Sunday, May 23, 2010

Language Hacking Guide review: Great guide for conversation, but no focus on reading or writing

I think I developed a crick in my neck while reading Benny's Language Hacking Guide from nodding my head in agreement so much. Although we took very different language-learning paths, it was clear while reading his book that the strategies we'd each came up with separately are very similar. While I can't say that I agree with him on every point (and I'll highlight some of those disagreements below), his book is definitely full of great strategies that, if implemented, will surely increase your ability to converse in your target language.

However, his book purposefully focuses on only two of the pillars that hold up the language temple: speaking (especially speaking) and listening. Writing and reading have been consciously ignored (although you'll certainly make some gains in both writing and reading by following the advice in the guide). Here's how Benny describes his take on writing, which I presume applies even more to reading:

Writing is not social enough for me to care about it. For people with academic or professional goals for their languages then my guide isn't for them. For people who want to improve their relationships with natives, then some of my tips help and I intentionally didn't discuss improving writing skills because of this. [I don't] care about [my] writing level…
So if you're looking for an all-in-one guide to tell you how to improve your speaking and listening and reading and writing, as Benny says, his guide isn't for you. Following the Language Hacking Guide, the gains made in writing and reading are really just incidental to the gains made in speaking and listening. For a book that purports to be a language hacking guide rather than a foreign-language conversation hacking guide, this is the only major issue I'd note.

Nevertheless, given that most language learners seem to pull off the reading/writing side better than the speaking/listening side, I'm not sure that this is a wholly bad thing, as long as you know not to expect much advice on reading and writing.

A good chunk of the book actually has application far beyond language learning: maintaining a positive mentality, staying motivated, being productive, moving from introversion to extroversion, etc. I feel like he could delete the language-learning references and turn the book into some kind of general self-help guide, but as those are definitely things that are helpful in learning a language, they're well placed in the guide. And, to echo another review, Benny's enthusiasm bursts through and it's hard to not be excited about going out and speaking a language after reading the guide. And let's not forget the numerous moments of humor to be found.

Turning away from the content itself, the guide is a pretty-pricy $39 (and will be going up to $49 at some point). It's advertised as over 200 pages long, but that's in slide format (i.e., like PowerPoint slides); the printer-friendly PDF version of the main text of the guide that comes with the package weighs in at only 55 pages, as opposed to the 195-page slide version of the main text. That was actually good news for me; a 200+ page book would be a bit more weighty than I'd expect from a guide, but it was in fact a breezy read. The whole package consists of the main text of the Language Hacking Guide (195 pages in slide format, 55 pages in printer-friendly PDF format, and an ePub version that prints out as 123 pages on my computer), 6 worksheets, a list of "conversational connectors", and over three hours of audio interviews.

So what's the bottom line? I strongly recommend this guide for anyone who wants to learn how to speak and learn how to speak quickly, although you might want to consider something else if your focus is on improving your writing and reading. (Disclosure: Benny traded me a copy of his guide for a copy of our book once it comes out, so while I didn't exactly get it for free, I didn't shell out the $39 either. I'm also participating in Benny's affiliate program, so if you click on a link to the Language Hacking Guide on this site and then buy it, you'll be giving $23.40 of that $39 to me (you can always click here to give it all to Benny).)

For the rest of this review, I'd like to look at a number of specific points in Benny's book, which I've put in three groups based on my own opinion of them: agree, agree but I'd add more, and disagree.

Agree. As noted above, I agree with the vast majority of the suggestions put forward in Benny's book, so I'll spare you the "Benny said this, and I agree! Woohoo!" bit. However, I would like to highlight some of the tips that were new to me and that I'd like to incorporate into my own language-learning efforts:

