Book Reviews: Fall 2020/2021

African 670: Fall 2020

Professor Agoke

Lourdes Ortega. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. London: Routledge, 2009

Reviewed by Aaron Suiter

Understanding Second Language Acquisition is a graduate-level textbook in second language acquisition (SLA), written by linguistics professor and polyglot Lourdes Ortega. The book is structured around various critical areas of study and debate in SLA, many of which are useful for students teaching themselves a second language. Ortega begins with a discussion of the scholarship on student age and SLA. Much work has focused on the critical period of L1 acquisition, and there is general consensus that the critical period for learning one’s first language is in their first 18 months after birth (3). But although there is solid evidence of a critical period for L1 acquisition, a critical period for L2 acquisition is much trickier to define or prove. There are a number of cases of adult learners who learned L2 languages to such a high level that native speakers could not identify them as non-native. The book discusses the case study of “Julie,” a native English speaker who married an Egyptian man and moved to Cairo, and without formal education, gained competency in Egyptian Arabic. In fact, native speakers were unable to identify her as a non-native speaker. While this is certainly an exceptional case, researchers have estimated that up to 25% of older students in high-quality language learning environments can achieve near-native fluency (19).

As for the question of whether L2 acquisition is easier for young learners or old learners, the jury is still out. Older learners usually start out learning faster, but their lead dissipates after one year. Some studies have complicated this, showing that older learners can hold onto their lead for at least 5 years. Either way, the difference is not enough to discourage older students from learning a language. Often we are saturated with the idea that it is best to learn languages young, but this type of messaging can be counterproductive. Excellent results are still attainable for adult learners.

The next issue Ortega takes up is that of crosslinguistic influence—that is, how the languages one already knows affects the learning of new languages. Knowledge of two or more languages can increase the speed at which learners pick up a new language. It is also important to note that crosslinguistic influences can slow our rate of learning (31). Our L1 can lead us to avoid constructions in our target L2, or we can erroneously use L1 grammatical patterns in our L2. Especially at the earlier stages of language learning, when we try to communicate long and complicated ideas through complex sentences, we are much more likely to revert to the patterns of our L1. So if learners are trying to limit the crosslinguistic effects of their L1, they should avoid constructing sentences that are too complex for their skill level.

While sometimes people think of language learning as just putting in the necessary time, researchers have found that this is not always the case. A classic case study of this in the literature is the story of “Wes,” a native Japanese speaker who spent three years in Hawaii speaking English 90% of the time. He was exceptionally gregarious, and his peers noted that he often steered conversations (in English). Despite all the time he spent in his target language, and despite his positive attitude toward the language, researchers found that his English grammar was quite rudimentary (56). Researchers theorize that Wes’s struggles to acquire grammar were related to features missing from his “linguistic environment.” According to researchers, the optimal linguistic environment is comprised of five “ingredients”: accultured attitudes (a positive attitude toward the L2), comprehensible input (typically linguistic data slightly above the learner’s level), negotiated interaction (usually involving clarification requests, confirmation checks, and comprehension checks), pushed output (producing language slightly above the learner’s ability), and “a capacity to attend to the language code, not just the message” (79).

If not every ingredient of the linguistic environment is optimized, language learning is not guaranteed. Importantly, positive attitudes and “abundant and meaningful comprehension of L2 message” are not sufficient to learn a language (79). It is also important to note that comprehension and acquisition are two different processes—some learners can comprehend more than they can acquire and vice versa (60). Comprehension does not require complete processing of forms. If you heard the sentence “last week I biked to the co-op,” you could comprehend that the action took place in the past (because of the words “last week”) even if you missed the -ed ending on “biked.” So in order to truly acquire the language, more than just comprehension is required. Specifically, output is needed. The process of producing sentences requires far more syntactical processing, especially when the learner is pushed to be more precise about their intended meaning.

Returning to the issue of input, Stephen Krashen formulated the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis in 1985, which essentially states that when L2 learners process material slightly above their level, they naturally learn grammar. That is, the process for learning an L2 is essentially the same as learning an L1. This hypothesis still holds a lot of sway, but investigations into Krashen’s hypothesis have essentially shown that it is false. Even in studies of young children learning an L2 in immersion environments, grammatical growth is very limited when explicit grammatical instruction is withheld. So to paraphrase Ortega, comprehensible input is necessary, but not sufficient to learn a language (60).

The debate over the value of grammar instruction is one of the most contentious issues in the SLA community. Many language learning guides say you should not spend time explicitly learning grammar—so is this backed up by research? There has been a lot of work exploring the differences between naturalistic learners (those who live in an L2 environment, but do not take language classes), and learners in classroom environments. Those receiving direct instruction in grammar outperform their naturalistic peers in a variety of tasks. If we take English as an example, naturalistic learners often never produce the -ed verb ending, but those in courses produce it at an extremely high rate. For me and my peers, this is useful in that it shows the potential benefits of structured language lessons as opposed to conversation practice. While we can certainly learn to communicate well through just conversation practice, a relatively low investment in explicit grammar instruction (where available) can yield impressive gains.

Since a low investment in grammar instruction yields high dividends in terms of language production, we should all consider explicitly incorporating grammar into our ISPs. Before considering this further, I will note that, for Ortega and others in this field, complete acquisition means the ability to produce native-like speech. This might not be everyone’s goal. For instance, if one simply wants to travel and be able to successfully have basic conversations, complete acquisition is not necessary. But if one wants to publish articles in their target language, or communicate at a high level in all situations, complete acquisition does become essential. So as we think about incorporating grammar into our ISPs, we should do so with full awareness of our goals. Often, we have to balance grammar with other learning strategies, like coping. Especially at lower levels, coping can be really helpful. When I first started learning Arabic, I indicated the past tense by gesturing behind my shoulder. While this worked for a time, learning the past tenses in Arabic made it much simpler to communicate. It can be tempting to avoid grammar because it is possible to attain fairly high levels of communication with relatively poor grammar. But for people aiming for the Superior or Distinguished ACTFL level, learning grammar early could potentially make it easier to reach those levels later on.

Repairing one’s utterances is a very effective way to push output—that is, to push output to a level above where the learner is typically comfortable. There are two ways to do this: self-initiated and externally-initiated (through an interlocuter asking for clarification). Both lead to high rates of successful modification, but self-initiated repair was found to be more successful (69). Ortega also touches on another interesting topic: negative feedback. According to Ortega, the terms “negative feedback,” “error correction,” “corrective feedback,” and “negative evidence,” are all used interchangeably in SLA research (71). Ortega prefers the term “negative feedback,” but it is important to note that, in the context of SLA research, negative feedback is any feedback that indicates that the learner has made an error. An example of negative feedback would be when a listener does not understand something and says “sorry?” Contemporary research is generally in agreement that issuing negative feedback improves learning outcomes better than ignoring errors.

This book was really rich with case studies, and I found it very useful to read about a multitude of different language learners with varying levels of success: the wildly successful student of Arabic Julie; the Cartesian philosopher Richard Watson who failed utterly to learn French; and the Japanese student of English, Wes, who stagnated in his grammatical growth. Often language learning texts are written from the perspective of successful language learners, but I find it very useful to analyze what went wrong for certain less-successful students. In the case of the Cartesian philosopher Watson, Ortega highlights his low enjoyment of the language. In particular, he hates the word l’oiseau “the bird,” which in his comical description is “a word that cannot be pronounced without simpering, a word whose use should be restricted to children under five” (169). With that type of animus toward the French language, it is no surprise that he failed!

Older work on motivation in SLA sought to show that “integrativeness” was a key motivator in L2 learning, which was defined as “a genuine interest in learning the second language in order to come closer to the other language’s community” (172). Although intuitive, recent work has shown that this genuine desire to become closer with a language community is not a predictor of success in L2 learning. More recent work looks at the idea of the “Ideal L2 Self.” Many successful language learners have a notion of their ideal L2 self, and they are aware of the discrepancy between their actual self and ideal self. The drive to close this gap is a very powerful motivator in language learning, and it is independent of any desire to identify with members of the target language community.

I will conclude with Ortega’s discussion of personality. According to research, learning a new language makes us vulnerable and threatens our ego (212). Our affective reactions to this depend a lot on our personality, and some people are psychologically unphased by this while others struggle. Language learning is about much more than putting in the work—we have to constantly accept failure and be willing to take risks. So as we evaluate our progress, we need to look not only at the quality of our activities, but also examine how we manage our learning emotionally.


