[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Kevin Kruse: Imagine if you could become fluent in any language, even think in a new language faster than ever before. Hello, everyone. I'm Kevin Kruse and welcome to The LEADx Leadership Show. I'm delighted to have you. We try to make you just a little bit better every single day. Well, actually, you've got to make yourself better. We're just here to help.
Now, today on the show, we're going to be talking with a literal genius of foreign languages. We're going to discuss his secrets to creating a massively successful Kickstarter campaign, how learning a new language delays Alzheimer's and why memorization is bad for learning a new foreign language. It's the way I always tried to do it.
Our guest today invented a whole new way of learning foreign languages. He reached fluency in French in five months. Russian took him 10 months. Today, he speaks a total of six languages fluently. He thinks in foreign languages and he's still learning more. He's currently got a Kickstarter campaign for a new app and has become the most successful app in campaign history for Kickstarter. His book is called Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. Our guest is Gabriel Wyner. Gabe, welcome to the show
Gabriel Wyner: Thanks for having me.
Kruse: Now, we have a tradition on The LEADx Show. We always ask our guest the same first question and we're hoping that you're going to tell us a story about a time when you failed at something and what you'd learn from it? Because I like to learn from other people's failures.
Wyner: I have a good one for this. The first draft of my book. I was doing my book in 2012, I believe, and I turned in the first draft and I heard nothing back from my editor, from my agent, for about a month and a half. I figured, “Okay. Well, I guess no news is maybe good news.” I kept writing. Eventually I got back this note from my editor, four pages long and basically said, “If you write like this, I'm canceling your contract.” It wasn't just mean. Actually, it wasn't particularly mean. It was just brutally honest. He was like, “You're doing everything wrong and by everything wrong I mean these following three pages are problems.”
Wyner: Just went line by line and was like, “This is terrible. This is terrible. This is terrible. Here's why it's terrible.” He said, “We should probably talk on the phone.” We talked on the phone and looking back at it now, those chapters were terrible and they were terrible because the start of my method of how to learn languages is learning pronunciation and I didn't have a good approach for the average person for that, and so I just launched into this description and it was this super wonky terrible thing.
He was like, “Where's the narrative here? Where's anything that anyone would actually want to read? Please never write this again.” He showed me this book that he had edited called Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs, about the art of arguing, that the first draft apparently started much like mine. It was like, “Mimesis is the Greek word for mimicking your argument.”
It ended up being this super charming book about argument, but it was basically about how this guys' kids always win arguments against him. Like, from the very first page you're like, “Oh, here is my new, super nerdy friend.” Like, this guy totally is this argumentation nerd, and he loves it, and he's just telling me stories about his life. In the sidebar, you'd have this discussion about his kid just destroying him in an argument, and then you have a little sidebar thing that said, “Mimesis is the technique my kid just used. It's the Greek thing.”
Like, the book it has a voice. It has like, this is a person that's speaking to you and you like him. It's just someone being honest.
Kruse: But there's so many possible lessons from this story, Gabe. Is it the lesson of having a good editor, the lesson of how to write an accessible book? Like, what was your takeaway?
Wyner: I mean, well for one, I panicked, but the other thing I did was I learned how to write. I mean, I took that lesson in terms of how to write … Like, what the point is of the book of this type, which is you just put yourself out there, you become a friend to the reader. Then, I guess the other half was that I needed to learn how to do English style and since everything I did up to that point was based on these flashcard techniques, I got a book on English style called Style Lessons on Clarity and Grace that has A sentences and B sentences. A was good, B was bad, same information in both, and I memorized the whole book using flashcards. By the end of it, I could write really good English.
Kruse: Give us the name of that book, 'cause I think myself and a bunch of others are going to go out and get it.
Wyner: Oh, it's a phenomenal book. Style Lessons on Clarity and Grace.
Kruse: Now Gabe, you had no idea of this before you told that story, but yesterday I turned in my first draft manuscript to my editor.
Wyner: Good luck.
Kruse: Yeah. It's funny. It was due September 1st, and so I was a month late which wasn't great, and he had been bugging me the week before like, “Hey, what's going on? Where's your manuscript?” I'm like, “Okay, okay, okay. I'll give it you on Monday.” I send it off to him on Monday, and I haven't heard anything. I'm sure it's fine, I'm sure he's getting to it, but you triggered some emotion in me with your story, because I'm thinking, “You know what? What if it's not fine, and I'm going to hear from him in a month?”
