Studying vs learning

There is a fundamental difference between studying and learning  in the field of language learning.

Being able to speak a language is a skill. A skill is something that is achieved over time through trial and error. Do you remember the first time that you magically started to find the balance on the saddle of your bike? I remember that moment and I magically found it, after days and days of frustrating failure. I was impatient and looking forward to it, but the truth is: it took me time and effort to get there. But once my brain had acquired that skill, I was literally “firmly in the saddle”.

Now, let us suppose that my very enthusiastic father wanted to teach me how to ride a bike by constantly giving me instructions on how to do it. Being proud of his expertise in rational Bike dynamics, he thinks that his knowledge can be helpful. He then says to me, his 6 year old son:

A bike remains upright when it is steered so that the ground reaction forces exactly balance all the other internal and external forces it experiences, such as gravitational if leaning, inertial or centrifugal if in a turn, gyroscopic if being steered, and aerodynamic if in a crosswind. Steering may be supplied by a rider or, under certain circumstances, by the bike itself. This self-stability is generated by a combination of several effects that depend on the geometry, mass distribution, and forward speed of the bike. Tires, suspension, steering damping, and frame flex can also influence it, especially in motorcycles. 

The rider applies torque to the handlebars in order to turn the front wheel and so to control lean and maintain balance. At high speeds, small steering angles quickly move the ground contact points laterally; at low speeds, larger steering angles are required to achieve the same results in the same amount of time. Because of this, it is usually easier to maintain balance at high speeds. (*)

No matter how good and detailed my father’s instructions are, I will learn how to ride a bike by by trial and error, and by doing this constantly. If I have somebody giving me some useful and practical advice on and off, that could ease my learning process. Nobody can really teach you to read a bike unless you decide to do it yourself. 

As I said before, language learning is also about acquiring a skill, which involves a number of other factors, but the principle of its acquisition stays the same: if you decide to learn a language, devote time to it and to accept that you will stumble and make mistakes before reaching your goal . You will succeed in the end.


Studying is an act of deliberate learning.

One can study history, geography and biology, but in the case of languages, you don’t study them, you learn them!

When we study history we accumulate knowledge, when learning a language we acquire a skill. We are “learning” new things in both cases, but the truth is that they are different things and have to approached in separate ways.

Just as we can decide to use books and audio materials to learn about history, geography and biology, we can also use them to learn languages. The main difference is that when it comes to languages learning, using the selected material the right way makes an enormous difference in terms of outcome.

Using a language course for learning is one thing, using it for studying is another. Let me try to illustrate this concept using the following example.


Mark and John both get a new language course. They are happy and excited about learning the language.

Mark examines the book. It is a beginner course, and contains many dialogues. He thinks that the best way to use the book is to divide his study into sections: grammar, pronunciation, and memorization of words. He spends timeon grammar drills, then on pronouncing single words, and then he learns texts by heart. He writes lists of words and reviews them. He sees language learning much like other subjects and so he studies his language manual!

On the other hand, John is conscious about the fact that learning a language means acquiring a new skill. He does not see pronunciation, grammar rules or acquisition of words as separate entities, and treats them as a whole, all intrinsically linked with one another. He tries to understand texts by inferring their meaning with the help of his native tongue. Once he has grasped the meaning of a text, his main goal is to absorb it.

He does not force himself to memorize words by putting them into lists, nor does he try to memorize all of the sentences. He starts by listening and reading the texts numerous times. By doing so, he will let his own brain identify patterns. He decides to let his brain learn at its own rate by feeding it constantly. He is learning a language!

Most students fail at learning a language. The major reason for this is that they are taught to study a language as opposed to learning a language Most students are given instructions/rules on the language instead of learning the language directly and then inferring the rules.

From studying to learning

In 1996 I decided to teach myself German. Since it was my first attempt at learning a language by myself, I had no idea how to go about it, but I was incredibly motivated. The first thing that I did was to get hold of a dusty old grammar book that was on my grandmother’s bookshelf. After struggling with it for a while, I got hold of an Italian book, which contained a lot of German-Italian dialogues.

After a few weeks, I came up with the idea of using a bidirectional translation technique as a tool for learning a language. The main goal of translating a given text from German into Italian was to understand what I was learning, and the main goal of translating it back from Italian into German was to absorb it.

