Any answer to the question posed in the title of this post will inevitably be loaded with presumptions, bias, personality preference, anecdotal or confused sources of evidence, guesses with no actual experience, irrelevant criteria and many other things that lead it to give an impossible or misleading real answer, because simply there is just no one best way to learn a language.
I could give you my opinion on the best sources of information to find out about your target language, but that wouldn’t mean much to so many people because of my particular preferences, goals and past experiences, so this is why I thought it best to get an overall view first from many people about what the best language learning course/book/material is.
To do this, I asked 267 people a detailed list of questions, and rather than focus on one final answer, I want to show you how the answer in a particular context changes everything.
Of course, I tried to be as scientific as possible, but since those polled are restricted to readers of this blog (or the How to learn any language forum) and are thus a small segment of language learners in general, it can’t be perfect. Having said that, the results are absolutely worth considering…
The deal-breaker: asking the right people the question
If I simply asked the question “What is the best language learning course”, the most popular answer could actually be worthless. Think about this for a second: if you ask the general population a question about what is best, in many situations most of them are simply not experienced enough in the matter to give you a useful answer.
For example, if you polled everyone on which girl’s shoes look the nicest, then perhaps most guys answering the question (like myself) would be simply too shoe-stupid to even have an opinion that matters. Their answers would taint the useful result. You are better asking the fashion-aware such a question.
This may sound offensive, but frankly I don’t care what not-yet-successful language learners tell me the best course is. Their opinion is based on extrapolation of potential, how much fun it is (nice, but sometimes irrelevant in terms of actual results), how much progress they feel they are making (which is grossly exaggerated in many courses), and use of the language in the wrong context compared to how they may wish to use it (too much reading, not enough speaking for example – leaving them ill-prepared in all conversations with natives).
But I still absolutely wanted to hear from them because they sometimes have much more experience than successful language learners in what definitely doesn’t work. The results were interesting!
One of the first questions I asked was What is your experience in learning languages? The results were as follows:
To attempt to define fluency for the purposes of this question, I said it means “you could confidently live and/or have lived entirely through the language at some time.” It may not be perfect, as I defined fluency in more detail somewhere else, but it separated people sufficiently.
|I have already successfully learned a foreign language to *fluency* independently as an adult using books/courses.||39||15%|
|I have already successfully learned a foreign language to *fluency* in an academic environment, or by living abroad/with natives.||41||15%|
|I am learning a foreign language now and hope to speak it well very soon/some day.|| 106
As expected, most people reading a blog about learning languages, and a forum about it too, are in the process of speaking their first foreign language.
“Other”, when explained, were actually answers already stated but rephrased to sound nicer. Sometimes giving people an extra choice is a bad idea! Their answers are not covered in the data below.
Anyway the almost even divide between successful (the 39 + 41 learners) versus the not-yet-successful (106 learners) made the results based on those answers quite interesting and definitely worth analysing!
What makes a successful learner?
Now just the first two (reached fluency independently and in an academic/immersion environment) got asked Why were you successful in learning your foreign language to fluency?
Here is a bar chart of the results:
A: My school did a good job & teacher(s) were very helpful
B: I worked very hard and studied much more than other students
C: I might just have a natural talent for languages as I picked it up no problem
D: I had a stay abroad or spent a lot of time with natives that hugely influenced my learning experience
This was a selection-box, (not either-or) so they could pick more than one answer. It’s clear that time with natives is the big winner here, but there is no doubt that an academic background was very helpful to many successful learners (keep in mind a lot of readers of this blog are Europeans who learned English to fluency in school for example).
I was happy to read this as it shows that some academic institutions are moving in the right direction. I don’t rule them out as useless, but I think the traditional learning approach is way inferior to a more improved version. Of course, answers B & C show that progress depended on a good student rather than a good system in many cases.
Answers in “Other” included more flowery rephrasing of what I had already said (!), as well as several answers saying that they were active in seeking out conversation even if they didn’t have constant access to natives. Others said they got as much exposure as possible (through TV, radio, magazines etc.)
The next question I asked this group was Have you ever studied a foreign language independently?
This was to scope the usefulness of the courses question coming next. Only 4% replied to say that they have only learned in an academic situation and have never invested their own time/money into separate courses. As well as confirming the usefulness of the next information, this also tells me that even those who were happy with their academic background still had to work on their own.
Letting your school do all of the work for you and simply following their directions and nothing else is clearly not a practical path to fluency.
Choices of successful learners
Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for… Which of the following courses/materials have you used and found to be beneficial?
