Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner


I encountered three basic keys to language learning:

Learn pronunciation first.

Don’t translate.

Used spaced reputation systems.

In the course of mastering the sounds of a language, our ears become attuned to those sounds, making vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension, and speaking come much more quickly. While we’re at it, we pick up a snazzy, accurate accent. 

Not only can a beginning student skip translating, but it was an essential step in learning how to think in a foreign language. I was practicing translation instead of speaking. By throwing away English, I could spend my time budding fluency instead of decoding sentences word by word. 

I decided to use all of these methods at once. I used memorization software on my smartphone to get the French into my head, and I made sure that none of my flash cards had a word of English on them. I began making flash cards for the pronunciation rules, added a bunch of pictures for the nouns and some verbs, learned the verb conjugations, and then built up to simple French definitions of more abstract concepts. 

A good grammar book will walk you through your language’s grammar in a thoughtful, step-by-step manner. 

First, avoid books systematically detailing every single solitary rule and detail and exception, all at once, in an uncontrollable torrent of grammatical despair. They’re lovely reference manuals but are very difficult to use in a step-by-step manner. 

Second, by wary of most classroom books, especially those without an answer key.

A phrase book is a wonderful reference. 

A frequency dictionary typically contains the most important five thousand words of your target language, arranged in order of frequency.

A pronunciation guide will walk you through the entire pronunciation system of your language, with the help fo recordings and diagrams of your mouth and tongue. 

You also want to find two dictionaries. The first is a traditional bilingual dictionary (e.g., English-French/French-English), which has actual definitions (e.g., in French) rather than translations.

A man’s real possession is his memory. In nothing else is the rich, in other else is he poor. - Alexander Smith

Five principles of memory:

Make memories more memorable.

Maximize laziness.

Don’t review. Recall. 

Wait, wait! Don’t tell me!

Rewrite the past.

Each of the hundred billion neurons in our brains are, on average, connected to seven thousand other neurons, in a dense web of more than 150,000 kilometers of nerve fibers. There interconnected webs are intricately involved in our memories. 

There patterns of connections form in an elegantly simple, mechanical process: neurons that fire together wire together. Known as Hebb’s Law, this principle helps explain how we remember anything. 

We need to make your mjodur just as unforgettable, and we will do it by adding four types of connections: structure, sound, concept, and personal connection. These are the four levels of processing. 

Structure: How many capital letters are in the word BEAR?

Sound: Does APPLE rhyme with Snapple?

Concept: Is TOOL another word for “instrument”?

Personal Connection: Do you like PIZZA?

To count the capital letters in BEAR, you don’t need to think about brown furry animals, and so you don’t. You’ve activated the shallowest level of processing—structure—and moved on. On the other hand, you activate regions throughout your brain to determine whether you like PIZZA.

The four levels of processing are more than a biological quirk: they act as a filter, protecting us from information overload. To keep you sane, your brain consistently works at the shallowest level of processing needed to get the job done. 

To create a robust memory for a word like mjodur, you’ll need all four levels of processing. The shallowest level, structure, allows you to recognize patterns of letters and determine whether a word is long, short, and written in English or in Japanese.

Sound connects structure to your ears and your mouth and allows you to speak. If you begin with sound, you’ll have a much easier time remembering words. The more accurately we learn its pronunciation, the better we’ll remember it. 

Concepts can be broken down into two groups: abstract and concrete. 

We prioritize and store concrete concepts because they engage more of our brains, not because they’re necessarily any more important than other information. 

If I tell you that my email password is mjodur, you probably (hopefully?) won’t remember it, because you’re processing it on a sound and structural level. But if we’re in a bar together, and I hand you a flaming drink with a dead snake in it, and tell you, “This is mjodur! You—drink!” you won’t have any trouble remembering that word.

Our goal, and one of the core goals of this book, is to make foreign words like mjodur more concrete and meaningful. 

When you read gato, you don’t want to think the word cat; you want to think this: [picture of cat].

We’ll get better results if we skip the English word and use an image instead. 

We recall images much better than words, because we atomically think conceptually when we see an image. Our visual memory is phenomenal.

Our capacity for visual memory is extraordinary: we only need to learn how to take advantage of it. 

You will remember an abstract drawing with the sentence “Apples are delicious” better than that drawing alone. 

You will remember a concept with a personal connection 50 percent more easily than a concept without one. If you connect gato to a picture of some cute cat, you will have an easy time remembering that word. But if, in addition, you can connect gato with a memory of your own childhood cat, you will have an easy time remembering that word. But if, in addition, you can connect gato with a memory of your own childhood cat, that word will become practically unforgettable. 

