Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner (9/10)
A practical guide to learn and remember any language - packed full of strategies
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🤔 Pre Read Exercise: What Do I Know About This Topic/Book?
I grew up speaking English, Armenian and Turkish. And raised in a family where almost everyone speaks 3-5+ languages. At the dinner table, we often laugh at how some sentences might contain the words from various languages. It's instilled in me a deep interest in language and how that relates to the culture of people. I love those specific words and phrases, unique to a language, era or culture, that convey a very specific message and bring about very nostalgic feelings. I, for example, only speak about some topics or subjects in Armenian or Turkish. For many years I've been keen on learning a fourth language in order to benefit from the ability to connect with people on a deeper level, build new mental pathways, and explore new cultures. Recently, I've been practicing my Turkish language skills trying to attain proper fluency. So the purchase of this book was only natural and I'm very excited to get started.
🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
- A practical guide on learning any language and helping you remember it - packed full of strategies
- The book advocates two main strategies - i) a spaced repetition system, ii) memorising things through powerful imagery
- Building upon the author's personal language-learning journey, the book is packed with first-hand practical insights into the language acquisition process
I really enjoyed reading this book for two reasons. Firstly, the author comes from a position of authority, having himself learnt 5-6 languages in recent years, and has written this book drawing on his own personal story as much as possible. In doing so, he injects plenty of personality and humour into a relatively dry subject, thereby making this a genuinely entertaining book! His passion for the topic is genuinely quite motivating! Secondly, in building upon his personal experience, he writes a very well structured, logical and accessible book for anyone to begin learning a new language. It's extremely comprehensive, and I can't imagine anyone not yielding some value from this book - regardless of your language acquisition and learning skills.
With that being said, the strategies he advocates for definitely require a lot of work and structure and motivation to implement. There's no overnight hack here!
Personally, I'm currently learning Turkish and Fluent Forever's offered me a great deal of motivation and several strategies to supercharge my language-learning process. And I hope to apply these to the fourth language I eventually pursue, too.
🔍 How I Discovered It
My friend, Ed Matthews, recommended this book to me after a discussion we had around learning Mandarin and moving to and living in China. P.S. He's opted to learn Russian.
🥰 Who Would Like It?
Anyone planning to learn a language or currently learning a language who's seeking better strategies and motivation. Moreover, many of the principles behind this book can be applied to learning just about anything, so it's really just an interesting general read.
☘️ How the Book Changed Me
I'll be leveraging its two main principles: making memories memorable and Spaced Repetition Systems in my language learning endeavours going forward
💬 My Favourite Quotes
- “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela
- You can learn a language at home, but there is no substitute for travel. When you travel to a country, you learn something about the soul of a language—its people, its food, its culture—that can’t be captured in books. I learned Italian in Perugia, Italy. I lived with a man from Naples, who once sat me down and explained the difference between ordinary pizza and real, Neapolitan pizza. His monologue was a ten-minute rhapsody on pizza, after which he began to run out of words and simply gestured wildly while saying, “È come … come…è come un orgasmo” (It’s like … like … it’s like an orgasm). I learned some Italian that day, but that wasn’t really the point; I learned about the Italian soul.
- If translation’s not your thing, you might want to consider secret agent. Seriously. If you’ve learned a so-called mission critical language—Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Korean, Pashto, Persian, Russian, or Urdu—then the CIA will eagerly snap you up and hand you $35,000 per language as a hiring bonus on your first day, not to mention additional monthly “language maintenance” bonuses. Every time I’ve been to an immersion program at Middlebury College, the CIA recruiters are always there in their crisp suits and snappy haircuts, putting on recruitment seminars. They’re desperate for multilingual people.
