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

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

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

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Photo credit for the featured image above: Carlo Boccaccino

I recently returned home from a fantastic week in Italy. It was an opportunity to experience something new with an old friend, catch up with another friend I hadn’t seen in too long, experience the south of Italy from (almost) a local’s perspective… and, of course, put into practice my newly-acquired Italian skills.

I’ve dabbled in a number of different languages in a number of different ways, and I’ve found that my relationships with each one vary widely according to how, when and under what circumstances I learned it. French and Spanish – which I studied at university and have been learning for 10 and 6 years, respectively – are like old, faithful friends I know I’ll always be close with. However, every so often I just feel the need to get out there and get acquainted with a new language, and when I do, I always feel enriched as a result.

Of course, I’ll always advocate formal study of languages if that’s what you’re passionate about, because the guided teaching I received at university was so valuable for understanding the building blocks of language itself. But I also think that once you’ve learned one or two foreign languages, others will come more easily; partly because of your existing understanding of how language works, and partly because it gives you the confidence to just go for it and strike out in your new language, knowing that you’ll make mistakes and knowing that that’s okay.

Take the two languages I’ve been working on since I graduated from my degree, for example. For Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, I spent a few weeks in Sarajevo taking daily 3-hour language lessons from a native speaker, which was great for my understanding of the unfamiliar grammatical concepts unique to Slavic languages. However, because my learning was limited to the classroom, my vocabulary is still poor and I’m not very confident speaking. Conversely, I learned Italian through the Duolingo app and conversations with my Italian friends, and even though I still don’t understand how to use pronouns properly or choose between auxiliary verbs in the past tense, I’m quite happy to chat away to taxi drivers, flirt with Italian waiters or do my best to describe a street robbery to the Naples carabinieri. (Long story. Actually, it’s not that long: My friend got robbed while we were in Naples. End of story). I’m under no illusions about the accuracy of what I’m saying (and I’m pretty sure I accidentally said ‘cazzo’ to my friend’s grandfather at the dinner table at one point); but for the most part, I can make myself understood and people tend to be genuinely appreciative, not to mention impressed, that I’m trying.

So really, it would appear to me that there’s no right or wrong way to pick up a language. For me it’s always depended on the language itself, how close it is to others that I’ve learned, and what options I have access to. Like making a new friend, learning a new language should be an adventure, and like any adventure, the best way to get going is just to go!

What methods have you used for language acquisition, and what are the advantages and drawbacks of each one? Do you have a preferred method? Why?

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