The other day I saw a reference to María Ortega García’s book “Weaving Words: The Alchemy of Languages” (amazon link) on Twitter somewhere, and both the title and book summary sounded really interesting, so I contacted the author. She was kind enough to send me a review copy of the paper version of this book, so this is my review, as promised.
Before reading the book I skimmed the author’s website (here), which is pretty well designed. There I learned that she is a language coach for Spanish, and even has free online lessons. Just from seeing her website it was clear she is very passionate about learning and teaching languages, which I think is great.
This book is about a new way of learning languages that takes more of a holistic approach, incorporating all of your being (mind, body, soul, and heart). It focuses more on what is natural to us, and on expressing yourself as an individual. This isn’t a how-to book (though there are a few exercises), nor is it a book about scientific research (though there is some talk about intriguing research). Rather, it is a book of ideas, with the author’s experiences intermingled throughout to help explain and provide backing for various points.
I found the ideas in this book a mixed bag: some I completely agreed with, some quite the opposite, and some I felt more or less neutral about.
For example, the central theme of taking into account your whole self when learning a language is a great idea, and things like nature walks and meditation are great tools (albeit indirect ones) to help not only learn a language better, but also learn more about yourself. Also, the idea of applying the metaphor of a spiral to language learning is something I strongly resonated with, and I had actually written a post on that very topic in 2019 here.
The author is a major supporter of using poems to enrich one’s language learning, which is no surprise since it seems they have helped her a great deal to improve self-expression. While I enjoy reading (and sometimes translating) poems, and don’t doubt they would help some people to learn a language, it’s a little difficult for me to imagine how writing poems in Japanese would help me that much, at least for my current language goals and ability level. But perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to judge something like this until I actually try it myself.
On the other end of the spectrum there were a few things I downright disagreed with. One of them is that when learning a second language you should never second-guess yourself, but rather (to quote the author) “trust your gut”. In my experience of studying a foreign language, while my instinct is sometimes on the mark, there are definitely times when it is completely wrong. I would argue that once you are near-fluent, only then can you really trust your instincts since they have been honed after many years of study and practice. For those who are new to a foreign language or consider themselves intermediate level, if you have the opportunity to think a little more about something you are uncertain of (or even look it up), I would highly recommend doing that. On the other hand, if you are in the middle of a conversation, I agree that you should just “trust your gut” since you may not have time to do re-evaluation or research on the spot.
The author also suggests only working on your pronunciation if you think it will help improve communication. This is a tough one, since I feel there are some groups of people who may understand you significantly better if you speak with more native-like pronunciation, for example older folks who may not have trained themselves to be able to understand accents as fluidly as younger people can. But even if we put that point aside, I feel there is another major reason to try to reduce your accent. In an ideal world, accents are a great way to express our heritage and individuality, but in reality I feel the stronger your accent, the higher the chance there is of you experiencing some sort of bias (usually negative, but perhaps not always), even if that is unconscious on the part of the listener. Personally I work in a field where I interact with people all over the globe who have a variety of accents, and I like to think I am fairly unbiased, but still it’s hard for me to say I don’t have some unconscious bias.
As a side point, there is a separate question on whether it is actually worth the time and effort you put in to improve your pronunciation, in other words is the ROI good enough. This depends on the details of the language learner in question, but I feel that in many cases it’s not a good idea to over-focus on pronunciation because one’s time is better spent in other areas. But saying that it’s not time-effective to spend too much time on pronunciation is very different from saying that you shouldn’t ever do it unless it directly hinders communication.
Regardless, I can’t critique a book like this negatively just because I disagree with some of the content, especially since the author does have some backing to her ideas. Surely these ideas would resonate better with other readers.
Having talked about the content of the book, I want to switch to the presentation for a moment.
Besides being a fan of the title, I really enjoyed the book’s simple, but beautiful cover. Unfortunately, the reset of the book’s presentation goes downhill after that.
“Weaving Words” seems to be self-published, and printed on demand this month (Mar 2021). As a self-publisher myself (only digital, but hopefully eventually paper as well) I have no problem with self-published books, although because of the way I typically search for books, I haven’t actually read many paper books that were self-published.
Normally I am brutally honest on my reviews, and am not afraid to give many “picky” negative comments, but with an author who shares some of my interests (plus was kind enough to send the review copy), I’m going to try and keep this section a little shorter than I normally would.
This book contained many mistakes: strange punctuation, incorrect spelling, awkward phrasing, unusual grammar; there is even one place where a paragraph is apparently printed twice. I’ll give one specific example of a mistake, and it’s an important one since it was so early in the book (right after the table of contents) that it really got me as a reader on the wrong foot. It’s the introduction of a random period in the middle of a quote, after the word “fancies”. There are some other issues I had with the fonts, layout, and other visual issues, but those are pretty minor, somewhat subjective, and not worth going into here. To be fair, I have done a great deal of editing when producing my E-books and other writing projects over the years, and it’s easy for me to switch into “editing mode” and pick apart a book, no matter how much I try to focus on content. Many other readers might not be as sensitive as I was to these things.
I may be reading into things too much, but I think perhaps the author refrained from doing much editing/proofreading because it would go against the rule of “trust your gut”, or be antithetical to expressing her individuality. But whether that is the reason or not, I can say with confidence that there will surely be some readers who will be distracted, if not frustrated by the many “quirks” of this book. Getting a professional editor would yield the best result, but honestly even having a detail-oriented native English speaker go over the manuscript––or even just using grammarly.com––would have dramatically improved the overall quality level. We all make mistakes (including myself), but I think it’s worth the time to re-read your own writings with a critical eye in addition to having an unbiased other person do the same. Had I been listening to the author giving a live speech, or even reading her blog, I would be more forgiving for things like mistakes and awkward phrasing. But with a book (especially printed) I have much higher expectations for quality. [Note: if the author requests my detailed feedback on some of the critical feedback that I only alluded to her briefly, I would be glad to provide a few more examples over email.]
Anyway, one other minor annoyance about the book was that in several places throughout the book (at least four or five times) there were references to the “Deepening” section in the back of the book. Once or twice would have been fine, but these started to bother me to the point that I wished the “Deeping” section was actually in the beginning of the book. But since that may not make sense in terms of overall flow, I would at least consider moving it earlier, or simply not teasing the reader about it so frequently. In fact, I liked the content of this section and wish it was at least two or three times longer.
In summary, despite needing some editing work, “Weaving Words: The Alchemy of Languages” is a nice little book that talks about some intriguing ideas related to language learning. If you are finding yourself in a language learning slump consider picking it up. There is a Kindle version too, which at the time of this review’s writing is significantly cheaper than the paper version.
As a final note, I couldn’t help feeling that if the author got a solid editor, plus fleshed out some more of her creative ideas and talked a little more about application, could turn a nice book into a great book. So I’d like to encourage keep writing about language learning, while at the same time challenging her to take her writing to the next level.