  • Dramatic pauses (p. 122). Instead of saying, "Uh…" or whatever your target language equivalent is, just pause for some dramatic effect. Kind of corny, but kind of fun. In fact, when studying oral advocacy in law school, they taught us to ditch "um…" and the like for silence; this makes it seem like you're thinking rather than bumbling (even if you are bumbling). I'm surprised that I never made the connection with speaking foreign languages!
  • Putting phrases to music (p. 156). Let's say you're trying to get down some long phrase like よろしくお願いします yoroshiku onegai shimasu ("Pleased to meet you", among other things) for the first time. Benny suggests remembering that by putting it to music. As it's much easier to remember something set to music (like all those song lyrics you've managed to suck up over the years), this falls into the box of "Why the heck didn't I think of that before?".
  • Couchsurfing (p. 167). Couchsurfing is a worldwide network of people offering up couches for travelers to sleep on for free. I've actually considered using this myself to find a place to stay previously, but I'd never made the connection of using it to get target language speakers to come and stay with me. Great tip.
  • Finding events (p. 168). He suggests using things like, Facebook, etc., to find events where there'll be native speakers. This is a good way to get in touch with native speakers in a venue where they'll be expecting and open to meeting non-native speakers.
  • Language exchange sites (p. 169). He gives a long list of websites on which you can find native speakers to chat with, some of which were completely new to me: Babelyou, Busuu, Chatonic, italki, Lenguajero (Spanish only), Livemocha, My Language Exchange, Polyglot Club (sponsored by Assimil), Sharedtalk (by Rosetta Stone), and Vraiment (French only). (I'd also add Badoo to the list, but that recommendation comes from Yearlyglot.)
  • Software (pp. 173-174). He points out some language advantages of specific software, like Firefox with its various language plug-ins (my complaint here would be that he doesn't list out the plug-ins he's referring to), Open Office's superiority to Microsoft Office as a language-learning tool, and instant-messaging program Pidgin (which unfortunately doesn't work on a Mac; I use Adium instead).
  • Listening to foreign-language words (p. 174). You can accomplish this with RhinoSpike, but I had no idea there was already a site called Forvo that does this for words only (as opposed to the arbitrary text you can put into RhinoSpike), and indeed it has already implemented some of the suggestions I made about RhinoSpike. This website is quite a gem with recordings of words in 241 languages and, just like RhinoSpike, these can be automatically imported into Anki by simply pasting in the MP3's URL to Anki.
  • Specialized dictionaries (p. 176). He also made three suggestions for dictionaries with specialized terms, none of which I'd heard of before but all of which I'll be looking into: ProZ, InterActive Terminology for Europe, and MyMemory.
Agree but I'd add more. Now let's turn to those place where I think Benny is on the money but needs to push things a little farther to maximize efficiency.
  • Wing it when you don't know the vocab. Benny puts forth the well-worn language-learning tip of using vocabulary you know to get around or to get to vocabulary you don't (p. 89):
    If I … suddenly come to a word I don't know, what I always do with natives is try explain around the word using other words that I already know. Can't say glasses? Say “eye-windows” and mime glasses with your hands. Can't say giraffe? Say long-neck-animal-from-Africa. With a bit of imagination and essential vocabulary you can express yourself in many ways even if you don't know specific words.
    This is a good tip, but it needs to be combined with seeking out and learning the words you don't know. Benny also talks about the concept of plateauing (i.e., your skills leveling off with no further improvement) and there's a greater risk of plateauing if you make use of this tip a lot. That said, it's great in a pinch.
  • Avoid speakers of your own language. Benny puts forth this very wise advice (p. 90):
    If you are going abroad soon, make the decision now to avoid English speakers (or speakers of your native language). Yes, “avoid”!
    I'd add that it's not just native speakers of your language that you want to avoid, but anyone that won't speak the target language with you. If some target language speaker is insistent on speaking with you only in your native language for their own benefit, that person should be on your to-be-avoided list as well. I'd also add that this advice is valid whether you're abroad or not.
  • Upgrading from dead-tree materials. When talking about reclaiming lost time (p. 162), Benny speaks a lot about using paper. When possible, I'd replace paper with your smart phone (like the Notes app on the iPhone, as discussed here).
