My first introduction to the world of Fluent Forever was a TEDx talk done by its Founder, Gabriel Wyner.
He’s an engaging speaker, and he gave a compelling talk. In it, he details the failures and triumphs of his language learning experiences, making the case that forming meaningful memories is the single most important aspect of language learning. He tackles what he calls “that myth that children are exceptionally good at learning languages.”
Instead, he says, it’s all about exposure.
The Fluent Forever app is his attempt at bringing the immersion experience into the home of the learner. Did he succeed?
In my opinion: not yet.
The app is still very much in development and hasn’t yet achieved everything it set out to do. This isn’t to say that it is without some great features — some of them I really enjoyed using.
I tested two different languages in the app, Spanish and Italian. My Spanish speaking ability is fairly advanced, so I chose the advanced difficulty in the app. I don’t speak any Italian, so I started at the beginning of the Italian course.
The Fluent Forever app is relatively inexpensive, offers courses in eight languages, and claims to be able to get you to fluency in six months.
The Fluent Forever app was born from the methodology laid out in the book of the same name, written by Wyner and published in 2014. The book has foundations in neuroscience and claims to teach you “How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It.”
This is what makes the app so different from many others. It’s based on a method that is so fully developed and appealing that it’s got its own best-selling book. It created so much buzz that the app generated the highest crowdfunding of any app in Kickstarter history.
There’s a wealth of information available on the internet regarding the method and its efficacy, but for an in-depth breakdown of the method used in the app, it’s best to visit this break-down on Fluent Forever’s website.
The basis of the Fluent Forever method is what they call The Four-Step Method. The steps are:
- Train your ears with pronunciation lessons
- Learn vocabulary through images instead of translations
- Learn grammar naturally through stories relevant to you
- Practice your speech to fluency through practice with native tutors*
*The fourth step of the method is still in development and isn’t available in the app yet.
The three currently-functioning steps in the app are based on creating strong associations with your target language. The app is designed to get you thinking and learning in the language you want to learn. When used regularly, the app is supposed to help you “learn any language and never forget it.”
There’s another aspect of the Fluent Forever methodology that is central to its process, and it’s called the Spaced Repetition System (SRS). The SRS is a system for committing things (in this case, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation) to long-term memory. It’s been around since 1932 and is used in a variety of online learning applications such as Anki and Memrise.
The concept is that the items you have more difficulty remembering show up more frequently in practice than those you tend to get right. Used over a long period of time, this method has been shown to have a dramatic effect on improving the brain’s ability to retain information.
The Fluent Forever app is for serious language learners that want to try out a unique methodology. The objective is in the name, this app is aimed at getting you fluent in another language. In fact, it claims it will only take six months. That’s an attractive offer.
It should be noted that the app isn’t aimed at providing basic survival phrases that will help you on a two-week holiday in Italy; it’s for people that want to get beyond the basics and are willing to commit to daily practice for an extended period of time.
The learner interested in picking up basic survival phrases is better off looking elsewhere. This is almost immediately evident when using the app. The first phrases and words you learn aren’t chosen because of their practicality and immediate usability. Instead of learning “hello,” “how are you,” and how to count to ten, you’ll get words like “new,” “river,” and “back.”
The idea behind this is that you’re learning words that have strong visual connotations (thus making the flashcards super effective) and that are useful for practicing particular aspects of pronunciation. The first words you learn are also supposed to be some of the most frequently used, although they still won’t set you up for producing many useful phrases right off the bat.
The Fluent Forever app currently offers courses in eight different languages, with six additional languages “coming soon.”
In each language, there is an extensive amount of material covering aspects of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. The explanations for pronunciation are thorough, but the learning of vocabulary and grammar happens mostly through exposure.
This is how the material is presented inside the app. There are five tabs at the bottom of the screen for navigation.
This is the main screen in the app. It has three sections: Your Progress, Daily Streak Task, and Bonus Task.
The daily goal progress bar measures how close you are to completing the day’s tasks (not including the bonus tasks). Under the progress bar, you can see how many days in a row you’ve used the app and your highest streak. Consistency is key in language acquisition, and this is supposed to help you monitor how consistent you are.
