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How to learn a foreign language in 2023

Never in the history of the world has language learning been as important as it is today, even after the setbacks in globalisation caused by Covid-19. Actually, even more so after the pandemic outbreak, since the impossibility to visit physical schools and to travel forced learners and course providers to find alternative solutions.

We therefore saw the proliferation of online courses and learning apps, many promising miraculous progresses at almost no costs. The creativity of language providers seems to have no boundaries, and we indeed live in a time of dramatic innovations in education, more or less effective.

At the same time, with the ending of the pandemic and the reopening of the international borders, the more traditional learning formats such as attending a physical school have regained popularity. However, the situation is not the same as it was in 2019 anymore, and physical schools need to deal with a new virtual competition.

Whoever wants to learn a foreign language is today bombarded by advertisement from all sides, and it is difficult to unravel the tangle and figure out the best way of learning a language. Should I download an app or study with a real teacher? Should I learn online or do a study abroad trip? In this article we examine the various learning methods offered today, evaluating their pros and cons.

1. Apps

Language learning apps are extremely popular today. Their success is mostly due to their being easily accessible via smartphone, easy to use and, most of the time, free. Since their appearance, the number of people who claim to be learning languages skyrocketed, and they really give the feeling that learning a language is a piece of cake, but here’s the catch: if it’s too easy, it probably doesn’t work that well.

Don’t get me wrong, we are not saying that you shouldn’t learn with an app! Apps can be a useful tool in support of language learning. All we mean is that you’re hardly going to make significant progress with them alone. Let’s see why. The most advanced and worldwide accepted approach to learn a language is the communicative approach. In short, it says that to effectively learn a language you need, among other things, to use it pragmatically in practice and not to rely on translations. If you tried learning a language through an app, you know that they don’t exactly follow these guidelines. First, their vocabulary is often too detached from reality. This hasn’t escaped the attention of the internet, and numerous memes appeared over the years making fun of the hilarious phrases that are sometimes used (why do I need to learn how to say “you are a horse” in German?). Albeit being fun, this really isn’t helpful for anyone who wants to learn a language for a real-life use. The second issue is the massive use of translations. Teaching a language through translations has been discredited by experts as an unproductive approach a long time ago, and for a good reason: as neurolinguistics claims, the mental processes of speaking a language and translating it are separate in the brain and should not be confused. People study hard at university to become translators, so why should someone who is learning a language be expected to master the same skills? We know that the temptation of using your mother tongue to help while learning is strong, but it is one of the first things you need to get rid of if you want to improve. That said, we don’t think that using apps is useless. In combination with other means, it can certainly be a useful tool to learn new vocabulary, to put your knowledge into practice and to have fun, which is fundamental in learning a language: if it’s not fun, you lose motivation, and when you lose motivation, you stop absorbing new knowledge. This is something that apps really get right.

2. Video courses

Compared to apps, video courses are much more systematic in the way they teach you a language. Rather than being focused on practice, they aim at providing you with an extensive knowledge of the target language’s rules. The programme is usually similar to the one of a standard course, with every topic analysed in detail, often with a real teacher on screen, visuals to help you understand the topics and subtitles in multiple languages. You usually have the possibility to choose among a large variety of lessons divided by level and topic and rewatching them as many times as you want. This flexibility is the main advantage of video courses and the main reason students choose them among other options. Due to busy and irregular schedules, many don’t feel comfortable with committing to a live course with a teacher when they can watch language lessons during breakfast or before going to bed.

Moreover, video courses are a much cheaper option when compared to live courses, and this is certainly a factor that should not be underestimated. The main disadvantage video courses have compared to apps, meaning the lack of active participation on behalf of the students, is often solved by adding exercises below each lesson, aimed at testing the knowledge acquired.

However, they still share an important drawback with apps: the lack of real communication, which cannot be replaced by a few virtual exercises. There is a great analogy that works for these cases: trying to learn a language by simply absorbing the knowledge passively would be the same as trying to learn how to ski on a book. You can know all the right movements by heart, but you can bet you’ll fall on your first slope. Language learning needs practice.

So, video courses can be a great tool if you have parallel opportunities to use the language in practice. Maybe you live in a country where they speak it, or maybe you have friends abroad that you can communicate with. But nothing can substitute a real teacher: the role of a teacher is not limited to explaining topics, they also guide you through the learning process by helping you practice in the right way and develop your skills. The best teacher is actually that who helps you acquire the new knowledge by yourself, something that video courses certainly cannot do.

Something that it is very popular nowadays are bundle courses that combine pre-recorded video lessons with materials sent to you daily or weekly by a teacher, speaking clubs and Q&A sessions on specific dates. These courses can certainly be helpful, but the whole learning process still relies entirely on the video course, while the opportunities for active communication are very limited.

3. In-person classes

Let’s now look at the most effective ways to learn a language, meaning synchronous courses with a real teacher, starting from the in-person option.

