In fact, a few articles on his site had previously helped me in my adventures with French, Italian, and other languages, and so I decided to see what else this maven of language hacking had to offer in his book, whether it would work for me, and if I’d want to recommend it to the folks who ask me for advice on their own language learning adventures.
If you’re considering trying the (more expensive) Fluent Forever app version of the book, the same takeaways I discuss here should be pretty applicable in determining if this is a good system for you, as the app was adapted from the book and is an application of its ideas. The app currently only supports popular languages like French, Spanish, Russian, German, etc., whereas the book can be applied to learning any language.
Quick Take: Is Fluent Forever Worth it?
- Taut, entertaining, clear prose, with excellent vignettes and examples
- Highly practical tips for refining your language learning, with an emphasis on flashcards and pronunciation
- Oodles of motivation (it really gave me a quick kick in the pants to spend more time, more effectively, on learning)
BUT, this book is definitely not for everyone.
- It’s only applicable to those who can learn well on their own, and stick with it (though for us its methods are much more efficient than classrooms and cookie-cutter apps)
- It assumes a facility in learning grammar and pronunciation on one’s own
- I found parts of it repetitive and skippable
Overall this is my favorite recent book of the language hacker variety, and it’s bound to be helpful for smart, self-directed learners (you know who you are). It’s got both heart and smarts.
(The audiobook version is free with an Audible subscription signup, which you can then cancel.)
- Review of Fluent Forever & My Key Takeaways
- We Need to Be Active in Our Own Language Learning
- Quibbles, Drawbacks...
- Wrapping up: Is This Book Worthwhile for Your Language Learning Adventure?
Update History of This Article
Review of Fluent Forever & My Key Takeaways
Overall I got a lot out of this book, which is why I’m taking the time to write about it here. Wyner has put together a number of interesting ideas on how to grab hold of a language and make it our own.
While I note that this is for serious learners, that doesn’t mean that Wyner ever gets too complicated. Explanations are kept extremely approachable; there’s not much technical vocabulary here, as even the most basic grammar and linguistic terms like “conjugation” and “adverb” are mostly avoided.
He’s also an entertaining writer. In describing, for example the idea of how deep experiences lead to stronger memories (see below) he creates a compelling image of huge swaths of neurons lighting up. It’s fun to think about, and makes a strong point that sticks with you.
Below I’ll give a bit of my commentary on some of the more important takeaways I think learners can grab from this book, and my take on them and how they work out in practice.
Why We Should Emphasize Pronunciation, and How to Do So
Wyner argues that learners should put much more emphasis on learning pronunciation, and doing so from the very beginning. He notes that people immediately perceive our accent as a marker of how fluent we are; learning to pronounce just a few words or a phrase really well will likely lead to others thinking we speak better than if we mangle the pronunciation of a more complex sentence. This perceived higher level leads to extra patience from native speakers, and thus more opportunities to practice, rather than them quickly switching to English as soon as we open our mouths.
He also claims it’s wise to start by learning the language’s sounds exactly, including how to place our tongues in our mouths to create the vowels and consonants. We’ll be repeating those sounds throughout the rest of the adventure and we don’t want to repeat and thus learn mistakes throughout the process.
And finally there’s the old singer’s trick of backchaining; we can take on a new longish word (or short phrase) that’s a mouthful by starting with the last syllable by itself, then adding the second-to-last, and so on until we can pronounce the whole word. I’ve tried it a few times now with new, crazy long words, and it really does help.
Enjoying Our Target Language While Learning
There were two Fluent Forever suggestions that I found interesting about consuming stuff in our target language.
- We should read e-books while listening to the audiobook version; this gives us the sound and rhythm of the language.
- We can also watch action movies in our target language. The dialogue for such movies tends to be simple and obvious, whereas drama and especially comedy are much more complex to follow and require more cultural nuance and a deeper vocabulary.
Both of these ideas go along with discouraging us from looking up lots of words as we go. I’m a bit more persnickety about wanting to stop and get the meaning of new words as I read or watch something then Wyner is; what’s right for you may depend on your learning style. I also simply like to stop and appreciate a sentence, rather than gliding over something that I don’t fully understand.
Making Memories Stronger Through Deeper Processing
If there’s one key and incredibly useful concept in Fluent Forever, it is this. When we learn a new word or phrase, if we can learn it deeply, we’ll remember it and use it better. This means we must experience the word in ways that light up all sorts of neural connections. The three main areas we should always seek out are:
- Personal connections/memories
The more deeply we can connect vocabulary in all of these ways, the more likely we are to remember it. I’ve discussed this idea further as part of a longer science-based run-down about how to best memorize words.
Wyner encourages us to to retrieve and input into our flash card program (like Anki) both the pronunciations of the words we’re learning (from Forvo.com or a native speaking teacher) and images (from Google Images). I like his methods for looking these up on many dictionary sites at once via multisearch. (I improved on the idea a bit by creating funnier lookups, adding Twitter, etc., which I describe here and made available for download.) This is a fairly easy and automatic way to get everything we need instantaneously for personalized flashcards for new words.
