Book Review: The Language Secret by John Stedman

The Language Secret isn't my first choice for newbies but it offers plenty of "ah hah!" moments for experienced learners


If you’re a language nerd like me, you probably waste hours reading books about languages that you could have spent actually learning one. And now you’re reading a review about a book about language learning instead of actually learning a language. So it goes.

Anyhow, this is my first book review for the blog. Let me know what you like — and especially what you don’t like — so the next one can be better.

Note: I was given a free ebook copy of The Language Secret by its author for review.

The Language Secret by John Stedman

The subtitle of the book is “How to speak 10 languages badly"and if that’s your goal (and if those 10 languages are Romance and Germanic languages), you will find a lot to love in The Language Secret.

However, the book misses the mark with its purported target audience—anglophone monoglots learning their first new language. The main takeaways get buried under jokes and pop-culture references and actionable “do this, not that, then do this” instructions are few and far between.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Price: $9.99 (Kindle), $19.99 (Paperback), $29.99 (Hardcover) [Amazon]

TLDR: Outstanding for #langtwt types trying to learn 15 languages, but I wouldn’t give it to my monolingual mom who just wants to learn Italian

The good:

  • Thoroughly anti-perfectionist
  • Lots of “lightbulb” moments for experienced learners
  • Sections on the Romance and Germanic languages useful for anglophones who want to learn multiple languages at once

The bad:

  • Often lacks of clear, actionable instructions
  • Takeaways get buried under references and quips
  • Recommended vocabulary learning technique requires a partner

The ugly:

  • Rambling introductions drove me insane. But that’s just me.

What is “The Language Secret” anyways?

The eponymous “Language Secret” of The Language Secret is this: to speak a language well, you first have to speak it badly.

As language secrets go, I think this is a great one — an anti-perfectionism mantra I’m going to keep in my subconscious back-pocket for every time I encounter another person who keeps perfectly calligraphed bullet journals and actually uses Toggl.

The eponymous “language secret” of The Language Secret is this: to speak a language well, you first have to speak it badly.

Learning to be okay with being bad at stuff is a skill, and an important one for language learners. The fact is, most adult learners will never achieve native-like fluency (Lightbown 2000). And if it’s unusual — read: vanishingly rare — for adult language learners to achieve native-like fluency in a new language, there is no chance that you won’t suck at the beginning.

Should that hold you back? Absolutely not. And that’s why I think Stedman’s anti-perfectionist “language secret” is some of the best language learning advice you could ask for.

Should “speaking badly” really involve speaking? In defense of a silent period

With its call to “speak badly” and specific advice aimed at starting to speak as quickly as possible — including knowingly ignoring proper grammar and using easier-to-learn, but incorrect work-arounds instead — The Language Secret falls firmly into the speak-from-day-one á la Benny Lewis camp.

But I’m not convinced that very early speaking is helpful—or even that it isn’t harmful.

I didn’t start speaking German badly, at least not in the way Stedman suggests, in a sort of “me, Tarzan” way. After about a year of soaking in comprehensible input, I started speaking at about a B1 level. Because of this, I never had the chance to develop bad habits at A1 that could follow me to B1.

Still, the existence of a true “silent period” in 2nd language acquisition by children isn’t even settled in the research yet, let alone in language-learning adults (Roberts 2014). And at the end of the day, Stedman is the polyglot, not I. Go forth and speak badly if that’s what you want to do.

And really, if you really need to be able to achieve perfect mastery over something to find it fulfilling, language learning is not for you. Find a hobby you can master, like solving Rubik’s cubes.

“Ah-hah” moments for experienced learners

Beyond its refreshing anti-perfectionism, Stedman’s book shines as a soft introduction to a few important ideas from linguistics that can be illuminating for language learners. If you’re an experienced learner who hasn’t already encountered these ideas, The Language Secret will set off lightbulbs left and right for you.

This is especially true if you’re studying or have ever studied a Germanic or Romance language. The two chapters on these language families do a good job of providing a “why” for many of the most important patterns and quirks of these popular languages.

