A List of Language Learning Methods

Here is a list of language learning methods I’ve encountered. Many methods are from the 19th-century, and their corresponding textbooks are in the public domain and freely available from Archive.org.

Language Learning Methods * How to Choose the one that's right for you

Ahn’s Method

Developed by Dr. J.H.P. Seidenstücker (you can read his German-French original here) but made popular by Franz Ahn, this method relies mainly on translation back and forth between short passages, each section providing new vocabulary and grammar and building on the previous ones. Ahn writes, in the introduction to his Latin:

The plan upon which the exercises are constructed is popularly known in this country as “Ahn’s Method”, though we believe Dr. Seidenstücker has a prior claim to the invention. It is based mainly on the principle, that words in combination spontaneously exhibit the structure of simple sentences. The learner accordingly has FEW RULES, but MUCH PRACTICE, the rules being taught rather by example than precept, and are fixed upon the memory by frequent repetition and recapitulation.

Ahn’s method was further popularised by Franz Thimm, who created a series of “Self-Taught…” textbooks based on it. Thimm writes, in the introduction to his Russian:

Seidenstücker was the first who in 1811 introduced this new Method for the Latin, Greek and French languages, and to him belongs in justice the merit, of having introduced a rational system of tuition. Ahn who made use of his method long after in 1834, acknowledges in his Preface, Seidenstücker as the originator of the System. But there was an essential point omitted even in these books. It was, that the “grammatical form should precede the Exercises, so that the learner should at once be made acquainted with the grammatical structure of the foreign language, without which, he could never attain a thorough knowledge of it.”

  • ♥ I find this incremental accumulation of vocabulary and grammar rules very effective, and I particularly enjoy the satisfaction of being able to read and translate simple texts from the outset.
  • ♥ Being old-fashioned and interested more in reading than writing or speaking, I also love the 19th-century vocabulary that is useless except for literature enthusiasts.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Enjoy translation.
  2. Learn well by reading.
  3. Are interested in reading literature (from previous centuries).

Duolingo

A language method for the digital era. Duolingo is a free web and mobile app that teaches and spontaneously tests listening, reading, writing, and in certain languages, also speaking skills. It gradually builds vocabulary and sentence structure, but doesn’t explicitly teach grammar.

  • ♥ Who doesn’t love Duolingo? You can follow me here, if you like.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Easily lose motivation.
  2. Often forget to study.
  3. Like to compete with friends.
  4. Learn well by interaction.

The Gold List Method

Developed by Victor Huliganov, this method relies on writing lists of words longhand and repeating them over a period of time, but without the intention to memorise. At each repetition, the list is revised to remove words that have been learnt and leave behind those that are still causing difficulties. Huliganov’s theory is that this aids in placing the words in long term memory, rather than the short term memory which is promoted by cramming and conscious memorisation.

  • ♥ I’m excited to try this method, although I haven’t done so yet. My feeling is that, as much as I love lists, their weakness is a lack of context, and the fact that they don’t make full use of spatial memory.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Like keeping notebooks.
  2. Enjoy handwriting.
  3. Dislike rote memorisation.

The Shadowing Technique

Developed by Alexander Arguelles, this is an unusual method in which the learner paces back and forth, preferably outdoors, listening to an audio recording of a foreign language textbook. As the learner paces and listens, they follow the text in the textbook, and repeat what they’ve heard, out loud, to the best of their ability. This helps particularly with learning the pronunciation of words, forcing the learner to speak quickly, without hesitation, and I believe the theory is that physical movement helps cement the language in the nervous system.

  • ♥ I’ve tried this method while exercising (indoors) on the cross-trainer, and I must say I found it very enjoyable, and I really sensed that it helped with pronunciation, though perhaps not as much with retention. I think it’s definitely important to learn with the whole body, and not approach study as a purely cerebral activity.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Don’t like sitting down for long periods of time.
  2. Learn well by reading.
  3. Learn well by listening.
  4. Learn well by speaking.
  5. Are interested in improving your pronunciation.

Assimil

Assimil publish a popular series of language courses which work by combining short dialogues with audio. The accompanying textbook is bilingual, with fun cartoons and phoneticised spellings. These courses are ideal for use with the Shadowing Technique.

