Learning a Foreign Language

On 08/04/2010, in Informal Education, by Jordan Wilson

As you know, I am a huge proponent in people learning another language.

Amongst other reasons, it will help in many careers, improve your understanding of other cultures, strengthen your knowledge of English, and improve your travel life.

Recently I was asked about going to Switzerland to learn German, French, and Spanish.

Here are a few thoughts on the query.

Switzerland as a Learning Center

I love Switzerland.

A fantastic place. Small enough to get from border to border extremely fast.

Transportation is very efficient, the cities are clean and relatively safe, there is much to see and do, and the people are polite with tourists. It also helps that most Swiss speak better English than the tourists. Plus, if your mother tongue is other than English, there is a good chance that someone will be able to communicate with you.

If you can afford the high cost of living, there are few better places to vacation or reside.

The main downside of Switzerland is the cost. It is an extremely expensive place to live.

A second downside is the variety of languages spoken in Switzerland. One can survive quite nicely speaking nothing but English in much of the country. The same holds true if you speak French, Italian, and German. But if you are trying to focus on learning one language, hearing multiple on the street may dilute the impact.

For most people, I would recommend other locations in which to learn a foreign language. Unless that language is either Swiss-German or Romansch; both being spoken almost exclusively in Switzerland.

Go to the Source

In learning another language, I suggest going as close to the language source as possible.

If you want to learn German, go to Germany or Austria.

If you want to study French, go to France. That said, the area around Geneva in Switzerland is also quite good.

Unless you are into languages, I would also recommend choosing a foreign language that is widely spoken in the world. Or, at least widely spoken in an area of importance to you.

This enhances your options should you desire another language for business, travel, or living.

For example, if your work interests or personal life will cause you to spend significant time dealing with South Africa or Namibia, learning Afrikaans might make sense. But if you need to deal with Moscow on a regular basis, I would skip the Afrikaans and focus on Russian.

Learn One Language at a Time

In my experience, I would only recommend learning one language at a time.

Unless you have an aptitude for languages, I think it is quite difficult to try and study more than one language simultaneously.

I suggest you become comfortably conversant in one language before attempting another.

Some might argue that the Romance languages, for example, are quite similar to each other and you can leverage off that to learn Spanish, French, and Italian together.

Yes, there are similarities between the languages. And for me, knowing Spanish helps me read signs and menus when in Italy. However, there are enough differences between the languages that I think it becomes confusing to try and learn them together.

Better to achieve a level of proficiency in one language before tackling another.

As an employer, I would much rather interview a candidate who has prowess in one foreign language, than a candidate who is not conversant in three.

Total Immersion is Important

Class time is a minor part of the learning process.

I believe that you learn more by sitting in cafes, listening to people talk around you in their native tongue. Being forced to communicate with the grocery clerk or taxi driver in their own language. Or even sitting in your room at night watching television in the foreign language.

That is why studying abroad is so good.

When immersing yourself, remember that the less touristic locations within a specific country are also preferable.

For example, in Marbella, Spain, there are many tourists. So many, that there are German and English radio stations, plus newspapers and magazines in a multitude of languages. Staff in stores and restaurants are able to serve you to varying degrees in your native language.

Contrast this with Cuenca, Ecuador. Having studied in Cuenca, it is pretty much all Spanish, all the time.

Even within a country, you will have different amounts of isolation from your own language. In Paris, many residents speak English and there are often English menus in restaurants. Last summer though, I did some hiking in the countryside of France. In some of the villages, there was little to no English spoken.

If you want the best results, try to find locations where you will be forced to live the foreign language every minute. The first few days may be tough, but you will be amazed by how quickly you learn.

Consider the Language Quality at the Location

Some locations may speak a native tongue that better suits your needs.

Yes, one can learn German in Switzerland. However, the Swiss speak Swiss-German rather than the High-German. Swiss-German has significant differences from High-German. If you want to sit in cafes and listen to the Swiss converse in High-German, you will have a difficult time. That said, the Swiss do speak High-German as well as Swiss-German, so you will be able to speak to each other and read local newspapers.

In Spain, many residents of Barcelona and area prefer to speak Catalan, rather than Castilian which is spoken elsewhere in the country. With some minor differences, Castilian is also the language used in South, Central, and North American countries that speak Spanish. So if you want to immerse yourself in Spanish, I would suggest Madrid over Barcelona as a destination.

Even in countries that speak the same form of Spanish, there are often regional differences. I spent some time in Argentina and had no idea what they were saying initially. It took a while to pick up on their country specific terms and pronunciations. While I think Argentina is great, I probably would not recommend learning Spanish there for beginners.

Consider the Cost

As with everything, you should always try and get the best return for your money.

When factoring in locations, do not simply consider the price of the language school.

Determine the cost of transportation and accommodation. Often that will be more than the actual course.

For most students, I would recommend doing a home-stay program. You live with a local family while attending the language school. Usually the home-stay plan includes meals, which will save you money.

Many home-stay sponsors have students live in their homes on a regular basis. The sponsors often can help you during your stay with social activities and problems. And, as you are living with a family, you can practice your language skills with native speakers outside class-time.

How to Learn a Language

Although the original question and this post relate to studying abroad, you can certainly learn languages in other ways.

You can study at home via computer software, internet study programs, language tapes, etc.

A cost effective way to learn a language, but I think the results are mixed with this method. Some will learn the basics, others will not fare as well.

I prefer using these tools to reinforce existing language skills and not to learn from scratch.

You can also take language courses at a school in the city where you live.

Often this is a good way to learn the basics and decide if you want to fully pursue the language.

The teachers are often native speakers who can help solve problems that might arise from a self-taught course.

By being in a regular class, with homework and exams, you may force yourself to study more diligently than by working alone at home.

Also, being in a class setting, with other students, helps the learning process to some extent. You can learn from the mistakes of others and listening to other people speak can help you learn to understand different accents.

The downside of a large class is that often you go at the pace of the slowest students. Personally, I find that quite frustrating. So I prefer finding small class sizes or studying one on one with a teacher. But the smaller the class, the higher the cost.

Even if you do want to study abroad, I think starting at a local school can be beneficial to your overall development.

As for cost, language classes are usually more expensive than home study programs, but less so than travelling outside your home region.

Finally, you can study abroad or in another part of your own country, where your desired foreign language is spoken.

For me, taking an immersion course in another place is the best way to learn a language. Of course the trade-off is the extra time and cost required to study abroad.

I shall discuss some considerations in choosing a language school abroad later this week.

2 Responses to “Learning a Foreign Language”

  1. Nikita says:


    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and I think it’s a great educational resource! Thank you very much for taking the time and effort to update it regularly with high quality material.

    Reading this particular entry has made me think of a great video that underlines the importance of learning languages.


    Hope you enjoyed it 🙂

    Please continue the great work you are doing!

  2. JMW says:

    Thanks for your kind comments. I hope you continue to enjoy future posts. As for the video, not bad.

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