Recently, I’ve been active on answer base Quora – a website where any question you ask can be answered, sometimes by impressive experts in the field. One interesting topic to follow is “Learning Languages“, where I often come across the following question:
What’s the best way to learn a language?
Ah, the best way, they ask. It’s like looking for the Holy Grail or the Ring in Lord of the Rings. Futile, no?
Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in 3 Months, recently produced a humorous take on the quest for a miracle method when he promoted Language Ninja. It made me laugh, a parody of all those language learning wizards out there who claim they can just infuse our mind with fluency.
There is no step-by-step language learning solution that will guarantee you fluency, and unfortunately not even a brain-friendly online workout for it. Languages aren’t easy. They’re rewarding and empowering, and worth the hassle. But that doesn’t change the truth – it takes some discipline and commitment.
So, if there’s no best way, what can learners do? I want to share the Hows of Language Learning – not miracle cures, just some sensible advice to consider.
Do it your way
Just like Atkins diets or GTD methods can’t work for every human, you will struggle to find the one single language learning method that works. So my answer to “What’s the best way to learn a language” is this: Change the question.
Find out about the many ways there are. List at least five that you can think of, like taking a class or asking your Polish neighbour for a word a day. Then think about your personality – are you an extrovert? Visually stimulated? Music lover? Find the method that integrates your preferences for the most efficient way of learning.
Learn to love it
If you cannot beat them, you have to join them. Stop looking at a far-off result. It is my belief that you cannot become fluent in less than a year, so I’d rather advise language learners to start enjoying the journey you’re taking there.
Instead of working towards that fuzzy idea of “fluency”, try reaching smaller milestones. Enjoy the glow of actually achieving goals, and have it rightfully boost your confidence. It doesn’t matter how small they are, they could be “remember 10 types of German sausage” or “recite the conjugation for être in under 30 seconds”.
Persistence and commitment should not mean strictly prescribing a set of training hours or verb tables. That wouldn’t be fun – the real commitment is in finding interesting ways of engaging with your target language, ever again.
Learning little and often is better than having weekly 5 hour sessions. Your brain is stimulated by repetition and working in these smaller doses will often allow you to make improvements and adjustments so much more effectively. If you attend regular classes, make sure you look at your notes at least once a week – not on class day.
If you are self-taught, this is also important. You can vary your input, vary the exercises and generally have a bit more flexibility. But one word of warning: Don’t get complacent. You should follow some kind of plan, make sure you progress and repeat the same things only so many times. It doesn’t matter if you can’t remember 100% of lesson 4, move on anyway and trust that progress builds on previous knowledge. (As an early stage Russian learner, I know how hard this one can be, but if I try to make the word for “buy” and “sell” stick in my head any more it may just melt.)
So, these are my thoughts on best ways to learn a language. Please share your own thoughts – do you believe in having found the one best solution? If yes, what is it? Or do you plod on, changing course whenever necessary, but always with the end goal in sight?
This post is a modified version of “What dieting taught me about language learning“, and inspired by two fab ladies: For one, my friend K. And for another part, Sonya Lyubomirsky, author of a book called “The How of Happiness” (before you ask: there is no one How, there are 6 billion individual ones).
Picture via Wallsave.com