Dickinson, Leslie.  Self-Instruction in Language Learning: New Directions in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Reviewed by Mwita Muniko, Fall 2020

When I was going through a list of published language learning books, Leslie Dickinson’s Self-Instruction in Language Learning stroke my attention because of a range of topics he addresses, and which at first sight are relevant for our chosen mode of learning languages. Dickinson sets out to provide a model of language learning in which language “learners with special needs, whether in terms of aptitude, purposes, or in terms of their own availability, can be catered for” through the creation of methodologies for self-instruction (1). His approach privileges a heterogeneity of language learning needs especially those in institutions of higher learning and workplaces where flexibility is much more desirable. The book is divided into two main parts with eight sections in total, discussing in greater details the theories and methodologies of self-instruction in language learning. The first part of the book engages with “Basic Issues in Self-Instruction” while part 2 discusses the various ways in which self-instruction can be effectively facilitated both by language teachers and language learners.

Dickinson does not want us to conceptualize self-instruction as one that sharply departs from normative ways of learning. Narrowly construed he, in fact, sees self-instruction as any kind of learning which individuals undertake without direct supervision of their instructors, and this may range from regular homework in traditional classes to self-directed studies. The main distinction revolves around responsibility for learning. This narrow perception of self-instruction, however, differs from our approach in this course because while we have an administrative/supervisory professor, we come up our own learning goals and design specific learning activities to meet set goals. Learning goals and activities in traditional language classes, homework or otherwise, are usually determined by instructors. Thus, in Part One, Dickinson grapples with various terms which are associated with self-instruction more broadly and generally placing high emphasis on learners as the ones who bears greater responsibilities for their own learning. In self-instruction, he notes that the instructor instead “seeks to transfer to the learners an increasing degree of responsibility for their own learning” (9). This model of learning flips the norms in traditional language classes in which teachers “dominate the classroom” (Marshall 2005; 8) and instead give much decision making authority to learners in such issues as “determining learning goals, making decisions about materials…allocating time to tasks” and generally managing the pace of their own learning (9). Dickinson thus elucidates several learning models which place learning responsibility on learners to include self-direction, autonomy, semi-autonomy, self-access and individualized instruction among others.

A quick evaluation of the models of self-instruction described by Dickinson seem to underline the “teacher”, in the sense of classroom teacher as an important element in the learners’ language learning process. While he centers the “teacher” as an important element, he stresses that “the teacher’s roles and relationships change” to become not so much about teaching but “helping” (122-123).  According to Dickinson, an ideal helper exhibits all the skills of a language instructor including knowledge of target language, setting objectives, material preparation, linguistic analysis among others. It does seem like more of a hybrid form of self-instruction in which depending on the several models he outlines, teachers/helpers can seamlessly move in and out of learner’s independence. I think that the kind of self-instruction envisioned by Dickinson does not grant total independence to learners. Among the models he describes, it’s only autonomy and individualized instruction which seem to give total independence to learners in as far as material selection and access, activities and evaluation of progress are concerned. We see in this work, a modeling of the guidelines provided by the NASILP (National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs) Study Guide and the model described by Helen S. Nicholson (1994) work Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method in which actual drills and practice sessions are held in classes in with a mentor/informant/tutor’s lead. To some extent, some of these models would work well among a group of adults interested in learning a common language and may need to be nuanced for a heterogenous group with each individual learning their own language.

Having shown that self-instruction is actually possible and practical, Part 1 of this book concludes with a challenge that “because a particular instructional mode is possible does not mean that it is desirable” (17). What then makes various self-instructional models desirable? Betty Leaver, in her (2013) book Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition provides justifications which seem intelligible to individuals learning a language to be able to use it abroad. Such reasons, according to Leaver include among others, “traveling abroad, studying abroad, working abroad” (4). Such is also the justification provided by Volunteer On-Going Language Learning Manual (2000). But Dickinson’s justifications do not seem to lean so much towards internationalism but rather individual differences and preferences among language learners. What I find most compelling in his analysis of “practical reasons” for self-instruction is the ability of the learner to choose what he/she himself/herself want to learn on their own amidst a language course that is offered in an institution. Dickinson states: “The learner may need to learn bits of the language which are underemphasized, or are not touched upon, by most courses” (18). One may choose, for example, to independently study reading skills if such are underemphasized in existing language programs. Such provisions, in my perspective, make self-instructional models more desirable to a wide range of individuals who, for whatever reasons, may feel limited in traditional language classes.

Part 2 of the book mainly discusses various mechanisms of facilitating self-instruction focusing on instructional systems, materials for self-instruction, learner support, self-access resources, preparing for self-instruction and self-assessment. In instructional systems, Dickinson describes four systems used by adult learners namely the Centre de Recherches et d’Applications P’edagogiques en Langues (CRAPEL), the Open Access Sound and Video Library, the British Council and the Scottish Centre for Education Overseas. Of all the four, I think the system which resonates well with most of our self-instruction language needs is the Cambridge’s Open Access Sound and Video Library which is flexible enough to allow students “learn a foreign language well enough to cope whilst in the foreign country for a conference, or as a tourist;” or just acquire enough proficiency required for fieldwork (46-47). In this system, learners are “encouraged to be autonomous” and can only turn to their advisors for help if they “find autonomy difficult to achieve” (48). The library, Dickinson illustrates, offers a range of self-access resources in hundreds of languages which enhances learners’ independence. The functions of the advisor enumerated by Dickinson are synonymous with those of a mentor discussed by Marshall (1989). It seems, though, that the advisor does not have to be a native speaker of that particular language as required of some instances of language mentorship.

Dickinson also devotes some valuable time discussing relevant materials for self-instruction. He does distinguish “authentic materials” from “commercially available materials”, but doesn’t really define what each of these means. However, he does say something about “modern publications” being expensive, readily available but “rarely designed for self-instruction” (69). Learners wanting to use commercial materials need to adapt them for their own purposes. On the other hand,  the efficacy of using authentic materials (however authenticity is to be defined) cannot be overemphasized in foreign language teaching and learning, and Dickinson further makes a claim that authentic materials, as are comprehensible input strategies, save time and “favors the development of individual learning strategies” (69). I should add that authentic learning materials enables language learners to interact and interpret language in ways that native speakers would typically do, even when initial interaction with such materials may seem difficult. They may also be a way of immersing language learners in the target language and culture ex-situ. On the other hand, Dickinson argues that the “advantage of commercial materials is their convenience and their variety…they are immediately available and there is a wide choice” (69). I concur with Dickinson that one of the major problems in foreign language learning is the availability of relevant materials, especially authentic materials for teaching and learning foreign languages in foreign lands. I wonder, though, whether or not authentic materials can be commercial or vice-versa. This is a distinction which I hoped should have been more nuanced, but it seems to have not been captured well by Dickinson.

The following sections discuss support mechanisms including needs analysis and the kind of preparations a self-instructional learner needs to do. In the last section, chapter 8, Dickinson concludes by offering guidance on assessment. He says “…many successful language learners- regularly engage in self-assessment as part of their learning… they do exercises and check, by whatever means available, whether their responses are correct or not” (134). The utility of self-assessment, he illustrates, is that it’s a useful guide in self-direction. Using a variety of case studies, the book demonstrates the efficacy of both formative and summative assessment as means and ends to successful language learning. Self-assessment is both “possible and desirable” as is self-instruction itself. Dicksinson places the responsibility for self-assessment on learners, but he also encourages learners to regularly consult with teachers/helpers/mentors, especially for summative assessment.

My reading of this book as a self-instructional language learner has increased my curiosity and zeal for self-instruction because Dickinson proves, as others have done that self-instruction is possible and desirable especially for those of us who need different languages for various purposes. Dickinson largely succeeds in laying the foundation for as many forms of self-instruction as there could be, even within a traditional foreign language classroom. Using Dickinson’s ideas, self-instructional learners can still enroll in traditional foreign language classes but commit most of their time to studying language aspects specific to their own needs, or areas of the language which are not usually covered in the course. Learners get to benefit from being part of large community of learners studying a particular language, they may even use such spaces for some practice, but lay learning emphasis on areas of their own concerns. To my mind, this would require a huge investment of time on the side of the learner.

Readers of this book will appreciate its accessibility in terms of writing and language use, and most of all, the book is deeply informative and relatable in the ways that it illustrates self-instructional strategies.


Works Cited

Dickinson, Leslie. 1987. Self-Instruction in Language Learning: New Directions in Language

        Teaching. London: Cambridge University Press.

ICE. 2000. Peace Corps: Volunteer On-Going Language Learning Manual.

Leaver, Betty 2013. Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, Terry. 1989. The Whole World Guide to Language Learning. Yarmouth, Maine:

Intercultural Press, Inc.

Nicholson, Hellen.1994.  Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method. The Modern Language

Journal, Vol. 28, No. 7.  pp. 615-619.

Study Guide – National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs (NASILP)


African 670: Fall 2021

Professor Agoke

Modern Languages and Learning Strategies: In Theory and Practice

Reviewed by TJ Espano McGurran


Modern Languages and Learning Strategies: In Theory and Practice (2005) is a book that seeks to provide relevant research to form a theoretical understanding of how languages are learned, and relevant learning strategies, by ‘good’ language learners of secondary school pupils learning languages in “modern” languages other than English, such as French, German, or Spanish. Supplementing this focus, this book provides a few guidelines and case studies for classroom activities involving recommended learning strategies. A central part of the book is the pursuit of developing “autonomy” in learning language through understanding particular learning strategies that can help learners have a large measure of self-efficacy in learning their particular language of study.