Fluent Forever recommends using English in Google Images searches, but I’ve found it’s much more interesting to search for the word in the target language, as you can often get much more culturally appropriate sensations from the target language’s image search. For example, searching for “country bumpkin” or “hick” brings up quite different images than if you search for the Bosnian term “seljak”—and the latter will help you have a more accurate image in your mind of just what Bosnian speakers mean when they use their term. Also, the process of looking for the right image in your target language is a huge, memorable learning experience itself.
Flashcards (as a Form of Self-Testing) Are Powerful Things
Wyner draws on the huge body of scientific research about how testing oneself is much more useful for learning than just repetition. That action of reaching for an answer you’re not sure about, wondering if you’ve got it, and then getting feedback, joyous or crushing, encourages your brain to really lay down the word you’re learning deep in your memory.
His emphasis for doing this is flashcards, and he has oodles of excellent ideas about how to make flashcards that are more compelling and form deeper memories. They use all of the sound, images, and personal connections discussed in the previous section. And he has lots of techniques to keep both the front and answer sides of your flashcards in the target language, so that you’re maximally exposed to it, instead of translating.
I find some of this a little bit overboard and time-consuming (he says for example to expect to spend 2-3 minutes per word just making the cards with images, sounds, personal connections, etc.) but most of the ideas I found wonderful; there were techniques that I hadn’t considered previously and have started incorporating into my own flashcards, discussed next.
Keep the Flashcards Simple
I particularly like the idea of keeping each card simple so that it’s only testing one thing, and of making lots of cards (say, separately for a particular conjugation and the infinitive of a verb). We do this rather than trying to cram too much memorizing onto one card. This gives us more easy wins, and also forces us to focus on the specific aspects of the things that we do forget, rather than reviewing an entire card with 12 conjugations when we just forgot one of them.
Make the Flashcards Impactful
Wymer notes that we’re better at remembering images particularly when they are “violent, sexual, funny, or any combination of all three”. Since we’re making our own flashcards, we get to decide what level of those things we want to use in our own minds with the new vocabulary we’re learning. So it’s fine to get naughty and gross, or not.
The book even suggests that this can be applied to grammar, in a particularly creative twist. Wyner talks about having masculine nouns explode and feminine ones catch fire in German, for example, and it seems like a very compelling way to memorize images for the new words we’re learning, and have those images be very clearly masculine or feminine.
Use Flashcards for Grammar Rules
Grammar rules are infamously boring. And worse, full of exceptions and complications and nuance.
Wymer suggests that instead of memorizing grammar tables, we should memorize a few key examples of the grammar rule in action via flashcards. And this is excellent advice.
He decries textbooks with their “grammar drills”, but most modern textbooks actually walk us through doing the same thing: using the new grammar rule in context, often by filling in the blank in the context of a short sentence, for example with a verb conjugation. Such “drills” are actually just tests, just like flashcards, that require recall. They are also an excellent learning tool and need not be discarded so readily, in my opinion.
We Need to Be Active in Our Own Language Learning
One of the reasons why language programs and classes fail is that no one can give you a language; you have to take it for yourself. You are rewiring your own brain. To succeed, you need to actively participate.— Wyner
Well, in fact language classes can and do succeed. But it’s also true that it’s the most active, self-motivated students in that class who achieve the most.
It’s smarter to be active in taking on your language, rather than expecting someone or something to teach it to you.
And what could be more active than making your own learning plan, and forgoing the classes and pre-programmed apps entirely? And even if we do go the route of classes or apps, we can do a lot better if we’re coming in with an idea of actively seeking out what we need rather than waiting to passively receive information.
Learn to Hear the Unhearable in Our Target Language: Minimal Pair Practice
You’re perhaps aware that Japanese speakers have a hell of a time distinguishing R sounds from Ls. Or that we Anglos can’t hear what is to the French a perfectly obvious distinction between their ou and u. Or non-Serbians approaching the Serbian Č vs. Ć. Or many Spanish speakers who confuse B and V, or, infamously, the vowels in bitch vs. beach.
And it’s not just that we can’t quite say correctly the sounds of a foreign language; we can’t even hear the difference. Studies have shown that we in fact lose the ability to hear these distinctions in other languages’ sounds by the age of one, even before we can speak, as we’re distilling out what’s important in the sounds around us.
Wyner’s approach suggests making flashcard tests with minimal pairs of sounds to test ourselves, and cites “impressive” research showing that this can bring Japanese adults up from 50% accuracy to 70-80% accuracy.1James L. McClelland, Julie A. Fiez, Bruce D. McCandliss: “Teaching the /r/–/l/ discrimination to Japanese adults: behavioral and neural aspects“. Physiology & Behavior. Volume 77, Issues 4–5, December 2002, Pages 657-662 I’m not all that impressed, but I’m game. For the last few weeks, as of this writing, I’ve been training my ear to hear the difference between the French ou and u, as well as the Serbian Č and Ć. Both have long bedeviled me in those languages, despite my speaking the languages at a high level. So far in my testing, I’m at about 65% correct for Serbian and 70% for French, which I suppose is slightly better than guessing. I’ve noticed a bit of improvement for French and not much for Serbian. I’ll update this with results later on.