But even if you’re studying Russian or Thai, the sections on grammar, idiom, register, and language families in general will all offer helpful insights. Anglophones, in particular, will benefit from the chapter on grammar which points out many of the patterns in English that tend to break down in other languages.

If you like learning a little bit of lots of languages, this book is for you

I see a lot of people interested in many, many languages in the language learning corners of the internet. Look at people’s Twitter bios and you’ll see 13 different flags indicating their target languages.

If that sounds like you, The Language Secret can probably help you gain a rough understanding of many languages that you’re aiming for. The chapters on language families are intended to show how you can acquire basic vocabulary and grammar in many sister languages at once.

Not the best book for first-time learners

While I think experienced (and perhaps very motivated) learners can get a lot out of The Language Secret, I would not recommend this book to beginners.

The alternate title of the book is “How to speak 10 languages badly.” If that’s what you want, read the book. If you’re a monoglot just trying to learn Spanish, I suspect that you might leave Stedman’s tome a bit more confused than you came into it.

The important points get buried under excessive quips and references

Unfortunately, The Language Secret buries most of its helpful points under a heap of unnecessary verbiage and indulgent references to pop-culture and history. And instead of providing clear instructions or highlighting the main points succinctly, it waxes sarcastic to indulge in line upon line of what I can only describe as very British humor. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, look at the chapter titles in the next section.

This, in my view, makes the book almost unusable for beginners.

If you already have an idea of how to learn a language, the quips and random references could be fun icing on information you can take and incorporate into your existing learning practices. But for total newbies, the book does not offer clear enough directions. Loads of information is provided, but the “so what” is often missing.

Each chapter begins with a few (ebook) pages devoted to a story that is in most cases only tangentially related to the topics at hand. References to that story will then show up over, and over, and over again throughout the chapter — alongside new references to other things that you may or may not have ever heard of before or care about.

Perhaps it’s my journalism experience (“Don’t bury the lede!"), but I found the references and extremely quippy tone excessive. And irritating. It especially bothered me that reference-laden quips took the place of bullet-points with the main takeaways at the end of each chapter.

Suggested learning methods can be a tad out of touch

My final bone to pick with The Language Secret is that the few specific methods it does suggest are often a bit out of touch.

The book doesn’t seem to recognize that digital tools other than Google Translate and Duolingo exist. The section on spaced repetition doesn’t mention Anki, Memrise, or any of the other popular spaced repetition programs used widely in the language community.

Instead of introducing Anki, The Language Secret suggests that you make paper flashcards and have a friend (in practice, I assume, romantic partner) drill you on them daily. The method outlined wouldn’t be possible to do using the cards on your own.

For pronunciation, the book doesn’t suggest shadowing or comprehensible input or even much listening — it suggests using the IPA. That’s fine, but I can’t remember the book specifying how exactly one should use the IPA to learn pronunciation.

Chapter breakdown

The Language Secret is divided into an introduction, conclusion, and 10 chapters. Below are quick breakdowns of each of the 10 chapters. As you can see, the book covers a lot of ground!

A quick note: I’ve introduced each chapter under my own “translated” titles. The real titles (provided below each “translation”) each consist of title, a subtitle, and a sub-subtitle and were a bit too long to look nice on the blog, so I summarized.

Chapter 1: The 4 Core Language Skills — Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing

Original Title: “The Birmingham Screwdriver: In Which We Find Out How to Get Started and Use the Right Tools for the Job: What is Involved in Learning a Language and How Long It Takes”

  • The 4 core language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing
  • Each skill needs to be learned using a different method (contrast with the Input Hypothesis, which holds that all skills are learned by receiving comprehensible input alone)
  • The “language secret” — don’t be a perfectionist!
  • Estimates that it would take ~45 hours over 6 months to learn to speak (but not write, read, or understand) a new language

Chapter 2: How to Learn Vocabulary

Original Title: “Caught in the Web of Words: In Which We Learn from a Scot Who Loved English: Active and Passive Vocabulary”

  • Guidance on learning enough vocabulary to speak
  • Techniques: mind maps, learning word formation patterns, using frequency lists, a partner flashcard technique
  • Introduces the basic grammatical categories of words
  • Highlights words in English that often don’t work the same in other language

Chapter 3: Why we Need to Learn Grammar

Original Title: “NABULIONE: In Which We Survey the Field of Battle as We Prepare to Vanquish a Foe: Morphology and Syntax. Do We Really Need to Learn Grammar?”

