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The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language

Updated on April 2, 2015

Debunking the Myth of Total Immersion

If you ask a number of people, they will mostly tell you that the best way to learn a foreign language is just to move to the country where it is spoken, and don't speak your native tongue anymore. What I can tell you is that those people haven't done it! I have learnt seven different foreign languages for my career, and I can tell you that with total immersion you may be able to find your way to the bathroom, and know how much something costs in a short amount of time, but with total immersion, your linguistic skills learned in this method will never approach the linguistic skills that can be obtained by methodical learning in a class with skill practice. (In addition, if you don't speak your native tongue for an extended period of time, you may find that you have to relearn how to speak it, and that is a huge hassle!)

I tried the total immersion trick. I moved to a country where I could say only "beer" and "please," and where I recognized a few words I saw written: "wine," "newspapers" etc. Yes, I came away speaking and reading some of the language, but I never really achieved fluency in almost three years. And I had very little help, and I had to carry a dictionary with me everywhere -- even to the bathroom, because I couldn't understand the signs on the bathroom doors -- and I spent enormous amounts of time trying to puzzle out what people were saying to me (did that official say that I had to go to that window and give that person a form? or do I go to that window and is that person supposed to give me a form?). I spent almost three years being constantly frustrated, all day, every day! As if that were not bad enough in itself, for the first three months, everything everyone said to me sounded like "blahblahblah." BORING!

A Method to Learn a Foreign Language that Works!

On the other hand, having a thorough grounding before you go, in the basics of whatever tongue you are studying, including grammar, spelling, and having heard people speak it, will speed up the process of learning once you are ready for total immersion.

I took two semesters of another foreign language in summer school, watched a number of films, and read a few children's books. I went on a two-week vacation to a country where it was spoken, some five years later, where everyone complimented me on my language skills. I returned from vacation, and another five years later moved to a country where this language is spoken. Within three months of my move I had been offered a permanent job taking dictation in my new language for a large business, and soon afterwards I was working as a professional translator for literature, poetry, and scientific papers from my newly-acquired foreign tongue into English. Even after I moved back to my own country, I still retain most of my fluency and awake some days having dreamt in the foreign language, and I often catch myself thinking in it, too.

If You Want to Learn French, This is the BEST!

French in Action Digital Audio Program, Part 1: Second Edition (Yale Language Series)
French in Action Digital Audio Program, Part 1: Second Edition (Yale Language Series)

I recommend this program because it is miles ahead of anything else out there. Approaches French as a tongue apart, rather than just English written in a secret code.


What About Rosetta Stone?

What about it? It's a learning program like most others out there. It's so darned expensive because they run those infomercials on television, day in and day out. Are you going to trust what you hear in an infomercial? Really? I found programs like French in Action to be much more effective and more reasonably priced. In fact, I highly recommend French in Action for anyone wanting to learn French -- you will learn far more than you realize from this program! (Hint: you can request this program on interlibrary loan: often interlibrary loan is only a few dollars; at best it is free!)

Rosetta Stone offers through level 5 only for English, French, Spanish, Italian and German. All other languages stop at level 3 or earlier. And for all the tongues they do present, including the preservation of some endangered ones, they don't give you access to most of the world's over six thousand languages.

Why Rosetta Stone and Language Learning Software Does Not Work

Vygotsky was a Russian academic active in the 1920s. Almost a hundred years ago, he showed that language learning, and especially second-language acquisition, was primarily a social activity. Those software packages completely ignore the social aspect of the language learning process. A teacher and a classroom full of other students provides you with the social aspect you will need for fluency. Where French in Action differs is that they provide contemporary examples from film and television, as well as extensive interviews with people with a variety of different accents; you are also repeating phrases in a semi-social setting.

If you just have to have Rosetta Stone anyway . . .

You Don't Need to Spend a Lot of Money!

Learning a foreign language doesn't have to cost a lot of money--in fact, you can learn quite a bit for free!
Learning a foreign language doesn't have to cost a lot of money--in fact, you can learn quite a bit for free! | Source

Don't Have the Money for Software?

Don't give up, there are still plenty of free resources out there. First of all, check out your local library. They often have foreign language sections, and many libraries now have online courses for free--all you need to start learning is your library card! Even without an online section, libraries are for more than just books: there are also newspapers, magazines, audiobooks and music recordings, movies, and even software packages you can check out.

