What are the Main Methods for Learning a Language?
Whether you’re struggling to make strides with a foreign language or you’re a teacher looking for better results from your students, it may be time to consider your options: what’s the best language learning method to propel language learning to new heights?
Students aiming for fluency and near-native speaker level with a foreign language don’t want to waste time and effort with inferior or inefficient methods.
The good news is that you have more choice than ever and you’re in control of how quickly and deeply you learn. You don’t need to sit in a classroom or hire a private language tutor. Technology is providing more language learning methods than ever before.
To help, we’ve collated the main methods in a single post — with an overview and summary of the pros and cons of each. This should help teachers as well as students to decide which language learning strategy is best for them…
This is the most traditional language learning method and is derived from age-old practices of teaching Latin.
Students are instructed to memorize grammatical rules and long lists of vocabulary by heart, which they apply by translating sentences between the target language and the native language.
For example, the verb “to be” is introduced and practiced followed by the verb “to go” and so on. Although it’s a traditional approach, you’ll still see it used today in many language learning apps that have simply digitalized traditional language learning methods.
- Students likely recognize this method from school
- Familiarity with the technique
- Easy to teach in a classroom setup
- Provides structure
- Teaching is in the first language
- Little context provided
- Boring/lack of engagement with the topic
- Requires instruction
- Over-reliance on tests and output
The Direct Method (“Natural Method”)
The direct method of language learning started to challenge the grammar-translation method from the early 19th century onwards and has remained a favorite in language-learning classrooms.
Grammar is not expressly taught in this approach — and there’s no memorizing rules or vocabulary. In fact, it is also sometimes called the “anti-grammatical method”.
With the direct method, teaching is entirely in the target language. Another term for this is “immersion” or the “natural approach” because it attempts to mirror the natural process of language acquisition — much like a child acquires language by listening and interpreting the language, absorbing it over time and building the confidence to use it.
- More natural way to acquire language
- Fewer rules to learn
- More immersion into the sounds and forms of the target language
- Deeper dive into the language
- No correction of mistakes (lower stress for learners)
- Context depends on the skills of the teacher
- The focus is still on speaking the target language
- Can be frustration at not understanding words/meanings
- Lack of comprehension unless teaching is at the right level
- Can create high-anxiety situations for slower language learners
Communicative Language Teaching (“Communicative Approach”)
This language learning method attempts to simulate real-life situations in the classroom to enable learners to communicate effectively, confidently and appropriately in the various situations that present themselves.
The communicative approach prioritizes communication and interaction skills through student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions. Most of the time, lessons are focused on everyday situations and students are paired up or work in small groups.
Lessons may incorporate video watching to encourage reading, writing and speaking skills, with multiple skills practiced at once.
Along with the grammar-translation method, this teaching method is frequently incorporated into language learning apps.
- Focuses on multiple skills
- Group work means less focus on one-to-one instruction/output
- Context is provided
- Can aid overall comprehension, confidence and fluency
- Video learning can be introduced
- Specific situations may not be relevant or engaging to some students
- Depends on the skills/understanding of the teacher to maintain interest
- Expressions of opinion may be required, which can be difficult for more introverted students
The Transcription Method for Language Learning
The Transcription Method of language learning involves improving your listening and speaking skills.
With this method, you listen to a short recording in the target language, transcribe what you hear and then record yourself speaking the text you have just written.
Students can repeat this as many times as necessary until the transcription is correct. While this method is an active method that involves students performing a task, it may get repetitive and it can be difficult to maintain interest.
- Focuses on listening, writing and reading as well as speaking
- Transcriptions can be pitched to different proficiency levels
- Little instruction needed
- Repetitive and unengaging (depending partly on the subject matter)
- Requires some instruction and assessment of output
- Topics may not be suitable for all students
- A high commitment of time required
The Dynamic Immersion Method of Learning
The Dynamic Immersion Method is used by the likes of Rosetta Stone and other similar virtual learning packages that use teaching by native speakers and advanced speech recognition software to interpret output from the learner.
All teaching is in the target language and there is little focus on grammar. The idea is to get students to speak the language and focus on correct pronunciation. There is considerable repetition with this method.
- More immersion into the native sounds and forms of the target language
- Deeper dive into the language than some methods
- Can help to familiarize with vocabulary in context
- Can learn alone out of the classroom
- Repetition can become boring for learners
- Learned phrases may not be suitable for real-life situations with the target language
- The focus is only on speaking the target language
- Lack of comprehension as all teaching is in the target language
- Difficult to get clarification or explanations if you don’t understand
Video Language Learning Method
With the growth of AI, combined with human ingenuity, we now have multiple other options to accelerate language learning.
Actor Michael Levi Harris recommends mimicry and says, “Everyone can listen and repeat”, which is essentially what video learning entails.
Learning a language through video is no new thing — nor is it any great secret. What is new is the way that tech has combined with video to improve learning without the need for language instruction.
Video language learning is an effective method with the right tools because there are no limits to the subject matter and, with the huge volume of videos made and uploaded every single day, everyone can find something of interest.
This overcomes one of the key problems with language learning: a lack of compelling and comprehensible subject matter. With video, students get to choose the topic and use AI translations to make it comprehensible — all in a comfortable, low-stress environment with no tests or instruction necessary.
- Learning on-demand
- Visual cues as well as aural
- Fuller immersion into the “culture” of the target language (including dialects)
- Highly engaging for students
- Targets listening and reading for language acquisition
- Provides context and pronunciation cues
- Very low-anxiety environment
- No instruction necessary
- Almost limitless variety of content
- Only as good as the translation
- No practice with speaking or writing the language (output)
- Some students may focus too much on the subtitles and miss the context/body language
- Students may forget they are there to learn (but that can be a plus – learning by absorbing the language!)
Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS)
The TPRS method is based on the idea that the brain needs comprehensible input to acquire a new language — an idea proposed and shown to be effective by linguistics expert Stephen Krashen and developed by Blaine Ray, a Spanish teacher in the late 1980s.
Krashen noted that comprehensible input can happen even without teaching or explicit instruction — and happens best when the listener is interested in the subject matter.
The TPRS method involves three steps: establishing meaning, using the structures in a spoken class story and then reading the same structures.
- Highly engaging for students
- Boosts creativity
- Can help teach cultural relevance and context
- Targets listening and reading for language acquisition
- Can be used in a classroom setting
- No practice with writing the language
- Teachers may need training to be effective at giving instruction
The best way to accelerate language learning is to be fully immersed in the culture, get constant exposure to the target language and acquire it over time. Failing that, immersion beats memorizing grammar rules and vocab.
Most learners can get to a certain level through traditional rote learning. You can develop a working knowledge of the language with traditional techniques but if you’re after more than that, you need to engage more of the language-learning centers of the brain.
Many immersion methods make things more interesting, go deeper and expose learners to more of the target language but place too much focus on putting students “on the spot” and forcing output (speaking). By using new technology combined with some of the main principles of modern language learning, we’re able to accelerate natural learning methods.
Stephen Krashen’s focus on comprehensible and compelling input in a low-anxiety environment means providing engaging content that is pitched at the right level for the learner — in a supportive, stress-free environment.
The best way we know of doing that is through video language learning.
By selecting engaging videos in the native language, you can listen and mimic the language you hear in the right context, accelerating your learning and taking it to a higher level of fluency.
A simple Chrome extension can help you do that — by combining AI and human-based learning to translate video material from YouTube, Netflix, etc.
This helps you develop confidence by learning in context without the need for instruction. You get visual as well as aural cues and can experience language in a variety of cultural situations.
Download the app and start to learn your chosen language more efficiently.