IWTYAL 213: Gabriel Wyner on Becoming Fluent Forever

In this episode I chat with Gabriel Wyner about his language learning background and new Kickstarter project.

Episode Summary:

  • fluent forever gabriel wynerGabe’s linguistic background
  • His experience on the Middlebury immersion programmes
  • How the book Fluent Forever came about
  • What’s the link between his previous language learning, and his method with flashcards
  • What languages is he working on right now?
  • The new Kickstarter project

To read Gabe’s interesting blog post response to my episode (188) on monolingual flashcards click here:

Kickstarter Details:

If you’d like to support Gabe’s Kickstarter project, please mark the following start date in your calendar:

Full Transcript:

Olly: Good morning everybody, welcome back to the podcast, great to have you here. My name is Olly Richards and if this is the first time listening, well welcome. This is your- I guess this is- what is this? This is your twice weekly, language learning, motivational pit stop; let’s call it that. Twice a week I give you episodes about language learning, different tips and tricks, ideas and experience from the eight or so languages that I speak and have learnt along the way and I sometimes occasionally interview very special guests. Such as on the episode today when I’m speaking with Gabriel Wyner, the author of the very popular book Fluent Forever. So, very excited to be bringing you that.

A few things before we start, first of all please subscribe to the podcast, you can do it on iTunes or Stitcher Radio. I would hate for you to miss any of the really great conversations we’ve got coming up in the future episodes. You can also see a complete back catalogue of episodes, there’s 200 and- well, including this one, 213 of them on all language learning topics imaginable. To get that, please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com and you can click on the podcast tab at the top of the website and you will see our big catalogue there.

There’s everything from strategies for time management and fluent speaking and listening comprehension and memory, to a lot more detailed stuff like flashcard theory, best practices for your vocabulary notebooks and all kinds of things like that. Lastly I’d like to thank the sponsors of the show, the people who really I have to thank for keeping the lights on. They are iTalki and they are the place where you can get language teachers of every shape and size, whatever language you are learning, whatever nationality you are looking for, they have them. And if you’d like to get a free lesson you can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/free lesson.

Alright then, let’s get into today’s conversation with Gabriel Wyner. Now a couple of episodes ago, more than that in fact, back in episode 188; I recorded an episode about- it was responding to Charlotte’s question about the benefits of monolingual flashcards. Now I recorded a long, rambling response to that and it turned out that subsequently this was interpreted by some people I think as perhaps a kind of a criticism if you like, of Gabe’s methods and what he writes about in Fluent Forever, his book and on his website. And of course it was nothing of the sort, it was simply my reaction to the question as posed but it had the happy consequence of starting a little dialogue between Gabe and I on both of our blogs about this and we began- Gabe actually wrote a blog post response to that, which I’ll link to in the show notes and it started us chatting about these various methods and led to the conversation you’re going to hear today.

So I’m really happy to be chatting with Gabe, asking him a lot about his language background, what he’s working on and he also talks about a very, very exciting project he’s working on which is working on an app to replace Anki. So if you’re curious about that and you want to hear more, then well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get right into it. I give you Gabriel Wyner. Alright, I’m here with Gabe Wyner, Gabe thanks for taking the time to chat.

Gabriel: Thanks for having me.

Olly: Right, we’ve got a lot to talk about man. We were just saying before we started that we haven’t had the chance to chat much up to this point so I know we’ve got a lot of areas of mutual interest. So it’s going to be great to dive into those. So for the benefit first of all of those people who are maybe not so familiar with you or your work, could you give us a little bit of a linguistic run through of just your-

Gabriel: How my stuff works? Sure, let’s see. This whole thing kind of started in 2010- let’s see, I wrote a book in 2014 or at least it came out in 2014 and that’s where my blog was coming from and all that. The source of the book is from 2010. I had this experience of screwing myself over in French, I had already done- I’ve learned a couple languages through immersion, I did the Middlebury Vermont Language School programs for German twice and then I went over to Italy to learn Italian.

Olly: Is that because it’s the first time or because you wanted to go back for more?

Gabriel: Because I wanted to go back for more, yes. I got to like B1 or B2 by the first- after seven weeks of this program. They’re just phenomenal programs and I had nothing, I walked in there with like zero words in German. They’re just such good programs. And then I wanted to get up to C1 and C2 and so I got up to C1 by the end of the second summer. I went to Italy, didn’t have as good of an experience- I mean I had an amazing experience, Italy is an amazing country but from a learning standpoint, in Middlebury people are forbidden from speaking English and in Italy they’re not. So from a learning standpoint the Vermont experience was sort of better.