I chose this book in order to see what insights, if any, the book had that would be applicable to our particular self-instructional language learning situation. This book is focused on two aspects of language learning and teaching that are rather different that our own situation in AFRICAN 670: first, it focuses on More Commonly Taught Languages, such as French, German, or Spanish, and, second, it emphasizes classroom-based language learning strategies.  In this review I will highlight certain key insights that we can garner from this book as well as note how the strategies in the book are both similar and different from other language learning methods we have considered throughout our readings thus far.

Overview of the Book

The book is divided into two main sections, Part One and Part Two, each with 2-3 sub-chapters. The first section is focused on evaluating particular learning strategies used by “good” language learners as part of a theoretical understanding of the way languages are learned by students who seem notably successful at language learning.

The first chapter of Part One is entitled “Modern-languages teaching: in search of methodology”. This first chapter provides context for the larger book, including the history of the previous two decades of methodological reform and change in language learning as well as historical perspectives on how “modern” languages should be taught and learned. These includes language learning methodologies such as “grammar-translation”, “behaviorism” method, and “chomskyan linguistics” (pg. 11-17). A particular focus on this chapter is a communicative approach called “communicative language teaching” or CLT (pg. 19). CLT has ten key principles that undergird it (see pg. 20), but the focus of this approach is on ensuring that learners have opportunities to use their language of study for communicative purposes first and foremost. Language learning in a class room should attempt to simulate as much as possible real interactions, including room for error, a willingness to accept unpredictability, and and orientation towards operationalizing real life tasks and experiences.

Chapter 2 in Part One, entitled “What is it to Know, What it is to Learn”, is the literature chapter of the book. It focuses on research literature on second-language acquisition as well as the various ways researchers have attempted to conceptualize language and its processes. In this chapter, the authors briefly describe the implicit or explicit strategies used by “good” language learners and what strategies they use to learn, but the main focus of this is the preference for a “cognitive theoretical” approach that emphasizes how certain strategies such as asking for cooperation, asking for clarification, or having control over emotion and affection aid linguistic competence. Additionally, there is a list of what teachers should do in order to teach students these languages (pg. 48-49), including strategies such as students should be taught to: “ask for meaning”, “seek clarification or repetition” and “use their knowledge to experiment with language” (pg. 49).

The third and final chapter of this section, entitled, “Learner’s Strategies” present three different cases studies of learners at different stages in their language learning, from beginner to advanced. The authors evaluate their strengths and weakness, talk about their “cognitive characters,” and suggest strategies and ways of sequencing language learning in order to maximize language gains. Each case has individualized recommendations, but some key points they emphasize are: the value of “autonomy” in language learning, recognizing your particular weakness and strengths, and the difference between cognitive characters of learners (such as those who “play it safe” versus those who are “playful” with language).

Part Two of the book provides specific guidelines for classroom activities engaging the learning strategies that the authors appreciate due to their preferred theoretical approach as well as strategies for teachers instructing in the “modern” languages.

The first chapter in Part Two, Chapter 4, entitled “Strategy Instruction,” seeks to provide sequences which are meant to help language learners learning how to learn a language, in all four key domains of language learning: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The goal of this style of learning is to teach students how to learn as they are starting their language studies. This includes learning and teaching strategies such as goal setting and monitoring, teaching memorization strategies, and emphasizing “attitudinal and motivational” factors involved in language learning in teaching (pg. 107).

The final full chapter in the book, Chapter 4, “Strategy Instruction in Action,” shares accounts of the teachers and how they use the strategies mentioned in the book. The chapter highlights the particular issues teachers faced and the responses of the pupils in these situations based on their “cognitive characters” and learning strategies. The authors provide concluding thoughts from their case studies, including the following: that motivation and language learning “personality” are crucial in considering language attainment; students need to have “meta-cognitive” strategies, such as being able to rehearse linguistics items solo, selective attention in reading and listening is important, and “understanding what conditions can facilitate personal learning” (pg. 45); and that the purpose of strategy instruction should be made explicit to the language learners.

Comparison to Other Language Learning Methods

In relation to some of the key methods we have discussed in our class up to this point, including the Critical Language Program (CLP), Marshall’s immersion language learning, and the Linguist-Informant method (LIM), there is a clear contrast with the other methods as well as a few interesting intersections.

To start with the contrasts: a major contrast for this book is that it does not offer a “method” in the way as the other methods we have reviewed so far do. This book provides general themes and principles, but it is nowhere near Marshall’s planned approach nor near the CLP’s or LIM’s processes for language learning. To expand this a bit further: the methods we have discussed thus far have often has very practical suggestions for practice with recommended patterns/exercises for study, yet this text provide a sparse representation of these items in language practice. Thus, it is difficult to contrast this book directly with the other methods.

At the same time, there are also a few interesting intersections. In my read, all methods emphasize this personal motivation and efficacy in language learning as an important part of the process. It might not be expected that this would be the case for classroom learning but the authors focus on this as well. Goal setting comes up in all of the texts, particularly in Marshall’s work and this text. Additionally, I think there is at least a measure of recognition in each text that we need to assess ourselves understand how we can best learn languages.  And, interestingly, in all of the texts there is an emphasis on “communication” and “real life interaction” as the guiding lights of language learning.

Usefulness to Self-Instructional Language Learners

Before I engaged the text, I was actually rather skeptical that this book would be particularly relevant to our situation as our self-instructional oriented language learning situation focused on Less Commonly Taught Languages is notably different from classroom-based instruction focused on More Commonly Taught “Modern” Languages. That said I was pleasantly surprised that the key insights and value the book provides are likely relevant to our situation.

Though this book is probably most relevant to teachers in classrooms, the particular focus on the importance of students understanding the “attitudinal and motivational” strategies and “cognitive” and “meta-cognitive” strategies we are using is crucially important for those of us who are building up our linguistic ability in a predominately self-instructional style. In my own life, understanding what makes me motivated to learn languages, such as desiring to speak with elders in my life or to build relationships in my life, or what attitudes I need to cultivate, such as a playful style with language learning rather than a perfectionist one, have been key to my pursuit of my improvement, and actual improvement, in Rukiga. Beyond this, we also have to develop cognitive strategies, such as being willing to ask for clarification, controlling our emotions in the face of procrastination and perfectionism, and figuring out what teachers are best able to actually teach us (pro-tip: sometimes formally trained teachers are actually not the best language teachers!). All of these are key to our success.

In my undergraduate studies one of my majors was philosophy, and a prominent part of my studies was the sub-field of ethics, particularly the topic of virtue ethics. This topic in ethics emphasizes what sort of person an ethical agent needs to be and what sort of community this person needs to be part of in order to ethically move through the world. This broad school contrasts to other systems that primarily focus upon principles or rules to follow or focus upon desirable consequences. I thought of these conversations when we considering the central value that “autonomy” plays for the authors of this text. While I would likely demur from using the term “autonomy” based on my own ethical-political ideals, I can understand that importance of personal motivation and efficacy in language learning, perhaps most particularly in our type of language learning.

A final comment (though this is not the key focus of the main text) in the appendix, there are a few general activities provided for language learners. Some of these could be helpful for our situation or at least provide some guidelines that could be relevant for the exercises that we want to do; most of the exercises provide principles to focus on in language learning – and many are attitudinal or motivational principles, with some cognitive principles thrown in.


Overall, this text reinforces some key principles that are relevant to our own study in AFRICAN 670 and it provides a helpful reminder to consider my particular attitudinal, motivational, and cognitive strategies and the strengths and weakness that I have my language ability. That said, for the purposes of our class, I would not typically recommend this book to classmates or future students. I think the key insights that the book has are able to be gained through other resources, and I think the basic learning exercises or strategies present in the book are not as pertinent for self-instructional language learners. However, I enjoyed engaging with the text – it made me wonder if a similar text, though more robust, could be made more suited to our situation.



Works Cited

Grenfell, M., & Harris, V. (2005). Modern languages and learning strategies: In theory and practice. Routledge.

Leaver, B., et all. (2005). Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, T. (1989). The Whole World Guide to Language Learning. Intercultural Press.

Nicholson, H. (1944). Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method. The Modern Language Journal 28 no. 7


Fluent Forever: How to Learn any Language Fast and Never Forget it 

Reviewed by Rachel Wiana, Fall 2020

At age 30, Gabriel Wyner was fluent in six languages. As a result of his experiences, he understands the challenges of language learning and is empathetic. His writing style is ‘banterful’. If you find humor as appealing as I do, you will enjoy reading this book. His method differs considerably from Marshall’s in situ method, the Critical Language Program (CLP) as well as the Linguist-Informant method (LIM) as will be shown later.

