Derek Sivers
Fluent Forever - by Gabriel Wyner

Fluent Forever - by Gabriel Wyner

ISBN: 0385348118
Date read: 2014-08-18
How strongly I recommend it: 7/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Forget Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and the rest. I really believe this is the best way to learn another language, by far. Using the most up-to-date techniques and insights, and a unique emphasis on getting the sounds correct first. It's not easy, but it's much more effective than any other program or guide. Highly recommended if you're serious, and ready to do it.

my notes

Three basic keys to language learning:
1. Learn pronunciation first
2. Don’t translate
3. Use spaced repetition systems

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.

Singers learn the pronunciation of languages first because we need to sing in these languages long before we have the time to learn them.

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

None of my flash cards has a word of English on them. Skip the English word and use an image instead.

Flash cards for the pronunciation rules, added a bunch of pictures for the nouns and some verbs, learned the verb conjugations, and then built up to simple definitions of more abstract concepts.

In my hour a day on the subway, I had learned three thousand words and grammar concepts.

Upon my arrival, I was to sign a paper pledging to use German as my only form of communication for seven weeks.

Without an immersion program, I suspect advanced French would take five to eight months, working for thirty to forty-five minutes per day on your own. Level 2 languages like Russian and Hebrew should be twice that, and level 3 languages like Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean should take four times as long as French.

We learn better when we’re having fun.

I spend thirty to sixty minutes a day playing on my smartphone or watching TV. I get a language out of it, I feel productive, and I have fun. What’s not to like? Let’s learn how to play.

French Language Resources:

Chinese (Mandarin) Language Resources:

Get a good grammar book now.

Books designed for classrooms are often sparse on explanations, because they expect that the teacher will be able to handle any confusion. You’ll often have more luck with a self-study book.

A frequency dictionary typically contains the most important five thousand words.

Guidebooks with CDs devoted entirely to pronunciation are wonderful resources and well worth the purchase.

Find two dictionaries: a traditional bilingual dictionary, and a monolingual dictionary which has actual definitions.

Private tutors who are extremely affordable are at

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

Five principles of memory:
• Make memories more memorable
• Maximize laziness
• Don’t review; Recall
• Wait, wait! Don’t tell me!
• Rewrite the past

“Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another.“ - Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

Cookie is memorable because it contains so many connections. I can access cookie in a thousand different ways. I will remember cookies if I read about them, hear about them, see them, smell them, or taste them. The word is unforgettable. We need to make your mjöður just as unforgettable, and we will do it by adding four types of connections: structure, sound, concept, and personal connection.

Students were willing to sit in dark rooms for five consecutive days, watching ten thousand images in a row. After the study, these students accurately identified 83 percent of the images. Our capacity for visual memory is extraordinary;

Combinations of words and pictures work even better than pictures alone.

You will remember a concept with a personal connection 50 percent more easily.

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

Study a concept until you can repeat it once without looking and then stop.

The amygdala tells the hippocampus what to keep and what to throw out. If we encounter emotionally arousing input, then the amygdala will strengthen that memory. A list of Spanish words will not give those memories much of a boost.

At the moment where your performance is judged, your brain realizes that it had better get its act in gear. As a result, every memory you recall gets a squirt of memory-boosting chemicals.

Our brains are designed to think and automatically hold on to what’s important. While running away from a tiger, we don’t think, “You need to remember this! Tigers are bad!” We simply run away, and our brain remembers for us.

Memory tests are most effective when they’re challenging. The closer you get to forgetting a word, the more ingrained it will become when you finally remember it.

Every act of recall imbues old memories with a trace of your present-day self. This trace gives those memories additional connections.

Once you’ve rewritten these memories enough times, they become unforgettable.

No one can give you a language; you have to take it for yourself. You are rewiring your own brain. To succeed, you need to actively participate. Each word in your language needs to become your word, each grammar rule your grammar rule.

