How to master any language and seal a book deal
In this premium episode you will learn how Gabe Wyner, a trained engineer and opera singer was able to master multiple languages within a short period of time, started a language blog that is read by thousands of people every day and sealed a book deal with a top publisher that has president Barack Obama as one of their authors.
More specifically in this premium episode you will learn:
- How to master any language from a beginner’s to an advanced level.
- How to run a blog that is read by thousands of people every single day
- How to land a book deal with a top publisher.
- And most importantly: How to spread your career risk.
About Gabe Wyner
Gabriel Wyner is an author, opera singer and polyglot based in Vienna, Austria. After reaching fluency in German in 14 weeks with the help of the immersive Middlebury Language Schools, he fell in love with the process of language learning, going on to spend two months in intensive Italian courses in Perugia, Italy. Searching for ways to bring the immersion experience into the home, he began to develop a system that rapidly builds fluency in short, daily sessions. In 2010, his efforts paid off. He learned French to fluency in 5 months, and then Russian in 9 months.
Born in Los Angeles, Gabriel graduated summa cum laude in 2007 from the University of Southern California with dual degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Vocal Arts Performance, and was awarded the Renaissance Scholar’s prize for excellence in unrelated disciplines. He then moved to Vienna to pursue triple Master’s degrees at the Konservatorium Wien in Opera, Lieder and Voice, and graduated with honors in 2011.
Currently learning Hungarian, Gabe is looking forward to Japanese next year. His book on language learning for Crown Archetype (Random House) is slated for release in 2014. His blog, TowerofBabelfish.com, details his methods and provides resources for learners of all languages.
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Stephan: If you want to learn how to learn languages faster and more effectively, write a blog that is read by thousands of people every day, and seal a book with a top publisher that has Barack Obama as one of their authors, stay with me.
Hello and welcome to Howtobecomeaprofessor.com, the place to learn from proven professors and experts. I’m your host Stephan and today, we have a very special guest for you we all can learn a lot from. His name is Gabe Wyner. He’s a trained engineer, an opera singer, and a self-taught language acquisition master, so to speak, who just sealed a book deal about his language learning methods with Crown Archetype, a major publishing firm that also has the current President of the United States Barack Obama as one of their authors.
In this episode, you will learn how Gabe became fluent in German, Italian, French, and Russian. Furthermore, he will share with us how he started his language blog, Tower of Babel fish, that attracts currently over 10,000 people every day and how he landed this book deal with Crown Archetype. As you know, our video series, “Spread Your Career Risk,” is all about spreading the careers of young and ambitious academics who are thinking of becoming a professor one day, a goal that takes around two decades to achieve and moreover, there’s absolutely no guarantee in ever achieving it. So in order to avoid the absolute worst case scenario which is, you’re working 20 years towards your goal and your plan doesn’t turn out the way you wished it would be, so job-wise, this is really kind of the worst case scenario you can encounter.
So luckily the Internet gives everyone, but especially highly-qualified and specialized academics the opportunity to make a living on the side that potentially could become a full-time income one day. So this is what Spread Your Career Risk Video Series is all about, to teach you how to launch an online business while you’re pursuing your academic career and our today’s guest, Gabe Weiner, engineer, opera singer, and professional book author at the tender age of 28 years old has exactly done that.
So Gabe, thank you very much for joining and being with us and sharing your incredible story.
Gabe Wyner: My pleasure and thank you for having me and at this point, I’m 29. One year older.
Stephan: That’s fine. So you have so many different careers, right? You’re an engineer, an opera singer, a language expert, and now, a professional author as well. Could you please share your story and how one profession lead to another and why actually?
Gabe Wyner: It sort of happens randomly. It’s happened in single moments. Let me think. I basically began as an engineer. I began as sort of a science nerd. I liked to play the violin. I like music but it was sort of a hobby and I had applied for various colleges, mostly engineering schools and one of the colleges I applied to also had a good music school and so I applied there also as a musician and they gave me a scholarship and so I decided, “Okay, well, I’m just going to double major in music and engineering.” But still, it was mostly a hobby. I had planned on being an engineer and about two years into it, I went to the Middlebury Language Schools in Vermont. They have immersion programs that are wonderful. I mean, you show up, you sign contracts. It says if I speak one word of English, I will be kicked out with no refund and you learn the language very quickly. They’re very effective programs because it sort of synchrony-swim and you have to swim and so by the end, you learn something. And so, that was my first experience learning a language. I had studied Russian in high school, didn’t really get anything from it. I had studied Hebrew in elementary school, got nothing from it, and I showed up at this program and it was a program that’s mixed. It’s for people learning German and also for opera singers and specifically need German to enter the market as an opera singer in Germany and in Austria.
And about five weeks in, there was a dramatic master class with a teacher who runs the conservatory in Vienna and he was basically just staging scenes and I was singing his aria for him and he made this crazy staging where you’re rolling around on the walls and all this stuff and I connected with an audience for the first time and it was this sort of magical experience for me. It made singing change from something that I thought I was good and was fun to do to something that was important and so, at that moment, I basically decided, “Okay, well, I think I’m going to do this. I’m going to become a singer,” and I called my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, at the time and basically said, you know – she’s a singer – and said, “I think I’m going to pursue a career in opera,” and the languages are part of that.
I think it was this experience of no longer having to think about what I was saying. Just being able to express myself that was, sort of, all mixed in there and so at that point, I decided, “Okay, well, I’m going to become a singer and I’m going to become fluent in these languages if I’m going to be serious about this,” and that was the start of two paths. I mean that was the start of the singing path and that was the start of the language path.
As that progressed, I finished both majors in 2007 and I moved out to Vienna at that point with my wife and we pursued Master’s Degrees in singing and so that’s basically the direction that the singing career went and it sort of, at this point, on hold because of the, I guess – what, the fourth career that came interfering with this book. So, where to go from here?
The language path – the languages began there in Middlebury. I went twice for German and basically got up to fluency just through those immersion programs. No special methods. Just doing what they told me to do and showing up. The key thing there is that they don’t allow any English and without English, you’re forced to think of German in terms of German and when you drop translating, it becomes a lot easier to remember. Words become a lot easier to use those words and it was a really key discovery for me that for one, how helpful it was and two, that it was possible.
