Formal vs informal language learning

Categories: Learning

There are two ways to pick up the ins and outs of a new language: sitting in a classroom and working through exercises (formal language learning) or engaging with a language at home and with friends (the informal equivalent).

Both of these approaches have their own advantages and disadvantages, and you’ll usually see them used in tandem — spending a year studying a language in school and then visiting the country on an exchange visit, for example. Formal language learning is more comprehensive and structured, while informal language learning is often more enjoyable and adaptable, letting you test your new-found linguistic dexterity out in the real world.

Which method is more appropriate and more effective has long been debated among teachers and scholars. In recent times, the growth of the Web has added a new angle to the issue: with always-on Internet connections and smartphones, the potential for both formal and informal learning is greater than it’s ever been before, as there’s no longer the same need to visit a classroom, open up a textbook or tour a foreign land that there was a decade ago.

But are we able to learn as quickly or as well without a teacher to guide us? Do we need a structure to follow? Or are we best left to our own devices?

An introduction to formal learning

Livre et Litterature et Alphabet

Formal learning, whether languages are involved or not, involves a set course, set times and progress reports. It lets us know exactly how well we’re doing and maps out the next stages for us. Without a formal structure, students of any discipline can often meander and lose track, but at the same time a plan and process that’s too rigid can also be off-putting. Formal teaching could take place over the Web or through the mail, but it’s most often associated with a classroom in a fixed location.

A brief look at informal learning

Do you speak German?

Informal learning does away with set objectives, which can make it nice and relaxed… and perhaps a bit too relaxed, if you’re not careful. Through informal learning we learn by our experiences, and when it comes to languages that could mean picking up words from native speakers, getting immersed in a particular culture and using games and creative activities rather than a curriculum.

Different people respond in different ways to the two approaches, and of course what works for one person may not work for another. There are some broad patterns that researchers have identified, however.

Towards a sporting analogy

You could think of it as learning to play a sport. Reading through textbooks and going through exercises might well be good preparation, but until you actually get out on the pitch you’re not really going to have the opportunity to really test and hone your talents. It’s the same in business too: training is fine, but ‘on the job’ experiences are what really equip you for your role. Many organisations report that 85-90 percent of staff skills come from working at a role rather than through any formal training.

With language learning the boundaries are a little bit more blurred: formal and informal techniques are closer when it comes to languages than they are when it comes to business or playing a sport.

E-learning pioneer Jay Cross describes it as the difference between riding on a bus and riding on a bicycle: in the latter case, you’re in charge of where you’re going and you can change direction at any time, but perhaps you need to spend some time on the bus and some time on your bike in order to make progress. Take the bus to your intended destination — you’ll get there a lot quicker — and then unpack your bicycle and explore at your leisure.

Adding informal learning into the mix

Partying at La Bomba de Tiempo in Buenos Aires2

Then there’s Sally Anne Moore’s study for the Digital Equipment Corporation, in which it’s claimed that just 25 percent of knowledge is acquired through formal learning and the remainder acquired through informal means. Again, the research was carried out in terms of workers and jobs, but there are interesting repercussions for picking up a language: heading off for a holiday or speaking time with native speakers can be much more valuable than you might imagine. Of course, thanks to YouTube, Skype and similar services, this is much easier than it used to be, and you don’t even need to leave your house to do it.

There’s nothing new about informal learning — indeed it’s the way we picked up knowledge before school classrooms and textbooks ever existed — but it’s important that we find ways to incorporate it into our language studies whenever possible. It’s also a great way of renewing enthusiasm and finding extra motivation to get into a language when more formal means are proving dull and repetitive.


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