Primary and Secondary Language Learning Strategies Explained

In an earlier post about the first steps one should take when starting a new language I mentioned my method of classifying tools into something I like to refer to as primary and secondary language learning strategies.

Any language learner who is serious about pursuing their language goals – be they long term or shorter term – needs to pay attention to both of these, and neglect neither over the course of their studies.

So what are primary and secondary tools? I’ve outlined for you the differences between the two and given several examples of each.

Primary methods

As the name suggests, these are your mainsails, your heavy warhorses; your linguistic battering ram.

A primary resource is going to be the central program or method you use during your language project – or a part of it – and tends to encompass a variety of language facets.

A good primary method usually includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing instruction and practice all wrapped up into one.

Some examples of primary language learning strategies could be complete language classes such as those taught at a school or university, a dedicated private tutor or regular video chat sessions with a native speaker or highly advanced fellow learner.


Primary resources can also be things such as a larger, more inclusive software program or audio course such as Rosetta Stone, The Pimsleur Approach or Rocket Languages. While none of these programs are perfect – some even less than others – they do at least have one thing in common: they touch on multiple aspects of language learning in a way that is both productive and relatively linear.

Choosing a primary method

While you are no means required to use  only one primary method, picking one to begin with is a good place to start.

If you’re currently taking or soon plan to be taking academic language classes either at a high school, collegiate level or other formal classroom style sessions those will certainly suffice. Most of us, however, are not so fortunate.

Language classes are either unpopular or out of reach for many of us, but that’s really not a problem either. Private tutoring is available online (or sometimes in person) for relatively little or sometimes nothing at all. Some would argue that private tutoring is the better bet anyway.

Language exchange between two learners is a fantastic secondary method that I’ll get to later. Personally, in the absence of regular tutoring or classroom time I would recommend The Pimsleur Approach to most new learners. Despite my first impression of the program I find that it forms a solid core for a good three month period (around the length of a semester’s worth of classes) and is easily supplemented with as many other methods as desired. It doesn’t offer much by way of reading or writing, so supplements in that area will be required, but they are, luckily, not hard to find.

It’s important to remember that you are by no means stuck using only one primary strategy, in fact using more might be beneficial, but unlike secondary strategies these tools will carry most of your learning weight and offer the bulk of your day to day routines.

Secondary methods

Secondary methods are my personal favorites. These tools encompass, well, everything else. Every mobile app, website and all of your flash cards, radio channels, movies, music and more.

While I just finished saying you can use as many primary methods as you like, you really should use as many secondary methods as you can. This is where the diversification of your language project comes in and in my opinion this is one of the most important aspects of your success.

You can read all about diversifying your language routines and the benefits in this article that I wrote a while back.

My personal favorites – tools anyone familiar with this blog can probably guess by now – include Memrise, Duolingo, and Season to taste with one or more language learning social networks such as Colango, Linqapp or Parleremo and you’re going to have a hard time going wrong.

You can read more about these tools and programs here.

The important thing to remember about secondary language learning tools is that you cannot really learn a language using any one of these alone. This is an important point to stress because many, if not most, of these products and services claim that you can.

These are supplements, but that doesn’t make them weak or in any way less worthy of your attention than their primary counterparts. Use them for what they are.

They are quite often free, too!

Language exchange – the misfit

As I mentioned before, I include language exchange arrangements (two learners speaking face to face, either in person or online; trading off teaching and learning their native and 2nd languages) to generally qualify as secondary methods. While a highly recommended tool – perhaps more powerful than the others – I classify it thus due to its typically informal nature.

You should absolutely participate in a language exchange! But it’s important to bear in mind that you are most likely not working with a professional teacher under a structured curriculum. Furthermore what really drives this home as a secondary method is that it really only tends to focus on listening and speaking, not reading and writing.

Exceptions exist however, and whether the particular arrangements of your exchange qualify as primary or secondary is for you to decide.

In the end it’s up to you 

I like to use this method of tool classification as it helps me write reviews and make suggestions to you; the reader. What really matters though is that you are able to find a system that works for you.

Any standard language learning project is going to have to include listening, speaking (to a person), reading and writing and despite what many of the companies who produce learning tools claim, most of them don’t excel in all four areas, or often offer them at all.

If this is the first time you’ve started working seriously on a 2nd language it is vital that you experiment. Mix and match. Combine more than one primary, sample from a flight of secondaries. Heck, see what happens if you cut out the primary entirely and use only a properly crafted selection of secondaries.

So what do you think?


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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • Hi Evelyn,

    I’m really glad you enjoy the site! It means a lot to hear that.

    It sounds to me like your language learning strategy is pretty sound. Pimsleur’s accents are great. The only major issues I have with the program are they it doesn’t give you real time feedback, and it doesn’t always teach relevant content.

    It’s still one of the best things you can start with!

    Thanks for your comment.


