Learning Languages: Different Approaches For Different Situations


Even though some approaches might be better than others, I realized that it’s impossible to recommend the same approach to learning languages to everyone. People differ a lot in things such as: previous knowledge of the given language, time and money available for learning, goals they want to reach and how fast they want or need to reach their goals, previous experience in learning languages and their general understanding of linguistics and grammar. In this article I will discuss different approaches to learning languages and the situations in which they are most appropriate.

As I mentioned in my introductory article, the most important factor deciding the success of learning languages is motivation. However, we need to be realistic: most of us have multiple goals in life and numerous duties unrelated to learning languages, such as job, school, family, friends etc. So, even when we are at our most motivated, many of us simply don’t have enough time or energy to dedicate fully to learning a language, therefore everyone needs to find an approach that will be appropriate for their personal situation.

Situation 1: A busy student

You are a busy student, juggling numerous courses and exams at the same time, and you don’t have enough time to dedicate yourself fully to study of language. However, you need to get to a decently high level in a certain language in a few years time, for reasons related to career or other personal reasons.

Options: In such a situation I would recommend a conventional high quality language school/course. Even though there are faster and better ways to learn a language, a good course is still the best option for people who are busy. Why? Two reasons: 1) The pace at which the stuff is being covered is manageable, even for students who are busy; 2) the social aspect (meeting other classmates and teacher), the “officiality” and formality of the course and the fact that you have to pay for it, will likely keep you motivated even in situations in which you would likely give up: for example when you’re busy preparing a difficult, unrelated exam. Additional benefit is that after finishing a course you often get a certificate.

Notes: 1) The course selection is VERY important. Try to enroll in the best possible language school in your city, pay as much as you can afford. This will accomplish three things: you’ll take the whole thing more seriously, you’ll avoid crappy courses that are really a waste of time, and if you fail, you won’t be able to blame a bad course or a bad teacher, so you’ll put more effort in the whole thing and make sure you have solid results.

2) While attending a language course, it’s highly recommended (though not obligatory) that you have additional exposure to the language. My first recommendation are graded readers. Those are usually short stories or novels adapted for different levels of language proficiency. The greatest thing about them is that they give you lots of comprehensible input. According to a theory of Stephen Krashen, we only acquire language when we understand messages in that language and the best way to improve in a language is to be exposed to comprehensible input in that language. This is usually some text or audio in your target language at a level that is slightly above your current level, so that you can make advances, but a level that’s still low enough that you can understand it. If the level is too high, and you can’t comfortably understand it, you won’t improve much. So if your level is N, you should read texts that are level N+1. When it comes to subject matter, choose whatever interests you the most: the more interesting and addictive, the better. Also try to include some variety, to learn vocabulary related to multiple topics.

Situation 2: Already at an advanced level

If you’re already at an upper-intermediate or advanced level, making further progress can become tricky. This can also be frustrating because even “advanced” level can still feel like you’re far from being fully comfortable expressing yourself in a foreign language, understanding rapid speech or reading more demanding materials. So, you are desperate to make further progress that will close the gap between you and native speakers as much as possible.

First, let’s see why you might not be satisfied with standard advanced levels. Most of people would say that this level is already OK. But in some cases it’s not enough:

  • You want to live in a foreign country and to integrate yourself fully in its society. You don’t want to feel like an outsider, you don’t want to misunderstand double entendres, jokes, idioms, etc.
  • You want to publish high quality fiction in your target language, and you don’t want your language to be easily recognized as non-native.
  • You’re a scientist and you want to publish scientific papers in your target language.
  • Your profession is highly focused on language itself. You want to become a teacher of your target language and to know its subtleties so that you can clearly explain everything to your students and make sure you don’t teach them wrongly. Or maybe you want to become a professional translator or interpreter.
  • You want to read or study great literature in your target language.

For such purposes the advanced level of C1 or C2 is usually the minimum requirement, and reaching a level of a highly educated native speaker is the ultimate goal. So here’s what you can do:

  • Go to a country where the language is spoken and take some University courses in your target language. However, don’t choose a language course – instead opt for some other subject, such as science, business or literature. You want your classmates to be native speakers from that country, and not foreigners. Alternatively, you can try to find some job in a country where the language is spoken.
  • Read a lot in your target language. Reading can never hurt. Initially you can still use graded readers intended for high levels, before you turn to the authentic, unadapted materials.
  • Watch movies, series and documentaries in your target language. Try to find something interesting or addictive.
  • Hiring a professional teacher or tutor for private lessons can help at all levels. At very advanced levels that can be especially useful, to gain some deeper insights about some subtleties of language, or to get some guidance about how to improve on your own. You can also use private lessons simply for conversation practice. Be careful and choose a really good teacher. If your teacher knows just a little more than you do, you can waste time and money. If you can’t find a good teacher or tutor where you live, you might benefit from online tutoring. Italki is one of the best websites for that.
  • However, since private lessons tend to be expensive, your next option is to try to befriend a native speaker of the language and communicate with them constantly, be it in person, over Skype, or instant messaging.

