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How to Learn a Foreign Language: Three Different Approaches

written by: R. H. • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

What is the best way to learn a foreign language? Classroom learning, an independent approach, and the use of a language helper are all valid and useful learning methods!

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    Are you interested in learning a foreign language? In the United States, we have many options in front of us when it comes to language learning! Let us take a closer look at three overarching approaches for learning a new language. Then you can decide which one, or what combination of approaches, might work best for you!

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    Traditional Classroom Approach

    If you grew up going to school, the traditional classroom approach is probably the language learning method that will come to your mind first. The traditional classroom approach is used in many types of schools, including colleges and language institutes. Usually there is a teacher who chooses the curriculum for the course and who determines what activities you will do during class and for homework. The teacher sets the structure and makes the plans, while your responsibility is to pay for the class, show up and do the homework!

    There are many pros to the traditional classroom approach when it comes to language learning. For one thing, many of us find it hard to be internally motivated in our studies. We find it much easier to study and apply ourselves when we have the external constraints of tests, deadlines and class projects hanging over us. Also, many of us enjoy the interaction with people that the classroom provides. The typical classroom can also be a relatively “safe” environment for testing out our new language skills. Furthermore, some schools provide “language learning labs” with newspapers, magazines and books in the target language; sometimes they also offer one-on-one tutoring for students. Besides all this, you can often get official “credit” for enrolling in a language course, which is helpful in achieving a degree.

    But the classroom approach has cons as well. Many of the methods typically used in the classroom are stilted and don’t always address the most necessary domains of daily life. After all, real language isn’t spoken at a desk—it is spoken on the street, at your friend’s house, and at the grocery store! Besides, classes can be expensive, and some of us don’t have the money to invest in a class. So if you are feeling adventurous and are willing or eager to try some alternative methods, read on!

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    Independent Approach

    Some people are extremely self-motivated; are you one of these? If so, you may be able to do successful language learning through an independent approach. This approach involves finding your own materials and resources and using those to advance your education in a foreign language. If you want to learn a minority language, this method isn’t going to work well, as it involves finding resources that are available online, at libraries or through book distributors; such resources are usually only available in the world’s majority languages. But when it comes to learning a majority foreign language, you will be amazed at the resources that are out there!

    First, there are countless resources available on the Internet for language learning. Suppose you want to learn French: what resources does the Internet have to offer? The possibilities are amazing! There are online French language video series with exercises. There are audio dictionaries with domains of vocabulary and photographs. There are whole courses you can work through that are complete with videos, audio files, textbooks and exercises. There are French news websites that have exercises for those who aren’t native French speakers! You could design a course for yourself that would take you from novice to at least an intermediate language ability level, just using Internet resources!

    And of course, in majority languages, you can buy excellent language learning curriculum online or at your local bookstore. Several resources that may be worth your money, and that are available for many of the world’s languages, are The Learnables, Rosetta Stone, and Pimsleur materials. Check or to find great language-learning resources on sale! The best resources to use for independent language learning are resources that include visual and audio elements.

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    Language Helper Approach

    The language helper approach is probably the most dynamic, unique and interesting of these three approaches to language learning. It is one of the most challenging, but probably also the most rewarding. It involves you taking much more responsibility for your own learning, but finding a speaker of the foreign language to assist you. In this method, you will write your own lesson plans and choose your own activities, but the native speaker of the language will provide the actual language data you are seeking to learn. This approach allows you to choose what topics you want to study, when and where you want to meet for “class” sessions, and how you will negotiate payment. If you are seeking to learn one of the world’s minority languages that has no published materials in the language, this is pretty much your only option as far as approaches!

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    In conclusion, I would recommend a combination of approaches, if you have that luxury! To help with motivation, take a traditional class if you can afford it. But do not neglect to look for your own resources that will greatly enhance your learning. And finally, to get a real “insider perspective” on the language and culture you desire to learn, consider finding a personal language helper who will motivate your language learning both as a mentor and as a friend.