Author, opera singer, and polyglot Gabriel Wyner had long known that learning language is a memory game heavily dependent on remembering pronunciations, especially of those words that the untrained ear can’t differentiate.
But it wasn’t until the editor of his forthcoming how-to book, Fluent Forever, asked how such nuances can be learned quickly that he began to think about a game-changing approach to the problem—and what he came up with looks promising indeed.
“I had recently read a series of studies that came out of Carnegie Mellon about teaching Japanese adults to hear the difference between ‘Rock’ and ‘Lock’—but that no one had used that research to make a practical tool,” Wyner told the Daily Dot via email. “So I decided to make one on my own.”
The result is “Fluent Forever: Foreign Language Pronunciation Trainers,” a software project that easily surpassed 500 percent funding on Kickstarter in just three weeks.
Pitched as a series of apps—one for each language, with 12 on the docket so far and a 13th promised if backers hit the $60,000 stretch goal—the trainers will be somewhat game-like. Operating from a list of hundreds of almost-identical word pairs, they’ll play the pronunciation of a random term aloud, prompting the user to select which of the two similar sounds they heard. The “immediate feedback as to whether you were right,” Wyner said, is the key to wiring a brain for speech in a non-native tongue, and a critical first step toward total fluency.
Wyner tested the idea on himself.
“I got a Hungarian native speaker to make recordings of all the gnarly sounds in that language,” he said, and then “stuck them into Anki,” a free, open-source flashcard application that runs on a variety of operating systems and will serve as the platform for future trainers.
“Ten days later, I could hear and recognize everything. I had never encountered anything that worked that fast or that well.”
Especially for a guy who had "spent seven years totally failing to learn Hebrew" and struggled with traditional techniques in developing languages needed for opera performance, it was a revelation—one he wanted to share.
Now it appears he’s got more than enough money to do so, and eight months before the book that outlines his methods hits shelves. The final and perhaps trickiest ingredient to procure is a suitable voice actor for each app. Wyner has turned to Craigslist and the diverse city of Los Angeles for assistance on that front. Putting up ads for “bilinguals with pristine accents in both English and another language,” he found “a ton.” And with more than 1,000 people now in his Kickstarter network, he’s confident he’ll find a perfect match for each pronunciation guide.
If for nothing else, Wyner can put these tools to his own use. Already proficient in Italian, German, French, and Russian, to name a daunting few, he’s hardly content to stop accumulating new grammars and vocabularies. “I'm looking forward to Japanese next year,” he said, the way most of us would talk about a birthday or vacation. Maybe he’s onto something here?
Photo by Simon James/Flickr