Situation 3: You are highly motivated, you have a lot of time available, and you want to learn a language as quickly as possible

This is not a very common situation. Most of people have numerous responsibilities and duties that prevent them from being able to fully dedicate themselves to studying a language. However, this is my favorite situation to be in, and it’s very exciting. Here are some realistic cases wherein you might want to dedicate yourself fully just to learning a language, and want to do it as fast as possible:

  • You want to move to a foreign country and you want to prepare yourself for working or studying there, as soon as possible.
  • You want to start studying your target language and literature at University, and likewise you want to prepare very quickly.
  • You’re already living in a foreign country and you want to learn its language fast, to be able to start working in your real profession, instead of doing some unskilled work.
  • You have a part time job and a lot of free time, and you want to learn a language quickly, for whatever personal reason.

In all of these situations I would recommend something that I call “An All-Encompassing Self-Directed Approach“.  Its main traits are as follows:

  • You set your own pace and goals.
  • Usually you have some time constrains. For example you might want to reach level B2 in just one year, starting from zero.
  • You are highly motivated and you can dedicate at least 2-3 hours to study each day.
  • You choose your own materials (textbooks, readers, etc…).
  • You do some research and choose multiple and diverse materials: textbooks,  grammar manuals, dictionaries, TV programs, phrasebooks, newspaper articles, stories, YouTube materials, podcasts, etc…
  • You have a clear plan and you know exactly what you want to achieve and how. You consider learning a language to be a project.
  • You can combine many different approaches and methods.
  • You choose whether you hire a teacher/tutor or you do all on your own. Teacher can always be helpful, but in this approach, teacher is there to help you, a facilitator role, and not the authority figure that will dictate what you study and how.
  • You choose your conversation partners and situations in which you can practice language.

I will talk in more details about this approach in a separate article, but for now I’ll just say, that if you’re highly motivated and have enough time available, and are serious about learning a language, this is probably the best approach. With intelligent planning and use of multiple available resources in a self-directed approach, you can often achieve incomparably better results and in less time than via traditional courses. However, this approach is not for everyone. If you’re busy and don’t have a lot of free time, this approach is probably not for you. Also, if you have a very poor understanding of how languages work in general and it’s your first time ever trying to learn a language, maybe you’re still not ready for such approach. Also, if you’re at a very advanced level already, it doesn’t make sense to treat learning language as a major project anymore. Instead, you’ll use strategies for perfecting your language (Situation 2), and this is a long term effort, but usually with lower intensity.

Situation 4: You’ve already mastered the languages you’re serious about, and now you just want to have fun learning another language, for pleasure

Most probably, you don’t have time available for previously described comprehensive, self-directed approach, and you might also be unwilling to spend several years attending traditional language course, but there is a language that’s tempting you, and you want to get some taste of it. In such a situation, I would recommend spending some time learning this language on some online platform such as Memrise or Duolingo. These websites are very addictive and based on psychology, and you might as well get hooked to them. Of course they can’t replace more serious approaches, but they can give you a taste of a language and some basic understanding, which can eventually motivate you to start seriously learning another language. In my personal case, Memrise gave me some elementary understanding of French, and Duolingo helped me get kick start in German. I’ve still not started seriously studying those languages, but now it seems much more doable (and enticing) than before I got exposed to these languages on Memrise and Duolingo. Also, when it comes to speed, they are quite efficient. If you’re consistent, and you dedicate just around half an hour a day to it, Duolingo can take you to a lower intermediate level in several months. Probably quicker than traditional courses. However, as good and fun as they might be, for any serious goal in learning languages Duolingo and Memrise are not enough. And they are a bit artificial and robot-like and can become monotonous.  They can just give you a kick start. I would recommend adding at least graded readers, as soon as you’re comfortable.

Of course, there are many other situations that might influence your approach to learning language and this article isn’t comprehensive. However, I hope this will help you select best approach based on your personal situation.


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