Review: Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner (and my new flashcard system!)

Hi guys! Today’s post is another book review – this time of Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. I read this book just over a week ago and thought it was really quite interesting – and it got me all excited about new learning methods and trying out new languages.

So without further ado, here’s what I thought of the book (and what it helped me to do!).

fluent forever

Okay, so a few things first: Gabriel Wyner is an opera singer who began learning languages for that job. His method in the book is to combine different ideas he thinks work well (with a strong emphasis on pronunciation, SRS systems and no English) to learn other languages.

To date, it would seem he speaks five languages (aside from English): German, Italian, French, Russian and Hungarian, so his methods at least work well for him.

Honestly, a lot of the ideas are going to be familiar for you if you’ve spent any time learning languages before – he writes about memory tricks (like making up a story to remember a word) and using images instead of words, but there’s something about the way that he presents it that I think still makes it interesting. There’s some information about sentence mining and how to learn to pronounce new words (back-chaining; this is also used a lot in the Pimsleur method, if I recall correctly) and he addresses some myths that arise in the course of learning a language.

Mostly, this book deals with Anki and SRS systems.

What I liked most about it was:

  • he shows you, step-by-step, how to build up an Anki system like his own – and points out that if you use someone else’s deck, it’s not going to work as well for you because you’re not getting the contextual knowledge and experience that comes with that word. Totally true. I find this with Memrise too; I’ve created courses on there and I work through a lot of them, but sometimes they are difficult because I don’t know why I’m learning a word. (Which is why I tend to stick to courses that deal with the book I’m using, though not always.)
  • his points about pronunciation are spot on and really interesting. I am definitely guilty of skipping through the pronunciation part of most courses; I don’t want to spend hours sounding out words – but that is a part of it. It can be a grind, but there are ways to avoid that. The information we get about minimal pairs and how to use them is also really interesting – I’d come across this before in terms of I’d seen pairs of words for pronunciation drills in textbooks, but I’d never heard it mentioned like this or thought of finding them for myself.
  • this quote is easily one of my favourites: “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.” This is so true and definitely a problem I think a lot of people have with classes, especially at school – even if you’re going to a class, you have to put in a lot of work yourself, which is sometimes very difficult if you have other commitments/interests, etc.
  • his mnemonics for learning the gender of words are awesome (“I want you to imagine all of the masculine nouns exploding. Feminine nouns should catch fire. Neuter items should shatter like glass.”) and actually work! I’m finding them especially useful for Slovak, which has no handy determiners to tell me what gender a noun might be.

Things I didn’t like so much:

  • I was reading this book on my Kindle and when I’d finished the book, I noticed it said that I was only 50% of the way through. 50% of the whole length is dedicated to instructions on how to create a good SRS system in Anki/by hand, so if you’re not as interested in this then it might seem like a bit of a loss.
  • the 625 word list is a great resource, but you still end up learning words out of context. It’s got the word clay on it, for instance, which I don’t think I even know in German, let alone any other language I’m learning. Of course you can customise it, but just be aware that with any list like that, there are always going to be things that don’t meet your needs.
  • though Wyner has certainly learnt some languages on his own, his major breakthroughs seem to have come through doing immersion breaks in the US. I don’t think that really takes away from his advice – and he does explain how long he thinks it would have taken him to reach the levels he did without these breaks – but it would be nicer to find out more how he learnt Russian or Hungarian than German or French, as those appear to be the languages he studied mostly alone.

I definitely enjoyed this book overall though and I thought it was useful – which is why I started using his advice to build my own Slovak deck for the 625 word list.

Now, it takes a long time. Wyner speaks about it like it doesn’t take long at all, but I’ve definitely put a few hours into this and I’m only just onto the ‘C’ group of words (using the alphabetical list). Nevertheless, here are some of my cards:

Anki 001 Anki 002 Anki 003

None of the cards have any English on them; they all have a picture and most have audio from Forvo (where I could get it).

I’ve found this method has worked pretty well for me – even if it does take a long time (I literally cannot stress that enough) to set up. With the pictures above, for example, mozog means brain; as soon as I knew that word I knew which picture I wanted. I remember it so well because I remember that episode of Futurama, so it’s a direct link to something I enjoyed. The flashcard for cat (or mačka, as it doesn’t have the word cat on it) has a picture of my cat.

Spelling the words is also helpful because my spelling in Slovak is pretty abysmal right now and this is helping me to practise – and to get used to certain letter combinations that we don’t have in English – or in other languages I’ve studied.

If you want to know anything else around the book, then Wyner’s website is helpful. It has information about some of the book content (including how to set up the Anki decks and links to download a model deck, so you don’t have to make the cards yourself) and I think extra tips, though I haven’t explore it too thoroughly.

Let me know if you’ve read the book, or tried this flashcard method – and if it’s worked for you!

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