Commercial language courses would have you believe theirs is the only “right” way to learn a language, but people learn in different ways — and depending on your situation and goals, one approach may suit you better than another. In my experience as a language learner and a language teacher, there are four primary ways to learn a new language. Let’s take a deeper look.
Words are arguably the foundation of any language, so it’s easy to understand why many language courses start off matching pictures with representative words — just like flashcards in kindergarten. Granted, this is better with concrete nouns than with nuanced or abstract concepts, but it’s a great way for visual learners to get started with a language. Frequent repetition will help cement the words into your memory.
But as the saying goes, words alone do not a comprehensible sentence structure make. Without an appreciation of the target language’s grammar, tourists often sound like cavemen, with the conversational equivalents of “me bathroom,” or “beer you bring.”
Starting with grammar can be as exciting as practicing drills when you just want to play soccer. But if you like math or linguistics, you'll love discovering the formulas for constructing sentences according to rules. Learn the rules, learn the language.
Lessons may focus on grammar with just enough vocabulary to understand how the rules apply. Once you memorize the grammar rules, you can start fitting new vocabulary into grammatically correct constructions.
This method can be very good for reading and writing in the target language, where you’re guaranteed to encounter full sentences. Yet it might be more challenging for real-time conversation with waiters, bus drivers, or other random strangers who are likely to use casual constructions.
Most modern language schools team students in pairs or small groups to practice asking and answering questions. Lessons stress listening and responding. In this method, answers to standard questions are memorized. Practitioners of this methodology may throw in some grammar and theme-based vocabulary, but the emphasis is on helping the student quickly utter comprehensible, fluid sentences based on specific situations.
However, unlike the grammar-based method, learning this way can render students unable to create new sentences for new situations. In other words, the student might be lost if they learned conversation for a restaurant situation when they are at the bus terminal. Continued progress requires more grammar and vocabulary over time.
Studying abroad is a great way for students to progress from beginner to advanced language skills. Once you’re out of the classroom environment and have to rely on yourself to navigate your way to dinner and shelter, you tend to be more attentive. This option may be more expensive, and may use up all your paid time off, but the steps involved are fairly simple:
- Buy a phrasebook and/or take a language class to learn as many basics as you can in the time leading up to your visit.
- Study abroad or take a long vacation to the country of your choice.
- Draw pictures, point, and gesture wildly with the locals until they teach you the correct way to say something.
- Learn from your mistakes and try again.
- (Optional) Find a boyfriend, girlfriend, or host family who only speaks the target language.
Note: Be prepared for awkwardness and occasional embarrassment. One time I asked a waiter if the restaurant had eggs and the way I said it referred to a human body part rather than the product of a chicken. As long as you’re not an easily recognizable public figure in the country you’re visiting, a good sense of humor and a little humility are all you need to come through this experience with new skills, new friends, and great stories.
Determining which method is best depends on your learning style and what your goals are.
- Are you taking a trip? The grammar-based and vocabulary-based approaches together can give you what you need before you land in your destination country. You can use software or a language textbook to self-study, picking the words and phrases you think you’ll need the most (train station, toilet, gluten-free).
- Are you studying abroad? Then some communication practice followed by the immersion method may be your best bet.
- Do you need to read texts or books in another language? The grammar-based approach will work for you.
However, for true fluency of all kinds — reading, written and spoken — try them all. Grammar and vocabulary methods would come first, and then communication or immersion.
For more insights on language learning, check out Luca Lampariello’s blogs on his website, The Polyglot Dream.