How many times have you heard someone on the Internet claim that they are ready to show you “the ultimate, absolute best way to learn a language”?
In this article, I’m going to bust all the myths and misconceptions about what people think are the best ways to learn a language. Then, I’ll show you the right language learning method that will help you personally find the fluency you’ve always been looking for.
The problem with using the magic word “best” when it comes to methods, strategies, and resources is that “best” is subjective. What is best for you might not be best for me. Or worse, there might not be a “best” at all. Just “the best we’ve found so far”.
But when people look for advice on how to do something well, that’s what they ask for first. They want the best, the fastest, and - it goes without saying - the cheapest.
This goes for anything—from learning the guitar, learning to make money, building a website, and yes, of course, learning a foreign language. People are obsessed with “the best”, so that’s what they look for.
If that’s what you’re looking for, then I hate to break it to you: after 30 years of learning languages and 10 years of coaching people to do the same, I am 100% positive when I tell you that there is no absolute best and fastest way to learn a language.
But wait! Before you click away, here is the piece of good news:
While there is no absolute best and fastest way to learn a language, there definitely is a best and fastest way FOR YOU, personally, to learn a language. A method that is tailored to your likes and dislikes, your learning style, and your schedule.
What you need to do is figure out what that method is. However, you don’t have to do it alone.
Today, you and I will discover it together. A method, built on solid learning principles, that is customized to you and your circumstances, and applicable to any language you want to learn.
Ultimately, the method you use should have seven key traits:
- 1It should be unique to your circumstances
- 2It should be enjoyable, in a way that suits your interests
- 3It should be flexible to different learning scenarios and environments
- 4It should enable you to learn every day
- 5It should be built around comprehensible input
- 6It should incorporate all four major language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking)
- 7It should grow and evolve according to your own experiences and desires.Let’s look at each of these in more detai
Trait 1. Your method should be unique to your circumstances
Have you ever wondered why most people do not succeed at learning a language at school? Well, there are many reasons, but one of the most obvious is that schools employ a “one size fits all” method of instruction. No matter their personal interests, learning styles, and goals, each student is forced to listen to the same lectures, use the same textbook, do the same homework, and receive the same types of assessments.
Now, I know that the classroom environment is an impractical one in which to expect truly personalized learning, but the truth is still the same: everyone learns differently. How you go about a learning task will have a huge impact on whether or not you, as an individual, learn the desired skill, or memorize the desired information. And that “how” needs to be aligned with your personality, taste, and drive as a human being.
Trait 2. Your method should be enjoyable, in a way that suits your interests
Let’s go back to that language class for a second.
Let’s say you’re learning German, and your German teacher loves literature. As a result, all of the course curriculum, in one way or another, is tied to classic German novels and short stories (affiliate).
Now, let’s also say that you love German, too, but you personally hate literature. To you, there’s nothing more boring than poring over old books with old characters using old, flowery language that has nothing to do with the world you currently live in.
Given your dislike of literature, do you think you’ll learn as much from your German class as your classmate, who, let’s say, can quote Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung from memory?
Simply put, you learn best from the things that you personally find interesting. If you’re a big astronomy buff - as I am - you would do much better in your hypothetical German class if you used the language to learn about the landing on the moon in German.
I’m a firm believer that we should learn language through the topics and activities that move us emotionally. That make us tick. If you combine your language learning with those activities, you’ll have an unbeatable combination that will motivate you endlessly. That has been my experience - and that of my most successful students: we do only stuff we love. We speak about topics that make us tick. Read articles that pique our interest. We listen to podcasts with enticing content. And we even write summaries, or short dissertations about the stuff we have watched, listened to or read. The sky's the limit, really.
And in addition to enjoying WHAT we learn from, we have to enjoy HOW we learn, as well.
If you see a method touted online as the best-ever way to learn a language, that might sound great, but what if it requires you to learn in a way that repulses you, or bores you to death? Should you push forward?
For your health and sanity, do not force yourself to learn a language using a method you hate, no matter how good other people say it is. Trying to do so will only lead to disappointment, and ultimately burnout.
This is what I’ve seen as a language coach.
I’ve spent years developing my Bidirectional Translation method, a learning strategy that I’ve found works brilliantly for me and most of the students I work with. However, if a student tries the method, and doesn’t like it, I don’t push it on them. Instead, we move on and try a different method.
In general, people will stick with the learning strategy that they like best, not the one that everyone says is best.
So find the method you like, and stick with it.
Trait 3. Your method should be flexible to different learning scenarios and environments
When I first developed my Bidirectional Translation method, I applied it to each and every language I decided to learn.
For the most part, it worked great! I had amazing success using the method with ten languages.
However, when I tried using the method to learn Japanese, something entirely different happened—it didn’t work. I hit a wall, and couldn’t make progress.
Stubborn, I decided to try to push forward anyway. But no matter how hard I tried to apply and reapply my tried-and-tested Bidirectional Translation method, I couldn’t get anywhere.
In hindsight, what I should have done then was be flexible. I should have taken my Bidirectional Translation method and attempted to adapt it to better suit Japanese, rather than the other way around. Instead, I remained rigid and inflexible in my learning strategies, in terms of the resources I used and how I used them, and that’s why I failed.
Here’s how you can stay flexible in your approach to learning, even in those times when you hit a wall.
Once a month, stop and engage in a self-reflection exercise. Ask yourself “is what I’m doing enjoyable? Is it working well for me? Do I wake up every day wanting to engage in my learning? If not, how can I change things so that the answers to the above questions can all be “yes”?
Answering these questions allows you to readjust and reassess your learning methods, making them stronger and more adaptable in the long run.
