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Let’s face it. Most people spend a lot of money on foreign languages either directly or through their public schools and the results aren’t usually that great. [1]

What are the problems? Well the biggest one is probably that most people studying foreign languages don’t want to be studying them! Some of my old students in Taiwan showed up hating everything about English! It took countless months of benevolent brain washing and fun materials to get even half of them genuinely interested in a language they only needed at school. But I’m basically going to set that problem aside and talk about the difficulties for people who really do want to learn. Let’s look at the main options and then the problems (and strengths) of each.

The main options

  • Classes
  • Self study courses
  • Online tutoring
  • Offline tutoring
  • Conversation exchange
  • Immersion
  • Other online tools
  • Self-designed study methods

Classes

  • Classes with professional teachers are expensive.
  • It’s cheaper to be part of a large class, but most students want talking time.
  • It’s very difficult to handle students with very different levels of proficiency.
  • Most classes focus too much on grammar.
  • Most classes focus too much on intensive activities instead of extensive reading.
  • Classes tend to be very rigid in terms of when students can start or stop studying.
  • There are limited times when students can join or leave.
  • Group classes motivate people to study regularly.
  • Native speaking teachers can correct students.

Self-study courses (books + CDs/MP3s)

  • Most are of poor quality (this can be mitigated by looking at online reviews).
  • There’s no correction. This is a huge problem for pronunciation.
  • Don’t generally get students to the level where they can use native materials.
  • Good for learning vocabulary and basic grammar.
  • Usually a reasonable value for the price.

Online tutoring

  • Online tutoring extremely expensive due to its one on one nature.
  • Teachers don’t generally have the same incentives to make study plans as those making courses for schools.
  • It’s difficult to become friends with an online tutor and some platforms forbid it.
  • Due to the individualized attention, tutoring is very time efficient.
  • Students able to continue spending $5 to $30 per hour can learn to a very high level. 
  • Students anywhere can learn from teachers anywhere.
  • It’s easy to switch teachers.

Offline tutoring

  • It’s more difficult to find offline tutors if you aren’t at a university or hostel.
  • There may not be a tutor for the language you want to learn where you live.
  • Offline tutors sometimes become genuine friends or introduce students to other native speakers who become friends.
  • There are no middleman costs from a platform or payment processors.

Conversation exchange

  • It takes some effort to find a good match (online or off)
  • Many conversation exchanges devolve into a struggle over which language to use.
  • There’s a MASSIVE imbalance between who wants to learn what languages. For every English speaker who wants to learn Arabic, there are probably 100 Arabic speakers who want to learn English.
  • People doing conversation exchange have to or at least should spend 1/2 of it helping the other person.
  • Conversation partners often end up becoming friends.
  • Conversation partners understand each other’s struggles.
  • Conversation exchange leads to more cultural understanding.
  • Conversation exchange is free.

Immersion

  • People are remarkably capable of creating their own language bubbles and resisting immersion. Just living in a country is no guarantee you’ll learn much.
  • Moving to another place is a huge life decision affecting work and relationships.
  • It’s costly to move and figure out how everything works in a new place (either in time or money or both).
  • The ability to take advantage of immersion to learn a language really depends on social skills, and sadly physical beauty. Not everyone can recruit the locals to help them learn.
  • Combined with study, immersion is one of the surest ways to learn a language.
  • It’s exciting.
  • It generally forces people to grow.

Other online tools

There is an ever-growing wealth of online tools available for learners. I’ve often thought my Chinese would have improved nearly twice as fast if I’d been born 10 years later and had access to those tools while I was learning.

A lot of great tools have a narrow focus and will help you with one specific aspect of learning a language. Obviously these can’t be relied upon exclusively, but they can definitely be valuable additions to your other activities. Anki, for example, is a long-time favorite of many language learners. Lang-8 is popular for those who like doing and receiving writing corrections. Another interesting option is LingQ. I will definitely write more about them in the future.

I’ve heard great things about some of the language-specific programs, in particular Frantastique for French learners. Due to their very high prices, though, I haven’t tried it out.

