“Fluent Forever” Book Review

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Most materials for new language learners recommend learning basic phrases and sentence structures, with a lot of reference to the learner’s native language; and most learners will explain how this eventually sound and seems great, but stalls them over time as it affects their language retention and eventual motivation to keep re-learning the same things over time. This is where the book, Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner comes in.

Gabriel Wyner is a polyglottic writer and opera singer who graduated with honours in triple Master’s degrees in 2011, in Opera, Lieder and Voice. He speaks at least five languages fluently, four of which he learnt within relatively short amounts of time. Wyner incorporates various learning techniques he developed, into Fluent Forever. Professional reviews by people of varying backgrounds, from writers for reputable magazines and papers like The Chicago Tribune and Wired, to Cognitive Psychologists, Blogs and Language-learning website developers, have been given it rave reviews. 

The Chicago Tribune hails the book as “teaching the secrets to language learning” fast and easily, with efficiency. Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist, references the scientific basis of the techniques outlined in the book. Kevin Kelly from Wired, highlights the book’s incorporation of modern technological systems and language learning methods to quicken the learning process. In most cases, individual learners tend to be sceptical about industry reviews, particularly when they seem to make the same recycled claims (learn to speak a language fast!). That almost sounds like a scam when anyone with experience in self-learning knows (or thinks they know) you cannot learn a new language easily and in a short amount of time.

According to online reviews by the everyday buyer however, this claim seems to stand true. Three different websites (Amazon, Goodreads and Reddit) have amassed a significant amount of reviews, and from the get-go, it is obvious that the book is highly regarded by almost anyone who has had contact with it. On Amazon for instance, out of 365 customer reviews, the general rating is 4.5 out of 5 stars, with 73% of the people awarding it 5 stars and only 4% of people awarding it with 1 star. On goodreads.com, out of 3,589 ratings, an overwhelming majority awarded the book 4 and 5 stars, with 0% (14 people) awarding it with 1 star. A summary of the reviews is provided below in the following structure; 

  • Comments about the actual book, 
  • Information provided by the book, 
  • The pros and cons of the book.

Hard Copy vs. eBook

A few reviews on Amazon recommended purchasing a hard copy of the book instead of the eBook. However, this appears influenced by personal preference. Alternatively, reviews about the hard copy have complained about the quality of the book, indicating that it tears easily. Comments on these, however, are minimal, indicating that the actual book does not impact on the overall reading experience.

Information

The reviews about the book across the three websites appear very consistent, with the major tips in the book being; 

  • Begin with pronunciations: 
    • Reviews have all consistently referenced this as the first point in the book to give learners a ground grasping about the language.  
  • Use minimal pairs: 
    • Minimal pairs are words in a language that can appear similar to homonyms, but are slightly different, although difficult for non-native speakers to distinguish. The idea of this is to assist the learner to tell the difference over time between these words, and reduce frustration during the learning process.
  • Use International Phonetic Alphabets (IPAs): 
    • IPAs are described as alphabets that can be used to represent sounds (or phonemes) in any language. This means they are applicable to international languages, reducing the confusion involved in trying to learn the target language’s alphabets and comparing them to the learner’s native alphabets.
  • Use Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS): 
    • SRS (also known as the Leitner System) is regularly used by most language learning apps, which try to aid recognition and memory retention of learning materials. 
    • They do this by repeating known problems less frequently than troubling problems. For example, say you are learning Japanese and are presented with the phrase for ‘I love you’ (daisuki) and ‘I like rice’ (gohan wa suki desu), and you learn ‘daisuki’ easier. The next time you are reviewing your phrases, ‘daisuki’ is shown less often than ‘gohan wa suki desu’. 
  • Use Flash Cards: 
    • This appears to tie-in with the SRS, as it tries to build on your memory about a particular topic or vocabulary. The book seems to promote a particular set of systems for use on this tip, particularly Anki, which is an electronic flashcard system available online and as a phone app. Reviews indicate that the book goes into specific detail on how to maximise the learning potential using these online flashcards.
  • Less popularly quoted tips:
    • Target high-frequency words at the beginning of the learning process.
    • Try to develop a system of honing your accent towards the end of your learning process.
    • Provides links to other free resources like language learning websites and apps, as well as programmes to promote immersion into the target language, to increase efficiency in the learning process.
    • Focus on learning grammatical patterns and use pictorial depictions of words to promote thinking in the target language and sensory-associative learning which is when you learn something through your senses (seeing, hearing, touching) and then remember by triggering those same senses (like by touching or seeing the same thing).  
    • Not translating words into the target language but rather, focus on thinking in the native language. 
    • Study less material and review old material more.

