Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them

I came across a freely available book some time ago, but forgot to post about it here. The book is titled “Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them,” and is available for free from this page. You can get the PDF of it directly here. Here’s a summary:

This book contains Earl Stevick’s analysis of the strategies used by seven successful language learners and the implications for becoming a more successful language learner yourself. There are extensive excerpts from taped interviews with the seven learners, with Stevick’s comments on the strategies and beliefs of the various learners. The book ends with Stevick’s summary of what we can learn from the experiences of these learners. This book shows the diversity of approaches and beliefs that can be held by successful language learners and can provide suggestions for strategies that may work for you.

While we all have our own ideas about language learning, and we often feel strongly about them, I think a book like this is wonderful in highlighting the fact that many methods work. Even if a particular method doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean it’s a useless method. If serious language learners could keep this in mind when talking with one another, I think there would be much more productive discussion and far less bickering. While I still like them, the forums at how-to-learn-any-language.com are sadly a fine example of this; there’s almost always at least one thread going on that is mostly two or three people arguing the same points over and over. “No, my way is better!” “No, mine is.” “No, yours doesn’t work at all!” Perhaps all of your methods work, but just not for each other?

I really liked a quote from Geoff’s latest post at Confessions of a Language Addict:

Indeed, it sometimes seems like some people make a fetish of not learning or teaching grammar, as though how you learn a language is more important than whether you learn it.

Exactly. Keep the goal in mind; as long as you’re learning and not hating the process, you’re doing something right.

10 thoughts on “Success with Foreign Languages: Seven who achieved it and what worked for them”

  1. A lot of what I see if people arguing over what technique is best. Why? Because time is valuable. Nobody wants to waste their time on a technique that isn’t the ‘best’.

    Unfortunately, ‘best’ is different for everybody and nobody seems to notice this. For me, that means tons of vocab up front and then reinforcement with actual media. For others, that means tons of actual media with some dictionary lookups as they need them.

    I fully plan to switch to the ‘tons of media’ method once I have enough vocab, while others insist on it from the start.

    Another problem is the perceived fluency from different methods. If you want to sound like a dictionary, learn from one. If you want to sound like a person, learn from one.

    For me, I’m fine with sounding like a dictionary until I can actually have a real conversation, then I’ll start working on sound like a person.

  2. Agreed, WC. I think it’s also useful to point out that if you’re looking for the ‘best’ method for efficiency, you need to keep in mind how much time you spend on looking for said method. How many hours have been spent in language forums, arguing over the best method? I’d say those people could have learned a fair bit of vocabulary or grammar in that time, if they would just decide on a method and get to it.

    I also find it humorous when someone says that they learned languages by doing X, and then someone else says that X simply won’t work… even though the first person can clearly speak a number of languages. Iversen at the HTLAL forums is a very good example of this. He swears by using word lists to learn masses of vocabulary, right at the start of learning a language. Many people look on this practice as a bad idea. And yet Iversen is one of the most accomplished language learners in the forum.

  3. Now I remember reading that ebook a while ago. I actually stopped reading it after the first ‘success’ case. I didn’t find it a ‘success’ case at all. I think the author too. But just that he had spent time interviewing the person, he might as well put her in.

  4. Not sure that we are reading the same book Edwin, I think the author certainly did consider Ann successful. Admittedly some of the examples given would seem to indicate that Ann was not successful (or only marginally), but those were illustrating points using languages she wasn’t competent in.

  5. Chris,
    I didn’t read through the whole book, so perhaps I am not in the position to comment on the book. Still, the first story was not impressive to me.

  6. I agree 100%! Ironically, I just had an argument with a Dutch fellow in the comments section of a language blog about this subject. He argued that the way he learned languages was best and I argued that, while it probably worked very well for him, no single method was best for everyone.

    I also like Geoff’s comment about how some people seem to think how you learn a language is more important than whether or not you end up learning it.

  7. ‘Indeed, it sometimes seems like some people make a fetish of not learning or teaching grammar, as though how you learn a language is more important than whether you learn it.’

    ‘Keep the goal in mind; as long as you’re learning and not hating the process, you’re doing something right.’

    So true. I wasted a lot of time researching to find the ‘perfect’ language learning method. Realising that it doesn’t exist was disappointing but freeing at the same time.

  8. Well, learning HOW you learn a language is certainly important, as it affects the level you’ll reach eventually.

    Take high school language instruction for example. Often, it’s heavily grammar focused because people think that’s the way you should learn a language. Still, an avarage student is not able to string together a correct sentence after four(!) years of language study. Weird then that methods that don’t focus on grammar or just waaaay less, achieve better results.

    The method DOES matter!

  9. I’d like to hear your hilarious mistakes while on the way to getting where you’ve gotten…!
    We’ve started a blog collecting foreign language mistakes, so, please post & you might get into the published book!
    upyourbottom.com

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