I started applying this technique on the dialogues and then longer texts of the Italian course according to a precise time schedule, and after 1 and a half years  I began to speak with Germans during my holidays in Sardinia. I had never spoken German before. It was a breakthrough, much like the feeling of finally being able to ride a bike without knowing how.

In those 18 months, I didn’t study any grammar rule, didn’t learn anything by heart, used no list and didn’t do any exercise. It was all incredibly natural and consistent. I had found an incredibly powerful way to learn foreign languages, which I shall expand in my forthcoming book on the Luca Method. I anticipate that it will be ready for release by June 2013

Written by Luca Lampariello

Related posts

3 Steps for Effective Translation to Learn Any Language
How to Conjugate Verbs Like a Pro (in Any Language)
The Absolute Best Way to Learn Grammar (No Matter Your Target Language)
  • Hi Luca,

    I really like your blogue and youtube videos.
    I was in Sweden 4 years and couldnt learn the language. I was not super-motivated so its mostly my fault but I really hated the way they taught it, lots of grammar. I had a teacher that kept pushing the students to categorize verbs in different groups, 1, 2 a, 2b, 3, 4, 5…. boringggg!
    I crossed the border to Denmark and decided to finally learn the language of the country I am living in. I find the language system much better here.

    One of the things I am finding fun about learning danish is that when I am trying to speak, I think in Danish. I dont try to make connections with english or Portuguese… I am afraid it can ruin the process if I start to do translations… What is your opinion?Do you think is useful for a “non language expert” to do bilateral translations?

    • Dear Sofia,

      it is a very interesting question, and I am working on a few articles to explain why bilateral translations are so effective and how one should carry them out. Doing it the right way is key to making it an invaluable tool/asset in language learning.


  • I think you explained the difference between studying and learning really well here. Very true.

    Your book will be a good read, Luca. But make it June 2012, not 2013! 🙂

  • Luca,can you explain how do you learn the new words?Do you use the flascards?How do you translate the texts?Do you wrute them down to the notebook or something?How long does it take to remember the words without memorising?Do you pronounce them out loud for better memorization?Thanks in advance)

    • Hi Maxim, as I said before, I will deal with memory, new words, bidirectional translations etc.. in the next posts. A bit of patience! 🙂 Luca

  • Really interesting write up here. The bicycle analogy also displays the difference between a young learners approach to languages compared to an older learner. I guess that’s why with the older learner language learning needs to be centred around situations that they can already put into context of their daily lives and experiences.

  • I think that what you’ve written about the importance of learning as opposed to studying is very true, and I agree with you fully. The purpose of studying is to learn something however, but studying a language the same way you would study another subject is a huge waste of time and makes a language almost insurmountable.

    There is no easy way to learn a language, but to be able to make a language your own, you need to have a feeling for the language and know it subconciously. That is the meaning of “fluency” as well. That it flows, instead of is a task that needs to be struggled through. In my opinion, basic fluency starts when you have made the language your own, and don’t have to think to speak correctly.

    To study a language and divide it into parts of a puzzle to be analyzed is a method that, even though it might work in the long run, is nowhere as effective as to actually learning the language in the contexts you want to be able to use it from the very start.

    And before you reach any kind of competency in a language, the trial and error method that you write about is completely neccesary. Noone can learn to speak a language completely correctly right off the bat. You need to experiment, learn how to form sentences and then when you know how the language fits together, it will just click, like how it does when you learn how to ride a bike.

  • Another great article. Your approach has a similar philosophy to the Assimil method which I’ve just started to use (and thoroughly enjoy).

    Have you used Assimil and if so I was wondering what you think of their approach to language learning?

    • I love ASSIMIL, used it to start learning Dutch,Swedish,Russian,Portuguese,Chinese,Japanese and Romanian 🙂 L

  • At long last, I’m glad someone is making learning a language less a monumental task. Thanks for sharing again!

    I have one question: does one need to use the dictionary constantly to do the translation back and forth then? And in the process, having to dig through the grammatical rules to get it right?