The book is organized into seven chapters; each with an eye-catching and memorable title. Included is a toolbox with a guide to making flashcards, a glossary of terms, appendices among other resources. Wyner lays out three basic steps to learning languages that he discovered as he scoured the internet for clues to learning a language when short on time: Start by learning pronunciation, avoid translation, and use spaced repetition systems (SRSs) (4).

The intriguing introduction is titled “Stab, Stab, Stab” . Learning a language is a sport, much like fencing that Wyner took up in high school. The whole book is peppered with anecdotes which he uses to illustrate his points as well as entertain his audience. In the introduction, he presents his language learning journey and outlines his method. He was expected to learn four languages while working as an opera singer. He barely had time, so he researched and modified some of the techniques he found online, which formed the bedrock of his book.

Wyner agrees that immersion nurtures fluency, but he targets folks stuck in the rat race with barely any time to devote to language learning. He promises a “more practical way” (7) with tools he has fashioned that will defeat the “greatest foe”, forgetting. He introduces his game plan – tools and resources that teach us “how to learn, rather than what to learn.” (11) The first step is to choose a language that you will enjoy learning. He forgets that sometimes languages are chosen for us; we learn because of some necessity. But he has a point, when you enjoy learning a language, you are more likely to learn it faster. He has a list of books and resources. Language books such as grammar guides, phrasebooks, dictionaries, and thematic vocabulary books. The internet, tutors, and programs as well as language classes.

In the second chapter, Wyner outlines five principles to defeat the “greatest foe”. He uses figures of speech to inscribe them in your memory.  “Make memories more memorable.”  “Maximize laziness”. “Don’t review. Recall”. “Wait, wait! Don’t tell me!” and “Rewrite the past”. In short, he advises learners to learn the sound system by binding them to images which should then be bound to one’s past experiences to make them unforgettable. Wyner discourages extra repetition or overlearning that is favored by all methods falling under the audio-lingual banner like LIM and CLP. He proposes study, then recall, three times. This method resembles the gapped text technique. He also proposes testing one’s memory to combat forgetfulness. Every time we remember something, we revisit and recreate our memories. Thus, by associating “sounds, images and personal connections” (39) to the vocabulary we learn, we ingrain it in our memory. I associate the chiShona word, kundya which means ‘to eat’ with laugher and the image of my tongue doing gymnastics, which is what it does to produce the dy sound.

In Chapter 3, Wyner gives advice on pronunciation. Focus on similar sounds – minimal pairs. Practice until you can recognize them. Sounds are the building blocks of language and I agree with him that a language learner needs to focus on them first. Wyner values accents and he claims that “People with strong foreign accents are frequently treated as less adept at the language (and less intelligent as a person) than they are.” (65). The operative word is ‘strong’ or ‘thick’, otherwise I think accents are beautiful if they do not interfere with comprehension. Wyner has support from Leavers et al who also advise developing “a more native accent.” (16). While Wyner proposes training one’s mouth and relying on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), Leaver et al propose spending time in a language lab, using a native speaker or tapes (16). Wyner lists several pronunciation resources; some free, like, others paid, such as his

In terms of vocabulary learning, Wyner proposes to learn commonly used words first, which is a good technique. Avoid translation at all costs when making flashcards, and associate words with images instead. He proposes using Google Images, but currently there are numerous alternatives to Google Images such as Yandex.Images and TinEye. Then you associate words learnt to your personal stories. For those studying languages with grammatical gender, Wyner proposes assigning each gender a vivid action and then imagine each noun performing this action (99). His ideas are based on neuroscience – that memory acts as a sequence of associations.

Wyner subscribes to the nativist theory of language learning though he does not explicitly state this. The “language-learning machine” (111) he says is found in every child’s brain is what the proponents of the nativist theory call “language acquisition device (LAD)” (DeBenedictis). He does mention it in the notes section (315). He also alludes to the concept of universal grammar (introduced by Chomsky (30)), which he says helps kids learn grammar so effortless. It is like a template that we use to learn new languages. Start by simple sentences which you can learn using illustrated flashcards. Learn tricky word patterns through mnemonics. Unlike Marshall who champions oral language, Wyner proposes writing and using an online exchange community for review. He also proposes reading without referring to a dictionary. Audiobooks improve pronunciation skills, listening and comprehension, vocabulary, and grammar. Unfortunately for us, there are not as many audio books for LCTLs. He advises using baby steps while learning listening, then “ramp up the challenge” (158) as you get accustomed to listening to texts in your target language.

Despite the validity of most of the techniques he proposes, the title is a bit of an exaggeration. You can learn a language and then forget it. Once you stop studying and using a language, you will eventually forget it. If you are fluent, thus operating on permanent memory, it will take longer to get rusty where memory retrieval becomes increasingly difficult. Leaver et al quote the American proverb. “Use it or lose it.” (46). On the topic of language attrition, especially of L1, Isurin (2013) provides more.

Comparison to Other Language Learning Methods

Wyner may have started off by comparing language to play, but he demonstrates what kind of play he is alluding to; the kind that requires hard work and dedication. He discourages repetition and overlearning which is the bedrock of programs such as CLP and LIM. He favors study and recall which he feels ensures long-term retention unlike repetition which only leads to short-term retention.

Marshall published his book in the pre-digital era, while clearly Wyner is situated in the digital age. While Marshall’s in situ method calls for language learning in real life settings and the use of a language mentor, Wyner shows that you do not have to travel abroad to effectively learn a language. He does say he supports language traveling. But that is after telling us that we can get fellow partners in mischief online through websites such as, and It is not that currently Wyner does not value native language tutors. A visit to his website, shows that in addition to the three methods he outlined in his book, a fourth is in the works; practice your speech to fluency with native tutors. He probably had not appreciated the native tutor as much when writing his book. while getting a tutor online is probably easier than looking for a language mentor when learning ex situ, tutoring does take away some of the autonomy that comes with having a mentor in self-directed study. with a mentor, you get more authentic interaction and an introduction to the target community and culture.

Marshall had preceded Wyner on the use of mnemonics to learn words, followed by Leaver et al (53). Marshall talks about using rhymes, alliterations, onomatopoeia, cognates, classes of words, and word and image associations (Marshall 123). It is the latter that Wyner expands the usage especially since he is writing in the digital age when images are all over the internet. It is, however, important to note as Leaver et al do; not everyone will work well with mnemonics (53).

Unlike Marshall who focuses on the oral, Wyner addressed all four skills of language learning. Marshall’s method relies on the use of a mentor and communicating face-to-face. He discourages reading, claiming that it “distorts your image of the target language” (17) which would most likely happen if one does not start with learning pronunciation as Wyner and the Peace Corps Manual (52) proposes. I disagree with Marshall and favor Wyner, and the Peace Corps focus on all four skills since the beginning of language learning.

On the learning of grammar which LIM and CLP as well as Marshall to an extent foreground, Wyner proposes learning it progressively. Grammar is complex but can also amaze in its simplicity (119). Instead of cramming sentences and rigid structures like what happens with LIM and CLP, Wyner proposes turning rules of grammar into stories. That is what he calls turning mountains into molehills. A deluge of grammar rules can overwhelm. Grammar should be integrated into language learning to foster communicative competence with grammatical competence as a component.

Wyner compares his method with the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) program. He aptly notes that FSI has a traditional program (audio-lingual) but lauds their emphasis on pronunciation. With 25 hours of language classes and 3-4 hours of independent study, their students reach fluency fast, but Wyner feels that his method is ahead in terms of overall efficiency. After all, the FSI students make language learning “a full-time job” (267) while students who follow Wyner’s method have minimal time to devote to language learning. He is sure that the use of techniques such as imagery and spaced repetition put students following his methods ahead of the pack.

Usefulness to Self-Instruction Learners

Wyner targets people who barely have time to study language in situ or in class and must tailor language study around the many weekly activities. Similarly, he targets beginners, with some advice for intermediate learners and advanced learners. His humorous tone and ‘banterful’ style make the book an enjoyable read. The organization of the chapters and sections makes it easy to know where to go for what. He presents language learning in a way that does not scare off the undecided. Language learning is not a painful affair, it is like your favorite game.

While having a language mentor or tutor is advisable, Wyner shows that you can get speech practice online, where you could also get tutors like on He advises self-instruction learners to use the target language right from the thinking process. When challenged by vocabulary bankruptcy, improvise. Do not switch to the common language.

Although his examples and resources proposed do not focus on LCTLs, this is a method that can be adapted to suit any language. His emphasis on pronunciation is laudable since sounds are the building blocks of language. The IPA decoder chart is not as easy as he makes it look. However, it is a worth a trial, with the humorous way he describes sounds. The book does sometimes sound like an ad for SRSs which he calls “flashcards on steroids” (5, 50), but he recognizes that some people might want to use their hands instead of the digital SRS resources he speaks highly of. I fall in that group of the conservative. Associative learning has been applied since Pavlov’s dogs and Wyner shows self-instruction learners (as well as other learners) how to associate concepts with images and stories to maximize retention. I associate concepts with color, happenings in my episodic memory and it helps with retention.

