The pros and cons of 5 unique language learning methods

Saga Briggs

We are spoiled for choices when it comes to selecting a language learning provider, but a better question might be the following: how do you choose a language learning method

Different companies use different learning methods, so it’s worth determining which technique sounds like the best fit for you before choosing and signing up for anything. In this post, we’ll show you just how much variety there is out there so you can make the right decision.

1. Transcription technique

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Backed by a number of studies in the language learning research literature, the transcription method involves improving your listening skills by typing out a transcript as you listen to the recording. The method has two parts:

  1. Listen to a recording in your target language and transcribe what you hear.
  2. Record yourself speaking the text you typed out.

Keep repeating these steps until all the words you’ve typed out are correct and you’ve mastered the text.

The good thing about this method is that it’s a form of active learning. That means that if you find yourself feeling like you can’t focus in class, it may be because your current learning method is passive—for example, just listening or reading. In contrast, transcribing forces you to engage in a concrete task: typing out what you’re hearing. 

You’ll be in the zone in no time, and your mind is less likely to wander the way it might if you were simply listening to the recording without typing out the words. What’s more, you’re practising all four language skills at once: listening, writing, reading, and speaking. No need to start with a particularly long recording—just 30 seconds will do. And be sure the clip fits your comprehension level—not too hard but challenging enough to push you out of your comfort zone.

Consider that this method does take a decent amount of time and effort, but also that it helps you learn faster than less active learning methods.

2. Immersion method

Widely considered one of the best ways to learn a foreign language, the immersion method involves diving into a language completely, sometimes being exposed to foreign vocabulary even before you’re sure of its meaning. For example, at a beginner’s level, you might have an instructor who speaks to you very slowly and clearly in your target language rather than introducing foreign vocabulary in your native language. Or it might mean changing the language setting on your phone and laptop to your target language before you’re one hundred percent confident you can navigate it that way. 

The idea is that you’ll catch on through association, and start practising straight away, leading to faster and deeper learning. Of course, this doesn’t mean diving into the deep end—you begin at the appropriate level for you—it just means “immersing” yourself as much as possible in vocab and concepts that you’re likely to grasp with a little context. Check out the classic Berlitz Method, which popularized immersive language learning.

In line with this method, you might also immerse yourself in a culture that speaks your target language to catch on more quickly. If you can’t manage to do this, don’t fret—the idea is regular, frequent exposure and practice, so try to put in a little effort each day. You don’t have to practice all four skills every day: one day, you might listen to a podcast, while another day, you have a conversation with your tandem partner. The point is to integrate the language into your daily life.

One downside to the immersion method is that challenges may arise when the student has questions that can’t be answered in his or her native language. For instance, if a French speaker asks a grammar question about Vietnamese in Vietnamese, and hears the answer in Vietnamese, she may have trouble understanding that answer if she’s not already sufficiently advanced. 

This can be solved by discussing these challenges with your instructor outside of class time, in your native language, or by requesting help from a translator. 

3. Dynamic immersion

“Dynamic immersion” features instruction from native speakers and advanced speech recognition software that lets you compare your pronunciation with a native’s. Repetition is integral to the method, with material from different lessons showing up again throughout the course. So how effective is it, really?

First off, you’ll be plunged into thinking and speaking in the new language rather than mentally translating from your native tongue. You’ll find yourself becoming familiar with vocabulary that’s useful in everyday contexts, and utilize learning-by-association, which help speed up the process.

On the other hand, the sentences you learn might be specific to the examples used and fail to prepare you for real-life, organic conversations. The de-emphasis on grammar means you’ll need to play catch-up once you reach a more advanced level. What’s more, there’s no way to get an overview of how sounds and syllables interact, which means that if you’re in doubt over the sound of a specific combination of letters, you’re left hoping it’s addressed in a future lesson. 

Finally, since some dynamic immersion programs, like Rosetta Stone, are virtual courses, it’s hard to stop and ask questions or confirm that you’re on the right track. When you need clarification over vocabulary or grammar, there’s little to do but Google the answer on your own.

4. The Pareto principle

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The Pareto principle dictates that 80 percent of the consequences or outcomes of a process come from only 20 percent of the effort you put into it. Also known as the 80/20 rule, this principle arose from issues surrounding the imbalance of land ownership in Italy (80 percent of the land was owned by 20 percent of the people) and is now used in many contexts—from time management to manufacturing to human resources—to illustrate the idea that you can make significant gains by putting your effort in the right place. 

In terms of language learning, this means that focusing on only 20 percent of new vocabulary could give you 80 percent comprehension in a language, since many cultures only draw from a limited pool of words when it comes to everyday communication (for example, English centers around just 300 words in 65% of its communication).

The Pareto principle can help you manage your time efficiently, so that you’re focused on learning only the vocabulary and grammar rules that you’ll actually need to communicate. 

However, it may be hard to determine what material should make up that 20 percent. And you’ll want to consider the possibility that this method won’t give you an in-depth knowledge of the language. This last point makes the Pareto principle ideal for short stays in foreign countries, but perhaps less ideal for long-term stays.

5. Cognitive strategies

Ever heard of the Method of Loci? This strategy involves remembering words by associating them with different rooms in a house or pathways in a forest, which leverages research from psychology suggesting that we learn more efficiently when we associate new information with other bits of information. It doesn’t always have to be a place, though. 

Imagine memorizing the meaning of the word “cognitive” by picturing a cog in a wheel, turning the mind around and around. That way, you’ll remember that “cognitive” means “mental” or “brain-based.” Some language learning methods leverage human psychology in this way to help new vocabulary and grammar stick. Another example is spaced learning versus cramming: your brain is far more likely to remember information for longer if you space out your learning over time than if you cram at the last minute for a test. 

The same is true for language learning: practicing regularly over time is better than one intensive course per year. If you want to learn a new language in a way that engages your brain in the most natural way, a cognitive method might be best for you.

The downside to this method is that it depends on the accuracy of the latest research. For instance, some language learning providers rely on “learning styles theory” (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, etc.) to individualize lessons for students despite the fact that this theory is not backed by solid research in the psychology literature. The take-home message is to be aware of the research but ultimately pick and choose various parts of the method which work for you. 

Everyone learns a little differently, so keep in mind what tends to work for most people while being honest with yourself about your own learning habits and preferences.

Whether you’re just beginning your language learning journey, switching methods, or looking to polish up your skills, choosing the right method will lead you to the right language learning course or software. You can also experiment with different methods before finding the right match. Either way, learning efficiently starts with a little research up-front, but it’s worth your time in the end.

Learn how we put our proven immersion technique, the Berlitz Method, into practice.

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