  • Adults cannot acquire languages purely through input like children can (again, contrast with the Input Hypothesis)
  • Introduces basic grammatical terms
  • Highlights grammatical concepts to learn first for bare-bones communication

Chapter 4: Accelerated Language Learning

Original Title: “Paranoid Android: In Which a Bored Supercomputer Helps Us to Examine Your Brain: Muscle Memory and Accelerated Language Learning”

  • Mnemonics: gender-color association mostly
  • You do not need to be gifted to be multilingual
  • Spaced repetition (… but no mention of Anki & co.)
  • A weird (and nonscientific) suggestion for physical memory aides based on right-brain-left-brain division
  • Don’t study when you’re not focused, less time more frequently is better

Chapter 5: Introduction to Language Families

Original Title: “The Tower of Babel: In Which We Examine an Ancient and Hitherto Unsolved Puzzle: The Concept of Language Families and its Practical Consequences for Language Learning”

  • What are language families?
  • Germanic and Romance languages are easiest for anglophones to learn
  • Dialects, language colonialism, and racism

Chapter 6: The Germanic Languages

Original Title: “‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair’: In Which We Meet the Brothers Grimm. Or One of Them, at Least: An Introduction to the Germanic Languages”

  • Origins of the Germanic languages
  • Grimm’s Law and comparing vocabulary between languages
  • Germanic pronunciation and grammar
  • Word-color mnemonic for noun gender

Chapter 7: The Romance Languages

Original Title: “1066 and All That: In Which an Arrow in an Eye Changed Our Language Forever: An Introduction to the Romance Languages”

  • Norman French influence on English
  • English is a Germanic language with extensive Romance vocabulary
  • How to “cheat” on Romance grammar for rapid basic communication
  • Shortcuts for learning Romance vocabulary

Chapter 8: How to Improve your Accent

Original Title: “Through the Looking Glass: In Which Humpty Dumpty Meets Inspector Clouseau and an English Chanteuse: How to Aquire an Authentic Accent”

  • Alphabets, scripts, and syllabaries
  • Use the IPA to learn pronunciation
  • Music and imitation of stereotypical accents for pronunciation

Chapter 9: Translation, Idiom, Register, and Metaphor

Original Title: “Safari: In Which We Journey Through the Bantu Tongues to Help Us See the Beauty, Variety and Complexity of Language: Translation, Idiom, Register, and Metaphor”

  • Language reflects culture
  • How to use Google translate well
  • Tones and speech patterns, idiom, and metaphor
  • Speaking in the appropriate register (e.g., formal, informal) in a new language

Chapter 10: Summary — How to Learn A Language

  • Why language teaching in the Anglophone world fails
  • How to learn and teach languages
  • The Language Secret: To speak a foreign language well, you first need to speak it badly

Conclusion: read it!

For all of my frustration with this book’s tone and my recommendation that first-time learners skip it, The Language Secret is still a book I plan on recommending to a lot of people.

Unlike many of the polyglot books I’ve come across, it’s honest and doesn’t try to convince you that if you just buy or do one thing, you’ll suddenly be fluent in a new language. It’s up-front about the work it takes to learn a language and honest about the factors beyond your control that can make it easier or harder. And it’s a fascinating look at the “everyday multilingualism” that exists in much of the world.

Instead of focusing on the practical specifics of language learning, The Language Secret zooms out to offer an overview of many of the important concepts underpinning language and language learning, especially language families. Pick it up if you want to learn multiple languages and can handle a bit of rambling. Pass if you’re a newbie… but consider coming back to it later, when you’re ready.

And do remember the “language secret” — to speak a language well, you first have to speak it badly!

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