The biggest secret to learning a language

Why face-to-face interaction matters

A funny thing happens when you meet somebody face to face – your brain starts creating sensory-rich memories attached to the information you’re receiving consciously.

A large proportion of the information we absorb from direct interaction isn't from the words we hear, but nuances from vocal tone, pacing, facial expressions and body language which is why, no matter how far or fast technology moves, the need for human interaction is fundamental.

We learn better in a face-to-face environment where the experience is seen, experienced and felt, and this is especially true when it comes to learning a language.

That's not to say that the digital learning environment doesn’t have its advantages but there’s little benefit to learning a language that you struggle to recall because the knowledge hasn’t embedded deeply enough.

At the Marlow Language Centre, we teach nearly 150 hours of tuition a week and we’ve been in business for 28 years so it's difficult to calculate exactly how many thousands of students we've taught, but it’s fair to say that, from our vast experience, these are the unique benefits of face-to-face learning:

Nuance

When you learn a language, you’re planning to converse with a human being so it makes sense that you should also learn from a human being – with all their cultural quirks and mannerisms.

All communication around the world is based around a complicated combination of facial expression, tone of voice, modulation, volume, hand gestures, speed of speech, and body positioning. Simply memorising vocabulary is just a small part of actually being able to communicate fluently in a language and the complexity of these elements can only really be taught through direct contact.

We even offer our students the opportunity to be taught by more than one teacher throughout their course to expose them to a variety of dialects and mannerisms and the greater understanding of nuances that comes from this is invaluable.

Retention

It stands to reason that language learned through direct contact – using the richness of all your senses – will be better retained by your memory. Learning in a face-to-face environment not only stimulates your senses to encourage retention of what you are studying, but also allows you to learn in the most effective way.

Research into learning retention rates shows that we only retain 10% of what we read, 50% of what we discuss in person and 75% of what we practise by doing; so being able to actively engage in role play or dialogue is vital.

Our students learn either in a one-to-one lesson, a two-to-one tutorial or in small groups, which gives every individual the chance to participate fully and practise what they are learning.

Cultural awareness

Most students learn a language because they want to travel to a country in which that language is spoken, or at least interact with natives. Education about the cultural norms within that country is as important as, if not more important than, the dialogue itself.

Where textbook or distance learning is more rigid and unable to move with developing language, being tutored by a human being means the language you are learning is the most modern and up-to-date version of that dialect.

All our teachers are native speakers of one of the 20 languages we offer. Of those that now live full-time in the UK, most still have family back in their homeland and travel regularly between the cultures.

We've also started to utilise access to multinational TV channels to further immerse students in the culture they're studying. Clips from TV shows can be used to spark discussion, help students appreciate the speed of the language and acclimatise them to more informal language and everyday cultural practices.

Flexibility

Learning how to order two ice creams and a cocktail is great if you're planning a beach holiday, but pretty pointless if you want to negotiate rates with electricians.

Our pupils have come to us for help with everything from reading Polish business emails, to arguing with tradesmen during a building project in Italy.

Face-to-face learning gives tutors the chance to tailor the course plan according to the needs of the student.

Some people need to be able to read and respond to the written word, and others prefer to focus more on conversation and dialogue. Direct contact learning opens up the possibilities of what a student can focus on.

Feedback

Learning a language needs to be built on the correct foundation, so any errors not picked up early will become ingrained.

One of our pupils came to us having used a very popular computer learning programme to teach himself Mandarin, but our native speaking Mandarin teacher was barely able to understand him. Re-learning was doubly difficult because he first had to un-learn the bad habits he had picked up.

Learning through direct contact with a tutor allows any mistakes to be addressed straight away. The tutor is also able to work with the student's natural learning style to make sure the information is being processed correctly.

Some students perform better when the whole lesson is delivered in the foreign tongue and others progress better if some teaching is in English. Being able to carefully observe each student in a lesson gives our tutors the opportunity to recognise how best to teach.

Enjoyment

Learning to speak a language is a long-term process and the only way to maintain motivation is to enjoy it.

Tutored learning makes the whole experience a social one where connecting with other human beings is a key element.

We work with around 50 teachers, many of whom have been part of the Marlow Language Centre for more than a decade, and our interviewing process has always focused heavily on the personality of the teacher, how passionate they are and how easily they can build relationships with their students.

Humans are designed to connect and interact with other people and learning face to face is by far the most enjoyable – and effective – way to learn.