Reviewed by Alexandra Fochio, Fall 2017
Na’im Muhammad, the author of the book, How to Learn Languages: 7 Steps to Fluency, begins his book by emphasizing that anyone can learn another language. He is quick to validate the effectiveness of his 7 step program by saying that he has personally tested the strategies used in this book for the past fifteen years. Muhammad explains that he is currently studying Arabic, Chinese, and Korean and uses the rest of the book to elaborate on his method of individual language learning. The book is set up in an easy-to-read way, with seven chapters outlining his seven steps to fluency. In addition, at the end of each chapter, he provides the reader with a summary of the main concepts and a plan of action. This plan outlines the actions you must take in order to accomplish the step. The plan of action is especially helpful if you are a beginner and do not know how to even start. In this review, I will summarize the main concepts of the book and provide an evaluation on the effectiveness of Muhammad’s seven step plan for other language learners, ultimately critiquing the method used in this book for its lack of credibility and unoriginality.
Step 1: Choose a language to learn
In this first step, Muhammad emphasizes the importance of choosing a language that you are actually interested in learning. He says that initial interest can be evaluated by creating a chart of languages as well as a pros and cons chart. By listing what you like about each language and what you do not like about each can help you to decide which language is the best for you to learn if you are struggling with this decision. In addition, he recommends that if you are an aspiring polyglot, you should focus on only one or two languages at a time, otherwise it can become overwhelming and confusing.
Step 2: Setting goals for language learning
Once you have decided on a language, there are other logistics that you, as a learner, must address before you even begin studying. Muhammad breaks Step 2 down into three sections. The first section deals with setting a hard deadline, or deciding upon overall time period that you will spend learning this language. For example, if you have accepted a job in a foreign country and you will begin in one year, you should adjust your learning plan so that you can meet this one year deadline. Within this time period, you should strive to achieve proficiency in your target language. If you do not set this deadline, Muhammad warns that you will never achieve the level of fluency that you aspire to. Muhammad does not explicitly explain the definition of proficiency. In other texts like, Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition, proficient speech is defined as, “a combination of accuracy and fluency,” (Leaver et. al, 5). In this same text, fluency is defined specifically as, “speaking with a normal tempo,” (Leaver et. al, 5). Based on these definitions, I would assume that Muhammad is referring to the first definition of proficient speech when he mentions ‘proficiency’ but it would have been more helpful if he had defined the term. By providing a definition, it helps to identify the level of language that a learner could expect to achieve after following Muhammad’s program. The next section discusses the importance of setting a specific daily time goal. The book suggests that it should be at least one hour a day, however it also says that as an individual learner, it should be up to you to decide the amount of time that you spend practicing. Other methods say that you should focus on a certain aspect of language learning (ie: reading, writing, speaking, or listening) however, Muhammad emphasizes that you can spend the allotted daily time doing anything that helps you practice the language: the main point is to remain consistent with your daily studies. The third section is devoted to helping the learner to become organized. Muhammad advises that the learner should compile a list of online sources that will help them advance their language learning. Muhammad offers, in this chapter as well as others, many different websites or applications that will help you to memorize vocabulary, find speaking partners, or find videos to watch. He also explains the importance of writing down your personal interests. He believes that by having a clear list of hobbies, you can gear your language study around them. In this way, you will be more interested and invested in your studies.
Step 3: Listen to the language
In the third step, Muhammad emphasizes the importance of improving your listening skills: “Without solid listening skills, the other pillars of language learning are rendered null and void.” Listening is necessary for a learner at any level, however Muhammad asserts that it is especially important for beginners. Entry-level learners should spend lots of time watching television or videos in the target language. To accomplish this step, Muhammad outlines two basic habits you need to begin practicing: The first is listening to audio in your target language. This can be achieved by watching television, videos, or movies. The second is shadowing. This is a method that describes how someone should learn correct pronunciation. The language learner should ‘shadow’ or copy the way a native speaker pronounces certain sounds and words.