  • Evelyn Camuti Sears

    Thanks for a good article. I use Pimsleur and Duolingo as my primary methods, and Anki as my principal secondary method. I also read online news articles and easy reader books, watch TV shows and movies, and listen to music at various times during the week, and attend a conversation group 1-2 times per week. The thing I like most about Pimsleur is hearing good accents. I like the conversation group because it gives me real-life, real-time practice at listening and speaking (sometimes we read and translate short pieces too, for practice as those skills, and review some grammar points). Some nights, I come home from the group feeling like I understood a lot, and said what I wanted to say, and other nights I come home and think,”How could I have forgotten how to say XXX!” Speaking live is a really great method, because, when the rubber hits the road, we have to be able to comprehend and respond in the target language without taking too much time to think it over. Anyway, I just recently discovered your site and am really enjoying your articles. Thanks

  • I’m glad it helped out! Thanks for your response as well. I think you’re right when you say that these “primary” methods tend to rope people into using them exclusively.

    Some even go so far as to state that if you use other products it could interfere with their own instruction. Which is of course ridiculous – it’s all about the money.

    As for spending large amounts on a product, I try to steer clear at all costs. However having used several of them myself there is certainly a greater drive to succeed when you’ve spent more on a product.

    I know that if I purchase a Pimsleur course I’m going to use the crap out of it because I have to get my money out of it.

  • True, Brian, language learning is very personal, what works for one person may not work for another. Interesting you should mention Pimsleur. As a former Pimsleur course writer (German 1, 2, 3; Dutch 1) and development editor for other languages (9), I’m definitely fond of the system. Here’s what I experienced using Pimsleur as a primary strategy: A few years ago while still working at Pimsleur, I squeezed in one “primary method” with the 3 Pimsleur Italian courses (90 lessons, 30 minutes a day) before spending 5 months in Rome. When I arrived in Italy, my pronunciation was “excellent” (I was told) and I was able to navigate daily shopping, restaurants, etc. in Italian. However, I had no reading skills (except how to sound out words) and no clue how to spell and write Italian. Also, most of what I heard on TV sounded like a stream of gibberish. Being in the country was great, but I wish my preparation had been more rounded, i.e. had included all four skills. So, for me personally a “primary method/strategy” has to maximize my exposure to the foreign language (Pimsleur lessons are 50% is English). I also need to see how the words I hear are written. As an adult learner, my whole mind is geared to the correlation between sound and writing. But that’s just my own personal experience, which then became the impetus behind our GamesForLanguage courses. I also doubt that any of the online “primary methods” (including ours) would lead to fluency/proficiency without very targeted secondary methods.

  • Kyle Balmer

    Hey Brian – just dropped this on your Facebook page too. It started getting long so sorry to bombard the FB! Thought I’d copy in here as it’s probably a better forum! Problem is I don’t get notifications here and I’m too lazy to come check back!

    I’ve been thinking about this issue recently and your distinction between primary and secondary has helped clear up some issues.
    I’m wondering if it possible remove (or at least alter) the traditional primary method and replace it with a series of topics or areas of interest. Each week a new topic would be introduced, giving the learner a bunch of frequently used words, maybe a grammar pattern if appropriate and then saying “OK off you go, go use this”.
    The learner would then use a bunch of recommended resources (the secondaries – ie. SRS, language exchange, games, lang-8 style composition feedback etc.) to work on their topic and the new words/concepts that have been introduced.
    I suppose this isn’t much different from working with a topic based textbook if the textbook is used in conjunction with the other secondary methods. However I think the problem is people tend to rely on their primary method and that alone. The more expensive (that yellow airport kiosk box again!) the product or method is the more people may be inclined to rely on it alone.

    By giving a really stripped down weekly assignment (a single PDF page even) and providing a list of ways to USE the content this crutch would be removed and the student pushed towards a more useful form of language acquisition.
    I see it almost as a series of emails. Each week you get a handful or words and phrases, a sprinkling of cultural information, a grammatical construction and perhaps a little motivational piece on study habits. This minimalist content would come with a set of tools/resources/links/suggestions for listening (here’s a video that touches on this at your level), speaking (here are somethings to talk about with your language partner/some notes for your tutor), writing ( here’s a writing prompt for lang-8) and reading (check these websites/links for manga, cartoons, short stories that center on this topic). Content would be curated to ensure it’s the right level. Students will naturally gravitate to tools they enjoy using and get the most value out of rather than forcing them into a one size fits all methodology.

    Apart from that the student is basically told to go out and work the rest out themselves. Early “lessons” would introduce how to look up words, install dictionary plug ins, where to ask questions about the language etc. to get people up to speed but apart from that it would be on the learner.

    For the self-motivated I think such a methodology would be very powerful. On the flip side some people would need more structure, more hand-holding, which is what the packaged primary resources provide. That said, no one can really teach you a language – the impetus is on the learner to use and acquire the language.

    Anyway, just some musings that your primary/secondary distinction helped to clarify a bit. Thanks!

  • Of course, this was really just a personal system that I use that I thought might help some people classify various tools – and more importantly to help structure a learning plan. There will undoubtedly be disagreements on which constitutes which.

    Even by my own definition you could take a more hardline approach to things like primary strategies and ONLY include those that do offer all four facets – listening, speaking, reading and writing.

    I chose not to because I’ve used Pimsleur – one that some could argue is better classified as a secondary- as the focal program of my project, despite its lack of human speaking, reading and writing.

  • We agree in general with your notion of primary and secondary language strategies and tools, but one may argue with the groupings of the language programs you mention.