Despite the exaggerated title, Wyner’s book has viable advice on how to integrate the four language skills, practice pronunciation, ensure memory retention, use of online tools and tutors. He however fails to appreciate the importance of native speakers in language learning, though his website shows he realized his error.


Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, The MIT Press, 1965.

DeBenedictis, Alexa. “Theories of Speech & Language Development.” Language Acquisition  –language-         development.html. Accessed 29 October 2021.

Isurin, Ludmila. “Memory and First Language Forgetting.” Memory, Language, and Bilingualism:Theoretical and Applied Approaches, edited by Altarriba, Jeanette and          Ludmila Isurin, Cambridge University Press, 2013., p. 319–348.

Leaver, Betty Lou, et al. Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Marshall, Terry. The Whole World Guide to Language Learning, Intercultural Press, Inc., 1989.

Peace Corps. Volunteer Ongoing Language-Learning Manual, Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research Information Collection and Exchange, 2000.

Wyner, Gabriel. Fluent Forever: How to Learn any Language and Never Forget it, Harmony Books, 2014.


Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Months

Reviewed by Jeremie Langlois, Fall 2021

The title is a hook unto itself, but what draws the reader in to Fluent in 3 months: How anyone, at any age, can learn to speak any language from anywhere in the world is a vivid opening anecdote from the author’s life. A recent engineering graduate who struggled with languages, Benny Lewis found himself in Spain “failing” compared to his peers in an introductory course. We’ve all been there. “My ego was destroyed,” he writes.[1] What follows is, per the author, a secret recipe on how to become fluent in any language in three months.  The argument of the work is that learners need to set aside pragmatic considerations for learning the language, and focus on fostering passion to make the language a daily part of your life that “gives you goosebumps.”[2] Yet relative to other readings, the actual technicalities of language-learning are scantily researched and focus too much on the early stages of language acquisition. This book is worth a read to challenge learners to think about why they are learning a language but leaves much to be desired on how.

Chapter one deconstructs myths about language learning. The most interesting were: adults are inherently “worse” language learners than children, the “language gene,” and concerns of focus, time, and progress. One I took issue with was that the idea that language learning is difficult for people with disabilities, is a myth. This section provides a brief anecdote about a blind woman who learns three languages, concluding that, “there are no limits to what anyone can achieve.”[3] This well-intentioned but misinformed analysis feeds the perception of people with disabilities that their challenges are minimized by others, and that they must perform acts of heroism rather than have their needs accommodated. More broadly, this section relies on anecdotes rather than scientific evidence, straining the credulity of the reader at times as to whether the analysis is just personal opinion. The author occasionally cites the type of linguistic research covered in some of our readings. Indeed, the authors argument about age and language learning is reminiscent of how Wenden remarks that, “learners of different ages…will have acquired some knowledge about learning, which influences their approach to learning and the outcome of their efforts.”[4] In contrast to the “Lingthusiasm” podcast,[5] Lewis makes the claim that grammar acquisition is actually easier for adults, because they are able to dedicate more time to the disciplined rules based learning it requires. That said, one should approach his analysis with a dose of skepticism, as he often inflates the claims of these studies. That said, this chapter is a useful exercise in reinforcing the point that many of our readings like Marshall have made about the importance of personal discipline.

Chapter two develops his learning approach but begins with an important debate about fluency. While ultimately settling on “B2,” the author notes that learners should avoid over-ambitious notions of fluency, and that there is unlikely to be a moment when a reader “feels fluent.” Language learning ought to be divided into “mini missions” rather than insurmountable tasks and is reminiscent of the Peace Corps approach to language learning with its emphasis on separating what you need to know from what you don’t. As the manual notes, “Think in terms of doing what you want to do to learn the language, not what you or someone else thinks you should do.” [6] Similar to Marshall’s philosophy on the ISP, the writer stress setting goals at the outset of learning and measuring progress by personal standards. The author’s philosophy is to view assessments instrumentally—they should be used for motivation, not discouragement or overconfidence.

Chapter three covers vocabulary acquisition. The author dismisses rote memorization, and instead suggests: keyword association, spaced repetition, musical learning, and paragraph length memorization. These techniques will be familiar to learners in our program, and fail to go into enough depth to be helpful. Chapter four offers insights on how “timing” one’s travel to the region where the language is spoken is critical, discussing issues such as the “expat problem”—where English-speaking travelers often find themselves in the predicament of having a far poorer command of the language than locals have of English. Though the chapter is light in substance, the warning that readers would do best to avoid the idea that language can be passively “absorbed” through travel confirms what NASLIP emphasized, “successful language mastery depends critically on you-on your attitude and participation, and especially on your self-discipline and work habits.”[7] Yet in contrast to NASLIP’s punitive approach where motivation falls from the sky, Lewis here offers more diverse and varied vocabulary acquisition that is more mindful of integrating reflexive approaches to motivation.    In chapter five, the writer focuses on how to approach a new language from “day one,” offering a step-by-step guide to preparing for the first conversation, navigating comprehension with almost no knowledge, and what to expect in the early days of learning.

Chapter six turns to tips for specific languages. For French, he stresses gender. For Germanic languages, he recommends a focus on cognates. For Arabic, the author explains the difference between dialects. The chapter continues with half a dozen more languages. While some of the advice is self-evident, the reference sheets for each language, when coupled with the “essential phrases” list, are useful. They offer a parsimonious approach to grammar that many textbooks avoid. An extension of the chapter’s message for students in our class could be: what is a difficult but critical component of your language that beginners should strive to master from the outset of their learning? For Arabic, I would argue that the most important element to learn early on is to memorize the morphology table as soon as possible—as the root system unlocks the meaning of the vast majority of words and constructions in the language.

Chapter seven focuses on advanced learning. Here, the author asserts, “traditional language learning suddenly becomes useful,” and emphasizes the importance of identifying context-specific gaps in knowledge. He labels learning anything beyond basic grammar early on “a mistake” and makes a rather compelling argument that it’s important to have basic conversational skills to be able to acquire grammar naturally. One must have some ability to think, “that’s why they say it that way,” before curling up with a textbook. We also get an important contrast to previous advice on language learning—the author is highly skeptical of books, movies, and TV shows before the C1 level. This competes with strategies discussed in works such as Leaver, who argues that good speaking skills are actually acquired through “voracious reading” rather than merely speaking practice.[8]While this reasoning reads as extreme, it may be a useful topic of debate in our class discussions—is focusing on source material early a source of benefit or frustration? Good source material can add key context to new vocabulary and be an important vessel for learning broader cultural and political knowledge. Yet trying to tackle material that is difficult early on can be a source of discouragement. Source material is best selected with the guidance of a mentor.

Chapter eight, is a grab-bag of topics from cultural knowledge, dress, and tone. Though this section borders on offensive at times (one section is titled “Walk Like An Egyptian”), it can be read for how to appear to be someone with whom locals would think twice about approaching in English. On accents, he stresses the importance of nailing “hard” sounds as a critical component of being taken seriously by native speakers. He points out that it’s important to pay attention to how natives often modify their own language in pronunciation away from “proper form.” One idea that came to mind when reading this section would be for students in to keep a “real pronunciation” diary of words they encounter that native speakers pronounce “abnormally.” For Arabic, this could also be a useful tool for building competency in various dialects, though learners will have to adjudicate between following “proper” versus “common” form based on where they are in their learning. I would argue that this exercise is best tackled at the advance level, when the learner is confident that they can switch back to “proper” form in the right circumstances. While the author describes useful tips for how to accomplish these tasks virtually, readers will arrive at the same conclusion when it comes to this chapter—in the long-run, there is no substitute for immersion.

Chapter nine tackles strategies, pitfalls, and opportunities for learning multiple languages at once. The writer advises against learning two languages simultaneously before B2, but also makes a novel argument about how to “compartmentalize” different languages in one’s mind to avoid confusion between them. Chapter ten focuses on resources for language learning online, argues against expensive language courses, and touches on learning styles. While these resources are helpful, they will not be news to learners in our class.

This book leaves the reader with a few key takeaways. First, delving into one’s motivation for learning is critical component to beating “plateaus” on following through on commitments to progress. Second, there no substitute for a language plan that fits your needs and interests. That said, a third conclusion is that sources from “amateur” authorities should be met with skepticism, as they are prone to being vacuous and ill-suited for the discerning reader. While the work contains nuggets of wisdom, it would be better titled How to Start Learning a Language in Three Months.


Works Cited


Leaver, B. L., Shekhtman, B., & Ehrman, M. E. (2008). Achieving success in Second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, B. (2014). Fluent in 3 months: How anyone, at any age, can learn to speak any language from anywhere in the world. HarperOne.