    • Thanks Catherine. Actually, if you use bilingual texts, you don’t need any dictionary at all. Dictionaries are great tools, but I suggest you stay away from them in the first stages of your language learning, because they slow you down. You can infer grammatical rules from context and thanks to some grammatical explanations that are gradually introduced and presented to you in a simple way. ASSIMIL is perfect in that it adresses both issues (use of dictionary and grammatical rules) in a brilliant way. L

  • Hi Luca, I enjoyed your post as I always enjoy your contribution. I especially liked your bicycle analogy. I’m very glad that you share your insights with us and I’ll be very interested to read your book. I have just two questions:

    1) Do you think that the person studying languages (Mark in your story) will not be successful? I’m asking because I may be this type of person, but here I am, speaking and writing English. (Although I do have more problems with other languages and I wonder if that is the reason why…)

    2) The point about translating from German into Italian (your native tongue) may be obvious, although many people discard this method (as being old-fashioned and ineffective – that’s not MY opinion, by the way). The point about translating in the other way round is somehow new to me. Could you elaborate on how you do it and in what way does it help you?

    I’ll be happy to hear from you,

    Piotr (customic)

    • Hi Piotr.

      I am pleased that you find the blog useful.

      In this article, I want to emphasize that studying is less efficient than actually learning a language, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent a person from acquiring the ability to speak it. It just makes the process much more complicated than it actually is. It takes more time and effort, and one is likely to give up if he/she doesn’t have a fair amount of motivation.

      As for the L1=>L2 and L2=>L1, I am writing a couple of articles (to be published here and in my book) on the topic.


  • After 1.5 year I reacht the levelB1-B2 through listening and reading and translating!Just I didin´t write a lot!I´m learning now!Martika

  • I really love this post. It helped realize that I’ve been approaching language learning the wrong way. I was previously convinced that I had to start from scratch and learn all the rules, etc. So, thank you!

    P.S. I’m “happykatkat” from Youtube. The one who asked about starting with Assimil Japanese because I don’t have the “Teach Yourself” series.

    Thanks again!

  • Great stuff here Luca, but do we really have to wait until 2013? I am super impressed not only your abilities with language but also in your ability to explain your ideas to teach. Love the bike riding analogy!

    • Hi Aaron,I am pleased you like the article. I am overwhelmed by things to do, but I am trying my best to write something every day. Hopefully the book will come out earlier than June 2013 🙂


  • Hi Luca, great work as always. I had sent you a YouTube message regarding a language learning documentary that was in the planning stage. Hopefully you can acquire my email from this comment. 🙂

  • Привет Лука, это Чезаре от Скайпа. Я давно не разговаривал с тобой. Я хотел бы разговаривать с тобой по Скайпу снова. Мне очень нравится твой блог, и желаю удачи в учебе языка. Знаешь ли, когда будешь на Скайпе? Спасибо.

  • For me both studying (acquiring knowledge about languages) and learning (acquiring skill to use languages) give me much excitement. For some languages I aim at being able to speak for instance French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi and so on and for some other languages probably at first I just want to study them only for the sake of knowing some grammar rules and vocabulary to do sort of linguistic studies, if you like, to understand how various languages in the world are interrelated with each other in groups and families and the history of those languages. That is also very exiting to me. I also intend to study dead languages like Latin, Sanskrit and the like.

    Richard Simcott, for one, studies/learns around 30 languages and 6 of his languages are in the near-native or native level which means he learns those six languages and simply studies or is in the process of learning the others.

  • Moreover I believe that studying a language can lead to learning a language as you said studying takes much more time, efforts, dedication and motivation than learning and it is also less fun.

  • Hello Luca, I’m 16 and I’m an aspiring polyglot. I have watched some of your videos and was really blown away by how well you speak them and how much you sound like a native speaker. It was inspiring! I want to be able to do that someday! But if you don’t mind I have a few questions for you. (#1) I currently have Spanish 1 in school and also teach myself Slovak on the side, do you think it is bad to learn two languages at once? (#2) What are methods you use to understand what you’re reading if you have a limited vocabulary, and what are good books to start with? (#3) Should a “rule” be vocabulary over grammar or should I pick up both of them as I learn? And finally, (#4) How effective do you think listening to music can be while learning? Sorry for this long message, but I really want to get these “obstacles” in my learning satisfied.

  • It’s unbelieveable how many people do NOT know this. At my university, the percentage of people who follow this scheme in learning a language would be approximately 20%, the lecturers and professors included.