  • Randomly learning from a phrasebook (p. 164). Benny says "Randomly deciding what words to study yourself in a phrasebook is fine," but I'd say that it's only fine if you have no better alternatives, such as getting those phrases in an SRS system. Picking things out of a phrase book at random will surely lead to inefficiencies that should and generally can be avoided.
  • Trading language lessons for other kinds of lessons (p. 166). Benny argues that, for instance, if you're a programmer, you can teach someone to program in exchange for them teaching you their language. While I wouldn't take this off of the list of things to do when you've got limited options, I'm skeptical that this could work in most places. How likely is it that you are going to be able to find the person speaking your target language who also wants to learn what you're teaching? It's the typical inefficiency of the barter-based economy, and I think in many circumstances this is going to be unlikely. And why even spend the time when you can get pretty much everything you need for free from native speakers on social language-learning websites?
  • Using classfied ads to find tutors (p. 166). Benny says that these are much cheaper than lessons at schools. That's probably true, but, if you're paying, I think the cheapest lessons to be had are probably on sites like eduFire.
  • Target language Google image search (p. 171). Benny suggests this for getting an actual image of those things as aimed at target language speakers. This is of course a great tip, but I'd go one farther and add them to your SRS as well.
Disagree. Lastly, let's turn to the various points on which I disagree with Benny.
  • Lack of focus on writing/reading. Discussed above, this makes his method less useful for those who also need to focus on writing and reading.
  • Grammar. Benny and I have different approaches to grammar. Where he argues for "study triage" (i.e., figuring out the grammar you need after you realize you need it) (pp. 108-111), I argue for prepping the ground and using "triage" only where your prep work fails. See this post and its comments for more on how our approaches vary.
  • Blogging in your native language. As discussed in this post and its comments, Benny suggests that it's OK to blog in your native language as a way to enter the language-learning community (p. 51). In doing so, he seems to be valuing the entering this community over his oft-repeated suggestion of doing as much as possible in the target language, like this one (p. 82):
    However, apart from that absolutely necessary time in your mother tongue, you are wasting your time doing other things in your mother tongue that you could easily do in the foreign language. Doing as many of these things in your target language as possible is where true immersion comes in.
    Or this one (p. 172):
    [T]ry to keep everything in the target language.
    Or this one (p. 86):
    Let me be very clear about this and repeat it, because it is one of the most important decisions you will ever make on your path to fluency: STOP SPEAKING YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE!
    I'm not sure why that would apply to speaking but not to writing.
  • Not avoiding certain non-native speakers (p. 91). Benny makes an exception to the general rule (that we both agree on) of generally avoiding non-native speakers:
    [T]here is one type of other non-native that you absolutely do not need to avoid, and who can actually be extremely helpful, sometimes more so than natives: other passionate non-native learners of the language.
    I wouldn't make this exception. The internet can be as helpful as most people and will likely require less of a time commitment. Find the blogs that cover your languages, and chances are that they'll be more in depth than some random non-native speaker who is a passionate learner of the language.
  • Mixing another language with the target language to "get in the flow" (pp. 92-97). I'll first point out that this is not often possible. If the language you're mixing in is English, then you might be able to pull it off, but an Italian in Japan will have no luck mixing in Italian, and a German in the U.S. will have no luck mixing in German. Second, I think this is very dangerous advice because of the risk of fossilizing these habits, i.e., getting so used to tossing in your native language that you end up speaking a pidgin. I'd recommend instead jumping into the flow fully in the target language, but stopping the flow as much as necessary so you can do everything in the target language. In other words, ask if you don't know how to say something rather than use the crutch of your native language. It might take you five minutes to say "I left my wallet in the house", but you'll be doing it in the target language—and it won't be very long before it takes you a lot less than five minutes.
  • Learn Esperanto first (p. 101). As you learn your second foreign language more easily than your first, he recommends spending two weeks learning Esperanto. Although I see what he's getting at, I don't think I could ever get myself to (or recommend that someone else) learn a language that has pretty much no economic value.