So I wanted to go back to Vermont for French and I didn’t know French but I wanted to- they have a level 1.5 for false beginners and I thought, “That seems probably about right. Given my Italian background I can probably study a little bit of French before I get there. Like I want to be level 1.5.” So they had an online placement test and I just cheated as hard as I could because I figured, zero French plus Google translate equals like level 1.5 and unfortunately I cheated too well. So they sent me- three months before the program started, they said, “Hey, congratulations. You’ve gotten to the intermediate level, IL2 and once you arrive, we’ll do an interview with you entirely in French to make sure that you didn’t do something stupid like cheat.”

As I panicked and I started looking around online and I found Anki, I found space repetition and I saw what people were doing with it. I knew from previous failures with learning language for myself that if I were to use translations there I would be stuck in the same stuff that I did before, I really didn’t react well to learning language with translation, and I saw how well it worked at Middlebury. Where I was like, “Okay, if I use zero words of English, I can learn this thing really fast.” So I tried- sort of adapted Anki to use with- exclusively in French and initially I was learning simple picture words, you know, “Here’s a chat and here’s a chien,” dog and cat and stuff. I was just using pictures and eventually I built up a vocabulary and started interacting those words together and saying, “Okay, well you know, the dog is chasing the cat. I’ll start dealing with this thing.”

And using closed deletions, using fill in the blanks sentences but still keeping it exclusively in French. I had some French background going into this in the sense of I used to be an opera singer and so I had French pronunciation down already, which was quite a nice head start. So I did this Anki thing for three months for an hour a day and I showed up in this program and I hadn’t spoken any French before this interview and I found that I can speak French and it totally surprised the shit out of me. It was just like, “What? I understand what you’re saying and I know what to say back.” It wasn’t fluent and it wasn’t comfortable but it was like, “I’m thinking in French at this point.”

The interviewer was like, “You speak French, you shouldn’t be in the intermediate level, you should be in the advanced level.” So they bumped me up one more level, I read a bunch of books and I hit C1 by the end of that summer and I sort of came out of that reeling. Like, “What was this? What just happened?” This was new, so I started writing about it and that turned into an article that went viral on Lifehacker, it turned into a book and then turned into this whole life of just devoted towards making language learning products and things.

Olly: Fantastic. So that all happened to you in quite a short space of time, didn’t it?

Gabriel: For sure.

Olly: Because I remember reading that you have a background in music, which I do as well and I trained as a pianist in London and of course not much singing involved in that although we do some singing. But I wondered whether as a singer you had language classes. I mean you must have had some familiarity with the languages.

Gabriel: Absolutely, yes. As a singer, you-

Olly: No formal instruction or how did it work?

Gabriel: There is some, as a singer the technical requirements for my degree were, I needed to take one semester of each language and two semesters of- one semester of French, Italian and German and then an additional semester of one of them. I passed out on my German requirement because I just- because of Middlebury. The French one, I took it as summer school, I took one semester of community college and so that was sort of the background there and in terms of how much you get out of a thing like that, I felt like not very much but we did have diction courses. So in addition to those things we took French pronunciation for a half semester, Italian pronunciation, German pronunciation, English pronunciation. So my sense of the phonetic system of French was solid by then. That was the sort of language factor at that point.

Olly: I was just going to say because when you mentioned English diction, the way that you pronounce words when you’re singing English is not the way that you’d pronounce them when you’re speaking. So I wonder to what extent, when you first started speaking French, you spoke like an opera singer.

Gabriel: Like an opera singer, yes. Absolutely, totally. Definitely feasible, I’m trying to think; I felt like to some extent- like for one all the vowels and consonants are going to be the same. They’re going to be over enunciated but still the sounds are going to be- I’ll be familiar with the sounds. If you’re coming from a singing background you’ll be familiar with all the appropriate sounds at that point.

Olly: And that’s the main- I mean that’s the big task isn’t it because reception has to come before production. I think for a lot of people, when they’re trying to get to grips with the pronunciation of a language, the issue is not so much they can’t say it but they can’t hear it. Whereas if you’ve been through a whole musical training program, you spend so much time listening to the music that you should have a fairly good understanding of a sort of ballpark- you know, how stuff should be pronounced and how stuff should sound.

Gabriel: Well the nice thing with the opera background is that aside from just having classes where someone is telling you what you’re supposed to do, there’s a lot of interaction. So you get to have sort of this coach there where you say a line in French and they’re like, “Mm, no, not quite. You said bon joor and I want bon jour.” Then they’re like, “Okay, so how about bon joo?” and they’re like, “Almost but bon, bon jour,” and you get this back and forth. That’s I think primarily where you kind of learn it, as opposed to just saying, “Here are the items of French pronunciation,” I think you get it through this interaction.

Olly: Right, so let’s talk about the methodology because I mean you’ve had a fantastic experience. I mean I looked at the Middlebury course and they look wonderful. They’re not cheap, for sure.

