An Interview with Barry Farber

April 6, 2005

by Keith Law

This morning I had the honor of speaking with Barry Farber, author of the seminal book on teaching yourself foreign languages, How to Learn Any Language. That book was particularly influential on my experience as a language learner, as it contains a structured technique that brought discipline to my previously scattershot (and often unsuccessful) attempts to learn foreign languages. Almost ten years after buying it, I still refer to it regularly and apply a method very similar to the one outlined in the book.

Mr. Farber was kind enough to answer a few questions about his experiences through over a half-century of learning languages.

How many languages have you studied to this point?

Well, you phrased the question the right way. Some people say, “How many languages do you speak?” At the Language Club, we advise everybody who comes that it’s dangerous to answer with a digit higher than one. Then you pause respectfully, and say, “However, I’m a student of …” and then answer with a number.

I’m a student of 26 languages now. About half are languages that I date, and half are languages that I marry.

By languages I date, I mean no grammar and no script, languages like Bengali. We have an influx of new languages in New York City since I came here. And I want to learn enough to carry on a conversation just by “dating” – no grammar, no attempt to learn the language, just to learn how to say things. If you know language in general, you can go a long way in dating. You can’t help but infer certain grammatical points.

The languages you marry, you get a grammar book, you get a dictionary, you get cassettes, you get flash cards, et cetera.

Are you still adding languages to your list?

Opportunistically. I never intended to learn Tibetan but there’s a Tibetan woman in the small grocery store where I shop. I figured learning a phrase every time I go in there – wow! At the liquor store, there’s a young man from Burkina Faso, I get a phrase from him every time I go in there – his lang is Moray. If there’s a chance, I try to learn at least a few phrases, to break the ice with somebody it goes a long way. That’s the magic of learning languages!

Think about it this way: In no other endeavor is there as much difference between knowing nothing and knowing a little as there is in learning foreign languages. Brain surgery I promise you that there’s very little difference between knowing nothing and knowing a little. If you want to fly or service intercontinental jet planes, there's very little difference between knowing nothing and knowing a little.

In foreign languages, one word! One sentence! It turns ice into steam without wasting all that time turning ice into water.

What’s the hardest language you’ve ever attacked?

For two different reasons, Finnish and Korean. Finnish because of the complexity of the grammar – a lot of people bloody their noses against the six noun cases in Latin/Russian, seven in Serbo-Croatian, you have 15 noun cases in the singular and 16 in the plural. I like to joke that I was in my hotel room in Helsinki for five days trying to learn enough to get downstairs.

Korean has a different kind of difficulty. There are some languages – we should invent a catchy phrase for this; the repeat/rely index, that’ll work for now – if you learn a word in Italian and say it to an Italian person, the Italian will immediately understand. If you learn a word in Indonesian, the Indonesian will immediately understand. There’s good repeat/rely there. If you learn a word in Korean, the Korean’s eyes will glaze over; he’ll be hopelessly confused. Then you say the word again, and you say it louder, and he still won’t understand. Then you show him the word and he’ll say “ah!” and he’ll repeat to you exactly what you’ve been saying, at least to your ears. That happens a lot in Mandarin, and it happens all the time in Korean.

I love the languages that make you suspect the person you’re talking to has the same book at home.

How has technology changed your approach to learning languages?

Oh my Lord! When I started, I feel like the father who had to walk four miles through the snow to get to school and four miles to get back home, and he listens to his kids complaining that the air conditioning on the school bus went down. I studied Norwegian in North Carolina for 18 months with books. And I didn’t know how the ř (the “sliced o”) , how that was pronounced. The book just said something like the German ‘O’ – that’s a lot of help to a 14-year-old kid in North Carolina. So I had no idea how that was pronounced. Some books tell you to hold your mouth as if you’re going to say “oo” and then say “ee.” (How about the first “e” in Gertrude? Wouldn’t that do the trick? Why do they have to bring in German and Scottish?)

I got for my high school graduation present a Norwegian Linguathon course. I don’t still have it, but a listener (I talked about this on the air) sent me one identical to it today so I have a new one. It was a set of records, straight 78 records, and when that came I remember saying to myself, “In a few minute,s I will have a record on the turntable and I will know how that sliced o sounds!”

Today, you can put up an icon on your desktop and hear a radio station over there! And you could have done that several years ago. I just do some basic word processing and some email. Matter of fact my son-in-law does all that dipsy-doodle and he got me a radio station in Oslo and one in Stockholm. I thought, well, I’ll be hearing the same newscast over and over, but that’s okay. Then I found out no, it changes every day – it’s live, and they’re giving you that day’s news!

And of course with all the audio-visual technology, it’s just removed all excuses, and the Audio Forum catalog – it’s like the Wal-mart of language learning, they have a catalog they keep enlarging. It has like 230 courses in 116 languages – they have several courses for some languages, they’ll have opera Italian, they’ll have archeological Arabic – in that catalog there’s a quote from a professor, I think at Cornell, and it’s a wonderful quote: “It is as though the cassette were invented strictly for the study of foreign language!” You put those headphones on and it’s like wrapping the university around your head.

What would you change in your book if you were to rewrite it today?

