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‘No Best Method’ Hypothesis April 28, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Forums.

Nowadays, I seldom visit the How-To forums, though I still pop in once in a while. The forums do have many helpful advises, only that these pearls are usually buried under an overwhelming number of useless advises. Many people indulged in the forums for days arguing which study method is the best. Last week, I saw a very interesting thread. It has already generated more than 140 posts within a week.

The creator of the thread proposed that there is no best method in language learning. The most important factor is TIME and LOVE devoted to the target language. He was not talking about different people might have different best methods. He was simply saying that even for the same individual, there is no such thing as ‘best method’ in language learning. Provided he is spending time with the language and keeps himself motivated, no matter what method he uses, he will get there one day.

Within a very short time, many forum members replied and argued against this hypothesis. Of course methods are important, they said. You wouldn’t want to waste you time in some inefficient methods. In fact, the thread creator made his claim based on his own observation of the forums!

I have been reading in this forum for two years. People were writing about Pimsleur, FSI, Michael Thomas, Assimil, Liguaphone, Tell me more, Rosetta stone, Teach your self, Vocabulearn, Learn in your car, Rocket Languages, FIA and so on.

It’s interesting, because some people think some of this methods are the BEST and some of them think the same methods are useless, boring …or the WORST. Thinking about that, how is it possible such a level of contradictions between people who have succeed learning languages. Well, I ask you:

What’s the COMMON denominator between them? I can only think about one factor: TIME spent WITH the target language. They listen, read, write and speak in the target language A LOT OF TIME and every day.

I think I can see why this hypothesis would stir up such a great reaction in the forums. If it is true, then there is no need to discuss about which method is the best, and probably a great portion of the forum posts can be removed. People can get back to their own language studies instead of arguing among themselves. But then to some, language studying is boring. They’d rather spend their time arguing how to study a language!

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.

Are tactics irrelevant? Absolutely not. Is there a best tactic for each individual person? May be. But they are not the key to build up a true lasting relationship.



1. todd - April 29, 2008


I think that the best way to learn a foreign language is to be motivated in your learning. If you find the way you learn a language boring then you are never going to succeed. I personally prefer to speak my foreign language as I feel it brings the language to life. I’ve found a great language site to help me with this. It enables me to have a live conversation with a native speaker using Skype. I find it great fun and I think that’s important if you want to learn a new language.


2. chris(mandarin_student) - April 29, 2008

Essentially I have to agree there is no “best method” and lots of research seems to suggest that time spent on task is more important than anything else when trying to master something.

A motivated person with understanding of learning principles should be able to carve out their own path these days, what with the vast amount of raw (and varying grades of refined material) available.

This doesn’t mean though that there are no bad ways to learn a language. Otherwise how to explain the numbers of reasonably well motivated people who attend classes for years and make no real workable progress. It seems that there are some basic learning “anti-patterns” out there that can be addressed and would come under the category of spending time and effort learning something in a non-learning way. This is something we have all had experience of during at least some parts of our school years but the damage is caused when we carry this behavior into later life and it damages progress in those things we actually choose to learn for ourselves.

Many of the people on these forums are motivated learners with experience of achieving through self-learning (it soon becomes clear who is not and they probably won’t stay long anyhow, although there are a few who seem to love to spend time talking about learning rather than just doing it). So once you have answered those few key newcomer questions (the ones that people get shouty about when another newcomer asks them, and tell them to use the search), most of what is left is just chaff. You will look at it and agree or disagree depending on your own experience, but it is unlikely to teach you anything at all.

3. Ryan - April 29, 2008

I agree completely. I hate making statements like this without a reference, but I have been taught, and believe, that there are actually pedagogical studies to back this idea up. It is true that SOME methods tend to work better than others for large sample groups but when it comes to the individual I don’t think that there is any one language learning method that is best for two people. It’s very individual and everyone has to find his/her way. I think it’s good to take little bits of lots of different methods to make one’s one. If flash cards work for you, great, if not, get rid of them. The same goes for shadowing, reading unfamiliar texts, listening to podcasts, etc.

The one thing that seems to be a common denominator is time. Whatever your golden method is, you can’t avoid doing it for an hour or two every day if you want to get good at your target language.

4. Edwin - April 29, 2008

I think the guy means more than there is no ‘one-size-fit-all’ method. He is saying that the best method does not exist even for an individual person. You find the method works best for you only because it motivates you to spend more time on the language. And this is where many people disagree.

5. GeoffB - April 30, 2008

I have to confess that if I read the archives of my blog, it becomes quickly apparent that there’s no one best method for me. I think this guy is right. Every time I study a new language, I’ve got a new range of things I’ve learned, a new range of ways of learning or understanding that I’ve been exposed to, etc. The biggest thing I’ve started to discover, actually, is that if I try the same seemingly useful method with more than two or three languages, I’m too in the groove with the method and start confusing the new language with the last one I learned with that method. That’s why I’ve been writing more about attitude and mindset lately. The biggest thing for me isn’t how I’m learning; it’s finding something that keeps me working every day, and what that is depends on the difficulty of the language, what else is going on in my life, my general energy level, etc.

