Ever wondered how you could master your target language effectively? In an interview with Anna Tyrie from English Like A Native, Fluent Forever founder and CEO Gabe Wyner shares his language learning insights and experience, how he developed his method and products, and 7 essential tips for reaching fluency fast.
Watch the full interview right here:
You can also read the interview transcript below.
Anna: When learning a language, you might wonder, how important is pronunciation? What’s the best way to learn grammar? Is spaced repetition that useful?
Well, today, these questions and more will be answered as we get some top tips for achieving language fluency from polyglot and entrepreneur Gabriel Wyner.
Hello, everyone. Anna here from Englishlikeanative.co.uk. Now, I’m very excited to have Gabe on my channel. He’s got a lot of experience, and as the CEO and founder of Fluent Forever – which is a very popular language learning app – and the bestselling author of the book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It, you can be guaranteed some really great insights on language learning.
And so that you don’t forget anything from our interview today, I’ve put together a PDF containing all the insights and tips that Gabe is giving us today. So all you have to do to download is join my ESL mailing list, and I will send it to you.
So, thank you so much, Gabe, for joining us today. How are you?
Gabe: Hello, I’m well. Thank you for having me.
Anna: Well, thank you so much for accepting my invitation. You have so much information that I’m sure my viewers will find really useful. But first, can you tell me a little bit more about Fluent Forever and what it is that you guys do there?
Gabe: So, yeah, I mean, basically, I came up with a method back in 2010 that got me to fluency in French in about five months, like, from A1 – I’d say that’s probably like A1 at the start – and I ended up at C1 at the end. And I started teaching it to other people and was finding, well, they’re getting the same results.
And I did it again with Russian and got it to the same level of fluency in about 10 months. And just kept seeing, like, this is working, and so wrote about this concept of what happens when instead of just kind of going to classes and studying grammar and kind of hoping that things stick, you put everything in a kind of immersive context.
You say, let’s get rid of translations. Let’s only learn using pictures and words and sentences. Let’s start with pronunciation instead of anything else because if you start with pronunciation, you’ll be able to remember words better. And then build from there using apps and things like that that will help keep things in your head and make it so you don’t forget them.
And so that thing exploded. So I wrote this book – it became a bestseller. I made an app that goes along with the book to make it easier. And that thing turned into this giant, giant Kickstarter. And most recently, we started moving into Coaching products to make things more personal with the idea that, like, every single thing that you look at is something that you’ve talked about with a native speaker. And then that’s now put into an app, so that you can remember what you did with a native speaker. And we’re finding that’s speeding up learning even more.
And so, generally, what we try to do is look at the science of learning and say, “Hey, what does this tell us? How can we learn faster using everything that we know about learning?”
And for whatever reason, it seems like not a lot of other people are doing that. I found some studies about pronunciation that had been around for 20 years, and no one had built any products on them. And so we keep hitting these things. We’re like, “Wait, why isn’t anyone else doing this? Okay, well, we’ll do it.” And so that’s us.
Anna: Fantastic. So how many languages do you speak yourself?
Gabe: I speak eight at this point. Although you know, you can’t, like, in terms of maintaining all eight at once, I think sometimes you walk around, you get this kind of like ‘polyglot’ label. You’re like, “Oh, he’s a polyglot.” And there’s a ton of work in terms of maintaining all eight. And so, I do let some of them fall down while I bring others up. And then if I’m like, “Oh, I have an interview, I need to speak in French” or something, then I’ll watch a bunch of TV and bring it back up.
Anna: So you’re not just a language chap, are you? You’re also a singer.
Gabe: I used to be. So the reason I learned languages in the first place is because I used to be an opera singer, and so needed to learn French and Italian and German and Russian. That gave me the justification. But like, really at my heart, I’m an engineer – like, that was always my background before singing.
And that’s been what I got to combine in terms of my careers. I had this singing career that made me want to learn languages, and this engineering career that made me learn how to problem solve. And that combination has been kind of the center of my career these last 10 years.
Anna: Yeah, yeah, fantastic. Lots of hats.
Gabe: Lots of hats.
Anna: Why is learning proper pronunciation so important?
Gabe: The deal with pronunciation… I give this example in, like, Hungarian. So you know the Hungarian word for camera is fényképezőgép. And for people who are not familiar with Hungarian, even now, like five seconds later, everyone has forgotten that word. Whereas people who are familiar, let’s say, with the sounds of English, if I say, you know, “The Martian word for camera is mognog,” that one’s sticking.
