Language learning: Why | Which | How | When | General tips | Materials | Pronunciation | Vocabulary | Grammar |
Writing systems | Chinese characters | FAQs | Phrases | Language jobs | Language learning experiences
There are a number of different ways to study a language, each of which has advantages and disadvantages. You may find a combination of these is best for you.
If you can find a course in the language(s) you want to learn in your country this is quite a good way to study. A variety of courses are usually available, including part-time and full-time courses, short intensive courses and courses leading to qualifications. If you look around you can probably find a course that suits your requirements.
The main advantage of such courses is that you'll have a teacher or tutor to provide you with instruction, support and feedback and with whom to practice your language. You will also be studying with others who are at more or less the same level and you can compare notes with them and help one another. Formal courses also help you to structure your studies.
Taking a course is not for everyone however - some people don't feel comfortable in a classroom environment and prefer to study at their own pace and when it suits them.
One option is to study a language in a country where it's spoken. There are numerous schools teaching English, French, Spanish, Italian and German, but far fewer teaching other languages. The main advantage of studying abroad is that you are totally immersed in the language, not just in class, but the rest of the time as well. As a result, you should make fairly rapid progress. Another benefit of studying abroad is that you get to try the local cusine, to meet the locals and to sample the local culture.
The main disadvantage of studying abroad is the cost, not just of your course, but also of your accommodation, food and travel. This can work out considerably more than you'd spend studying a language in your own country.
If you're a native or fluent speaker of English, you could get a job teaching English in a country where the language you want to learn is spoken. This is good way to finance your studies.
For information about English teaching qualifications and jobs, see:
If you cannot find a suitable taught course in your area and are unable to spare the time to study abroad, you could consider online courses. There are plenty to choose from in a wide range of languages. Many are free but some you have to pay for. Some of the paid ones provide support from tutors via email, chat programs, video conferencing, telephone or even face to face.
There are many different courses designed for self-study available. These include textbooks, with or without cassettes or CDs, cassettes alone, videos, DVDs and CD-ROMs. Each type of course has its strengths and weaknesses which are discussed below.
If you want to learn how to read and write a language and are not bothered about speaking it, then all you need is a good textbook, a grammar and a dictionary.
This type of course is probably the most popular and is designed to give you an all round knowledge of a language. Some courses focus more on colloquial language while others concentrate more on reading and writing. Most courses are intended for complete beginners or people with only minimal knowledge of the language. Intermediate and advanced level courses are available for some of the more popular languages, such as French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Examples of this type of course:
Teach Yourself and Colloquial courses - these are similar and are available for a wide range of languages; focus on teaching you everyday language, and introduce you to new alphabets or other writing systems where appropriate. Each course consists of a course book containing dialogues, grammatical notes, exercises and cultural information, together with cassettes or CDs with recordings of most of the dialogues and some of the exercises. Most of these courses are suitable for beginners. Intermediate-level courses are also available for the more popular languages, such as French, German, Russian, Spanish and Italian.
There are also Teach Yourself courses that introduce you to various writing systems, dictionaries, grammars and books about the culture of various countries.
This type of course usually consists solely of cassettes or CDs, though some may also include a limited amount of printed material. All dialogues, exercises, instructions and explanations are recorded and the focus of these courses is teaching you to understand and speak the language.
Pimsleur language courses are the best-known audio courses. They are very good at teaching you authentic pronunciation and a manageable amount of vocabulary. They also give you a good feel for the language you're learning. The Level 1 courses are suitable for complete beginners. More advanced courses are also available for some languages.
Various language courses are available on CD-ROMs and DVDs. Each course is different but they generally include dialogues, audio, exercises and tests. Some also include phrasebooks, dictionaries, videos, games and provide online and/or telephone support.
These courses include:
A good way to practice and improve your L2 is to find a language exchange partner. This is someone who speaks your L2 and wants to learn your L1. Language exchange works best when both partners have roughly an intermediate level in their L2.
Language exchange is also a great way to meet people and make new friends.
Sites that help you to find language exchange partners and penpals
Some people manage to pick up foreign languages with little or no study or instruction. This method seems to work best if you're in an environment where nobody speaks your L1 so you have to learn the L2.
I have managed to do this to some extent for Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Alhtough I have actively studied these languages and been on a number of short courses for the former two, I've mainly picked them up through listening to the radio and reading whatever material I come across. This is a way to immerse yourself in languages without living in an area where they're spoken.
How to learn any language
How to Learn a Language - tips and discussion
Language Learning Advisor - A Guide to Language Learning Success
Language Impact - Helping Language Learners Learn Language
LanguageTutors.org - connecting learners and tutors of languages around the world
Motivation! a newsletter for learners of Spanish
Meetup.com - a way to meet people interested in learning languages, etc.
Internet Course Finders - a database of 10,000 institutions teaching 88 languages in 115 countries: http://www.language-learning.net
VTrain - The Ultimate Vocabulary Trainer
On the mortality of language learning methods