How to Learn a Language Quickly
Learning a language is no mean feat…
…It involves a lot of effort and, above all, a lot of cognitive processing. For decades, the language learning and teaching field has posed the great question: how to best learn a language? Shameless plug here but if you are in Birmingham in the UK and you want to learn Spanish, you could enrol on one of our Spanish courses in Birmingham to give you a head start. Anyway, shameless plug over!
It stands to reason there is no easy answer. If there was, then every teacher, coursebook and institution would be following that idea. Unfortunately, despite decades of research, a single formula for Second Language Acquisition has not been devised (see Further Reading for a more detailed account).
That does not mean there is not a unique or best way to learn a language. If anything, it probably means there are a number of ways of achieving this. Diversity is probably the most dominating factor in this task – the more options available for learning a language, the more chance people will have in succeeding.
Why does diversity equate to success? First and foremost there is the topic of Learning Styles. This is quite a disputed topic, as many linguists, cognitive psychologists and educationalists do not subscribe to the Theory of Learning Styles.
However, regardless of whether you believe in it or not, what is more or less universally agreed is that learning styles have led to more diversified teaching and learning – topics are being taught again and again in different and varied ways. The result of this has been more successful learning.
Whether it is due to learning styles being real or whether it is due to the continuous repetition, either way learners learn much better now than ever before.
So, if you follow a specialist course, such as a unique method like the Direct Method or the Communicative Method, or whether you are learning through a coursebook, on your own, in groups or in one-to-one classes, you always stand the chance of being successful. Rather than asking which method is the best, it is better to ask: which method is best for you?
So Which Method is Best for You?
The answer to this could be long and complex. Each person is different – so each response will be different.
One of the best ways to go about answering this question is by reflecting on your language learning to date – or possibly learning in general.
Have you attended any courses, read any books or participated in any activities which you found to be particularly effective? Effective here means did you leave the lesson, the activity or close the chapter with the feeling you had successfully learnt something? If yes, then you might want to pursue that approach further.
It could also depend greatly on culture and age
A lot of learners who completed their initial education in the 50’s and 60’s might find a more text-book approach successful, whereby they read language rules and then practise applying those rules through exercises, writing or even through translating. We put together a post with some of our best practices for improving your writing.
Others might place a greater emphasis on communication and are not particularly interested in learning rules by heart but want to successfully communicate in their chosen language – such people often acquire language rules through osmosis i.e. they practise, practise and practise until they eventually get it right. However, it should be emphasised that most of this practice will be subconscious.
Regardless of the approach, the subconscious plays a large role in all language learning.
Scott Thornbury (1997) has written extensively on the notion of noticing. This is a process whereby the language learner subconsciously notices the gap in knowledge in their language abilities. For example: a learner of English might say I am regularly playing football and notices that most others say I regularly play football. So, as a consequence, the Language Learning Device in their mind picks up on this difference and starts applying it.
Eventually, the learner starts saying the sentence correctly. Not only that particular sentence but sentences generally of that nature, such as I sometimes go the cinema and I never drink red wine.
How does the Language Learning Device go about picking up this difference? If there is any particular response, it will certainly lie in the field of cognitive psychology. However, for most language learners, what is important here is exposure. It is necessary to be constantly exposed to numerous examples of the language in use.
So, how do you go about getting this exposure?
This is where understanding how best you learn comes in useful:
If you prefer regularly trying to communicate in your chosen language i.e. by speaking it, then you will gain exposure that way; For some tips on this check out our post on improving your speaking skills.
If you prefer reading, then you should read as much as you can;
If you prefer seeing specific concrete examples, then you should work your way through coursebooks and read grammar books.
All in all, what works best for you is the approach which will help you learn best and most quickly. You should not be afraid to experiment with other methods and approaches – something which might not seem your thing might actually turn out to be the winning formula for you.
Thornbury, S. (1997) “Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote noticing.” ELT Journal. 51 (4): 326 – 335. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
For more on Second Language Acquisition:
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A polyglot and international traveller. Anthony speaks 6 languages and loves sharing his passion of language learning through his writing.
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