Ok, in my day (the early 2000s, to be precise), we were pretty much still learning language from textbooks and outdated cassettes from the 90s. I have many fond, and much less fond, memories of reading the stories of Markus Supermaus from our highschool German textbooks, memorising lists of vocab from a little book called Wort für Wort and writing about my weekend. On paper. I know – retro, right?
Nowadays, anyone who decides to learn a language is spoilt for choice, and doesn’t even really need a teacher. But on the flipside, there is a pretty bewildering array of options on the market, and it’s hard to know where to splash your cash, or whether or not the free options are actually any good.
Fortunately, I’ve tried quite a few of the options for learning mainstream and less-common languages, so here are some of the ones that are worth checking out.
Let’s start with the best-known language solution out there. You’ve probably seen the ads with the guy whose living room transforms into a Japanese-style shōji, whilst he confidently spouts pearls of wisdom such as ‘konichiwa’. It sounds pretty appealing actually – a comprehensive programme that will take you from beginner to fluent without needing any external input. At least in theory.
Rosetta Stone does actually do what it says on the tin. It’s a heck of a comprehensive piece of software, covering reading, listening, speaking and writing with a seriously huge range of activities. It’s also quite engaging – full of audio, pictures, video clips and simple stories and situations to allow you to start using the language in pseudo-real situations straight away. I haven’t used it extensively (it’s too expensive!) but it does look as if, given some dedication, it would get you quite a long way without needing to use much else. The dialogues and storylines are a bit corny and artificial, but they work, and apply the vocabulary and grammar structures you’ve learned pretty effectively. You’re also hearing the language from the word go, which is essential. Much as I hate to hand it to them, the folks over at Rosetta Stone do know what they’re talking about, and it’s a good programme. They also do a fairly decent range of languages now (24 if you count a couple of variants of Spanish and English).
Ok, there’s one pretty huge con with Rosetta Stone which is staring me straight in the eye, and that is it’s ****ing expensive! The software is 299 quid per language, which isn’t the kind of investment you’re likely to make just to learn how to say, bonjour, comment ça va? on your next holiday. I feel like a lot of people are likely to buy it and leave it gathering dust, given the commitment it would take to plough through its rather complicated reams of activities (although I’m sure it’s worth it if you do). Not something for the casual user, and I also feel like a serious language learner, or someone who needs to get really fluent might find it rather too simplistic. I played around with the French version for a bit, and whilst I think it’s awesome for beginners, even the higher levels in the software seem to be rather basic and it’s not gonna be worth the money if you’re looking to progress past ‘conversational’ only.
Rosetta are the ‘big guns’ in the language software market, and worth a try if you’re really, really sure you want to speak conversational Japanese or whatever. But they’re very expensive, and there is a lot more out there that is cheaper, simpler and doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. I don’t think this is going to make you fluent, as it promises, but if you do it properly you ought to have a good grounding up to about intermediate level.
I have to declare a slight bias here, as I used to work for them, and have some great friends there; but I will try to be as unbiased as possible about their software from the point of view of a learner.
The huge, giant pro that EuroTalk have is that they cover a staggering range of languages (around 130). If you want to learn German, Spanish or French, you’ve got a lot of options, and this might not be the best one. But if you want to learn Kurmanji Kurdish, Chichewa, Marathi or Saami, there isn’t so much out there for you. EuroTalk offer software for learning absolute basic through to lower-intermediate level in each of those languages, as well as the highly successful uTalk app, which offers the same basic content on your iphone. The pros are that the software is very easy and fun to use, and teaches you through various simple but effective games. Everything has a male and female native speaker showing you how to pronounce the words, so you’re sure you’re actually learning how to speak and understand, not just read and write. The uTalk app is genuinely quite addictive and fun, and the recording games especially actually force you to recall vocab, not just passively recognise it, which tends to be a huge problem with most programmes. Oh, and it’s pretty cheap. The PC software costs £29.99 per language, whilst the app is an awesome £10.99 for the full, extensive content.
The main con with most of the EuroTalk software is that it’s much less comprehensive. Talk Now and Talk More cover a couple of different topics, but are likely to leave you wanting more if you have ambitions beyond asking for a cup of coffee or a beer. They also rely on teaching you vocab and phrases, so if you want grammar you’re going to be a bit disappointed. Someone from the company will probably hurt me if they read this, but the older software looks just that, old, and could really use a redesign.
If you want to learn an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ language, such as an Indian or African language, a smaller European language or a dialect, you are in good hands. Everything is produced by language experts and native speakers, with native pronunciation, so you can trust what you’re learning. And it’s pretty affordable. But don’t expect to get fluent or learn proper grammar. Most of the software is pitched at beginner/tourist level.
