What is the best way to learn a foreign language?
In recent years, a multitude of language apps have appeared on the global language learning market, promising to teach you a new language in only a few weeks. All you need to do is dedicate 20 minutes a day to practicing, and you are good to go. Many of the languages apps, such as Duolingo or Babbel, are very easy to use, are either free, or have cheap subscription options, and are designed to make learning fun and stress free. You can track some of your progress, choose any language you like, and you can interact with other learners via the app’s platform. In addition, more and more language service providers have opted to build out and offer full online language courses with extensive content and prerecorded audio material, often times so affordable that it hard to say no. But could an app or a course without a live instructor really replace in-person language training? In the following article, we will examine the pros and cons of using different platforms to learn a foreign language and try to answer the ultimate question: What is the best way to learn a foreign language?
1. Apps (Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise, etc)
All language apps have unique interfaces and themes, each with their own individual perks and advantages. But most of them offer the following key features:
- You can start whenever you feel like it, and practice whenever or wherever you like, for as long or as little as you want. You can pick up where you left off while waiting for your train, your connecting flight, or even while waiting in line at the grocery store.
- Most apps have a free option, and even with a subscription they are relatively cheap.
- You can pick up almost any language. Most apps have dozens of languages available. Some even have fictional languages, such as Klingon and High Valerian.
- “Drop” or “pick up” a course whenever you like. Using an app takes away the potential awkwardness or guilt of canceling or dropping out of a course. The pace is entirely up to you.
- You can do it all by yourself. Many people are shy or apprehensive about learning how to pronounce things and feel more comfortable learning by themselves. You can repeat something as often as you like, without worrying what other people might think.
Cons: No live instructor who can correct mistakes immediately or give feedback, to prevent unhelpful habits from forming. No conversational practice. The content and the vocabulary are often preset, and not industry specific or tailored to an individual’s needs. Content varies from app to app, but often doesn’t have a cultural component.
2. Self-learning/Pre-recorded Online Course
Like language apps, different self-propelled language courses offer a variety of materials and course packages, some of which have proven, on some scale, to be relatively successful.
- More diverse and nuanced content that you can browse through, including cultural topics and audio.
- Access it whenever you have time, make your own schedule.
- You can pick up most major languages.
- Cheaper than most in-person language training.
- You can do it by yourself. While not necessarily as portable as an app, you can still have “class” in the comfort of your home, with no one listening
- Pick up or drop however you feel comfortable.
Cons: Like apps, there is no live instructor who can correct mistakes immediately or give you live feedback. More diverse audio is a bonus but doesn’t compare to a live instructor who you can have an immersive conversation with, who can fineness the nuances of your pronunciation or can fine-tune your problem areas. Some extra material may not be included in the upfront cost, and most courses have set content and a set curriculum, and don’t provide industry specific or individually tailored material.
3. Language training with an Instructor (Online or in-person)
Many of us may have had to pick a language to learn in school. Before the internet, learning from a teacher and a book was the only way one could pick up a language, apart from moving to a foreign country and picking up the language from tedious trial and error. But why, in times of “There is probably an app for that”, should we still consider in-person language training?
- Learn directly from a native speaker, live.
- Immediate feedback and correction for grammar and pronunciation
- Engaging in actual conversation with a person.
- Instructor can identify and focus on your problem areas and help you build healthy learning habits
- Tailored topics, vocabulary and material, which is excellent for industry specific or individual learning needs
- Adjustable pace. If you are a fast learner, you can speed up to a pace and level that is more beneficial for you. If you need more time, the instructor can slow down, and use different methods to approach a topic from various angles.
- While a set schedule might not work for everyone, it does provide a level of discipline and focus, contrary to self-propelled learning.
- Individual attention and focus for more intensive learning
- Group learning with an instructor can create a more balanced atmosphere, and less individual pressure.
- Team building. Learning with fellow students can bring individuals closer together.
What is our verdict?
Nothing beats learning a language with an instructor. While it may look like the priciest option, you get something out of it that no other platform can provide: An actual person; someone who can help you grow in the right direction by using targeted material, vocabulary and content that is can constantly be tailored to your speed, your needs and your liking. One of the keys of learning a new language is actually engaging in a conversation. Vocabulary and grammar surely are two fundamental pieces to learning a language, and prerecorded lessons are great for practicing as well. But truly mastering a language involves actually speaking and engaging in a live conversation. It involves not understanding something and having to ask to repeat it, not rewinding the recording. It involves being told that what you said wasn’t clear, so you need to find different words to express yourself. In addition, this is the best, and fastest way to help you overcome that initial inner obstacle to go for it. It helps you lose the fear of making a mistake, or having to ask three, four, or even five times to have something repeated. Language apps do offer a wonderful advantage: they are portable and convenient. You can take them anywhere, and a lot of them offer exercises, flashcards and a token reward system to make practicing more fun. Vocabulary is essential to learning a new language, and apps are a wonderful way to practice. But the meaning of words can change dramatically in a conversation depending on context and tone, and even though the pace at which you tackle a language is up to you, you are in fact relatively limited within the confines of the content that is available within the app or the lesson. They are a wonderful addition to an in-person language course. Though the repetition can be off-putting, it can also be useful. Online training with prerecorded lessons is a great tool as well if you like flexibility and have a lot of self-discipline. But again, having a set schedule with an actual instructor might give you that extra push to dive into it and fully immerse in the language and the culture, while providing the flexibility with material, content, and pushing you to speak and be spoken to as much as possible. So, we say: Dive in!