Which language learning materials?

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.

Looking anyway

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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  • Anonymous

    In Spain, the best resource I found was a little bookstore on the corner for extranjeros. The only special thing about it, really, was that the little novels had the standard difficulty grading system (A1, A2, B1, etc.) on the spine. It was the perfect way for me to find interesting stories to read (like the children’s version of Don Quixote) and simultaneously be able to quantifiably see my progress improve over time.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Sometimes random findings just work out to be our biggest booster. Glad you found something that worked for you :)

  • Anonymous

    Looking forward to the review! I used both RS and Livemocha some with Turkish but neither extensively. Enjoyed them both as one part of the journey. Not the be all and end all, but as another supplement to creating a rich learning environment.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I was hugely disappointed in Livemocha, although its non-learning community would definitely have vast potential to contribute to a rich learning environment. Human beings always do :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hopefully you’ll get a few replies!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Jon, I already replied to your same comment on the previous post. I found a place to live for the entire stay my first day ;) Moved in yesterday.

  • Matthew

    Thank you for your informative article. I am trying to learn French. I am currently using Coffee Break French and the BBC French Language section as resources. However, my best resource for learning French is my GF who is fluent in French and currently getting her Master’s in French Literature. I considered both Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, but they are both very pricey and I haven’t purchased them yet.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      If your girlfriend is fluent and helping you, you will never need to invest a penny in generic systems that don’t care about you.

  • Dominick

    I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but the Benny Bashing on LingQ forums come from a very vocal minority. Many LingQ users are quite happy to use it for what it does best, improving listening and reading comprehension and vocabulary, without knocking other peoples’ learning methods.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Absolutely. It’s always the same small group of names echoing one another’s baseless rants.

      Of course there are mostly positive learners on LingQ, not interested in bashing systems that they simply don’t know anything about – I keep sending people there myself because I think it’s an excellent resource for reading and podcasts and I wish I could use it for Dutch now.

  • http://www.chitchatchinese.com Rachel

    The least successful learners at our language school are always the ones obsessed with their materials or their teacher. You can learn from anything and anyone, if you have the right attitude. One student, for example, was obsessed with the fact that her Russian textbook was the 3rd edition and not the more recent 4th edition. She harped on and on about this, spent months spinning her wheels with Russian, and finally gave up (despite my counseling trying to get her to refocus and just LEARN). Another student learning Mandarin gave up when we changed his teacher for the 3rd time, claiming in a nasty e-mail by his Chinese wife, that he now cannot learn because his studies have been interrupted and he is too discouraged to ever begin again. Ha! Of course, linguistically the truth is the more exposure to different speakers and teachers the better. I agree with Benny, try a few different ones and cobble together a program that works for you. Most importantly don’t spend your time obsessing. Instead glean as much knowledge as you can from any and all sources and then get out and USE the language in real life.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks for sharing :)

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane Claes

      In the “immersion” style language classes I take I have noticed a similar pattern. There are always the students that cannot seem to see the forest through the trees. Inevitably, the student with the pencil out writing down every single little thing the teacher says and furiously keeping notes falls behind because (s)he is not spending time interacting. They claim that they cannot remember the words for the memory game we’re playing if they don’t write them down, for example, but the very process of trying (and often failing) to say a word from memory is what helps it stick into memory. Of course, I’m not opposed to jotting down a new word for study later… but there’s a point where it’s possible to get too focused on the details.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I will have negative things to say about Rosetta Stone, but I’ve also found something positive that nobody else seems to mention and makes me think they are only reviewing pirated versions: the live tutorial with a human being. Although it still doesn’t justify the price since you could get a large number of in-person tutorials for the same money, but this will be a positive feature I’ll be talking about.

    And thanks for the tip! I’ve changed it to put ASL in the Learning section – I’ll be coming back to it later this year ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    The problem is almost always actually located between the book and the chair – it’s the last place people tend to look…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the very interesting summary! I’ll be sure to refer to it as I’m writing my own review :)

    One question: Did you use the private instructions feature? Perhaps that’s new with version 4. Based on my few hours using it, I’d tend to agree with most of what you said. However, when I was finally talking to a human being then I got some great value out of it. Hardly $500s worth, since that money would buy me many in-person tutorials, but still something that I know will be helping me in future.

    Thanks again for the detailed review!

  • http://twitter.com/RubyA_79 R.A.

    I’ve used Teach Yourself and Michel Thomas – the perfect mix of informal yet structured learning, and conversational learning. I’ve found, using MT, that I can formulate and understand phrases much more easily and confidently than before – and I did French at school.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’m a big fan of Teach Yourself, and I’ll definitely use Michel Thomas at some stage too :)

      • James Mathison

        I agree with George. Using Michel Thomas made me realise for the first time that I don’t just have a bad head for languages, that the method of learning matters loads – before finding out about you, Benny. I’d love to see you write a post on it, perhaps even finding areas where it could improve.

  • http://twitter.com/Rumielf Elf

    I’ve actually been re-learning two languages I’ve learned and then lapsed in my speaking and writing: Japanese and French. I have old textbooks which help but the best thing I’ve found is to dig up penpals who are native speakers and are up for a language exchange while making friends. The hardest part of that was trying to find people who were interested in exchanging handwritten letters as well as emails and skype. (Hand written being important for me to relearn my japanese kana).

    I’ve always been curious about Rosetta Stone so I’m looking forward to your review.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Oh yeah, I never considered hand writing! You’d have a hard time convincing me to exchange that haha :P

      Best of luck!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Agreed. It’s a learning tool, but doesn’t give you very helpful phrases in the end.

    I found out about RS’s history in a conference call with some people who work in the company. It was interesting, but I don’t think it’s so practical to try to emulate an immersive environment through computers. It’s a good business idea, but not realistic.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I’ve messed around with Rosetta Stone Japanese a little bit, I’m curious to see what you think of it–is it version 4? I think it should be, if I’m not mistaken they’ve released it by now.

    I agree very much that a large part of the reason that those products work so well is the money you invest in them which results in “I’ve got to study and use this thing, I paid $800 for it!!!”, which is actually quite effective. Hey, whatever works, right?


    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, version 4. Can’t wait to finish it to be honest, so I can focus on more efficient learning tools…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Agreed. I’m sceptical of Rosetta Stone, but I refuse to write it off without more actual information. I’ve found a way around the price tag problem this time, and intend to give actual details of the inner workings of the whole system, rather than simply say “I don’t like it”. Obviously I don’t like to learn by sitting on my computer, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an invalid approach, so I’ll continue to try things out fully before I decide they aren’t for me.

    Overzealous proponents of certain learning systems I’ve mentioned here would do well not to dismiss people without actually reading into them more than superficially. Luckily some learners can get a good balance of everything :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    The competition is about positive translation experiences. Any experience in a foreign language wouldn’t be quite so relevant.