6. Edwin - April 30, 2008

Perhaps anyway of think about this is that ‘all roads lead to Rome’. For surely, we need to find some efficient methods to learn languages, but there are many of them. Pick a few that you find interesting and use them. There is no need to spend time looking for which one is the best.

By ‘methods’, I mean techniques and executions, as compared to ‘approaches’.

7. Leopejo - May 1, 2008


what the original poster argued was not only that “there is no best method”. His view was much more radical: “all methods are the same, as long as you spend time with them”. He aknowledges time as the only relevant factor (along with input and output) and for him the method counts only if it makes you spend more time on that language.

In many forumists’ opinion, this is simply not true. Time is important, but how you study is important as well. If you are completely new to a language, you can spend 12 hours every day only watching DVDs on that language, but you won’t learn it as well as you would if you used other methods as well. This is an extreme example to an extreme hypothesis by the original poster.

To return to that relationship, it is true that you need time. But is time alone enough? You need consideration, understanding, etc. etc. You need a “method”. No arguing that what works between you and her doesn’t work for another couple, but you can’t infer from this that just spending time together is a guarantee of a happy life.

8. Edwin - May 1, 2008

I think the original poster also acknowledges that there are inefficient methods. I am sure no one would disagree. He is hypothesizing that inefficient methods will be ruled out by the learner himself automatically, due to the lack of motivation.

His other hypothesis on total native material does sound a bit extreme to me. I would imagine that a learner completely new to the language would need some learner’s materials. But again, he is arguing that the total native approach will be ruled out by those beginners who are not motivated by it.

9. Cisa - May 5, 2008

I can only agree with that person! Motivation, good schedule, love, blood and sweat is all you need. And of course, visiting the target language´s homeland if you have the money and the opportunity.

On the other hand, myself not coming from an Anglo-Saxon environment, I cannot really understand why it is so important to discuss whether Rosetta Stone or FSI are better. Where I live these resources are rarely known and are hardly available, or if so, for much more money, than in ,say, UK. But I don´t want to wine or something, please, don´t misunderstand. I just say, that in my environment it is normal to enroll for a course, find a teacher to learn a language, self-study is not as usual, since there are not many self-study type textbooks. On the other hand, partly this is something positive, since those people wishing to learn a language on their own just simply buy a ´simple´ textbook and get down to business.

I also find all these methods a little suspicious (no, no accusation!!), since they promise you something you may not get. Also, I don´t like the ´study-in-your-car-while-going-from-pennsylvania-to-california´ approach. Parroting methods like Pimsleur may be good if you want to study just some phrases or as an additional exercise to your real studies. If you learn a language, you gotta learn grammar to be able to build sentences, and you gotta learn the vocab as well to be able to build those sentences from something.

However, there are some little tricks that work differently for everybody. E.g. using flashcards to memorise words, putting post-its on the fridge, but these are not complete methods.

All in all, I would say, that these courses may be a good resource, may provide a good coursebook, a good audio, but discussing which method is better is time-consuming and meaningless.

10. Edwin - May 5, 2008

I have 2 problems with many of the commercial products. First of all, they are very expensive. By this I mean they cost much more than they actually worth. Secondly, they give out false promises: the best way to learn languages … master the language in 3 weeks, etc.

Other than those, I treat the commercial products as another way to learn languages.

And Cisa, I agree with you. There is no point of spending time discussing which method is the best.

11. Cisa - May 5, 2008

Hi! 🙂 Yep! This is why I´m not that active on the How-to-forums… On the other hand, I enjoy reading Wikipedia articles on languages, linguistics etc. I think they may help you to understand how languages work a little better.

12. Keith - May 6, 2008

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.

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14. Eric - June 8, 2008

I can see why such a comment would stir a response: it’s illogical.

I would be like saying there is no best method to build a house or an automobile. I believe it is human nature to try to constantly improve. Products like the ipod or the Toyota hybrid are a result of this.

Saying there is no best method and it is simple a matter of time spent, would be like saying if Chrysler just spent more time designing cars, they’d be just as good as Toyota. I imagine the method is different between the two which will always yield different quality results.

15. Brett - September 8, 2008

It’s interesting to note, as others have, that many people spend more time talking about learning languages and arguing over methodology than they do actually spending time in their desired language. I tend to agree that there is no one best method.

Personally, I am constantly changing the way I learn Japanese because if I don’t their will always be blind spots, areas where I can’t see any improvement.

A lot of literature since the late 70’s points to the role of the learner in learning, meaning that teaching (and hence methodology) takes a back seat to learning styles. “What’s your learning style?” is a much more important question to ask than “what’s your method?”.

16. Learning methods: does it matter? | Tae Kim's Blog - April 22, 2015

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18. Anitcog - February 21, 2018

Hail! Kindly article. Thanks!

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