We’re a society that likes things to be instant. We like 4-hour workweeks, 15-minute gourmet meals and 5-minute workout regimes that promise a flat stomach. So why not ultra-condensed, fast language learning? That’s what both Fluent in 3 Months and Fluent Forever promise.
In his book Fluent in 3 Months, as well as his blog of the same name, Benny Lewis presents evidence that he has been able to learn languages rapidly, and gives readers techniques for doing the same, offering the equivalent of washboard abs with five-minutes a day of exercise. There is at least some truth to both the washboard abs and the rapid fluency: If you do the prescribed exercises every day, reliably, you can make a lot of progress in a short amount of time. For most of us, the problem is that we don’t do it.
Lewis’ advice is not particularly dissimilar to mine: It involves establishing your motivation for learning, having the right mental approach towards learning and using your time wisely. I can’t find fault with those suggestions, and for the most part I think the advice he gives is solid. Yet I have been known to complain about Lewis before (which has not prevented me from guest posting on his blog twice). I think the work he does to promote language learning is essential, and he is quite transparent about the language results that he gets, usually as measured by standardized language tests.
The problem I have is one with, in fact, language. It’s the word ‘fluent.’ It’s a word that people throw around a lot in the language ‘community,’ and it’s a word that can be used so many ways that it has become meaningless. I think my problem comes from a different expectation about what the word ‘fluent’ really means. One section of Lewis’ book describes how to go from fluency to mastery; I have always thought of fluency and mastery to be essentially the same concept.
Gabriel Wyner, an opera singer and language blogger, published Fluent Forever around the same time that Fluent in 3 Months was released. The books essentially promise the same thing – learn a foreign language fast. Both Wyner and Lewis are enamored with spaced repetition software and flashcards in a way that seems mildly autistic, but they are probably right that using flashcard tools can help you increase your vocabulary quickly.
If you were to judge the two books by their front cover, it would be essentially impossible to figure out what the difference in content is. But the back covers, where the reviews are, differ. Wyner’s back cover has reviews from a cognitive psychologist and an author of a book on learning; the first two pages are packed with reviews, including from an editor at Scientific American and a memory champion. Lewis´ back cover features a review from a blogger and another one from an entrepreneur, both of whom are quite successful and smart but don’t have any obvious connection to language learning.
The differences in who wrote the reviews represents the primary difference between the two books, in style and in content. Lewis’ book is one of encouragement, in the style of blogs that aim to convince you that you can do whatever it is that you want to do. Lewis has plenty of good advice, but not nearly as much as Wyner, whose book is packed with very concrete, actionable techniques (not all of them are to my personal liking). His book is far nerdier than Lewis’: It has diagrams of the human mouth, to illustrate tongue location for the pronunciation of consonants among other very concrete, scientific-based techniques. Lewis also seems to talk a lot more about himself than Wyner does. Both have plenty of personal anecdotes, but Wyner spends more time carefully describing specific learning techniques than he does relating his personal language adventures.
Both books would be a good addition to a learner’s arsenal, but if you’re looking for exceedingly concrete steps and techniques, Fluent Forever is the one to get. Wyner’s book makes a unique contribution to what’s been written on language learning, and the information he has in the book is not readily available elsewhere. If, however, what you really need is a little motivation and a quick, not-too-nerdy read, Fluent in 3 Months might be the better option, although you can get essentially the same information on Lewis’ blog. My own approach to language learning – which I outline in my own ebook, tends to be rooted in my belief that faster is not necessarily better, but whatever your learning speed, the information in Fluent Forever will be fascinating and useful as you work towards fluency – or mastery – in a foreign language.