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.

Fish & Dips

A Compare and Contrast of Two EFL Programs from Opposite Sides of the Pacific

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in the land of non-English speakers, the English speaker is a teacher. This simple maxim is what makes it so easy for native English speakers, ink still wet on their four year degrees, to live abroad for a spell and gain an international-experience stamp on their resumes.

Most of these would-be teachers come from backgrounds far removed from pedagogy; business majors, journalism majors, and of course the dreaded philosophy major. They put on their teacher costumes for a year or more and find themselves, ever so easily, in front of a class full of students who are eager to acquire that ‘golden ticket to future success’, the English language. But what happens next? That all depends, naturally, on a variety of factors; but invariably, the effectiveness of this education will rely strongly on the culture of the area in which it takes place, as well as the ability of the educator.

I’ve been privileged to have experienced teaching English as a foreign language in two disparate situations during the past two years. In 2012 I taught English literature and grammar at a bilingual school in rural Honduras. Now, I teach oral communication and composition at a senior high school in rural Japan. The language education methodologies of these two schools are similar in some respects; however the language proficiencies of my Honduran and Japanese students are as different as are their cultures.

In the next few paragraphs I’ll explore these similarities and differences and maybe shed some light, from my personal experiences, on how this army of non-educators, and the cultures of these two very different regions affect EFL education. Or if no light is shed, at the very least I’ll open a dialogue on the topic.

Bilingual Education at a Honduran School

English language education doesn’t have a long history in Latin America. For a country like Honduras, Spanish speaking nations stretch thousands of miles in all directions; where is the motivation to learn a language other than Spanish? It’s not a new thing that English comes to certain parts of the world slower than others. Regions are slow to adopt English language education usually due to suspicion (it will tarnish the native language or culture) or due to lack of necessity, as in Honduras’ case. Whatever the case may be, the unequal distribution of English can lead to an unequal distribution of power. Honduras has perhaps detected this unequal distribution because more and more English language schools and programs are recently emerging. The school for which I taught, for example, was less than six years old.

Despite English language education being in its toddler years for Honduras, and in its infancy for my particular school, the students in my classes were incredibly adept at speaking English. Here’s why:

  1. The majority of students enter the school in the early primary years (the school encompasses kinder through high school) and are therefore exposed to English from a very young age.
  2. Being a true bilingual school, over half of the classes (math, science, world history, etc.) are taught entirely in English, by native speakers. This gives the advantage of students having advanced English language skills but with the caveat that their knowledge in the content of the courses taught in English often being sub-par.
  3. The school is located in an extremely small town and students encounter teachers frequently outside of the classroom, putting them in situations to use English authentically and purposefully.
  4. Latin America has a culture of interpersonal interaction and communicativeness which lends to language learning.

I taught at the lower secondary level and I would describe my students speaking and listening abilities to be high-intermediate to advanced. Their reading comprehension and writing ability was slightly lower than what it could have been given the amount of education they’ve received but it wasn’t horrible. So we can see that the above four reasons can be a formula for success in language learning, but the pedagogy also had plenty of room for improvement. Take a look at the following impediments.

  1.  Of the 16 native English speakers who taught alongside me, only 2 had prior teaching experience or a degree in education. The curricula, lesson planning, and methodology were entirely up to the individual teacher, experienced or not. The classic misunderstanding of many English teacher recruiters is that the ability to speak English at a native level also means you can teach it.
  2. A lack of quality materials leads to poor teaching methodology. Compounding the lack of teaching experience among the native speaker recruits, they are also given outdated or otherwise limited textbooks to work with. Often these textbooks are the only materials they are provided with and therefore the only thing they have to inform their teaching method in the classroom. Therefore, Grammar is taught explicitly, phonics is modeled after native speaker pronunciation models, and communicative activities are non-existent.
  3. Students who are admitted at post-primary grade levels often don’t have any English abilities at all. They are given a 6 month intensive EFL course and then placed in the classroom alongside students who have been using English for years. This creates classrooms with huge gaps in between the abilities of students and with teachers who don’t know how to deal with it.