Wyner: Well, I mean, editors have a vested interest in this thing eventually being good, as opposed to simply canceling a contract, so there's that at least.
Kruse: That's right, that's right. So, the other question I always like to ask our guests upfront is you've had a very interesting career. I mean, what advice would you give to a young professional out there who she really wants to make her way, she wants to stand out and get ahead, whether that's doing her own thing or in a larger organization? What kind of career advice would you give her?
Wyner: I guess this one's trite in some sense, but persistence is a thing that is like it's an important thing. I guess what I mean by that is I remember I started becoming really passionate about this language learning stuff, and I started writing about it, and I had this article, it had some traction with people and I thought, “This would be good on a really big blog.” I submitted it to LifeHacker.com and nothing happened. Then, I submitted it again and then nothing happened.
I think it would be really easy to stop there, but I was just like, “No, this is good. I know this is good.” I just kept going down the list of authors, and eventually, I got to like number six and number six was like, “Oh, yeah. This is good. I'll publish it tomorrow.”
Wyner: I mean, I got a publisher offer two hours after that thing got published. It would have been really easy to stop.
Kruse: You literally went through five no’s before you got to the yes to publish the article.
Wyner: I didn't even get no’s. I got no response.
Wyner: Yeah. I think that's a thing that exists where it's like you can keep doing something and eventually maybe it will work. I guess they have a sort of thing of like crazy is you keep doing the thing that doesn't work, but switch the email address it should be better.
Kruse: You mentioned, I mentioned when I read your bio at the beginning of the show, you've got this incredible love of languages and when did that begin?
Wyner: I think I really began in 2004. I went to a German immersion program in Middlebury, Vermont, and they're super intense insane programs. You sign a contract that says if I speak one word that's not German this summer I get kicked out.
Wyner: They're nuts, and they're great, and I didn't speak any German going in, so I really didn't know anything going in. I found by the end of that summer that I was thinking in German, and I was able to think in an entirely new way, and express myself in an entirely new way, and it was just spectacularly cool. I didn't realize that I was capable of doing this thing, and then you go to a program that forces you to do it, and suddenly you can do it. So, I would say that that's where it really began.
Kruse: Did you say this happened over one summer?
Wyner: Yeah. I did seven weeks at this program, and it's sort of universal. I mean, if you do a program like this, you leave it being able to speak a language. I wouldn't call that fluency. The nice thing about the Europeans is they have a really clear framework of exactly what level are you in a particular language. A0, A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. I landed at a B1 level by the end of the summer, which meant I could hold conversations and be comfortable in this thing.
Then, I went back the following summer, did seven more weeks, and by the end, I was C1, which is like a solid fluency.
Wyner: But those immersion programs are phenomenal.
Kruse: Even after the first round, while you said you weren't quite fluent, I mean, it's way beyond tourist German, for example.
Wyner: Oh sure. Yeah, no. You're dreaming in German, honestly, by the end of the second or third week. They're stupid dreams. You're like, “This is blue. That is blue,” but still, you're dreaming and you're talking a language, that's cool.
Kruse: That is very cool. That was very cool. Now, in your failure story, you actually were talking about your book “Fluent Forever,” so tell us more about it 'cause obviously you and your editor got it into great shape. Tell us about the final product.
Wyner: The final product is actually, I'm pretty happy with it. It's a story. I mean, it's sort of a story of memory in some sense. It's how the human brain takes in information. That ends up being the main barrier when people want to learn languages, it ends up being memory, as opposed to anything else. Some people think, “Oh no, it's grammar” or, “It's pronunciation.” All those things are almost beside the point. The main issue is can you retain the things that you looked at today in a month? If you can, then you're going to succeed at this thing, and if you can't, then you won't.
There's a lot of things that really people run into where they try to memorize translations and your brain is actively trying to forget translations. It has really good structures for getting rid of that kind of information because as far as your brain's concerned, translations are garbage. They're just stuff that you're reading.
Basically, as you go through and you look at how we store information, you start realizing like why a lot of standard approaches to language learning fight that. So, if you stop fighting that, you really go and grapple with that problem, you find a method that really builds on itself, and allows you to improve every day to the point where you're actually reaching fluency in a short amount of time.
