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Book Review: “How to Learn Any Language”

Have you ever wished that you’d read a certain book BEFORE you started a particular course of learning?

A while back, a friend suggested that I might enjoy Barry Farber’s book “How to Learn Any Language, Quickly, Easily, and on Your Own!” All I can say is I wish I’d discovered this book early on in my Irish learning endeavor!

Granted that I eventually came up with a lot of the same ideas on my own, it certainly would have saved time to have known them from the beginning.

An oldie, but a goodie

The only real problem with this book is that it was written in 1991, before the internet, fast and powerful home computers, iPods, and smart phones changed the way we acquire, assimilate, and store information.

In fact, when Farber wrote the book, the most techologically sophisticated resource he had available to him was a cassette player.

That said, virtually every method outlined in the book is easily adaptable to (and, in most cases, made easier by) the devices of the modern world.

About the author

Barry Farber is probably best known in the U.S. as a conservative radio talk show host. He’s also, however, a language-learning enthusiast with 25 languages under his belt, including Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Hungarian, Indonesian, Dutch, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian.

Farber is also the founder of The Language Club,” a New York-based conversation group formed by Farber in the 1980s and recently revived by his daughter and grandson. A unique feature of this club is that it that welcomes all languages to its “practice parties.”

Don’t skip the biography!


In the first part of the book, entitled “My Story,” Farber tells of his life-long fascination with languages (which was nearly derailed when he missed a very important Latin grammar class!) and all things “foreign.”

If you’re in a hurry to start learning, you may be tempted to skip this section. Please resist the temptation! Farber’s story makes for interesting reading, and you’ll be sure to find some inspiration for your own language journey in his.

His writing style is definitely entertaining as well! Consider this passage, in which he discovers the joys of Italian:

“Italian, I discovered, was Latin with all the difficulty removed. Much as a skilled chef filets the whole skeleton out of a fish, some friendly folks somewhere had lifted all that grammar (at least, most of it!) out of Latin and called the remainder Italian!

“There was no nominative-genitive-dative-accusative in Italian. Not a trace, except in a few pronouns which I knew I could easily take prisoner because we had the same thing in English (me is the accusative of I). Italian verbs did misbehave a little, but not to the psychedelic extent of Latin verbs. And Italian verbs were a lot easier to look at.”

Myth busting

In the second section of the book, entitled “The Method,” Faber begins by debunking some myths common among adult language learners, including:

  • That one can learn a language passively, just by listening to it.
  • That time isn’t important, and that it doesn’t matter if you skip a day or two (or a week or two) of study.
  • That it’s OK to skip the hard stuff.
  • That one shouldn’t bother to develop a good accent.
  • That there’s no need to learn grammar.
  • That someday you will “know” the language, and no longer be a learner. 

Farber’s Method

As many language instructors now advise, Farber recommends using a “multi-track” method of learning language. In other words, you don’t rely on audio programs or grammar books alone, but rather use a combination of methods.

Where his approach really shines, however, is in HOW he suggests you approach these various “tracks.” For example, he advises you to complete five chapters in your grammar book before tackling anything else.

Once you’ve done that, all restrictions are off, and he offers all kinds of advice as to where to find opportunities to practice using all the resources at your disposal (including the most productive way to use flash cards).

Advanced reading material


One thing I found interesting was his advice to get a newspaper or magazine that is geared toward speakers of your target language:  actual “speakers,” not “learners.”

As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I’m a huge advocate of reading as a tool for language learners. In fact, I’ve written a few posts on the subject:

Normally I recommend reading material geared toward learners, but I found his argument for using something “real world,” regardless of difficulty, tremendously compelling! (for more on that, I’m going to make you read the book!)

The Harry Lorayne Magic Memory System


This section on mnemonics is, in and of itself, worth buying the book for. It’s possible that some of you have already worked out some of these techniques for memorizing words in another language (I had), but there’s still enough sufficiently innovative stuff in this chapter to make it invaluable for any language learner.

