Top 10 Ways to Learn a Language,   And Why Only 1 of Them Works

Interested in expanding your potential? Why not learn a new language? Bilingualism opens up a world of possibilities in employment and travel. But with so many language learning tools out there, where should you begin?

From high-dollar software to free mobile apps, I’ve taken a close look at the more popular choices from a few different categories.

*If you’ve already spent hours looking up reviews of language learning tools, jump down to the end where I give you my professional opinion on how to learn a second language.

Language Learning Software

1. Rosetta Stone
You’ve probably seen this software being sold from those little outposts in the mall. But wait… for HOW MUCH?!  At $500 for the full 5 units this is one of the most expensive options out there. In their defense, the software offers 200+ hours of language instruction, which divvies out to about $2.50 an hour. Ok, I guess, but what about their methods? Rosetta Stone claims to teach language “the way you learned to speak in the first place”, forgoing translations and grammar instruction for lessons that focus on interaction. This is utter nonsense, you’re an adult, you can’t acquire a language like a baby, you have to learn it, sorry. One good attribute of this software is they have a component that allows for tutoring with an actual living native speaker of the language you’re learning, which is by far the best thing this software has going for it. However, these sessions are only available 4 times a month, and you’re grouped with at least three other learners unless you want to pay for one-on-one tutoring. Also, what are the qualifications of these tutors? Hopefully it’s more than just being native speakers of the language. RS also has other issues.

2. Fluent In 3 Months
Benny, an Irish travel blogger, created this “language hacking” software after he realized he was incredibly adept at learning new languages, demonstrating his ability to speak everything from Dutch to Klingon. He of course denies that he has any special talent for language learning, claiming that he’s simply found an effective method, which you can purchase for just $97. Not cheap. But what is this secret method? Benny claims that the best way to learn a language is to “speak the language immediately.” Go out in public and interact with native speakers, after a month or two, fine-tune with some grammar review and you’re good to go. Using your new language communicatively in authentic situations is definitely important to gaining fluency but Benny takes it to a debilitating extreme. Also, his method only works if you have a native speaker on hand to interact with. In his defense he makes it clear that language learning is different for everybody and that there’s no “magic bullet” solution that can get you fluent in any specified amount of time. Hmmmm, maybe he should change the name of his website.

3. Pimsleur
The Pimsleur Method, as it is called, is a self-taught process that supposedly gives you “intuitive” instruction in a “real-world context”. The price is quite high, at about $8.50 per hour of instruction; with different languages having a different number of hours. For instance, the Japanese course is $335 for 48 hours of recordings, whereas the Spanish is $450 for 64 hours. Their Method? One 30 minute recording a day. Each recording provides a short conversation, then breaks it down into vocabulary and pronunciation and has you constantly repeating what you hear. This method gets points for giving you vocabulary and pronunciation practice. It’s also comprised entirely of recordings so you can put it on your mp3 player and listen to it on your way to work instead of listening to NPR. But there is no interaction, and there are no opportunities for you to make creative constructions with the things you’re learning. It’s also boring.

Language Learning Websites

4. Livemocha.com
This website offers online language classes; sometimes with feedback from instructors. They say that language is not just an “academic subject” (duh) but also a “performing art” that must be practiced in order to master (you mean I have to practice? Uuugh!). They did get it right when they said to speak a language you have to actually try it with a partner, incorporating instruction and practice on the side. They describe their method as “Whole-Part-Whole”. Which apparently means you watch a video of people interacting in the language you’re learning, then the conversation is broken down for you into vocabulary and grammar, and finally they reassemble the conversation and you practice it with interactive activities; the last part with feedback from a native speaker. Sounds like a less mobile version of Pimsluer to me, only at the end a native speaker will tell you what you did wrong. The plus side is that they have 38 different languages and offer some courses in ‘language for specific purposes’, business English for example. This variety comes from the fact that Livemocha was purchased by Rosetta Stone. Yup, that’s right, this is just a crappy, poor man’s version of Rosetta Stone that only costs $10 a month (or $100 dollars a year! Holy crap that’s a $20 savings).

5. Lingq.com
This website is ripe with slogans that should throw up blaring red flags for anyone with half a brain.

  • “Learn like a child”: unless you have the brain of a child, this will not work.
  •  “We LinQ you to powerful tools and resources. (We don’t LinQ you to classrooms, textbooks and grammar rules.)”: I see what you’re doing, you’re using the name of your website to replace the work ‘link’, damn clever. Also, who wouldn’t choose powerful tools over poopy classrooms and grammar?
  • “If you spend the time, you will learn. It’s that simple”: Well, they’re not wrong.

In a nutshell, LinQ is like every other language learning website. They do have a nifty reading application that allows you to click on words you don’t know while reading or listening to texts, they will give you a translation and then subsequently highlight that word if you encounter it again in your readings (the whole ‘LinQ / link’ thing). One of the more disturbing features of this particular site is their writing correction technique, where you submit writing and have it corrected by a native speaker who will also “replace your unnatural phrasing with native speaker phrasing, which makes your language sound natural.” Shudder* it’s obviously not the learner’s language anymore if their phrases are being replaced. Save yourself the $39 dollars a month.