Kruse: So, tell our listeners. I mean, it's not the kind of book where it's like, “Learn German in four weeks with this book.” It's not about one language, but reading “Fluent Forever” will help you to learn any language faster, better.
Wyner: Yes. I mean, it's basically understanding what the problem is in front of you, and then giving some suggestions about, “Okay, well here's the problem. Now you get why it's a problem, so here's a way that you can grapple with that. Here's a way that you can actually get around this problem and fix it based upon what we know about the human brain and also based upon my experiences.” I mean, “Fluent Forever” was a … Like, the chance to write the book was a two-year opportunity for me to research why my methods worked. I found my methods out of trial and error.
I mean, I was just trying to find something that would get me something through these languages, and I found something that worked way better than I had expected, started playing with it, and teaching people about it, and teaching people how to use it. I found this thing that was really quite polished and worked quite well, and didn't know how it worked. Then, the book was the opportunity for me to really research, “What's going on here? Why is this working so well?” And then tell that story.
Kruse: You started, you mentioned the article, the article led to the book, and the book has actually led now, you're working on the “Fluent Forever” app. You have a Kickstarter campaign which is already, it's not done yet, it's already become the most successful app campaign in the history of Kickstarter, right?
Wyner: Yes, that is true, yeah.
Kruse: So you've raised I think it's about $400,000, as of this interview. What's your goal?
Wyner: Personally, I'm aiming at trying to get to around $850,000. That's about when we have enough money to finance creating resources for every single language. You can't actually make resources for every single language. What I'm aiming for is a structure where you can really easily create your own resources with the help of a tutor, and then share those resources with everyone else studying that same language. Which means that in short order, once you even have three or four people who are really going into this and learning a language, suddenly you have four people worth of resources that you can go into and vote them up and vote them down, and have a means of earning a language even without a tutor.
Kruse: This sounds incredible. If with the basic of the app, and will you launch it with the, “Hey, here's how to learn Spanish and it's got these other features that would let you put in your own language learning?” How does that work?
Wyner: We have languages that we're supporting completely. That would be I think we're supporting around 10 languages if we started knocking through all of our stretch goals. So that's Spanish, Italian, French, the romance set. Assuming we get to our next stretch goal coming pretty soon, that's going to be Portuguese too in that set. Dutch, German, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese. So, for those languages, we're providing a full suite of everything.
Like, there's tools for learning pronunciation that I've been working on for the last three and a half years, and work phenomenally well. Sort of the start of the app, and then there's the 625 words with three sentences associated with each one of those words. It's walking you through this language on a vocabulary level of saying, “Here's a word you should learn first, but here's a sentence you should learn it in, and here's how to take in all of the grammar that's in that sentence and get that into your head in a permanent manner, or a long-term manner.”
As you get through this vocabulary list, by the end of it, you are able to think in this language. Not just kind of thing. To actually think in this language, and form thoughts. Really by the end of this 625-word list, you have a vocabulary of around 2000 words, of the most viable, useful words of how to put stories together. You're already at a point where you're speaking at an intermediate level, thinking at an intermediate level, and at that point you can start branching off and saying, “Well, I want to go back into those words, learn more sentences,” or, “I want to learn my own sentences and go off path.”
To that end, everyone who's using this app is, if they're adding their own sentences, those sentences become community property that we are going to have professionally proofread, and then professionally recorded, so you can start having this gigantic database of sentences to choose from and stick into your head.
Kruse: Wow. Now, I think, I'm 50 years old and I think I remember growing up in the popular language things was like Berlitz and it was probably cassette tapes or something I first encountered. Then, CDs and things. These days, I think what I heard about most often is probably the app Duolingo. What do you think of Duolingo and if someone had to contrast what they're doing versus what the “Fluent Forever” app is going to do, how would you describe that?
Wyner: Duolingo is doing some things really, really well, which is to make the language learning process a fun game. They're gamification stuff has been really solid. One of the things, though, is their product is translation. The thing that they're actually, the reason that they're able to do this for free is because they're providing translation services by their users. They're selling translation to businesses.
So, one of the things that the users are always doing is translating, which is really hard, and is intrinsically limited, because the thing that you're trying to do when you're actually trying to learn to think in a language and learn to speak it and reach fluency is you're trying to not translate. You're trying to think about words in the context of that language. When you see a word like Hungarian word for camera, ‘kamera’ [pronounced: Kah-MAY-Rah]. Like, it's totally forgettable because it sounds nuts.
