Language Learning Tools

Learning Spanish becomes a pretty high priority when you decide to move to Latin America. Being a geek, I had to seek out all of the viable tools to figure out which ones will be optimal. While I didn’t try every single tool on the planet, I’m hoping that this review will be helpful to anyone else looking to pick up a new language!

Caveat: everyone learns differently. Even if I absolutely hated a tool, you might love it. I’ll try to refrain from a general good/bad and give you more of what is good or bad in each of them so you can decide. In the end, chances are that you’ll want a mix of methods to suit your needs, and we’ll cover that at the end.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone is the 900 lbs gorilla of the learning software market – as you can tell by their pricetag. And that price is well deserved. Their software, whether in a browser or on iOS, is by far one of the best apps I’ve seen anywhere. Everything works the way you’d expect it to and the whole experience is pretty tight.

Rosetta Stone is all about “immersion”. In this case, that means that you will never hear or see a word of English in the middle of the course. In a way this is helpful because you won’t get confused switching back and forth. The problem is that you also don’t get any instruction. You have to figure out on your own how verbs get conjugated and adjectives change with their subject. They compensate for this by giving you a ton of practice. The basic lessons felt pedantic, but then I’d already learned the material they covered.

I can see how this would be an easy way to learn a language without feeling like you’re really trying. The type-A in me wants more challenge though. A way to challenge out of lessons or fast forward through the things you understand would have been helpful.

Fluenz

Do you like well produced videos that explain things in detail? Then this is the course you want. Founder Sonia Gil started Fluenz when she didn’t like any of the existing courses for either lacking explanations or not having real practice options. She teaches the Spanish course, and the videos are very well produced. Possibly too well. Sometimes the video tricks get a little gimmicky, though hopefully they let up on those after a few lessons.

The course is delivered entirely on DVD for PC and Mac. There’s no web download option, let alone mobile apps. Oddly, the samples are all on the web. I don’t understand why they couldn’t offer the course via the web too. In any case, if you still have a DVD drive and want to sit down at your PC/Mac for at least half an hour at a time for a lesson then this is a good option, if you can afford it. It’s priced around the same point as Rosetta Stone, so be ready to shell out for those pretty videos.

Rocket Languages

Do you like cheap, sloppily made software? If so, then boy do we have a deal for you! Perhaps I’m a bit of a software snob, being that I write the stuff and all, but of all the options Rocket is the one I just can’t recommend. From stupid things like the enter key not working on the web views to major bugs like the submit button on the quizes not working on iOS, Rocket is just crappy software.

The sad part is that their formula isn’t too far off. I really like the mix of text explanations and audio. The text was like a textbook – you could read as much or as little as you wanted, automatically scaling to your own pace. The audio is much like the Pimsleur series, and the questions very much like Duolingo – essentially providing an all-in-one solution that gives you a multimedia experience.

If they can pull off the execution, Rocket will be a great experience. As it is now, I just can’t recommend it to anyone.

Pimsleur

Good old Pimsleur, going strong for 50 years. Pimsleur is the original “learn at home” language course, and there’s a reason why they’re still around. I have the audio-only course, but from I understand from the PCMag review, the new software isn’t much of a benefit.

The audio course is well structured, straightforward, and proven. A narrator guides you in English, while two native speakers (one male and one female) speak the phrases in the language you’re learning. The English speaker tells you what you’re about to say, then the native speakers says it, and you repeat it, trying to match their pronunciation. Repeat. As they introduce new concepts, they’ll go back and practice previous things so you can just go from one lesson to the next without worrying about going back.

If you’re an auditory learner, then this is definitely the choice for you. Also: if you have a commute or some time where it’s easier to do an audio-only course then this is a great option – just be warned it can be distracting in a car!

Duolingo

Duolingo is the new kid on the block, hoping to shake up the world of language learning. You certainly can’t beat the price: it’s free! Duolingo is modelled after casual video games. You’re given sample phrases to translate, transcribe, or read, with hints for words that are new. If you get it right, you move on to the next question. Get it wrong, and you lose a heart. Lose three hearts and you’ll have to restart the level.

The gamification is interesting. It works really well in some ways. Being able to fit in just a few minutes here and there is really helpful, though I do find that it works best if I can do a few levels in a row. When you’re on a roll it’s really motivating. But if you fail a level even once, it can be well… disheartening. Pun aside, the sad trombone is really demotivating. Particularly because the levels don’t seem very consistent in difficulty. Sometimes it feels like child’s play, and the next level feels like you have to be a mind reader.

That might be because the whole thing is crowdsourced. You can actually discuss any of the phrases to understand why it’s a certain way, and flag a phrase if you feel something isn’t right. You can also help to develop the next level of courses. What they really want is for people to help out with translation. I suspect this is their revenue model: getting companies to pay for crowd-sourced translation.

The iOS app is very well done, and even works well offline. It’s a little limited in that you can’t flag content, or take part in discussions. You also can’t see the hints at the start of new levels, which is problematic. That’s actually the one thing I’d like to see differently in Duolingo. If they had a bit more instruction at the start of each level, that would be enormously helpful.

Summary

  Pros Cons
Rosetta Stone
$180-324
Beautiful app
Mobile, web, Mac, PC
Immersion-based
Thorough
Expensive
No explanations
Can get pedantic
Fluenz
$177-358
Beautiful videos, well produced
Thorough explanations
Also includes podcasts and supplementary materials
Expensive
Mac and PC only, no mobile app
Videos can be gimicky
Rocket Languages
$99.95-299.95
Good mix of audio, text, and quizzes
Audio-only like Pimsleur
Quizzes like Duolingo
Software quality is terrible – can’t even use quizzes on iOS
Pimsleur
$199.95-450
Proven straightforward system
Audio-only good for auditory learners
Works well on a commute
Weak on written side and explanations
Software doesn’t seem worth it, better options there
Duolingo
Free!
Easy to fit in just a few minutes a day
Gamification can be good motivator
App is well written and works well in both browser and on iOS
Real life translations
Low on explanations
Difficulty level inconsistent
Gamification double-edge sword: can fall out of it very easily

Conclusions

There is no magic bullet when it comes to learning a language. What to use depends entirely on the person and the language. If I were approaching something for the few time with very little experience, I would probably consider Rosetta Stone or Fluenz. With Spanish, I’ve already gotten a taste of the language and I’m finding it relatively easy to pick up. In this case, I’m thinking that a multi-modal approach is best. That will bring the knowledge into my brain in multiple pathways. Conveniently, between Duolingo, the Pimsleur course I already have,  online resources like SpanishDict, and the local Latin American community, I should be well covered.

The interesting part is that if I were to try and learn Arabic right now, I’d probably do it with Rosetta Stone. I’ve found Arabic very difficult to stick with, and there aren’t many options there. Out of this list, only Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur offer Arabic and even then only with limited levels.

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