To learn a foreign language is always a challenge, but if you’re living in a new country, it’s also a must. So how do you go about it? There are several ways to learn other languages, but not all of them will suit everyone’s needs or preferences. Below is a brief rundown of the different ways to learn a foreign language―with a description of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Foreign Language Classes

The advantages:

If you want structure with a clear and consistent methodology, enrolling in a language school is a good idea. You will have classes based on a preset curriculum, with homework and tests to keep you on track.  The instruction will typically focus on grammar, but will also include vocabulary, reading comprehension, and eventually some writing and conversation.

Classes offer another major advantage: feedback from the teacher. If you’re living in a foreign country, it is important to have someone who will correct your mistakes. You may already be using your language skills in daily conversation, but your listeners might be too polite to point out your errors, so you could be making the same mistakes over and over again without realizing it. That won’t happen when you make those mistakes in class.

You could also benefit from interactions with your fellow students, whether you’re engaging in class discussions, practicing conversation, collaborating on homework assignments, participating in classroom exercises, or simply getting advice and encouragement.

The disadvantages:

Some of the bad points are related to the good points. You’ll have structure, for instance, but that structure may be too rigid, with no divergence from detailed lesson plans. You’ll get a lot of grammar instruction, but you could be getting too much of it, with an over-emphasis on memorization. There may be a lot of mind-numbing exercises and drills, followed by more mind-numbing exercises and drills. And the irony is that, when the course is over, you still won’t be able to say a complete sentence. That is, if you stay until the end. Let’s face it: If a course is boring, you probably won’t stick with it, especially if there are other demands on your time from school, work, or family.

Then there is the expense. Language courses in Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Germany can cost you from over €100 to well over €200 a week. So, if you find that you cannot keep up, and have to quit, that can mean a lot of thrown-out money.

Online and CD Programs

The advantages:

With online programs, which are often available in CD versions, you can learn a foreign language with a flexibility that you wouldn’t have in a traditional class. You can do the lessons when you want and at your own pace. There is also the convenience of being able to work from several devices. You can use your computer or tablet, and many programs have mobile app versions for iOS and Android, and even MP3 files in some cases.

There are a lot of good programs out there, many of which have been around for a long time and have been refined and improved over the years.  The best-known programs―among them Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Babbel, and Duolingo―have been praised for the quality of the instruction they provide.

The disadvantages:

That same flexibility can be a disadvantage. You don’t have to be at a certain place at a certain time, so you’re not accountable to anyone. It’s easy to procrastinate or let your language study slide altogether, especially if you have problems fitting the lessons into a busy schedule. It’s also easy for your motivation and discipline to lapse when you’re working alone.

While the best-known programs are highly regarded, they do have their drawbacks. In many cases, their drills are tedious, with too much stress on listening and repeating or listening and typing. Popular programs such as Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur have also been criticized for introducing new vocabulary at a very slow pace or for teaching words and phrases that are not useful or relevant.

Several top programs are said to present sentences and dialogs that are stilted, artificial, and overly formal―Pimsleur, Babel, and Duolingo among them. As a result, they fail to give you a sense of how a language is really spoken.

The biggest disadvantage, however, is the expense. Rosetta Stone can cost around €150 for a CD set offering one level of instruction, while a Pimsleur set can run you €100 to €300. Online subscriptions cost from €30 to €40 a month or €100 to €175 for a year. While there are free programs out there, they usually include only limited content. You have to pay for their full offerings, and that can add up.

Private Tutors

The advantages:

You can go at your own pace and determine how much structure you want or need. You get individualized attention; can ask all the questions you want; and have the mix of grammar, vocabulary, and conversation that you prefer. You can also be more creative, using various materials that are interesting to you, as long as your tutor is flexible enough to allow it. And your tutor will presumably correct your mistakes when you’re practicing conversation.

The disadvantages:

Again, when there is total flexibility, there is a strong chance of not sustaining your studies. The scheduling of sessions with a tutor is totally up to you, so it’s easy to cancel or postpone them. But if you postpone or cancel too often, you will forget what you’ve learned so far, you will lose momentum, and you may end up losing interest altogether.

Another problem is that tutors vary widely in quality. Even those who teach their native language may not be good instructors. They might not have any particular method, and they may not even be highly motivated. Also, with one-on-one learning, you miss out on the chance to interact with other students.

But the biggest disadvantage is, again, the cost. Tutors can be very expensive. In Lisbon, Madrid, Turin, and Berlin, for example, tutors in both the local language and foreign languages can run €15 to €30 per hour, or even higher.

Textbooks and Workbooks

The advantages:

You have structure and a mix of reading, vocabulary, and grammar that will help you build a good foundation. And it doesn’t cost much to buy a book.

The disadvantages:

Language textbooks and workbooks are generally about memorization, with lists of vocabulary words, lists of grammar rules, lists of verb conjugations, lists of pronouns, etc. There may be reading passages, but while they’ll help you with reading comprehension, they’ll do little to relieve the boredom.

The explanations of grammatical concepts can often be brief and unclear, and if you don’t understand something, there is no one to ask. On top of that, there is no way to practice conversation, unless you enjoy talking to yourself. There is also the problem of sustaining interest when you’re working alone. But the main problem is that you can always set a book aside and not look at it again for weeks, or months, or even years.

The Upshot

Ideally, when learning a foreign language, you would like to have structure, but nothing too rigid; and flexibility, but not too much of that, either. You’ll want to have feedback, too. And you would like to have all of this at a low price. Well, good luck with that! Just kidding. Actually, you don’t need to feel discouraged.

What you really need is instruction that’s engaging and reasonably priced, and that will allow you to ask questions, interact with others, learn useful vocabulary in a more effective way, improve your speaking skills, and feel more confident in your new language.


This is where SPEAK comes in. In Portugal, Italy, Spain, Germany and Belgium, SPEAK offers courses in the local languages, and in foreign languages as well. There are two levels of instruction: “basic,” where you learn useful vocabulary in sessions structured around everyday themes; and “conversational,” where you learn more advanced vocabulary and engage in conversation.

SPEAK’s courses have structure, but the feeling is relaxed and the teaching methods are interesting and fun, with games, quizzes, imaginative exercises, and role playing. During the lively 90-minute sessions, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to ask questions, interact with others, and practice your speaking skills in an easy-going, supportive environment.

And then there is the cost, but this time it’s good news. The courses include 12 sessions over three months, and the fees are only €25 or €29. During the summer, there are two-week intensive courses, with a session held on every weekday, for the same prices. If you have trouble paying these rates, you could always apply for a scholarship.

The upshot? SPEAK courses are a great way to ease yourself into a foreign language, without the frustration, the stultifying boredom, the depressing prospect of studying in isolation, or the high costs that you would face with other methods of learning a foreign language.


Author: Joanne E. Gerber

Joanne has been specializing has an editor and copy editor in international economic and social development for over a decade. She is fluent in French and proficient in Spanish.

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