  1. Thanks a million for this in-depth review Vincent!!! Hugely appreciated :)

    I'll take some of the criticisms into account when I'm upgrading the content to the next version, especially on where I simply need to clarify what I meant so there is no ambiguity.

    I actually don't strongly disagree with anything you said! I really liked this review :)

    But just to answer a few points you brought up:

    I think I'll write a post on the blog similar to the section about Esperanto to make it clearer what I mean. Sorry but economic value is waaay down in my list of priorities of learning a language and goes against the emotional context I mention a lot in the book. If someone is learning a language because it will help them get a job I think a lot of the passionate & social approaches I suggest would be lost on them.

    And other non-native learners have been essential to me getting into the flow. I learned most of my Spanish from German, Italian, French etc. Erasmus students in Spain. European Spanish is dreadfully quickly spoken and that's quite hard on a new learner, so conversing (just in Spanish) with non-natives eased me in. The Internet does have plenty of natives, but for me the Internet should only be used as a second-best if what you want to do cannot be done in person.

    You can go to a bar right now and spend the evening chatting in any language in the world you are passionate about if someone else in your city is willing to try to speak in that language too. You may not improve your level much (so they cannot replace natives), but you will get over the mental barrier and you will have seen me mention the importance of that many times in the book.

    Once again you are right about the non-writing focus. Your goals seem more professional than someone like me. My goal in writing the book is to focus on social use of languages. However, I do have some writing/reading hacks that I'll talk about on the blog as they will be important for my C2 exam in a month.

    Also, I think the "randomly learning from a phrasebook is fine" quotation is taken out of context- that was leading into me saying something along the lines of "but it's better to use SRS".

    You're right that avoiding use of paper should be the priority, and I'll mention that - but the majority of people do not have a smartphone yet so I have to take that into consideration.

    And I did actually mention avoiding natives using you to practise their English (or otherwise). Perhaps not on the same page, but it's definitely there.

    Anyway, loved this review! I look forward to reading future posts based on the points that you had not been aware about and the sites I linked to that you didn't know of!

    Thanks a lot - I look forward to reading your own work when it comes out ;)

  2. Oh yeah, you didn't mention anything about the interviews! They're a big part of the guide (why I put a CD image on the banner). Did you like them? :)

  3. "Writing is not social enough for me to care about it." It sounds like he is overlooking the social possibilities here, of both writing and reading. As you mentioned, writing a blog in the target language would be one great way of doing this, or there are many other options like posting in Facebook or chatting (instant messaging).

    Though, I agree that it is not a big deal for this not to be one of the focuses of the book, since most people will easily latch onto socially writing & are too nervous to move on to speaking, but I think adding a few social writing/reading links and ideas to the book would be helpful.

  4. Thanks Tiffany! If I can prove my writing hacks as useful by getting a decent result in my German exam in a month (although I did actually do this already with Spanish & French), then I'll add in a section for that to make the book overall a little bit more useful :)

    If I see that my hacks aren't that great for writing/reading, then I'll just focus on speaking and people will definitely find no shortage of alternative resources for improving their writing skills!

  5. I actually didn't listen to them yet, so I'm saving those for another post (probably should edit the post to mention that). In fact, I'm loading them up onto my iPod right now for a run I'm about to go on...

    (If you do the math, it is the middle of the night here. I've been waiting all day for the rain to stop with no luck, so now it's run in the middle of the night or don't run at all.)

  6. Saluton Benny

    Ne forgesu informu la vendofako de la Esperanto-Asocio en Barlaston.

    Eble ili aĉetos kelkajn kopiojn por disvendi :)

  7. If you've never learned another language before, it's a daunting task. Esperanto is enough like your native language (assuming it's English or one of the 5 others that Esperanto is based on) that it's a LOT easier to learn, and then it's also like 5 other languages!!

    However, I'm not sure 2 weeks will teach you enough to bother, unless you really work hard on it. And have a tutor/class.

  8. Yes sure. Speaking. But speaking about what? Celebrities perhaps? Never mind about literature and the like.. Really just BS isn't it? If you weren't blogging to try and sell something you would have to agree I think. As for choosing a language to learn based on 'economic utility'...?WTF?

  9. Your comment is actually demonstrative of why I was reluctant to do the affiliate program. I don't really care about the money, but I figured if there was money to be had, I might as well put up the affiliate link since I'm going to be linking to the product anyway. I suppose if enough people have your attitude, I'll stop doing them; I'd rather be trusted than get the small amounts of money these affiliate programs bring in anyway.

    But I stand by what I said above. At the same time, I think we actually agree, in fact. Notice that I point out that the lack of focus on reading and writing is a weakness. I believe the term I used was "major issue". And I think it is. I'm no fan of literature (in English or in any other language), but there are plenty of things that I want and need to read, and writing is also something that I don't think should be ignored, as Benny does.

    I wouldn't say his guide is B.S. It focuses on getting you to speak, and I think its suggestions are solid for that goal. I think the point your getting at is that if you don't focus on reading at all, how do you expand your vocabulary beyond the somewhat banal stuff that often comprises social interactions, and I'd say that's a valid point; there's a point at which your speaking skills will level off if you rely solely on social interactions to develop your vocab base. And, if you do nothing but follow his suggestions, your reading and writing will struggle.

    As for economic utility, it's a key reason why many people learn languages. People in China aren't waking up and saying, "Gee, I'll bet Shakespeare's literature is delightful. I think I'll learn English to be able to enjoy his works in the native English." No, they're saying, "Speaking good English will get me a job, or get me a better job."

    I specifically picked all of my languages on the basis of whether they'd be economically useful to me. Sure enough, I've used every single one of my languages at work, and it's opened up numerous opportunities for me (including the job I currently hold). And I regularly get contacted by recruiters looking for someone who speaks x language.