Check out this example, from Spanish:

“The Spanish word for “old” is viejo, pronounced vee-A-ho the middle syllable rhyming with “hay.” Imagine a Veterans Administration hospital — a VA hospital — that’s so old and decrepit they have to tear it down and build a new one. Before they lay in the dynamite, the crew foreman calls the contractor and tells him “We don’t have to waste dynamite on this VA hospital. It’s so old I can knock it over with a hoe!

Got it? A VA hospital so old you can knock it over with a hoe.  Therefore “old” equals V-A-hoe, and that gives us viejo.

Now tell me that’s a technique you can’t use for Irish!

The really cool thing (and he demonstrates this as well) is the mnemonics don’t become a crutch. Once the word is solidly in your memory, the “crutch” disappears!

Worth a read

In the final analysis, this book belongs in any language learner’s library. If you want to check it out for yourself, here’s the information that will allow you to find it on-line or in your local library:

How to Learn Any Language

LC Control NUMBER 2002104920

ISBN-13: 978-1-56731-543-1

ISBN-10: 1-56731-543-7

Happy reading!

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: “How to Learn Any Language””

  1. Audrey, a chara,

    When I was back in B.Á.C. last week I bought a book in Veritas entitled AN tAIFREANN NAOFA 
    ISBN: 978-0-9568451-8-4.

    It is a parallel-text book with Irish on one page and the corresponding Béarla on the facing page.
    This book also comes with a DVD.

    For those students of Irish who are Catholc, they might find it useful to get this book and read through it or listen to the DVD.

    This is one way to become familiar with different varations of the spelling of a given Noun, depending on context, as well as other idioms.

    For example : Father:
       a Athair uilechumhachtaigh
    a Athair naofa
    In ainm an Athar
    Mac an Athar,
    ar dheis an Athar
    le toil an Athar
    ón Athair
    leis an Athair
    Ár nAthair
    i nglóir Dé an tAthair
    an tAthair uilechumhachtach
    Le dea-ghuí,

  2. I am still not convinced, Audrey dear … everytime I hear the english word PICTURE, I have a picture of people gluing paintings on a wall as my mnemonic aid for picture is the homophonic slang expression “pickt scho” (meaning – It is already properly glued!).
    The same applies to irish na hUdarais – an easy to remember expression for me as the homophonic “Huderer” is somebody who works too fast and the result therefore is clumsy. My view on irish authorities is a bit labelled by that, honestly.
    Or I hear the russian word for fast, which is “bystro” and I immediately imagine a waiter running around the Eiffel Tower.


    PS: Freud originally came from Austria, maybe this explains a bit.

  3. The “crutch” does recede from active memory, Michi, in that you don’t have to use it every time you want to know the meaning of the word. Talking would be a bit awkward if everytime you wanted to say “sky,” for example, you found yourself mentally saying “let me see…”a spear is thrown into the sky”…”spear sounds a little like “spéir”…a ha! “Spéir = sky!” You will probably always remember the mnemonics you used (in fact I know you do, as I use the ones I devised when teaching other people), but you don’t need them every time you see or say the word.

    He gives several examples in the book where he’ll go through several paragraphs explaining his mnemonics for words in various languages. Then, in the final paragraph, he’ll simply ask “do you remember what X,Y, and Z mean?” and sure enough…you know them without thinking about it.

  4. Go raibh maith agat as an leid.

    But funny enough the The Harry Lorayne Magic Memory System is very familiar to me, because we call it “Eselsbrücke” (donkey’s bridge). And I can remember my very first english lesson back in 1979 very well – I do thanks to the smashing hint of my teacher to build as many donkey’s bridges as possible. I have been using this method for so many years and it works fabulously

    >Once the word is solidly in your memory, the “crutch” disappears!
    And so I have disagree with this sentence – the crutch never disappears, but if you are using many of them they mix up with your very own made up mind picture of the country your new language is spoken in and create a very private landmap of your new language and culture. And this is fun.


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