And so the idea of trying to learn a language where you can’t hear the sounds, you have no chance of actually remembering things. It’s why you forget when someone introduces their name, and their name is a foreign-sounding name, you can’t remember it – same thing.
And so, you have to start there if you want to have a good chance at quickly learning all the words. And there’s really quick research on how to do that – you just have to practice telling the difference between similar-sounding words. For your students who are learning English, practicing things like niece and knees, and similar sounds like that, will help train your ears within just like a few weeks. It’s not a long process. It’s just an important process.
Anna: Yeah, I trained at the Royal Academy of Music. When I first started, my singing teacher, he said to me, “How did you get in? Who did you pay off to get in here?” And I said, “What on earth do you mean?” He said, “You sing flat, only about just a half a tone under all the time. You’re just slightly flat.” And I didn’t, I couldn’t hear it. And then, you know, I worked very hard. I really felt like I didn’t deserve my place there. So I worked super hard. And by the end, I could really, you know, my ears were so tuned I could hear everything and could hear when I was drifting, and then became a singing teacher myself.
Gabe: What a terrible question!
Anna: It really was a very abrupt start to our relationship for sure.
Do you think that, as a fellow professional singer, that good posture, good breathing, and good articulation… Do you think that it’s beneficial when it comes to pronunciation and speaking?
Gabe: I think, well, I mean, it certainly makes you sound better. If the goal is about how you present yourself in the world and whether people take you seriously, and whether people are interested in continuing to speak English with you, absolutely. If the goal is “I just want to remember things better,” then those are different goals. And they’re both important. So, absolutely, I think that there’s certainly a role for that thing.
Anna: Yeah. And I think, to add to that, if you are using English in the workplace, as many of my students do, good posture and good breathing will really help you in terms of controlling your anxiety and your nerves because…
Gabe: I think that’s really true, yeah.
Anna: Yeah, when we get nervous, we tend to over breathe, don’t we? And then that can just make things worse. So… good posture, good breathing.
Gabe: Yes, I think part of learning a language tends to be about picking up a new character: “Who is this English-speaking version of myself?” And I think you deciding that character has good posture, that character is confident, I think, gives you this persona that eventually becomes you.
Anna: How is learning with images better than learning with translations?
Gabe: You know, earlier, I mentioned this Hungarian word for camera. And like, aside from that pronunciation being really, really difficult to hold on to, this connection with camera as, like, ‘word – translation’ is not something our brains are designed to hold on to. At best, all we’re trying to do is go, “Okay, fényképezőgép – camera, fényképezőgép – camera,” and you’re just trying to repeat sounds and connect sounds in your head.
We don’t think about sounds; we think in concepts, we think in stories. And we think in images. And so the idea of being like, you know, if we’re learning German, and I’m like, “Ah, eine Flasche! Ich will von diese Flasche trinken,” like, that’s a concept that means something. And so it sticks.
And so, if you’re going to be learning simple words, the idea of using pictures is straightforward. You’re like, “Okay, dog – picture of bark, bark, bark” – like, that works. But even with abstract words, and I would say even especially with abstract words. The idea of using a fill in the blank sentence – you know, “I’m standing… blank… the bus” – and you’re using that to learn the word by, and you put that sentence next to someone actually standing by a bus stop, or by a bus. That you’re going to hold on to even better than just this dog and picture of dog example.
We learn images that are connected with words even better than images alone, and we learn images really well.
And so you can use that to learn an entire language, and there’s no reason not to. It actually speeds up your learning by about twice. It’s about a 100% boost in the speed that you learn it when you compare that to just memorizing translations. So, for me, I do that everywhere – it’s mandatory.
Anna: So just try and visualize everything, use things like flashcards and…
Gabe: For me, it’s always flashcards because I always use spaced repetition.
Anna: Now, what is spaced repetition? And how does it help you to learn a language?
Gabe: The idea is I have a flashcard. The flashcard has a picture of this. And it says, “What is this?” And on the backside of the flashcard, it says, “Eine Flasche.” And so one day, it shows up and it says, “What’s this?”, and I’m like, “Ah… eine Flasche.” And you tell it, “Okay, yeah, I got it.” And there’s a computer program that sees that and says, “Okay, well, you knew it. Let me wait four days.”
Four days later: “What’s this?”, and you’re like, “Ah… eine Flasche?” It’s like, “Okay.” Seven days later: “What’s this?”, and you say, “Ah… Flasche.” And then it’s like, “Okay.” 14 days later: “What’s this?”, and you’re like, “I don’t remember.” And then it says, “Okay, eine Flasche. Let me show this to you in four days now.”