McCulloch, Gretchen and Lauren Gawne. “What makes a language easy? It’s a hard question.” Lingthiusiasm. March 19, 2020.

NASLIP Student Study Guide (incomplete citation—will revise)

Peace Corps. (2000). Volunteer on-going language learning manual: Beyond hello.

Wenden, A. L. (1998). Metacognitive knowledge and language learning1. Applied Linguistics19(4), 515–537.



[1] Lewis, B. (2014). Fluent in 3 months: How anyone, at any age, can learn to speak any language from anywhere in the world. HarperOne, p. 20.

[2] Ibid. p. 28

[3] Ibid, p. 44.

[4] Wenden, A. L. (1998). Metacognitive knowledge and language learning1. Applied Linguistics19(4), 515–537., p. 515.

[5] McCulloch, Gretchen and Lauren Gawne. “What makes a language easy? It’s a hard question.” Lingthiusiasm. March 19, 2020.

[6] Peace Corps. (2000). Volunteer on-going language learning manual: Beyond hello, p. 12.

[7] NASLIP Student Study Guide, p. 1.

[8] Leaver, B. L., Shekhtman, B., & Ehrman, M. E. (2008). Achieving success in Second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press, p. 16.


Teaching and Learning Arabic as a Foreign Language a Guide for Teachers

Reviewed by Tirumular (Drew) Narayanan, Fall 2021 

Teaching and Learning Arabic as a Foreign Language: A Guide for Teachers written by Karin C. Ryding was published by Georgetown Press in 2012. As the introduction states, learning Arabic in the West (especially the United States) is a very different process than that of the expected European languages (French, Spanish) or even Asian ones.[1] This difficulty is partly due to the dissemblance between written and spoken Arabic. While MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) serves as the primary instruction pathway, the dialects vary greatly leading to confusion about how to teach spoken Arabic. Indeed, an important question in the pedagogical discussion around Arabic is how to forefront conversation which often becomes sidelined in classes.[2] The introduction also notes how the increased interest in Arabic as well as developing expectations for government work have pushed for higher levels of oral proficiency as suggested in the changing standards of the ACTFL OPI.[3] The section concludes by explaining that the book combines scholarship and practical advice for teaching Arabic. To this extent, Ryding loosely etches the twenty chapters through a series of parts ranging from pedagogy, methodology, class organization, skill development alongside grammatical and cultural instruction.[4]

Part One of the book lays out a guideline for teaching Arabic encapsulated in a ten-point list. She recommends that teachers should not begin the class by noting the difficult aspects of Arabic as this could hinder the student’s confidence thereby affecting their willingness to put in the necessary work from the start.[5] Next, the book emphasizes that the textbook should not be the only teaching tool in the course and that instructors should draw from a wide range of resources and exercises. Certainly an important part of this variety must be an emphasis on daily speaking, allowing students to practice as much as possible.[6] Finally, daily review and homework remain critical components to foster language learning.[7] The remainder of this first part outlines a complex historiography of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) Theory.[8]

In Part Two the book introduces the historiography of methodology for L2 acquisition while also offering some new approaches. The older school is largely characterized through an avalanche of data that the learner must consume and remember as best evidenced in the AIM or “Army Intensive Method” largely developed in the World War II moment.[9] This system used a “native speaker/informant” system in order to have learners mimic sentences that had practical function. In the aftermath of the war, this system transformed into an “audiolingual” one to be applied in the classroom.[10] Similar to AIM, this new method relied upon memorizing dialogues and having the learner execute repetitive drills, employing variations to create new constructions.[11] The section goes on to demonstrate more contemporary methods which include more “interpersonal” interactions between students and teachers to produce a “conscious focus on meaningful communication.”[12] Such methodologies do not emphasize explicitly correcting the learner in conversation but rather guiding them towards correct pronunciation, grammar, syntax by asking them to repeat or reframe their oral contributions.[13] Alternatively, Ryding offers “Content-Based Instruction” which draws from real texts which add to the learners knowledge basis on a variety of topics (art, science) while being modified as needed. For example the topics need not be so broad and can be limited a particular genre or theme interests the student.[14]  Finally, the book acknowledges the value of “Task-Based Language Teaching” with an ordered and scheduled system prioritizing the learner’s ability to execute specific assignments.[15]

The first chapter of Part three focuses on formulating a syllabus and creating learning objectives for students. A key goal of the curriculum must be the continuous emphasis on what the book calls the 5 Cs of Arabic learning (“communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities”) to foster a wide breadth of learning.[16] Of course despite the teacher’s preparations these do not compare with the benefits of learning in-situ.[17] While the book does take some time considering different technologies and materials for language, perhaps the most useful chapter in part three discusses Arabic exams. In addition to providing the ACTFL OPI standards, the book demonstrates how instructors can use written assessments to make students do the work they might otherwise ignore. For example, the Ryding suggests that the teachers require students to use the harakat (Arabic diacritical markers) under pain of losing points. [18]

Part IV works through classroom pedagogy, the different types of mistakes learners might make and, how a teacher should offer correction without making the student less confident.[19] Furthermore, the book explains that while language “aptitude” certainly exists this is no replacement for hard work.[20] This is particularly important when managing “heritage speakers” or “false beginners” within the classroom. Indeed, the book states in no uncertain terms that beginning Arabic classes should not allow native speakers, because this can discourage language learning for the true beginners.[21]

Part V focuses on how teachers should target reading and listening comprehension. Reading practice is key, especially at the beginning as it helps students become used to immediately recognizing words, not to mention process the various scripts used and how letters are spaced (which could potentially change the meaning).[22] Additionally, practicing translations can help facilitate better understandings for grammatical concepts.[23] Finally, “reading aloud” must be paramount so that the learner and the teacher can recognize where mistakes are being made.[24] When giving reading assignments the book suggests that it is necessary at most stages to provide the students with “advance organizers” while reading a text that is at or beyond their level of proficiency. These “organizers” can be a video, images, or keywords that help a student contextualize what they are reading.[25] Similarly, listening exercises should be frequently incorporated into the classroom not only for students to become accustomed to Arabic sounds but also for the writing practice. As the book warns “ Students think they understand what they hear but they actually do not perceive the sounds accurately.”[26] For listening exercises the book highlights that the students need to hear audio samples multiple times in succession as this will help retention and clarify what is being said.[27]

Part VI focuses on methods for teaching pronunciation and writing skills. Some of the most helpful material appears when the author provides examples of how to pronounce the more difficult characters in Arabic such as the difference between ه /ح or the ع.[28] Moreover, Ryding states that the students need to recognize the internal “melody” of the language to better understand the difference between the long and short vowels.[29] In regards to speaking conversation, students will feel increasingly comfortable with the language when they have scripts for various activities (going to the restaurant, finding accommodations). Such exercises serve as crucial building blocks towards fluency.[30] For writing, the book recommends that teachers help students combine their skills (such as doing diction exercises to practice writing). Learning Arabic handwriting is so important that teachers should not replace written homework with typed computer assignments.[31]

The book concludes with a discussion around vocabulary, grammar and cultural competency. In order to reach an advanced level of fluency, students need to be aiming for 3000-3500 “high-frequency” words (words used in everyday life).[32] This includes memorizing the plurals of nouns and adjectives (which should be learned at the same time as the singulars).[33] However, enlarging one’s lexicon is not the only aspect of learning new vocabulary; one must also incorporate cultural phrases that are in common parlance.[34] The book acknowledges the complexity of Arabic grammar, especially for English speakers, as indicated in the fusha’s i’rab (Arabic case markers) which often have different cases than those found in English.[35] Nonetheless, for better Arabic acquisition, teachers need to give more attention to key grammatical concepts such as agreement or the idafa structure.[36] Finally, Ryding notes that media, sports, art, architecture, stories and celebrities can all be productive spaces for gaining cultural knowledge. Moreover, Arabic classes can certainly supplement/complement other disciplines such as area studies.[37] The book ends with a helpful list of websites, textbooks and other resources for Arabic instructors.[38]

While this book has been produced to serve teachers, it can be productively used by independent Arabic learners. What is perhaps most helpful for students in future African 670 classes may be the historiography of Arabic pedagogy as a way to better contextualize the learning methods we have been introduced to. For example, the “Army Intensive Method” that Ryding appears to be an interaction of the “linguist-informant method” which Helen Nicholson etches out.[39] Additionally, the book provides valuable terminology in which an independent learner can frame their language study for an ISP. In my own case, I now understand that I am engaged in “Theme/Genre Based Instruction” with my own mentor as I am learning Arabic through historical and literary texts.[40] The pedagogical history laid out in Ryding’s book also elucidates the issues of teaching spoken Arabic. While MSA is used to teach speaking, reading, listening, and writing it is simultaneously perceived as less authentic than the dialects people normally use in various countries. This reality offers interesting possibilities for a independent student who may dedicate themselves to focusing on one dialect of their choosing instead of being mildly exposed to a various ones inconsistently .

