Can you learn a foreign language online?
Apps and web tutors claim to offer a cheap way to gain fluency - but are they effective?
People are flocking to online language courses that offer cheap and inventive ways to learn. Photograph: iStock
There was a time when having a smidgeon of French and self-consciously ordering a verre de vin could elevate someone to a status of fluency within minutes of a holiday abroad.
But times have changed – and being able to communicate well in a foreign language is becoming more and more important for both career prospects and self-development.
While being proficient in two or more languages has become de rigueur, finding the time to attend classes is another story.
It’s one reason why more and more would-be linguists are flocking to online language courses.
Duolingo, a free service, has gained more than 170 million users in the past five years or so. Irish, incidentally, features in its top-10 of most popular languages.
Designed to feel like a game, it is the most downloaded education app in the world. Its runaway success, it seems, is down to its simplicity and ease of use.
“Online tools like Duolingo make it both easy and fun to learn new languages,” says Duolingo’s Michaela Kron.
“It’s free to learn and because lessons can usually be completed in 10-15 minutes, makes it easy for people to fit in a lesson or two during the day.”
There is a perception that learning a new language is complex and time-consuming
Users can also compete with friends, get points, have streaks and earn virtual currency to spend on bonus items. It is, she says, one of the biggest motivators in maintaining learners’ interest.
“If a user meets their daily goal, five days in a row, they have a five-day streak. And if they miss a day, their streak goes down to zero. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s very meaningful for many,” says Kron.
While hugely popular, Duolingo doesn’t involve the kind of interaction or immersion that can be crucial to attaining language skills.
There are a variety of popular paid language-learning tools (see panel) such as Rosetta Stone and Babbel which offer similar games-style approaches to learning and access to individual tutors. They come at a cost, however. Rosetta, for example, cost €159 for a 12-month subscription.
Starting at €16 a week, the course includes weekly video calls, vlogs, exercises and apps in various languages.
Founder Tadhg Giles says being able to study a language online makes it more accessible and easier to learn.
“Asking someone if they would like to be fluent in another language is the same as asking if they would like to be fit and healthy. The answer is always yes,” he says.
“But fixed class times can be a big barrier as most people’s schedules change on a day-to-day basis. So the first benefit about learning online is that it can happen any time, any place, as long as you have a smartphone or device.
“You can call the shots on when you want to learn so there is no missing out on pre-paid classes because you have something to do or simply aren’t in the mood.”
Langroo is currently targeted towards expats, young professionals and ambitious students, many of whom, Giles says, missed out on getting a good introduction to languages during their school years.
“The general lack of language skills in Ireland is a symptom of an education system and society which hasn’t truly bought into the benefits,” he says.
“Consequently, poor teachers, continued focus on textbooks and rote memorising is scaring people away, often forever.”
Incentive to learn
The fact that we are less exposed to foreign languages and can typically get by in many countries with English minimises the incentive to learn.
On top of that, there is the perception that learning a new language is complex and time-consuming.
“Because students tend to think it’s more difficult to do well in foreign languages than other subjects, many of them give up languages completely at age 14,” Michaela Kron of Duolingo.
“But there have been initiatives to improve this, namely the idea of introducing languages to children at earlier ages so that it’s easier to absorb and continue on with.”
While online learning is growing, there are different views on how effective it has as a medium. Could they really be a credible replacement for classroom learning?
While some academics can be sniffy about the potential of web-based tools for learning, Prof Mary Gallagher of UCD says they can play a crucial role in helping to kick-start learning.
“I don’t think it’s an either-or question as to whether it is better to learn online or in a classroom,” she says. “Of course, immersion in real-life situations with native speakers is the best way of learning any language but, if that’s not possible, all imaginable substitutes should be mobilised: listening to the radio, Skype conversation exchanges or even singing along to songs.
She says no one should be daunted by the goal of picking up a new language and insists it is never too late.
“It’s all a matter of motivation and not being too much of a perfectionist,” she says.
“My best tip, apart from all possible kinds of immersion, would be to learn to sing songs in the other language. It all gets a bit more complicated if we want to be able to read the language as well, but the main thing is to master the sound system.”
Secrets of success: the habits of good online language learners
1. Study daily: especially at bedtime for 15 minutes
2. Avoid binge studying: this has been shown to decrease learning and retention
3. Distributed practice: focus on short study sessions over a longer period of time
4. Review: regularly go back over material as you will forget what you learned unless you spend time reviewing it
5. Sell yourself the dream: buy into what a second language means to you, what experiences it will bring and the satisfaction it will bring
– Tips from Michaela Kron of Duolingo and Tadhg Giles of Langroo
The web way to learn a language : five of the best online tools
The free app and website is among the most effective language-learning method. It feels like a computer game with lessons that come in the form of brief challenges – speaking, translating, answering multiple-choice questions – and rewards for good performance. The more lessons you complete, the further you level up. The app is particular helpful if you’re on the move.
One of the best-known paid language-learning programmes online, it offers dozens of languages and has optional e-tutoring sessions with real instructors. It keeps track of your progress and repeats important ideas at key intervals so they stay fresh in your mind. It’s not cheap, though. It costs €159 for a 12-month subscription, or €106 for six months.
One of the lesser-known online options, it packages lessons into 15-minute chunks that can fit into a busy day. You can also learn vocabulary that’s relevant to you, with courses ranging from business to travel. It’s relatively inexpensive, with costs ranging from between €4.50 a month to €9, depending on the subscription package.
This is an audio-based learning tool you can download. It focuses on speaking and sound exercises and harks back to the old tape and books that were popular in the 1980s. It is based on the principles of Paul Pimsleur, a scholar in the field of applied linguistics. It is also a little pricey, with a course of 30 lessons costing about $133.
Language-learning for the Facebook generation. It connects students with a native tutor across the social network. After an initial consultation, it promises tailor-made programmes. Costs start at €16 per week.