Over the years, I've tested out a lot of different interfaces for learning languages. Some have been a huge improvement to how I learned previously, some can be helpful in particular ways, and some just aren't for me at all.
This post shares a little of my experience using both Busuu and LiveMocha to improve my German. The reason I'm reviewing them together is that I find both their advantages and their disadvantages to be very broadly similar, even if the actual systems are very different and present different types of interfaces. I'll start with how I think these can be useful and then say where I feel they fall short.
Note that this article is just my opinion to explain why I wouldn't generally recommend these popular sites. If you have gotten use out of the parts I personally criticise, then great!
Both site courses offered work by mainly using the flashcard system of showing you an image of the item or scene, and playing the sound of the word or sentence at the same time.
Free online courses
Now, I'm going to get into a little rant about the “courses” offered on these sites below, but at the end of the day they are free. No matter what setbacks they may have, you can't really complain too much when it has a $0.00 price tag associated with it. The reason I will complain is simply because too many people might think these sites are better than what they are. To be totally honest, I'm surprised at how much Livemocha in particular was recommended to me after using it myself.
Although there are certain paid aspects of the courses, I simply cannot personally recommend these paid versions with a straight face because of how little the free versions managed to inspire me. But the free versions can be very useful when you are starting off.
The main reason I didn't appreciate the courses offered on either site is because I was hoping to learn a language beyond the basics, since I'm already at more or less intermediate with my German. This means that I can't really fairly review how useful these sites would be for absolute beginners but I can see how they would be a fun and useful tool to start off.
Either one can be a useful tool to become familiar with the sound of the language and to acquire some basic vocabulary, while also enjoying yourself thanks to the helpful images. If you are starting off, and want to use one, I'd recommend using Busuu for the first week that you sign up (after the first trial week you lose certain useful features unless you upgrade to a premium account) specifically if you are learning English, Spanish, German, French, Italian or (Brazilian) Portuguese. For any other language, use Livemocha.
Livemocha: The main advantage of Livemocha here is its wide selection of languages, 35 languages, that's pretty impressive! However, this list is not the misleading drop-down list you will see on the home page. Since you use the system to contact natives, you can do that for a larger range of languages (as in Busuu), but the actual courses are not offered in all of them – based on the standard template nature of how the system works (which is a point I criticise), I'm confident that the number will increase further though.
You can't learn Irish through their courses for example, but you can select it as a language you are learning if you would like to try to practise with someone (whether you'd actually find them or not is another issue). The list is already impressive and interestingly enough; you can even learn Esperanto as one of the 35 languages through it for example. Unless you are learning a minority language you can be pretty confident that you'll find a course for it.
In Livemocha, to get the best out of the system without paying, you have to contribute by providing corrections of text/audio in your native language given by others. You might need to do this for quite a bit before earning enough points to open up a new aspect of your courses etc.
Busuu: Although the list of languages is limited to only the 6 that I listed above, I find Busuu's course itself to be better than the Livemocha one.
Firstly, vocabulary usually comes with the definite article, which in the languages listed is crucial for getting used to the noun gender. Livemocha does not do this except for inconsistent user submitted comments on the side. Although you don't want to be bombarded with too much information when starting off, it's important to get used to this idea of associating some article/gender with a noun even if you don't necessarily remember it the first time.
Next, Busuu has integrated an excellent keyboard control system, so you can go through the course and replay the sounds without using your mouse. I personally prefer to do this – you can do it with the mouse instead too if you prefer.
Busuu also gives you the individual word you need to learn, followed by an example in context (with audio for your first week). Livemocha gives either a single word or a full sentence, not both.
For the first week, Busuu gives you free access to normally-paid content, such as audio in dialogues and in the sentence examples for the flashcards. After that first week you can still read these even if you can't hear the audio. You also have access to the grammar course in the first week – I liked the way grammar points were presented in Busuu more than in LiveMocha.
Busuu also lets you go through a review of your lesson for free immediately, which Livemocha doesn't in certain cases. With LiveMocha you either have to pay, or earn points. Luckily you can earn the points quick enough in LM, so this is just a minor annoyance. I found some serious disadvantages in the test/review in both that I mention below, and this makes the paid aspect of Busuu's grammar course (after the first week) way less useful.
