Going to South America without knowing Spanish is silly. However, I am not ready to spend a small fortune on Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur. These 800-pound gorillas of language learning market are highly rated by arguably unbiased reviewers and definitely some of the most well-developed products. However, they come with a hefty price tag. Luckily, with the proliferation of online learning tools, the low-cost or even free competitors have been sprouting up. Are they as good as the elders? Honestly, it is an unfair question. Owning Rosetta Stone would not help a lazy or an unmotivated person. On the other hand, newcomers are still in the development stage from which they could either grow and improve or disappear.
I tried a number of different online language learning tools. It is important to note that my goal is to learn a foreign language, Spanish in particular, to be able to communicate. I am not aspiring to write a novel in Spanish, at least, not yet. Hence, I tailored my list of tools for this particular purpose.
BTW, I do not have any monetary interest in endorsing these products. I genuinely find them helpful and use them to study Spanish.
Here are my favorites:
Vocabulix – is a program that helps you to memorize vocabulary and verb conjugations in foreign languages in a fast and easy way.
It is fair to say that in this case, Vocabulix found me instead of the other way around. They started following me on Twitter, I got curious about the name first, the purpose second, checked the website, and, voíla, ended up using it to study Spanish.
Vocabulix interface does not have bells and whistles of Duolingo. Nevertheless, it is up to an individual to decide what is more important, the game-like feel-good UI (user interface) or achieving results? Ideally, I would like to kill both birds with one stone. In reality, I am using Vocabulix more and more with better results.
Couple months ago, Vocabulix started a new project in collaboration with travel bloggers. The lessons pages have relevant travel photos as backgrounds. Obviously, it makes lessons more visually attractive. However, there is another benefit: the picture serves as a hint. It is a clever way to make the lesson more engaging.
Traveling Bytes was happy to provide some photos for this project. Here is the lesson where Vocabulix uses them:
Vocabulary Builder, Current lesson: Montenegro by Traveling Bytes EN-SP
Duolingo – is a free language-learning and crowdsourced text translation platform. Arguably, Duolingo is the most well-known and most used product of the new generation of online language tools.
Duolingo’s Data-Driven Approach to Education (excerpt from Duolingo blog): [the program is] using a heavily data-driven approach to education: the system measures which questions the users struggle with and what sorts of mistakes they make. It then aggregates these measurements and learns from the patterns it recognizes. It does not formally teach you language grammar, which some language purists find offensive.
I started using Duolingo about a year ago. I liked its game-like approach and clean interface. It made the learning process less tedious and boring. However, in a while my progress seemingly slowed down even though I was studying 3-4 times per week (the same amount of time as in the beginning). Incidentally, Duolingo updated both, the website and the mobile app. Personally, I found the app’s lessons to be less difficult in comparison with the desktop version.
Finally, after a year of using Duolingo, I definitely acquired some vocabulary, but I still can not make even a short conversation (outside of the boundaries of simplistic examples from year worth of lessons).
I still think that Duolingo is a good starting point for learning a foreign language.
Fluencia – is almost a twin sister of Duolingo, but with a few exceptions:
- in my opinion, Fluencia lessons are a bit more challenging than Duolingo’s
- it is not free. Interestingly, I can not find current pricing, but in July 2014 the yearly subscription option was about $60USD with the monthly option available too. However, their website warns that pricing is a subject to change.
Excerpt from their website: Fluencia uses Adaptive Learning Technology (Use our proprietary SmartReview℠ technology to maximize what you learn) and Individual Feedback (Our intelligent feedback system explains your mistakes and offers more practice).
I tried it, but stopped using after a while because of the design of their web app (I had to switch to portrait mode every time I was using it).
Memrise – is an online learning tool with courses created by its community.
There is a plethora of Spanish learning courses there. About a month ago I picked Learn Basic Spanish by OliviaZ. It proved to be quite challenging. Generally, I am spending ~20 min. 3-4 times a week, and I am on the last chapter of this course. Second and third weeks were the hardest ones: I found myself in an uncharted territory of unfamiliar words and sentences, but by the end of the fourth week everything started to come together.
As you can guess, I stick to Memrise and continue to use it. They have quite a nice mobile app which I prefer over their desktop version.
In summary, I think that online language learning tools have a promising future. Currently, some of them seems to be good starting points to, sort of, get feet wet in your chosen language. However, they can not yet replace live lessons by a good teacher.