📒 Summary + Notes
Chapter 1 - Introduction: Stab, Stab, Stab
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
- Learn Pronunciation First: This will accelerate vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension and speaking
- Don't Translate
- Use Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS)
Chapter 2 - Upload: Five Principles to End Forgetting
A man's real possession is his memory. In nothing else is he rich, in nothing else is he poor — Alexander Smith
There are Five Principles of Memory:
Principle 1: Make Memories More Memorable
Any fact becomes important when it's connected to another. — Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
- Your brain is a sophisticated filter which makes irrelevant info forgettable and meaningful info memorable
- Foreign words are forgettable - not meaningful, no connection to your life
- Get around this by:
learning the sound system of your language
binding those sounds to images
binding those images to your past experiences. e.g. economia - get an image of a piggy bank, think about how economy has affected your life significantly
Principle 2: Maximise Laziness
- Rote repetition is ineffective - doesn't work for long-term memorisation
- Instead, study a concept until you can repeat it once without looking and then stop. More efficient
Principle 3: Don't Review. Recall.
- Acts of recall boost memory retention
- To maximise efficiency, spend most of your time recalling rather than reviewing
- Do this by creating flash cards that test your ability to recall a given word, pronunciation or grammatical construction
- Couple these with images and personal connections = amazing memory
Principle 4: Wait, Wait! Don't Tell Me!
If it's hard to remember, it'll be difficult to forget. — Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Memory tests are most effective when they're challenging
- The closer you get to forgetting a word, the more ingrained it will become when you finally remember it
- If you can consistently test yourself right before you forget, you'll double the effectiveness of every test
Principle 5: Rewrite the Past
- When you recall a memory, you revisit and rewrite earlier experiences, adding bits and pieces of your present self to your past memories
- Make your earlier experiences as memorable as possible. do this by connecting sounds, images and personal connections to every word you learn make best use of your time when practicing recall if your earlier experiences are as memorable as poss
To combine these principles, do the following:
- Make memories as deep and multi-sensory as possible
- Maximise laziness, i.e. do not do rote memorisation... study a concept until you know it, then stop ASAP
- Don't review - recall!
- Recall practice should be challenging. Not toooo hard
- When we forget, get immediate feedback. e.g. picture, etc. to put you back on track
The key is consistent recall:
- Learn something today, then shelve it for a while. then recall it over and over until you can't possibly forget it
- The perfect interval, initially is 2-4 days between practice sessions
- With every successful memorisation, increase the interval. 9 days, 3 weeks, 2 months, 6 months, etc.
- If you forget, you start again
- This pattern keeps you working on your weakest memories while maintaining and deepening your strongest memories
- Spend a fixed amt of time every day learning new words, remembering words from last week, last month, etc.
- This is spaced repetition. it's extremely efficient. in a 4-month period you can expect to learn and retain 3,600 flash cards with 90-95% accuracy
- This can teach you alphabet, grammar, vocab, and even pronunciation
Chapter 3 - Sound Play
- You must internalise good pronunciation habits from the beginning
- Words you hear and words you write can be different - e.g. descartes and dekart. you must train your brain and ears etc.
- Three main challenges: ear training, mouth training, eye training
1. Train Your Ears, Rewire your brain
- world's languages contain c.800 phonemes (600 consonants and 200 vowels)
- most languages use 40 of them to form words
- your brain is built to ignore the differences between foreign sounds
- to fix this, listen to minimal pairs (e.g. niece and knees) and test yourself until you adapt
2. Train your moth, get the girl
- It's huge to be able to say one phrase with 100% perfection. Mouth movement, tone, etc.