Synchronous courses are much more effective than apps and video courses. Whether you choose individual or group lessons, your teacher will guide you through the learning process by giving you the necessary advice and material, communicate with you and correct your mistakes. You won’t be left alone, which is the main drawback of asynchronous courses.

When speaking about in-person classes, it is important to distinguish between a course in one’s home country and a study abroad trip. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, although they vary from person to person.

Even though online courses are today an effective substitute, there are many people who still prefer a “real” human contact and the experience of a physical classroom, and that’s why they prefer to attend face-to-face courses in their home country over online classes. This, of course, is very subjective, but if we consider that motivation is a key element of the learning process, if you feel better in a face-to-face environment, then this is indeed the best choice for you. Face-to-face courses are generally slightly more expensive than online classes and have the same effectiveness, so it really comes down to what your preferences are. That said, no course is 100% effective without extensive practice. If you live in your home country, 1 or 2 hours per week of communication in a classroom won’t be enough to make visible progress if you don’t have any other chance to use the language in the remaining time. But don’t worry, there are many ways to provide you with the needed practice: first of all, apps can indeed be a useful supporting tool, as we mentioned before; secondly, try listening to music and watching movies in the language you are studying (better if subtitles are also in the foreign language); and, finally, find someone to communicate with! The easiest place to look is Facebook groups. So, for example, if you are studying Italian, you can look for groups of Italian learners and ask if someone wants to communicate with you.

A very different choice are study abroad trips. Traveling to a destination where they speak the language you are studying can be a wonderful experience and dramatically boost your skills. Studying daily at a language centre, living at a host family, diving into the local culture, and making local friends is indeed a great way to improve while traveling and having fun! Of course, this is the option with the highest costs, and it requires a break from work or study, but it indeed provides the best full immersion. Of course, unless you are an expat, at some point you need to return to your home country. In order not to lose your practice, you can then attend a school there, use the tips mentioned above, or opt for live online lessons with a teacher.

4. Live online lessons

Live online lessons started developing during the 2010s and gained widespread popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, when Zoom became the holy grail for schools and firms. With the pandemic over (fingers crossed), live online courses remained a popular choice, and it doesn’t look like things are going to change in the coming future.

This type of course has the best balance between effectiveness, flexibility, and price.

Even though there was an understandable scepticism in the beginning, online lessons proved to be as effective as in-person lessons. Indeed, communicating with someone on a live call is not very different from communicating in real life. It can even be argued that online lessons are the most effective option thanks to the possibilities offered by technology: teachers can share visual materials, write on electronic textbooks, and send files more easily than in a physical classroom. And let’s not forget that they allow you to connect with teachers abroad, living in the country where the language you are learning is spoken.

When it comes to flexibility, the online format, compared to in-person classes, is certainly a much better choice. By sitting at home with your computer, you don’t need to waste time on transport. And if you are studying with a private tutor, you usually have a wide variety of options to schedule your lessons. Moreover, while live online courses are more expensive than apps and video courses, for obvious reasons they are much cheaper than enrolling in a physical school, especially when it is in a foreign country. Indeed, the costs of study abroad trips can go through the roof if you combine flights, accommodation, tuition, excursions, and food, so a course from home will surely make you save a lot of money.

There are, however, risks in looking for online tutors on the internet, mainly because there are countless teachers without any professional qualifications. It might seem obvious, but we’ll state it just in case: speaking a language does not equal knowing how to teach it! Especially dangerous in this sense are teacher aggregator websites that let you pick among huge lists of teachers, each with their own profile, reviews, and prices. The issue is that there is close to none quality control, and while there are some good teachers there, students easily end up receiving low quality courses, wasting their money. We thus recommend looking for courses provided by language schools, where teachers are carefully selected and monitored. As we mentioned in the previous paragraph, attending lessons alone won’t be enough, and you’ll still need to integrate your practice by being exposed to the foreign language outside of the lessons by playing with apps, watching movies, listening to music, or having someone to communicate with. Fortunately, the opportunities offered by the internet grow by the day, and you can feel surrounded by a foreign language without going anywhere!

5. Conclusions

Today, the internet offers countless possibilities to learn a language, including some we haven’t mentioned such as platforms with free exercises, podcasts, etc. They all are great tools to enhance your immersion into the foreign language, but if you want to make significant progress, you’ll still need the following:

  • Active practice

  • The support of a qualified tutor

The choice between an online or an in-person course is very subjective, and it depends on your budget, schedule, and personal preferences, but in both cases, you’ll be on your way to fluency.

And if you don’t have a friend to practice with, don’t forget that the internet is full of likeminded people who are looking for someone to communicate with in the same language you’re learning! We hope that we helped you make your mind about choosing the best way to learn a foreign language, but if you still have any questions, feel free to contact us by using the live chat to the right or send us an email at!

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