Gabriel: No, they’re not. They have good financial aid though actually. It’s an important thing for people to realize. They look at this thing- like the price tag at this point, they’re like $10,000, maybe more, but if you apply as early as you can, like they will pay for most of that.

Olly: Oh really?

Gabriel: So that’s just a good thing for people who are out there who look at this and balk at the price, it could be cheap.

Olly: Yes. It’s a fantastic experience to have gone through by all accounts and I’d love to do it myself just to see- I mean it sounds like much better than going to live abroad in so many different levels because the number of times I’ve been abroad to learn a language and ended up just fighting not to speak English with people and trying to find people to talk to. So I guess you can go into this place and you just get- like you say, you’re banned from speaking English. It sounds like an experience. Without going through it, it’s difficult to say whether it would work for me but seven weeks, right?

Gabriel: There’s seven weeks for the languages that share the same alphabet as English and then eight weeks for the ones that don’t.

Olly: So at the very least you get almost two months of very intensive exposure.

Gabriel: Yes.

Olly: That’s great. So then in terms of like your- what I’d like to ask you, is how you think about language learning now in terms of methodology? I know obviously you have written a book and you speak about different approaches to learning on your website but how do you-? If you were to sort of sit down with someone and have a cup coffee and try to explain to them how an adult can learn a language, what are the kind of big milestones or big sort of buckets that you have to touch on?

Gabriel: I look at language as a memory game primarily. That the biggest- I would say two main things, well a lot of main things but two sort of organizing principles. That there is a general myth that children are really, really good at learning languages and adults are terrible at it. And there’s a lot of reasons for why people believe this thing because you go to France and you’re struggling with French and you’ve been working on it for years and you see this five-year-old who speaks better French than you and you’re like, “Ah, you didn’t work! I worked and you’re correcting my grammar. Like what the hell?” But it’s like an optical illusion in some sense, like that kid has had 20,000 hours of French and you’ve had like 200 and of course that kid’s beating you at French.

But there are there some really nice studies sort of isolating that and saying, “Okay, well what happens if we control for time and you take a kid with 500 hours of exposure and an adult with 500 hours of exposure? Who wins?” and it’s the adult that wins every time. And it’s like we’re smarter than kids, we’ve learned to be smarter. That’s the whole point of growing up. So we actually share- we never lose that ability to pick up language, we have a really, really good facility for it and from my standpoint, the only thing in anyone’s way as an adult is time and is memory. Is that by the time that you- if you’re learning a language an hour a week or two hours a week or you’re taking a class for three hours a week even and you do this thing for a semester, by the end of that semester you’ve forgotten the first half of the semester.

Then you take your second semester and you’ve forgotten the first semester and then you’re taking the third semester and you’ve likely forgotten much of what you’ve learned. So if you can fix that, if you can recall every single thing that you want and keep it in there, then your brain is going to do just fine in terms of piecing that into fluent language. I think that machinery that the kids use is just as active, if not more active, as an adult. So my approach is really all about dealing with that memory issue and so are I sort of build it in layers. I build the sort of spelling and pronunciation layer first because I usually bring up this example from Hungarian the word for camera is ??? and it’s like, “What?” It’s a word that you cannot retain if you haven’t had some familiarity with Hungarian.

Olly: Yes, it sounds like nothing else.

Gabriel: Yes and that’s not unique to Hungarian. That’s in every single language, you’re going to have sounds that are unfamiliar, and it makes those words very, very difficult to remember. We’ve all had experiences of like walking into a party and we meet people with familiar names and then suddenly someone’s says their name and like, “I don’t know what you just said. Can you repeat that?” And they’ll repeat it as much as you ask them to and you still won’t recall their name because it’s involving sounds that you’re not familiar with. So from my standpoint that’s the first barrier, if you can’t hear it then you won’t be able to remember it very well and so you take care of that and that’s been my last four years’ of work, has been making that easier. Has been developing these apps for that thing.

Where once you take care of the pronunciation level, like that hasn’t solved everything, that’s just gotten rid of the first barrier. So the next parts are about how can you most efficiently build associations into your words? An example I end to use, with a word like dog for instance, I have thousands, maybe millions of images in my head or word associations with the word dog. Dog is associated with every dog I’ve ever seen, it’s associated with words like cat and pet and ail and bark. It has its own grammar, like, “I walked my dog,” that’s a strange construction; all that stuff is built into the word dog. Then as soon as I say something like, “Oh yeah, well the Hungarian word for dog is kutya, then it’s as if I told you something but I haven’t- like you have very little associated with the word kutya. Right now you’ll have like one association built in. If I say kutya, you don’t necessarily think of your childhood pet or you know, the Hungarian word for tail because you don’t even know it yet. All these sorts of, like how would you make those associations, unless you decide, “Okay, well I’m going to consciously build them.”

