4 Different Ways of Studying Languages (And How to Work Out What Suits You)
We all approach learning languages in different ways.
You might have come across information about types of learner before – that some people are “auditory” learners, others “visual” learners and others “kinaesthetic”, plus a few more types beside. These classifications can be useful in that they remind us that not everyone learns in the same way, although it can also be damaging to present someone who has identified as a “visual” learner with information only presented in a visual way; for most people, using a variety of different methods is the best way to make information stick.
Just as there are lots of different ways of learning any kind of information, there are also lots of different ways of learning languages. Some of us learn better in a classroom setting, whereas others learn better in the sink-or-swim environment of speaking languages in the wild, where you don’t have the option of switching back into your mother tongue if the person you’re speaking to doesn’t understand you. There may be ways of studying that would suit you perfectly but you’ve never encountered them because the standard method of teaching in your country doesn’t accommodate them. Or it may be that you’re still using a method that suited you when you were younger, but you’ve outgrown it now. Take a look at our list of ways of studying languages, and work out which one is right for you.
1. Total immersion
Total immersion is arguably the most authentic way of learning a new language. It’s the way that we learn our mother tongue as children: we are thrown into a world where everyone speaks exclusively the language we’re trying to learn, and we have to muddle through until we pick it up. Total immersion involves making a lot of mistakes, making the most of whatever minimal vocabulary you have, augmented with sign language, until slowly you learn more and more of the language in context until you speak it fluently. For most people, this is the quickest way to learn a new language; it’s also one of the most tiring, as communicating all day, every day in a language you haven’t yet mastered requires constant mental effort.
The easiest way to learn a language through total immersion is to spend time in a country where it is spoken and (ideally) where few people have any other languages in common with you. This is tricky if your targetlanguage is something like Welsh or Irish, where almost all native speakers also speak English; it’s rather easier if your target language is English, where many native speakers are monolingual and it’s most people’s go-to lingua franca.
One advantage of this approach is that you’ll learn the vocabulary you use most often first; instead of the classroom problem of learning names of different zoo animals that you will in all likelihood never need to know, you’ll learn the language in the ways that you actually need to use it, as you use it. But this is also a disadvantage of using total immersion without any supplemental study: it means that you only end up learning day-to-day vocabulary, and you’re likely to be stuck as soon as anything out of the ordinary happens; for instance, following a recipe that uses unusual ingredients in your target language is likely to require extensive use of a dictionary, when if you’d been studying in a classroom, you might have spent some time on ‘kitchen vocabulary’ and picked up everything you needed to know.
Most modern language classes in the UK recognise the value of total immersion and try to use the target language as much as possible – so explanations of tasks will be in the target language, and it’s likely that at least half of the words spoken by your teacher will be in your target language right from the start.
Who is it best for? Confident, extroverted types who aren’t scared of making mistakes and who want to learn their target language as quickly as possible.
Who is this method not best suited for? Shy, quieter students, particularly those who have only just started learning their target language and who find studying daunting when they don’t have a base of knowledge from which to build.
This approach is still found in many classrooms across the world, but used to be how almost all language teaching happened. It treats learning a language not as a special class of study all on its own (unlike total immersion; you can’t totally immerse yourself in the study of hydrocarbons or the history of the Tudors, but you can in the study of French) but as a collection of rules and information just like any other subject. This may well have been how your parents learned languages; it’ll certainly have been how your grandparents learned languages.
Where a class based on total immersion will start by teaching you the words and phrases you would use most often (in English, that might be hello, goodbye, thank you, please and excuse me), in traditional study you begin with a commonly used verb in that language – in English, that might be to be and in French avoir, whereas in Latin amare (to love) is the regular verb that is usually taught to students before anything else. You learn the grammar that underpins the language before moving on to picking up vocabulary in order to form sentences. By contrast, in total immersion, the vocabulary usually comes first – after all, if you can say “sandwich” you can make your lunch order understood, whereas if you can conjugate “I want” beautifully, you get no closer to having something to eat.
Once you’ve got the grammar sorted and you’ve started learning vocabulary, you might move on to some translation. Traditional study is based on the teaching of Latin and Greek, but does get applied to living languages as well, and can result in learners who are more confident at translating complex texts than they are in saying much simpler things out loud.
The limitations of traditional study are clear, which is why most teachers have moved more towards total immersion. However, in defence of traditional study, it does provide you with a very solid understanding not only of how the particular language you are studying works, but how language in general works, and therefore makes it much easier to pick up more languages later on. And for a dead, grammatically complex language like Latin where there are no native speakers to immerse yourself with, it remains one of the best ways to study.
