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Photo by bella lando*.

Have you ever been to a place where you didn’t know the language? Have you ever wanted to learn a language, but thought the process is too difficult, or takes too long?

Sometimes it seems as if there are as many language learning methods as there are language learners, or conversely that there is only “One True Way” to learn a language. The reality lies somewhere in the middle.

Let’s examine the 5 ways people generally learn languages.

The Vocabulary-Based Approach

The major players:

Rosetta Stone and similar language-learning software.

The method:

This method of learning claims to emulate the way we learned language as children – by associating words in the target language (the language you want to learn) with pictures or the objects they represent. Think, for example, of a three-year-old with a “see-and-say.”

It stresses vocabulary acquisition by presenting the user with vocabulary words and associated pictures, and encouraging repetition of that vocabulary. Grammar rules are not generally taught as such, but are picked up by osmosis.

The advantages:

Vocabulary acquisition is generally rapid, at least at first. Pictures help visual learners memorize the vocabulary. Repetition is stressed.

The disadvantages:

Vocabulary taught is oftentimes not useful for travelers. Leaves students prone to Tarzan Disease (“Me Tarzan, you…”) because of the lack of emphasis on grammar.

Double Translation

The major players:

Just about anyone who learned a language before 1900.

The method:

Step 1: Acquire a book in the target language.

Step 2: Acquire an English-target language dictionary.

Step 3: Use the dictionary to decipher the book. Write down your translation.

Step 4: Use the dictionary to translate your translation back into the target language. (Hence the term “double translation.”)

Step 5: Check the re-translated translation against the original book, rinse, repeat.

The advantages:

Useful for languages (e.g. Latin) that the student is only ever going to read, not speak. Introduces student to real texts in the target language.

The disadvantages:

Very difficult and ponderous way to learn. Doesn’t teach listening, speaking, or writing. Reliant on the accuracy of the student’s dictionary.

Photo by Menlo School

The Grammar-Based Approach

The major players:

Most “teach yourself” books. Older textbooks.

The method:

These books combine a small amount of vocabulary at the beginning of the lesson with a heaping dose of grammar rules, which must be memorized. The vocabulary is re-combined in several different ways to highlight the grammar points.

Subsequent lessons build on the vocabulary learned in previous lessons and introduce new grammar. Emphasis is placed on reading and writing in the target language.

The advantages:

Once the rules of grammar are learned, it becomes quite easy to integrate and correctly use new vocabulary.

The disadvantages:

Requires lots of rote memorization of grammar rules. Can be frustrating, especially at first. Student is left with very little vocabulary that he or she can begin using straight away.

The Communicative Approach

The major players:

Almost every modern language school.

The method:

Small groups of students are taught in a classroom setting. Lessons are generally divided into units which stress one receptive skill (reading or listening) and one productive skill (writing or speaking), combined with grammar and theme-based vocabulary. The emphasis is on bringing the student up to speed quickly in the language.

The advantages:

Builds general student proficiency. When well-done, students “hit the ground running” and are able to utilize language in various everyday situations.

The disadvantages:

Above a certain level, continued progress in the target language can be very slow. Classes are often tailored to the abilities of the “middle” of the class, leaving those who are progressing faster and those who need a little more time to fend for themselves.

Photo by lecercle

The Immersion Method

The major players:

Backpackers everywhere who land in a new country without a phrasebook. Some primary schools.

The method:

Step 1: Go to a foreign country.

Step 2: Try to communicate with the locals. Draw pictograms. Point. Get into awkward situations. Attend the cinema and theatre. Listen to the radio. Watch television.

Step 3: (alternate method) Get a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who only speaks the target language.

The advantages:

No study required! Oftentimes you can pick up enough basic vocabulary needed to get by rather quickly. Forces you to listen to the locals and be self-reliant.

The disadvantages:

Scary! A number of awkward situations can happen. Reading ability often takes longer to develop.

For practical tips on this method, check out Matador editor Tim Patterson’s 7 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language on the Road.

Photo by link

How do you decide which method is right for you?

It depends on your learning style and what your aims are.

For those who are interested in achieving fluency in the target language:

Try all of the above. The grammar-based and vocabulary-based approaches, used in tandem, can provide a good basis for self-study before you land in your destination country. Upon arrival, combine language classes based on the communicative approach and the immersion method in everyday situations.

For those only interested in reading a language:

Learn the basics of the language with the grammar-based approach, and then throw yourself into double translation, if you can stand it.

For those who just need enough to get by:

Try software using the vocabulary-based approach to learn the words for things you might need (“hotel,” “toilet,” etc) before landing in your destination country, and practice the immersion method during your stay. A phrasebook can be a life-saver.

Community Tip!

Don’t have the cash for phrasebooks or expensive language learning software? Check out the ridiculously useful article 8 Free Online Resources For Learning A Foreign Language.