Minimal pairs: pairs of words that differ by only one sound. Like thinking and sinking, SUS-pect and sus-PECT, and niece and knees. These pairs get right to the heart of the hearing problem in a language, and practicing them with feedback provides the best way to train our ears and rewire our brains. Use minimal pair testing at the beginning of your language journey.

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

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” - Theodore Roosevelt

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): Every IPA letter is not only a sound but also a set of instructions on how to make that sound.

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

Load up the Wikipedia article for your language.

Almost every consonant is a combination of three pieces of information:
• Where’s your tongue?
• What’s your tongue doing there?
• Are your vocal cords doing anything?

Vowels are a combination of two:
• Where’s your tongue?
• Are your lips in a circle?
That’s it, for the most part.

Say these: “bee fee thee see she ye key he”. Every successive word goes further back into your mouth. These are eight of the eleven possible locations for your tongue and lips.

Say these: “toe no so low row”. They’re all at the same location (location S). For each word, you’re changing how and whether you allow air to pass around your tongue.

T type (a sudden pop of air):
Here you’re preventing air from passing through until you’ve built up so much pressure that the air pops through in a sudden rush
T, d, p, b, k, and g

N type (air through the nose):
N and m are both in this group.

S type:
allowing a little bit of space for air to pass over your tongue
from the rustling, hushing sounds of f, s, sh, h, and th as in thigh, to the buzzing sounds of v, z, and th as in thy.

L type:
You’re preventing air from escaping out the front, but you’re allowing it to pass freely over the sides of your tongue. We only have one in English: l.

R type:
not obstructing the flow of air at all, but you’re raising your tongue just enough to cause a change in the sound.
r, w, and y, and they’re more like vowels than consonants (r is basically the ur in turkey, w is basically the oo in hoot, and y is basically the ee in see).

Trilled type:
Your tongue moves up to location S, but instead of allowing the air to hiss through, it flaps against the roof of your mouth. If, instead, you let your uvula flap against the back of your tongue, you’ll get the French r. Yay.
The Spanish double r resides here (as in carro [car]).

Tap type:
Spanish r (as in caro): very similar to an extremely short d.

when you say a vowel, but your tongue needs to be in a very precise position in order to sound right.

Your tongue can go up, down, forward and back.
Say “ee,” “eh,” “ah,” and you’ll feel your tongue move from high (“ee”) to medium (“eh”) to low (“ah”) in your mouth.

Learn each new word with your fancy new accent. when we learn an accent, we are taking on the soul of that language.

Ignore all the vocabulary and grammar in your book and jump to each pronunciation section.


How to Get Ridiculous Words into Your Mouth:

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

Kids learn languages without first learning to read. Why can’t adults? We can, but kids learn languages by listening and watching adults for thousands of hours.

The written word, on the other hand, is plentiful and free. Use a combination of recordings and a phonetic alphabet. Then stop with the recordings and rely on the phonetic alphabet.

Phase out the phonetic alphabet once you're feeling (over)confident about your pronunciation.

A phonetic alphabet helps you to see and hear whenever a sound rule shows up, and it gives you one more way to look at the same information.

The more you can learn about something, the easier time you’ll have mastering it. The more you do, the less work it will be.

(learning math:) They were trying to learn each piece in isolation - an extremely difficult proposition. It was so much easier if you could see how all the pieces interrelated.

I didn’t have to memorize formulae; they were just examples of something much, much larger.

By adding more pieces to learn, you’re making your job much easier. You’re learning faster, which means less work over time.

I’m creating trainers: These trainers are cheaper than a pronunciation guidebook, and they should do a much better (and faster) job than the standard route. If you use these, you won’t need to make any flash cards now; just download them, install them, and within a few weeks, you’ll have pronunciation mastered.
Free, native-speaker recordings. Using Anki, put recordings from Forvo into your flash cards.
Free recordings of sentences

My pronunciation youtube series
can get you in touch with native speakers.