Answerers could pick more than one. I asked the exact same question of both successful and not-yet-successful learners. As I was totally expecting, this does not point to one dramatic winner, but there are some that do come out ahead for successful learners:
- Websites (busuu/Livemocha/LingQ etc.)
- Book/course specific just to my target language
“Other” was a place to write the specific course for specific languages, and I didn’t find anything consistent enough to merit a mention, since learners are covering such a wide range of languages.
The clear winner here is not actually a course at all, it’s native material. TV/radio/podcasts/reading win over everything else by far.
Other than that we have Busuu, Livemocha & LingQ and other websites which I didn’t separate because these are language-learning tools rather than courses (Busuu & Livemocha are useful for meeting people online, and the free version of LingQ is very useful for “input” to practise reading & listening – neither actually have a course that gets you anywhere beyond the basics), and I have covered these in detail before.
Then Teach yourself, Assimil and Pimsleur come out as the clear winners as courses.
I have experience in using these myself and will discuss each one separately in its own post with time. Why these would and wouldn’t work is important to discuss, so don’t think that I am endorsing them just yet 😉
Although it got less votes, Michel Thomas was more voiced in comments as being useful. I have no experience with this, but will try it in a later mission. I have also had good experience with “Colloquial” (such as in Portuguese) but it seems to be slightly less mainstream. I’ll mention that too later.
If you are curious, the answers to the same question for the not-yet-successful learners were slightly different. Teach yourself came out on top of the courses (this says nothing against its usefulness based on the above results, it just confirms its popularity). The same number of people voted for the websites and tv/radio/podcasts/reading. As I said, these results were the least interesting to me as they only discuss potential and I prefer to look at information based on actual results.
The most unhelpful courses
Here are the successful (1st) and not-yet-successful (2nd) learners’ answers to the question Which of the following courses/materials have you used and found to be unhelpful?
The obvious loser is Rosetta Stone. This was accompanied with mountains of comments and “colourful” language about why it doesn’t work. I only have superficial experience with RS, but I’m not impressed. My advice: not only should you not buy it, but you should not use it. That includes gifts and pirated copies. (If you think you are so clever to have found a torrent for it, think again).
It will waste your time in terms of reaching fluency, although the comments I received that were praising it (as expected, almost entirely restricted to the “not-yet-succssful” learners) say how enjoyable it is to use. I recommend that these people buy a fun computer game if they want to mouse-click their way to enjoyment.
Next up is Pimsleur. You can read the thorough and honest Pimsleur approach review here.
After that come the websites – which I still say are useful, but are simply not complete enough to help people learn what they need to reach fluency in my experience.
What is also interesting is when you compare these two side-by-side as I have placed them. From this, you can make two observations:
- As I mentioned at the beginning, I had approximately the same number of successful & not-yet-successful learners in this poll. And yet the numbers of votes per course are much higher (double!) for not-yet-successful learners (see the indication below the bars). This is because they selected more options (this was a check-box question) – this indicates to me that unsuccessful learners don’t stick with one program consistently enough and may own several (since I said in the question that they have used them, rather than simply being familiar with them). More courses does not equal more success. Use what you have and use it well, rather than spending more money (or downloading more courses) and feeling that is getting you closer to your target.
- Not one single successful learner found TV/radio/podcasts/reading to be unhelpful. That big gap in the chart is a pretty clear reinforcement of how useful exposure to non-course native-material can be. Not-yet-successful learners have tried this, but clearly they are doing too many things at once to get any real benefit from any one in particular, including native-material exposure.
I had asked other questions in this survey, but the results from those are just minor interesting points I will raise at another time, or they simply contain no useful information from a statistical perspective. However, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who took part! This information is really interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of your accompanying comments!
What is clear from the answers here is that there may not be a “best” course, but there are certainly bad ones. I will investigate the top good results (no point in beating a dead horse and dwelling too much on the bad one…) and analyse what they are good for and what they are not good for, and hopefully that will bring people who are wondering which one to invest in, one step closer to a decision!
However, I want to make this absolutely clear: It isn’t about the course!! I am discussing the topic because it’s on so many people’s minds, and some courses are indeed slightly better than others for particular situations, but buying the “perfect” course means nothing if you don’t put the work in, and get out of your shell to practise with human beings, or at least get as much active exposure as you can.
Do you think you will follow in the footsteps of successful learners before you? Can you stay focused on the course you have and even abandon it as soon as possible to expose yourself to actual native content and even meet up with natives? Do you agree with these results, or would you draw different conclusions based on the information? Let me know in the comments!
Oh and don’t forget to share all these pretty bar graphs with your friends on Facebook!