Once you get passed that sound part and it becomes familiar sounding, still if you're learning the translation for that word, then with the word camera, I can think of a million different pictures of cameras and photos that I've taken in my life. Camera is associated with all kinds of stuff. Words like shutter and lens, and photographer, and photograph, and to take a picture. All that stuff is associated with my word for camera.
What do you have for [Kah-MAY-Rah] ? Like, nothing. Like, do you have … Is that word associated with any images at all? No. It's associated with the English word, the sound of the camera. Is it associated with the words for shutter? No. Do you know the word ‘fotos,’ like photographer? No, you haven't learned that one yet. All of those associations are missing from your new word in that language, and unless you consciously aim at building those, which means getting away from translations, then there's a wall in front of you. You can't get past that until you skip that.
Kruse: And Gabe, I just want to highlight that for our listeners. When I was doing a little bit of research before this interview, that's what struck me, because it's been a lot of years, and so I just had high school German is probably the last thing I would remember, or maybe some travel, French. But it was always a translation. It would be, “Here's the word apple and then here's the foreign language version of it,” whatever language you were studying.
So, I could see even back 30 years ago, when I won an award for high school German, it just mean I was switching, I could translate very quickly in my head. I certainly wasn't thinking in German or thinking that language. I was just switching the words really fast, or knew a few phrases that I could swap out for similar English phrases. Your approach is not like that at all.
I mean, you very quickly get people thinking in the language, because you're bypassing that word for word memorization approach.
Wyner: Word for word memorization is really hard. I mean, there's a reason why translators, like if you talk about simultaneous translators, they're paid around 250 to 300 bucks an hour. It's like for really good reason. That's one of the hardest jobs in the world. Then, you're trying to like, you have language classes where in some sense you're trying to train people to be simultaneous translators, and people are like, “Oh, this is hard. Maybe this isn't for me.”
It's 'cause they're going about in the wrong direction. Simultaneous translators, they learn how to think in a language, and then on top of that skill, they learn translation skills. Somehow the idea of just skipping the learning to think in a language and going straight to translation, like that's not an efficient way to get this job done.
Kruse: So Gabe, let me ask you this. Clearly, anyone who's traveling around the world for fun or they're traveling around the world for business, which increasingly people are doing, it's helpful to speak another language. What are some of the other benefits people would get from learning another language, even if they don't really, they're not working in that language?
Wyner: I mean personally, I learn languages because I enjoy it. Like, literally the process. I don't even enjoy speaking them that much. People are like, “Hey, how is your French doing? How is your Italian doing?” I'm letting them atrophy. I can get them back, but I mostly enjoy the process of getting there. There's the joy of that process which I think people can discover if they really go into it.
It's like, “Oh, I can train my brain to think in a completely new way.” Like, that's really cool. But aside from that, language learning has been documented to basically make you smarter. It's a kind of learned intelligence. You will remember things better if you know more languages. With one more language, you push off Alzheimer's by an average of four years.
Wyner: Like, it's strength training for your brain that almost nothing else that I'm aware of can provide. Those Alzheimer's benefits, for instance, those scale up the more languages you learn. That's not just a one-time thing. So, it's documented that people who speak multiple languages are more creative. They can think faster, they do better at math, they do better in their native language. You get all this stuff by learning one other language.
You get more by learning more. So, that kind of stuff, the idea of being able to actually improve your own brain is a rare thing. I'm not aware of other ways to do it, so that's kind of in there as a really nice perk.
Kruse: Love that. So Gabe, in a minute I'm going to have you share with everyone how they can go and check out your Kickstarter campaign and book and things, but until the app is out, I mean, is there anything that we could be doing? I always like to challenge the LEADx listeners, like let's get a little bit better every single day. Is there just some little starter thing that we can do to begin to explore speaking or even thinking in a foreign language, or getting ready to choose a language? How do we get started on this journey?
Wyner: I mean, the thing we were just saying in terms of choosing a language, that's an important consideration. It sometimes isn't obvious. I mean, sometimes people are like, “I don't know, I just like the idea of learning another language, but whatever. I don't know which one.” So, starting that thought process is certainly an important one. If you've chosen a language and you find something that you really love, then starting to learn pronunciation in that language is going to be the first step no matter what, so you can start that right now.