You’re seventy-nine times more likely to talk about your mother than your niece. Why not learn mother first and niece later? Grammar books and language classes don’t follow this principle, in part because it’s easy to plan lessons around themes like “family”. You’ll learn words for apricots and peaches when your time would be much better spent learning about laptops, medicine, and energy.

With only a thousand words, you’ll recognize nearly 75 percent of what you read.

It’s easy to manage a sentence like “My dog chased a cat up a tree” when you already know dogs, cats, chasing, and trees. You’ll know the players and actions in your stories, and grammar will simply tell you who’s chasing whom.

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” - Charles Schaefer

Use Small Dictionaries. A big dictionary might give you ten synonyms for “house.” You only need one right now. Lonely Planet Phrasebooks and glossaries at the end of grammar books are great resources, because they only contain the most basic words.

The greatest illustrated book ever written: Google Images. You can search for some obscure word - aiguillage - and get 160,000 examples of the word in context. It’s an effectively unlimited source of tiny, illustrated stories about every word you need to learn. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page. There you’ll see the link Switch to Basic Version. Every image will now show up with its corresponding caption.

Google Images will tell you a much more nuanced (and weird) story. Spend a few seconds looking for any memory about your word that comes to mind.

To memorize the genders, imagine all of the masculine nouns exploding. Feminine nouns should catch fire. Neuter items should shatter like glass. Make your images as vivid as you can stomach. See how many of these images stick.

We’re really good at remembering when those images are violent, sexual, funny, or any combination of the three.

You’ll need two to three particularly vivid verbs. Do this automatically with every new word, and gender will cease being a problem from then on.

Imagine each of your nouns performing that action.

The key moments occur in the beginning, when you create those flash cards. In those moments, you’re taking new words and connecting them to as many images, thoughts, and memories as you can find. Flash cards are just a practical souvenir of that experience. Only use them to deepen memories you’ve already formed.

Right from the beginning, your masculine nouns should be different from your feminine nouns,

You can probably find a professional translation of the 625 words on my website. Go to

I like to use relatively violent verbs for noun genders; my nouns rarely survive shattering, exploding, melting, burning, or cracking. Sexual verbs are classic choices

Go through the 625 list and separate the words into three categories:
1. Words you know
2. Words you kind of know
3. New words

Skip all the words in category 1.
For words in category 2, use the Refresher Track
For words in category 3, follow the instructions in the Gallery as if you were a beginner.

Break down the most complex of grammatical constructions into easy-to-learn pieces, and memorize those pieces using your SRS.

The written language is, in fact, our first foreign language - a dialect of our native tongue.

Every language has a particular developmental order, which children and second language learners alike will inevitably follow on their way to fluency.

If we had Spanish-speaking adults talking to us for twelve to sixteen hours a day for six years, we would probably speak Spanish at least as well as your average Spanish-speaking six-year old.

If we stop comparing kids with thousands of hours of language exposure to adults with hundreds of hours, we’ll see a surprising trend: on average, adults learn languages faster than kids do.

Every sentence you understand brings you closer to fluency.

Use your grammar book as a quick guided tour through your language. You’ll read the explanations, learn an example or two, and skip over the (often monotonous) drills and exercises. The examples you learn will help you remember each grammar rule, and they’ll serve as comprehensible input at the same time.

Just pick out an example or two that you find particularly interesting, make a flash card for them, and poof, you’ll have that grammar rule memorized forever.

Get an overview of the entire grammatical system of your new language. Find a good source of simple, clear sentences with translations and explanations.

Take your first sentences out of your grammar book. That way, your sentences can do double duty, teaching you every grammar rule consciously while your language machine works in the background, piecing together an automatic, intuitive understanding of grammar that will rapidly bring you to fluency.

Grammar is amazing in its simplicity. All of grammar’s infinite possibilities are the product of three basic operations: we add words (You like it Do you like it?), we change their forms (I eat I ate), and we change their order (This is nice Is this nice?). That’s it.

To learn a new grammatical form, all you have to do is find an example from your grammar book, understand the gist of the story in that example, and ask yourself three questions:
• Do you see any new words here?
• Do you see any new word forms here?
• Is the word order surprising to you?