To some extent, parts of this book may be salient to all learners of “Less Commonly Studied Languages.” One of the most curious and unexpected lessons of this book is realizing that the methodologies between “in-class” teaching and “self-study” is not that far in application. Indeed, many of the suggestions that Marshall provides for learners find parallels in Ryding’s directions to teachers. For example, both favor diversity in exercises as to keep material fresh.[41] While such suggestions might seem obvious, the reality of language study can sometimes lead to stagnant behavior and repetition which subsequently leads to boredom and a lack of motivation. Furthermore, I find the author’s suggestion of “advance organizers” quite useful. This method provides valuable context for the learner to teach themselves through visual cues  and a tool that I have certainly since adopted. At the same time Ryding does depart from other scholars when suggesting that teachers should not forefront difficult material as to not discourage the students. In constrast, Marshall encourages the learner to push themselves just beyond their level.[42] At the same time Leaver notes that there comes a point where students must “face the music” in exam situations where they need to acknowledge what they can recall in a given context and what they cannot.[43] Both Marshall’s and Leaver’s methodologies might constitute “difficulty” as defined by Ryding but are nonetheless more productive for independent learners. Indeed, one could easily stagnate by simply reviewing what one as already studied. Nonetheless , Ryding clarifies the purposes of teaching memorized dialogues: to provide a learner with fixed statements to use in conversation thereby creating more speaking confidence.[44] Marshall frequently emphasizes the dialogue’s purpose but is never quite clear as to their importance.[45] Finally, I completely agree with the Ryding’s point regarding the heritage speakers/false beginners not being allowed in beginner courses. Their presence is inherently disruptive because they set the bar so much higher, potentially discouraging students exposed to the language for the first time. To this extant, a heritage speaker is primed to become a teacher’s favorite and a model to use as comparison only creating more classroom anxieties.

While this book does not analyze the various psychological types and dispositions that scholars such as Leaver, Ehrman and Shekhtman have taken into account, independent learners can find practical suggestions to incorporate into their own plans.[46] In one case the author discusses how her advanced student started reading Harry Potter in Arabic and how this exercise in turn expanded the learner’s vocabulary. Additionally, I find the author’s argument about using “short vowels” when practicing spelling quite convincing and have incorporated this into my own studies.  In my own weekly “Arabic Vocabulary Quizzes”, I no longer count the answer as correct unless I have the major appropriate markings and this practice has improved my aural and visual understanding of the language.  Finally, the book at times provides convenient reviews of important grammatical concepts, as well as variations (with English translations) as a way to demonstrate Arabic morphology.[47] Any independent Arabic learner should at least skim this book and adapt its suggestions despite the sometimes cumbersome pedagogical historiography throughout.



Works Cited


Ryding, Karin C. Teaching and Learning Arabic as a Foreign Language: A Guide for Teachers. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013.

Nicholson, Helen S. “Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method.” The Modern Language Journal 28 no. 7 (1944): 615-619.

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

 Marshall, Terry.  “The Multi-Language Seminar: An Approach to Offering More of the “Less Commonly Taught” Languages. Foreign Language Annals 20 no. 2 (1989): 155-163.

Leaver, Betty Lou, Madeline Ehrman, Boris Shekhtman. Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[1] Karin C. Ryding, Teaching and Learning Arabic as a Foreign Language: A Guide for Teachers (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 1.

[2] Ibid., 4-5.

[3] Ibid., 2, 5.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Ibid., 14-15.

[6] Ibid., 15-16

[7] Ibid., 17-18.

[8] Ibid., 21-32.

[9] Ibid., 44-45.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Ibid., 47-49.

[12] Ibid., 58. This method is called the “humanistic” approach. See also: 54.

[13] Ibid., 58.

[14] Ibid., 59-61.

[15] Ibid., 61-62.

[16] Ibid., 77. See also: 72-73.

[17] Ibid., 78.

[18] Ibid., 92.

[19] Ibid., 110-111.

[20] Ibid., 125.

[21] Ibid., 129-130.

[22] Ibid., 148.

[23] Ibid., 153.

[24] Ibid., 150.

[25] Ibid., 142-143.

[26] Ibid., 161.

[27] Ibid., 164.

[28] Ibid., 171-172.

[29] Ibid., 173.

[30] Ibid., 184.

[31] Ibid., 189-190.

[32] Ibid., 199.

[33] Ibid., 200.

[34] Ibid.,198.

[35] Ibid., 212.

[36] Ibid., 213-215.

[37] Ibid., 223-234.

[38] Ibid., 231-245.

[39] Helen S. Nicholson, “Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method,” The Modern Language Journal 28 no. 7 (1944): 212.

[40] Ryding., 59-61.

[41] Terry Marshall, “The Multi-Language Seminar: An Approach to Offering More of the “Less Commonly  Taught”  Languages, Foreign Language Annals 20 no. 2 (1989):161. See also Ryding., 15.

[42] Ibid., 34.

[43] Ibid.,101

[44] Ryding., 184.

[45] Terry Marshall, The Whole World Guide to Language Learning (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, 1989), 19-20.

[46] Betty Lou Leaver, Madeline Ehrman, Boris Shekhtman, Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 119-121.

[47] Ryding., 213.

How toLearn Any Language
Reviewed by Emily Fornof, Fall 2021


Barry Farber, a language enthusiast and conservative radio talk show host, opens his guidebook, How to Learn Any Language, with a joke about Americans being notoriously poor at learning languages and suggests his method can help you “wipe that smile off the world’s face.”1 More a book of helpful tips than a detailed self-instructional methodology, Farber’s approach differs from other language learning methods such as multilanguage seminar (MLS), the Critical Language Program (CLP), and the linguist-informant method (LIM).2 If the reader is able to ignore Farber’s occasionally racist and sexist comments, How to Learn Any Language is a useful guide, particularly for first-time language learners.

How to Learn Any Language is divided into three parts. Part one, which only consists of one section, tells Farber’s story of how he became interested in, and started to learn, languages. He is largely self-taught; after a failed attempt to learn Latin in a high school class, Farber found a self- study book in Chinese to “assuage the hurt” (of not being the top student).3 Successfully teaching himself Chinese, he moved on to Italian, Spanish, French, and even Norwegian before going to college.4 At the time of writing How to Learn Any Language, Farber considered himself proficient in 25 different languages. He admits, however, that his method was developed with considerable trial and error.

Having provided his credentials as self-instructional language expert, Farber details his system in part two, which is made up of twelve sections (divided by topic). He debunks some common language learning myths, such as “you can turn on language in the background and let it wash over you, and you will learn it the way you might learn popular song lyrics.” Farber addresses these myths with some nuance (though not sensitivity), particularly where grammar is concerned. Grammar, he contends, can be used to gatekeep and remove the fun from language learning, particularly in academic settings. Although it is an “edifice on which you must build your property,” Farber reassures readers that they do not need to know grammar to obey it.5 Many of Farber’s techniques rely on faith that understanding will come in time, and that persistence is what matters. Myths dispelled, Farber finally launches into the meat of his book, his system.

First, Farber tells learners to be explicit and thoughtful about why they want to learn their selected language, given that the learner’s objectives will shape how and what they learn. Next, Farber provides a rather lengthy shopping list, as his methodology requires a large number of tools and accoutrements.6 Once outfitted, Farber instructs students to sit down with the grammar book and read the first five lessons.7 Any concepts that are too difficult should be written down on a sticky note and carried around, in case the learner should run into a native speaker.

Although learning five lessons of grammar may sound unappealing, Farber intends to capitalize on the period when a learner’s motivation is highest, at the start of language study.

Language learners should buy a grammar text book, a two-way dictionary (his tips on how to select one are actually quite helpful), a phrasebook for travelers, a newspaper or magazine in the target language, a student reader from a country where the language is spoken (around 6th grade reading level), a portable tape player and several types of cassettes (including blank cassettes), printed flash cards, blank flash cards, plastic sleeves that can fit the flashcards, and a highlighter. Farber breaks down cassettes into four types: flat single-rep, flat double-rep, formatted, and cultural. 

Grammar lessons complete, Farber instructs the reader to pick up the newspaper or magazine and read the very first article, highlighting all the unknown words in the first paragraph. Once completed, the learner should look up each highlighted word and create flash cards.8 These flashcards should remain with the learner at all times to use in “hidden moments” for the next 24–48 hours before starting the review process anew with the second paragraph. Farber sees two advantages in this process; first, the learner is using a “real world” text and can rest assured that they will be able to use the language in tangible, useful ways. Second, the number of highlighted words will decrease with each paragraph, providing an encouraging visual of progress.

Upon completing the first article, the learner should go back to the grammar book to begin lesson 6, and add in the phrasebook as well, using it to create dialogues, which Farber encourages the learner to practice and memorize like lines in a play. While practicing with the phrasebook and learning new grammar, the learner should still be using and adding to their flashcards.

