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Best Language Learning Methods: A Comparison

Updated on December 4, 2016

Sometimes, Google translate just doesn't cut it.

A sign on a drinks machine on the grounds of a castle in Japan.
A sign on a drinks machine on the grounds of a castle in Japan. | Source

Language Learning Methods

What’s the best way to learn a new language? Is the super expensive Rosetta Stone really better than the free Duolingo? Or is the classroom really the best way to go? I have personally tried just about every language learning method known, from Rosetta Stone to Duolingo to the classroom to living in the country. So what’s the best? That depends.

Below is a chart comparing different learning methods. Below that is a quiz that might help you choose. If you don't trust quizzes (and you probably shouldn't), below that is each learning method explained in full with the pros and cons. I've also given an account of my personal experience with each method. Do note that my experience is often with an older version than is currently available; some of the issues I had may have been since resolved. Or they may have been made worse. I can only go with my own experiences and hope they help.

Compare Language Learning Methods

 
Rosetta Stone
Mango
Duolingo
Livemocha
Pimsleur Method
Classroom
Cost
100-500 dollars
Free through library
Free
Free with paying options
50-1000 dollars
Free-thousands of dollars
Levels offered
beginner-advanced
beginner-intermediate.
beginner-advanced
beginner-intermediate.
beginner-advanced
beginner-fluency.
# of language options
30
64
9 and growing (more for non-English speakers)
35
50
All
Ease of use
Intuitive. Occasionally easy, occasionally annoying.
Easy.
Easy.
Mostly easy, relies on peer grading.
Easy if you follow the directions.
Depends on class.
Short term results
Not great.
Good.
Good.
Okay.
Fantastic.
Depends on class.
Long term results
Fluency
basics
advanced. Possibly fluency.
Depends on language, Basics-intermediate.
advanced.
Basics-fluency; depends on class.
Fun
Occasionally fun, occasionally tedious
Neither exciting nor boring.
Generally fun to use.
Not particularly fun.
Results you can see, that bit's fun.
Depends on class.
Does it work?
Yes, if you put the hours in.
Yes
Yes
Somewhat
Yes
Depends on class.
Voice Recognition
Yes.
Sort of. Records your voice and lets you compare yourself.
Yes
Dependent on peer review.
No
Best possible if your teacher has a good ear.
Reading and Writing
Lessons for both.
Reading
Covers both.
Covers both.
Optional.
Covers both.
Listening and Speaking
Lessons for both.
Listening. Self-led for speaking.
Covers both.
Covers both. Sort of.
Both
Probably both if your teacher is good.
Grammar
Intuitive.
Explained as it comes up.
Intuitive. Occasionally offers explanations in notes.
Explained in lesson.
Explained as it comes up.
Probably covered extensively.
Vocabulary
Intuitive.
Taught with real world applications.
Taught (with minor issues)
Taught
Taught with real world applications.
Depends on teacher, but taught in one form or another.
Personal Assessment
Useful but not worth the cost.
Fantastic method but lacking in advanced lessons.
Fantastic, great cost, minor flaws
Good for socializing. Not great for learning.
Fantastic for fast results.
Depends on teacher; could be best way to learn or worst.

What Language Learning Method Works for You?


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Rosetta Stone

Method: Rosetta Stone is a computer program that uses total immersion and intuitive test taking to teach a foreign language the 'natural' way. The idea is that you don't read about grammar or learn to translate the new language into your native language; you learn as a toddler learns. This is done using pictures, recordings, voice recognition, and writing in the target language. The program has lessons for teaching listening, speaking, reading, writing, vocabulary and grammar.

Pros:

  • It does work, if you put the effort in.
  • It covers listening, reading, writing, speaking, grammar and vocabulary.
  • Its intuitive.
  • There are many different language options to choose from.
  • Advanced lessons.
  • Multiple platforms to choose from.

Cons:

  • High cost. Even when on sale.
  • Repeating a lesson is tedious but necessary.
  • No explanations whatsoever. Completely intuitive.
  • No gradual transition from easy to difficult.

Personal Experience: I used Rosetta Stone to learn Korean. I was teaching English in South Korea for a year, and learning the language seemed like a good idea. I got Rosetta Stone for Korean, levels I-III for Christmas that year.

I quite enjoyed aspects of the program. I liked the game-like method that made it more fun. I liked the 'puzzle' of trying to figure out what it was actually teaching. At least it was fun when I did suddenly figure it out. Like when I finally realized, after taking the lesson a couple of times, that the reason it was saying what I recognized as 'the policeman and the policeman, horse' was actually teaching possessive (the policeman and the policeman's horse). It was a bit annoying before that epiphany. There were aspects I found tedious, particularly in how they handled teaching reading and the fact that I had to take the same lessons several times to learn them properly. And there were a few aspects I found flawed.

By the end of my year in Korea, I barely knew any Korean. There are many reasons for this. In the first place, Korean is extremely different from English, and it's always harder to learn a language that's fundamentally completely different from your own. Second, I had sporadic studying methods. I'd study at great length for short periods of time, then lose interest for a bit, then come back. Rosetta Stone in no way discouraged this. There wasn't an obvious 'daily lesson' for me to aim for. Finally, and the real flaw for me personally when it came to using Rosetta Stone: my brain is lazy.

