It’s a popular belief these days that all you need to study a foreign language is access to the Internet. No need to spend money on textbooks or tutors, just find a YouTube channel/podcast/blog you like – and Bob’s your uncle (=used to say something will be easy to do)! Well then, why aren’t we all multilingual (=speaking many languages) yet? Because the truth is the Internet may be a wonderful source of information but it takes much more than that to learn a language.
I’m a self-taught learner by nature, and for most of the 30+ years I’ve been studying foreign languages I did so in the same way my parents had done. It involved a lot of reading, listening to tapes (which in turn involved a great deal of pausing and rewinding), keeping a vocabulary notebook, looking up unfamiliar words by finding the right page in a massive 1000-page dictionary, translating from English into Russian and vice versa.
To learn a foreign language that way was possible but it took a huge amount of willpower, determination and time. And it was anything but fun.
How things have changed since then! The Internet has given us 24/7 access to all sorts of language learning materials – from books, blogs and films to audiobooks, podcasts and online games. How come an average student of English/French/German etc. still struggles to achieve fluency and often gets stuck at the lower intermediate level?
I think one reason is that languages are tools of communication and as such are best learned through communication. Just think about how little children learn their first language. They get a lot of input from their parents, other family members, later their teachers, TV and the Internet and then put this passive knowledge to practice by communicating their needs, wants and opinions. They make a lot of mistakes in the process but also get a lot of feedback which allows them to make necessary corrections. Yes, there are apps that can correct your grammar and pronunciation mistakes but we humans are social beings and will always need other humans.
OK then, you might say, that’s not a problem any more – just find a language exchange partner and practise with him/her.
Again, easier said than done. To start with, how many people are learning English? And how many English speakers are learning your mother tongue? Now, if you’ve ever spoken to someone who isn’t very good at a particular language, you’ll know that keeping up a conversation with them is hard work especially if you’re expected to correct their mistakes as well.
Another issue is that it’s even harder to find someone you won’t get bored with after the initial excitement and enthusiasm wane (=become less strong). I know this from personal experience, and I’ve tried language exchanges a few times. If you haven’t yet, give it a go (=try it) and see what happens. (And let me know how it went in the comments below!)
Reason number three is that the plethora (=a very large amount of something, usually more than you need) of language learning resources and tools available on the web will be of little help to you unless you know how to make the most of them and use them on a regular basis. In other words, it’s not enough to passively watch movies or YouTube videos when you feel like it. Learning a language can be fun but, like with any learning, progress is only possible when you’re diligent (=working hard) and know exactly what you’re doing.
To sum up, the Internet is a great language learning tool. But it’s just one of many tools, and how it can help you in your studies depends a lot on your level of English (or any other language you’re learning), your self-discipline and self-motivation. Unless you’re already advanced and have enough willpower and self-organisational skills to carry on (=continue), chances are it’ll serve you as an addition to the classes you’re taking privately or in a language school.
You can also use the Internet to immerse yourself in the language of your choice wherever you are. And by doing this you can greatly speed up your progress. Plus it’s a lot more affordable than any other option.
However, the greatest investment you’ll have to make is that of time, effort and patience. I wish you to have plenty of those.