I think a lot of people come into immersion – ideas, the idea that you could possibly learn German without English as well. Yeah, you could do that once you know German but I’ve done this without knowing a word of German. I mean I showed up there the first day. Someone shakes their hands, they say, “Hallo,” and you respond and you say, “Hallo,” and then they say, “Jacob,” or something and you figure out, okay, well Jacob is probably this guy’s name and it goes from there and this is a possible thing. This is something that can be done and then you discover that it makes everything easier and so, that was a key inside that came out of these programs.
In 2008, I went to Italy, to Perugia, to study Italian. I went there for six weeks and learned a lot. I didn’t learn as much – I mean I learned faster because I knew something about learning languages now cause once you get run (?) down, you get better but it wasn’t the same as Middlebury because every 50 minutes, they take a break and all the students speak to each other in English because that’s language that people speak together. I mean, our class, I think we had 10 people in our class and 12 nations and still everyone, because that it’s English, everyone will speak English in between classes even if their class is in Italian. But I picked up a fair bit of Italian and I basically developed my method in anticipation of French.
I had basically cheated on an entrance exam for Middlebury. I decided to go to Middlebury. I did not want to be in Level 1 French and so, I used Google Translate. I cheated on this test and did well. And so, they sent me back my results and they said, “Okay, well, you’re placed into Second Year French,” and I didn’t know any French and I had three months to French. And French basically converse a little bit. I didn’t have any time because I was in the middle of Master’s Degrees, two Master’s – in Opera and Art Song. They have us working six days a week and I basically only had time on Tuesdays and an hour a day on the subway and so these programs, these space repetition programs and in general, I saw how people were using them. They were using translation so they knew that I could do better without translations.
Stephan: Could you explain a little bit more what space repetition programs are? What’s the concept behind that?
Gabe Wyner: Space repetition basically takes – it’s like flashcards on steroids. It’s hard and we’ll take the normal example of you have a flashcard that says, you know, “Dog” on one side and “Hund” on the other side or something, the German translation, and you look at this card today and you look at it a few times and you think, “Okay, well I remember this. Okay, I get it,” and usually, what you would do is you would study these a few times and decide, “Okay, I know this word and I’m done,” and now you can move on to the next word. Space repetition basically shows it to you today and then wait about four or five days before it shows it to you again. See it in four or five days and if you remember, if you remember then it keeps track of how you did and so it knows you can remember for five days. This time, let’s try 10 and if you can remember after 10 days, it’ll try again and let’s say, this time, let’s try 25 days, and by spacing this out, it forces it into your long-term memory in a very, very efficient manner.
In general, I was learning French – I spent an hour a day on this French at the time and I was learning 60 flashcards a day and maintaining everything I ever learned up to that point and so, in a three-month period, I learned something like 3,000-3,600 flashcards and I retained about 95% of them. Sort of a way of typing something in a computer and being guaranteed that you will remember everything you typed in for as long as you give this program your half-hour or hour a day and so they’re reputable programs. They’re like having an external brain. You just take stuff in your external brain and then a month later, it’s in your real brain and it’s just a question of what you’re going to put in there and my main innovation is not these programs. My main innovation is trying to figure out how do I put useful information in my brain because I knew [unintelligible] as much as something else as French and so that is basically what I did at that point was I used pictures, I set up concrete vocabularies of just, you know, this is a dog and this is a cat, this is a house and once I had enough concrete pictures, then I could start talking about these things. I could say, “Okay, the dog wags his tail,” “Okay, this is the word for tail. This is the word for dog. This is the word for, you know, my dog,” and you could start building up the grammar and start handling real definitions and once you can handle real definitions, the whole language opens up to you. I mean, the dictionary gives you every word and context gives you definitions of each of these words, usages, and concrete you can just suck in the rest of the language.
Stephan: Alright. Let me pause you here alright? Let’s wrap it up a little bit. So, you were a total beginner in French, right, and you panicked, right, before you were supposed to start the Middlebury Language School, Second Year French, and so at that time, you only had three times, right, to prepare yourself and you were also busy with you opera singing courses as well, right? So the only time you actually could study were the one hour commuting time in the MRT in the subway, right? So you were using these space repetition software with your Smartphone, right, to revise the vocab and also the grammar patterns and this software, what it does is it’s an automatic flash card program, right, and your innovation in terms of using this flash card program was that you did not, you know, add your English and then the translated word and the word in the target language. Instead of the English translation, you were using actual pictures, right? That I think is a very important point I got from your language blog is never use translations in your native language. Only use the pictures.
Gabe Wyner: Yes. It’s the abstract words. You know, what is the picture for economic situation? You can show pictures of money and you can show pictures of unemployment and things like these but these words require more than just a picture. At that point, the only way you’re going to be able to understand abstract words is by having a base vocabulary underneath that and so you form a picture vocabulary of the things that you can picture and then on top of that vocabulary, using that vocabulary, you build up to abstract words and you define them in French, sort of thing.
Stephan: Alright, okay. Now, we’ll dig deeper into your very specific language method a little bit later on but you know this one hour/day enabled you to build up a vocab, a passive vocab, or an active vocabulary of more than 3,000 words you said, right?
Gabe Wyner: 3,000 flash cards – I would say about 800 of them were grammar and I would say, at that time, I would say that was close to something like 1500 words. Some of them were duplicated. I would use them in the passive sense and nowadays, I duplicate everything because it makes the memorization process go much faster and it’s much more robust so for my Russian stuff, at this point, I think I have 7500 flash cards and I’m much happier with it. It makes it a much more comfortable review process.
Some think French, because it’s so close to English, you can get away with one card per word in some cases but with something like Russian where it’s really foreign, from English at least, then having two cards or if I were to learn something like Japanese, which I’m planning on doing in a year or so, I’m planning on having 3-4 flash cards per word and because it just makes it comfortable and internalize these words. But for the French, yes, I would say that was three months to probably about 1500-2000 vocabulary and pretty much most of the grammar and when I showed up, they put me in the advanced class, in the second to the last level that they have. Basically, I could converse in French in that point and it was comfortable thinking in French. It was slow. I mean, I had to, sort of, think a little bit. It wasn’t fluent, I wouldn’t say at that time but three months and an hour/day, I was sort of shocked, amazed that sitting in that room, in that first room, in the interview room because they place you based on an interview on the first day, that was the first time I’d ever spoken French in my life and I could think in French.
