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What is the Best Way to Learn a Language?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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There is no “best” way to learn a language, because everyone learns slightly differently. However, some methods appear to be more effective than others, and placing a heavier weight on them in an educational program may help a student to succeed. These include immersion, taking conventional classes, and self-teaching.

Many language teachers agree that immersion is an excellent way to learn a language. Immersion programs in the country where the language is spoken are especially valuable, as students must use the language outside of class as well as in it. In addition, students will learn more about the culture in which the language is spoken, which will give them context for their vocabulary. Some students benefit from taking a brief intensive in their native country before traveling to an immersion program or language school in a foreign country. The intensive establishes a foundation for the student to build upon as he or she learns.

Students can also learn a language through conventional classes, although classes which meet more frequently are more effective. Most universities and schools offer language programs, some of which are open to members of the community as well as registered students. Students may also want to look into private classes, or tutoring with a native speaker. These classes require much more work outside of class, and interacting with native speakers is an excellent supplement to a language class. A native speaker can help a student expand vocabulary, improve pronunciation, and learn how to use words and idioms properly.

Some students are able to learn a language through self teaching. Books, tapes, and guidance materials are readily available through bookstores and the Internet. These materials can be limiting, however, because they lack a classroom environment, which offers practice and well structured criticism to help students improve. However, a self teaching program can prepare a student for a trip overseas, in which he or she will polish language skills by putting them to active use.

It is also possible to acquire a new language by being thrust into an environment in which it is spoken. By being forced to use the language to communicate needs, people can pick up the basics surprisingly quickly. If a student wants to use this technique to learn a language, he or she should plan on staying in the nation where the language is spoken for several months. This type of language vacation can get expensive, so students may want to think about seeking employment while they are learning. For example, a student could offer instruction in his or her native language for a nominal fee.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By jessiwan — On Apr 10, 2018

I feel that learning to speak a new language is slightly different from learning how to write it. Personally, I can write much better than I can speak, which is apparently not very usual, because most of the English-learners I know speak English better than they can write it. I don't know why. Has anybody noticed this?

Whenever I want to improve my spoken English, I usually put myself in a situation where people (preferably native speakers) talk to each other, with me very barely participating. This way, I can write down the new words I heard and the context in which they are used (I carry pen and paper with me all the time to make notes). I find that if I try to learn by being an active participant in a conversation, it does not work as well, because I would need to hold up my end of the conversation and this can give me pressure. I also tend to miss things. So, at least for me, being a fly on the wall is the way to go.

Some students learn by watching TV or movies. I understand why they would want to do this, when you are a real beginner, you have so little confidence that you cannot imagine having a real conversation with people. But I feel that these things have their limits, because a lot of the things actors say, they don't "work" in real life. There is too much emphasis on wit. Actors are unrealistically witty. Real-life people don't talk like that. So my recommendation for students is to watch less TV and try to go out more. Even something as trivial as being stuck on transit can give them an opportunity to listen to how native speakers talk/complain to each other.

By anon974251 — On Oct 16, 2014

I took a "total immersion" French class in college, but I still can't speak much of the language. The instructor spoke nothing but French, and he would introduce one or two French words in each lesson. Let's just say it was "presse", meaning "to hurry". The lesson would include dozens of clips from French movies, with all different kinds of characters saying they were in a hurry. Some said it very formally, while others slurred it like native speakers would.

I'd say hearing the language spoken by both newscasters and common people is very helpful. I learned more French by ignoring the English subtitles while watching French movies on television.

By anon312015 — On Jan 04, 2013

There is some truth to the statement that "everyone learns slightly differently." However, it also is a cop out. By accepting this, we have allowed any kind of language learning activity to become used. Whereas the reality is that some will help us to become better learners, while others enslave us to practice, books and teachers. Hence the results for second language learning are so poor.

The reality is that we all learned our mother tongue, and arguably we all did ways which are very similar. True, there are some differences, but most experts will agree that the similarities far outweigh the differences. So there are language learning skills we all use that are similar.

Of course as adults there are more differences, and we have to allow them, but we also have to understand that the place of things like "awareness", pattern recognition, listening skills, etc. need to be mastered and used no matter how you learn a language.

By Sjozie55 — On Nov 23, 2012

Interesting article and good tips so Thank you!

It depends on why you want to learn it. For me, it is for work and to find further opportunities.