That’s it, it’s just… it expands, it tests you, and it expands the interval. And then whenever you mess it up, it shrinks the interval.
I think it should be everywhere. Spaced repetition increases your retention, like, not just by 20% or 100%. It increases it by like 300 to 400%.
Gabe: It’s great. I mean, if you got rid of every tip here and you just, like, used spaced repetition, it would quadruple your learning speed. Everything else is kind of built on the idea that spaced repetition is… you must use it.
Anna: Why is learning from personalized content better than other forms of content?
Gabe: This is another one of our memory gates. We have actually four of them. It’s that we learn spellings of words very, very poorly. We learn sounds of words twice as well as spelling. And sounds of words are where people live when they’re trying to memorize translations. So they’re just, you know, “mognog – camera, mognog – camera,” whatever, “fényképezőgép – camera.” This is the sound level.
At the level that you start using images, now you’re thinking about concepts. That’s twice as memorable as sounds, and four times as memorable as spellings.
And then there’s one other layer underneath that. There’s a fourth level that is twice as memorable as just the images. And that’s concepts that are relevant to me, that are about my life.
And so the idea of learning, let’s say, ‘dog’, and having a picture of some random dog, that’s memorable – you’re using a picture. Good, awesome, good content. But if you learn the word ‘dog’ and you take a picture of your own dog, that will stick in your head twice as well. And you didn’t have to do any extra work.
So, personalization for me is this very, very fast route towards learning twice as fast. And twice as fast when you’re talking about a language is a big deal, like, this is not a two-week process. This is a long-term process. And if I can save myself half of the time, that’s huge. And so I try to do that anywhere I can.
And, I think, aside from just learning speed, there’s an aspect of motivation. If you’re looking through some flashcards and they’re about random things you don’t care about – you know, “The Declaration of Independence was written in this date,” and you’re like, “Ew.” “This random law in the EU looks like this.” – then you’re not going to want to go to your flashcards.
And, like, the EU example I’m not choosing randomly. It’s like most of the content out on the internet is because the EU laws have all been translated into a bunch of languages. And so people use that to learn languages. I’m like, “That’s so dry, it hurts!”
So when you’re learning flashcards, and like, “Oh, there’s my dog. And there’s my wife, and there’s my Flasche.” Yeah, like, “Look at all these things that are about me and about the things I care about.” Then you want to go back the next day, whereas if you’re just going through legal documents every day, you won’t.
So, I think, the motivation side and the learning speed for me are the two things that make personalization a no-brainer. You kind of have to do it.
Anna: Okay, let’s talk about vocabulary and how we can be smart with our vocabulary choices. Do you advocate for vocabulary lists?
Gabe: I like lists when you can get rid of them, in terms of, like, a lot of… the center of our app tends to be in this thing we call the 625-word list. And it’s the most common words in English that are very common but also very visual. So we get rid of things like and and the, but we do put in things like laptop. Even though, if you’re in an introductory English course, usually you’re like, “No, let’s learn the colors.” But actually no, like, laptop – you’re going to use that, every day. And so having lists of very high-value words, that’s great. You want to do that.
But if you go through that list, and you see laptop and you’re like, “I don’t own a laptop, no one in my friend circle uses laptops. We’re all a desktop culture. This is what we do.” Maybe I don’t need that word.
Maybe I don’t care about president. Everyone’s talking about presidents all the time, but I just don’t care about presidents. So I don’t need that word either. And so you having lists, that’s great, but anytime you see something that doesn’t feel relevant to you, get rid of it. It is not worth learning. You’ll pick it up later.
Anna: That’s a really good tip. Really good tip.
Okay, let’s come back to grammar. What’s the best way to learn grammar?
Gabe: In the same way that trying to remember random laws about the EU is not going to stick, you memorizing random things like ‘she is,’ ‘they are,’ ‘you are’ – like, this doesn’t mean anything. There’s no story there. ‘She is’ is not a story. And so our brains are going to reject that information because it’s not interesting. It’s trying to memorize a random math equation.
But the idea of, like, “She is,” you know, “excited about learning.” And I know her, and she’s my friend. And I have all these personal connections. Suddenly, now that’s at level four – that’s that thing that you really, really stick – whereas ‘she is’ is a random collection of sounds.
“She is a politician,” well that’s kind of neutral unless you know that person. And so that’s at this level three, this place where you’re like, “Yeah, I kind of remember that pretty well.”