In order to add a day to your streak, you only have to complete the task under Daily Streak Task. As you progress, a new section will appear called Today’s Tasks. Since I have a more advanced Spanish level, this is what the home screen looks like:
To get 100% for my Daily Goal, I’ve got to complete the Daily Streak Task and Today’s Tasks. To simply continue my streak, I only need to complete the review session under Daily Streak Task.
The bonus tasks are just what they say they are, bonus. You don’t need to complete them to continue your daily streak or get 100% percent in the daily goal progress bar. They’re for extra practice if you’ve got the time and want to do more.
I almost always wanted to do the bonus tasks, and I think it’s a nice touch. It’s nice to have the option to go above and beyond if you feel inclined. It’s also nice to be able to maintain your streak even if you don’t have 30 minutes to devote to the app.
This section of the app is used for adding your own words and sentences to learn. This is a handy way to get around the scheduled learning material if you have things you want to learn as soon as possible. You can search for single words or small groups of words like “I know” or, “I want.” Not all conjugations work, though. My searches for “he wants” and “I don’t know” didn’t return any results.
I found it somewhat useful, as there were some specific verbs I wanted to learn. I like to learn basic verbs like “want,” “need,” “know” and “like” as soon as possible. I find it easier to start forming my own sentences when I understand these words. I used this feature of the app to add these words to my flashcard pile as soon as possible.
The Learn tab is where you’ll find new pronunciation, vocab and grammar material. It’s pretty straightforward and intuitive. Any new material you take on gets added to your flashcard pile. You can practice it using the next tab.
This is where all the practice happens. You’re quizzed on everything you’ve learned here, from pronunciation to grammar.
The settings tab is pretty basic. The FAQ section has some valuable information and you can change the difficulty level here.
The material for each language follows the Four Step Method we described earlier. This video provides a detailed demo of the app, but the current version of the app is slightly different. Here’s what it looked like for me:
This is the pronunciation lesson menu. These lessons consist of a couple of movies that show you how to move your mouth to make various sounds and ear training exercises that will become flashcards for you to practice.
The videos have some helpful information in them. More than once I was glad to have a visual representation of what I should be doing with my tongue to make a certain sound. These videos are short and relatively fast-paced, however. Most of the pronunciation progress is supposed to happen in the review section. You do have access to all of the videos if you want to re-watch any of them.
The ear training exercises involve listening to minimal pairs. You can listen as many times as you want before selecting “Add Card to Deck.” When reviewing, this card will show up again and you’ll have to identify which word the speaker is producing.
After you’ve progressed far enough, the basic vocab tab disappears from the app. Instead, your only options for new material are through the pronunciation and grammar sections. You will still learn new vocabulary through these sections.
The basic vocab section is comprised of vocabulary sets, and it looks like this:
If you already know a word on the list or simply don’t want to learn it right now, you have the option to swipe right on it and select either “know it” or “skip it. I used this with Spanish and it was nice to get some words I already know out of the way. For advanced speakers, you might find yourself swiping right on a lot of words, even if the difficulty is set to advanced. This was mildly frustrating.
Upon selecting a new word to learn, you’re prompted to choose a sentence that contains it.
The vocab word I chose was “primo.” Sentences covering a range of difficulties are offered. Later on, there are multiple sentences to choose from at each difficulty level. After a certain point, it’s beneficial to choose sentences that have more than one language item you want to work on.
After choosing a sentence, you now get to choose the images to associate with the vocab word and sentence.
You can choose up to four images from the seven provided. You can also add a picture of your own or you can use the app’s search function. The images are provided from Bing, which the Fluent Forever team recognizes as inferior to Google on their blog. They explain that this was done out of necessity due to limitations on image searches issued by Google.
The image selection process is usually fine for words with easy visual representations, but it can get tricky with more abstract words or sentences. In the above sentence, for example, there aren’t any images of students or classrooms. Honestly, I never felt like going through the trouble of searching for my own images for a flashcard. I did it on occasion when I had to, but it made the learning process a bit more clunky.
On a bizarre note, the suggested images in the app semi-frequently border on NSFW content. I’ve seen women in soaked-through white t-shirts, pants ripped in unfortunate places, and a sort of collage of lewd touching scenes. This sort of thing is bound to happen with images sourced from the internet, but some people might appreciate having some sort of filter.