For a concrete word like gato, you can find an appropriate image on Google Images within seconds, If you simply ask yourself, “When’s the last time I saw a gato?” you will add a personal connection and cement your memory of the word. Easy.

For an abstract word like economia (economy), our job is still very simple. When we search Google Images, we’ll find thousands of pictures of money, piggy banks, stock market charts, and politicians. By choosing any of these images, we’ll force ourselves to think concretely and conceptually. As a result, the word will become much easier to remember. If we ask ourselves whether the economia has affected our lives, we’ll get the personal connection we need to remember that word forever.

We’re going to learn vocabulary in two main stages: we’ll build a foundation of easy, concrete words, and then we’ll use that foundation to learn abstract words. 

Make foreign words memorable by doing three things:

Learn the sound system of your language

Bind those sounds to images

Bing those images to your past experiences

Extra repetition is known as over learning, and it doesn’t help long-term memory at all.

Rote repetition is boring, and it doesn’t work for long-term memorization. Study a concept until you can repeat it once without looking and then stop.

When you study by reading through a list multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it. Our blank sheet of paper, which could be replaced by a stack of flash cards, a multiple choice test, or simply trying to remember to yourself, is precisely the type of practice we need. It improves our ability to recall by tapping into one of the most fascinating facets of our minds—the interplay of memory and emotion.

To maximize efficiency, spend most of your time recalling rather than reviewing. You’ll accomplish this goal by creating flash cards that test your ability to recall a given word, pronunciation, or grammatical construction. Coupled with images and personal connections, these cards will form the foundation of a powerful memorization system.

Our brains are designed to think and automatically hold on to what’s important.

You’re most likely to forget the words you knew best—those words that you remembered immediately. You’re 20 percent more likely to retain the words that took a little more time. But the words that took the most effort to recall—those you had all but forgotten—will etch themselves deeply into your consciousness. You’re 75 percent more likely to remember them in the future, and if they spent a few moments just out of reach at the top of your tongue, then you’re twice as likely to remember them.

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.

Neurons that fire together wire together.

This rewriting process is the engine behind long-term memorization. Every act of recall imbues old memories with a trace of your present-day self. This trace gives those memories additional connections: new images, emotions, sounds, and word associations that make your old memory easier to recall. Once you’ve written these memories enough times, they become unforgettable. 

Every time you successfully recall a memory, you revisit and rewrite earlier experiences, adding bits and pieces of your present self to your past memories. You’ll make the best use of your time when practicing recall if your earlier experiences are as memorable as possible. You can accomplish this by connecting sounds, images, and personal connections to every word you learn. When you do forget, use immediate feedback to bring back your forget memories. 

We want our original memories to be as deep and multi sensory as possible (1. Make memories more memorable). We want to study as little as possible (2. Maximize laziness), and practice recall as much as possible (3. Don’t review. Recall). We want our recall practice to be challenging but not too hard (4. Wait. wait! Don’t tell me!). Last, when we practice, we want to nearly forget those original experiences but not forget them completely. When we do forget, we want immediate feedback to put us back on track (5. Rewrite the past).

There is a complex balance between the advantages of nearly forgetting and the disadvantages of actually forgetting, and it breaks our forgetting curve in half. 

It is as if our brains know that something we encounter once a week will be important in five to ten weeks, but something we only encounter once a year will be important in five to ten years. 

We’ve found the end of forgetting. You learn a word today and then shelve it for a while. When it comes back, you’ll try to recall it, and then shelve it again, on and on until you couldn’t possibly forget. While you’re waiting for your old words to return, you can learn new words and send them off into the future, where you’ll meet them again and work them into your long-term memory. This is the most efficient way to memorize large amounts of information permanently. 

For the extreme long term, you’ll get the best efficiency if you wait years between practice sessions, but that won’t help you in the short term at all. 

The thread between these two goals—remembering now and remembering later—starts small and grows rapidly. You’ll begin with short intervals (two to four days) between practice sessions. Every time you successfully remember, you’ll increase the interval (e.g., nine days, three weeks, two months, six months, etc.), quickly reaching intervals of years. This keeps your sessions challenging enough to continuously drive facts into your long-term memory. If you forget a word, you’ll start again with short intervals and work your way back to long ones until the word sticks, too. This pattern keeps you working on your weakest memories while maintaining and deepening your strongest memories. Because well, remembered words eventually disappear into the far off future regular practice creates an equilibrium between old and new. You’ll spend a fixed amount of time every day learning new words, remembering the words from last week, and occasionally meeting old friends from months or years back. By doing this, you’ll send most of your time successfully recalling words you’ve almost forgotten and building foundations for new words at a rapid, steady clip. Playing with timing in this way is known as spaced repetition, and it’s extraordinarily efficient. 

