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The Big DON’Ts of Language Learning: Don’t Look for ONE method

By Alessio F. Bona

The promise of “the best way” to do a certain thing is a very tempting one. Advertisements and click-baits are full of such promises: the best diet, the best work-out routine, the best investment strategy, etc.

No surprise then, that Duolingo calls itself “The world’s best way to learn a language”.

Most of you probably don’t believe that sentence to be true, but many of you are still convinced that there can be “one best method” to learn languages, and that it could be found.

People ask me all the time: “what do you think is the best method to learn languages?” My answer will alway be the same: There is no best method. And to look for it, to believe that it’s out there somewhere, will do more harm than good.

Of course there are better and worse ways of doing things, and to practice a foreign language is no exception. And clearly you can get better at learning and improve your learning techniques, otherwise I wouldn’t be a language coach, but this doesn’t mean that “one method” exists which would presumably be the best for every person learning any language at any time.

Person:

Your age, your native language, the languages you have already learned, your previous learning experiences, your hobbies, your passions, your job, your relationships, where you live, the kind of media you use. All these aspects play an important role by learning a foreign language and will determine which learning techniques fit you the best.

Language

For me, as an Italian, learning Spanish, German and Mandarin have been three completely different experiences. It would have made no sense at all to apply the same techniques to these three languages. Every language will challenge you in specific ways and you have to find the right resources and approaches to overcome them. If you take my experience with German and you try to apply it step by step to Japanese, you are set up to fail.

Time

Even while learning the same language, you can’t use the same method during the whole process.

Each phase of learning is different and requires a different kind of training. Duolingo is a great way to break the ice with a new language, but do you expect it to bring you to fluency? Learners should change their training during their development, like in any other kind of training, like sports or arts.

Balance

Let me add a last point to the list: every technique has its strengths but also its weaknesses. If you stick with the same methods for too long, you will suffer unbalanced learning. The most typical examples are either those who study only from grammar books, who excel in exercises but can’t enjoy a tv-show or have a conversation. Or their opposite: those who brute force vocabulary and quickly get to the point where they know a lot of words and idioms, but they lack deep control of the language and can only repeat the chunks they already know. You have to balance your diet.

To sum it up, my first “don’t” for you: don’t look for the best method. Be wary of magic wands and one-sided approaches, even if they claim to be “science based”.

Consider all the methods you will find on the path, like ingredients you have to combine, to create a rich diet. And consider the language you are learning, as if it were a child growing up. It will need different nutrients during its life and it’s up to you to try them and figure out which one helps it the most.

And just because spicy food isn’t good for babies, it doesn’t mean it can’t be good for adults. Maybe a method which doesn’t fit your learning today, may be worth a second try in a few months.

Experimenting is fun and you never stop learning.

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