It should be noted that these images do probably serve to make the learning process more memorable. Sexy, funny, and violent images attached to emotion are much better at creating a memory than something bland and uninspiring. This is talked about in the Fluent Forever book.
The app uses Bing to search for images using the target language instead of English. This can yield some surprising results, but ones that will hopefully deepen your understanding of the word in the context of the language you’re learning.
Here’s an example of an image result I found amusing — guess which one I used:
After you’ve selected the images to go with your flashcard phrase, you get to select any other words in the sentence you’d like to practice.
The words in bold are words you haven’t learned with the app yet. This is a feature I ended up liking. It made longer sentences intelligible very early on in the learning process. Also, if you source most of your vocab words this way, you’re saved from having to deal with tons of different sentences. I liked using the same sentence to practice multiple words when I was starting out.
This took some getting used to, though. Initially, I was wary of the process. I wasn’t sure how many words I should be selecting. The fact that I was given an option made me question whether I should select all of them or none of them. I wanted the app to make the learning decisions for me in the beginning because I was expecting it to, but after using the app for a few days I became comfortable with the process and was confident that I was using it correctly.
The third step in the Four Step Method is actually integrated into the second. You learn grammar through the sentences you select with the vocabulary you choose.
As you can see here, the grammar tab just contains a list of vocab words. The grammar is taught through flashcard exercises where you’re supposed to figure out the correct word order of a sentence or its dictionary form.
Fluent Forever claims that it teaches grammar intuitively through stories. This means there are no explanations of grammar concepts; you learn the grammar through exposure and osmosis. I’m not a huge fan of this method. When I see something confusing in a language I’m learning I desperately want an explanation. I see the value in developing personal connections with the language and learning grammatical concepts on a deep intuitive level, but I think straightforward explanations can dramatically speed up the learning process for some people, myself included.
Here’s how the app uses the flashcards to practice what you’ve learned. This is under the “Review” tab in the app.
This is a view of the “front” and “back” of a vocabulary flashcard. You’re presented with the image on the left and supposed to come up with the phrase in Italian. When you’re ready, you tap the image to reveal the answer. You never see the phrase in English at this stage; the association is supposed to happen with the image and meaning, not a translation. However, if you totally forget the meaning even with the picture, you can access the English translation by selecting the three dots next to the phrase.
After seeing the answer, you grade yourself. If you were able to produce the word or phrase, swipe right. If you failed, swipe left. Your performance is what informs the spaced repetition algorithm on how to quiz you in the future.
The self-evaluation aspect made me slightly uneasy at first, but I got used to it. There’s really no reason to cheat yourself, and whether you got the answer right or not is usually pretty cut and dried.
This is another version of a vocabulary flashcard, and it’s essentially the reverse of the previous example. You’re presented with a word or phrase in the target language and supposed to come up with the meaning/image on your own. Tap to reveal the image and pronunciation. Again, there’s no English, only pictures.
The goal of the app is to get you thinking in the target language rather than doing translations, but with these cards I found myself slipping back into translation mode. I guess instead the idea is that you’re able to conjure the images that communicate the meaning in your head, but that was difficult for me. I got better at it with practice but found it especially difficult at the beginning.
This type of flashcard is used to test grammar. Specifically, it’s for remembering word order. The directions are pretty clear: put the word in the right spot. Again, you’ve got to do this in your head and self-evaluate when you’re shown the correct answer.
This flashcard uses a cloze exercise to test vocabulary knowledge. Simply fill in the blank with the correct vocabulary word.
This might be easier than it looks. Even on my second day working with Italian, I was confidently filling in the gaps in sentences longer than this one. This is in large part because the same sentence is used over and over again in practice. This particular sentence is used in my flashcards to teach “quando,” “allenamento” and “palestra.” I got to see and practice the sentence a lot, so reproducing a part of it became doable very quickly.
I really liked this in terms of being able to produce longer utterances in the target language early on. It’s great for building confidence and getting used to pronouncing the words in the context of a sentence.
Another form of grammar practice, this flashcard tests your ability to come up with the “dictionary form” of the missing word.