Now we’re getting on to the ‘free’ / online stuff. I love Busuu and have used it for years, but it’s not really as free as it pretends to be. The smartphone app has almost no content unless you pay for some hefty in-app purchases. But the online version has quite a good whack of free content, a cool and unique format, and some quite nifty ideas in there. You can also learn any of 12 languages.
You can use a good bit of it for free. And it’s quite a well-designed and cute idea. Busuu is like a little mini-community, where you can instant message with other users in your chosen language, and – their most impressive feature – native speakers will mark your written texts in exchange for you marking texts in your language. It’s a smart system, and gives you native-speaker input for more or less free. The programme itself takes you through a reasonable course in reading, writing and listening, and if you use it right, you can progress quite fast.
Their pay model is a bit fiddly. Some things are free, but you’ll keep hitting annoying pay-walls, and I think they’re reducing some of what used to be offered for free. You can get premium membership for £60 per year, which is a little steep, although you can also try a month for 12.99, which is worth a try.
Busuu is fun and cute. You collect berries as you go along as a kind of ‘reward’ which gamifies the learning a bit. It’s also a really smart system, especially the text-correction exchange. I’ve used it a lot for French and would recommend it, although I’m not sure if the pay versions are completely worth it.
Duolingo is probably my fave of the bunch. It really is totally, 100% free with no catches. In exchange for learning the language, you are basically helping to translate reams and reams of text on the web into your language. It’ll be interesting to see how this aspect of it evolves, but it’s a very smart idea.
I can’t stress this part enough – it’s totally free! The app is brilliant, and you can use it anywhere and everywhere. The other great thing about Duolingo is it stresses grammar from the start. You learn a couple of words, and straight away you can start to build up sentences. Whoever designed this really knew what they were doing. And they’ve just added a really fun competitive practice element to the app, which is extremely addictive.
The main con that Duolingo has is that all the ‘listening’ elements of the software use a computerised voice. This is fairly accurate, so you won’t learn the wrong pronunciation, but it means you totally miss out on the element of hearing a native speaker. The recording function is also totally useless – I advise switching it off completely, as it often rejects correct pronunciation or accepts random noises. It only covers the main European languages at the moment, although it does those very well. And it teaches you some rather strange sentences. Using it to learn Italian I now realise I can say sentences like ‘Le mucche bevono l’acqua’ (the cows drink the water) or ‘l’insetto è nello zucchero’ (the insect is in the sugar) but not ask ‘can I have a glass of water?’, ‘what are you doing at the weekend?’ or ‘where is the bank?’.
Duolingo is awesome and everyone who wants to start a new language should get it. It is a bit kooky with its vocab and phrase selection, and sometimes frustrating to use, but lots of fun and the best way to learn from scratch that I’ve found. However I do suggest using in combination with another app such as uTalk or with a native speaker to talk to, as it doesn’t teach pronunciation or conversation well.
My overall verdict
These are by no means the only language programmes on offer, just my favourite ones that I’ve used. As for deciding what to use, it really depends on the language you want to learn, why, and your commitment to learning/personal learning style.
If you are:
A pretty serious language learner who really wants to get fluent or needs a language for business – Rosetta Stone is probably a good investment for you, and won’t disappoint.
A casual user who wants to learn a few phrases for fun or to go on holiday – don’t waste your money on something like Rosetta, and download uTalk from the App Store.
Interested in starting a new language for a variety of reasons such as trips to the country, personal interest, conversation etc and willing to put in a bit of time – I recommend a mix of using Duolingo in your language of choice alongside something that teaches you phrases and pronunciation like Talk Now or uTalk. Throw in some busuu and you’ll be well on your way.
Learning a non-European or non-mainstream language – definitely check out the range of options that EuroTalk have for the language you choose.
A GCSE student or similar – Busuu is really brilliant for picking the right level and working from there, including all the main areas you’ll need for exams and the right sort of spread of topics and content.
Short on time and wanting to cram some basics during your commute – Either the Duolingo app or uTalk (or ideally both) are a great idea.
An advanced or intermediate learner – Sadly I’ve gotta say there isn’t much on the market for you. Most language software caters for basics to lower intermediate. By this point you probably need to take your learning into your own hands!
… So basically the simple answer is all are pretty good depending on which language you want to learn and your level of commitment in terms of time and money. I’m using a combination of the EuroTalk app for quick vocab acquisition and listening to ideal pronunciation, Busuu if I have a bit more time to invest and Dulingo for on-the-go grammar. If you’d like to add your own review of any of these or another option, leave me a comment!