The Elephant of Language Learning

Posted on | December 22, 2012 | 6 Comments

Is there a best way to learn languages? This has been the ultimate question discussed endlessly on the Internet. Even though the Internet polyglots, when “hanging out” together, would tell us there is no best way, in their own blogs and YouTube channels, they would share what they think is the best way. So is there a best way or not? I believe there is.

How then would I explain the fact that some polyglots have reached their success using seemingly very different approaches? Doesn’t this mean there exist multiple ‘best’ ways to learn languages? The fact that people take different routes to reach the same goal does not mean there is no best route. To me, this is like the story of the “blind men and the elephant“. Each blind man ‘experienced’ the elephant in a different way and made his own conclusion of what an elephant is, but this does not mean the elephant exists in different forms.

This is only an anecdote and I don’t mean to call these polyglots ‘blind’. I think we are all ‘seekers’ and they are seekers at a more advanced level. The “Elephant of language learning” is such a huge beast that even the most experienced language learners might have limited ideas of it.

The more I think about the differences of these polyglots, the more I see that they are describing the different facets of the same humongous beast. If we understand this, we won’t find any contradiction arise from the disagreement among these experts.

The advice of these polyglots of course are valuable to us. Just as the different conclusions made by the blind men help us to get to know the elephant better, these polyglots help us to understand this “Elephant of language learning” better.


6 Responses to “The Elephant of Language Learning”

  1. Andrew Weiler
    December 26th, 2012 @ 12:55 am

    This is a really good take on what goes on in language learning. There is no one answer but the routes do give us a better understanding of what it takes to be a good language learner.

    If we look at infants learning the first language, the differences do not appear so great. As we grow older the permutations mulitply because we all gained different skills as we grew up. These different skills can hide what really needs to happen for us to once again become a great language learner.
    And of course there are all the distractions we can create by gaining beliefs, attitudes and adherences that seem to require ways of learning that are counter intuitive.

  2. Robin
    January 8th, 2013 @ 11:53 pm

    I think the best way to learn a foreign language is by observing and imitating the native speakers. Even illiterate small vendors, for example, learn other languages when they go to far away places by observing the speech of local people.

  3. Rowena
    May 14th, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    The best way to learn a language is to go to that country, study the language there and fully immerse yourself into that country. If that’s not possible then utilize modern technology – watch TV from that country, see if your favorite DVDs have an option to show subtitles for that language, find and follow web sites in that language.

  4. Joe Mitchell
    May 26th, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

    When asking the question “Is there a best way to learn languages?” you have to consider the fact that since we don’t all learn in the same way, the best method of learning a language won’t be the same for all of us.

    Scientists have proved that there are basically three different kinds of learner – visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Visual learners are people who fare much better when they can actually ‘see’ the thing they are trying to learn, auditory learners will always retain much more of what they hear and kinesthetic learners need to be physically involved in actually ‘doing’ the thing they are trying to learn. Indeed we all learn through a combination of the three senses – ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’ and ‘feeling’ but nearly all of us will lean much more towards one of the three.

    Now consider three accomplished polyglots, one of which is strongly visual, one which is strongly auditory and one which is strongly kinesthetic and ask each of them the question ‘what is the best method for learning languages?’. You can be sure that you will get three very different answers.

    This I feel is why there is always such a debate over which method of learning languages is best. There is no one method that is best but rather the method that is best for any particular individual will greatly depend on the type of learner that that individual actually is!


  5. Petra
    November 8th, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    Very nice article.

  6. Petra
    December 11th, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

    Great article, totally agree.

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