Everywhere that you go, you can find resources for learning foreign languages. Whether it’s that rack of “Easy Learning” tapes in the corner of your public library, or that advertisement that promises a life-changing workshop, everyone seems to think that they’ve found the perfect solution to teach YOU a language fast.
Choosing a good method is important and worth taking some time over. In fact, you should probably spend a few days researching a learning method that works for you, since the success of your studies could depend on it.
Which is the best? I’m going to break down the main methods into categories and discuss the merits of each of the approaches:
- Software / Games
- Audio Tapes
- Grammar Books
- Literature Immersion / Readers
Immersion in a foreign country
It’s common knowledge that immersion is the ‘best’ way to learn. But is it really? The idea is that through being placed in a German environment, say, you will be forced to speak and even think in German. You will pick up the language as a child does.
However, in my trips to European countries, I’ve not needed to speak the target language much. Most holiday resorts are Anglicized. Furthermore, natives will often speak to you in English as soon as they detect your accent, and will refuse to revert to the language you want to learn. Let’s be honest, when this happens you’re pleased that you can avoid the embarrassment, mutual incomprehension and faltering that occurs when you speak in the target language.
An English tourist once said that she was able to live in Italy for a year using only two phrases: “How much?” and “Too much.” This is the problem of immersion. It will only work if you are able to spend an extended amount of time in a foreign country, place yourself outside of your comfort zone, and fully engage with the target tongue. Otherwise it’s too easy to get by without really learning anything. Learning doesn’t work through diffusion.
Software / Games
Memrise and Rosetta Stone are two highly popular ways to learn a language from the comfort of your computer chair. Memrise uses spaced repetition and memory strategies (like image-word recognition) whilst Rosetta Stone adds to this a sort of software immersion, where translations for foreign phrases are not given and you have to work it out. This helps with retention.
I think that these methods are very effective. They transform the travail of learning into a colourful game, and are paced perfectly as a means of constantly challenging you. Rosetta Stone has even added live lessons and speech recognition.
If you’re like me and you often find it hard to escape the warm glow of the screen, then I recommend Memrise for free, and Rosetta Stone if you’re willing to spend some money on your learning adventure. The main downside is that the small range of expressions taught will probably not lead to you being able to speak fluently even at the end of the course. That’s why you must supplement these programs with other strategies.
Recommended, mainly because you can walk or run at the same time as studying! Whilst it may be easy to ‘tune out’, audio tapes are such an effortless way to absorb the intonations of a language that they’re practically essential for home studying. I like to replay the same CD several times, as I find that there are whole sections that I completely forget!
If you walk at the same time as listening to a tape, there are no stimuli to be distracted by as there would at home, and you can effectively ‘anchor’ particular words and phrases to geographical locations. More on this in a future post.
Most of the tapes sold by stores and available in libraries make ridiculous promises and are either too slow, too fast or just plain bad. The Pimsleur and Michel Thomas methods are brilliant and I wouldn’t advocate anything other than these. Rather than focusing on learning lists of minutiae like “banana”, they get the basic grammatical structures into your brain in a fun manner.
Different people have different learning styles and lifestyles, so you should choose the methods that you enjoy the most. The best that I can do is provide ideas. The bottom line is that you should mix up the methods. It doesn’t hurt to learn the same thing twice or twenty times – that’s how you learn any language – through constant, consistent reinforcement.
Persistence is the secret.
Next time I shall deal with the second half of learning methods: grammar books, literature and classroom learning.