What’s the best way to learn a foreign language?

I’m speaking mostly from personal experience when I say that if you want to learn a foreign language, the only real way to do so is to go to a country that speaks that language and immerse yourself in it.  Of course, I’m sure there’s plenty of conflicting research with lengthy lists of teaching methodology and the newest software programs to make you fluent in no time.

Recently, I’ve been seeing more ads for language learning programs that guarantee fluency in just a few weeks. Please don’t fall for this nonsense.  Every time I see an ad stating that you’ll be fluent in just 8 weeks after using their language learning software, I can’t help but think of the equivalent marketing scams for weight loss: “take this special pill/drink/chemical and you’ll shed the pounds in 2 weeks.”

The fact is learning a foreign language is a long and arduous process. Probably the most difficult part, at least for myself, is how slow the progress feels. I’ll learn so much and still only be able to give basic directions to a location or order food in a restaurant.  I’m functionally fluent in Spanish (though shamefully rusty) and probably a high-beginner in Arabic.  And that was after spending 3 years in an Arab-speaking country!!!

I’ve been teaching English as a second language for nearly a decade now which helps tremendously in my own learning process.  I’ve tried almost every type of language learning method out there and these are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

Traditional Classrooms

Learning in a regular classroom is great for learning about the language, not so great for speaking and interacting on a fluent-level with locals, unless of course, the class you’re attending is in a country that speaks the target language.  I studied Spanish for nearly 12 years throughout high school and college and studied it relentlessly.  However, the month I spent in Ecuador, I made more strides than I ever made in the 12 years spent in a classroom in the states covering a textbook and eating nachos on special occasions.

Textbooks and Workbooks

I’ve often perused the shelves at bookstores for textbooks, workbooks, and dictionaries for what I deem the best for learning a language.  Having a book to follow along with will definitely help you in the language-learning process, but will it make you fluent? Sadly no.  In fact, in some ways I’ve found books to hinder my progress.  They’re almost always formal language which means I don’t sound like a native speaker when I talk, and nearly always organized into what should be useful scenarios: giving directions, ordering food at a restaurant, a trip to the post office.  But just how often do you have to request more cheese on your pizza in Arabic? Not often.

Language-Learning Software

The language-learning software such as Rosetta Stone seems to be one of the newest trends in language learning.  Rosetta Stone has been around for awhile now and boasts that it’s the “natural way” to learn a language.  I used Rosetta Stone for Arabic and while it was definitely useful, I don’t think it would ever make me fluent.  And anytime I repeated phrases, my Arabic-speaking friends would giggle and proclaim “you sound so formal!”

Immersion

Bottom line, immersion is the way to go. If you can’t afford a planet ticket or a trip to another country, consider searching for a community of native-speakers who live close to you.  I’m currently trying to find my own conversation partner now that I’m home from the Middle East and no longer immersed in Arabic.

What has been your experience learning a foreign language?

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