Olly: So as a word, it’s an abstract thing with no particular meaning for you other than the sound that it happens to be- the way it happens to sound or the way it happens to be written. There’s nothing beyond that very one-dimensional type-

Gabriel: And it has a single association to the English- to the sound of the English word dog, not even to the meaning of it. You’ve just associated two sounds, I say dog, you say kutya. I say kutya, you think dog but you don’t think about like fur or brown or cute or anything like that. Those are not built in, those you have to make a jump to get to. So from my standpoint, what I’m looking for is, “Well if I want kutya to be associated with the word like farok, tail or to be just associated with images of dogs,” then I want that to be what I’m looking at on a daily basis. So I use space repetition to kind of build that stuff in and say, “Okay, well I want to embed this in a sentence,” and just fill in the blanks. So this word kutya is associated with the words that usually go around dog but in Hungarian. Then also associated with images.

Olly: So what you described is, if I’m understanding correctly, is basically a very heavy focus on vocabulary acquisition as a- at the-

Gabriel: I use vocabulary acquisition in the service of grammar in some sense. I only learn grammar in the context, only as a strong word. 80% of the grammar that I’m learning is in the context of sentences and is in the context of stories. So if I’m going to be learning something like how to conjugate walk, “I walked my dog,” in the past. “Yesterday I walked my dog,” then I’m not going to be learning things in the abstract, like, “I ….,” and then conjugate the verb to walk, past tense. From my standpoint that’s sort of dry and very abstract.

Whereas if I do the exact same thing but I just stick in the word dog afterwards, “I walked my dog,” or I have, “Yesterday I walked my dog,” then I can do basically the exact same exercise but I can attach it to a story. I can stick in a picture of a dog getting walked. And if I have a fill in the blank where I’m doing, “I …. my dog, in parentheses is as to walk and then past and it has a picture of someone walking their dog, in some sense it looks like an abstract, grammatical exercise again but on another sense, you’re using it to tell a story. I think that makes a huge difference, both in terms of how it’s internalized and how easy it is to retain.

Olly: Yes sure, I mean especially if you’re seeing it in context and that context is a link to something like a story, which is obviously- you know, in a way it’s kind of like a surrogate for an experience that you don’t have. You can’t remember- have that experience of walking a dog in your Hungarian life but you can get close to that perhaps or you can substitute that in some way by actually having the story and having the pictures and the images. That makes a lot of sense and we’ve gone quite deep in already. I’d like to just pull it back in just a second and talk about that part of the process. I’ve been thinking a lot about- I’ve just been at the Montreal Language Festival and being there, these events are always interesting because you just kind of- it’s the only time that I sort of take a step back and actually think about learning in general on a level that you don’t when you’re kind of head down, immersed in your work.

We had lots of discussions, a lot of language people came together and talked about their approaches to learning and all that stuff. So it’s on my mind at the moment. How does-? To what extent is the-? Talk to me about the link between your experience at Middlebury in the immersion programs and the focus on vocabulary that you’ve just described. Did you learn-? And the sort of supposition to the question is that Middlebury is extremely effective for you and helped you learn very, very quickly. So is the method that you’re describing linked to what you learned at Middlebury? What’s the connection there?

Gabriel: Sure, good question. Yes, I mean definitely they are linked and they are linked in the sense that I wasn’t aware that you could pick up a language within that language. I came into Middlebury thinking, “Well I mean, of course- like I’m on level 1. Of course they’re going to give me some English here, right? How am I supposed to learn anything without any German? How are you going to do this to me?” And I quickly realized like, “Oh no, they’re really not going to give me one word of English. I have nothing and you’re going to give me nothing in my native language.” Yet I watched myself learn, I watched everyone else around me learn. I mean there was no one who got left behind.

Olly: What was the curve ll? Is it a gradual curve? Because I imagine in many ways it must be like a hockey stick sort of thing where it’s like really hard at first and then- because at first you don’t understand anything and there’s no mediation of that lack of understanding but then there must come a point where stuff just starts to click. Is it like a hockey stick type thing?

Gabriel: I mean no, it’s just hard the whole time. I mean it’s really hard to put- like its hard initially- it’s hard in different ways all the way through. There’s a thing they talk about called the black hole that happens around week five where you forget- you hit points where you’ve been out of English for so long that you lose the ability to articulate and to think in English very well So you start running into sentences where you want to say a concept and you realize you don’t remember how to say it in your native language and you don’t know how to say in your target language. It’s the most spectacularly stressful thing in the world. Where you’re just like, “I am broken.”

