Five Ways to Tackle a New Language

Combining different language-learning methods is the best bet for success, say two FSOs with experience as language teachers and students.


The State Department offers excellent opportunities to learn languages and explore different cultures. Drawing on our experiences both as language teachers and as students, we offer the following strategies for tackling new languages. In addition to applying one or more of them, learners may find other useful reference points during conversations with instructors and learning consultants.

There is so much information available at FSI that students are sometimes challenged to find and implement an elusive ideal approach. We propose that optimal learning will happen when multiple approaches are deliberately combined.

Our descriptions of the five learning styles below, based on research by British anthropologist Mary Douglas, discuss the strengths and limitations of each approach, and include some practical applications. Many readers will likely recognize the primary style of past teachers. Being aware of your preferred learning style—as it applies to language learning—can be very helpful.

There is always a gap between what we know and what we do. After enjoying full-time language study at FSI, we each came away recognizing our own shortcomings—and wished we could go back to our former students and apologize to them, and then do a better job. We are fortunate that most of the instructors at FSI are ready and willing to struggle with us to find just the right mix of effective learning techniques.

Here are some of the broad learning (and teaching) principles we have gleaned, along with practical applications.

1. Repeat after Me…

Hierarchical learning relies on top-down, lecture-based instruction. Its experts and instructors come from traditions where learners are viewed as “empty vessels” that need to be filled. Common tactics include drills, workbooks and repetition exercises.

The prevalence of this rule-based, traditional approach is not surprising, given the requirements for standardized curriculum and final testing across all languages. Its strengths include efficiency and uniformity; but downsides include over-reliance on authoritative experts and the possibility of students blaming “the system” instead of their own lack of effort.

This approach can also prevent students from engaging with the language in a meaningful way. Just as writing an essay, rather than copying one, improves writing skills, creating your own utterances is more effective than repeating someone else’s.

In practice: Incorporate more “expert” samples or native speaker-based listening activities with specific, level-appropriate tasks. For example, listen to short news reports (not lightning-fast hourly updates) with the task of picking out key verbs or a specific set of nouns. Or read children’s books aloud in the target language to train your mouth muscles to make new sounds and sound patterns.

Achieving a series of bite-sized tasks is much more productive than slogging away at high-level exercises that only demoralize us. A more realistic approach to applying our developing language skills helps us recognize our current level and appreciate our progress.

2. I Did It My Way…

Individualism focuses on personal responsibility and preferences. Learners are encouraged to experiment, build their own network(s) and find what works best for them. One-on-one instruction or learning consultations can help identify unique learning styles and adapt learning activities for each person, knowing that each student’s strengths might not overlap with traditional (hierarchical) methods.

This is consistent with Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in which he argues that most people have different learning strengths. For example, they may be particularly strong or relatively weak in each of the learning modes: visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile. Unfortunately, traditional classrooms tend to emphasize auditory learning.

Solo time and effort outside of class are key ingredients in this free marketplace of ideas, where the best will compete to rise to the top. Bonus pay and other incentives can also be used to motivate in this paradigm. Downsides include the risk of becoming overly competitive or viewing the curriculum as a race, trying to stay ahead of the pack rather than cooperating to help each other master the content through more collaborative peer learning.

In practice: More verbal and written spot quizzes, including self-quizzing, can help motivate learners. Twenty years of research, as well as our own experience, bears out the observation that people remember (learn) better when there is an emotional response associated with the experience. Anxiety and fear are often part of learning, and missing items on a quiz can create an emotional response that aids memory. So embrace classroom quizzes. If your classmates are willing, ask for more of them.

To counter the risk of over-doing testing, students and teachers should use humor to laugh off major and minor mistakes. Running lists of funny errors can lighten the pressure: indeed, they are often some of the most memorable parts of learning.

3. We’re All in This Together…

Egalitarianism rejects the first two paradigms above, taking a more harmonious, collective approach toward learning. Diplomatic rank and experience are not relevant when collaborative learning prevails. Instructors facilitate discussions but do not dominate them, allowing students to discover and express grammar principles on their own. Each person also has equal opportunity to speak and ask questions.

One advantage of this approach is the force-multiplier effect that comes through peer correction. Downsides include frustration when classmates learn and process information at different speeds. A mitigation strategy for this inherent weakness is to rotate groups regularly, so that stronger students can work with a variety of weaker students over time.

In a classroom that seems to be stagnating, a tactful request for a new rotation can help an ambitious student get more out of the training experience. Alternatively, try viewing your classmates as equal partners in learning, and use your diplomatic skills to get them more involved.

In practice: Incorporate more group activities and play time into study sessions. Adults and children alike often learn better when drills are in groups and paired with activity—whether moving electronic labels onto pictures on a smart board or physically manipulating strips of paper for Q&As with other students.

