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Learning a Foreign Language: Finding a Method that Works for You (cont.)

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(Livemocha is the largest such social-network site, with 10 million users who are registered worldwide and 1.5 million users in the United States. The site includes access to 38 languages and has comprehensive programs that are available in the four highest demand languages—English, French, Mandarin and Spanish.)

Of course, social-network sites work only if your computer is compatible with the technologies that the sites require. If you have trouble accessing VoIP because of a slow connection, a faulty webcam or a poor video card, these limitations will make it difficult for you to use online offerings.

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Experts and consumers tell us that the quality of the teaching that’s on these social-networking sites is mixed. It’s good that these social networks can connect you, no matter where you are, with speakers of almost any language. And Babbel, Busuu and Livemocha—the three largest sites in the United States—all require their paid tutors to provide proof of their credentials, which then are listed online, so consumers can see a tutor’s background. But all of the language experts and teachers with whom we spoke question whether studying one-on-one with a tutor is as effective as interacting with a group of students and teachers in a traditional class.

“When you’re learning a language, it’s quite nice to have a group,” says Caroline Moore, who is a digital language-learning consultant and former teacher in England. “You learn from your interactions with other students as well as the teacher. Virtually, you need to create that sort of dynamic.”

Furthermore, these sites don’t screen users to assess their skill at helping peers to learn a language on the free part of the site. So there’s no guarantee that a user will teach you correctly. And, judging by what we read in the online forums for Babbel, Busuu and Livemocha, it’s common to get stuck with an inexperienced free tutor who might give you incorrect grammar, spelling and translations.

Michael Schutzler, who is the founder and CEO of Livemocha, admits that finding a good free tutor on the site can be a tricky proposition.

“If you want expert feedback, you have to pay for that,” Schutzler says. “Working with [free] partners is kind of like going to a bar and finding a native speaker of Japanese to practice with—sometimes [his/her] input will be great, other times it won’t.”

However, Schutzler believes that the free component of social networks is invaluable, because it gives users a way to meet people with whom they can practice their conversational skills. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to walk away feeling fluent, but these social networks believe that if the free practice piques your interest in learning a language, then you’re more likely to pay for private instruction. That being said, when you look for a free partner, pay attention to the user’s description of himself/herself and the user’s approval ratings to find someone who seems to have an engaging personality and some success in teaching others.

AN APP A DAY. Although language-learning social networks connect you with tutors for one-on-one lessons, language-learning smartphone apps are designed for self-study. But we found that it’s extremely difficult to navigate any of the overcrowded app markets and figure out what really works among the hundreds of choices for smartphones. Like the app marketplace as a whole, language-learning app development is plagued by a gold-rush mentality, says Paul Sweeney, who is a language consultant for digital learning programs and has taught languages for 25 years and studied language technologies for the past 15 years.

“Everyone is rushing to get something in the marketplace,” Sweeney says. “There aren’t a lot of reliable indicators for what’s good.”

In fact, there aren’t many apps that are “good,” according to Moore and Sweeney, who studied the market last year. Most apps are simple translation flashcards or basic multiple-choice tests that rely solely on memorization, which all of the teachers with whom we spoke agree is an inefficient way to teach a language. Moore and Sweeney also found that many apps were riddled with clunky navigation and poor design or simply were scanned versions of previously published material.

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