Then you’ll make flash cards for any information you’d like to learn:

For functional words like of and what, these words don’t mean much outside of their contexts. Use an example sentence into I’d like a glass _____ water, which is a thousand times more useful than a clunky dictionary definition.

While your grammar book is busy explaining the past tense of eat (She ate her sister’s birthday cake), you’re learning everything that sentence has to offer - where to put her, how sister turns into sister’s, and so on.

This turns into a fun game - it’s like a race with your grammar book, to see whether you’ll completely master a topic before your grammar book even talks about it.

First things first: there’s no need to memorize verb conjugation.

The only input that can feed our language machines is comprehensible input. We need stories.

Use that declension table to quickly generate a bunch of variations on whatever examples you find in your textbook.

If you’ve already learned to use a verb like steal, you’re going to have a much easier time learning all three forms of a similar verb - choose/chose/chosen - all at once.

You’re not really remembering sixty-five different verb forms at once; you’re just remembering that this verb follows the pattern of some other, more familiar verb.

Create mnemonic images that meant “this verb follows the same pattern as teach / taught / had taught”

Attach these images to every new word that follows an old pattern.

Attach multiple mnemonic images to single words, images that can work with verbs and adjectives.

The person-action-object (PAO) system, a person (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an action (explodes), and an object (a dog).

If you want to learn the ten ways to make German plural nouns, for example, you can choose ten people to represent them.

Make a couple of flash cards for each of your mnemonic images.

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

Write about whatever you want to learn. You don’t need to craft a perfect essay, and in fact, you’ll learn more if you write quickly and mess up a few times.

Learn how a native speaker would express the same ideas on is one of the best

Based upon your own writing and thoughts, so it’s much more memorable than anything you could find in a grammar book.

Put every correction you receive into your flash cards.

Rely upon a single skill: the ability to break a sentence down into tiny pieces.

Use this skill over and over until you’ve mastered the grammar and vocabulary.

Remember every tiny detail about every sentence you choose.

Any time the position of a word, the form of a word, or the word itself surprises you, then learn it. But if you’re not surprised by it, then skip it and move on

Any time you have a question - “How do I say x?” “Can I do y?” - just write out a few sentences, submit them for corrections, and get your answers. If you have absolutely no idea how to write something, use Google Translate ( to get yourself in the ballpark.19 Then submit your sentences for corrections and see what the native speakers say.

Google Images can also produce illustrated examples for any grammatical construction. Need a good story for French’s avait fait (he / she / it had done)? Search for “avait fait” and you’ll find 1.6 million different examples of that construction

Google Images is a wonderful (and fast) way to find good example sentences for your words.

A good monolingual dictionary is an extraordinary source of input.

Every time you read a new definition, you automatically learn a few new words and a bunch of grammar.

A couple chapters back, we were avoiding synonyms. Now we can embrace them, because we can use dictionaries to tell us the differences between our policemen (formal) and our cops (informal).

In the last chapter, I suggested that you skip any tricky words and learn them later. Now, with the help of a monolingual dictionary, there’s nothing you can’t learn.

Most of the words we know are rarely, if ever, spoken aloud. When’s the last time you said “excavate”? There’s only one feasible source left: as it turns out, we learn the vast majority of our words through reading.

Practically speaking, we’ll automatically learn an unknown word 10 percent of the time we encounter it.

Read as much as you can, as quickly as possible. Find a familiar story - a translation of something you’ve already read or a book that’s been turned into a movie you’ve seen - and read it along with an audiobook. The audiobook will carry you along and help you read faster than you otherwise would. You won’t have the time to get bogged down with unknown words, and you’ll pick up the rhythm of the spoken language.

It’s not always important to know whether a wizard’s wand is made of yew or alder; sometimes you just need to know what that wizard did. This is yet another skill that will serve you in the future; you need the ability to skip over holes in your vocabulary.

Learn to let go of the words you don’t understand.