Learning from books is good, I also used Michel Thomas for a while and then online stuff! I was on search for an online language partner and found a few on skype and at other sites.

Both are working well for me. You have to find what works best for you, but trying lots of different things help so you know what suits you.

By anon202863 — On Aug 03, 2011

In response to Post 1: I think that having a background in Latin would be primarily helpful for people interested in learning Romance languages. Loan words and cognates aside, this would not be very helpful for people learning, say, Bantu languages.

By anon184176 — On Jun 07, 2011

Very interesting article. I am currently learning Spanish through self-study and short trips to Spain (I live in the UK) but planning to work in Spain and Latin America next year. Until then I am immersing myself by evening classes, more self study, watching telenovelas, getting pen pals, and finding native speakers to do an intercambio with.

Language learning is very fun and you learn the more you practice. For those who can't move to the country where the language is spoken, you can also try to travel as much as possible to practice. I like the look of the language schools abroad but they are expensive.

By anon161307 — On Mar 19, 2011

Make sure you get as much 'real' input in the new language as possible. Take classes and use textbooks by all means, but be aware that the material you are studying will be selected for a learner and will only encompass very limited topics. It is very easy to watch tv, listen to radio and read newspapers using the internet.

By anon126832 — On Nov 14, 2010

Watching TV and movies in a foreign language with subtitles in your own native language are an excellent way to learn.

I recently moved to Brussels, which is split between French and Dutch speakers. On the whole, the Dutch speak English very well, while far fewer of the French do. Why? American TV programs and movies are very popular here.

The French dub them, while the Dutch keep them in their original English and add Dutch subtitles. I recently spoke with a taxi driver who spoke English so well, I believed him to be American. He told me he learned English solely by watching "The Simpsons." It was especially easy to grasp because Homer speaks so slowly!

By anon125326 — On Nov 09, 2010

Whatever you do, don't speak! Absorb the language for a long time before you try to speak it. Also don't study, don't practice and for heavens sake, don't think!

How did you become an expert in your native language? How much study did you do on day zero?

There is a method called ALG Automatic Language Growth which I highly recommend.

By anon115371 — On Oct 01, 2010

Well, I think most of what he said was accurate. I do think you can self-teach yourself a language, but I also think that you remember what you write down or exercise. If all you do is read a book or even use a software program to learn a language, it probably won't sink it as well as actively using it.

Anyway, if you don't like the author's ideas, create your own site. And he did allow for feedback.

Thanks for the article. --B

By anon110473 — On Sep 12, 2010

You learn from all people, native or not, skilled or not. But to be qualified you should go to school. This is my opinion.

By anon96785 — On Jul 16, 2010

Number 3, your post is the perfect example of one that I would not recommend to teach English to anyone. Your writing skills are atrocious and for you to make comments about a tedious mind, well, take a hard look at your own skills before you judge.

By bookworm — On Jun 02, 2010

To post #3, so are you saying that only in the classroom one can learn a new language?

I beg to differ. From personal experience, I have found that talking with natives is the best and easiest way to learn the language.

I agree, you do need to learn in school how to properly speak. I would recommend taking classes so you can supplement your knowledge, but to say that you can not speak to, and learn from natives because they do not have a perfect grammar and pronunciation skills is somewhat nearsighted.

Basically we learn everything in life from imperfect people, and imperfect teachers. We can also learn a new language from people who speak the language imperfectly.

By anon87569 — On May 31, 2010

well, not all native speakers can teach. i've known a lot of native speakers and their pronunciation and grammars are disgusting. what a very tedious mind you have.

By anon79627 — On Apr 23, 2010

i always travel around europe so i do have a good chance while out there to practice some of my studies but it's just the confidence to go and not be shy if you're not the best speaker in the language or whatever. i say just go for it. just put yourself in a situation where you have to speak the language. good luck!

By milagros — On Feb 22, 2010

I have found out that having some background in Latin actually helps, and speeds up the learning process of a new language.

Learning from books, classes, watching TV in the language of interest all help, but actually speaking the language is the best way.

If you happen to be in the country where you are learning the new language, it is a good idea to take classes in subjects other than lets say grammar, pronunciation and such. Taking classes in other fields such as history, geography, biology and the like is a good idea. This way you put yourself in different situations and expand your vocabulary.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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