Initially you’re constantly sort of thinking in English and yet you have this gag order on you where you’re like, “I want to say this thing, and I can’t,” and that’s stressful. Then it’s sort of this gradual shift in between that stress to this black hole stress and then eventually you get past it. I would say yes, past week five; once you get past that point where you hit that black hole stress and it’s gotten a little bit better and you’re like, “Okay, now I can really kind of think in German,” it gets a little bit easier. But all the way through I would say the stress of immersion is really very particular, it’s difficult, and it doesn’t go away when you’re really not allowed to express yourself in your native language.

Olly: It’s interesting because stress is often thought of as one of the big counter indicators of efficient learning or effective learning.

Gabriel: Good point.

Olly: But having said that, with language learning being just such an exercise and just building up that knowledge base and that threshold and that comfort, existing in that world; it absolutely stands to reason that immersion will get you there. Even if it hurts a litle bit along the way.

Gabriel: Yes, one of the things that was sort of remarkable about the Middlebury thing was watching other people. Like you could watch your own experience and be like, “Wow, this is a weird thing I’m going through,” but then you’re looking around and you’re like, “Wait, everyone is advancing at the same level here and it’s a very, very rapid level.” I never actually answered I think, your question in terms of its relationship to what I currently do. I think the thing of seeing how that was possible, I think was sort of led to what I do right now. The idea that like, “Wait, I actually could do this without English,” was a new concept to me and then in playing with it, I started realizing, “Wait, this is working. Let’s keep trying and see how far we can go.” And that’s kind of where my methodology came from.

Olly: Okay, so am I right in thinking that you enjoy having had an approach with flashcards whereby you like to keep it 100 in the target language?

Gabriel: On the flashcards yes, during the creation process I’m okay with using translations.

Olly: Okay, I see. So that is kind of born out of your experience with the immersion and the fact that you learned so effectively without- I mean are you essentially-? Is your thought process essentially saying, “Okay, well I didn’t- in my most- when I learned these languages I did it without English therefore why use English now?”?

Gabriel: That was the initial-

Olly: Is that an accurate characterization?

Gabriel: Yes. That was definitely the initial source of why I went in that direction. Afterwards when I started writing the book, the nice thing about the whole book writing process is like, “Okay, here you have a year and a half to figure out- like sit and do research and figure out why did this thing work?” And so I started going through a ton of research on how memory works and stuff and it started building a theoretical basis for, “Wait. Why did this work so well? And maybe I could find changes.” And as it turns out, I did; I found ways of looking at the research and saying, “Oh wait, wait. Here’s something I’m missing. There’s another way to do this that’s even more effective.” So at this point I stand by this thing from a research standpoint and from a sort of theory of memory standpoint; back then it was entirely out of, “Well I tried this Middlebury thing, it seems to work. Let’s try it again.”

Olly: We’ve had a couple of conversations on blog post comments about flashcards and there’s a- a few people have- a few of our mutual readers have kind of tried to kind of provoke us in a way into sort of debating the best way to use flashcards. This stemmed from an episode I did a while ago on my podcast, in which I reacted to the idea that you should create- you should have images on your flashcards and the flashcards should be only in the L2, only in the target language. We’ve sort of gone back and forth a little bit on that in blog posts but I think my overarching feeling is that- because I’m a big fan of flashcards, I love using flashcards as well. It helped me massively and I think that our two approaches are almost-

You’re almost at a point where there’s a distinction without a difference because we’re both doing very, very similar things. I kind of want to go down that rabbit hole and talk about should we- the different techniques and approaches to flashcards but at the same time it’s very personal, isn’t it? I think the best- as people that talk about languages and language learning, the best thing we can do is put these ideas out there and people kind of- you know, they try different things. They try to understand the process is- the rationale behind what we’re doing and they draw their own conclusions.

Gabriel: I’ve gotten some emails from readers where they’ve sent me this thing where they’re like, “I’ve been doing this thing, I’ve been reading the Assimil books,” or something, “and it’s been working so well and I like- I’m speaking the language and stuff but then I read your book and its suggesting things that are slightly different. Should I throw away all the stuff that’s working really well?” I’m like, “No! Do what works. If you’re liking this thing, no.” I think that people are sometimes so caught up in like what is the most optimal way to do something that they can sometimes ignore the thing that’s working in front of them and use something that’s not optimal for them.

Olly: People want certainty and I find myself wanting this as well. I’m a big fan of Steve Kaufman’s videos, I’ll watch Steve Kaufman for hours because I just love the way he articulates himself, it really resonates with me and I find myself watching these videos. I find myself looking for the truth if you like, such as it is. I should be at the point now where I can trust my own experience enough to not give a shit about whatever anyone else says, right and yet I still find myself looking for those grains of wisdom. Specifically for- I guess it’s for the things I’m not- the areas of language that I’m not so good at. So for example if anyone- if someone was to write an article about how to learn Portuguese, I wouldn’t read it because I’ve learnt Portuguese and I don’t feel like I did it badly, I’m fairly successful at it, so that’s sort of fine.

