This time, I’m looking at Fluent Forever, a book by Gabriel Wyner, who was an opera singer before he became a polyglot and language hacker.
Like the first two I reviewed, this book is aimed at adults who are thinking about learning a foreign language. And again, I’m going to be reversing the point of view and looking at how it can be applied to teaching English as a foreign language.
So let’s take a look at the aspects of this book that are useful for ESL teachers.
1. Avoiding Broken Words
Wyner argues that pronunciation should be learned at the beginning of any language study and I completely agree. The written word needs to be linked to the pronunciation of that word. Teach your students how to say each new vocabulary word so that when they see it on the page, it’s not just indecipherable symbols, it’s a speakable word. It’s difficult to remember words that you don’t know how to pronounce.
Maintaining the connection between pronunciation and reading also helps the learner avoid broken words, which is a nice phrase I learned from the book. The example given by Wyner is a woman in a French class who doesn’t realize that the guy that everyone is calling “day cart” and the guy she keeps reading about named “dez cartez” are the same person (Descartes). If learners just acquire language through printed text (common for many adult learners), then they will have many more of these broken words.
2. Use Minimal Pairs to Get the Baby Brain Back
There are about 800 phonemes floating around in the languages of the world and babies have the ability to pronounce all of them. However, most languages only have about 40 (with some outliers) and between six months and a year, children whittle that 800 down to the ~40 that their mother language uses. Check it out:
If your student’s set of phonemes doesn’t include a phoneme of English, you’re going to need to re-train their brain.
The best way to do this is with minimal pairs, which Wyner suggests. I use minimal pairs all the time when I address problematic phonemes (for example /p/ for Arabic speakers or /??/ for speakers of most everything else). Wyner references this study, which shows the incredibly positive effects of minimal pair training on perception of /l/ and /r/ by Japanese learners of English.
3. Teach IPA and How to Make Sounds
Even when I teach low level English learners, I teach the IPA symbols for vowel sounds. There are only 5 (or 6, including Y) vowel letters, but 14-20ish (depending on accent) vowel sounds. IPA symbols help learners figure this mess out.
Wyner advises that language learners do the same thing. He also notes that technical jargon isn’t important – you don’t need to know what a “voiceless labiodental fricative” is, and your students don’t either. You just need to teach your students the words “lip,” “tongue,” “teeth,” and “voice.” So then “voiceless labiodental fricative” becomes “Lip touches teeth. No voice. Air goes out. Fffffffff”
4. Feed Your Students’ Brains with Interesting Comprehensible Input to Teach Grammar
Comprehensible input is nothing new for language teachers. Everyone knows that it’s necessary to help students learn. But Wyner makes a good point about what kind of comprehensible input students should get, especially when learning grammar: it should be interesting and applicable to their lives.
Wyner argues that many grammar books good at showing the grammar patterns clearly, but poor at making them stick. He says that language learners should look at just a few examples of a grammar rule. Then they should go out into the “real world” and get some comprehensible input in which they can notice that grammar rule, thereby learning it inductively.
Wyner’s point is that the exercises in grammar books are often not very interesting – he mentions filling out conjugation tables: “I sit,” “You sit,” “She sits,” etc. However, there are several grammar books with much more interesting sentences than these. There are also graded readers created specifically for ESL students. These types of interesting comprehensible input are already available for ESL teachers. Find good material and make use of them.
5. Practice Listening With TV and Movies – No One Understands Lyrics and News is Hard
Wyner suggests watching TV and movies that you already know the plot to. Or if you don’t, you can look it up on Wikipedia. This way, your brain knows the story and just has to fill in the words. He says to not use subtitles – if you do, then your brain just starts reading the story and doesn’t pay attention to what’s being spoken.
Popular song lyrics aren’t recommended as good comprehensible input since even native speakers often can’t comprehend them. News is often super quick and difficult to follow. These types of listening input shouldn’t be ruled out completely by ESL teachers, but I agree that they’re not as useful, especially for lower level students.
One way to incorporate TV and movie listening into your classes is to require your students to submit a listening log every week. You might ask them to write down how long they listened for, what the content of the show/movie was, some vocab they learned, etc. Almost all successful language learners I’ve met have used TV and movies to improve their listening.
6. Self-directed writing
A lot of this book talks about how people should customize their vocabularies. Wyner recommends learning about the first 1,000 words in a language, which allows you to understand about 70% of most languages. After that, you should focus on the subject you personally are more likely to encounter.
One way to learn that vocabulary is by writing about things that interest you. As you’re writing, you’ll likely have to find new vocabulary within the field that you’re writing about to express what you want to say.
I encourage my students to write about their lives, which is not revolutionary as far as writing exercises go. But I also make it more specific: most of my students are planning to enter US colleges, so I require them to write about their expected field of study. This forces them to encounter words that they are going to use in the near future when they enter university classes.
The Rest of the Book
Flash Cards? Eh… Not for Me
This is one part of the book that didn’t get me thrilled.
Before the appendices that take up just a little under half the book, Wyner writes:
This book is about many things: language, the human brain, the learning process, the essence of words. But when you get down to brass tacks, it’s about learning languages with flash cards.
The next 64 pages are all information about how to create flash cards. Obviously, they’re not just quick and easy flashcards; they’re flash cards that are personalized and detailed. And that’s why they work! The more work you put into making them and personalizing them, the more they’re going to help you. But it’s a lot of buy in for students. I’ve never had much success using flashcards consistently in my classes (Please let me know if you have!)
And Why You SHOULD Read This Book
Like Becoming Fluent, the research is in there: Wyner references a huge range of studies involving everything from rat mazes to popcorn advertisements. And, believe it or not, they’re all connected to memorization and language learning. Memory maven Ebbinghaus from Becoming Fluent also makes an appearance.
And not only is this book well-researched, it’s also fun; Wyner is entertaining. There are (relevant) quotes from sources as diverse as The Matrix , Monty Python, and Umberto Eco at the beginning of chapters. He tantalizes the reader with the Icelandic word “mj????ur” for several pages while using it to make several points about memory in relation to foreign language vocabulary. His writing includes jokes and anecdotes that contribute to his lessons and never comes off as too corny or distracting.
And this book really is practical for self-studying language learners. He provides websites and apps for flashcard-making and connecting with native speakers and editors. There’s also tons of useful stuff on his website: fluent-forever.com
Out of the three Fluent books I’ve read recently, this is the one I’d recommend to both teachers and learners of language. It’s a very fun, interesting read on a topic I’m crazy about: language learning.
Thanks for reading.