Some FSI Arabic-language classes engage in light physical exercise on the lawn during warmer months, such as throwing or kicking a ball while reciting terms, or counting in unison during movements. As a result, participants are less likely to forget Arabic numerals and other linguistic building blocks.

4. It’s a Family Affair…

Familism emphasizes kinship over other social structures and sometimes rebels against the aforementioned more formal approaches. Tactics may take the form of rapid progress through increased home study, such as labeling household items and practicing together with family members.

Most of us have encountered lucky colleagues who won the linguistic lottery by coming from a multilingual home. The benefits of such an environment can also come from finding ways to enroll one’s spouse, partner or kids in full- or part-time language training, so the whole family can learn the target language together.

In addition, sometimes it is useful for students to focus on real-world scenarios and practical situations that facilitate their learning, even if it occasionally takes the place of the prescribed homework.

In practice: Language learning can be very stressful for some students. Home study time, familiar environments and comfortable routines can help. Adults often appreciate consistent structures, such as beginning every class with small group discussions or building each week toward a predictable Friday vocabulary quiz on new terms learned that week. When our teachers did this, we found the routine comforting.

5. I Don’t Hate People, I Just Feel Better When They Aren’t Around…

Autonomy. Introverts and solitary learners subscribe to this sentiment, and prefer the “hermit option.” (You can also think of it as the “Walden Pond” approach to learning.) Withdrawing from social interactions can free up time, energy and brain cells. Loads of language learning happens when we retreat from society and digest in isolation what we have been taught in class.

The first four paradigms described here rely on social settings, but some learners thrive in the muffled, silent solace of the language lab. They instinctively gravitate toward minimalist settings, such as quiet corners, with just notes and flashcards for autonomous practice.

The strength of this approach includes the flexibility to learn when, where and however possible. Talking to oneself is widely recognized as a great learning tactic for language production skills, though it can get a little awkward in public and is probably best done in isolation.

Practice time free from pressure and judgment is a great way to grow. But autonomous learning is insufficient to master a language because the lack of corrective feedback can solidify errors through repetition. It also will not prepare learners for authentic conversation or the rapid exchanges expected during oral exams.

In practice: Incorporate more tech-based (e.g., recorded) speaking activities into your language study to encourage independent, judgment-free practice. This can involve reading pre-written texts, activities that develop pronunciation “muscle memory” or reinforcing common phrases from daily scenarios to build up automaticity that flows almost involuntarily like a physical reflex.

Hearing your own pronunciation (and errors) can be both mortifying and motivating. Car commuting provides an excellent opportunity for judgment-free verbal practice. Doing this on non-FSI bus rides, though, might entertain or annoy your fellow passengers. Regardless of your setting, be ready for the funny looks that will come your way!

The Value of Syncretic Solutions

What should learners do with this awareness of competing language-learning approaches? See them as possible solutions. Syncretism has been defined as “the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices or philosophies.” Syncretic solutions are ideal in the classroom, creating flexible combinations of the competing methods outlined above. Reconciling multiple learning approaches in the classroom can create opportunities for students to benefit from their classmates’ differences and strengths.

There will always be many ways to approach a new language. Each instructor and learner brings their own bias to the task and to the classroom. Awareness of this fact can empower learners to make deliberate decisions about how to use collective and individual resources (chiefly time) most effectively. By consciously embracing and balancing the full range of tactics, learners will have access to more tools. Each of the methods we have outlined can be applied individually as a lens for learning, but blending and overlaying multiple lenses is possible and preferable.

While some gifted learners intuitively latch onto approaches that draw on all of the above philosophies, most of us need to make a deliberate effort to incorporate different methods and to close the gap between what we know and what we actually do. Be aware of your classmates’ successful strategies so that you can work with them more effectively to create a harmonious classroom culture.

Deliberately blending these tactics and strategies may be less elegant than sticking with a single approach, but it can be much more effective.

In short, when we can recognize and combine learning styles, we will see greater success in our language learning.

Elijah David Bush and Todd Hughes are both FSOs and proud members of the 177th A-100 class of 2014 who recently studied languages at the Foreign Service Institute (and lived to tell about it).

Elijah Bush completed 44 weeks of Turkish in 2015 and now serves in Ankara with his wife and four children. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he had earned a master’s degree in teaching second languages from Utah State University, where he taught entry-level German. He has taught English as a second language as a volunteer overseas and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

Todd Hughes completed 31 weeks of Russian language study in 2015 and now serves in Yekaterinburg with his wife, who also studied Russian at FSI. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he taught French to high school students in Jacksonville, Florida, and later earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Florida.