Help from natives
I don't find the courses useful, but both of these systems offer fantastic opportunities to communicate with and get feedback from others. There are written exercises included within the courses for both of them and you will get corrections about text relevant to a specific topic. More independent learners would be better to use Lang 8, but it's good to be encouraged to write something specific to a topic you need to practise, and you can always go off topic if you like. The feedback is hardly professional level, and it's quite inconsistent, but it will be helpful in the early stages.
The best thing would be to get to know other users and to come to a mutual agreement about helping one another, preferably outside of the system, and with a user that you find to be particularly helpful. The fact that you can find such people eager to help you within the system is a huge plus.
On Livemocha you can also submit audio samples that you read, to have your pronunciation efficiency level rated, although the number of stars given to you depends as much on the other person's personality as your actual level, so this becomes quite useless other than for encouragement unless the right people respond.
One criticism I have for LiveMocha is that it does not make these corrections available only to natives. I've set my level of Spanish and French, for example, to fluent and I was given more text to correct in French and Spanish than I was English (which of course is set to native). This means it's important to be aware that your text may not actually be checked by natives. Then again, the level expected for these checks is so low that this may not be an issue, since any corrections advanced speakers can provide would be just as good as from a native for the basics.
The system requests that you be clear in your review, but because you would want to earn more points quickly you are encouraged to give a quick (perhaps sloppy) review to get to the next one faster. I earned the same points for a detailed response as I did for just saying “good work”. My own text in German was corrected very slowly – it took several days until I got a response, this was despite contributing by providing my own corrections, so it felt very unbalanced. This suggests that certain languages, although technically in the system, are still too infrequently represented to be able to provide consistent help. Once again, you are better just finding a native and collaborating outside of the system.
In Busuu I got a response much quicker. Once again, Busuu's focus on particular languages works to its advantage if you are focused on one of these languages. It also depends hugely on the availability of actual speakers. I submitted a text in Spanish to test it out and got dozens of responses within a few minutes! It would make more sense that there are more Spanish speakers than German speakers in the system of course.
In both systems, the biggest advantage by far and main reason I'd ultimately recommend either system is the conversation practise. Both systems provide interfaces for typing and speaking live with a native for free. Each one of these deserves attention within itself, so I'll come back to both sites, as well as several other sites that focus specifically on this aspect, and compare all of them specifically for finding conversation partners. Although from trying to use both a little, I find Busuu's way easier and more flexible and LiveMocha has very few options for finding natives of the language I would like so easily.
At the time, Busuu's chat system couldn't recognise letters with accents over them (ü, é etc.) typed from my keyboard unless I copied and pasted from its own keyboard window. A disappointing aspect to a language-based system to say the least! This made it unenjoyable to use its interface for chatting, but it worked well for a spoken conversation. I didn't like LiveMocha's interface much either, so I would prefer to simply give the other person my Skype information.
I was told in advance that the advantage of both systems was definitely this “community”, although I would never call either of them a community. You can find single natives to speak with, and get corrections, but there are no forums, public chatrooms, Livemocha makes it difficult to find people flexibly (at least Busuu has a search tool), and there are no dynamic profiles with walls etc. that quite a lot of other social networking sites have. I didn't feel any community aspect of either site when using them.
The “courses”: nothing more than lazy translations of the same material
The reason I would find it very hard to ever recommend the courses offered at either site, for more than just a quick glance to get familiar with a language when starting, is because the entire material offered is nothing more than a lazy translation of exactly the same content. Even grammar points are precisely the same material!! This is a ridiculous simplification of how languages should be treated. A positive attitude and certain learning methods can indeed be pretty universally useful for all languages, but once you are dealing with the actual content you have to tailor it to learners of that particular language!
Both sites translate precisely the same material to every language as if they had the best sentences and vocabulary in the world that magically work to perfectly teach any language. This appears to be copying the format used by Rosetta Stone. Before being acquired by Rosetta Stone, LiveMocha had “vastly superior to Rosetta Stone…” in a testimonial on its main page. Sorry to be the one to break this to you, but Rosetta Stone is not that great either. Comparing yourself to and emulating expensive rubbish just makes you free rubbish.
