One of the most common questions that is asked among language learners is “What is the best way to learn a language?” Despite what everyone might reply to it, the only truly valid answer is “It depends”.
Not everyone learns in the same way. They need to find which method works best for them. It might be very structured or completely random. They might work best with audio or require a book regiment. I have divided the most basic ways of learning into six distinct methods.
1. Audio Courses
Some of the most popular audio course systems are Pimsleur, which uses a spaced repetition method of helping you remember new words, and Michel Thomas, which simulates a classroom setting for a single person. Audio courses are also available from online podcasts, live or recorded.
Audio courses can provide you with an instant feel for the sound of the language. You can also quickly build up a conversational vocabulary. An added benefit is that they can be used while you are doing something else, like driving or cleaning, since they leave your hands and eyes free.
A problem with audio courses is that they lack flexibility and pace of the learning itself. When you are listening to it, you must listen to each lesson as it is presented, without being able to select some parts of it and to skip others easily. You also have to go at the pace of the lesson, even if you are able to pick it up quickly.
Audio courses also quite often offer little or no written material to go with the course, meaning that while you are learning the sounds, you aren’t learning how anything is spelled, so after you have learned a large amount of vocabulary and phrases, your reading level will still be at zero. For that reason, you should use them as an introduction and perhaps as a refresher for hearing the language, while you use other materials as the main method of learning. An hour with a book course could easily surpass several hours with an audio course in terms of actual material learned.
2. Using Books
Books rule! Even if they are moving more and more to digital versions, they still provide us with the most helpful resources for leaning. A book can be accessed at any time, and any part of it can be utilized or ignored. No matter what you are doing to learn a language, you are most likely going to use a book of some kind during the process.
The main benefit of books, as I noted, is they are very versatile, as there are multiple kinds, and you can use them as little or as much as you need. They are usually very portable as well.
Downside is that they are very limited in their ability to help you speak, listen or interact, which are the main reasons you learn a language. You can learn the essentials of the language, including vocabulary and grammar, from course books, phrasebooks and dictionaries, but you will need to work with live people to practice your speaking and listen to media or audio courses to master your listening skills.
3. Attending Classes
While some people prefer self-study, most people usually talk about taking some kind of class as a way of learning a new language. Classes have many benefits, such as providing you with a structure for learning as well as direct access to others for practising your speaking and listening. Classes are also normally accompanied by books for reference and exercises.
Major drawbacks are costs and time. Unless a class is part of your normal school education, you will likely have to pay a large amount of money to take a class. That cost will be for use of the facility where the classes are being held, the costs of the books, and the pay of the teacher. The time issue is that the classes are normally held at fixed times, so you must change your schedule so you can attend them. This is different from all the methods that are self-study based.
Another major difference from self-study is the matter of pace. A class can only go as fast as the slowest learner, since the teacher will have to spend extra time making sure they understand. That means that while you are picking up the materials quickly, you will still need to spend the time in the class waiting for the slower learners. This can breed boredom, which can be deadly to any learning.
4. Software Based Learning
Personal computers have been around for over thirty years, and there are a number of companies that make software for them to aid in language learning. The biggest advantage with using a computer is that it can combine the versatility of the previous methods. Now that we also have more portable devices that can act as computers, like tablets and phones, software can also be used in far more places than the desk.
The software program for teaching languages vary greatly in how much they do for you. Some are basic game and drill systems. Some can aid in reading and listening. Prices also vary greatly from the relatively cheap to the very expensive. The only thing that software really can’t do for you is provide you with a real-time conversation, since a computer can’t really understand human language. The best it can do is simulate it is by responding to keywords and giving premade responses. These are largely inadequate even in a person’s native language.
5. Connecting on the Internet
The internet is the next step in the progression from computer software. Most of what can be done using software on a computer can be done on the internet, with the inclusion of the final component: human interaction. Not only can find a huge number of resources, both static and interactive, on the internet, but you can take what you learn from those and apply it directly with the ability to talk with other speakers all around the world. This communication can be done synchronously, using forums or getting feedback from what you write on a website, or asynchronously, in the form of real-time chats, either text or audio based. You can even talk with a native speaker, face-to-face, using chat software like Skype.
The internet has the largest potential of aiding you in your study. I say “potential” because you need to do some work on your own to find not only a good mix of materials and applications, but the ones that work for you. For some languages, you might find a huge number of materials, but for some, you might find almost nothing.
6. The Immersion Jump
I think the best method for learning a new language is through immersion, being described as “the way we all learn our first language as children”. The process is that you are constantly surrounded by the new language. People are only speaking it to you and you must respond in the language. All the surrounding media is also in it. You are “immersed” in a complete environment with the language.
It is also the hardest to obtain and maintain, since most of use don’t have the chance to travel to a place where the language we are studying is the one in major use. Even if we do, that can be expensive, especially if we must migrate to a country far away from us. It will depend on where you live and what you intend to study.
Most people will find some kind of balance between these different methods, and using the ones that better suit them over the others. You have undoubtedly experimented with at least a few of these, so I hope this post helps explain the others.
For a more in-depth look at these ways of studying, you should look into my book “Finding Your Way to Languages”, available in multiple ebook formats from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and a few other places. More details can be found here: “Finding Your Way to Languages”.
I also want to know if there are any major methods I missed. Which of these methods have you used? Which have you found work best for you and why? Share in the comments below or on social media like Facebook.