Pros

There appears to be conflicting reviews about how useful the methods shown in the book (and how they are presented) are. 

  • Most reviews highly recommend the book for beginners as they claim it provides a good avenue and introduction to the tips outlined it. 
  • The book goes into detail about how to utilise a lot of the resources it recommends, like the Anki flashcard system. It appears this is very appreciated by many due to the extra information some have picked up regarding how to overcome the possible overwhelming feeling they may get when using the systems.
  • The book collates a lot of the information for beginners and non-tech-savvy people, who might be interested in learning languages fast but may not have the time and capabilities to compile all the research themselves.
  • The techniques have been tested by patrons of the book and most claim to see improvements and advancements in their language learning process.
  • The book promotes a personalised learning approach, with the building of personal flashcards, from personal experiences
  • The writing style tries to be engaging, and is a hilarious read, according to some reviews on Amazon.
  • The techniques are very effective for serious language learners who like to exhibit some control over their learning.
  • The methods outlined in the book have scientific backing.
  • One purported dyslexic patron claimed to see improvements in their language learning, suggesting it is friendly to use for people with learning disabilities; particularly dyslexia. However, this is only one review.
  • It makes eventual learning easier to grasp and retention of the language is easier and longer-lasting.
  • A lot of reviews have indicated that the book supplements his similarly-named website fluent-forever.com and YouTube videos well.
  • One reviewer from goodreads.com called it the ‘Holy Bible of learning’.
  • The techniques mentioned in the book are also applicable to other learning subjects

 

Cons

  • The double-edged sword of the detailed approach to certain topics, particularly Anki, means that some reviews, found the approach boring and overwhelming, especially if you are not familiar with using flashcards. 
  • One review indicated that the problem with flashcard system was that it might not be transferable to less memory-taxing aspects of language learning like grammar structure, as opposed to vocabulary building; with another calling it unhelpful for some.
  • Other reviews highlighted that learners with sufficient experience with the research might not learn anything unique, even pointing out certain flaws in his recommendations like missing details about the use of SRS. 
  • Some also complained that a majority of the book only provides detailed information about a few techniques.
  • There were complaints of unstructured and unorganised writing, referencing similar issues with the associated website. Others claim the book rehashes already available information on the world wide web.
  • The approaches indicated in the book might appear overwhelming upon initiation.
  • One review provided input that the plan needed some improvements, while others were less than thrilled because it appeared the author of the book only provided limited information to enhance sales of other associated materials.
  • One key point is the amount of personal work required to promote growth with this method. The personalisation of the learning process means that a lot of work goes into staying motivated and continually pursuing the techniques.
  • A few reviews quoted misleading advertising from the book concerning the time frame touted for language mastery; with one saying that the timeline provided was misleading as the techniques provided were used by the author himself, to get to a basic or intermediate level, after which he immersed himself into intensive classroom learning, a luxury that some language learners might not afford due to finance and/or time and life constraints.

Overall, it appears that the book provides a unique and refreshing alternative to traditional language-learning methods, and utilises a mix of fun story-telling, scientifically grounded techniques, and free modern and technologically available resources, to improve the language learning experience, and help aspiring polyglots achieve their dreams. However, despite the arguably winning combination of approach, there are still pitfalls like the initial requirements of significant time investment, as well as the utilisation of flashcards which might not be useful for some. In addition, information provided in the book appears to be poorly structured, at least in part, and easily available via other sources with moderate research.

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