according to one’s own needs. The logic behind this approach is that coming across a word serendipitously in a different context will teach one that word more effectively than only seeing it in a grammar book and repeating it by rote. Farber also recommends that one should be careful not to get stuck on a difficult passage or grammar explanation when working with a textbook. Learners should move on, he advises, and the passage will likely become apparent as they progress further in the learning process.

Once these materials are assembled, Farber outlines a plan of study. First, one should read through five lessons from the grammar book without consulting any other materials. Then, one takes a newspaper or magazine and reads through the first paragraph, highlighting all the unfamiliar words. The learner should then look for those unfamiliar words in a dictionary and write them down on blank flashcards (if the word is not in the dictionary, it should be written down on a “question card,” 44). Learners should carry the flashcards with them and memorize the vocabulary during spare moments throughout the day. During the next language session, the learner begins the second paragraph in the reading and follows the same process as above. At this point, the grammar book can be used simultaneously with the other materials. One should pick up the phrase book and begin memorizing this, as well, making up theoretical encounters and conversations/routines. As for the cassettes, Farber recommends using the transcripts and listening simultaneously at the beginning, then gradually utilizing the two separately. He also recommends creating one’s own tapes. While the new learners’ pronunciation may be lackluster, Farber posits that creating their own tapes allows them to supplement the prepared materials with materials that are specific to their individual language-learning goals.

Another significant component of Farber’s approach is the utilization of “hidden moments.” One should use the time waiting for the bus, waiting in line, riding the elevator, et cetera for practicing and memorization. The idea is that the language will be lost if one does not integrate it into daily life. Studying the language only during designated blocks of time limits one’s engagement with that language and can too easily be pushed aside (although these blocks of time are still important to go through the grammar books, do focused readings, and look up new vocabulary words.) Farber recommends utilizing nature walks and exercise time to listen to audio, for example, or pulling out flashcards while waiting in line. He discourages learners from thinking, “Oh, I’ve studied the language enough today. Let me take a break.” He recommends making games of it, that language can actually enhance one’s free time, and that “[l]earning languages can become incidental to daily life” (51).

Another component of Farber’s approach is “Harry Lorayne’s Magic Memory Aid,” which is actually not especially magical but is a memorization method that utilizes associative devices (see, for example, Leaver et al. 2005). Rather than repeat a word by rote until it is committed to memory, Farber suggests attaching an anecdote or image to the word. He addresses the skeptics who say that developing such associations takes too much time by arguing that these aids take no more time than memorizing by rote and are more effective in recall. Eventually, these associations disappear, and recall is instantaneous. Farber even recommends making vulgar associations with the new vocabulary word, since one is more likely to remember something if it is somehow sensational.

The final component of Farber’s approach is “the plunge” (62), immersing oneself in the practical application and conversation as soon as possible.  When one only studies language in seclusion, even known words and phrases are likely to disappear under pressure as soon as one has the opportunity to speak in that language. Even between encounters with native speakers, learners can narrate their daily actions in the target language. When they do encounter a native speaker, they should treat it as a learning opportunity, ask questions, and write down new words. Farber emphasizes the social dimension of language learning, even citing it as a major motivation in acquiring languages since it expands social opportunities and creates cross-cultural connections.

Farber also includes a chapter on grammar basics (e.g. defining a verb, noun, tenses, etc.) as an assist for those who may have forgotten primary and secondary school English, since language textbooks often do not offer these explanations and assume that the language-learner already knows the technical elements of grammar. In the appendices, he also includes some information on common target languages and a list of commonly-spoken languages around the world with their approximate number of speakers, presumably to help his readers choose which language they might be interested in learning.

Unlike some other language self-instruction books (see Marshall 1989 and Volunteer on-Going Language Learning Manual 2000), which assume that one is already in a community that speaks the target language, Farber targets a wider reader demographic that might encompass someone living in the United States who wants to learn a language as a hobby, a means for conducting foreign business transactions, and so forth. Thus he spends some time discussing how to choose a given language and potential motivations for learning that language. His emphasis is on the social, even suggesting that one can learn a language to expand the dating pool when he jokes, “I would steer you to the language of a people you find maximally attractive with every bit as straight a face as I’d advise those interested in importing from Asia to learn Japanese…” (69). He also refers to the celebrity status one can achieve with native speakers from learning a less-common language, a rather ethically dubious implication.

Methodologically, Farber emphasizes utilizing multiple learning materials. This differs from Marshall (1989), who especially focuses on mentorship and in-situ learning, and NASILP (2014), which emphasizes tapework and rote repetition. Actually, Farber does not particularly recommend a mentorship situation at all, suggesting that encounters with native speakers would occur at random or in social situations rather than in any particular learning-direct manner. Like our other readings, however, he does critique the classroom learning method, noting that students who enroll in foreign language classes are often still inept at interacting in the target language, even if they have completed advanced levels of study. Instead of focusing initially on grammar, one should focus on the language itself, and the grammar comes organically. Also similar to the Volunteer Ongoing Language Learning Manual (2000) and Marshall (1989) is Farber’s emphasis on on-going learning and, of course, self-teaching. Thus, his suggestions to narrate everyday actions in the target language, utilize small scraps of time for study, and immerse oneself in the language as quickly as possible are also quite similar to suggestions that our other authors have made.

Farber’s book as a whole is quite helpful for self-study language learners, particularly for those who are not actually dwelling in a community that speaks the target language. In fact, many of his suggestions have become even easier for learners to implement in recent years due to new developments in technology. Utilizing waiting time for language learning is quite easy with flashcard apps and podcasts on smartphones. The internet is a large resource for books and audio, many of them available for free, either legally (e.g. Foreign Service Institute) or illegally (it is not uncommon for people to upload PDFs of books that are still under copyright, even if it is morally questionable to download such materials). Online newspapers and TV shows on YouTube in the target language are also often available. Of course, this varies depending on the ubiquity of the language (finding Amharic materials, for example, is far easier than finding materials on Anywaa), so there are some limitations to Farber’s method. Lesser-known languages may only be accessed via interaction with native speakers.

Farber’s methods are lacking in a few areas. He does not sufficiently address learning with a native speaker. Having a mentor and outlining learning goals for time spent with native speakers is important if one truly wants to become fluent in interacting in the target language. Given the timing of the book’s publication, it also does not include the full range of possibilities available to learners via technology. Additionally, Farber’s recommendations for utilizing language skills as a way to get a date may run up against some ethical issues, depending on one’s line of work, policies of their organization, and so forth.

In conclusion, Farber offers some beneficial recommendations for acquiring a new language outside of the classroom setting. Certainly, this book should not be one’s only source for creating a learning plan, especially since Farber neglects opportunities for directed learning with native speakers and techniques one may utilize in such settings. What is perhaps most effective about the book, however, is that Farber is very motivating and presents language-learning as enjoyable and accessible. Indeed, he presents it as a lifestyle, which is certainly helpful for cultivating a lifelong learning model.

Works Cited

Farber, Barry. 1991. How to Learn Any Language: Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively Enjoyable, and on Your Own. Bethesda, Maryland: Carol Publishing Group.

Leaver, Betty Lou, Madeline Elizabeth Ehrman, and Boris Shekhtman. 2005. Achieving 
Success in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University 

“NASILP: Student Study Guide.” 2014. National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs.

Marshall, Terry. 1989. The Whole World Guide to Language Learning. Yarmouth, Me: 
Intercultural Press.

Volunteer Ongoing Language Learning Manual: Beyond 
Hello. 2000. Washington D.C.: Peace Corps.