UPDATE (May 2015)–I’m putting these techniques to the test with my summer language challenge from June-August! Check out all the posts and my progress here.
I’ll be honest: I avoided reading Fluent Forever for quite a while. It sat on my shelf for months because while I loved the idea of achieving my long-time goal of becoming fluent in Spanish, every time I picked it up and flipped through the pages, I saw scary charts and diagrams. I ran away because it looked hard and overwhelming.
I was also wary of the book because I’m not a fan of titles that seem designed to be catchy and sell books but that might be too good to be true (i.e., Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It). And seriously, who speaks six languages fluently? I’m definitely skeptical of claims like that, especially having had linguistics and language learning classes in college.
The Good News
But here’s the good news: it turns out that Gabriel Wyner learns languages because it’s fun, and the system he’s created is fun, too. While flipping through the book without any knowledge of the content was overwhelming to me, actually reading the book was engaging and made me feel like this was doable.
He helped me understand a bit about how our brain works and why the techniques he uses are effective. In summary, it’s important for us to have meaningful connections in order to remember language, and our brains will learn best if we space out our review of words and grammar in such a way that we’ve almost forgotten it but not quite. The process he uses is pretty intuitive, though it’s not always how language is taught—building the language from pronunciation to basic vocabulary to grammar (and then continuously building vocabulary and more complex grammar).
In addition to tricking us into learning theory (umm, yes…it was a trick because it wasn’t boring), he provided several very helpful tools throughout the book:
- Do This Now (concrete action steps for that chapter)
- For the Intermediates (very helpful for those who have had some background in their target language)
- Key Points (quick summaries of each section)
- A Toolbox
- Several very useful Appendices
As I got further into the book, I found myself wishing there were an appendix with a basic step-by-step guide that I could use as a quick reference, high-level review after reading the book. I was prepared to make one myself, but I was happy to discover it tucked into the last chapter on pages 164-165. I might have gone a little crazy bookmarking and highlighting on these pages.
A Note of Contention
“I’ve frequently heard that it’s impossible to perfect an accent after the age of twelve…If you wait until later [in the language learning process] to perfect your accent, you will have butchered every word in your vocabulary hundreds (or thousands) of times. This is where myths like the twelve-year cap on accent learning came from; it’s hard to unlearn bad habits.” (p. 66)
Though it was minor, I took exception to the brushing aside of this twelve-year idea as a “myth.” From my theories of second language acquisition studies in college, I recall learning about the following theory that linguists who have studied accents of second language learners have proposed: people who learn a second language before the onset of puberty will develop native-sounding pronunciation, while those who learn after the onset of puberty will almost always have some degree of a foreign accent. Though it is a theory and may not be agreed upon by all, I don’t think it can be brushed aside as a myth. That being said, I think the author’s point in discussing it was to emphasize pronunciation first, and he offers excellent tools and steps for hearing and producing sounds that are foreign to us.
I have been saying that I want to learn another language for many years, but I’ve encountered some frustrating obstacles:
- I feel like I’m at an intermediate plateau, and I’m not sure how to get consistent practice that would be sufficient to push me past it.
- I’ve also felt stuck by the fact that I can’t be fully immersed in Spanish because it’s not really practical, and haven’t really been able to find local classes at my level.
- Trying to haphazardly read the news in Spanish here and there has been incredibly ineffective (or I’ve lost motivation because it was way too hard).
In reading Fluent Forever, I’ve learned the basic concepts of this system, and they feel accessible and doable for me. I’m incredibly encouraged to finally feel like immersion isn’t the only way to learn, and that this goal of mine could be achieved without it.
Certainly, the real test will be in actually putting it into practice, which is why I don’t feel I can offer a wholehearted recommendation or five-star review (yet). Hopefully I’ll be able to update this review in time as I begin using these tools myself. For now, I would certainly offer this as a suggested resource for anyone seriously interested in learning another language.
***One small caveat that I would share: this system is heavily reliant on internet-based tools, so consistent access to the internet will be important. ***
“Immersion is a wonderful experience, but if you have steady work, a dog, a family, or a bank account in need of refilling, you can’t readily drop everything and devote that much of your life to learning a language. We need a more practical way to get the right information into our heads and prevent it from leaking out of our ears.” (p. 7)
“…You’re going to have a hard time sticking to it if it’s unpleasant…The tools I’ve assembled here are effective. Much more important, they’re fun to use…In this book, we’re going to addict ourselves to language learning.” (p. 10)
“Language learning is a form of strength training for your brain.” (p. 172)
“To paraphrase Rousseau, when we learn an accent, we are taking on the soul of that language. This isn’t work; it’s communion.” (p. 77)
“One of the reasons why language learning programs and classes fail is that no one can give you a language; you have to take it for yourself…Every language-learning resource is just that: a resource. In the end, you have to take those resources, wrap your brain around them, and turn them into a living language.” (p. 45, 307)
Gabriel Wyner graduated summa cum laude at USC, where he won the school’s Renaissance Award. His essay on language learning for Lifehacker.com was one of the site’s most read. His own language learning website, Fluent-Forever.com, is among the world’s top ten. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Water Brook Multnomah Publishing Group as part of their Blogging for Books program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
*Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, part of your purchase will help support the cost of maintaining this site. More details are here.