You can also pick up advertising papers (like those free papers in English) in foreign tongues in delicatessens, restaurants, groceries, even in shops near churches that cater to the group that speaks your desired language. This is also a great way to find conversation partners who can help you by giving you practice in your target language, and the best of these conversation partners will correct your grammatical errors and explain them so you can understand how to correct them yourself. Through the newspapers, you may also find out about cultural events which will primarily be in your target language. This is another great way to meet native speakers!

There are often Meetup groups in various areas for conversation practice or to learn a foreign language. More experienced speakers can recommend other local resources.

You can also find online courses from sites like Deutsche Welle for German, and podcasts in just about any language spoken.

And finally, you can find conversation partners on the internet. There are plenty of chat rooms in any foreign language, and by joining these chat rooms and trying out your language skills, not only will you get practice in the language, but you will be corrected quickly, and also get a great feel for current slang!

What You Need to Be Fluent in a Foreign Language

Here's what you need for fluency: a balance of what is called active and passive skills. Active skills are the ones you do: speak and write. Passive skills are reading and listening. After all, it doesn't do you any good to be able to ask a question in a foreign language if you aren't going to be able to understand the answer!

Newspapers, podcasts, TV shows, books, and the rest are all excellent for enhancing your passive skills. Conversation practice and writing are needed to practice your active skills.

What language have you tried to learn without any success?

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Submit a Comment
  • Georgia Estes profile image

    Georgia Estes 

    20 months ago from Arkansas

    I have attempted to learn several languages also. My most successful time was when I went to a language school in the country, Bangladesh. Five days a week there were classes: reading, writing, speaking, culture. Every night there was homework: listening and repeating tapes, writing, reading. On weekends there were cultural experiences. We lived away from the school in a convent with French Canadians. Because our French was limited and their English was limited, we communicated in a combination of 3 languages. Every day we had to negotiate money for the rickshaw to take us to school, or barter for some product. This is the immersion that I believe is successful, this combination of learning methods. Book learning, repetition, and immersion into culture worked for me. That was 1974-75, and I still remember much of what I learned.

  • classicalgeek profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago

    I did have regular language lessons when I lived abroad, both in countries where I was prepared beforehand and countries where I was just "thrown in" to sink or swim. It did not make a huge difference because for months I either understood what people said, and what I read, or it sounded like "blahblahblah." I still remember how excited I was when I understood my first Czech word that someone spoke to me . . . after four months!

  • JanMaklak profile image


    6 years ago from Canada

    I've been trying to learn French with Pimsleur and a different way I'm trying is Regardless of the method you choose it is necessary to use the language everyday.

    I wonder if you had language lessons, tapes etc when you lived in a foreign country if it would have made a difference?

  • Forsril profile image


    6 years ago from USA

    Great Hub. congratulations on finding a way of success in your linguistic endeavors.

  • classicalgeek profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago

    The diction of a language can, indeed, be quite difficult. The best way to improve your diction is to find a linguist who can tell you in precise detail exactly how to place and move your lips, jaw and tongue to get the right sound on each vowel and consonant. They should also be able to advise you on intonation patterns.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    I have always wanted to learn a second language but I have always struggled with which ones to start learing. I found German quite easy to learn, apart from the grammar rules; but to me it wasn't a particularly useful language.

    French I found the pronunciation hard; the same with Spanish.

    I am now thinking that Dutch is the way forward. My mother is from Holland and it is the closest language to English. The pronunciation isn't a problem for me because I am used to hearing my mother speak it. It's not terribly useful, but at least I will be able to communicate with my relatives.

  • Maggie.L profile image


    7 years ago from UK

    A really useful and well written hub. I'm interested in that French in Action programme. My daughter is learning French at the moment and I'm looking for resources to help her learn. Thanks for sharing.

  • Urbane Chaos profile image

    Eric Standridge 

    8 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

    One of these days, I swear I'm going to learn Old English. All I can say right now is, "Sorry, no beer."

    Actually, this is a great article. I've learned more through the cheap programs that I've bought than I ever could have any other way. When you go to a foreign country, I think you spend more time being confused than anything else.. Another great article by a ClassicalGeek!

  • standingscott profile image


    8 years ago

    nice hub :)

    I imagine the trick to total immersion is to arrive in the foreign country with at least some knowledge of the language... Otherwise, it could be very overwhelming like the situation you describe. :)

    Learning a language on the cheap or for free with the internet is definitely possible. The most important thing in my opinion is a plan and discipline - there are plenty of free resources, but a course or class offers you structure - especially important in getting started with a language..


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