Wednesday, September 24, 2014

September 21: 6 Books

76. How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately: Foreign Language Communication Tools by Boris Shekhtman

Ok -- so this is a super short book -- around 100 pages, and even that is stretching it, considering the font size and typset of the text. Still, in light of the 543 page book that I read the other day, my friend Amanda at Roots Cafe in South Park Slope, Brooklyn assures me that I should count this as a full book. It was indeed published as a "full book" with its own isbn and its own separate listing on, where I purchased it in 2013.

I love love love love LOVE this book. It is not a book for beginning language learners. Rather, it is a distillation of the author's main points from his much longer work, Developing Professional Level Language Proficiency, which I also read earlier this year. In How To Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, Shekhtman provides multiple CONVERSATIONAL STRATEGIES to take whatever level the language learner has attained and maximize what he or she is able to show during conversational interactions with native speakers of that language.

The ISLAND STRATEGY is my absolute favorite point of this book, and is the main reason that I will continue to reread this short, crucial work on language learning as well as recommend it to every single intermediate learner of any foreign language that I meet for the rest of my life!!!

77. How To Learn a Foreign Language by Edwin T. Cornelius, Jr.

This book originally came with a dust jacket, which my copy is missing. Rather than post a copy of the plain blue front cover of the non-jacketed hardback, I am instead including a cover of the interior title page for those who are interested in ordering this book on Amazon or perhaps taking it out of your local public library.

Published in the 1950s, this book contains a solid method based on finding a native speaker "informer" or "mentor" in your target foreign language and then preparing lessons for yourself that you then have your mentor teach you, based on your specific needs. In this respect, though the book focuses entirely on the author's experiences learning to speak modern Greek, the book follows much the same "missionary linguistic" approach to language acquisition as several of the upcoming entries in this blog.

I have decided to keep this short work as a permanent part of my language learning book collection for two reasons:
  1. I intend to study classical Greek at some point in the future and when I do, it will be good to have an example of a practical Craigslist-style language trade method for learning modern conversational Greek at the same time; and
  2. There are some very sound "missionary" style language learning techniques in this book that I want to revisit in the future as I continue to re-evaluate my own language learning efforts in Chinese -- especially going forward as I begin to take my Chinese out "into the field" for personal fieldtrips to Cantonese and Mandarin speaking NYC Chinatowns and develop my own in-situ language "assignments."
78. Learning a Foreign Language: A Handbook Prepared Especially for Missionaries by Eugene A. Nida

From what I can tell from my cursory research on Amazon prior to ordering this book in 2012, this was THE book for the 1950s / 60s generation of "Travel to a Foreign Country and Learn the Local Language to Convert the Heathens to The Word of God" brand of Christian Missionary. If the reader is able to put aside the white man's conceit that that is even remotely an appropriate way to approach other non-Western cultures, there is much of value in this thin, pithy volume.

I have dogeared many pages in my copy, and my intention a few days ago was to write a bit about some of the more salient points in this book. However, in the interest of time, let me just end this review by saying that if you are interested in going to a foreign country or immersing yourself in a foreign language speaking community in the US, and you are a self-starter who is genuinely interested in becoming fluently conversational in another language via a method focusing on conversations with locals in which you use the language (once you learn it at a basic enough level) to learn about the culture from which the language springs, THIS is a great book to check out. If, on the other hand, you are the sort of learner who insists on sitting in a class and having some teacher or "person of authority" tell you what to do, what to learn, then this is definitely NOT the kind of book for your language learning approach.

79. The Principles of Language Study by H. E. Palmer

This is a reprint of a book on language learning from the 1920s, and if ever there was a book written from the pompous "I am a white man and I know much more than you uncivilized heathens" perspective on other languages and cultures, this would be a shining example. Still, there are some positive points and because my personal interest in language learning and teaching is much more than cursory, it is very worthwhile for me to read books like this every once in a while -- if only to make me angry about the previous generations' notions of white man's privilege...

Focusing mainly on French language examples, the author does a good job of contrasting the fors and againsts regarding spoken vs. written language study at the outset of the student's efforts to acquire a new language. Most of the book focuses on the author's 9-point action plan for learning a new language:
  1. Initial preparation
  2. Building proper habits
  3. Accuracy, particularly of pronunciation
  4. Gradation
  5. Proportion
  6. Concreteness of examples and language rules as the student acquires them
  8. Order of progression of study materials and language aspects
I have capitalized 7 and 9 because they are the 2 take-aways for me from this particular book, and are very important to my own personal language learning philosophy as I have applied it to Chinese thus far.

80. Polyglot: How I Learn Languages by Kato Lomb

This is one of my Top 5 All Time Language Learning Books.

Written by one of the most accomplished interpreters of the latter half of the 20th Century, a Hungarian woman with a command of 16 languages who, most impressively AND MOST INSPIRING FOR ME, learned most of her spoken and written languages in her 30s and 40s, this book is both informative and specific in its prescription for language learning.

I have been a big believer in EXTENSIVE READING in a foreign language (my own Bombardment Theory of Language Learning, which I have promised to write more about either in this blog or at for several years now -- before I was ever aware of Stephen Krashen's work on the topic or this book currently being reviewed here and now. It is always nice to be validated through one's reading on a given topic of passion that one's own thoughts and ideas happen to resonate with some of the current thinking in the field. Yay -- go me!

Ms. Lomb's detailed description of how she initially learned to speak Russian via reading a novel over and over again over a period of months during the wartime occupation of her country is both inspired and inspiring. Recently, I have applied the exact same method to my own reading and rereading of Dav Pilkey's seminal work, Capitán Calzoncillos y El Terrorífico Retorno de Cacapipí (the Spanish language edition of Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers), from which I have literally much improved my own conversational Spanish (albeit to a 10 year-old level).

81. A Linguistic Guide to Language Learning by William G. Moulton

This is a very dry work, focused mainly on Chomsky-style language tree diagrams and a circa 1970 understanding of the state of linguistics as a social science and how that science might aid foreign language learning. In actuality, I would argue that the contents of this book certain aid linguistics as a field, and would aid a student who wants to read ABOUT and think ABOUT language, but this particular book would do very little to actually help a student acquire a new language or learn to speak it.

This seems to be a common misunderstanding throughout the linguistics literature up until recent years: one does NOT need to study ABOUT how a language works in order to learn how to speak and use that language. Even in order to learn the grammar of that particular language. The only people aided by a book such as this would be linguistics who want to understand more about how language AS A CONCEPT might function at a deeper "social science research" level. Taken with that particular grain of salt, a book like this might be interesting to a linguist doing research into why certain language teaching methods might be more or less effective for certain segments of the population. However, this book does little to help a student learn to speak, read or write any specific language.

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