Reviewed by Tyler Hook, Fall 2017
In How to Learn Any Language in a Few Months While Enjoying Yourself: 45 Proven Tips for Language Learners (2014), author Nate Nicholson presents dozens of skills, tips, challenges, and mistakes that every language learner should be aware of in order to achieve language fluency, which he describes as the “ability to communicate with native speakers with relative ease, not as being 100% accurate” (p.2). This fairly subjective and simplified understanding of language (and in this case fluency) is common throughout the book, and is significantly different from some more common approaches, such as the “can do” statements used by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL 2012). Nicholson’s understanding of fluency is however similar to what Marshall (1989) describes as “communicative competence,” which is the “simple goal of being able to speak to, understand, and be understood by native speakers” (p.2). Due in part to somewhat simple presentations of language acquisition, the book is a quick and easy read that often lacks an evidence base for the effectiveness of such strategies and tips. The result is a book that reads more like a self-help book or blog than an in-depth analysis of how to learn a language while “enjoying” oneself.
Nicholson divides the book into eight short chapters, not including a very brief introduction and afterword. Chapter 1 focuses on having the proper mindset and presents the first three “proven” tips for language learning, which include tip 1: “Believe it’s Possible,” tip 2: “Have a Strong Reason Why,” and tip 3: “Don’t try to be Perfect, Just Get it Going.” The tips in this section, foreshadowing chapters to come, are fairly straightforward, emphasizing the importance of motivation, and do not necessarily break any new or interesting ground in language learning.
Chapters 2 through 5 focus on specific language skills: speaking (chapter 2), listening (chapter 3), reading (chapter 4), and writing (chapter 5). Nicholson argues that speaking and listening are the two most important skills to have, and therefore emphasizes these two skills throughout the book. Tips in these three chapters largely focus on how to find resources to develop each chapter’s specific skill set. For example, tip 1,“Use Language Exchange Sites” (chapter 2), simply describes and links to a few language exchange sites, crafts an email to send to perspective language partners, and warns the reader that such websites are often used for online dating. Subsequent tips include: speaking to your pet (tip 2, chapter 2), traveling and not using English (tip 5, chapter 2), watching movies without subtitles (tip 1, chapter 3), and listening to music (tip 2, chapter 3), videos on youtube (tip 3, chapter 3), podcasts (tip 4, chapter 3), the radio (tip 5, chapter 3), and reading children books (tip 1, chapter 4), comics (tip 2, chapter 4), blogs (tip 3, chapter 4), news sites (tip 4, chapter 4), and books (tip 5, chapter, 4). Chapter 5, on writing, is one of the stronger chapters, providing not only more novel tips (such as tip 4, participating in online forums to improve one’s writing), but also a deeper glimpse into Nicholson’s theoretical and pedagogical understanding of language learning. This is particularly seen in Nicholson’s attitude towards grammar rules, which Nicholson claims are unimportant, advocating instead that immersing oneself in writing and reading the language leads to fluency. Unfortunately, little evidence is provided to support these claims.
The final three chapters of the book present additional tips (chapter 6), common mistakes to avoid (chapter 7), and the five most common challenges of language learning (chapter 8). The tips in chapter 6 focus on the importance of repetition, motivation, and immersion, with specific tips including focusing on the “key 20%” or the 1,000 most used words in the foreign language (tip 1), getting an online teacher (tip 5), and thinking in your target language (tip 7). Chapter 7 outlines nine common mistakes, and focuses on the learner’s behaviors, such as being lazy (mistake 1), not having enough diversity in your language techniques (mistake 2), trying to deconstruct everything (mistake 7), and using patterns from your native language to understand your target language (mistake 8). Ultimately, Nicholson wants the learner to engage directly with the material without cognitively analyzing it. Critical thinking and cognitive skills developed as an adult are discouraged and treated as a detriment to learning instead of an asset, somewhat challenging other language learning resources, such as Leaver et. al (2005), who argues that an adult’s advanced cognitive skills could be seen as an asset in one’s language learning. The book concludes with five common challenges (chapter 8), which often read as variations on the previous tips. For example, challenge 1, being afraid to speak, merely reiterates tip 3 of chapter 7, waiting too long to speak, as well as the entirety of chapter 2, which consistently discussed the importance of speaking.
Overall, the book provides a fairly simplistic description of language learning that heavily emphasizes “communicative competence” (Marshall, 1989), and doesn’t break much new ground in the field. It often reads like a self-help book written by an enthusiastic learner rather than an expert. Such books are increasingly common, especially in the field of foreign language learning, as Amazon has provided a distribution point for nearly any one willing to self-publish, and neoliberal globalization promoting individualism, adaptability, and entrepreneurship pushes people to learn new skills to adapt to the shifting needs of the market. Nicholson doesn’t present himself as an expert in language acquisition. Indeed, his primary area of expertise seems to be self-help, having written books on introversion, entrepreneurship, happiness, and personal growth. It seems that Nicholson’s experience with language acquisition is limited to his purportedly teaching himself Spanish in a few months. However, his exact learning process is never presented, leaving the reader with a bunch of random resources and commonsense tips.
Discouragingly, in How to Learn Any Language in a Few Months While Enjoying Yourself, any science, analysis, or even personal narrative behind these 45 strategies is absent, and there is no attempt to relate these strategies to other work in the field, or to grander theory in language learning or learning in general. What results is a book filled with basic strategies and simple step-by-step instructions for how to search for resources online. The book may be helpful for neophyte second language learners with an affinity for self-help books. It is particularly useful for those interested in using technology and the internet in their language learning. However, if a learner is hoping for a concrete understanding of methods, strategies, and theories behind foreign language acquisition, a more personalized approach to language learning, or is learning a language that is less-commonly taught and has limited online resources, this book is not for them.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (2012). Proficiency Guidelines. Accessed from: https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/public/ACTFLProficiencyGuidelines2012_FINAL.pdf
Leaver, B. L., Ehrman, M., & Shekhtman, B. (2005). Achieving success in second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.
Marshall, T. (1989). The Whole World Guide to Language Learning. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.