    So that, in short, is, as you say, WTF choosing a language to learn based on economic utility means.

  10. Well argued.
    In fact I apologise. Looking at my comment again, I realise I was perhaps disrespectful.
    Actually you're right. Why not learn a language for economic reasons..?.- (pragmatism vs idealism etc. but you are not wrong) So, sorry. Best wishes

  11. Mi pensas ke ne ĉar la LHG ne estas papera libro (ankoraŭ). Eble post jaro aŭ 2 jaroj mi publikigos ĝin ;)

  12. Running in the rain can be very liberating!

    That was a very detailed review and I think that you both provide a lot of good points and suggestions for language learners.

    New technology and research is rapidly changing the way people learn languages. I think we at an interesting poing in time as far as language learning and acquisition is concerned. More learners are looking for the tools to enable them to do it for themselves, or simply to do it better, quicker and more intuitively. Hence the numbers using online language exchanges, for example.

  13. Thanks!

    Sometimes I look at all the leaps and bounds being made in the tools available for language learners, and I'm jealous that I didn't have all of these things in front of me when I was doing the bulk of my work tackling the languages I've studied.

    I'm actually something of a fan of running in the rain, but I was hoping to not have to dry my clothes off again (third time this week). That plan failed, and I was getting poured on while listening to Benny interview Khatz and Damien.

  14. No apology necessary, and no disrespect taken at all! Heated comments are always welcome!

  15. I haven't read the book yet -- I wanted to buy a copy for the sake of showing support for Benny, but when I saw the extortionist price tag my opinion changed.

    So, with the understanding that I'm only commenting on what you've presented here... I agree with your criticisms. Speaking is great, of course, but I also need reading and writing, and I need grammar.

    And after my fun (but disappointing) one-week challenge with Esperanto, I am left with a horrible taste in my mouth any time someone mentions it. In fact, Esperanto's effect on my has been exactly the opposite of what Benny suggests -- any time I see a word that reminds me of Esperanto, I recoil.

    But in the end, in spite of the fact that Benny really does have some good ideas (hacks) for learning, I can't help the feeling that a lot of his advice loses its meaning when applied to a person who is not living in the country where that language is spoken. Speaking your way to fluency is really hard without someone to speak to.

  16. No prob! Glad you run in rain too :-)

  17. And of course there are those countless millions of unfortunates not born speaking a dominant language who still have a right to benefit from language learning advice.

  18. Vincent whilst Benny may neglect the reading and writing aspects, some of your posts are weakened (imho) as you often have a tendency to push them too close (for my comfort) to listening and speaking in your arguments.

    I know you are probably attached to the title "street-smart", I am finding reading your blog very interesting but in stark contrast to my expectations of the word "street" at least as defined by my teenage kids. Charts / diagrams, grammar outlining (and I am not saying these are wrong) don't tie in with my "street" expectations, more like "University-Educated Language Learning".

    Perhaps I hung out on the wrong streets, and maybe you have a super ironic marketing gimmick planned when you release your book.

  19. Vince,

    I enjoyed your interview with Steve the other day. May I ask you where in Japan you live? Have you ever had a crack at Chinese? I am living in Suzhou/China, and continue on my path to mastering Chinese. From my experience with language learning, the confidence element is much overrated. My confidence in a language comes from knowledge, which in turns comes from studying the language and acquiring words by reading and listening. I spoke 5 languages before taking on Chinese but I have to say I had never encountered a challenge quite like this.

    Comprehension in Chinese due to all these homophones is the big challenge for me. These days I see most of these language learning blogs and advice they offer from the perspective of a learner of Chinese. Speaking on day one and enjoying it just doesnt work IMHO.


  20. It looks good,I have learn a recruit!
    Recently,I found an excellent online store, the
    are completely various, good quality and cheap price,it’s worth buying!

  21. Wow, thanks for the in-depth review Vincent! Benny's new guide is incredible! I had the opportunity to interview him recently and I really appreciated the unconventional tips he had to share about the right mindset for language learning and language hacking

  22. Looks like a load of bullsh*t to me, let me ring him and speak to him in each of the languages, without him looking at a script like in his videos...

  23. Hello,
    Just to let you know that the polyglot club website address will change soon.
    New link :

    (old link polyglot-learn-language . com)


  24. Good review but I totaly disagree about Esperanto, It has a lots of benefits that I even should say are greater than economics.