These are typical drawbacks in EFL scenarios, yet despite these drawbacks, my Honduran school graduates students who can communicate in English incredibly well. One student even obtained a scholarship and is at a university in Florida. In the end, the mindset of the Honduran students is that English is necessary to succeed. This is not the case for my Japanese students however, so let’s take a look at them.

EFL at a Japanese senior high school

Japan has a long history with English language education, opposite from Latin America. The Japanese adopted English as their primary foreign language in the late 1940’s, and today have many programs in place that aide in the development of their English language curricula and teaching methodologies. You would think that with this experience and continued development, that Japanese students would be experts in English. This is not the case. The Japanese system suffers from the ailments that affected my Honduran school but with compounding issues. Let’s put this in list form:

  1. Japan also recruits from a pool of inexperienced educators; however these teachers are almost never given their own classrooms. They are put in the role of assistant and work with a Japanese teacher of English who decide how to utilize them, if at all. This results in the English classes being taught mostly in Japanese.
  2. Although Japanese textbooks and other teaching materials are more developed and are specific for Japanese EFL classrooms they are not geared toward communicative ability, but toward grammatical competency. Japanese university entrance exams focus mainly on grammar, very few have speaking components so teachers and students alike see little reason to speak English.

There are also several successful aspects of my Honduran school’s system which are non-existent or underdeveloped in Japan:

  1. Students don’t begin receiving English instruction until late primary school, and even then it’s just a few hours a week, in classes that are English language specific. As mentioned earlier, my Honduran school taught half its total curricula in English, starting at the kindergarten level.
  2. There is practically zero exposure to English outside the classroom. Japanese students spend hours at school, not just in classes but in club activities that go into the evening hours and even on weekends. What little free time they have is spent with their friends or families, speaking Japanese.
  3. Japan has a culture of group uniformity and togetherness which has at least two influences on language learning. One, is it makes all things foreign categorized differently psychologically, making it difficult to fully adopt another language. The other, is that students who may be naturally skilled at English will not exercise their skill because they don’t want to stand out.

In teaching senior high school, I’m getting the students who are graduating; the final products of the Japanese compulsory education system. I would evaluate them to be, at best, high-beginners in English speaking and listening, with reading and writing perhaps slightly better. None of the 200+ graduating students this year decided to pursue a higher education abroad, nor would they have been prepared to if they had decided on it. This is due in part to the fact that many Japanese businesses recruit solely from Japanese universities, and many students feel that a foreign university might hurt their chances of getting a good job in Japan. Both those businesses and the students are seemingly not considering international employment opportunities or the other strengths of bilingualism in English.

Why is all this important?

Let’s take a quick step back. It isn’t fair to compare a private bilingual school in Honduras to a national curriculum in Japan. Private bilingual schools are small, profit making enterprises; Japan’s English education system affects millions of students across thousands of schools. However, both entities have room for improvement, and looking at the English abilities of their graduates, Japan has more room. Yet although eager for improvement, Japanese students and teachers are like chips, mired in a cultural dip that slows their progress toward change.

But what changes can, or should, be made? Some of the issues affecting English language Education mentioned above are very difficult to change; the grade level at which students begin learning English for instance. But the more serious of ailments mentioned above have a simple cure: textbooks geared towards grammar, and lack of effective teaching methodologies can both be alleviated by a skilled and qualified English language educator. All English language institutions, Japan’s especially, need to stop hiring people to teach English merely because they are degree holding native speakers of the language. Fish are expert swimmers, but notoriously bad at teaching people how to swim.

In the end the responsibility always lays with the individual. The individual teacher is responsible to ensure they’re qualified to give the students the education they need and deserve. The individual hiring entities, to make sure they are giving their students a qualified teacher. And of course, the individual students are responsible to be active participants in their education.