So it all comes back to memory for me; it always is memory for me. Our brains are good at learning languages naturally. What they’re bad at is remembering lots and lots of content without a lot of time to learn.
And so, grammar for me has to be learned in the context of sentences that mean something to you, that are important. And then, as long as you learn enough examples of things, your brain will come up with the conjugations. You never took a grammar course in your native language – when you first became fluent – and yet you were able to do that.
Adults are actually better than children at building up grammar. And so, we’ve not lost any of that ability; we’ve actually gained ability over that. So we just need to pull in lots of sentences, and our brains will handle the grammar part.
That said, one of the things that adults are very good at is learning a rule and seeing how it applies to lots of things. And so for the people who are not terrified of grammar, who don’t hate that, and didn’t have a terrible time in school being like, “Oh God, they’re throwing more grammar at me.” For the people who actually got excited by grammar, you learning a rule like in English that if you put an s at the end of a word, it turns it into plural; and then you see it in a new sentence that’s personal to you, and you see it in another sentence that’s personal to you, and you just keep seeing it everywhere, it gives those sentences a little bit more pizzazz. It gives them a little more interest. And you learn faster because of the rule.
And so, for me, I like learning a lot of sentences, and then learning some grammar rules and saying, “Oh my God, I know five sentences that work with that. Let me learn a sixth one.” And then learning another rule then.
And so, for me, grammar is a later-in-the-process step that, for the people who are grammar nerds like me, for the people who are excited by language, it will be really rewarding, and it will feel personal and do something for you that is valuable. But for the people who aren’t really excited by grammar, skip it. Learn a lot of sentences; your brain will do the rest.
Anna: So why is having fun so important to learning a language?
Gabe: I feel like I’m a broken record in terms of this memory stuff, but part of every memory is the emotional part of that memory. And so if you have none of it, because this is a completely boring topic to you, and you’re just forcing yourself through it, then you have fewer associations in your brain. And so your brain is like, “Well, you gave me fewer associations. I guess you don’t want me to learn it as hard. I guess you don’t want me to hold on to this thing.”
Whereas the moment that someone’s like, “Hey, I made you this Flasche and it has, like, your company on it. Like, “Go look at the thing… And it’s insulated and it will stay cold forever. And isn’t this fun swag?” This is actually like our favorite company swag. We made lots of things, shirts, all this stuff, but, like, the bottle was the thing that everyone loved and was like, “Oh my God, this is so cool!” That excitement about this object is a part of my memory of Flasche in this case. And so it sticks better.
And so you being able to interact with people, you being able to have native speaker conversations that you’re excited about, you being able to choose vocabulary that you want to do, you being able to play games with people and say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that. That’s so funny. No, no, it’s said this way but, like, that’s a hilarious joke and I’m going to hold on to that forever.” Those are the things that make everything stick, they’re the things that make it worth doing. And they’re the things that keep you coming back day after day. Because this is a long process, and you wanting to come back tomorrow is probably the most important part of the process.
You know, we can do all these tips in terms of “Well, this speeds up your learning by 20%. This speeds it up by 300%.” But if you’re not coming back tomorrow, who cares?
Anna: Yeah, so you need to have fun. I always think of books that I’ve read and the ones I remember are the ones that either made me laugh out loud in a busy train carriage, or ones that made me sob, that I couldn’t put down until, like, two o’clock in the morning because I was just so emotionally attached to the book and I had to finish the story.
So, would you recommend that people practice speaking regularly? How important is speaking? Because I find that students who are learning English particularly don’t speak as much in the beginning. And so they get to a kind of lower intermediate level and they start working on the speaking more, but they have, you know, a lack of confidence because they haven’t done very much of it.
Gabe: Speaking is its own skill. I think sometimes people think that if they just learn enough vocabulary, speaking will come on its own. And it does a little bit.
I’ve certainly… when I learned French, my first three months I didn’t speak at all. I was just pulling in vocabulary. And then, when I was doing it using this method, all this stuff, and then three months in I started speaking and I found I could, it just didn’t feel good. And so I felt scared and it was a little stunted, but I could.
And so the vocabulary, the grammar, all this stuff is part of the process, but the speaking is its own skill. And it only gets better if you practice speaking.
And so, for me, if you have exchange partners, if you have native speakers that you can interact with, the art – like, really the game – of saying “I need to talk about this thing, but I don’t know what it’s called. So hey, can you give me the thing that you put water in?” And they say, “Oh, a bottle?” You’re like, “Yeah, the bottle. Can you give me the bottle?” That moment that I didn’t jump to my native language, I stuck in my target language, and I said, “Can you give me the thing (new word) that you put water (connected word) into (cool preposition, nice use of grammar!), now that cloud of words of thing – water – into is now connected to a completely new word: bottle.
