The initial answer to this question is easy to give but gets more complex when you’re answering it for a single individual.
Everyone has their personal preference when it comes to their learning style and daily activities or hobbies. I don’t believe there is a universal best way to study a language, but I do believe there is a best way to study a second language for each individual.
For example, my study technic is predominantly the use of two tools. I study on LingQ daily for 20 or 30 minutes, reading and sometimes listening to a text’s audio, and I take conversation classes on italki of varying frequency depending on what my short-term goal is for a language.
There are occasional exceptions to this strategy, but this is the combination of methods I find myself going back to time and time again in the long run.
This strategy isn’t an option for someone that doesn’t want to spend money on language learning or who isn’t fond of reading.
An alternative to this strategy might be watching films or series on Netflix with subtitles using the Language Learning with Netflix extension and finding conversation partners online to trade time practicing languages.
I wrote an article on Netflix language learning that you can find here: A Guide for Language Learning with Netflix
The most important thing is that you’re using a method that gives you some form of input and another method that allows you to produce output, preferably speaking with another individual.
Effective methods used for input are more various than those used for output.
Input can come in the form of movies or series, podcasts, reading, YouTube, etc. The form of output that you practice needs to be more tailored to your goal.
If you want to learn how to speak a language, you need to practice speaking. At the end of the day there’s no way around this. In my personal experience, even writing isn’t necessarily going to make you better at speaking.
At university I took enough German courses to graduate with German as an additional major. Nearly all of these classes had a notable amount of writing practice, some of it very open ended and some of it research based.
After I graduated, I started taking conversation classes on italki. My first few classes I stumbled through conversation and only improved marginally with time.
You would think that writing would make you more efficient at forming sentences when speaking but that doesn’t seem to be the case entirely.
I would even go so far as to speculate that it slows your speaking down because you become accustomed to forming sentences at a relatively slow pace when you’re writing, but I can’t say that for sure.
Now let’s go over some preferences that different individuals might have.
Let’s say you’re new to language learning with the exception of some foreign language classes in high school. You don’t want to pay for any applications or services. In this case, start using Duolingo on a daily basis.
Check out these articles to learn more about learning languages with Duolingo and other apps:
Duolingo has developed a reputation of not being the fully comprehensive app it was never supposed to be. It’s a great free resource for those starting out and looking to get a little skin in the game on a new language.
If you’re starting with no experience but you’re willing to pay some money for language classes, then go find a professional teacher or tutor on italki.
Find out how to get the best out of your time with a tutor on italki: italki as a Means for Conversation Practice
Engaging with a native speak is surely going to make your learning experience more interesting and increase your motivation to learn.
Let’s say you’re willing to pay for an app too. My recommendation will always be LingQ no matter what your proficiency level is. It’s a reading application that has a lot of content with audio and allows you to get a sense of your long-term progress by tracking your comprehension of words.
Here is a link to my review of the app: LingQ – The Best Language Learning App?
There are other mainstream applications out there that offer both free and paid material such as Memrise and Babbel. My experience with these applications is limited. Nonetheless, the paid versions of these apps are surely going to be more comprehensive and will take you farther in your language learning journey than Duolingo.
LingQ on the other hand doesn’t have a limitation, you can use it to study from beginner (A1) to advanced (C2). It’s a great tool for growing vocabulary.
Another great way to grow your vocabulary is to read eBooks on Kindle. The functionality is similar to LingQ, but you have a vast collection of literature to choose from.
My recommendation would be to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited if it’s available in your country and pick content available through the subscription. It’s an economical way to study if you’re a voracious reader.
I think Kindle is such a great platform to learn on that I went as far as to publish a book to help readers learn English on it.
Learn more about my book here: Learn English with Travel Dialogue
I’ve also written a comprehensive article on how to use Kindle to study: Kindle and Reading in Language Learning
What about a language exchange for speaking practice? Although it’s potentially a great resource for practicing conversation, I hesitate to recommend it. I’ve never tried it myself and I generally don’t hear good things about it from my students or people online in general.
It’s common for someone to arrange a time for a language exchange and have their partner not show up. I’ve also heard of even more frustrating scenarios.
One situation I’ve heard of is someone needing help with a project that’s written in a foreign language. They say they’re too busy to practice their native language with you and that they only have time to work on their project, but they promise to practice in the future.
It’s possible that you never hear from this person again or they make the same promise to you after your first session.
My advice when it comes to language exchanges is don’t be naïve. If someone isn’t willing to practice their native language with you the first time around then don’t practice with them.
A free language partner not showing up isn’t really something you have control over, the only way to reduce this possibility is to pay for a tutor.
Okay, now let’s say you don’t like apps or reading. How should you get your input?
YouTube is a great resource for learning just about anything. There is effectively an endless supply of content to watch there. You can go there to watch general content, learn about the culture of your target language or to find instruction, maybe a quick grammar explanation, for instance.
Accent’s Way English with Hadar is a great channel that I’ve recommended in the past to my students learning American English.
Easy Languages is also a great YouTube channel/group of channels for a variety of languages.
The method that I prefer to use YouTube to study with is more passive. You can find the article here where I explain it in detail: Passive Method for Language Learning with YouTube
I already mentioned Netflix above. It can be a great tool if you use it in a way that’s appropriate for your level.
For more obscure languages Netflix is unlikely to be a good study option simply because there won’t be a substantial amount of content to study, however, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least check it out if you’re studying a lesser-spoken language. I once came across a short documentary in Georgian on the platform, don’t knock it until you try it.
Netflix has also been making an effort in recent years to grow it’s foreign content in other language as part of its business model. If there isn’t content available in your target language now that might change in the future.
If you’re interested in researching what content is available in any given language check out the Language Learning with Netflix catalogue.
Podcasts are a great way to learn passively while you’re doing mindless tasks. I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing it here, but if you’re a serious podcast listener like I am or you spend a lot of time in the car, doing dishes, working out, etc., then I encourage you to check out my article that discusses the value of learning foreign languages through podcasts.
There are two critical points to take away from this article.
The most important being that if you want to be able to speak your target language then you need to speak, whether you practice with a tutor or a language exchange partner.
The second key is to practice input through methods that fit your preferences and skill level. Just about every method of input mentioned in this article has content fit for every skill level with the exception of Netflix.
Also, remember that there are four separate but interconnected skills in language learning: reading, listening, writing and speaking. Practicing one will feed the others but each one of them will ultimately need to be worked on individually. My advice is to put more emphasis on the ones that you enjoy the most and diverge into the others as you become more proficient in a language.