Why bother with all this? For one, such indistinguishable-to-foreigners sounds are important to understanding people on occasion, as when a French person tells you to go find something either dessous or dessus (below or above), and you have no idea where to look. And secondly, hearing such sounds correctly can help with pronouncing them more accurately. (I can pronounce the above sounds more or less correctly when thinking about it and putting my tongue and lips in the right place, but it would be much more satisfying and useful if I could actually hear the difference.)
This whole issue is a source of ongoing frustration for adult language learners, and I don’t think Wyner’s solution is anywhere near perfect, but at least he’s addressing head-on a problem that many language teachers and methods glide over, are ignorant of, or just dismiss as hopeless.
The main drawback to this book is that it assumes the sort of learner who is probably a lot like Wyner—self-motivated, indepedent, and smart. It even presumes a similar learning style, and so it’s not going to benefit learners as much who are for instance more social in their learning style, and really need to be surrounded in some way by other learners.
I do share most of Wyner’s obvious enthusiasm for nerdy, solo language learning. But many of the adult language learners I know have far less patience than I do with sitting down to make flashcards or learning a language’s sound system by looking up tongue and lip placement.
The Supposed Joy of Working with Phonetics and Flashcards
In these two areas, Wyner sometimes goes too far even for me. After admitting that acquiring the sound system for Arabic, for example, is quite a lot of work, he claims “work is too strong a word. I find that working with sound is deeply satisfying and fun, and I don’t believe that’s just because I’m a singer.” Well. Maybe not because he’s a singer, but he certainly has an affinity for the intricacies of pronunciation that I and I’m guessing most readers don’t share. I’d say the u and ou of French is a necessary, ongoing torture that leads possibly to the joy of better communication, but not a pleasure in itself. And I can only imagine that the complex hacking of Arabic would be even less enthralling. But that’s me.
I do a little better with flashcards, but I hardly share Wyner’s level of ecstasy in working with them.
I’ll admit that his cheerleading in these areas is a nice pick-me-up, though. And I’ve been working harder since I read the book.
The Annoying Assertion that Anyone Can Perfect a Foreign Accent
Wyner claims that it “can’t be true” that it’s impossible for some people to perfect an accent after a certain age. “Actors and singers do it all the time, and we’re not any smarter or better than the rest of humanity,” he says. I’ve heard similar garbage from top athletes, dancers, chess players, etc., and I’m sure you have too. “Honestly, anyone could do what I do, if they really had the determination for it.” Bullshit.
In the real world, there is a bell curve of innate talent as well as a varied range of ability to improve on one’s talents. Some people are going to be better than others at lifting heavy objects, as well as more capable of packing on more muscles; others will never be Olympic-level deadlifters, no matter how hard we train. We’ll just get a bit stronger.
Singers and actors are often Olympic-level pronouncers. When I was lived in Paris, I spent a good deal of time with the small circle of Anglophone actors who live and work there. An inordinate number of them had near-perfect accents in French that they had just picked up by osmosis (and little study), whereas despite my much greater efforts (including with Wyner’s excellent, specific YouTube explanations), I never came close to their levels.
Anyone can improve at anything, to a certain extent, with caveats. But not every foreigner can sound perfectly French, and some of us get stuck in fluency but with very strong accents, no matter how much we work at it.
I do agree with Wyner about the value of accents; it’s certainly true that pronouncing a language well does wonders for perception of your ability, and it’s something worth focusing on from the very beginning of your language adventure. But a dose of realism is in order. In fact, it can be even more motivating to know what you’re up against, as unrealistic expectations ultimately squash any attempt to progress.
Wrapping up: Is This Book Worthwhile for Your Language Learning Adventure?
You may be hesitant to go too meta with your language learning. Why spend time learning about learning when you could be actually learning? I think that’s a very fair and important point. And if you’ve already spent tons of time on language hacking books, please don’t waste your time with yet another one (unless you’re reading it in a target language!).
But for the right kind of self-motivated and savvy learner, a bit of thinking about what you’re doing and optimizing your approach can not just save you time, it can refresh your motivation by giving you a better sense of your purpose, goals, and path to get there. Fluent Forever delivered on that for me; I think it can do so for others as well.
Both Scribd and Amazon Audible offer the audio version for free, read by Wyner himself, if you sign up for a trial at those links (you can then quit and keep the book, you lovely sneaks). There are a few things that you will want to actually see, but you can look them up online when need be, so the audio version should be fine if that’s what you prefer. I read the Kindle version.
|⇧1||James L. McClelland, Julie A. Fiez, Bruce D. McCandliss: “Teaching the /r/–/l/ discrimination to Japanese adults: behavioral and neural aspects“. Physiology & Behavior. Volume 77, Issues 4–5, December 2002, Pages 657-662|