What’s the best way to learn a language?

What’s the best way to learn a language?

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A quick Internet search provides many options for people who would like to study a foreign language by themselves, without interventions by teachers or distractions from other learners.

Learning a language at your own pace, having the freedom to skip what seems irrelevant and choosing the time and place most suitable to your needs sounds like the most flexible way of acquiring knowledge of a foreign language. And indeed it is!

Written course materials, online content and quizzes all cater to the needs of people who are able to manage their own learning diligently and don't have the time to enrol in a weekly course.

However, this form of learning also means there is no teacher guiding the learning process. Can you be sure you are actually learning what you need to learn? Or that you've mastered the material? Or that the learning method is the right one for you? Obviously not!

Learning languages is a journey, not a destination

Given that there is no learning method that guarantees success for all types of learners, acquiring a new language will always be about reflecting on the best possible itinerary for the journey.

There are many factors to consider before deciding on the right method: for a Spanish-speaking learner, studying French will be very different from studying Mandarin or Turkish.

In the first place, learning will often take place inductively, as the learner has already acquired many of the principles governing Romance languages.

Some people prefer a communicative approach, whereas other learners immediately fall in love with the grammar. Others prefer rote learning (i.e. memorisation by sheer repetition), whereas there are those who need a more meaningful and integrated way of mastering the knowledge and skills associated with a specific language.

As time is a scarce resource for many of us, we often have to compromise. We tend to prefer flexibility, even if we are well aware that a more rigorous approach to learning would be a better and even quicker solution. Let's be honest: we're sometimes content to fool ourselves...

The best way to learn a language

Some, including yours truly, believe that the best approach to learning languages is to combine the best of both worlds.

On the one hand, learners should be offered flexibility in using a wide range of written and online resources, and on the other hand, there has to be teacher in order to create an environment conducive to experimenting with the target language.

Classrooms must be culturally diverse and international, which provides an excellent basis for discussion on meaning, different communicative approaches and cultural comparison.

Teaching is about stimulating meaningful discourse, reflecting on the appropriateness of an utterance in a given context and giving guidance to learners.

Feedback is also crucial, as in many cases learners don't notice subtle deviations from the norm, for example in their pronunciation, sentence structure or word choice. With the help of a teacher or mentor, obstacles like these can be overcome quickly and subsequently turned into stepping stones.

The teacher knows what learners need to learn, whereas learners are often tempted to devote their attention to what they would like to learn.

The teachers' role is to guide the learning process, to make the journey more enjoyable and to ensure you successfully reach the final destination.

Engage with the locals

One major driving force in learning a foreign language is the desire to engage in communication with the local population. For an expat, life is different if you have a basic grasp of the local language and culture.

Even in simple situations, being able to communicate in the local language brings about a change in attitude: instead of avoiding communication, our demeanour invites other people to reach out to us. This can be a real game-changer.

Career & Language learning

A global survey of 572 executives conducted in 2012 led to some important conclusions about the role of language proficiency in business:

 The current economic downturn is spurring companies to becoming even more international.

 Most companies understand the cost of not improving their employees' cross-border communication skills, yet many companies don't take the necessary remedial action to address the root causes of misunderstandings.

 Many companies expect job seekers to be proficient in at least one other language than their own.

As individual members of the workforce, we have our own responsibility to meet the challenges presented to us by an increasingly globalised economy.

It's like our physical condition: we know perfectly well what it means to live a healthier life, but we need to make a conscious decision to change our habits.

What is true for our physical condition is equally true for our mental health. As well as all the social and economic benefits to be derived from proficiency in other languages and increased cultural awareness, learning another language appears to be an excellent method of building a reserve against age-related cognitive decline.

So, lift your spirits and learn another language!

Roelof van Deemter works as communications advisor at Leiden University’s Academic Language Centre. Roelof is engaged in finding new ways of learning and teaching that fit the needs of diverse institutional and individual clients. For more information, please comment below or visit their website.

Photo credits: CollegeDegrees360

Roelof van Deemter


Roelof van Deemter

Roelof works as communications advisor at Leiden University s Academic Language Centre. He is engaged in finding new ways of learning and teaching fitting the needs of diverse institutional and...

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