Phrasebook incorporated, the learner then starts to listen to a variety of cassettes to familiarize themselves with how the language sounds; variety will help retain attention and focus. Farber concludes the chapter with some strategies for making the most of the cassettes. The remainder of part 2 is primarily tips to assist in learning. The first is capitalizing on hidden moments; no amount of practice time is too short, which encourages learners to maintain consistent, daily practice.10 The next trick is for learners to create mnemonic devices to help. Farber describes in detail his method for creating flashcards (it is not as simple as one might think) and provides tips on how to find words in the dictionary since it is unlikely to find them all exactly as written. This specific breakdown is quite helpful, especially for first time language learners who may not think to parse out verb stems. Any words that cannot be found in the dictionary should still be written down on a flashcard to be completed later. 9 If possible, Farber suggests beginning with cassettes that have transcripts to help your brain acclimate to what it is hearing. Once the text is familiar, put it away. Farber, How to Learn Any Language, 72.

Farber wraps up the book with discussions of motivations for language learning, advice for learning numerous languages (focus on learning languages in the same family), and an entire chapter devoted to breaking down different basic grammatical concepts for those who may need a refresher. His final chapter summarizes the book and gives a few final tips for staying engaged, motivated, and disciplined, the key requirements for learning a new language.11 The book also contains three appendices, detailing The Language Club which he founded, a list of “the principal languages of the world,” and his “reviews” of major world languages (evaluating prevalence, usefulness, difficulty).

Comparisons to other language learning methodsFarber’s language learning method has many of the same hallmarks of the other language learning methods covered in this course; an emphasis on hard work, insistence on discipline (daily learning), and the use of dialogues as a particular type of exercise. Farber’s method has the most in common with Marshall’s multi-language seminar approach (MLS). Both encourage students to actively use the language they are learning through community involvement or reading “real world” texts.12 The two methodologies ground learning in the student’s specific goals and provide a guide to achieve those goals, rather than following a strict, rote methodology.13 One notable commonality that Farber’s method had with the Critical Languages Program (CLP) is a reliance on repeated listening to cassettes/ recordings.14 Farber’s method, the CLP, and the Linguist-Informant Method (LIM), all have some emphasis on repetition and overlearning, though how they each approach that concept is quite different.

In fact, there are numerous differences between Farber’s method and the others covered in this course. Unlike all of the other methods, Farber’s does not formally incorporate regular practice (or evaluation) with a native speaker, although he recommends multiple avenues for potentially engaging a native speaker. Given that his audience is everyday Americans who may not have the time, money, and/or know-how to find a tutor in their language, this methodology design choice makes sense, though it may also have some major drawbacks (discussed in the next section).

Despite nearly swearing off languages because of a bad encounter with Latin grammar, Farber is insistent that understanding grammar is foundational, unlike CLP and LIM, which rely on repetition and memorization over understanding.15 Grammar, Farber insists, allows the learner to fully comprehend the language so that they can ask questions about aspects they do not understand, and all the better if these questions can be asked using the language itself. CLP and LIM’s rigid structures do not allow for much creativity on the part of the learner, whereas Farber asserts that variety will help students learn a new language far more effectively than memorization.16 Perhaps one of the most notable differences in Farber’s method is his attention to capitalizing on the energy at the start of a learning process. Arguably the most important commonality of all the self-instructional methods is a motivated student, and Farber explicitly designed his method to maintain motivation.

Farber also does not include any form of assessment in his method, perhaps because the method is intended to be completely self-reliant, and administering a self-assessment can be challenging (particularly for speaking). This may be a positive attribute; assessments/tests/exams/quizzes can generate considerable anxiety from learners, and may not always result in increased long-term learning. Although it is speculation, if asked about the lack of assessments, Farber would likely say that every interaction with a native speaker is an assessment in and of itself, because those interactions are an opportunity to see how well a language learner is understood and understands. Furthermore, a formative assessment, in Farber’s method, is not useful, since he assumes a baseline of no prior language assessment. A summative assessment would also not have a place in his method, because he believes learning a language is a lifelong process and emphasizes that even very advanced speakers will always be a student of their non-native language.


Usefulness to Other Self-Instructional Language Learners Farber’s method is suited to a particular type of language learner; an American, who has little to no experience learning a second language, does not live in a diverse area, and who is interested in learning a more commonly taught language. This descriptor sounds specific, but it likely covers a majority of Americans.18 Not requiring a student to be reliant on a native speaker may hinder their language acquisition in some ways, but may also facilitate a greater number of people actually utilizing his methodology, as finding a tutor can be expensive and time- consuming, and students may become overly reliant on their tutor for all their language learning. Irregular opportunities to practice conversing with a native or fluent speaker may lead to the development of bad habits or incorrect pronunciations, which will be harder the longer they go uncorrected. Farber’s tutorless methodology also reveals a significant blind spot for him; his own privilege. Farber was fortunate to have both professional and personal experiences that allowed him regular practice with native speakers, which most language learners (particularly outside of cities such as New York or DC) will not have. A person picking up this book in rural, or even suburban, communities are unlikely to happen upon a Swahili speaker, for example, while running errands and would likely have to make a special trip, with associated costs, to a more urban area to deliberately encounter native speakers.

How to Learn Any Language is flawed in terms of the learning methods Farber details, but the most glaring issues are with his tone. Regarding the language-learning, his method does not lend itself well to less-commonly taught languages (LCTLs). His self-instructional method relies heavily on written and recorded resources that may not be available in many LCTLs.19 His method is also more difficult to apply with primarily oral languages, given this heavy reliance on written materials. Some questions also arise with how dated the book is; although many of Farber’s methods are easily transferrable to modern technology, some current developments such as flashcard programs and the ubiquity of online translation tools make parts of his method feel obsolete.

Where this book fails spectacularly is any reflection on the part of the author to acknowledge his privilege and status, of which he likely had a great deal, given that he was a (presumably) wealthy man in New York City during the second half of the twentieth century.20 Farber’s shopping list is extensive, and the cost of even one language learning book, let alone a language learning program on cassette tapes may be prohibitive, and this is further compounded by the fact that his method relies upon the reader having a variety of tapes.21 Far worse, Farber makes numerous racist and sexist comments. He refers to “militant feminists” several times and encourages men to use language to categorize potentially datable women.22 Perhaps the most offensive is Farber’s story of how he decided to learn Indonesian; he was on a boat and heard the crew “speaking something pure ‘jungle.” 23 There are numerous other examples of this type of speech throughout the book, which can quickly sour a reader’s interest.24

Despite these drawbacks, How to Learn Any Language has some value for self-instructional language learners. Farber sends some mixed messages on grammar, likely because he is trying to accommodate everyone; both those who find grammar to be a helpful structural tool, and those who dislike it. His overall message to not let grammar hinder language learning and instead to focus on learning enough to effectively communicate is a beneficial one for self-instructional learners because it does not set any hard and fast rules and can be tailored to each individual.

Unfortunately, that message may get lost in his emphasis on using grammar books as a foundational part of his language learning method. His use of “real world” texts is also a good suggestion for self-instructional learners, with a few caveats. Provided the language learner is willing to take on what may be an extremely difficult task (reading a newspaper written for native speakers at what is likely a high school reading level with minimal language skills of their own), this type of practice may result in faster learning overall and likely will be more useful than text in an academically-oriented textbook. However, if the text proves too challenging it may cause learners to give up quickly, so some self-reflection on your learning style and preferences is necessary. Farber does give some useful tips that I intend to incorporate into my own learning. These include drawing on the Pimsleur method which constantly seeks to recover your attention by asking “what is the word for …?” and provides hypothetical scenarios, to force vocabulary to stay near top of mind, a technique called “graduated interval recall.”25 Another trick is summarizing difficult grammar concepts as if in a letter to a friend, which I currently use for challenging theory pieces.26 Rather than reading the book in its entirety, I recommendclassmates only consult the “multi-track attack” chapter and skim the rest. You will gain most of the useful information, save time, and avoid offensive comments.

Works Cited


Farber, Barry M. How to Learn Any Language. New York, NY: MJF Books, 2006.

Audio-Forum. “Foreign Language Courses, Audio & Software | AudioForum.Com.” Accessed October 6, 2021.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. 1st edition. New York: Back Bay Books, 2011.

Berlitz. “Learn a New Language.” Accessed October 27, 2021.

Marshall, Terry L. “The Multi-Language Seminar: An Approach to Offering More of the ‘Less Commonly Taught’ Languages.” Foreign Language Annals 20, no. 2 (1987): 155–63.

National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs. “NASILP Student Study Guide,” June 3, 2014.

Nicholson, Helen S. “Learning by the Linguist-Informant Method.” The Modern Language Journal 28, no. 7 (1944): 615–19.














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