I don’t want to read an article about how to learn Portuguese. However, if someone came along and wrote an article on how to progress beyond intermediate Cantonese, without knowing Chinese characters, I’d be like, “Give it to me now.” That’s what I want because that’s the thing that I’m struggling with. So I always try to remind myself of what it’s like to be in a position of trying to get ahead in your- get started in your first language, your first foreign language and figuring out what it’s like. It’s just a huge black hole, it’s a huge unknown of all these different possibilities and different methods and approaches, and having not done one lap yet of the language learning game and not knowing exactly what’s right for you.

I think on that point, I certainly feel like I- as someone- I write about language, I talk about language learning a lot. I think I probably do sometimes- I probably am guilty of sort of oversimplifying things and in a way- because if you talk about language all day, every day, you have to- I think there’s always this big danger of having to add 20 caveats to everything that you say. Which just doesn’t make for compelling listening or reading, right. Everything that we’ve- that you’ve said, everything that- the conversation that we could have about flashcards for example, since we’re on that topic, it has to inevitably come with all these different kind of caveats. You know, chief among which is like whatever we say, do what works for you, that’s the most important thing. So I often wonder that- the extenet to which we kind of help people with the advice that we give whilst also driving them crazy by suggesting that this is the right way to do things.

Gabriel: Sure, one thing that I was actually pretty happy about how the book evolved, is that initially there is a tendency to write a how-to book, where you’re just like, “Do this, it works, do it,” and eventually the book just turned into the story of how memory works and just, “Here’s what we know about memory and based on this, here’s an approach that takes that into account.” But like, I just told you how memory works so you can change this. You have the flexibility here to say, “If this is true,” and it is, like this is what we know about the brain, “Yeah, Gabe’s approach makes some sense but I want to do this thing and that makes more sense.” And it’s like, “Well great. Go do that thing,” as long as it’s consistent with humans and how we learn things, then anything you do in that realm is going to be effective for you.

And it allowed me to shift the focus from, “Here’s what you must do,” to, “Let’s talk about this whole concept of learning,” and address it that way and it just eased a lot of the pressure in terms of being prescriptive. I mean my method has changed drastically since the book came out. I keep writing new blog posts and being like, “Hey, I just figured out this new thing. Let’s try this. Like let’s learn entirely with tutors, throw away your grammar books. Let’s see how that works.” And all of them are still consistent with how we learn.

Olly: How has your method changed since the book?

Gabriel: Initially the book was very segmented, it was learn pronunciation, learn 625 words using pictures alone. I have this frequency list that’s entirely concrete words or concrete verbs, things like that. Then go to your grammar book and learn a bunch of sentences with the closed deletions, the fill in the blanks and pick up the rest of the grammar of the language. Not pick up the grammar of the language because you’re not learning any with the words and then start playing around. Get more words, if you want them then go start reading books, go watch TV with subtitles in the target language or not. Start talking to people, do the rest of the place part, the fun part, as it were or the extra fun part. Then Japanese came along and kicked my ass and-

Olly: Japanese does that to people.

Gabriel: It does, it does and also I was in a Russian sentence, and I could not just learn vocabulary because I needed to learn grammar and so I pulled out an iTalki tutor and I was like, “Hey, I have zero words of Japanese. This is the word list I want to use, I want to learn these 625 words. The first one is white. Can you help me come up with a sentence that is personal for white?” And like we would just go and create sentences for every single one of these words and I would learn all of my words in the context of those sentences that are personal and relate to memories of my own. I was like, “Oh, his is working like way faster than my previous method.” So I’ve basically combined the grammar book part and the vocabulary part and I’m just doing all the grammar and vocabulary together.

The old method certainly works and there’s definitely- I’ve gotten a lot of readers sending things back saying, “Hey, I can speak now two or three languages.” I’m like, “Whoa, you’ve been busier than I have.” But these new approaches, certainly at least for me, interacting with a tutor and having that- being able to sort of speak and develop sentences from the very first day, has been really valuable from a- I retain a lot more.

Olly: Yes absolutely. So is Japanese the language you’re working on at the moment or is that a previous project?

Gabriel: Yes, it was Japanese. Then I had to take an eight month break to learn Spanish for my wedding and then Japanese against.

Olly: So you’re back to Japanese.

Gabriel: Yes.

Olly: Is that your first non-European language?