My last three and a half years have been about developing resources for people who want to learn pronunciation and those exist now. That's something that absolutely doable, and then learning what's ahead of you I think is the next step there. I would suggest my book, but there is other options. Like, understanding what it is you're trying to accomplish when you actually start going about learning this language thing, in terms of what's going on in your brain and what's going on in front of you in terms of this particular language you want to learn.
Like, what does the grammar look like? These sorts of questions. That stuff you can do way in advance of this app certainly existing.
Kruse: Okay, so this is perfect because my son who just started eighth grade just started Spanish. I never studied Spanish, and so he literally, this is as of last week, he comes home he says, “Hey, can you help me study for my Spanish quiz tomorrow?” He's handing me, and of course you'd be horrified, but it's the traditional flashcards pretty much. Of course, I want to be a supportive dad, but I'm looking and I'm like, “Are the Ls like Rs or the Rs like Ls? Like, I have no idea how to say these words to you.”
So, I, this year, I will start with Spanish. So, until your app comes out, what are some of your resources that maybe I could go find now to get started?
Wyner: Absolutely. I mean, for the last three and a half years, people have been using this stuff. The only thing the app does is to make things a little faster, but this stuff all exists, and is usable. I generally recommended that people start with my book just so they can get an overview of what they're trying to do here, and then on my website I have pronunciation training apps. They're designed to fit into someone else's flashcard application that's been around since 2006 called Anki.
Installing it is a little clunky but it's doable, and you install it and it works, and in about two weeks, you can hear all the sounds of Spanish, and you know the spelling rules, and you should be just fine with your son's flashcards. Past that actually, there's lists of words that you can start going into and building actually Spanish vocabulary and grammar and things like that, if you decide you have enough time to do that before the apps come out.
Kruse: Okay, and you're being so nice and educational, non-promotional, but give us your website. What's the address?
Wyner: Sure, of course. Sorry. The website address is Fluentforever.com
Kruse: Wonderful. We're going to make sure there's a link to that in the show notes, and of course, everybody can find your book “Fluent Forever,” at Amazon or their favorite bookstore. I want to get back to the Kickstarter before we leave, because I think there's going to be people out there who are going to be like, “Kevin, but I want to know how he got the 400,000 on Kickstarter.” You got any tricks to promoting a great Kickstarter campaign?
Wyner: I mean, tricks in general are about having email addresses of people who really interested in your thing. I mean, my first Kickstarter raised around $100,000 and I started with a mailing list of around 500 people who were super interested. Kickstarter is an audience multiplier, so I ended up with 1800 people. This Kickstarter, my mailing lists were around 50,000 people.
Wyner: So, it's just a whole different order of thing. It's why this thing jumped so quickly. That's an essential part of a Kickstarter, is you need an audience before you start. You can't multiply nothing and so that's there. In my particular case, I think this thing has gotten so much traction because it's gotten users. It's not like I'm just out there saying, “Hey guys, I hope you like this thing. I made it,” but it's, “Hey guys, I made this thing and here are years worth of users. Here are hundreds of users. Here are people on video saying, ‘I learned these three languages over the past three years using these techniques.'”
That kind of social proof is something that is really, really powerful and lacking in the language learning market. So, when you can come out there and say, “I have something new” and it's not just new and I say it's good, but it's new and these people, this whole community has used it, that's super powerful.
Kruse: I love that. Gabe, I was just doing another podcast interview this morning with Dorie Clark who's got a book coming out about marketing, and she hit on this very point. She said for anybody who's just getting started, she says go out and get that first customer or couple, and it's not about the money. She says you need the social proof, you need these success stories, these transformation stories, so other people realize it's not just you saying it. There's these other people are saying it really does work, so that's great validation on that.
LEADx family, if you didn't fully get it, our challenge of the day, I invite you to follow along with me. I mean, pick a language, and then go over to Fluent, hyphen or dash, Forever.com. Check out the resources there. That's exactly what I'm going to do, and I'm going to do it so I can help my son study, but I also really like that benefit about delaying Alzheimer's. That was good, too.
Wyner: That's a handy one.
Kruse: It's a handy one, that's right. Gabe, best of luck on this journey and thanks for coming onto The LEADx Show.
Wyner: Thank you for having me. This was great.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.