Trait 4. Your method should enable you to learn every single day
This is something I say in every video, interview, and blog post, ad nauseam:
If you want to learn effectively, make sure you learn every day.
If you can do this, then time will become your greatest ally in your language learning progress.
Because if you can learn every day, even for just 20 minutes at a time, you will be aided by the so-called “compound effect”. The gains you make every single day will slowly but surely accumulate, like a snowball rolling down a mountainside. Pretty soon, what was once a tiny snowball will become something much, much larger.
When this concept is applied to language learning, you’ll see results that are even beyond your wildest expectations.
I’ll never forget when a friend of mine called me with some amazing news. He had been learning Japanese for a long time without much success, but one day, he decided to take my advice, and commit to learning for at least one hour every day.
The news? After only six months, he managed to even have an hour-long conversation with native speakers, something that had previously only been a dream to him.
Keep this critical idea in mind at all times: language learning is not something that you do just for a few weeks, or months; instead, it is a skill for life. Learning every day will help you make that happen.
Trait 5. Your method should be built around comprehensible input
If you’ve ever attempted to learn a language before, then you probably know the feeling of learning for a few months, and then attempting to watch a movie in your target language to see how your skills match up.
Even with subtitles of any kind, I’m sure you found that you understood way less than you expected. I’m also sure you found it overwhelming, and perhaps a bit discouraging.
First off, let me tell you that it’s extremely normal to feel that way. Native-level, authentic content is extremely difficult, and to understand it, your brain needs massive quantities of input over a long, long time.
So how do you get there, especially from where you are now? How do you go from understanding nothing, to understanding nearly everything?
Here’s the answer: You must get a lot of comprehensible input.
As you learn new words and phrases, you must digest content that features those words and phrases, as well as some things you’ve never seen before. What you already know will help to serve as context for the new, unknown elements, and gradually you’ll figure out what the new stuff means as well.
This is the cycle of comprehensible input. You learn from what you can mostly understand until you can understand all of it. And then you move on to the next thing you can mostly understand. Rinse and repeat.
To start, I personally recommend anything with both printed text and audio, and even audio-visual materials with subtitles. Other beneficial features include simple and clear grammar notes and explanations, vocabulary lists, or even full translations into your native language.
This kind of material facilitates your quick understanding of the content, and as a consequence makes it more enjoyable and fun to learn with. And with enough comprehensible input at the early stages, it won’t be long until you can venture into content that’s specifically meant for native speakers to enjoy.
Trait 6. Your method should incorporate all 4 major language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking)
A lot of language learning methods focus on just one skill. For example, you can easily find courses all about speaking, that endeavor to help you improve in just that one area.
However, knowing a language is not about mastering one skill, but many. In particular, there are 4 major language skills, which include reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Over the years, I’ve had many students come to me after years of focusing on just one of the above language skills. They want me to help me “fix” their language abilities, which have now become patchy and unbalanced.
I’ve seen many examples of this, really. Someone who can listen well, but can’t speak even a few words. Someone who can read well, but can’t follow a conversation. Stories like this exist in all combinations.
After a short inquiry, it always turns out that their unbalanced skills reflect the choices they made along their learning journey. For instance, an American student of mine told me that he could read well, and listen to the radio, but couldn’t speak at all.
Naturally, I asked him how he regularly practiced his speaking skills, and...well, he actually had never spoken Spanish at all. Somewhere, deep down, he just hoped that after enough listening and reading, his ability to speak would come naturally.
Here’s a bit of knowledge you should always keep in mind as you learn: if you don’t practice a skill, you won’t learn it.
So, naturally, to develop all four skills, you need to practice all four skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean dividing your learning time in four and devoting one chunk of time to reading, speaking, and so on. But it does mean that you have to work on developing all of these skills over the course of a week, a month, or even a year.
With time, you’ll find that practicing all four skills together will help them reinforce one another, strengthening your brain’s ability to use and absorb the language in amazing ways.
Trait 7. Your method should grow and evolve according to your own experiences and desires
Whatever language learning method you ultimately choose, it should not be something that is decided for you by someone else. Instead, it should come directly from your tastes, desires, and goals as a learner.
Other people’s advice can be helpful, but always keep in mind that no one is going to learn your target language for you. Your language skills are your responsibility, so how your method is structured, and how it grows and evolves over time should also be your responsibility—and yours alone.
It’s like Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford commencement address: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice”.
This is true for everything.
The internet is full of loud and convincing voices about language learning—mine included!
Listen carefully, but take everything with a grain of salt. When you like something you hear, write it down. Test it out. Compare it with other advice, and see how it stacks up.
Draw from your common sense and experience, and ultimately integrate the things that resonate with you. You can discard the rest.
To put it at its simplest, the best way for you to learn a language is not going to be with some cookie-cutter learning method that anyone and everyone can use. You’re looking for a unique method that is tailored to the things that you enjoy.
This method should be flexible enough to allow you to learn every day, and in a wide variety of situations. Ideally, this flexibility also extends to the skills you practice—there are four major language skills, so you want to be sure that you practice all four on a regular basis.
The content you learn from, at its core, should be mostly comprehensible. You should be able to understand 80-90%, and use that to understand the 10-20% that is totally new to you. What you comprehend will change over time, so you should constantly be looking for new comprehensible content to learn from.
And finally, the method you ultimately develop should grow and change according to your skills and interests. What you do as a beginner won’t be useful to you as an intermediate and advanced learner, so you should be constantly tinkering with your method, and refining it with time.
So there you have it, those are the seven traits of the language learning method that will work best for you. Not me, not your teachers, or friends—you!