01 Mai 2016
The secret to learning a new language ­- pronto!

After a long evening class, a student of mine once took me aside and asked me if I knew a secret to learn Spanish in the quickest way possible.

I leant over and gently whispered in his ear – there is none.


He could not hide his disappointment. With a rehearsed professorial tone, because I have been asked this question many times in my long and stellar career as a Spanish trainer, I explained to him the secret:

A combination of methods, adapted to his needs, capabilities and interests would do the trick. I added that the length of time to achieve his goal depended on his background, motivation and time he invested in learning.

Before I could continue with my lecture about the efficacy of different language methods, one student interrupted and invited us to join the rest of the class that was heading to a restaurant. True to my calling as a trainer, I accepted the invitation with the condition that we would go to the nearest Mexican restaurant and only speak Spanish.

Taking a language on the road (or to a restaurant) with a student, I want to believe, is the best way to test in real life the efficacy of my teaching methods. The painful reality is that when my students get a few extra drops of Tequila in them, they believe they’re having the most fascinating conversation in Spanish, even when they are talking nonsense.

party-english(creative commons/fotolia)

The idea of working hard to learn a new language could be applied to many things we try to achieve in life. It is legitimate to find effective ways and shortcuts to do things, but there are limits to that. The old adage, “no pain, no gain,” still holds true.

Since we are just beginning to understand how the brain works, we really don´t know how exactly we learn — and in this case — how we learn a new language. In teaching and learning languages, I have often seen that the “eureka moments” of understanding often happen unexpectedly, without any clear-cut connection to a specific method we use.

Our great, great grandparents learned the “dead languages” ­- Greek and Latin – simply by studying grammar and making translations.

Younger generations travelled more and became interested in learning “living languages” by actually speaking them.

Other ambitious attempts to learn languages have included methods such as memorization, drill repetition and visual associations. More adventurous methods attempted to pre-condition the subconscious mind with music and connect our physical actions to words.

We’ve now added other methods, like dictations, role plays, games, singing, task-oriented activities — and a language soundtrack under our pillows (I’m not kidding) — to the available learning repertoire.

language-and-life(creative commons/fotolia)

The big secret of how to learn a language, pronto?

The overarching teaching philosophy we stand for at language institute i-diom, is different in that it stands for the mixed method (what we like to call the M&M approach). My experience tells me that no single method should take precedence over the others – regardless of what the marketing pros tell you. A wise trainer, or learner combines different methods.

tools-englisch(creative commons)

So the following truth can be applied to life and learning a new language: there is really no secret that can replace hard work.

What is your personal experience with different language methods?


About the author: Carlos Aleson is the director of i-diom, an institute specialized in language and communications training in Austria.