Who is it best for? Nervous learners who want to feel confident in their knowledge before talking to native speakers; anyone for whom learning a language is an intellectual exercise rather than something they are doing for practical purposes.
Who is this method not best suited for? Anyone who would like to be able to communicate quickly; students who are more inclined towards practical work; anyone who doesn’t really enjoy academic study.
3. Little and often
We’ve called this method “little and often” but it could also be called “independent study” or possibly “the flashcard method”. This is a type of study that can be done in a classroom but is more often undertaken independently, often online, where students are first presented with flashcards with vocabulary to memorise, then graduate to translating short sentences from and to their target language. Guided by the software’s algorithm (or, at a lower technological level, by the chapter in their textbook), students don’t progress to harder material until they can carry out the basic tasks at a reasonable level.
This is the technique employed by hugely popular software such as Duolingo, and its key advantage is that anyone can study it, anywhere.
Many of these software options have mobile apps for study on the go, and you can use any short period to practise your language skills, such as dead time on the bus or ten minutes of study a night before you go to sleep. It isn’t intensive – intensive study of flashcards tends to result in reaching a point at which no more information can be absorbed – but it does enable students to make slow and steady progress without committing too much time to their language studies.
This method isn’t new, either. The Victorian explorer and polyglot, Sir Richard Burton, spoke over 40 languages and dialects. He frequently used total immersion as a means of learning a language, but he also described how he would keep notes on vocabulary on a small piece of paper in his pocket, which he would refer to periodically throughout the day, and test himself on memorising all the vocabulary before moving on to something new. Modern students would have the vocabulary on a mobile phone app and the process of testing and updating would be automated by the software, but beyond this technological update, the process is remarkably similar.
The key problem with this method is that it’s very good for skills such as reading, writing and listening, but doesn’t help students practise their speaking skills as the software is seldom advanced enough to offer proper feedback on pronunciation. Similarly, advanced-level translation that can’t be assessed by a pattern-matching programme is also something that this kind of software struggles with. It’s also much stronger on vocabulary and set phrases than on the intricacies of grammar; in fact, many programs of this kind cover no grammar at all. But if you are aiming to become reasonably competent in a language, such as for communication on holiday, rather than becoming fluent, then this is a good way to go about it.
It’s also worth noting that although this is usually an independent form of study, the flashcards-and-testing approach is another one that is commonly used in classrooms as a good, fun way to pick up and remember vocabulary.
Who is it best for? Beginners or those who don’t mind making progress slowly; learners who work well with structured independent study; people with little free time to spend learning languages.
Who is this method not best suited for? People who want to achieve fluency; people who want to learn quickly; people who are not good at self-motivated study or who prefer to learn in the company of others.
If you already speak more than one language, you’re probably using the polyglot method without realising it, as it tends to be what learners fall into whether they intend to or not. Use of the polyglot method is why it’s often recommended that people learn Latin in order to help them learn other languages, such as French and Spanish. And anyone studying linguistics will probably not be able to stop themselves from using the polyglot method either, even when it isn’t necessarily helpful.
Essentially, the polyglot method involves looking at the language you are trying to learn and comparing it with the languages you already know. So if you were learning Dutch and already spoke German, you might not learn individual words or grammatical rules so much as you would start by learning the general trends by which Dutch differs from German. You would Dutch-ify German sentences and by trial and error, figure out how the Dutch languages works by using your existing knowledge as a springboard.
It is easier to do this for some languages than others, and nigh-on impossible if you are trying to learn a language that doesn’t belong to a linguistic group you have already studied. This is where it becomes a hindrance for linguists; you will slow down your learning process considerably if you insist on finding connections where none exist. But where connections do exist – and you’re more likely to see them the more languages you have under your belt – you can get to the point where you can pick up new languages much more quickly. Someone who already speaks French and Spanish, for instance, is likely to find the process of learning Portuguese quite quick and easy using the polyglot method.
If you are learning a language, you are probably already using some aspects of the polyglot method even if you were previously monolingual. For instance, any reference to “false friends” – the words that sound like a word in your native language, but that mean something different – is using the polyglot method by comparing the language you’re learning to the one you already know.
Who is it best for? Learners who already know more than one language, who are good at spotting patterns and looking at language analytically.
Who is this method not best suited for? Monolingual students; students who find comparisons between languages confusing rather than enlightening.
Which way of learning languages do you use the most? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: books; revision materials; telephone conversation; flashcards; bookshelf; cactus; classroom.