My last post turned out to be every bit as controversial as I thought it would. I expected that, because whether right or wrong, people react passionately and defensively any time their beliefs are challenged. (If you want to test that theory, just put a muslim, a christian, and an atheist into a room together!)
I received many comments of agreement, and I also received many comments if almost violent disagreement, but the one thing I was most shocked to see was a comment accusing me of bashing flashcards without telling people what to use instead. This comment surprised me the most because I've published more than 200 posts already this year, and I feel that a large number of those involved ways that a person can learn and practice a language. And none of them involved flashcards!
Still, as a followup to the previous post, and as an answer to that complaint, today I'm going to briefly discuss ways to learn a language that are better than flashcards.
1. Write to an email pen pal.
The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. Email is slow and patient. You can look up words you don't know — even go learn whole grammatical constructs — without the other person getting impatient.
When you know what you want to say, you'll know what you need to learn. That means the words you learn will always be useful. And when the other person responds, you'll see how the language is used, and learn colloquial expressions.
2. Chat with someone.
The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. Chats are a little slower than live conversation, so you have a little bit of time to look up words you don't know, or to use Google Translate when you don't understand something. You can also ask your chat partner to explain things you don't understand.
When you're having a conversation, you know what you want to say, so you'll know what you need to learn. That means the words you look up will always be useful, not just vocab on a list. And when the other person responds, you'll see examples of how the language is used, and learn colloquail expressions.
3. Talk to someone
The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) Talking to someone is faster than email or chat, so you don't have much time to look things up, which forces you to find other ways to say what you want to say.
Having a conversation forces you to speak and listen, two things you completely avoid with antisocial things like flashcards. And as I've said, when you're having a conversation, you know what you want to say, so you know what you need to learn. Any time you have trouble in your conversation, write down the words or thoughts you had trouble with and go learn them for next time. Or better yet, just ask the person to whom you're talking!
4. Listen to music
The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it, even when that's just for the purpose of enjoying a song. Songs have choruses which are repeated, and you can always listen to a song again, so it has all the repetetive benefits of flashcards, but with the advantage of forcing you to use your ears and understand someone in the new language.
5. Listen to podcasts
The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. (I'm getting tired of saying it.) A podcast can be paused and played back when you don't understand something, and if forces you to use your language to understand what is being said, rather than just memorizing words on cards.
6. Start a blog at Lang-8
The single most effective way to learn a language is — everyone say it with me — by using it. Writing a blog is slow and patient. You can look up words you don't know — even go learn whole grammatical constructs — and then come back and finish.
When you know what you want to say, you'll know what you need to learn. That means the words you learn will always be useful. And at Lang-8, you have a whole world of native speakers to give you corrections and help you understand how things work.
7. Read a book
Can you guess what is the single most effective way to learn a language? If you said "by using it", you were right! There is no race when you're reading, so you can take as much time as you need in order to understand things. You can even put the book down and come back to it weeks later, and it will still be right where you left it.
As a bonus, there are side-by-side "readers" printed in just about every language, so you can turn to the translation on the opposite page when you have trouble. This is particularly nice because it allows you to read translations of whole thoughts, rather than the word-by-word translations you would get from flashcards.
8. Watch a movie
The single most effective way to learn a language is by using it. Watching a movie is a great way to do that. Leave the subtitles off. Just listen to the dialog, and pay attention to what you see on screen. Figure out what's happening based on what you hear and see, rather than cheating with subtitles.
Movies, like music and podcasts and books, can be watched again and again, so you can continue to practice and improve your ability to hear and understand what is being said. And movie conversations are more like life, in that the dialog is usually mixed in with noises and other sounds like in the real world, rather than being perfectly recorded in a quiet studio.
So now I've given you eight ways of learning a new language that are better than flashcards. They are all better because they require you to use the language. And in all cases, you get the bonus of knowing you're using this new language, rather than hiding and being antisocial while you memorize words on flashcards. After all, you learn a new language to communicate — not as a way to become a hermit!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.