If you want to understand real-world speech, watch movies and television. You can see precisely what they’re doing while they speak. These visual clues can help you understand what you’re hearing.

Don’t use subtitles in English or your target language. when subtitles are present, we don’t improve at listening.

TV series are easier than films. Choose your first shows very carefully by reading about those shows ahead of time on Wikipedia. Choose whatever you like, as long as it’s not comedy. 24 Heures Chrono (the French dub of 24) did wonders for my French.

Video-chat with a native speaker: Verbling, Live Mocha, and italki. The real challenge is figuring out what to talk about once you’ve made your introductions. If you’re aiming for efficiency, then pull out a word frequency list and discuss every word you don’t know in order.

Take notes on everything you learn.

Middlebury College in Vermont: you speak exclusively in your target language for seven to eight weeks.

Flash card reviews are only fun when you’re learning new things at the same time. So make sure you always have something new to learn - even just a couple of new words a day.

Learning a language makes it harder to think. When you learn French, you effectively implant a little Frenchman in your head who never shuts up.

You necessarily learn to muffle and ignore your native language. You learn to focus in the face of constant linguistic distraction, and as a result, your brain gets better at focusing in general.

A foreign language can feel like a mask. It’s a game of make-believe. You’re playing the role of Some French Guy. You occasionally catch yourself saying things you never would have said in English. After all, it’s not really you; it’s just a game. But that’s not quite true. It is you. And you can only meet that side of yourself in a foreign language.

You’re looking for the mysteries hidden beneath the surface of every word and grammar rule. What makes a word like gato different from cat? How can you use German grammar to think in a completely new way?

Many simple cards are better than a few complex cards. Always ask for one correct answer at a time.

You’ll want each word to bring out an explosion of associations: sounds, spellings, multiple definitions, grammatical features, memories, and emotions. You’ll build these associations fastest if you tackle them one flash card at a time.

What’s a baby chèvre called? (a chevreau); What’s a chevreau turn into when it grows up? (a chèvre).

Essential facts (you need to remember these!):
• Picture: Can you remember what this word means? What’s it look like?
• Pronunciation: Can you say this word out loud?

You get a bonus point whenever you add a nonessential connection to a word.

Any personal connections with this word?

Any other (Hungarian) words that start with the same sound or spelling?

Words that relate to this word in meaning?

Pronunciation trainers save you an enormous amount of time, because they make the rest of your language much easier to remember. Get a trainer off of my website

Once you can hear the differences between each of the sounds, focus on every new sound that doesn’t seem to agree with your tongue. This will take you three to eight days to learn at thirty minutes a day.

Three chunks of information for each sound: What’s this sound? What is it like? How do I spell this sound? What’s an example word for this sound?

You’ll need example words for every spelling/sound combination.

Card Type 1:
What does this spelling sound like? (e.g., ä as in German’s Lächeln [smile] sounds like [recording]/lɛçln)

Card Type 2:
How do you spell this example word? (e.g., [recording of Lächeln (smile)]/lɛçln is spelled L-ä-c-h-e-l-n)

Bonus points if you can pronounce the whole word rather than just the sound in the middle of it

Example Word: Can you think of any other word that uses this sound? Can you remember how it’s spelled, how it’s pronounced, or what it means?

Use a recording of the entire example word (Lächeln) rather than the individual sound (“eh”).

For Chinese, you should learn your sounds in Pinyin

In Japanese, you should do this in Hiragana and Katakana

Learn thirty flash cards a day. Once you’ve done this for a week or two, you’ll be ready to move on to vocabulary.

Here’s how you’ll learn those 625 words:

You’ll have 625–1875 cards, which will take you one to three months to learn with your SRS (or less time, if you review for more than thirty minutes a day).