Flash cards are fantastic at reminding you about your original experiences, but they’re not particularly good at creating memories in the first place. 

When you create something it becomes a part of you.

If you take just a moment to figure out how to remind yourself of the meaning of a word, you can retain that word forever. Creating your own deck is the most effective way to learn a complex subject. Subjects like languages and the sciences can’t be understood simply by memorizing facts—they require explanation and context to learn effectively. Furthermore, inputting the information yourself forces you to decide what they key points are and leads to a better understanding. 

Space repetition systems (SRSs) are flash cards on steroids. They supercharge memorization by automatically monitoring your progress and using that information to design a daily, customized to do list of new words to learn and old words to review. 

The process of finding images for computerized flash cards is one of the most powerful learning experiences you could ever hope for. Again, your brain sucks in images like a sponge. Just a few seconds browsing through twenty dog images will create a powerful, lasting memory. Even if you’re using physical flash cards, don’t pass up the opportunity to learn your words through Google Images. 

If you can connect your review time to another regularly recurring event in your life, you’ll have an easier time establishing a new language habit.

If you encounter an errant French word in your travels, you can assume that every final consonant is silent except for the consonants found in the English word careful (c, r, f, and I are frequently pronounced).

The world’s languages contain roughly 800 phonemes (six hundred consonants and two hundred vowels). Most languages choose around 40 of these to form their words.

Some of these phonemes are totally foreign to an English speaker’s ear but most phonemes are subtle variations on familiar sounds.

In an American household, a typical baby will hear hundreds of slightly different consonants that tend to fall into two large piles along this line: sounds that are mostly r- like, and sounds that are mostly L- like. 

Rock and lock are classic members of a special group of words known as minimal pairs. These are pairs of words that differ by only one sound, and every language is full of them. 

When you use minimal pair testing at the beginning of your language journey, you’ll learn much faster in the long run. 

You can hear sound rules, and you can hear when those rules are broken.

Sound rules connect spelling to sound and sound to sound. They tell you which sounds can be combined and which can’t.

If your ears are sensitive to each new sound in your language, you will notice when there’s a strange sound rule afoot, and every time you notice it, you’ll get closer to internalizing it.

There is no word in English that doesn’t reuse the forty-one or forty-two sounds of the English language. This is the case in every language. 

If you can’t hear all the sounds in your language, then you might get surprised by the spelling of a word but never by the sound of a word. This helps you learn faster because your memory doesn’t need to struggle to store some indescribable new sounds. 

If you have better listening comprehension, you’ll gain more vocabulary and grammar every time you hear someone speak your language.

Your brain is hardwired to ignore the differences between foreign sounds. To rewire it, listen to minimal pairs in your target language—similar sounding words like niece and knees—and test yourself until your brain adapts to hear these new sounds. 

An accurate accent is powerful because it is the ultimate gesture of empathy. It connects you to another person’s culture in a way that words never can, because you have bent your body as well as your mind to match that person’s culture. 

People with strong foreign accents are frequently treated as less adept at the language than they are. 

With every new word you learn, you’ll reinforce good pronunciation habits, and those habits will last you a lifetime. 

Once you’ve trained your ears and mouth to produce the sounds of your language correctly, your job will be to learn each new word and with your fancy new accent. 

We simply know that the sounds we make are created by the movements of muscles in our mouths. We pick up an awareness of the everyday movements of our tongues and lips, and we combine them in a few new ways. 

The phonetic alphabet does two awesome things: it turns languages into easily readable sounds, and it tells you exactly how to make each of those sounds, 

Every IPA letter is not only a sound but also a set of instructions on how to make that sound. 

In general, you only need three pieces of information to make any sound: you need to know what to do with your tongue, with you flips, and with your vocal cords, and there aren’t that many options. Your vocal cords go on and off. That’s it—it’s the only difference between “ssss” and “zzzz.” When you’re speaking vowels, your lips are basically rounded like “oo” or not. That’s all. The rest of the IPA focuses upon the location and behavior of your tongue. 

Go backward. Say the end of the word, and then add one letter at a time until you can say the whole thing. 

This is called back-chaining, and it’s an old singer trick that can work tongue-related miracles. you’re using muscle memory to trick your tongue into doing things it wasn’t able to do before. While your tongue can’t handle eight new movements at once, it can handle a single new combination of two familiar sounds. If you split long, difficult words into small, easy chunks you’ll find that your tongue is capable of remarkable acrobatic feats. 