And also, like, A) you built a new vocabulary word, but B), you just practiced the actual art of fluency, the actual skill of what it is to speak to someone. And even if they’re not a native speaker that you’re speaking to, you’re still practicing that skill.
And so, if you can stick to your target language and just kind of practice this idea of jumping around the words you don’t know, then you are practicing fluency itself. And you can’t, there’s no other way to practice it.
Anna: What would you recommend to students who say, “I just struggle to find a language partner”?
Gabe: A) You can do a lot on your own. And so the idea of starting to use things like spaced repetition and, like, pulling in vocabulary and all this stuff, like, that’s all stuff you can do on your own. This is why people build apps: it’s because it’s not always easy to find partners.
I think in terms of, you know, resources for finding partners, there are lots of things like, you know, Tandem and iTalki and things like that. There’s lots of communities where you can try to find language partners of that type. And so that is helpful.
I think you moving your standard and saying, “Hey, I don’t necessarily need a native speaker for me to practice this fluency skill.” Okay, cool, that will open up your options as well.
And I think the last piece is, if you really want that kind of interaction, this idea of “I want to have a person that I’m working with, but I don’t have either a lot of time, or I don’t have a lot of access,” the idea of trying to make sure that every minute of that you get as much as you can out of it, for me, that ends up being at least how I try to optimize that.
So, whenever I’m spending time with native speakers, whether that’s an exchange partner, or that’s a tutor that I’m paying, I actually use all of that time to get content from that interaction and put it into my flashcards.
It’s actually been the last year of… my company’s whole history has been making products around that and being like, “Let’s connect you with that person, but let’s have every minute of that pulled into flashcards automatically.” Because I think it’s really easy to have a conversation like we’re having. And then you walk away and you have three takeaways. And that’s it.
Anna: What was it? What did we do?
Gabe: What did we even talk about? Like, what happened? Like, we talked through seven tips, do you remember all of them? Like, no, we don’t have that much memory. You have to go back through. We talked about lots of things in this conversation, more than the seven tips, but can you remember them? No, you’re going to walk away with like three takeaways.
But if, you know, if someone’s listening to this podcast and all the way through – or they’re watching this video – and every minute they’re taking notes, “Oh, he said that. Oh, she said that,” and then they take those notes and they put them into flashcards, then they’ll remember every minute of this thing.
And so, if you’re paying for a tutor, and you forget everything that happened with that tutor, like, what a waste! Like that’s so much good content that showed up there that was all personal. It’s all exactly the perfect content that you would possibly want. You need to get that into flashcards if that’s going to be something that you hold on to. So that’s been a lot of our focus.
Anna: So your app does that automatically, right?
Gabe: Yeah, that’s been our focus, especially for English because there’s so many people that are at this intermediate level that can listen to a conversation like this and be okay. That we didn’t need to go slowly and say, “Okay, well, we need to, you know, do English for beginner Spanish speakers, English for beginner German speakers.” Like, we just said, “Come on in, intermediates, we’ll talk in English, you’ll stumble through if you need to, and everything you say we’re going to pull into the app.”
So many people need to learn English. And so many people don’t have really clear tools to get personalized, good content that is, like, all about their lives into some kind of app, so that they can study during the week instead of relying on either paying tons of money to a bunch of tutors so that they’re seeing a tutor an hour a day, or not having access to that content, just forgetting it. For me, that’s a tragedy. So that’s been a lot of our focus for the last year.
Anna: It’s been really insightful. And anyone watching or listening who’s interested to know more, where can we find your amazing app and products?
Gabe: So, just Google Fluent Forever – f-l-u-e-n-t, forever: f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Our website is fluent hyphen forever.com. And so that’s a big mouthful, and I tend to just be like, “Just Google it,” but fluent hyphen forever.com.
Anna: All right. I’m going to bring today’s session to a close by saying a huge thank you to Gabe for sharing all that knowledge with us. Hopefully, you found these tips useful.
Don’t forget, I have a really lovely PDF for you to download for free. All you need to do is let me know where to send it. Just click on the link below and sign up to my mailing list, and I’ll pop it in your inbox. And if you are really keen to practice your conversation or your pronunciation, I do also have products that will help you. I’ll put all the useful links in the description below. Don’t forget to give this a little like, perhaps even leave a comment, and I’ll see you in the next video.
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