Stephan: So this was your kind of epiphany, right, in terms of language learning?
Gabe Wyner: I had no idea it would be that effective. I knew -
Stephan: I see. I see.
Gabe Wyner: I knew it would get me out of embarrassment. Don’t embarrass yourself on the first day. No idea I would basically get most of the French language in my head by that time and could spend the entire immersion program instead of trying to learn French, I could spend that time basically taking ownership of the French I had already.
Stephan: I see. I see. It’s awesome.
Gabe Wyner: It was a really wonderful experience. I had no idea that it would be that effective and it was and so that’s what I’m trying to get out there.
Stephan: And after this experience with French, you started your blog, Tower of Babel fish.
Gabe Wyner: Yes. I began this whole process really as my Master’s Thesis. After French, I was nearly at the end of my program. I needed to write a thesis and asked my advisers if it would be appropriate to write a thesis on how singers should learn languages. They approved it and so I spent that summer, I guess it was – it must have been the summer of 2011 – just writing out this Master’s Thesis. I finished it in October of 2011, must be, and looking at it, I learned about how to use frequency lists, which was sort of a new addition to my arsenal of tools and just a lot of little bits of why some of these work, how the brain works, that sort of thing, and so the research going into that thesis was helpful in that I discovered a few more tools but mostly just interesting.
It was fun to figure out, you know, why does this stuff work and the eventual goal of this thesis was that I wanted to write a book about this. I figured this is important information and would be interesting work and so I wrote the thesis with the intention of eventually turning this into a book and after I finished it, I began this blog and I began basically making up this article for Lifehacker and trying to get it on to their site.
Stephan: Could you explain what kind of site Lifehacker is?
Gabe Wyner: Life Hacker is a large blog. They get, I believe, 13 million users a month and [unintelligible] unique computer programs that will help you manage your time better and if you turn your toaster on its side, you can make a grilled cheese sandwich in it. It’s sort of, whatever that span is - its ways to make your life a little bit easier as you progress – earlier and tried it on a few little, smaller communities on Reddit and saw that it was a good match for this audience and so I thought, “Okay, this is the blog I want to get on to.”
Stephan: Right, and so you approached Lifehacker.
Gabe Wyner: I did. They are curated sites so they have 2-3 editors and 5 or 6 writers and post about 8 things a day, I think maybe 8-10 something like that, and so you can’t just post your thing on to Lifehacker and hope that someone likes it. You have to actually get one of the writers to approve it and post it themselves.
Stephan: I see. And you wrote your article first and then you contacted the writer?
Gabe Wyner: I contacted the first editor and gotten a response and then I contacted the second editor and gotten response and I kind of just went down the list and I contacted one person a week and I think the 3rd or 4th writer down, Melanie Pinola, she just sent me back an email almost immediately and said, “Oh, this is cool. I’ll post it tomorrow.”
Stephan: Okay, awesome.
Gabe Wyner: I had been working on trying to get that on to Lifehacker for about a month and started basically giving up on it but it seems like for these sorts of websites, the real tactic is make sure you contacted everybody.
Stephan: Okay, that’s a very valuable tip. Okay, and at that point, your blog called Tower of Babelfish was already online, right?
Gabe Wyner: Yes and the first content in terms of the International Phonetic Alphabet and just pronunciation tools. One of the things I do bring to the table in terms of language learning that most people don’t get to have is my music training. As an opera singer, you have years of diction training where you learn the International Phonetic Alphabet. You learn how your mouth works and how to pronounce all of these sounds. Makes it much easier to learn this way not just because your accent sounds better but because your ear can hear these things better and you remember words better because the sounds are not so unfamiliar that it’s hard to remember. You hit some words in Icelandic like “Snifa”. These words sound crazy and the idea of trying to remember them is very difficult until the sounds become deep ingrained in your ear and in your brain, in your mouth, and that’s something I brought to the table.
So one of the big themes of the content I’m trying to have in my website is giving other people the opportunity to train their ears quickly because it’s such enormous help.
Stephan: Right and ultimately, you know, this small amount of time you’re investing upfront will save you later on a lot of time, right, figuring out how to pronounce the sounds correctly.
Gabe Wyner: It will save you a ton of time and what’s more, there are myths about language learning that, you know, after the age of seven, you cannot learn a good accent and they’re not true. Every opera singer must learn the proper accent or else they cannot sing in these languages. You cannot go up on a stage and sing in a horrible American-Italian and expect that anyone will hire you.
All it takes is job pressure – the sense that, well, if you don’t, then you won’t get hired to magically overcome this barrier of us all being more than seven years old and having to learn four languages. Then, it just can’t be true that there’s this period beyond which you cannot learn an accent.
Stephan: Right, right.
Gabe Wyner:: And so, what happens when you start with an accent is that you don’t have to overcome your bad habits. If you spend 10 years learning English or in American high school, five years learning Spanish and you’ve done it the entire time with a bad accent, then at this point, you have 2000, 3000 words stuck in your head with an American accent. How do you unlearn those? Just learning them correctly from the beginning.
Stephan: Okay, that’s great. I mean, your background as a professional singer and you know what, I’ve watched your tutorial on the International Phonetic Alphabet and it’s awesome, right. I’ve never seen such a comprehensive tutorial on how to pronounce sounds. That was very revealing for me. Seriously, honestly, I’ve always been kind of intimidated by learning this phonetic alphabet because they have these weird letters and some letters all sound the same and so forth. But after watching your video, it really became clear to me that it’s really an asset if you are learning this beforehand and then afterwards, you can tackle any sound in any language.
Gabe Wyner: It’s a wonderful tool. I think you’re right. These sort of scary symbols are scary. I mean, like French where you have familiar letters, at least in an American trying to learn French. The letters look familiar. So should I have to learn scary letters?
Stephan: Right. That’s what I thought, yeah.