I would add some new modalities – I didn’t include anything about Audio Forum. Now they have one called Transparent Language; They sell a course in 101 languages for a little over $50. It works out to less than a dollar a language. It’s the basics – the bank, hotel, getting to know you phrases – but you hear native speakers and it’s a fantastic value.

I would also offer an alternative better than walking around with a Walkman: a big flash card, a 3x5 index card, with six phrases, English on one side, language on the other side. I find it so helpful to pack one phrase, I make a game out of it. If I’m just going one block, I don’t bother, but if I go to the grocery store, I take a card with me. Every block I review a new sentence, and when I’m ready for the test, I have do all the sentences without error. When I do, I retire the card. It’ll come up again but it goes to the back of the pile. That constant rotation insinuates familiarity.

I haven’t figured this out yet, maybe five hundred years from now they’ll have it figured out. If I am going to a restaurant owned by an Albanian, and if I study Albanian on the way, the results are about three to four hundred times better than if I just eeny-meeny choose to study any language. The anticipation that you’re en route to the big game makes a big difference.

When you’re studying a language, how far into the language do you go – to the point where you’re conversational, till you’re nearly fluent?

When I was younger, until I got to the subjunctive mood or something hard, then I would change languages. Now I have the hang of it and I just go to the end of the book and I go to reading and vocabulary building. The trick by Harry Lorayne [KL: a mnemonic device for learning vocabulary] is so precious and so much fun and you can build a prodigious vocabulary.

How do you maintain your skills in such a large number of languages you’ve studied?

If there’s a language you don’t use for a while, it’s rusty but it’s there, I can’t prove it but if you flash one word in front of your eyes, it’s there in your brain. You may be very far away from it, but it’s there. And if you look at that word again and again, it’ll be a little more there and a little more there.

Take a language I’m way rusty in now, like Bulgarian or Finnish. If I needed it, then by the time I landed at the airport there, everything I had plus a little would be back. You may think it’s forgotten; it’s not forgotten – it’s packed away. Once you prove that to yourself, you’ll have no more anxiety on it and it flows.

This little card rotation of mine, the languages that you have experimented with, they keep recurring or repeating, so you don’t leave them alone for a very long time.

Do you combine multiple languages in one flash card stack?

I want to concentrate on one language at a time, but that may involve six [languages] a day. I’m still fumbling for the best way, but I’m not saying I’ve got it yet. I’ve been doing this since 1944 as an exclusive hobby, so I’ve tried a lot of things and in my seminars, I don’t teach the things that fail, I only teach what works. I only teach the techniques that survived.

One problem I’ve run into when learning a language extensively is that I reach a point where commercial audio products are no longer useful. What do you recommend when a student has exhausted basic audio materials?

Oh, that’s a wonderful place to be because you know you’ve already got what some professional educators consider a rich payload. You go back to the newspaper or magazine in the language, highlight with a pink felt pen or some other non-obtrusive color the words you don’t know, look them up, put them on flash cards so you’re expanding into new territory all the time.

Many learners are thrown off by complex grammatical structures in some foreign languages. How do you tackle those problems?

I’ve got a different attitude now – it really is a question of attitude. Your inner child throws a tantrum when confronted with stuff that’s not as easy as “I have a book, you have a pen.”

Look at it this way. You can’t run one mile every October for 26 years and say you’ve run the New York Marathon. You can’t run Mt Everest, get tired leave a marker and come back next summer, climb higher up, and leave another marker, then say you’ve climbed Mount Everest. But you can climb a language that way.

They’re not going to call an urgent grammatical meeting in that country and say there’s an American getting close to learning the language, we have to change it. Be a dilettante! Be good to yourself, do a little learn it, then move on. You’ll be amazed how that knowledge transfers from unknown into known in your mind. Just relax, it’s not going to change, stay there, don’t exhaust yourself – if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, and then quit. Move on into more vocabulary, move on into what you do know, and the rest will eventually dissolve and surrender.

For me, it’s noun cases – not the conjugations themselves, but the concept, the idea of thinking about grammar in that way. We don’t get much in the way of grammar instruction in this country. Even in German, where there are just four cases, I struggled.

But if you keep reading, “Auf dem Tisch, auf der Strasse.” This is going to stay the way it is for a very long time. They’re not going to change it. You can just infer grammar that way. Once you have that childlike way of learning by repetition, hearing, plus your grown-up sophistication of learning the rules, then just practice and the difficulty will disappear.

Does the Language Club still exist?

We’re in our 21st year. Every Monday night that’s not a holiday, at La Maganette restaurant, 3rd Ave at 50th Street [KL: 825 3rd Ave; (212) 759-5677]. The cost is $20, but that includes a full meal at a very upscale restaurant. There’s just one caveat: To be a Language Clubber … well, the major languages that are there are the ones that were big 50 years ago: Spanish, German, French. There’s no Russian, no Arabic, no Chinese, no Japanese.

To present a fair face to the world, we’ve taken a page from the old resort in the Catskills: In order to prevent guests from taking fruit from the dining room, here will henceforth be no more fruit in the dining room.

We only want people who – you’re coming for German, there’s no one there who speaks it – we want you not to be the kind of person who’s going to go away disappointed, but instead you’ll say, “Well, hooray – there’s a native French speaker here, I’m going to learn five phrases of French!” In all of our overtures to the public, we nail that down. Someone’s going to be there who speaks something you don’t.

All content © 2005 Keith Law.