  • ♥ I always want to know how words are spelt, so I like the fact that Assimil’s text and audio are so closely linked.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Learn well by listening.
  2. Learn well by reading.
  3. Like pictures! ;)

Pimsleur

The Pimsleur technique is based on simulating dialogue with an audio recording. A conversation between two people is performed, then the learner is prompted either in the target language, or their native language, and there is a pause for them to respond. For example:

A: “Hvordan har du det?”
B: Say, “Fine, thanks, and you?”

To which you would respond, out loud: “Bare bra, takk. Og du?”

The dialogues build on previous ones, and get more and more complex. Although there’s some breakdown of pronunciation (in the languages I’ve heard), there is really no grammar to speak of, except for some minor attempts to encourage listeners to spot patterns. The dialogues are aimed at teaching travellers the most useful questions and answers, so that’s fair enough.

  • ♥ I think the Pimsleur method’s chief strength lies in its use of repetition, and the way it simulates a conversation between the reader and the characters in the course. Having said that, the conversations are sometimes very contrived, and seem to be aimed at American men trying to seduce foreign women!

This method is for you if you:

  1. Learn well by listening.
  2. Learn well by speaking.
  3. Want to learn a language for travel.

The Natural Method

The natural method tries to mimic the way in which a native speaker might acquire their language as a child, using only the target language, and necessary visual aids.

James Henry Worman created a series of courses following the Natural Method in the 19th century (Archive.org has several of them). He credits Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, an 18th-century Swiss educator, as the originator of the method. More recently, Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina series has gained popularity.

While both Worman’s and Ørberg’s books use copious amounts of pictures, what differentiates them from many books used for language education in schools (I’m thinking of the likes of the Cambridge Latin Course), is that they only use the target language. I feel this really facilitates the learner to begin thinking in the target language early on, which is precisely the intention.

  • ♥ Although it requires a basic knowledge of the alphabet, and of pronunciation, and may not be as easy to use for non Indo-European native speakers, I love Lingua Latina. It is a beautiful book, both in the uniformity and elegance of its illustrations, and in its system.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Like pictures.
  2. Don’t particularly enjoy studying grammar.
  3. Want to become a “natural”.

The Manesca Method

Also known as the Ollendorff Method, after Heinrich Gottfried Ollendorff who stole/appropriated Manesca’s Method and applied it to other languages (the Boston Language Institute has an interesting article on the subject).

This is a method that tries to mimic native language acquisition, and may be considered an off-shoot of the Natural Method. Manesca’s also has the distinction of being the earliest known full language course, although Ollendorff’s editions became far more popular. The Manesca Method relies on working with a teacher, who introduces just one word at a time. The students are then prompted one at a time, and this repetition (and some simple home study) helps retention, without resorting to memorisation. This method wasn’t originally intended for self-study, but you can easily use the textbooks to practice on your own. Here is Manesca’s original French textbook, and here is Ollendorff’s version. Evan der Millner has also created a video series that follows Manesca’s French course.

If you’re interested in learning Latin, Wikipedia notes that “the French-Latin Ollendorff was, as far as can be ascertained, the first textbook written in modern times aimed at teaching Latin as a spoken language, using ‘modern’ methods.”

  • ♥ I would love to try this method with a teacher. I love the idea of words being introduced one at a time, and of creating my own textbook as I work through the course.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Want to study with a teacher or group.
  2. Learn well by reading.

Grammars

While not a language learning method per se, many grammars are marketed as complete solutions. I think, depending on their writer’s skill, grammars can be very interesting to read, even cover to cover. They will often include exercises and reading material, but their strength lies in the way they present linguistic patterns. This becomes particularly useful to a learner who already has a good grammatical understanding of a similar language, because the comparison can greatly accelerate their learning.

  • ♥ I love grammars! The first thing I do when I start learning a new language is to scour Archive.org for old grammars. Some of my favourites are for learning Latin.

This method is for you if you:

  1. Like to learn by reading.
  2. Enjoy learning grammar.
  3. Already know a similar language.

What (I think) a good language method should do:

  1. Encourage the learner by giving them the satisfaction of using the language early on.
  2. Introduce grammar rules one by one, but also provide an overview which allows the learner to spot patterns.
  3. Aid the learner in reading, writing and listening.
  4. Engage the learner with interesting texts, idioms and stories.

Have I missed a method? Tweet me & I’ll check it out.