Gabe Wyner: And I think there are ways around it but I think you’re able to save time by learning more.
Stephan: Right, I see. Okay, so this is actually the tool if you’re learning the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s kind of – it will give you access or an advantage to actually master any accent in a different language, isn’t it?
Gabe Wyner: Yeah. The magical thing about the phonetical alphabet is that every letter corresponds to a mouth shape, instruction manual for your mouth and it is something that no other alphabet can provide. You can’t simply look up the letter ‘B’ and say, “Okay, how do I pronounce – where do my lips go for ‘B’?” But you can’t for every single symbol on the International Phonetic Alphabet so it’s a pretty powerful tool.
Stephan: Okay and I saw that on your website, you were also offering an Anki Tech, a space repetition tech that people can download so you can learn this IPA in a rather efficient and effective way.
Gabe Wyner: Yeah, it’s been pretty successful. There have been a lot of people downloading that deck and so far, I’ve only gotten good comments on it. I mean, people are, in general, pretty happy with it. So, that’s been, sort of, one of the goals that’s freaking me out. How do I make this scary alphabet look, not just look, frankly, but actually be friendly? How can you get this out really quickly?
Stephan: Right, and how long does it take a for an absolutely newbie using your Anki Tech you created yourself and put a lot of time and effort in creating it, how much time, how many days or weeks do I need to really ace the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet?
Gabe Wyner: I believe in that deck, I mean that focuses on the sounds of “-ing” and so uses mostly familiar sounds for most people reading the website. I believe there are 150, 160 cards in it. If you are going to give it 20 minutes a day, then you should be able to get through all of those cards within eight days. I mean the very first review and in general, each Anki card tends to be really start sitting in to your memory and becoming familiar within four repetitions and so if you’re giving it 20 minutes a day, I’ll say within about two weeks. You should start getting pretty comfortable with the alphabet.
Stephan: Alright, okay. That doesn’t sound too long, okay, in terms of time investment, okay? Because I always felt totally overwhelmed to figure out it all by myself or reading manuals, really boring manuals and the way how you presented it on YouTube and especially the Anki Tech, I downloaded it myself. It’s tutorial-wise awesome. So I’m pretty confident that I know at least 50% of the IPA now and yeah, I’m excited to apply it in my language studies as well.
Gabe Wyner: That’s great. I’m glad it’s been helpful.
Stephan: Alright, okay. Let’s go back to your career path a little bit. So you posted your language post on Lifehacker and it really became nuts. It became kind of viral, right, and from one day to the next day, your blog, The Tower of Babel fish, attracted, at its peak time, 10,000 visitors per
Gabe Wyner: Yeah, it was insane. It was more, in terms of – at this point, I think 630-640,000 people have read that article and I don’t even understand what those numbers mean. I know one or two people in my life. The article started the book career. Lifehacker started my book career. Within two hours of the article being published and I immediately took that offer and – I didn’t accept that offer but I contacted agents in New York, I contacted 10 agents –
Stephan: I’m sorry. Let me stop you here. Within two hours, this article went online. Within two hours, you received an offer from a publishing firm.
Gabe Wyner: I received interest from a publishing firm.
Stephan: Interest. But they contacted within two hours. So after your blog post was online, was uploaded on this Lifehacker website, a very famous and very popular blog, right, that is frequented by millions of people each month, you got this offer. You were contacted by the publishing firm within two hours.
Gabe Wyner: At that point, I already had 50,000 views and I basically immediately took this and at the time, I had already been working at a proposal. I own a book, for any of your viewers, that want to be going to this arena, in book publishing, especially non-fiction book publishing, there’s a book called, “Think Like Your Editor,” which is a fantastic tool for making proposals that are effective and the proposal is basically a couple of sample chapters, the table of contents, and mark all, about half of it or more as marketing.
Who’s your target audience, how much money goes into this arena, how are you going to market to this people – and so, I have already basically drafted up a proposal and sent it off to a friend to edit. The Lifehacker post came online and she was finishing the edits basically right when it hit the Internet.
I got the offer from the publisher. I immediately called agents. I looked up on Amazon for similar books, language books, how-to manuals, business guides of just sort of practical, you know, how to start up a business, how to do whatever, and looked into the acknowledgements because you can look at the acknowledgements for any Amazon book and the acknowledgements will always say, “Thank you to my –
Stephan: Sorry, can you repeat the last sentence? The connection was cut off. “Thank you for --
Gabe Wyner: It will always say, “Thank you to my agent,” and you just take blank, blank and you write down their name and you contact them. There are lots of ways of contacting agents. Usually, Publishers Marketplace is the website that you pay them $10 and you get access to all their contact info.
And so I looked for similar books. I found the agents that represent these books and I contacted, I was on the phone all day basically for two days. The article came out on Thursday and I spent all of Thursday and all of Friday on the phone and basically said I have publisher interest representation immediately. All of them asked for the proposal which is not normal. It’s difficult to get agents to actually look at your proposal but because of the Lifehacker thing, I was able to do this. They read it. I got an offer from an agent one day later on Friday, thought about it over the weekend, and jumped for her, and got one of the best agents out. Lisa Dimona is a saint. She’s so good.
We spent a month working on a proposal together, sending it back and forth and then she sent it to 20 publishers and ended up getting three interested publishers and one of those was Crown Archetype at Random House with Rick Horgan as the editor and Rick was interested in this book because he is an English language nerd.
Stephan: What’s his name again, sorry?
Gabe Wyner: Horgan.
Stephan: Horgan, okay.
Gabe Wyner: He is the Vice President of Crown Archetype and the Executive Editor and he’s just a wonderful editor. Amazing, amazing editor. He kicks my butt which is great and he has personal interest in this book and I jumped on his offer. We didn’t wait for the other publishers. He did what is called a “pre-empt” where basically they give you an offer and they try to snatch your book away from the market before people bid on it. Usually, you go for a bidding war where you have three publishers interested and one says, “I’ll give you this,” the one says, “I’ll give you this,” and you choose who you want to go. But we let Rick do the pre-empt because Rick was personally interested and there’s nothing you can’t replace – you can’t replace someone who is personally invested in your project.