This card is slightly more difficult than the previous because you’ve got to come up with the missing word and convert it to its dictionary form.
To me, it felt like a strange way to practice conjugation at first, but I got used to it. Having to come up with the word instead of being given the conjugated form and simply changing it may help to cement the meaning of the word in your head. I personally would have liked the option of looking at a conjugation chart in addition to this type of practice.
This flashcard uses a fairly long sentence and is an example of something I’m not a fan of. If you want to hear the pronunciation of anything in the sentence, you have to listen to a recording of the entire sentence. There’s no way to just listen to one word. Hearing how words are pronounced as part of a sentence is helpful, but when you want to hear a single sound over and over, playing a long audio file is less than ideal.
This flashcard shows how you practice pronunciation in the review section. Two minimal pairs are shown (with IPA spellings and English translations), and the audio for one of them is played. Tapping the screen reveals the word you heard. I liked this type of pronunciation practice. I found it useful in getting used to new sounds.
This feature has the potential to really take the app to the next level. Unfortunately, it isn’t available quite yet. The end goal is to provide tutoring functionality that is integrated into the app. It would allow users to work with a tutor to create their own personalized sentences.
I think this would really fill in some of the gaps in the app. The ability to work more freely with the language and to have a tutor help guide you would certainly get you closer to fluency.
As the app stands now, there is no tutor feature. In the meantime, Wyner offers an explanation of how to use a tutor in a way that aligns with the Fluent Forever methodology. For now you’ll have to find your own tutor, but hopefully, that will change soon.
Fluent Forever offers a 14-day free trial for its app. In the trial, all of the languages are available and you can try out as many as you like. After the trial is up, you’re prompted to choose one language to subscribe to.
You have the option of either paying monthly at $9.99/month or paying for a longer subscription upfront for a discount.
The free trial is a good option. I think 14 days is definitely enough time to see how well you like the app. The subscription prices are fairly inexpensive, but I’m not sure the app offers quite enough at this point to warrant the price. Of course, if the app can really make good on its claim of “Zero to Fluent in Six Months,” $54 is a steal.
Fluent Forever is so much more than an app. It’s a well-researched methodology, a best-selling book, and the brainchild of a charismatic opera-singing polyglot. It’s no wonder the app became the most funded in Kickstarter history; the Fluent Forever movement has had serious momentum since its inception.
The reviews for the book are mostly 5-star raves. Not only do people really enjoy the writing, but many seem to have been employing the method with success. Unfortunately, the app isn’t quite getting the same level of sparkling reviews. Yet.
My biggest problem with the app is that it simply feels unfinished. The Fluent Forever team is transparent about this, though, and happily broadcasts the constant updates they’re making. This is a plus. The online Fluent Forever community is very inclusive and responsive, and Gabriel Wyner himself often responds to user queries. Maybe if I had read the book and was a die-hard believer in the methodology I would be happy to be along for the ride and helping to improve the app.
The app’s current limitations include the lack of a few features they plan to offer, such as user-created content and tutors. The app is also currently only available on mobile and isn’t supported for offline use.
I also noticed a blatant mistake in the Spanish being used in the app:
In this sentence, two words are missing accents: “línea” and “ningún.” Especially when I’ve selected the advanced level for a language, I want to be confident that the language I’m interacting with is 100% error-free. Spotting mistakes doesn’t exactly encourage me to spend money on a learning app.
Overall, I think the Fluent Forever app has unrealized potential. The book has gotten such positive reviews that I believe the method it describes probably works. The videos I’ve seen of Wyner describing the method further my confidence in the methodology, but I don’t think it translates to the app quite yet. I did enjoy the ways flashcards and spaced repetition are used in the app, but studying a language seriously would certainly require supplemental resources.
The app might have more of an appeal when it offers everything it set out to offer, but for now, it’s an unfinished good idea. For a beginner looking to learn a language who is happy to be a part of the app’s growth and willing to supplement their learning efforts with resources like italki, this app might be the ticket. For advanced learners looking for a way to brush up on their skills or anyone looking for a one-stop-shop, this probably isn’t it.
I’m a former EFL teacher turned freelance writer and self-proclaimed language enthusiast. I can’t quite seem to kick the habit of moving countries and have lived and worked on four continents so far.