By going backwards, you can practice the end of the word every time you add a letter. This makes it easier and easier to finish the word correctly and automatically. Because of this, you only need to focus your attention for a brief moment at the very beginning and you can let your tongue go on autopilot for the rest of the word. By making the end of the word as easy and familiar as possible, you’ll never get lost on the way there. 

Impressions matter, and your accent makes your first impression in any language. A good accent can make the difference between a connection that starts in French and ends in English, and a full conversation in French. 

Improve your accent by learning the raw ingredients—the tongue, lip, and vocal cord positions—of every new sound you need. You can find that information in the international Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). 

If you run into difficult combinations of sounds, back-chain them to gather until your tongue performs atomically.

There is only one prerequisite to learning a new pattern: we need to notice it when it passes by.

A phonetic alphabet can make your job easier in two ways: it helps you to see and hear whenever a sound rule shows up—when you’re reading wugs but saying “wugz”—and it gives you one more way to look at the same information. Because of the quirky nature of memory, this makes your task easier. By learning more, you’ll work less. 

If you’re trying to make the ”foreign” sounds of your new language familiar, then your easiest, shortest path is to learn as much as you possibly can about those sounds. 

Every time we can connect two memories, we strengthen both of them—neurons that fire together wire together.

Every language contains a pattern of connections between its spelling and its sounds. If you can internalize that pattern and make it automatic, you’ll save yourself a great deal of work. 

The easiest way to internalize those patterns is to use your SRS. Create flash cards to memorize every spelling pattern you need.

In the process, approach foreign sounds and complex patterns from as many angles as you can—from their spellings to their sounds, even down to the individual mouth positions used for each sound. You’re taking advantage of one of the stranger quirks of learning: the more bits and pieces you learn, the less work it takes to learn them. 

When we learn an accent, we are taking on the soul of that language. 

Get acquainted with Forvo.com. Free, native-speaker recordings of more than 2 million words in three hundred languages. Once you start making flash cards, Forvo will become your best friend. There’s no reason to become fluent in a baldy pronounced language, because no one will speak it with you.

Rhinospike is a handy website for native-speaker recordings. 

A word in your brain contains within it every neural pattern it’s ever connected.

The word frequency list is an extraordinary tool. With only a thousand words, you’ll recognize nearly 75 percent of what you read. With two thousand, you’ll hit 80 percent. These frequency lists provide an incredibly foundation for your language. 

The best frequency dictionaries are published by Routledge.

You use certain words much more frequently than others. Learn those first. 

Hidden beneath Google Images’ colorful exterior is a treasure trove: every image comes with a caption, and those captions exist in 130 languages. 

When you research a word using Google Images, you’re playing the Spot the Difference game: you’re looking for the difference between what you expect to see, and what you actually see.

You’ll store your memories of this game into your flash cards.

You can make your words more memorable in two ways:

By investigating the stories they tell

By connecting those stories to your own life 

When you create flash cards, use the best storytelling tool ever invested: Google Images. Then spend a moment to find a link between each word and your own experiences.

If a man is masculine in your target language, you probably don’t need imagery for that word. But if you’re making a flash card for a maiden (neuter), then take a few seconds to shatter her into a thousand maidenly pieces. Make your images as vivid and multi sensory as you can. If you do, you’ll have an easy time recalling each word’s a gender whenever you review. 

Any time you encounter some frustrating group of irregularities you “just have to memorize,” you can create a mnemonic image. You can even make images for spelling—if ch is for chat (cat), then that cat can ride on top of your coeval (horse).

If your language has grammatical gender, you can memorize it easily if you assign each gender a particularly vivid action and then imagine each of your nouns performing that action.

To determine when translation will help you and when it will hurt you, you can use this rule of thumb: if you put it on your flash cards, it’s not in English. As long as you follow that rule, you’ll be okay.

When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind. Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex. . . . Even memory treatises from comparatively prudish eras make this point. Peter of Ravenna, author of the most famous memory textbook of the fifteenth century, first asks the pardon of chaste and religious men before revealing “a secret which I have (through modesty) long remained silent about: if you wish to remember quickly, dispose the images of the most beautiful virgins into memory places; the memory is marvelously excited by images of woman.”

Grammar rules are worth learning: studies show that you’ll learn a language faster when you learn the rules. 

Whenever 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. 

You’ll turn these stories into illustrated flash cards—the same new word/word form/word order flash cards discussed earlier—and you’ll use those flash cards to learn your target language’s patterns. 