Stephan: Right, got it. And you know, may I ask what’s in for you, I mean in terms of money and monetary reward, what did you receive and what can you expect to receive in the future from your book?
Gabe Wyner: Can’t give you these attributes but the way the advance process works with non-fiction is according to the “Think Like Your Editor” book, it’s between $50,000 and $400,000 for an advance. Those upper ranges are not going to happen for anyone who is not already a celebrity, has already written books, and proven an audience and the lower ranges can be lower. I mean I’ve heard stories of publisher’s just sort of getting books for pennies and the dollar. And so the $50,000 is not the bottom of the scale but they do pay fairly well.
The issue with the advance thing is that it happens in payments. You don’t get a bunch of money all upfront and so in my case, mine’s divided across basically 12 payments upon signing a contract, upon delivering the book, upon publishing the book, and then six months later. So that can take quite a long time. I’ve heard, in general, for fiction, between selling your book and publishing your book takes usually two years. I suspect that that’s going to happen with this book as well. At this point, I’m delivering the book – I had thought I could deliver this book in November, last November, not going to happen. Not in any lifetime of mine yet. That didn’t happen so we just moved the deadline to June 1st. That I think I can handle just fine.
The book is going to be a lot better than I expected honestly. Going through Rick and seeing the standard against which I’m being judged, it forces you to grow very quickly and I’m becoming a writer, which is not what I expected to really be. I can actually write well, which is this new thing, which has been very difficult to learn and has been an amazing sort of process and in the end, this book is going to be the product of probably 10 months at 50 hours/week of work, and that’s not including any of the work going into learning languages and developing these ideas. That’s just words that are going to express these ideas. So it’s an extraordinary amount of work writing a book. I had no idea.
Stephan: So you’re doing it now full-time, right?
Gabe Wyner: I’m doing it full, full, full-time. I mean, if I’m not writing, then I’m at least thinking about it but in general, except right now in the middle of vacation, I’ve been sitting in front of a computer for 40-50 hours/week.
Stephan: Okay, that’s intense. So you know, that’s very interesting – your journey from, I think the epiphany or how everything got started was with your blog post at Lifehacker, right, and then from then, it went nuts and it create attraction, you received contacts. People contacted you from publishing firm and one very valuable advice you gave to us was also to conduct research at Amazon, look for books that are similar to yours, how-to books in a non-fiction area, check out the acknowledgements, write down the names of the editors, and then you went to a website - I don’t know what’s the name of the website to receive the contact?
Gabe Wyner: Publishers Marketplace.
Stephan: Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Publishers?
Gabe Wyner: Publishers Marketplace.
Stephan: Okay, Publishers Marketplace. For a small fee, you can access contact information of the agents as well, right, and what you did beforehand was also writing these three chapters, right, and this kind of pitch. What’s the technical term for that?
Gabe Wyner: It’s called a proposal.
Stephan: Okay, okay. The proposal, alright, and where can you learn how to write a proposal?
Gabe Wyner: This book called “Think like Your Editor” is the best that I’m aware of for this topic. It just lays it out, straight-up. It tells you the beginning, the end, the middle, all these stuff. Every part of the proposal and how to proposal and how to write it so that it’s effective and it’s a very good how-to book. You just sort of follow the instructions with the proposal. That’s pretty good.
Stephan: Alright, so you already got your proposal and with this proposal on your bag and also with your Lifehacker post on your bag right, these two things were critical in order to lure agents, right? So agents were actually willing to read your proposal and eventually, you’ll find a very, very good one and she eventually started – she was editing your proposal as well, right, together with you? So you got your agent on board, editing the proposal, make it perfect, and then afterwards, she was sending the proposal to her contacts – high-quality contacts, high-end contacts, right, and the publishing firms? And then afterwards, yeah, and then finally, you seal the book deal and with Crown Archetype and could you talk a little bit more about Crown Archetype and the importance of Crown Archetype in the publishing industry?
Gabe Wyner: Yeah, I visited them few months ago for the first time and they’re in the middle of the Random House building and so you get to walk into this building where in the lobby, there are two giant, giant walls on each side with all the books that have gone through Random House or Double Day or all the giant empire that they are for the last hundred years and it sort of process for you, because in the beginning, this was such a cool, cool, just like, “Wow, this cool thing is happening to me,” and that made it much more serious because you walk by these books and these are basically a third of the books I’ve ever read. You walk by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the Helen Keller Autobiography and all of these milestones of literature and it come through this building, or at least these companies.
Crown, basically, is the appropriate division of Random House that would publish a sort of how-to business, sort of, book. They aren’t looking at textbooks. They aren’t looking at academic books. They’re looking at mass audiences and just how do you teach people how to do something that’s new or cool and that’s one big chunk of Crown. There are other chunks in terms of biography and they do all sorts of stuff but in general, Crown is looking for the large audiences. That’s exactly what I wanted. The original publisher that have contacted after Lifehacker was more of a textbook publisher. It wasn’t what I was looking for in terms of this book because I think there’s a really wide demand for language. I mean I’ve not met anyone who is not, when they’re asking, “Oh, what are you doing right now?” I say I’m writing a book that’s not asked for more information about this because I haven’t met people who don’t want to learn languages.
Stephan: Right. It’s a universal need, so to speak, right? This demand for languages and this – how do you say – this craving for learning languages will never end but it’s all about the method I think and keeping up the motivation, that’s the thing, most people struggle with and is as well. I also want that’s not asked for more information about this because I haven’t met people who don’t want to learn languages.
I also want to share my experience. I’ve been researching language acquisition methods for one year quite extensively due to my research in the field of East Asian Studies. So I had to learn multiple languages as well and up to academic level and I’ve struggled a lot and you know what, I’ve always thought to myself, “No, the way how languages are taught – it’s not right. It was an inner feeling, deep feeling inside me and there must be a better way somehow, you know,” because language learning, I think it’s a myth that you only can master one, two languages in your lifetime that are not your natives ones and you know, I was asking myself how am I supposed to master Korean, Mandarin, and maybe Japanese within my PhD studies framework that lasts four years. That’s impossible, right?
