My Experience Learning Foreign Languages Online
Up until only a few years ago, I learned languages either in a classroom setting or by living with native speakers. I learned Chinese Mandarin in small classes during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and then studied Thai with an individual tutor in the early 2000s. After I got married in Taiwan in the 1970s, I acquired Taiwanese from my native speaking wife.
Most recently, however, I have discovered the joy and convenience of learning languages online. Within the past five years, I have learned a little French, Arabic, Japanese, and Cantonese as well as reviewed Thai, Chinese, and German which I had learned in the past.
I have done this learning by using different popular online language learning sites which I note in this article. Hopefully, my experiences will give you a flavor of the advantages and disadvantages of various websites.
The Purpose of Language Learning Sites
Although all language learning sites are run to make money, I would classify most of them as being set up for the following purposes:
- To give structured classroom-type instruction.
- To provide self-paced structured learning modules with student incentives.
- To be fun with a game-like atmosphere for learning.
- To hook paying learners with a few free lessons.
- To be a forum for language exchanges.
Throughout the remainder of this article, I present my experiences of using different online sites that illustrate the above five purposes.
Alison is representative of the online sites which give structured classroom-type instruction. It offers courses in business, information technology, the sciences, languages, and many other fields. All of the courses are standards-based and certified. Language courses include English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese.
In 2013, I took a 10-15 hour self-paced course in the basics of written and spoken Chinese Mandarin. The course was prepared by Cambridge University, and it was a good introductory and intermediate course emphasizing communication in social settings. This course was introduced through video and audio clips. Although this class was a review for me, I had to take notes because there weren't enough review exercises. I also had to study for the course because assessments are given after every module. If a student doesn't score 80 percent, he must repeat a test and pass it before going on to the next module. I found this course very intensive. Alison will earn money for this course when and if I decide to purchase a certificate of completion.
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Duolingo is an example of a language learning website that provides self-paced structured modules with student incentives. The presence of incentives makes it different from Alison. These incentives are in the form of giving credits for learning on the website every day and also for completing certain language tasks. These credits can then be exchanged for interesting supplementary lessons. Another incentive is posting your proficiency in the language being studied. This proficiency can be posted on either LinkedIn or Facebook.
Another difference is that Duolingo's structured modules for primarily European languages are designed by volunteering bilingual speakers. The modules are short, introducing no more than six vocabulary items and one item of grammar. There are ample exercises for practice if a student is having difficulty grasping the language. For the past few months, I have been studying German on Duolingo. Since November 2018, I have been reviewing my Chinese.
The philosophy behind Duolingo is to translate articles from around the world into all of the major languages of the world. Duolingo allows you to learn languages for free while giving you the chance to use your new-found knowledge to help achieve this translation task. In other words, Duolingo makes money by having its language learners translate real-world texts submitted by clients as homework. Duolingo then analyzes all of the translations of articles to obtain the most optimal translation.
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I have found Memrise to be one of the fun sites with a game-like atmosphere for learning. It offers more languages such as Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Thai than either Duolingo or Alison. In a German class on Memrise, I learn about five vocabulary items in every module. In a Thai refresher which I just started, I am going over commonly used words which I am expected to write as well as read. These words are presented through memes of native speakers using the vocabulary and accompanying sentences in social settings. There are approximately 30 questions per language session that you answer by translation, dictation taking, and giving correct responses to multiple-choice questions. You receive points for each session for correctly answered questions, speed, and accuracy. Your running point total can then be compared to other Memrise learners. I have found this site to be especially good for aural comprehension training. Memrise makes money by offering a Premium product which gives full learning access to structural grammar and all vocabulary.
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Mondly or Mondly Languages is one of the many sites which tries to hook paid learners with initial free lessons. In February of 2017, I decided to try free lessons in Thai on Mondly. This consisted of eight free lessons emphasizing nothing more than greetings. After I finished the eighth lesson, I made use of the free offered daily lessons. If you complete all weekly daily lessons, you are eligible to take a free quiz. Learners are awarded points for correct answers in lessons and on quizzes. Your total points are then compared to fellow learners and you can view them on Mondly's leaderboard.
From the time I finished the eighth free lesson of Thai, I was constantly reminded to unlock the premium content of the course by paying about $75. Other sites like Busuu and one free Cantonese course I signed up for in 2014 operate in a similar way to Mondly. They attempt to hook you into being a paid subscriber with initial free lessons. Mondly offers many languages, but you will have to pay for any detailed meaningful learning. My experience using Mondly every day, however, has helped me maintain my Thai language proficiency.
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Live Mocha was an example of a learning website that offered language exchanges. When I was on Live Mocha for about five weeks in 2016, I was able to learn languages such as Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, German, and Spanish by agreeing to check the English learning exercises of learners from various countries like China, Brazil, and Ukraine. Native speakers from China, Germany, Japan, and Mexico would then check my language exercises. This was done by accumulating points for checking English exercises and using them to study other languages.
Live Mocha shut down in April or May of 2016. There are language exchange sites such as the ones operated by Busuu which are active today. These sites don't offer any languages online for learning as Live Mocha did. They are merely forums for arranging meetings between learners of languages who want to exchange language acquisition over Skype or similar media.
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I would have loved to have had all of these online language learning sites when I was acquiring Chinese Mandarin in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Learning languages today is much easier, and, I think, more enjoyable than it was back then. Please sample the sites which I have mentioned in this article.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Paul Richard Kuehn