Gabriel: Yes, it depends on how you’re counting Hungarian and Russian because Hungarian is- I don’t know, I mean it’s in Europe but as far as I’m concerned it’s from Mars.

Olly: How has Japanese differed from the other languages you’ve learnt in terms of the learning experience?

Gabriel: The memory burden of learning the characters is spectacular. It easily doubles the difficulty that language, having a character system that is that complex and is so unrelated to the sounds or meanings of the words, in many ways is unique. I mean there’s nothing like it, except for the other languages that use the same character set. So it introduces just memory problems that are really special and unique to that thing, for this kickstarter thing that I’m developing now. And people are like, “Why aren’t you supporting Japanese for your first languages?” and I’m like, “Well because we need to develop a whole new system for that. Yes I want- like I have to use this thing for my own Japanese at some point but then it’s going to take development,” because they’re just different. They’re different languages than anything else out there.

Olly: I have a feeling we could talk about that for a very long time but I want to pick you up on the kickstarter that you mentioned because the- well why don’t you tell us about it? What’s behind it, what’s it about?

Gabriel: Sure, one of the key chunks of my method is that you are building your own flashcards; that that’s in some sense necessary; that that’s the learning stage. Flashcards tend to be really, really good for reviewing information that you’ve learned and challenging for learning that information in the first place. So the learning stage for me and in this method is basically you choosing a sentence to learn or a word to learn and you having a choice in that thing. Like you deciding, “I want that word. No, I want this word. I want this chunk of grammar.” That choice is really important. Then you deciding- picking out images that fit with that sentence that story or with that word and then you forming that into flashcards and what that does is it creates a sort of personal experience with each of your sentences.

That makes them easier to retain and then when you come back and review them, you’re remembering that experience; that creation experience of for instance, looking on Google images and seeing like 30 memes for Spanish dogs or something. Like, “Oh, ha ha, that’s not what I expected to see, that’s funny,” and then every time you see that flashcard again, you feel that ha ha moment. Like, “I remember that was fun to make.” That works really well, the problem is that building flashcards takes time and one of the chief objections to my stuff is like, “Whoa, that’s a lot of work. I don’t want to go make 5,000 flashcards,” and it’s a solid objection. Much of that process- well I think the process is valuable, much of that process is not. Like you typing the word into Google images, like the typing process is not super useful. You taking an image and dragging it into the box on Anki, not super useful. You finding a recording and dragging it around, also not useful.

Olly: Not to mention the bit where you have your decks made and you’re trying to import it into the app on your phone and you can’t figure out how the hell to do it.

Gabriel: Yes, welcome to my life. Like this is- I used to teach workshops on this method that were around 12 hours long for the workshop and I would say six to eight hours of those workshops were dealing with the user interface or just computer skills. It’s like, “We’re trying to learn languages here and two thirds of this workshop are computer skills,” and all of that is unnecessary. I’ve known that since before the book came out, since I was doing these workshops, it’s like I’m watching these people struggle with this extremely hard to use, extremely wonderful, flexible program that is still too hard to use for many of these people and that’s been hard to watch. I watched for instance my mother, who wants to learn Hungarian, look at my stuff, and be like, “Well that’s not for me,” and just go back off.

And it’s been clear from the start, this could be better and it’s not that Anki is flawed in what it does Anki is designed to be so flexible you can do anything in it. I mean I learned how to write with Anki, I learned English style with Anki. You can do anything with Anki but when you are restricting yourself to languages then basically you have only one content type, you have sentences. All languages are composed of sentences and so if you know what your content type is, that’s the only thing you’re really memorizing, then you can make an app that takes care of everything. I mean where the only thing it does is asks you for your choices. “Which image do you want for white? Which image do you want for, ‘the cat is in the box’? Which image do you want for ‘in’?”

And just automatically spits out tons and tons of flashcards based on sentences, automatically gives you sentences to learn that seem interesting. It gives you the ability to put in your own sentences as you wish and customize your language learning experience but still knock out all that busy work of needing to- like in Anki right now I have to literally select the word I want to learn, type underscore to make a blank, paste it in the next box. All of these steps are silly in some sense because they can all be automated. So the goal of this app is make something that you can use on your cell phone where you can just browse through a language and be like, “I like this word,” bink, “Here’s some sentences,” bink. “I like this picture,” bink “Do you want any more words in that sentence?” Okay, bink. More pictures, bink. “Here, you have 20 flashcards.”

Olly: So you’re literally taking out all of the dead wood from the creation process, from the flashcard creation process. Fantastic. Well that sounds really exciting man and kickstarter is something that I’ve never really been involved in but I have bought some things from kickstarter before and to check my understanding of it, kickstarter’s essentially where you say to people, “Hey, this is what I want to do, this is what I want to make but I don’t have the money for it. So come and support the project if you believe in it and if we raise enough money then you will get all this stuff to thank you for supporting it.” Is that accurate or have I missed it?