Step 4: Read in the language
Initially, Muhammad suggests returning to the list of hobbies and interests that were created in Step 2. These interests should guide the sort of reading materials that you select. If, for example, you are interested in sports, you should pick a short, simple text that is sports related. Muhammad believes that by reading about your personal interests, you will engage better with the text and care more about it. As you improve and transition from the beginner level to a more intermediate level, it is important to read texts that are longer and more challenging. These texts can still be about your interests, however, as your proficiency increases, you should expand the kinds of readings you do and vary the subjects you read about. Muhammad also highlights the many benefits that come from reading, including the main one: increasing your vocabulary. As you continue to learn more and more words, it is important to devise a way to remember these words. Muhammad states that the best way to help improve memorization is to use spatial repetition software, like the memorization app ANKI.
Step 5: Speak in the language
Muhammad prefaces chapter five by stating that if you have been taking “significant strides to improve your listening and reading comprehension,” then speaking should be among the easiest steps in the book. I do not necessarily agree with this assertion. Simply because you have been improving your reading and listening skills in the previous two steps does not ensure that speaking will be the easiest step. Producing the language for yourself is difficult and takes lots of practice. It is necessary to practice speaking the language in order to actually make improvements on fluency and pronunciation. In the “Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method,” Nicholson observed a class that adhered to the linguist-informant method. This method is focused mainly on speaking, with the students repeating phrases over and over. The author asserted that by drilling the students verbally, the students were able to produce, “more automatic and fluent response[s],” (617). Contrary to what Muhammad suggests in his book, this method shows that language learners do not necessarily need to have made significant development in their reading and writing skills in order to attain a fluent level of speaking. Step 5 is split up into three sections. The first is to work on improving pronunciation. The second is to learn vocabulary terms and simple grammar patterns. The third is to search out a language partner who is located either online or offline. He even suggests a few websites such as www.meetup.com which help language learners find a group in their area to speak the target language with.
Step 6: Write in the language
The sixth step pushes the language learner to produce sentences and paragraphs of written text. By joining online platforms and blogs, you can write to other people using the target language. In addition, keeping a daily journal that is written in the target language will help to improve written proficiency.
Step 7: Mission accomplished
Step 7 is the last step in Muhammad’s seven step program. By this point, you should have reached a level of proficiency within your pre-determined deadline. Muhammad uses the rest of this chapter to give other tips and resources to help individual language learners maintain proficiency once they reach Step 7. One tip is to think within the target language. Another tip is to change the operating system language on your device. Another tip is to upload videos of you speaking in the target language onto YouTube or other online platforms. I would never do this because I think that there are many people on the internet who might post negative or hurtful comments on the videos. Although there is a chance that my video might be seen by a native speaker who might contact me to give useful feedback, I think that chance is very small. Instead, I think it would be more helpful to find an actual speaking partner with whom who you can converse. Finally, Muhammad suggests to really take your proficiency to the next level, you should consider traveling to a country that speaks the target language.
In How to Learn Languages: 7 Steps to Fluency, Muhammad gives readers useful information and resources to help facilitate language learning. He provides a large amount of online sources within the text. However, I do not think that this seven step method is particularly unique or different from any other language learning program. Muhammad says that he can speak Arabic, Chinese, and Korean and that all of the techniques written about in this book have been self-tested over the last fifteen years. However, he does not offer any other information on the effectiveness of this plan. This makes me question whether or not this plan is truly useful. I think that the bottom line is that this book offers useful tips on how to approach learning a language, however Muhammad’s language learning process is not unique, nor is it imaginative. There are other programs that are much more legitimate than Muhammad’s that offer essentially the same information. For example, the Peace Corps Volunteer On-going Language Learning Manual gives its readers a variety of concrete ways to improve their language skills. The manual offers lots of information including sections devoted to setting goals and learning objections, creating a learning plan, and learning with a language helper. These are very similar to the sections that Muhammad includes in his program, however Muhammad does not discuss them as extensively.
Leaver, Betty Lou., Boris Shekhtman, and Madeline Elizabeth. Ehrman. Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Nicholson, Helen s. “Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method,” The Modern Language Journal 28, no. 7 (1944): 615–19.
Peace Corps. Volunteer On-Going Language Learning Manual. Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research Information Collection and Exchange, 2000.