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Learn Languages Like an Opera Singer, With Anki (And More)

By Bill Powell

Opera singer Gabriel Wyner offers a new, four-part method for learning languages amazingly fast. One of those parts is flashcard review with Anki – but only one.

For years, I’ve been tinkering with using Anki to learn languages. I haven’t gotten very far, but I’ve still felt in my gut that there has to be some way to learn languages much faster than we do now. And it has to involve spaced repetition for all that vocabulary.

Enter Gabriel Wyner. He’s an opera singer, and he’s crafted a four-part method for achieving basic fluency in less than a year. Sometimes much less.

Combining Techniques

… what I found surprised me; there are a number of incredibly powerful language learning methods out there, but no one seemed to be putting them together.

When I read that, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. I’ve felt the same thing so many times in my memory research: all these very different techniques, but no one’s using them together.

They’re like superheroes. With their magical powers combined … who knows what can happen?

Wyner knows. You can start learning French in February, and be fluent by August.

How does he do it?

Stage 1: Pronunciation First

Before you start chugging down vocabulary, learn impeccable pronunciation.

That sounds so obvious. But I’ve managed to skip it for years. Sure, I took a look at the pronunciation guide. But I assumed that pronunciation would take care of itself as I went.

That’s exactly wrong. If you don’t get pronunciation right from the start, you’ll learn those thousands of vocab words the wrong way. You’ll have to fix them all later.

Fortunately, this is one of those problems that smart people have already solved. If you learn the International Phonetic Alphabet, and understand “the nitty-gritty on what every sound in every language consists of,” you really can master foreign pronunciation.

Even better, Wyner offers free videos to teach you the IPA, and a $3 Anki deck to learn them.

I’m excited. I love the idea of sounding perfect right at the start. And the IPA seems to be this Master Key for unlocking the secrets of the world’s languages.

(Side benefit: With the IPA, I’ll finally be able to pronounce words on Wikipedia. That’s the only time I see the IPA, and it’s been driving me nuts for years.)

Stage 2: Anki Cards for Vocab and Grammar (With No English!)

Once you’ve got the pronunciation down, it’s time to slurp up thousands of vocabulary words. This is where the Anki superpower shines.

Wait, though. I’ve been reviewing a few thousand Spanish flashcards for years, but I’m still basically clueless. What’s the secret sauce?

No English. Wyner’s flashcards use pictures.

This is another idea that I ran across years ago, but thought was too much trouble. Yes, it does take work. But, as I’ve discovered, making a picture deck won’t take nearly as much work as all that time I’ve essentially wasted reviewing Spanish-to-English and Latin-to-English flashcards.

When I think about binding Spanish words directly to images, it feels right. I should never have waited this long.

Plus, now Wyner’s offering his own language decks for download. You’ll need to edit his cards where the picture doesn’t make sense, but at least you’ve got a headstart.

Of course, what happens when you start to learn vocab that’s too complex for pictures? You learn the definitions in the foreign language. Same for grammar rules.

No English! Your brain stays in that language.

Stage 3: Listen, Write, and Read … a Lot

Once you’ve got a couple thousands words – and you choose them carefully, starting with the most common words, then “shopping” for the words you’ll want most, depending on your needs – you start the fun part. Using the language. Reading, watching TV, writing.

This is also where you start to spend a lot more time on this project. But if you’ve done the vocab part right, this should be a lot of fun.

Stage 4: Talk (No English!)

And finally, the inevitable test: immersion. When you force yourself to talk and think completely in the new language, your mind will make amazing progress. It has to.

Wyner enjoys Middlebury College in Vermont, where he first learned the “No English” motto. Their 7-week programs currently run about $8000, which could well be worth it. But I’d rather spend that money on a trip. He thinks a trip will work fine, as long as you’re strict. No English!

Go Learn a Language!

I discovered Wyner through his Lifehacker article, but you can skip straight to his resource-packed site. Take time to read his story – it really is true that some random guy, without funding, can develop an amazing new system just by putting together what others have learned. I love it.

After his story, read up on his general method. Don’t rely on my summary here; he delves into important details. He also offers resources for several languages. And don’t miss his video guide to learning the IPA phonetic symbols, or his Anki deck to review them.

Finally, check out lang-8.com, where Wyner would post his attempts at translation, and get corrections from native speakers. He notes that you should add these corrections to your Anki deck. The website is surreal; one more wonder of the Internet.

But don’t stop with browsing. Go learn a language!

Posted: Sat, May 12, 2012