Podcasts are definitely worthwhile. The key is to find podcasts that are interesting, are at the right level and don’t waste your time with too much branding or chit chat in English.

The 100% free resources available online don’t tend to be time efficient.

Some of the most popular, like Duolingo are highly gamified, very addictive and not very effective. I’ve known some people who have spent hours a day on Duolingo for an entire year without developing basic speaking or listening abilities. Students with time but no money would be far better advised to take advantage of the free tier on something like LingQ and then start doing conversation exchanges after getting a basic foundation (or even after just getting enough to make it through one conversation on a pre-prepared topic).

Self-designed study methods

  • Only really an option for people who have experience learning languages and know what they’re doing.
  • For veteran language learners, personal approaches developed over multiple languages of experience are often very effective even for languages lacking study materials.

Lowering your learning costs—the bottom line

Here’s the best advice I’ve got based on today’s tools:

1) Get a self-study textbook + CD set. I had a decent experience with Living Language for Spanish. It was like 3 textbooks (of which I did nearly two), plus CDs for only $30 on Amazon. Just work through that.

2) If you’re learning a language that it supports, use the free LingQ to build up some vocabulary through reading and download the audio for each lesson you’ve read. Listen to that when you’re out walking around. If you really like the service, then it’s probably worth the $10 per month.

3a) If your native language is popular enough (e.g. if you’re an English speaker learning French or if you’re a Japanese speaker learning Korean), then get a conversation partner on mylanguageexchange.com or on Italki.

3b) If you’re having a hard time finding a conversation partner because you’re learning English (or maybe Spanish or French), then go to Verbling, sign up and go to the community tab.

4) I’d suggest using tutoring on an as needed basis and make sure you have all the questions you need to ask prepared ahead of time. If you know exactly what you want, most teachers will be very helpful.

And repeat

As you improve, keep listening, keep reading and keep talking with people about whatever topics you can. You don’t need to spend a ton of time, but if you can do 30-90 minutes per day and keep at it, you will get at least basic proficiency and even counting a few intermediate-level books and tutoring sessions the cost will be under $500.


1. One exception would be northern Europeans. They’re outliers though. Their native languages are closely related to English, they’re pretty small in terms of speakers, and they can’t use their native languages abroad. They also from a very young age and get a great tons of input from English-language media that they don’t dub. A speaker of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese or especially English has a very, very different situation.

Learning Chinese is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago for westerners, but the options learners have is pretty staggering compared to what I had to work with. I probably wouldn’t have made all those Chinese learning mistakes that cost me a year of my life if I’d had todays tools.

There is one mistake I’ve seen new companies making again and again, though. It generally ends up resulting in poor support for a large segment of learners, especially advanced students. It also results in dictionaries that confuse words with each other, often merging them into single entries when they shouldn’t. And this problem ends up at the core of the company’s tech and they often just give up, figuring they’ve already invested to much to go back and do things properly.

In many ways the decision that leads to these problems is rational for a young business with limited resources, but it’s also a red flag for learners since it shows the business is more about short-term earnings and less about the love of the Chinese language or the desire to support everyone who wants to study Chinese for work, study, history, Chinese medicine, etc.

Can you guess what the mistake is?

What was a completely understandable choice in 2005 is a lot worse to be making in 2015 now that it’s well understood territory. While it doesn’t “doom” a company, I think it’s a huge red flag. What do you think?

I’ve just finished going through the Michel Thomas Total Spanish audio course. It’s eight CDs in total and it assumes the listener is a complete beginner.

continue reading…

It was a bit easier than with Southern Min, but it really wasn’t that easy for me to find Cantonese learning materials. I found online dictionaries, but none with audio. There are some very basic youtube videos, but only a few. I emailed a few people with blogs that mentioned learning Cantonese, but nobody had any suggestions of use.

My friend David did tell me of one podcast to help people learn Cantonese, but unfortunately I didn’t know about it until I’d already left Hong Kong. Other than that, the only resources I know of are Pimsleur and the FSI course.