About The Author

Charlotte Bowen

Charlotte is an EFL teacher, medieval historian, polyglot, ex-IT nerd, closet Russophile and undergraduate student on sabbatical. Originally from the States, she currently resides in London, and is moving to Russia to teach English. Her new blog, Voevoda Bolshoia, will detail her adventures in Russia.

  • Benny Lewis

    My method combines immersion and jumping in the deep end. I just write in the other language and make videos and have natives correct me. I do this every day and my level improves! Have a look at my blog to see how it works :P Interesting post!!

  • francis mcclean

    i'm english and speak spanish almost fluently. it depends on how much the individual wants to learn his/her chosen language. i threw myself in at the deep end by going to spain with hardly any money; five years later i returned "home" bilingual.

  • Melanie English

    I have a number of friends who come from other countries who only knew very simple works like Hi, Sorry, My name is, and normally with in two months they had the whole language down, including stuff not neccisaraly in the dictionary, they were able to communicate with in about two weeks. This is just english though, but they told me the reason for this is when it becomes a necessity rather than an option your brain is going to lach on to it. So I think the best way is to learn a few basic words befor hand if you can and then just jump right in, plus the other ways cost money.

  • sam

    This information will help a lot of people who want to Learn english or other language. Nice post!

  • Pingback: How to learn a language in 6 months « One coffee and newspaper to go.

  • Sam

    I recently read that matching teaching and learning styles (i.e. visual lessons for visual learners, etc.) has not been shown to help students learn faster. So although it may seem intuitive to discover your learning style and pursue it, it may very well be no more effective than other methods.

  • Jim Jones

    Hi Charlotte, great post.
    My wife is French, she is fluent with English.
    I so badly wanted to be able to speak French, I found a great way to learn a lot of basics was to watch children’s cartoons.

  • Tom Desloge

    Great article because it very fairly describes the different ways to learn. I think the best way to learn is to go to another country and get immersed. However, before you go it is nice to get a foundation of vocabulary and phrases built up so you aren’t totally intimidated.

    One nice website to check out is LangLearner( They offer all lessons on-line using an affordable monthly subscription. You sign up and use as much as you want and then you stop. They also have a number of great mobile apps on the IPhone, Windows Mobile, Samsung, and Android stores.

  • Brooke

    I really wish I had learned another language when I was young. It’s so much harder now. I know bits and pieces of quite a few languages after extended trips, so I guess I could say that I’m fluent in another language…If a French-German-Lithuanian-Spanish hybrid counts :)

  • Matt

    Language is probably the number one thing I love to learn about. I think it’s fantastic you posted this for everyone to refer to. However, I don’t believe that any one style is correct for anyone.
    Learning each language can be a different experience in it of itself! Each individual will find that a different combination of learning styles work for them in each language they choose. For me, after learning three languages I found that each one had to be learned a different way.

  • Quincy Johnson

    What about alta vista?

  • Elizabeth Angel Lopez-Hayward

    I’m an ESL-EFL teacher and there is always that debate about whıch ONE method is the best. Personally I teach myself languages that I am interested in and to do that I use ALL of these techniques and more. It gives me a well rounded feel of the language and my reading-writing-speaking-listening-comprehending skills are all developed simultaneously. When I go to study another language I can almost always figure out which technique to use first to approach the new language and learn it in a fast way.

  • Meral Demirel

    I have a lot of time in my workplace and I started to study Spanish online. I started chatting in Spanish by using google-translator, even though people critise the quality of google-translation, it helped me immensely. Following that I study on , the lessons are short but word&sentence matchings are very helpful plus I started to watch Mexican telenovelas with English subtitles. It has been a month but I can make some simple sentences, my vocabulary expanding rapidly and the best side of this I am having so much fun :D As of yesterday I also found a grammer book to get some answers on my own when I have a question in mind.

  • EL LuCock

    thanks a lot for these knowledge.

  • Sally Jones

    I have used various different methods from reading, to listening to the radio to online free stuff. To understand the basics I used Michel Thomas, also used and now the best learning site of me is where I meet native speakers who have helped to improve in speaking and confidence!

  • Juan Bernal Aguilar

    all of them have disadvantages… so what’s the mean purpose of using any of them? I tried all of them and I still can’t speak Korean properly. This language sucks :(

  • London Language Studio

    I don’t think we can really categorise language learning methods into similar groups, as the learning process is very complex and can not be restricted by a list of do’s and don’ts. I also believe there is a very important part of the learning approach missing, in the description above. This important part, without which any of these methods will certainly fail, is the learners ability to TAKE ADVANTAGE of every day situations where he can learn, absorb, clarify and generally aid his own progress. Most learners are very passive and unaware of the opportunities around them, and are unable to use these situations to their advantage. You don’t need to be in the target country, surrounded by textbooks, or pay for an expensive private tuition to progress in the language. You need to be able to use it actively, apply it to your own every day life, explore, experiment and reason, spend time thinking about how that particular language works in comparison to your own, expose yourself to its sounds and use it yourself as much as possible, even when you just sing along with a song…

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