So I was thinking very intensively and there is a new world was opening in front of my eyes – the world of polyglots and more effective and practical language acquisition method. I know the methods, so to speak, but I think your approach, your language approach is one of the most comprehensive and it’s really the whole package, I think, and it really makes sense because I’ve tested many methods myself but your recommendation of learning the IPA first, the International Phonetic Alphabet first, it’s gold hand. It makes sense and you’re really the first who is proposing that and the second one is combining space repetition methods software with pictures. So not using translations at all. This is all something new and unique I haven’t discovered before.
But the first pillar as I can remember is to learn high frequency words first, right? But this kind of technique is a pattern that most polyglots advocate I believe, right? So what you were suggesting and you were offering these words also on your website, to learn the 400 most frequent words first and these words will give you a head start and the 400 most important words kind of represent more than 50% of the practical usage of any given language.
Gabe Wyner: Yeah, Russian was the first language I did with this because in French, I didn’t know any. I just knew space repetition. I knew the pronunciation. I knew that if I started with pictures, it would go well but I wrote this thesis and I learned about this frequency lists and they’re just very powerful and so I write it and it’s a wonderful experience of showing up to Middlebury again cause I like to finish off my languages in Middlebury cause there’s nowhere else where you going to get that much speech practice at once. And so, I had spent six months on Russian and I’d done it with a frequency list. I’ve learned basically the top thousand words first and I showed up there and they gave you this essay – the entrance interview which is 15 minutes sort of interview about everything about yourself in Russian and then you have all these written tests and there was this essay where they gave you four questions and you’re supposed to fill out all four questions and the first question was, you know, “You have a party. What will you buy?” Basic beginner Russian. I could not answer this question because it’s not – on a frequency list, you don’t go through, you know, “I will buy strawberries and chips and things like these.” These are not foods.
In a Russian class, you’ll go through all the foods, go through all the clothing, and all these sorts of things and I haven’t done that. I had learned frequent words. So I put down something like, you know, “Vodka and beer and all these sort of things,” and I couldn’t really answer the question and then the second question was, “Okay, well you have a friend. Describe your friend.” Now I start getting some vocabulary for my frequency lists. Now I have some stuff in my head I can use, not very much. I don’t know, you know all of the hair and short hair but I could basically say, “Okay, well, here’s my friend. She’s a really nice guy. He has, you know, brown eyes and he’s kind of tall and whatever.” Acceptable answer.
So first question basically, failed the first question. The second question I had something to say. The third question was, you know, “Describe your journey.” This I could do. I had no problem describing what had happened the last few days and how I felt and I was basically conversing. I could talk about things and so I could function on this level. And then the last, you know, “Describe the economic situation with teachers,” because some people think teachers should be paid according to the performance of their students and some people think that teachers should be paid based upon their own efforts. You know, difficult political, sort of question about economy and stuff and here I have, endless vocabulary and I could just discuss endlessly, you know, “Okay, I disagree with societal thing but so I think this and this and this,” and I can only imagine the person grading my test.
They go to the first page and they say Russian. They go to the second page and as every page, I get better with Russian. The experience of using frequency lists is that you can talk about meaningful things pretty much immediately with a very small vocabulary and then I had 1000-1500 word vocabulary and yet I could talk about political things, about economic situations, about teachers and how they should relay to their students and pretty much anything that matter and there were still holes in my vocabulary in terms of, you know, can you list every… I can find in the market? No, I couldn’t but what is the vocabulary you need. For me, it’s just sort of seeing the limits of frequency lists and seeing what they can give you and what they can do for me.
Stephan: Okay, that’s awesome. You know what? I’ve been digging your website as well and you know, one very powerful technique you recommend to your readers is first of all, learn the 400 most basic, frequency words and you’re offering them and then start building to a number of 2000, right, that’s what I believe you advocate. So really, kick-ass in the first 2,000 so to speak and this will give you a very good foundation and these are the words really need in any given language, right?
So don’t start wasting your time with, you know, I don’t know, with too specialized words you won’t use in practical, everyday conversation, right, and you won’t encounter. So really kick-ass the first 2000 and then afterwards, you know, depending on your interest and depending on your needs, start customizing. Start only learning those that are really important for you and in your case, it would be musical terms, right? So terms that are important for opera singers and then there are a lot of thousands of different terms that you have to ace, right, and you don’t want to waste learning terms for, I don’t know, for medical or other areas. So you’re specializing in music and that’s your field, right?
Gabe Wyner: Yeah, I mean whatever your interests are. In general, I jump from food and so I will zero in on the food vocabulary in every language pretty much as soon as I can but if you’re not interested in that or if you’re not interested, I mean any field that you’re interested in; you just don’t need that vocabulary in general. You need maybe a few terms and you shouldn’t – if you hate politics, you just don’t know the word “Politics,” it’s enough to say, “I hate politics.”
But, in general, use the vocabulary you’ll need. This is your language. So it needs to become yours. I think one of the issues with an approach – I always get the question, “Okay, well, what’s the difference between you and Rosetta?” cause they’re using pictures. At this point, I’m starting to use sounds. I’m starting to take recordings from Porvo.com and putting them into my Hungarian cart cause I’m learning Hungarian right now. So I have pictures. I have sounds. I have words. This is Rosetta, right? No.
The main difference between me and Rosetta is that mine is active. Rosetta shows you words which will give you some vocabulary. I mean I still remember the word – I did Rosetta a little bit, like I did the sample from Swahili or something. My wife and I still remember, “mpira” means ball but if you want to start learning more abstract words, this takes personal connections. If you want to learn the word for economy, you need to know what economy means for you and so that requires an active approach. You need to say, “This is the word I want. I’m going to take it. This is what it means for me.” For example, I’m going to use to teach this to myself and so in this way, you start getting ownership for your language and you start getting a mastery of your words.
Stephan: Okay, got it. Now, let’s wrap it up. Today, we covered three very broad topics. So the first one is, you know, spread your career risk. The second one is how to learn any language, right? And the third one is how to seal a book deal. Could you wrap up each topic, yeah, what are the steps to take so that our audience can really take away the message, the most important message?
Gabe Wyner: Okay, give me number one.
