Obviously, writing a language learning blog means that I get asked the question all the time about the best language learning course or materials to invest in.
Since I can’t really say that any purchasable material particularly impresses me as a “must” for language learning, I like to try several ones on for size to see their advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes even the same course but for a different language will be the best or worst course for me to use. So if I can, I’ll try out several at first and quickly decide what I’d like to focus on.
I’ve tried to learn using online tools like LingQ and Livemocha, and I’ve used Pimsleur‘s audio course. While I did find something positive in all of them (as explained by the linked reviews), I can’t say any of them could even dare hold a candle to the “material” I use!
The endless wasteful search
When people ask me what they should use for studying purposes (as long as that’s not all they’ll be doing), I think the frugal solution of simply going to your local library and taking out material for that language (whatever material happens to be available) is good to get an overview of the language. You can also find lots of free (and legal) materials online on various websites after a little searching to help you with the grammar and vocabulary.
This quest to find precisely the right material is a perfectionist‘s ploy to mostly waste time. Some books will have a nice presentation, some will have a good author behind their name, but many typical books are more or less just presenting the same basic standard vocabulary and grammar rules to you.
So take whatever you can afford (or borrow) and just use it as your reference while you focus on more important actual use of the language. Your end-application may be different to mine, so if listening is your thing and you don’t want to use it with people any time soon, then focus on listening rather than studying. Studying too much makes you a study expert, not much else.
Hold on, aren’t I selling something?
This is why I remind people that I never wrote a language course myself, but a guide about how to learn a language in general when the goal is to speak as quickly as possible.
But along the lines of this post I’ll emphasise that buying my guide won’t solve all your problems either. When I get e-mails from people asking where they should “throw” their money I never say to go straight to the buy now button on my site.
Someone simply with their credit card out is not someone ready to invest properly to learn a language. When I see it wouldn’t be a fit (such as someone focused on exams or literature) I specifically tell people not to buy my guide.
All products have some advantages, but it’s important to be clear about what those advantages are. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Now, having said all that, I’ll still look through the different options just in case I find something that can be of great help to me. As well as this, my reviews of various products have been some of my most popular blog posts and it’s been interesting in satisfying my own curiosity for products that I hear about all the time.
So I’ll keep going on trying different learning materials! As much as I promote social learning, I do indeed study books and audio etc. to help me along (albeit as a minor amount of the core of my work, which is usually social). The reason I’m nebulous about what material I tend to use (until I summarise the language, as I did with Hungarian, Czech, Portuguese etc.) is precisely because I don’t use anything specific. Usually I’ll go into a bookshop on arrival and browse the options for a half an hour and buy my favourite. (This was only a bad idea for me in the Philippines due to lack of materials there).
And recently, I’ve started looking at using more advanced tools than books, like SRS and various websites.
Some specific aspects of these tools can of course come in handy. I do recommend LingQ to people who like to specifically improve their reading abilities and have a nice database of easy-to-find podcasts to listen to (that is, if their language is covered – mine haven’t been in the four languages I’ve taken on after learning German).
And Pimsleur audio is excellent for people who spend a lot of time driving since repeating phrases (rather mindlessly) doesn’t require their full attention. It’s somewhat engaging, so you won’t just let it play and perhaps end up passively ignoring it as you might while tuning in and out of focus with the radio or a podcast.
Does most expensive mean the best?
The problem with trying everything out is that it can get expensive, especially when you get to the higher end of the market!
So I’m glad to say that I now have the chance to review one of the most famous (or notorious?) language learning systems in the world: Rosetta Stone. (Not to be confused with the actual Rosetta Stone)
Thanks to the size of this blog and my reputation online I was able to secure a free copy of Levels 1-3 of Dutch from Rosetta Stone themselves! (When I emailed them to ask for one, it turns out they had heard of me!)
Retail price is $500 and I (luckily) didn’t have to pay this, but I will be very frankly reviewing it for its usefulness and value for money, as if I had paid. I wasn’t interested in reviewing a pirated copy because (apart from the moral and legal issues with this) there are interactive features of the paid version I wanted to see.
My initial thoughts on RS, based on second-hand reports, were scepticism. When I asked my readers to rate their favourite language learning products and got some fascinating results back from them, RS lost by a landslide. After using it for two hours already, a lot of my fears were confirmed. However, experimentation is important before jumping to conclusions. I suspect most people who have used it have done so with a pirated (and thus, limited) copy, or were just guessing and angry about the price.
I want to write a proper detailed and honest review of that software & its side features, as I’ve done with other products. I’ll list the positives and very bluntly say how wasteful the negatives are.
The only thing I told RS I’d do for this free copy (since I was clear my review would be frank) is that I’d run my review past them first to make sure there were no factual errors.
I did the same with my LingQ review and posted on their forum to have any of my misunderstandings answered. The feedback was somewhat helpful, but included a lot of irrelevant attacks too. To this day, a year later, tearing me to pieces is the hottest topic in that forum, which is really quite sad! Their arguments are based on misleading information, since they don’t even read my blog. It’s mostly just anger with my site’s domain name, which is definitely not a magic pill promise. Surely they’d have more productive things to talk about by now? Oh well!
You probably won’t see that Rosetta Stone review until the end of my current Dutch mission so I’ll have had proper time to go through as much as I can and see if it contributes to my mission or slows me down compared to alternatives. Of course, I’m only interested in using it in combination with what I would do anyway, and no matter how good it may be, I doubt I’d be able to recommend any system as better than human contact with a goal of conversational fluency.
Throwing money at the problem
What usually happens with such courses is that people think a financial investment counts as a personal investment.
I see this in many shapes and forms. Expats who don’t learn the local language were duped into thinking that buying a plane ticket was “enough”, or people who sign up for a university or evening course and even attend it, think that the teacher has to do all the work for them.
I just see most of the language learning industry as being fancy placebos. You pay money and something gets you motivated to get off your arse and do some work. Anything will do really.
Many people who would read a blog like this are trying to displace responsibility – if I said that x book was the best for your language (even if my reasons might not match yours) then your responsibility in the matter is taken away, and it would be my fault if you didn’t learn. Don’t take this route – start thinking for yourself and stop putting the weight of success in other people’s hands!
This is why I prefer to be factual and give as much information as possible, rather than opinions and guesses, in my reviews.
Perhaps I’ll find something worth investing in within RS, but I have a feeling that the simple fact of investing so much money means that people would use the system (and even use separate ones) much more enthusiastically. If you can’t afford such investments, then why not work on your enthusiasm in other ways or really think long and hard about your motivations and try to make progress no matter what.
Throwing money (or even idle time that ends up being nothing but busy-work) at the problem won’t solve it. Only passion will.
Let me know what you think about choosing language learning materials in the comments below!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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