Gabriel: Yes, that’s totally it. Basically you are sort of pre-ordering things and you are sort of just saying, “I pledge my support and I know that I will get a reward for the support.” The other sort of key ingredient of kickstarter as opposed to other crowdfunding platforms is that it’s an all or nothing system. Where you basically say, “Hey, if I don’t make this much money there’s not enough to make this app, so there’s no risk here. Basically if we don’t make enough money to make the app and you get your cool things then you won’t be charged, I won’t get any money and we’ll just sort of not make this app and we can talk about maybe trying again in the future.” So just the all or nothing thing is nice.

Olly: It’s actually quite a cool system because if people don’t support it then that actually tells you, “Well, maybe this is not something that people want in the first place.”

Gabriel: Exactly. That was a big question from the start, was like, “I want it. I don’t know how much you all want it. So this is the test.” It’s like, “Do you want it this much? Let’s find out.”

Olly: Well let’s find out, when is the deadline and where do people go if they are interested in supporting the project?

Gabriel: The deadline is September 19th- that’s not the deadline, the start is September 19th at 4:00 PM UK time. It is a 30 day project, so I believe it ends on the 18th of October. Probably the easiest way to get to it is to go to kickstarter.fluent-forever.com. We’ll have a redirect that just gets you to wherever you need to be. Right now if you go to kickstarter.fluent-forever.com. It’ll send you to our preview page. That preview page will allow you to sign up on the mailing list. Those people who are on that mailing list, we are basically doing a whole bunch of giveaways right now. Apparently kickstarters are all about the first hour. Like if you can raise the maximum amount of money in the first hour, it will just jump on the front page and then earn an insane amount of money.

So basically we’re telling everyone in the mailing lists that if you if you do this in the first hour, we’re giving you free months of access to this app.

Olly: So the calendar reminder to set on your phone is September the 19th at 4:00 PM UK time, which is probably Eastern- what’s that going to be? 12:00 PM midday, Eastern Standard Time, 9:00 AM?

Gabriel: I think it’s 10- I think it might be 10 Eastern.

Olly: We’ll check this and we’ll put it in the show notes, which I’ll mention at the end of the episode or in the description for those of you watching on YouTube. So well, I think it’s a fantastic idea, I can’t wait to try it out. I wish you the best of luck with it.

Gabriel: Thank you.

Olly: For those people who would like to find you elsewhere, your website is fluent-forever.com.

Gabriel: Yes.

Olly: Social media, where should people go?

Gabriel: There is a fluent underscore forever twitter. There’s a fluentforevertips Instagram, all this stuff is sort of available- like the website’s kind of the way to start. That’ll send you everywhere else you need to go.

Olly: Go to fluent-forever.com and follow the links from there. Cool man, well I’ve really enjoyed this chat, I feel like there are at least 10 different areas that we could have jumped on, and we’ll have to do a repeat at some point and see if we can get into some of those areas in some more detail.

Gabriel: We have to.

Olly: But thanks very much for the chat and talk to you very soon and best of luck with the kickstarter.

Gabriel: Thank you.

Olly: Okay, so I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. It was great to chat with Gabe and to hear about all the things that he’s up to. Now very important, if you would like to check out this very exciting kickstarter project that he has for this new app and to even potentially support what he’s doing, then the link you need is going to be in the show notes. So you will need to go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode 213. That’s iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode 213 and there’s a section there in the show notes called “Kickstarter details”.

There’s a there that you can click and that will take you to the kickstarter page where there’s a video explaining everything and you can support it. Remember the kick-off date and time is September 19th at 11:00 AM Eastern and that’s 4:00 PM UK time. So that will; be the date to mark on your calendar and apparently it’s very, very helpful and if you do want to get involved, do so at that time because there’s that big first hour which apparently in kickstarter- well in the kickstarter universe, is what makes all the difference. Alright, so once again that’s iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode 213. That is also the place to leave any comments or questions that you’d like on the show. Thank you so much for listening and I’ll see you back in the next episode of the podcast.

Thank you so much for listening to today’s episode. I really hope you enjoyed it. You know, one the questions I get asked most often about language learning is how to improve your memory because things get so much easier when you learn new words and you don’t forget them later in conversation when you really need them. So what I decided to do was to put together a short email course, it’s a three part email course over three days that teaches you my favorite techniques for memorizing vocabulary and actually putting that vocabulary into your long term memory. It’s a short course, three days, it’s completely free, and if you’d like to sign up for it, please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freememorycourse.

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  • Luke Truman

    I really enjoyed this, looking forward to your interview with stephen krashen!