The methodologies of language learning are as various and self-inflated as political opinions on Capitol Hill. Every language guru thinks her method is the best, the truest, the most sure-fire way to conquer a new language in 30 days, or six months, or one year.
I’d like to make this declaration: all language methodologies are true and all language methodologies are false.
There’s no right or wrong. There’s only you. You, the learner, is all that matters when it comes to language learning. The best methodology is the one that fits your goals and follows your path and drive. If a language methodology does that, then it will work.
I’ve been a language teacher and a language learner at many different junctures of my life, and what I learned from being a student of language is that most teachers simply teach with their accustomed methodology – their language way is the one that will work for everyone regardless of whether it will or not and regardless of whether it feeds into the language learner’s goals.
Before I expound on this point, I want to highlight two distinct periods of language learning which I had in my own life. The first one is my formalized learning of French in high school and college, and the second one being my learning of Vietnamese while I lived in Vietnam.
I spent four and half years learning French in 8th to 12th grades. I picked French because my older sister had studied French. I had no goals with the language other than trying to get decent grades. I was taught French is a very teacher-centered way. Repeat after me. Write this down. Copy this. Conjugate that. I got decent grades in high school French. For my language requirement in college, it was foolish, in my mind, to try a different language since I was rocking my high school French grades. So I continued with the same type of methodology and I got excellent grades in college.
Six years of studying French: What did I get? A few phrases, some conjugated verbs, and a lot of good grades. What I didn’t have was a new language I could speak. Those courses did nothing for me. Granted, I had no goals for French other than to pass the course and receive the required credit.
Honestly, it was all a waste of time.
My second language learning experience was completely different. I moved to Vietnam in 1994 and it became immediately, painfully obvious that no one around me spoke English. I would have to adapt and learn if I wanted to live. My immediate goals for language learning was to go to the market and successfully buy food. Talk about motivation!
I gathered vocab from books and friends. I asked people how to say them. I recorded and practiced basic sentences and words. In no time, I was saying basic market sentences and bringing home the right food. A good start.
Over the first three years of my language learning in Vietnam, I collected a lot of vocabulary, went to a language teacher once a week to practice, and tried to do the best I could. But it wasn’t enough. I needed more to conquer this difficult, six-tone language. So I enrolled in a local language school to learn Vietnamese full-time for one year.
I had one instruction for my teacher on the first day of my one-on-one class: never speak to me in English. Week after week led to month after month and before I knew it, I had come to the realization that I had become a speaker of Vietnamese. Six years learning French and I couldn’t find my way around a Julia Child’s cookbook. Six months of learning Vietnamese in Vietnam, I was fluent.
Of course the differences are stark, but what I have come to learn is that it’s all about your goals for language learning. This is the make or break issue in whether you will be a successful second language learning or not. Your goals will drive your passion and your methodology, so here are my suggestions as to how to get the most of truly learning a language well.
1) Identify why you want to learn a language.
2) Make a personal learning plan, listing what you want to accomplish in this language.
3) Find a language tutor – not teacher – who will be moldable to your desires and goals. This is a the key. Don’t trust a regular language teacher who has their ideas about what you should learn and when. Now this isn’t to say that you can’t learn a language with a teacher. Of course, you can. However, I contend (with absolutely no research to back it up) that a self-motivated, self-produced, and self-sustaining plan with a tutor who will back you up and do what you ask will be extremely effective.
4) Keep, whatever plan you chose, focused on practical aspects of the language. Focus on listening. Be active in your approach, use what you are learning. Embrace mistakes, laugh at yourself and learn, learn, learn.
This is, in my humble opinion, a great way to go about learning a language. I’ll have some future posts which will get more specific on the how such as some possible learning acquisition plans which can help you get the most out of your language adventures.