Connect four or five chunks of information for every word in your new language:
Picture - the Spot the Differences Game:
Personal Connection - the Memory Game:
Gender - the Mnemonic Imagery Game

Automate your web searches, so you can type in your word once and it automatically searches as many websites as you want at the same time. I usually search a bilingual dictionary, a monolingual dictionary, Google Images inside of Google Translate, and for each word, and it only takes a single mouse click. You can find a guide to setting this up (it only takes a few minutes) at

Form deep, multisensory experiences with each word you learn. (one to three minutes per word)

Card Type 1: What’s this word mean?
Card Type 2: What’s the word for this image?
Card Type 3: How do you spell this word?

Special Scenarios:

Multiple definitions: You can either put the main definition on the back side, or you can put multiple definitions there (and if you remember any definition, then mark it as correct). You’ll tend to remember one definition best, which then becomes the anchor point for new definitions. (Chocolate bars use the same word as normal bars!)

For your first 625 words, don’t learn synonyms. You don’t need them.

If you encounter a few different translations for a word you want to know, pick your favorite and move on.

You may learn one word - dish - and find that your grammar book uses a synonym - plate - instead. Make it with both words or with your favorite word. Remember that any correct answer (plate or dish) is correct; you don’t need to sit there and list synonyms for your pictures.

Words with easily confounded images: add a personal note or you can add a German clue using words from your 625. Word for “border” under a picture of a beach to get “coastline.”

Cards for Chapter 5:

Play with sentences. You’ll learn how to use them to learn abstract words, to learn how words change in different contexts, and to learn the ways that word order affects meaning. And you’ll do it all without a trace of English.

Like a portable language immersion program that you’ve built yourself.

There are three main categories of cards here: new words, word forms, and word orders.

As soon as you learn where to stick a verb in one sentence, you’ll get a feel for where it belongs in almost every vaguely similar sentence. You don’t need to learn anything twice. This puts you on a constant quest for new, surprising constructions to learn. (the images are smaller and easier to copy/paste).

What are some good pictures for this sentence? Can you use a few different pictures to help you remember the meanings of each individual word?

Figure out how many different things you can teach yourself with one sentence

We’ll learn the word in.
Card Type 1: Which word fits in the blank? (e.g., “He lives __ New York City” → in, pronounced in)
Card Type 2: What’s a sentence/phrase that includes this word? (e.g., in → “He lives in New York City.”)
Card Type 3: Which word fits into this other blank? (e.g., The Cat __ the Hat → in, pronounced in)
Card Type 4: How do you spell this word? (e.g., Pronounced in, fits into “He lives __ New York City” → i-n)

We’ll learn the word form lives.
Card Type 1: Which word fits in the blank? “He __ in New York City” [to live] (e.g., lives, pronounced 1ivz)
Card Type 2: What’s a sentence with the word lives? What’s the base word form? (e.g., “He lives in New York City.” [to live])
Card Type 3: Which word fits into this other blank? “No one __ forever” [to live]? (e.g., “No one lives forever.”)
Card Type 4: How do you spell this word? (e.g., Pronounced 1ivz, fits into “He __ in New York City” → l-i-v-e-s)

Word Order: We’ll learn where to put the word He.
Card Type 1: Where do you put He in “Lives in New York City”? (e.g., “He lives in New York City.”)

What do you do with a dialogue like this? Waiter: Here’s your coffee! Customer: Thank you. Waiter: You’re welcome. Turn a short phrase into several flash cards instead of two.

Words like honest or fascinating - you need to learn how to add definitions. A good example sentence or two; a good, concise definition; and a picture.

Look for an example sentence that includes a few words you know already and a few words you don’t. That way, you’ll pick up a few new words passively.

Using Google Images to find example sentences, they already come with pictures.

Expect to spend around two to three minutes per word.

Card Type 4: How do you spell this word? (e.g., Pronounced anist, fits into “He was an __ man” → h-o-n-e-s-t)

Your First 625: download both of these lists online at

You don’t yet need him, her, his, their. How do you learn these without translations? Use pictures of people pointing at themselves/each other.

Learn your language’s word for “verb” and add it to any verb that could masquerade as a noun (to kiss vs. a kiss).