The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language

methodsCredit: self

Learning a language is always a great idea. Some learn Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian languages for professional reasons. Others learn French or Russian in order to appreciate the literature and arts that those countries have to offer. No matter what your motivation is, the first question that’s probably going through your mind is - what’s the best way to learn a foreign language? There are several ways to do it, and this article goes over some of the pros and cons of each.

Take Foreign Language Classes

Some will say the best way to learn a foreign language is to take a class. There are many benefits to taking a class to learn the language that you want. For one, you are often taught by a real native speaker of that language. Even if the teacher isn’t a native speaker - many of my Spanish classes, for example, were taught by Americans who learned it as a second language - they know the ins and outs of the language better than most, and they also understand the learning process. Teaching methods for languages no doubt vary by teacher though - while some can make their classes lively and engaging, others often make their classes route exercises in memorizing vocabulary and grammar.

You can also connect with classmates who have a similar interest in the language you want to study, which means you can make friend easily. On the other hand, having many different students, with different learning styles, can sometimes mean that the pace of the class will suffer. Some students are naturally going to have a harder time learning class material than others, and this can slow down your own personal progress as well.

And depending on the language, there simply may not be that many great classes out there. Learning Japanese in a classroom setting, for example, is often an exercise in frustration for a number of reasons - such as a slow pace and expectation that students will not be able to grasp the material easily (which leads to a lot more hand-holding, and lower expectations all around). Not to mention, classes are expensive and higher levels are not always available at Universities or private institutes.

Pros - Professional Teachers, Interactive, Can Connect with Other Language Learners

Cons - Expensive, Group Setting Can Slow Your Progress, Availability of Classes

Study Abroad - Foreign Language Immersion

Studying abroad is also one of the best ways to learn a foreign language. You get all of the benefits of a classroom setting - such as structure, professional teachers, and (usually) high quality teaching materials.

You also benefit just by being in the country whose language you want to study. This is especially great for languages like Mandarin, which have notoriously difficult pronunciation. You are surrounded by the language, and have to use it on a more consistent basis. Still, this takes a bit of effort on your part - if you’re in a big city like Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai, or Seoul, connecting with English speakers is all too easy, and may slow your progress.

Still, whether you’re in a giant metropolis or a smaller, quiet area, living in a foreign country can be a life changing experience. In addition to learning the language, you get a first hand look at the local culture, and you can make many memories which will last you a lifetime. Even if your study abroad program isn’t the best, it may be worth it just for this alone. Of course, studying abroad is still incredibly expensive, and may be out of your price range. Still you can get loans, financial aid, and even foreign language scholarships to help you out.

Pros - All of the benefits of classroom study, plus the chance to live in a foreign country

Cons - Expensive, Dealing with Culture Shock May Be Difficult, Still easy to connect with English speakers

Private Tutoring - One on One Attention

If you want the benefits of taking a class, without some of the setbacks - such as dealing with a slow class pace - then private language tutoring may be for you. Having a tutor who works with you alone has a number of advantages. The first, and most obvious, is that they can tailor their lessons to your needs. If you’re having trouble with pronunciation or grammar, they can direct all of their attention to helping you with those things. They can also go at the pace that you need, and are more likely to be able to accommodate your schedule.

The downside is that private tutoring can be expensive. This all depends on the language, and which country you live in, but many tutoring ads that I have seen are anywhere from 30 to 40 dollars an hour. Still for those who don’t mind shelling out the cash, private tutoring can be a very effective way to learn a foreign language.  

Pros - Get personal attention, See results fast, Flexible schedule

Cons - Very Expensive, especially on an hourly basis

Learn a Foreign Language By Yourself

If classes of any kind - whether they be at home, abroad, or with a tutor - sound like a hassle, then learning on your own just might be for you. For a select few, this may be the best way to learn a foreign language.  This method has a lot of the benefits of private tutoring without any of the costs. You can go at your own pace, and learn whatever you want, whenever you want.

You can also use a variety of learning materials, from textbooks to Rosetta Stone to Pimsleur, and in some ways go farther than a class will take you. Many institutes and Universities will only go so far with their language classes, leaving Advanced learners without a way to improve their skills. Contrast this to the self study market, which often has advanced textbooks and materials, particularly for language exams such as the JLPT, HSK, and TOPIK.

Of course, the one big disadvantage to learning own your own is that you don’t necessarily have access to native speakers, or people to practice with. You also  might not be realizing your own mistakes in pronunciation, grammar, and writing. There are ways to help this, such as supplementing your self study with language exchanges. But it’s still something for you to keep in mind.

Pros - Go at your own pace, Save Money, Use a variety of materials (including material for native speakers)

Cons - Requires discipline, no native speakers to practice with necessarily

Language Exchange

Language exchanges are a popular, informal way to learn a foreign language. Most involve two people helping each other with the language they’re learning. Usually the two language exchange partners take turns practicing, or helping each other study, their languages of choice. Much like with self study, you can have a lot of the benefits of private tutoring without any of the costs. In addition, you have someone to help you whenever you reach a stumbling block.

However language exchanges also come with a few problems. Sometimes they’ll be lopsided - one person is clearly more interested in learning rather than teaching. It’s not uncommon for people to use them as means to get certain favors, such as having their partner edit essays or work documents, often without anything being done in return. Some unsavory types will also go as far as to use language exchanges to get dates with the opposite sex. Still, if you can find a good person who complements your learning style and can help you with the language you want to learn, this can be a good way to learn a foreign language.

Pros - Get some specialized attention without paying, Help someone else, Make new friends

Cons - Language exchange partners aren’t professional teachers, Some may have ulterior motives.

Deciding on how to learn foreign language isn’t easy - each method has its own good and bad points. In the end it all depends on your learning style, budget, and preferences. Think about those, and you can find the language learning method that’s right for you.