- Sounds are created by the movements of muscles in our mouths
- To master your mouth, you must know what your mouth is actually doing when you open it
- accent makes your first impression. improve it by learning raw ingredients - the tongue, lip, and vocal cord positions - of every new sound you need
- use International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
- if you find difficult sounds, using back-chaining until it's easy
3. Train your eyes, see the patterns
- Every language contains a pattern of connections between spelling and sound. Internalise these and make them automatic
- Do this with the SRS. Create flash cards for every spelling pattern you need
- Approach foreign sounds and complex patterns from as many angles as you can - from spellings and sounds to even individual mouth positions
Chapter 4 - World Play and the Symphony of a Word
- We use some words with much more frequency than others. These words are in frequency lists (start with the 625 listed in Appendix 5)
- Use 2 games to create deep, multi-sensory memories for words (combine spelling, sound, meaning, and personal connection)
1. Spot the Differences: Finding Meaning Through Google Images
- Search for word in native language
- Switch to Google Images Basic at bottom of page
- Look for differences in what you expected and what you see (take 10-20 sec to play)
- Then store 1-2 particularly good images in flashcards for that word
2. The Memory Game: Boosting Meaning Through Personal Connection
- Look for a personal memory related to the word
- Try to keep the word in mind rather than the translation - hybrid sentences are fine
- Use another game to remember gender
3. The Mnemonic Imagery Game: How to Memorise Nonsensical Bits of Grammar
- Tree—masculine, Tree bud—feminine, Leaf—neuter, Horse—neuter, Dog—masculine, Cat—feminine, Mouth—masculine, Neck—masculine, Hand—feminine, Nose—feminine, Knee—neuter, and Heart—neuter.
- Imagine all masculine nouns exploding
- Feminine nouns catching fire
- Neutral items shattering like glass
- Then do the exercise. I remembered all 12!
Chapter 5 - Sentence Play
- Your brain runs on comprehensible input - sentences you understand
- You must find a good source of simple, clear sentences with translations and explanations
- Take the first sentences OUT of your grammar book. no need to do dozens of the same grammar exercises over and over. just drill the fundamental concept with a few in your SRS
- Simplify, simplify: grammar has three forms (any language)
- add words: you like it → do you like it?
- change forms: i eat → i ate
- change order: this is nice → is this nice?
- Use your grammar book as a source of simple example sentences and dialogues
- Choose your favourite examples of each rule. break these down into new words, word forms, and word orders. you'll end up with a pile of effective, easy-to-learn flash cards
- Story time: make patterns memorable
- Languages are full of complex patterns. learn these by embedding them into simple stories
- When you encounter a confusing declension chart in your grammar book, take the nearest example sentence and use it to generate stories that cover every new form you need
- Turn these stories into illustrated flash cards
- The same new word, word form, word order flash cards as before
- Use these flash cards to learn the language pattern
The power of output - your custom language class:
- Use writing to test your knowledge and find your weak points
- Use example sentences in your grammar books as models
- Write about your interests
- Submit your writing to online communities or get a tutor
- Turn every correction into a flash card - this way, you find and fill the grammar and vocab you're missing
Chapter 6 - The Language Game
- Start with the top 1,000 words in your new language
- Then pick your own goals... 2,000 words gets you 80% comprehension... add key words based on your interests, e.g. travel, music, business, etc.
- Use a thematic vocabulary book
- Use Google images to find quality example sentences and pictures for your words
- Write example sentences and definitions, and get them corrected
- Once you've enough vocab, add a monolingual dictionary to your toolbox
Reading for pleasure and profit
- Read books! Without a dictionary - it's the easiest way to grow your passive vocab
- A single book will teach you 300-500 words from context alone!
- Read in conjunction with an audiobook - you'll have much easier time moving through a long text and you'll pick up invaluable exposure to the rhythms of your language in action
- This improves your pronunciation, listening comprehension, vocab, grammar,.. etc.
Listening comprehension: watch movies and TV
- Gradually ramp up difficulty. TV → movie → radio → podcast → train station announcements
- Maybe watch US TV but that is dubbed in your language
Game of Taboo: only rule - no English (first language) allowed
- You make other players say certain words, e.g. baseball, but you can't say 'baseball' or 'sport', 'game', 'hitter', 'pitcher', 'ball', etc. You gotta find a way around!
- You talk about an event where players get together, hit spheres with bats, run around on a diamond, etc
Get a ton of speech practice. As much as poss. Immersion. Holiday. Online tutors.