The person-action-object (PAO) system relies upon a simple premise: the three basic ingredients of a story are a person (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an action (explodes), and an object (a dog). PAO can give you the flexibility you need to connect a mnemonic image to any kind of word. If you want to learn the ten ways to make German plural nouns, for example, you can choose ten people to represent them. Then you can use those people wherever you need them.

Because these stories are visual, they’re much easier to remember than some abstract verb form, especially when you’re trying to learn a lot of verbs at once.

Instead of endlessly drilling verb forms or noun declensions, you can learn a pattern once, attach an image to it, and use that image to quickly memorize the pattern of every related word you encounter. 

Any time you run into a tricky pattern, choose a person, action, or object to help you remember. For verb patterns, pick a mnemonic person or an object. For noun patterns, use a person or an action. Adjectives fit well with objects, and adverbs fit well with actions.

A note about writing: if you’re trying to refresh a language you’ve forgotten, writing is one of the best ways to reactivate those old memories. Write as much as you possibly can, and turn all of the corrections you receive into flash cards. There’s no better review for grammar and vocabulary. 

To learn vocabulary efficiently, begin by learning the top thousand words in your target language. If you’re aiming for a high degree of fluency, then keep going until you know the top fifteen hundred to two thousand words. Once you’re done building a foundation, choose additional words based upon your individual needs. You can find these words by skimming through a thematic vocabulary book and finding key words for every context you need—travel, music, business, and so on.

A good monolingual dictionary is an extraordinary source of input. 

Every novel-length book you read—whether it’s Tolstoy or Twilight—will automatically increase you vocabulary by three hundred to five hundred new words and dump buckets of grammar into that language machine in your head. As such, you don’t need to start with hard-core literature. You can just read whatever’s most fun.

By reading books, you can learn to let go of the words you don’t understand and get yourself swept up in the magic of a good story.

Reading without a dictionary is the simplest, easiest way to grow your passive vocabulary. On average, a single book will teach you three hundred to five hundred words from context alone. By reading just one book in your target language, you’ll make all future books and texts of any kind much easier to read. By reading in connection with an audiobook, you’ll have a much easier time moving through a long text, and you’ll pick up invaluable exposure to the rhythms of your language in action. This will improve your pronunciation, your listening comprehension, your vocabulary, your grammar; in short, it will provide a huge boost to every aspect of your language. 

Listening is a fast-paced skill that can sometimes feel overwhelming. Start with an interesting foreign TV or dubbed American TV series without subtitles. You can dial down the difficulty by reading episode summaries ahead of time, in order to prepare yourself for the vocabulary and plot twists of each episode. As your comfort levels grows, wean yourself off of summaries and begin watching and listening to more challenging media. 

Fluency, after all, isn’t the ability to know every word and grammatical pattern in a language: it’s the ability to communicate your thoughts without stopping every time you run into a problem.

Verbling.com, italic.com.

Whenever and wherever you practice, follow the golden rule of Language Taboo: no English allowed. By practicing in this way, you’ll develop comfortable fluency with the words and grammar you know.

Sound Play: Learn how to hear and produce the sounds of your target language and how spelling and sound interrelate. 

Word Play: Learn 625 frequent, concrete words by playing Spot the Differences in Google Images, finding personal connections, and if needed, adding mnemonic imagery for grammatical gender.

Sentence Play: Begin turning the sentences in your grammar book into flash cards for new words, word forms, and word order. Use written output to fill in the gaps missing from your textbook. 

Learn the first half of your grammar book. Make flash cards for everything you find interesting. 

Learn the top thousand words in your target language. Write out definitions and examples whenever you’re not entirely sure what a word means. About halfway through, you’ll find that you can understand a monolingual dictionary. Use it to help you learn the rest of your words.

Go back to your grammar book, skim through it, and grab any remaining bits of information you’d like.

Read your first book while listening to an audiobook.

Watch a full season of a dubbed TV show, reading episode summaries in your target language ahead of time.

Get a ton of speech practice. Get as much as you possibly can, either through an immersion program, a language holiday abroad, or through teachers on italki.com. If you get a private teacher, talk about the next thousand words from your frequency list and add specialized words for your particular interests. Together with your teacher, create example sentences and enter them into your SRS. Then rinse and repeat as desired.

Note: Never stop doing flash cards reviews. Your flash cards get more and more useful the longer you use them. I like to review my flash cards for a full year before I stop completely. That way, I’ll have an easier time retaining all my words and grammar, even without doing any maintenance later.