Taking the world less travelled

There Is No Best Method – Or Is There?

Posted by on May 20, 2008 in Language | 2 comments

time vs method

A little while ago I made a post called All You Need To Learn Japanese Is Time, a response to a post on a Language Learning forum. The argument at the forum was that all methods are equal, the only factor in language learning is time. I argued that both time and method are necessary. I liked how Alex summed it up in a comment:

Method is as important as time. Neither should be sacrificed for the serious student.

Since then I have found some other people’s responses to the forum. What follows are some highlights and some of my thoughts on them. If you are interested in this topic, here is some further reading for you and I’d love to hear your own thoughts.

bullet Edwin at the Tower of Confusion has written a post called No Best Method Hypothesis. He writes:

Perhaps learning a language is like building up a personal relationship. People might have different tactics to ‘befriend’ your target person. But eventually if you want to build up a true relationship, you have to spend time, a lot of time. And you have to keep yourself motivated in the process.

There are many interesting comments to the post as well. In one comment, Keith writes:

Rather than merely saying that there is no best method, I would go so far as to say that ALL methods of language learning are inefficient. People are not learning from their methods. Instead, they are learning from their REVIEWS. Or perhaps they are learning from their USAGE of the language. But they are certainly not learning from their methods. If they were learning from their methods then they would not need to review. They would be done and could just move on to the next thing to learn. However, their methods are not that efficient.

I’m not sure that I agree with that comment. I think, perhaps, that no matter what, you will always have to review what you have learnt – whether that review is from an SRS program or from hearing it in a conversation, it is still review. I don’t think they are learning from their reviews – in fact, I believe it is better to learn before you review – but rather are just reinforcing what they have already learnt. That is, if your definition of “learnt” is to understand something, and the process of reviewing is to ground the information more firmly in your head.

bullet Another response is by Gbarto who posts What’s The Best Language Learning Method For You?

In this light, the debates about which method is best are silly. But if they keep people talking about new things that others might not have tried yet, they’re still useful. Ignore the bombast about who’s best, then, and keep reading the forums and blogs. You might just find what you are looking for now in spite of everyone’s best efforts to settle what’s best left unresolved.

In this post Gbarto talks about the way s/he uses many methods and changes them up every once in a while. I do exactly the same thing.

I am beginning to think that perhaps, in a sense, the best method is to use many methods – both methods that are suited to your learning style (primary focus) and ones that are not (secondary focus, or for reinforcement of what you already know). For instance, I am a terrible listener. I like to be reading something at the same time (a transcript) and I often feel like I need no background noise – even if I can understand what is being said, the background sound distracts and annoys me. But listening skills is an important part of learning any language. I often do not “learn” anything while just listening, but I definitely strengthen skills and knowledge I already have. And lucky for me it is a task that I don’t like, but is made fun when attached to something like watching TV, (and where there are visual clues to help me).

Finally, Tae Kim had something to say:

In the end, it doesn’t matter what study method you use as long as it helps you spend more time with the language. Still, I have to argue that you have to do my very simple method at some point for fluency, which as many of you already know, is to practice in a real-world context with real people and primary source materials not just artificial textbooks and dialogs. Ok, I guess it’s more common-sense than “a method” per se.

I think we would all agree that primary sources are needed in learning a language. In fact, this is perhaps the goal of many (most? all?) people starting out learning a language. But getting up to the stage where you can use those primary sources effectively is the hard part. Hence why many people want to get up to this stage as quickly as possible, and the debate over which method is “best”.

I’d say you can’t learn a method in 30 minutes. But there are no short cuts where you can skip over bits and get their quicker. But I would argue that while it takes time to learn a language, there are more effective methods out there. But what is more effective for me may not be more effective for you. So you have to find the best method for you. And then you have to use the best method for you, combined with other methods, combined with real world sources….

I think there is definitely some sense in saying “Enough arguing about method and just do it!” So just do it, just try every method you can. You’ll no doubt find a few that stick, and when the methods unstick themselves, do new ones. And spend the time doing it. And eventually you’ll learn that language. It’s all about the journey anyway, so just do it.


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Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Stephen

    (Found you through a search for RTK on wordpress.com). I agree that both method and time are important. Right now I’m at the beginning of Remembering The Kanji, but in reading some posts on RevTK, I realized that the All Japanese All The Time method could be tweaked a little bit. My main goal is to use a method that will get me to fluency as quickly as possible and in a thorough method. I think I have the first two or three stages planned out now, so I’m after it. :)

  2. phauna

    It’s impossible to find a perfect method because at every stage your needs change. If you waste your time changing everything all the time then you will still suck. However some methods are clearly superior to others in some areas. For vocabulary for example, SRS with sentences and reading ‘your current level +1’ texts are both quite a bit more effective than revising pen and paper word lists without context and reading the dictionary.

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