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Learning a Foreign Language: Finding a Method that Works for You

Social networks and hundreds of smartphone applications have created more options than ever before for the aspiring language learner. But the sheer size of the market also means that it’s more difficult to find the best product for your learning method.

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Americans might be notoriously monolingual when we’re compared with the rest of the world, but we don’t want to stay that way.

The market for language-learning products and services in the United States was estimated to be $4 billion in 2010, according to Nielsen. That includes a 24 percent decline in sales since 2007, but a 28 percent increase in the number of users, which reflects the fact that in the past 4 years, consumers have migrated to smartphone applications and the Internet to learn languages in more-convenient and less expensive ways.

Now, you can become a member of a social network and find a free peer or a paid tutor to teach you via webcam in almost any language. You also now can download hundreds of smartphone applications that provide flashcards and interactive games for practicing vocabulary and memorizing useful phrases. That’s in addition to the many software packages and online programs that still exist for sharpening language-learning skills.

But because so many options now are available, it’s particularly challenging for a consumer to figure out what works best for him/her, according to Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium, which studies technology that’s used for learning languages.

“It’s almost impossible to sort through what’s out there,” agrees consumer Elizabeth Colarik, who is working toward fluency in Spanish through a daily 5-hour program. Colarik, who works for U.S. Agency for International Development, sought to supplement the daily program. “After a while, I just gave up and used the materials my program recommended.”

Among smartphone apps, some are free, but the most expensive ones cost $100. Social-network sites also range from free to $150 per year for access to study materials and an additional $10–$55 more per hour for a private tutor, depending on the language and the course level. The most expensive classes are in languages that are considered more challenging, such as Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin.

But the price of language-learning products and services has little correlation with their quality, according to the language experts and consumers with whom we spoke. Many products, regardless of their price, are ineffective at best and downright inaccurate at worst, according to Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which is a research laboratory that focuses on learning through digital technologies. And the market has no consumer-protection standards to ensure that companies aren’t claiming educational benefits falsely.

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“So many people buy materials to learn languages and get screwed,” says Andrew D. Cohen, who is a professor of applied linguistics at University of Minnesota. Cohen is fluent in 12 languages and has researched and written extensively about how language skills are acquired. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s just repackaged out-of-date materials,” he says. “And many of these services don’t provide any research or set guarantees to back up their claims.”

Unfortunately, it’s a buyer-beware marketplace where no single product works for every type of learner.

SITE SURVEY. Social-network language-learning sites began to appear in 2008. They’ve gained millions of users in the past 3 years because of the increased availability of faster Internet connections and cheaper access to VoIP services that let you chat face to face. These sites connect students and teachers from different countries and provide interactive lessons and forums.

All of these sites give you a choice between working with paid tutors and learning from other users. If you want to learn French, for instance, a site could connect you with a 30-year-old resident of Paris who wants to improve his/her English, and you could help tutor each other by trading lessons as compensation. All sites encourage users to grade each other’s assignments by rewarding them with points, which are redeemable toward the site’s pay-only services. You get more points if the users rate your tutoring as helpful, so you have extra motivation to be as helpful as possible.

(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.

“Generally speaking, educational providers are getting their toes into the water [but] haven’t thought through what developing an app means,” Sweeney says. “They get an F at the moment.”

That’s a big failing when you consider that prices vary wildly. You can find simple, 20-item flashcard apps for $2 or even free, but you have to pay more for extra content. Apps that have more-complex games and puzzles can cost $5–$50.

“There are all sorts of developers in the marketplace for the wrong reasons at the moment,” Sweeney says. “That’s got to settle down, and, presumably, the quality will float to the surface in the next year or two.”

Until then, don’t trust the reviews in the overcrowded app markets. They’re often written by the app developers themselves, Moore and Sweeney say. The search functions in all of the markets also are skewed toward the apps that entered the market the earliest.

“I’m interested to see what Apple [and the other app markets] do to categorize their markets better and make it easier to find what you’re looking for,” says Ben Buckwold, who is the founder of the online publishing company Red River Press. “It’s only going to become more and more flooded as people try to get on board and create their own apps.”

We believe that the best that you can do is to ask a language teacher to suggest a few apps. (For a look at the few language-learning apps that our experts recommend, see “Four New Apps to Boost Your Language Skills.”)

TREAD CAREFULLY. As you might suspect, most language-learning companies claim that their products are the best and easiest approach to language learning. A lot of the promises that these companies make in their marketing is phrased in a way that’s misleading and overly optimistic, according to all of the experts with whom we spoke. The companies never define what it means to become “fluent” or “conversational,” and only a few provide any estimate of how many hours that you should devote to study to reach certain levels.

“You can’t learn [fully fluent] Spanish in 3 months,” Sweeney says. “But [companies] can’t say, ‘Learn Spanish in 4 years,’ because nobody is going to buy that product.”

In reality, the number of hours that are required to gain functional fluency depend on the language and a student’s ability, according to David Woods, who is a retired professor of linguistics at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Most experts agree that it typically takes 200 hours of study to reach basic fluency in English, French or Spanish. Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin typically require at least 500 hours to reach basic fluency, according to Foreign Service Institute, which is the federal government’s organization for training diplomats and other employees to work abroad.

Moore guesses that the language-learning industry is a bit like the weight-loss industry or the beauty industry, she says. “There are lots of exaggerations and claims that [companies] try to get away with.”

Consumers have to remember the toughest advice to follow: Be patient and practice consistently. The explosion in social networks and language-learning apps might have given consumers more options, as well as the idea that it’s easy to become fluent, but none of these approaches can substitute for the many hours that it takes to learn a language.

Elizabeth F. Farrell is an educational consultant. Her writing has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, NASDAQ Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

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