  • Hi Luca, I just listened to your interview on the Polyglot Project Podcast and it was very interesting. Inspirational as always!

    I just had one question – you mentioned that you only move on to a new language once you feel comfortable in the one you are currently studying. How would you describe the level of proficiency when you feel comfortable moving on to a new language? For example, is it when you can understand just about everything on TV and in any books you pick up? Or is it just once you have a pretty good understanding of native media and you are comfortable speaking in the language. Thanks for your help as always!

    • Hi Jeff,

      interesting question.

      I will adress this issue in one of the next articles, where I describe my “linguistic path”, and describe how it evolves with time (phase1, phase2, phase3). Stay tuned 😉

      You wrote:

      For example, is it when you can understand just about everything on TV and in any books you pick up?

      Trust me, it is difficult to understand everything on TV and in any book, even when you have reached a C2 level. It always depends on the book you are reading or the movie/programm/show that you are watching. As strange as it may sound, we always know a tiny part of a language, even our native one.


  • Hi Luca,
    I’ve just finished listening to the interview you had on the Polyglot Project Podcast. I just wanna say I’m a huge fan of yours and I can’t get over the fact that you’re so young and you can already speak ten languages!
    However, listening to you makes me wonder if you ever eat, sleep or do any other stuff that people do?! Because it sounds like you work very hard so I immagine you don’t have that much free time!
    On another note, as a native speaker of Polish I’m happy to hear that you’re considering Polish as your next language! Many people say it’s difficult but I have a feeling it’ll be a piece of cake for you;)

    Anyway, thank you for being a huge inspiration and keep up the good work!


    • Hi Asia,

      thanks for such glowing words, I am honestly flattered 🙂

      You hit the nail on the head! My day is pretty crazy: I wake up, go to school (training in Consecutive interpreting), go back home, teach (I am an on-line language consultant on-line), learn Japanese whenever I can, write for the blog, writing the book, connecting with people..going out, meeting up with I said, every day is incredibly busy but enriching. I think that I am possibly living the best period of my life, since I am doing exactly what I love: learning and teaching foreign languages, and connecting with the world. The only missing ingredient in the recipe is travelling, but that will come the end, I still have time 🙂

      I fell in love with Polish by hearing it in Paris, lovely language, and lovely people!^^ I’ll most probably start learning it in september-october 2012. Any help is much appreciated! 🙂


  • I didn’t realize this was a coined term. I discovered thus through parsing Old English into Modern Day English in one of my classes. After the semester was over i could recognize words without looking them up and patterns as well. I recommend this method to the students in an ESL class I volunteer with. And this is one of the ways I am learning Korean. Thanks for the post. Looking forward to your book!

  • Hi Jeff,

    interesting question.

    I will adress this issue in one of the next articles, where I describe my “linguistic path”, and describe how it evolves with time (phase1, phase2, phase3). Stay tuned 😉

    You wrote:

    For example, is it when you can understand just about everything on TV and in any books you pick up?

    Trust me, it is difficult to understand everything on TV and in any book, even when you have reached a C2 level. It always depends on the book you are reading or the movie/programm/show that you are watching. As strange as it may sound, we always know a tiny part of a language, even our nati

  • Hi Luca, very interesting blog.
    But what about the fact that there are different kind of people? I think some people are really helped by a structural approach with lists and dedicated grammar. I’m not an expert and am just looking at how I will start (or advance) my language learning from now.
    Speaking for myself I am pretty structured and I’m just not comfortable when I don’t see/know the whole picture or the why behind a certain word/sentence/suffix/etc. For example when I am trying to form a sentence in some language then I’m constantly thinking should this end with an “o”, or should it be an “a” this time, or maybe in this context I should use something completely different. (this is just an example and I can’t think of something more specific). In this case I really want to know the rules for when to use which construction.

    Hope I made some sense and you can answer me. Thank you.

  • Great post, Luca! I’ve been ‘studying’ French and Spanish for about ten years, and probably would not have stuck with it as long as I have if I did not have the passion and natural aptitude I have for languages. I currently work as a translator into English, but I find your bidirectional translation technique as a way to learn language intriguing. Forgive me if I steal it for my blog lol ;).