Feel free to correct me if you've somehow reached fluency just by flicking through flashcards (and please share your wizardry with me), but these are not courses. They can help a bit, and they are fun to use, and make you feel like you are making lots of progress, but I can't imagine anyone having more than basic phrases after completing either site's entire course material.
I'm discovering flashcards' usefulness in other systems, but basing an entire learning system around them is a mistake in my view.
Busuu‘s system happens to me more aesthetically pleasing to me, so I was starting to like it a bit until I finished one module and got to the review. Wow. I am genuinely impressed with how useless its review was – in years of learning languages I have never come across such a worthless testing system! Questions would be totally irrelevant to the purpose of the module and test memory for useless information such as people's names… who weren't even mentioned in the dialogue (just indicated off the side). In the multiple choice tests, it would also ignore the point of what it was supposed to teach me and I could very easily cheat by using a basic word I recognised as in the image/selection, or by process of elimination, and prove in no way that I had properly learned anything from the lesson.
Livemocha‘s lesson reviews on the other hand, are tedious repetitions and, of course, based on translations not designed for that language. If I get a particular aspect of a lesson right a few times in a row, I would hope for the system to dynamically accept me as knowing it, but I'd still be tested on it again and again. It was barely passable as useful for German, and other users have told me that it's a downright waste of time for other languages where that format really doesn't help. I was scratching my head to understand how it could possibly be useful to me learning German to hear the phrases being pronounced to me in English (when they are already written anyway).
The system ignoring crucial grammar points is apparent when you see comments on particular flashcards from people pleading with those behind Livemocha to do an overhaul.
Important aspects of how the language works are not explained in any useful way other than going straight to examples. If you want to avoid explanations entirely, you are better at least exposing yourself to languages as they are naturally used, but there is no natural language to be found anywhere on either site (other than chats with natives, or in Busuu a page with a few Youtube videos). They are all single sentences or simplified dialogues made in a recording studio based on translated text from the standard template.
One part of the tests that I did like in both systems was the sentence construction where you click on certain words until you have a sentence. It was nice, but still quite pointless in terms of practicality of using the language, and sometimes it was very hard to imagine what sentence you would construct from a bunch of random words – this is not something you naturally do when speaking a language. As I said – the systems are enjoyable to use, and I appreciate this effort to make the learning process more fun. But these are still games and not necessarily helping you make any appreciable progress. I still think people will learn very slowly and make only a tiny improvement to their level when using these courses. These systems give the illusion of progress and I feel like a lot of people will be quite disappointed when the time comes to actually use the languages they would have invested a lot of time into learning.
Overall Busuu was the better of the two. Apart from the nicer and easier to use interface, the themed lessons with icon representations let you choose what you want to learn, whereas LiveMocha just labels non-grammar lessons as “vocabulary 1, 2 etc.”
Conclusions? After learning the basics, only use the system to chat!
Both systems claim to teach you up to intermediate, but I would not call the level you would reach after using these courses as anything vaguely resembling intermediate, no matter how flexible the use of the word was.
In either system it was nice to have so many words spoken to me and associated with the image, so I do believe they can be useful for people starting to learn a language. But anything beyond that and you should really use the systems for nothing more than finding conversation partners. If you find someone patient enough to help you, you could learn quite a lot with their help. As I said before, I'll come back to both websites to compare them to other systems specifically for this.
Sorry for not having too many positive things to say, but I had been referred to these sites so many times and perhaps had too high expectations of them so I'm quite frustratingly disappointed with how little use I can imagine someone getting out of them.
I will continue my search to try to find free or cheap online useful learning materials, but for the moment if you want a free language course to study, separate to actually speaking/listening etc., I think the best thing you can do is go to your local library! 🙂
Hopefully this post will be useful to people curious to hear what I thought about the systems. Sorry to be so frank in most of this page, but I am ultimately looking at how a system can help you speak, and I think that the poor-man's Rosetta Stone (or even the rich man's one) is not the way to do it!! I'll continue to share other resources that do help here on the blog.
Let me know what you thought of this review in the comments! Make sure to stay on topic or your comment will be banished to oblivion! 🙂 Feel free to point out any aspects that I missed, or share your tales of woe in using either system with us!