Stephan: Yeah, so first of all, why and how to spread your career risk? I mean, especially in your case, you were aiming or you’re still aiming at – I mean, you already are fully-trained opera singer, right, and I guess opera singing and the competition situation on the job market is – it’s brutal, right? It’s not even comparable to the academic job market, right? That’s already fierce. It’s brutal and I’m thinking, you know, that I’m advocating to spread your career risk because if you’re only having one goal and if your whole life depends on it, right, and it will not turn out the way you wish, then it’s really the worst case scenario you can think of, isn’t it, right?
And you managed to back it up with your book deal and with your language expertise so this is really the perfect example of spreading your career risk. I mean, what’s your take on that? I mean, no other people might think – and I’m a big believer in focus too and academia in itself is somehow always overwhelming in itself and many viewers might think that it’s absolutely impossible to pursue multiple careers at once and start a business simultaneously. So what is your take on that and how do you combine this need to focus to get things done and to pursue your career but also to spread your career risk at the same time?
Gabe Wyner: I agree with you. I mean you have to focus and so on some level, where you’re saying that some people say, “Well, you can’t possibly do this,” on some level, they’re right. I was not able to pursue an engineering career at the same time as my music career. At this point, I’m working full-time on my book and I can’t work on my music and so you have a limited number of hours a day and you have to spend them in some manner.
But – and there is a but, if you’re pursuing things that you’re interested in, if you, you know for my singing, one of the things I learned about my singing is that I could – I had an excuse to learn languages. Then, that’s what I used, was that I found this aspect of my current career and I said, “Well, I’m going to focus extra on this aspect,” and that created which other career which now I have to deal with. I have to decide, “Okay, well am I going to be an author or a singer?” That’s a choice that’s going to come up.
For now, I have to write this book and its due in June so I know exactly what I’m doing but after doing that, then we have some decisions to make. But if you’re doing things that you’re interested in, they give you energy. Sort of, if you read some book that says, “Okay, well, this is how you start a business,” and you have enough personal interest in the business, then that will bring you the idea of trying to pursue a career in academia and then pursuing an additional career in some unrelated business that you don’t care about. Imagine that being very difficult and very dragging.
But if you were in history and you love history and it gives you life and you decide you want to write about history and you find a book on writing a proposal, then you write a proposal on the aspect of history you’re interested in, that will not be difficult to spend an 80-hour week doing that. In a way that deciding that you’re going to start a hotdog stand or something and you don’t like hotdogs, it’s not going to happen. It’s too much work. But with something, I can imagine – and I have lived this - where you just spend the time because it gives you life. It’s easier to do things you’re interested in. It’s stimulating to do things you’re interested in.
Stephan: Right. Okay, that’s a great answer. I mean, I believe – what I can extract from your answer is really to pursue something that you’re passionate about, right? If you are choosing to do, you know, something on the side, right, it must be something you’re passionate about and secondly, try to make usage of synergies. If you’re already fond of history and if ideally, you’re a history researcher, right, start a blog on history, right, or write a book about history but a more, you know, not an academic book, rather a book for the masses, right? So that eventually can become a best-seller and provides you and you know, a steady stream of income for future.
Gabe Wyner: The thing that sells anything, the thing that anyone is looking for and the thing that creates businesses that people frequent is enthusiasm, right? And it’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from this book is that the book-process thinking, it’s just a process of writing down ideas and it’s not. It’s a process of writing down into enthusiasm. That is what people are looking for.
I read this book that my editor had edited in 2007 called “Thank You for Arguing,” a book about rhetoric – how to speak and how to argue. It’s a topic I’m sort of interested in but not personally a big thing about it. I haven’t read anything else about rhetoric but what is conveyed in that book immediately is that this man who has written this book loves rhetoric. It makes you read the book and it makes you buy the book and it makes other people buy the book. The thing that makes something successful is watching someone be enthusiastic about something and someone who’s able to convey this.
So if you’re enthusiastic about something, you have something to offer even if it’s some, you know, crazy thing that no one has ever heard of and they think that you’re a complete nerd for loving. If you love it, you can convey that and that is what people are looking for. They’re looking for just to feel your excitement.
Stephan: Right, right. I mean, if you’re not excited, then why would you expect that other people would be, right?
Gabe Wyner: Yeah.
Stephan: Okay, the first take-away message from the first big topic, first one is how to spread your career risk and pick something your passionate about. So that’s very important and try to make use of synergies, right? You do not have to do something totally unrelated. That wouldn’t be a good usage of your own time, right, and then, ultimately, you will feel overwhelmed because you’re trying to pursue two very big careers at the same time. That’s not possible, right? Focus on your big thing and then do something on your side that is kind of related with the one big career you’re pursuing, right?
Okay, the second big topic I’d like to breakdown for our audience is how to learn any language. So could you break down the actionable steps for the audience? If you are a total beginner, what are the steps you should take?
Gabe Wyner: The steps you should take – Step #1 [Unintelligible] language. Probably your easiest way is going to be learning the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’ll take weeks and you’ll get a basic idea of how sounds work.
Stephan: I want to add here that you are offering a great Anki Deck, a space repetition deck on your blog, right that can be downloaded for very small amount of money and it’s really awesome and with this deck, I believe you can ace the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet within two weeks time.
Gabe Wyner: And the videos first. All of these space repetition things, they only work if you already have the learning experience, finding yourself with that learning experience. If you just, sort of, use these cards in the process of studying, you don’t get the same effect. So watch the videos then do this deck if you’re going to do the deck thing.
Stephan: Right. And the YouTube videos are on your website for free to watch, right?
Gabe Wyner: So, step one: learn the sounds of your language. In building a vocabulary out of concrete words, things that you can say and things that you can get pictures of, build this in Anki. Build this in a space repetition program. As you do this, if you focus on each of these words, then you’re doing two things at once. You’re starting to build a vocabulary of things that you can actually think of. You see them and you think of them instead of trying to translate but almost more importantly, where may be 50-50, is that you’re building up that sound foundation. The word becomes very familiar and so when you start learning abstract words, you don’t have to trip over sounds. It’s become internal. It’s become something that you live and breathe. It’s just these are the sounds of my new language.
