Which Language Learning Method Works?

How can you tell which language learning method works when they all claim to be the One? I’ve spent my entire professional and academic career in language instruction and linguistics, and I’m such a language geek that my idea of good bedside reading material is Icelandic syntax (sadly, not exaggerating). So I’ve seen a lot of methods over the years, and I’ve seen a lot of things called “methods” that are really more instructional features or marketing hooks. Some of the stuff is good, even great. Some of it is just snake oil. And a lot of it is really not all that special but sounds great on ad copy. Here are a few of the buzzwords you may have heard.

Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition means bringing back previously learned material at intervals to help it settle into long term memory. It’s totally legit, with studies to back it up. The idea that it belongs to any one proprietary method, though, is complete rubbish. Most good language instructors understand it and incorporate it into their teaching, and plenty of current apps and other language programs are based on it, but they didn’t come up with the concept. That’s like Ford saying it invented the wheel.


Immersion is another term that gets thrown around a lot. For adult language learners, true immersion is when the student is immersed in the linguistic environment of his or her target language. As in, I’m an American who wants to learn Mandarin, so I go live in Beijing. I’m surrounded by the language, and I have to use it to do anything, whether it’s studying Mandarin or buying a coffee.

But I’ve seen the term immersion used to mean, I think, something like “no translation.” As in, I’m sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn using an app that shows me pictures to convey meaning rather than translation. That’s not really immersion, it’s just fifteen minutes out of my otherwise English-speaking day.

Language schools will simulate immersion for up to several hours a day. It’s a good start, and you can certainly learn with it, but it’s still a simulation of the real thing, and at the end of the day you’re going to go home to your family or hang out with your friends, speaking some language other than the one you’re learning. So if a language school promises you the benefits of immersion, unless you hopped on a plane in the recent past you’re being fibbed to.

Learn just like you learned your native language!

As a linguist, that’s my pet peeve method hook. “Learn X just like you learned your native language! No grammar, no drills, no translation!” You’re meant to kind of absorb your new language (and its grammar) by induction. This works for certain things. An instructor can hold up an apple and say C’est une pomme. You’ll get the point. Whether or not you’re mentally translating pomme into apple is an open question, and honestly it probably doesn’t matter much. But when it comes to unfamiliar grammatical concepts, this approach becomes the most frustrating game of charades you’ve ever played.

I’ve worked at a Big Name Place that uses this sort of method. I used it, I developed content for it, and I trained instructors in it, so I know its strengths and weaknesses. It’s pretty awesome for teaching basics and getting students speaking right from the start. But I don’t think I ever met a student who didn’t wind up begging, “for the love of God just explain this to me in English” when she got past the c’est une pomme phase.

Embrace what you’ve got as an adult language learner

Linguists who study first and second language acquisition will tell you that adults don’t learn languages like infants. You don’t really need to be a linguist to see this though. Adults and babies have different mental architecture, and people who already speak a language have a linguistic system that they will filter any new language through. They also have learning strategies and the ability to compare and contrast two different languages. This can actually be helpful if your instructor helps you avoid certain bad habits, like direct translation.

Methods based on truly different approaches

Not all methods are gimmicks or marketing creations. There are legitimate instructional methods with very different approaches – task-based, communicative, grammar-translation… Some are considered old-fashioned, and some are better for certain types of learning, for example reading or translating texts instead of speaking. Unless you’re studying applied linguistics or second language acquisition, or are just curious, you don’t really need to concern yourself with the particulars. Just know that pretty much all of them have strengths and weaknesses.

But when it comes to proprietary methods – meaning, methods that some person or company has created and given a name to and insists that it’s the best thing since sliced bread – keep in mind that it’s most likely just a marketing tool that uses a mix of elements from tried and true pedagogical approaches. Some are good, some are gimmicky, and none is the One True Path.

So what’s the Language Garage method?

The No-Baloney Method? The Hodgepodge of Stuff That Works Method? The Please-Don’t-Make-Us-Give-It-A-Name Method? We like to say that we use a program more than a method. More on that here.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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