    I never thought there is a difference between studying or learning languages as you’ve described here. Growing up in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, foreign language teachers use the same method you said that teachers use in Italy, splitting up the language into grammar, vocab, etc. with memorization lists, homework and class exercises, exams, etc. It’s just the way it is and I never questioned its efficiency. It never affected how I absorbed French and Spanish as my own, but I can definitely see how this method is more complicated and a bit ‘unnatural’ compared to learning the language organically. The first way takes the fun out of learning a language. I can see now that years of ‘studying’ French and Spanish have probably taken out the fun and motivation and ‘high’, which I felt when I started learning Mandarin for the first time in senior year of college.

  • Hi Luca,

    Thank you for this post. Like you, I chose German as the first language to learn by myself. However, whenever I read new sentences, there are always several words I don’t understand and have to look them up. However, you said mentioned not having lists – how do you retain the memory of these new words without writing them down? Even though defining every new word can be time consuming, it is the only way I know how to remember them later. How did you approach this?

  • Hi Luca,

    Nice post actually. Is your book published now? I just can’t wait to buy it. How could I buy it? Thanks.

    • Dear Luke,

      Dear Luke, the book hasn’t come out yet. I promised that I’d write a post about it, but currently I am in the process of moving back to Rome (I live in Paris). The post will come out and you will know everything you need to know about the book 🙂


  • Hi Luca, I think your blog is very interesting, as it is this post. I’m actually italian, but since I love English and the post is in English, I’ll use it in my comment. I’m an undergraduate in foreign language, I’ve always liked to learn new languages and I’m interested in linguistics too. This post is very interesting because it explains the different approach that people can have in acquiring a new language (I won’t use “studying” or “learning” in order not to confuse my point of view).
    I have an observation: I believe this different approach is due to the hemisphere that prevails in one’s mind… that is, if someone uses more the left hemisphere (meaning that they’re structured and have a logical approach to things) he would be more inclined to study a language, as you explained it. Meanwhile, if a person tends to use more the right hemisphere (so he/she has a more “creative” approach, let’s say) then he/she will tend to learn the language.
    What do you think about it?
    Thank you for your reply if you can.

    • Dear Giulia,

      the “left/right brain emisphere” is an interesting issue. It is indeed true that some people are more inclined to do certain things instead of others, but if you think of it, we all end up learning our own language through a wide variety of activies that involve the WHOLE brain, not just a part of it. The same thing goes for Second Language Acquisition, although external and internal conditions are different than when we acquire our own native tongue.

      One of the best books I have read on the subject is Vera Birkenbhil’s “Stroh im Kopf – Vom Gehirn-Besitzer zum Gehirn-Benutzer”. I am not sure that there is a version in English, but if there is one, I highly recommend reading it 🙂


  • Hi Luca,
    I’ve read some of your posts, and I have a question. Lets say I’m using Teach Yourself and I’m trying to learn like student B John, trying to learn only from audio, how can I understand what they are saying from just audio, when I don’t know even know what these new words mean. Do you have a solution to listening to audio with new words and finding out what they mean? Is it okay to go back one page and see the list of new vocabulary and then listen to the audio?
    – Much thanks

  • Salut, Luca, ça va?

    firsttly, congratulations for your incredibly exciting blog. It is trully helpful.
    I would really like to know whether your books is already available and if so, where I can buy it. I’m in São Paulo, Brazil.

    Many thanks in advance

  • Ciao Paisano! Luca, I have family in Lucca Tuscany. During high School our teacher had us students “Learning” Italian by reading and breaking down paragraphs in a fourth grade level Pinocchio book. I came across your educational article when searching difference between studying vs learning. Was excited to discover parallels between your real world methods of steps to success, and some details on how I achieved becoming one of the most knowledgeable Arboriculturists today, through self-education over last six years by utilizing real time Empirical experiences to do so. Along with waking hours spent intensely running past learned facts through my brain 0ver and Over again. Big difference between students achieving greater successes after studying same subject is, individuals having burning desire to soak up details wanting to “learn” Vs ones who comprehend by “studying” just enough to pass test after force memorization. LL, enjoy every minute of it… and keep looking up.

  • Hi Luca,

    Very interesting. I would greatly appreciate a brief chat with you. Maybe you could email me a number and time to call you on. I am in the business.

    Thank you.


  • Hi Luca,
    Would like to consult you how to improve my listening skill of a foreign language, English coz I am an Asian. thx

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