So step one, sounds; step two, concrete vocabulary with the sounds of each word correct. Step three is grammar. Now that we have some words, you can go to your grammar book and start using examples, you know, “I eat,” “He eats” – these sorts of things and you’re using fill in the blanks. You know, “The dog wags his tail.” Okay, well, I’m going to use, “The dog _______ his tail,” and I’m going to put in “to wag” and now I’m going to know how to conjugate this verb. You get a few examples in your space repetition and it will be enough to get the basics of grammar in your language.
Stephan: Okay, so let me pause you there. So you’re using fill in the blanks, right, and put these fill in the blanks and also into the space repetition software, right? You’re using Anki, right? Anki is a space repetition software and this will help you also to ace the grammar.
Gabe Wyner: Yes. Okay, the grammar books already have – they already give you all these exercises with answers in the back and they say, you know, “Fill in the blank. This is the dog. I go to the store,” and then you put in, “I go ____ the store,” and now I know the preposition “to.” Just steal from your grammar books. Take one example from every chapter. It will be enough because of the space repetition. It will just push it into your head so you don’t need to do all these rope-long, thousands of conjugations. Just do one of each conjugation, one of each type of verb, and you’re done. It’s enough.
Stephan: Okay, next step.
Gabe Wyner: Next step, you have grammar. You have a basic vocabulary. You can start adding the real vocabulary, all of these abstract words. Take your frequency list. Go down this list and find an example for each word. Use Google Images. It will give you an illustrated story for every word in your language. It is the biggest illustrated book that has ever existed in history of mankind. It has 10 billion entries; at least it did a few years ago. At this point, it probably has more. And you’ll find basically fill in the blank, illustrated stories that you can create for every single word in your new vocabulary. Incredible tool and enough to learn every word in your language, literally every word. I found 100,000 images and captions for “aiguillage,” a train switch in French. 100,000 examples of train switch, a word I will never use in my life. If you use Google Images now that you have some grammar, you’ll be able to learn basically the rest of your vocabulary and all of these example sentences will build up your grammar. That’s basically it. I mean, past that, everything else is – you’re talking about reading books, you’re talking about watching a TV series. There’s some cool tricks you can use with Wikipedia and TV series where you can kind of read a summary in Russian of Lost, which was what I’ve been doing – read the episode summary in Russian and you watch an episode of Lost in Russian with no subtitles and you get a ton. You just suck it all in.
I mean everything else is just input. You start writing things. Most of the grammar that I learned is just from me writing and getting corrections at LanguageAid.com. There are all these tips and turns in getting input but those four steps in the beginning in terms of sound, basic vocabulary, grammar, and an advanced vocabulary – that’s the core and that will give you a language for the most part.
Stephan: Okay, awesome. Thank you so much for that. And the last big topic I’d like you to break down in actionable steps is how to land a book deal. How do you proceed?
Gabe Wyner: Okay, book deals are all about platform. It’s everything that my agent added to my proposal. The month that we spent editing had nothing to do with the content of my book. It had everything to do with platform. Platform means that I have a blog. I have people going to a blog, going to this blog. I have a plan for getting more people to go to this blog based from my book. This will sell the book for the publisher. Publishers have no interest in selling a book for you. They’ll do some because they want to make more money but they want to see that you can do it yourself.
And so, nowadays, the main strategy for this is blogs. Actionable steps: Pick a topic that you’re passionate about, just like in our first beginning, and start writing about it and finding things that people will hear. Make this blog. Start putting content on it. Content is everything. If you have an empty blog, no one will go to it. Fill this blog with content and then start guest-posting on various websites. Find websites that you can find that would care about your topic and submit articles to them and contact them. Keep asking. Don’t stop asking until they tell you, “Go away.”
For guest posts, you know, send them articles and say, you know, “You have this article and I will not post it on my website. Just please link back to me,” and build your content and build your user base. And once you have a blog and once you’ve demonstrated that you can attract users and that there are users and that there are readers and there is a market for this, then put this into a proposal. Get the book, “How to Think Like Your Editor.” Go through the steps of building a proposal. Make it clear how you have – what is your platform, how are you going to sell this book and then start contacting a proposal. Get the book, “How to Think Like Your Editor.” Go through the steps of building a proposal. Make it clear how you have – what is your platform, how are you going to sell this book and then start contacting agents.
Go to Amazon; find similar books in similar genres. Make sure that they are actually similar. About half of the agents I contacted were not for books that were actually similar to mine even though I thought they were. They were books like, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” Joshua Foer. There’s some overlap but it’s not the same type of book. Mine’s a how-to book. This is a journalism book. So figure out what your genre is, figure out who your readers are, and find books that are similar. Look in their acknowledgements, find their agents, and contact them and just with a quick cover letter and say, “I have this book. The -- is gigantic. I have a proposal. Can I send it to you?” and call them. Phone was pretty effective in general. People were willing to listen to me and willing to – once you’ve spoken with someone, even with the assistant – you’ll usually get the assistant of the agent – you can say, “Okay, I spoke with John. John says I should send you a proposal.” That’s all you need. Just need the assistant to say, “Send in your proposal.” You write that in your cover letter. At this point, I had a little bit of a way in and they’ll read it and once you have that, that’s basically the process of getting a book deal.
You’re starting with content. You’re starting with building a user base and you’ll basically putting out in print and saying, “Here’s my user base. Here’s my content. Buy my book.”
Stephan: Okay, awesome. Thank you so much. You know, this was a very valuable interview to many, many users, I guess. We learned so many different things. So first of all, how to spread your career risk. Second, how to learn any language more effectively and really, you broke it down step by step and also how to land a book deal. So, thank you so much Gabe Wyner for this awesome interview. Well, as soon as your book comes out, please let us know so our viewers can get their hands on.
Gabe Wyner: Thank you.
Stephan: Okay, bye-bye.
Gabe Wyner: Alright.
Mentioned books, links and resources
- Tower of Babelfish
- Gabe Wyner's YouTube Channel
- Gabe Wyner's Website
- Anki flashcard program
- English Pronounciation / International Phonetic Alphabet Anki Deck
- Middleburry Language School
- Crown Archetype