Here are five different ways to learn a new language, ordered from least to most effective (in my opinion).
5. Listen to audio tapes and interact with learning programs.
One can gain a certain amount of language proficiency simply by following audio tapes. I find that these are great for learning basic conversational skills, such as asking for directions. The drawback is that there will be much of the language you don’t learn and you will miss out on entire subsets such as reading and writing. However, this might not be a problem for you if your primary focus is learning to understand and speak the language.
There are more comprehensive computer programs that can teach the full set of language skills, but I personally find them very time consuming. If I am going to be investing that much time, I believe that a course will teach me more within the same time. The advantage of computer learning is that it usually costs far less than a course does.
4. Take classes.
The courses at a university or language institute usually offer a pretty comprehensive introduction to a language. You will learn how to read, write, listen, and speak the language in a variety of different situations, such as ordering food at a restaurant or asking for directions.
The drawback with institutional learning is that it takes years to gain a high degree of proficiency, and the set of language that you learn is still limited. To gain flexibility and spontaneity, you will need additional learning sources.
Another option may be to earn your MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and then live in a different country as a teacher. Not only will you be able to make a very good living while working as a teacher, but you will also have the chance to learn a foreign language of your own. Most times, you will have to sign a year-long contract to be hired, so you will have plenty of time to experience this other country. In addition, many schools offer native language lessons to their teachers for free, giving you the opportunity to learn from a native speaker.
3. Take private lessons.
This is a great way to help with your pronunciation and practice your speaking skills in a real world situation, but it is one of the most expensive ways to do so. Learning a new language takes a significant amount of time, and you can easily run up thousands of dollars of charges by going with a private tutor.
2. Become friends (or more) with a native speaker.
This is what I did. My girlfriend is Taiwanese and speaks Mandarin. She actually kicks my ass when it comes to languages since she can speak English, French, and Mandarin all perfectly fluently. However, I admit that I have not been taking full advantage of our relationship when it comes to learning a new language. I’ve only really practiced with her when I was actually taking my classes. I should practice more often than that, even if it means getting corrected all the time or laughed at. 🙂
1. Travel to the country where the language is spoken natively.
Finally, the absolute best way to learn a foreign language (short of being born into a foreign family) is to travel to the country where everyone speaks the language. Even Tom Cruise was able to pick up Japanese after being captured in battle and living amongst the samurai for a while.
What did my Korean roommate do when he wanted to improve his English? He left his home country of Korea for a long trip to Canada, a country full of English-speaking people. He arrived here nearly two years ago, and since then he’s been spending his time learning English, among other things. They do teach basic English in Korea, so when he first arrived, he had a basic knowledge of the language. However, he also had a thick accent and it was difficult to understand what he was trying to say.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and my Korean friend is almost perfectly fluent in English! He still has an accent, of course, but it’s much easier to understand him, and he’s picked up the local slang along the way. One can say that he has mastered not only the language, but he has learned a lot about Western culture as well.
When you learn a language through a course or program, you’ll usually be learning the “standard” form of that language. If you were learning Chinese, for example, you would probably be learning simplified characters and speaking the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, which is the “standard” dialect.
When you learn from a private tutor or someone who speaks the language on the other hand, you will not necessarily be learning the “standard” form. You will instead learn whichever dialect the speaker happens to speak, and there can be significant differences. You will pick up the speaker’s slang, and if the person is from a minority region, you might be learning a specific form of the language that not everyone is familiar with.
This is usually not a big problem. When it comes to English, for example, Canadians and Americans can understand Australians and the British just fine, and vice versa. Other languages can have more variation in pronunciation and grammar. As one example, the Chinese language has significant differences from region to region to the point where someone from Beijing speaking Mandarin will not necessarily understand someone from Guang Zhou speaking Cantonese. As Mandarin is the “official” version, most people in China will be at least somewhat familiar with it, but as for the everyday language spoken by people, these differences can be very pronounced (pun intended) even from city to city. Nearby Shenzhen is less than 50 kilometers away, but as it is a very new city, the people there mainly speak Mandarin.
Most languages have differences from region to region, but as long as you have decent pronunciation and grammar, you should be able to make yourself understood.
So reader, are you also interested in learning a foreign language? I suppose that I left out the best method: Get born into the language, or get exposed to it while young! It is probably 100 times easier to learn a foreign language when you are younger than 10. Unfortunately for me, English is all I was exposed to for most of my youth, and I am not a natural when it comes to learning a new language. 😉 I am a third generation immigrant, so although I consider myself basically Canadian, I admire recent immigrant families and others that have held on to their home languages and culture, and the ease with which they can converse in multiple tongues 🙂
P.S. Anyone ever look at a modern Chinese city from the air? It looks like Sim City with the big apartment blocks and the massive roads. It seems like there’s a highway every kilometer or so!