Some users say online language learning tools consume a lot of time but in return do not offer the desired outcome when you actually want to speak the language. On the other hand, most of them are free, and they can certainly improve your knowledge. As a current learner of Italian and German, I will give you my personal review of some of the popular online platforms I have been using to upgrade my knowledge.
Before I make any comments about Duolingo, I have to underscore that this online platform is completely free. No fees and no limited free options – with Duolingo, what you see is what you get.
After you choose the language you wish to learn, you have the option of starting right from the beginning (Basics 1), which presumes you have no prior background in the language. You also have the option of “taking a shortcut” and directly jumping to later lessons in the app version, or passing a short “placement test” in the web version, to see what level you might best fit in. The sessions you take are combined with audio-visual exercises that help you to record various words in a simple way and follow your progress by reaching new levels and earning points (lingots) until you are “100% fluent” in the desired language.
But because it’s free, of course, Duolingo has some flaws. It is great at building vocabulary but terrible at explaining the grammar. One of the main problems with Duolingo is that it is very repetitive, and very often not in an efficient way. The site is great for serious beginners or long-term learners, but much less useful for casual learners or tourists.
Different people learn in different ways, and there are those who like visual aids and graphics to hold their interest. Some like the motivation of quizzes, scores, and games so they can track their learning and compete with themselves. Some are drawn to grammar, while others prefer listen-and-repeat exercises.
Babbel, in my opinion, is the best-structured and best-composed (of the various learning methods) of all the online programs I have tried so far. It gives you very clear directions for your learning path. Instead of just throwing exercises at you like Duolingo, Babbel provides in-depth explanations of grammatical concepts. In each session you have a grammar part and a short test – somewhat like traditional school-based teaching. It is a paid service, costing from 10 to 30 Euros per month, depending on how many months you subscribe for.
Memrise uses “mems”, or in other words audio, images, and memory techniques to help you associate words with one another for easier recall, as well as regular tests to ensure that you’re remembering the concepts. Words are put into sentences with similar sounding words from your native language to help build connections for remembering them. Another method Memrise uses is to teach you a new language is by mixing up the translations. This way you learn a few new words at once, and then you keep learning them over and over again in a different order to ensure you know them before moving on to the next round.
With Memrise you are not learning any grammar, which some geeks like me may like. It is thus very limiting as you may have big issues making the leap to building your own sentences in the language you study. However, the site is a great tool for visual learners.
A premium account on Busuu offers a full learning package including flashcards, writing exercises, corrections from native speakers, a travel course, mobile apps with offline mode, quizzes, and official certificates and grammar exercises. Instead, if you don’t want to pay – you can still use it, but the learning content is rather limited.
In my opinion, Busuu’s most attractive feature is conversational practice that involves typing and chatting live with native speakers of your language of choice. Speakers, if patient enough, will correct users’ mistakes while helping to further their writing and speaking abilities. While some are educators, other native speakers are ordinary people, and finding a good match on Busuu could therefore take some time.
All of these widely available online tools are good for some aspects of language learning. If you combine using different ones in order to fill in the others’ gaps, and – of course – motivate yourself not to give up – you are on your path to successfully mastering the language you choose to learn.
So follow the links given above, create your profile, and start the adventure of learning.
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