6. Babbel.com
Also available as a limited app, the Babbel website offers grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation instruction. Their method is to give you words or phrases which you can both read and listen to at the same time, then you try to repeat them back and their pronunciation evaluation software will tell you if you got it right. They also have quizzes and games and such. Some users complain about the impossibility to move back in lessons; if you want to see something again you have to start it over from the beginning. Also, the voice software is picky. It won’t let you pass unless you sound exactly the way they want you to sound. For a platform that focuses entirely on speaking, the price tag of $10 a month is a bit steep. Also, it seems they have a goal of having their users sound like native speakers of the language they are learning. This is an unrealistic goal, as once you’re past the age of about 10 years, the neuromuscular control you have over your tongue and mouth to produce sounds and sound combinations that are new to you is cemented, no matter how much you practice. Just look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s been speaking English for decades and still has that thick Austrian accent.

Language Learning Apps

7. Duolingo
It’s free! This app (and website) help you translate authentic material (from blogs, websites, etc.) into the language you’re learning; then other people can evaluate your translations. They also have lessons to help you along. The down side is their language repertoire is limited, with only a few European languages. And they get minus points for saying their method is “scientifically proven.” I guess they got a scientist and said, ‘listen scientist, we need you to do science that makes our app look good… we’ll pay you’, ‘ok’ said the scientist. But it’s free!

8. Busuu
This app provides interactive lessons and also lets you interact with native speakers. Busuu has been praised for offering a wider variety of languages than Duolingo, an excellent user interface, and great beginner material. They get knocked for the sloppy work of their native speaker tutors, and not providing enough instruction to get to an intermediate level. They offer a free membership with limited access and a premium membership at about $28 a month.

9. Anki, Memrise and other spaced repetition apps
These apps, sometimes free, sometimes not, aren’t all-encompassing language learning tools. In other words, you will never become conversationally proficient with them. They are, however, fantastic for memorization of vocabulary or conjugations or whatever. The spaced repetition method works by giving you a set of vocab (or whatever you’re memorizing) cards and as you flip through them you mark those you know well, somewhat well, and not at all. The cards you know well are put on the bottom of the stack and the ones you only know a little get shuffled into the middle. Depending on the particular app you get, memes, pictures, or gameification are employed to help your memory along.

So Which Tool Should You Choose?

Short answer: none of them.

This is all a vast improvement from the language learning resources that were available just a few short decades ago when boring textbooks and cassette tapes were the best options, but none of the above mentioned tools can be the end-all answer to your language learning needs. They don’t cover all the necessary ground for language learning, their methods are ill advised, and the guidance they provide is generic. The best self-study method out there is to use multiple tools in concert and to organize your studying around what you want to learn. And guess what? You won’t have to pay a dime!

10. The expert’s formula:

  • To start with, take the free tools mentioned above and start using them. Duolingo and Memrise are great to build vocabulary. Use other free tools like BBC Languages and podcasts. And take advantage of the limited, but free, sections of the for-pay tools such as Babble, Livemocha, and Busuu; you can get some valuable beginner level material from them.
  • If you’re more academically oriented in your learning, check out the many free online lectures of foreign language classes from top universities such as MIT.
  • Also, search the web for a site that offers free grammar instruction for the language you want. There are thousands of sights for individual languages that don’t get the press attention that the above multi-language tools get. Here’s one for Spanish, and another for Japanese for example.
  • Next, hit up language teacher websites. These are the places that language teachers go for materials they use in their classes; you can find printable worksheets and activity ideas.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, check out some websites like conversationexchange.com, lingworld.com, or language-exchanges.org where you can interact with native speakers of your target language and use what you learn as soon and as often as possible. Try to do some speaking every day.

For self-study, this is the best formula you can get. If you do this you’ll find a pattern that works for you, and then you can stick with it. Just don’t be afraid of making mistakes and never forget to continually challenge yourself.

But before you get into that, ask yourself why you’re learning a language. If you’re traveling and just need to know a few phrases or are already an intermediate user of the language and want to push on into expert territory, the way you approach your learning will be very different. What I’m getting at is the most important thing in language learning, which is you have to be motivated. Every one of the tools mentioned above is completely useless if you don’t use it (obviously). And if you’re serious about learning a language, you’ll have to spend 3-4 hours a week minimum in study and practice; that will take a lot of motivation.

How fast will you become fluent in a second language? That depends on you and your situation. For the average person, you can expect to be conversationally proficient in roughly 2 years. Don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise. The only exception is if you’re living in a country that speaks your target language and you’re studying and interacting every day; then much sooner. The good news is that 2 years is much faster than a baby learns a language. All those websites that claim to use methods of language acquisition that mirror how we all learned our first language forget (amongst other things) that babies can barely utter 4 word sentences after 2 years of immersion. That’s pathetic. For further reading on language learning, check out this article.

In the end, as a language teacher, I should give my tribe a necessary plug. The best way to learn a language is definitely, by far, 100%, by taking lessons from a qualified teacher. A teacher can assess your current level and give you materials adapted to your specific needs. They provide face-to-face interaction and can take the hassle of lesson organization and study material supply out of your hands. And the fact that you have to meet them in person provides motivation. It’s also a myth that language teachers are expensive. Check your local library, community center, or 2 year college and see for yourself.

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