My brain will learn exactly as much as it needs to. It didn’t memorize the vocabulary, it learned how to recognize the vocabulary in the context of the different pictures. The intuitive method of teaching is great, but not if you never have a gradual transition away from the training wheels. I could, I discovered, get 100 percent correct on every single lesson, and then spectacularly fail the final quiz, when the program throws you into a 'real world' situation and takes away all those intuitive pictures and hints that the rest of the lessons provide.

In fact, there seemed to be no consistent increase in difficulty as you progressed. It was always 'simple', 'simple', 'ridiculously hard'. It would teach several simple one syllable words, then suddenly throw a long complex sentence at you and want you to repeat it. The way it taught writing was even worse. It went from boringly easy to throwing long sentences at me and wanting me to write them in Korean with perfect spelling.

So ultimately I'd say it's a sound idea, and if you don't mind taking the same lessons over and over again, and study every day, this method will probably work. I did learn some Korean. It just didn't stick.

Mango

Method: A series of flashcard quizzes. The entire lesson is pre-recorded and doesn't vary. Each lesson unit starts with a short conversation or, in the case of dead languages, a literary passage. A voice reads it out loud to you, then informs you that you will soon understand everything you just heard. The following lessons cover the conversation or passage line by line, going over individual vocabulary words, grammar, and the sentences as a whole. It first introduces and then quizzes you over all aspects, reviewing old vocabulary at intervals. At the end of it you hear the conversation or passage again, and should now be able to understand it perfectly.

Pros:

  • Price
  • It works and gives fast and obvious results.
  • Many languages to choose from.
  • Real world application to lessons
  • Grammar included in lesson

Cons:

  • You must be connected through a library
  • Most languages don't offer lessons beyond the basics
  • You must be self motivated and self disciplined

Personal Experience: I've used mango to study various languages, including Chinese, Latin, Ancient Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Pirate. My worst complaint about mango is the lack of advanced lessons. This is particularly vexing because I've found that its method of teaching is actually quite good.

It does require some self discipline. First, it's method of testing requires you to be honest. It asks for a word or sentence, gives you a time limit, and then asks if you got it right. It has no way of knowing either way and relies on you to tell it if you got it wrong. It also doesn't tell you if your accent is good. It will record your voice and let you compare your voice to the native speaker's. If you have a good ear, this might help. If you don't, this might be no help at all. Mango also doesn't offer any incentive for daily practice. You need to be self motivated to use it.

I had to re-take lessons for the harder languages, like Mandarin, but in general if I took a lesson a day it reviewed well enough that I didn't need to go over old ground. It's method for teaching languages either uses conversational sentences or, in the case of dead languages like Latin, it takes passages of literature. It then teaches the grammar of the sentence, the individual vocabulary words, and the sentence as a whole. I found the method to be extremely successful. But the lessons mostly only cover the basics, possibly leading into intermediate with the more popular languages. Still, it's a good foundation for further learning. I'd recommend it.

Duolingo: learn languages for free!

Duolingo

Method: It teaches various language skills in a sort of quiz game, including listening, reading, writing, and listening. It also tests grammar and vocabulary. It has tier based lessons and doesn't allow you to continue down the tier until you've mastered the tier above, though there is a way to 'test out of' an entire section. Duolingo also offers translating opportunities so you can practice your reading and translation skills on real world documents. It keeps track of how often you need to refresh different skills.

Pros:

  • Cost: free!
  • Motivation
  • Covers all skill sets
  • Includes advanced lessons

Cons:

  • Occasional mistakes
  • Hap-hazard review; over-review on some words, no review on others
  • Tier-based; you can't choose when you learn a subject

Personal Experience: I am currently using duolingo to study French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Danish and Irish. Yes, that is a bit much to study at a time. Yes my progress is slow and I don't really recommend it. It's also fascinating to be able to compare the differences.

I like duolingo for numerous reasons, starting with the fact that it's free, going on to the way it rewards daily practice, and ending with the fact that it allows me to argue with it. Unfortunately, it let's me argue with it because there are mistakes. Because of the way its set up, it is not perfect and doesn't claim to be. The lessons are created by volunteers and computer software. Sometimes the sentences it comes out with for you to translate are hilarious, sometimes spooky, and sometimes awkward. I've been told to translate sentences like 'I am a turtle', 'The bear eats the children', 'Do you have my skirt?' and 'the fly loves the spider'. In general, I've found duolingo to be a useful method for language learning, but wish it reviewed vocabulary more uniformly and extensively. I've discovered if I rush through the tiers too quickly, I've ultimately learned nothing and get discouraged.

Livemocha

Method: Very community driven. It has lessons that are similar in nature to Mango, followed by simple tests. For instance, it might ask you to write a letter or a short essay on clothes. These tests are assessed by your peers (if you're lucky). The site encourages peer interaction.

Pros:

  • (mostly) free
  • community
  • Covers basics

Cons:

  • Peer interaction is down to luck
  • You must offer work to be able learn (for instance, grading an English learner's essay)
  • Advanced learning is unlikely

Personal Experience: Personally, I don't actually like interacting with strangers on the internet. I know that most people learn a language to be able to communicate, but I like languages for themselves. This is a bit of a problem when using a website that encourages and thrives off of community interaction. So while I think this method could be great for some people, it wasn't particularly great for me. And having graded people's essays and tests, it seems the lessons don't work for everyone. They do, however, seem to work for some people. If you love community, livemocha does provide that.

Pimsleur Method

Method: At the time I used it, the Pimsleur Method consisted of a series of CDs or MP3s. Each lesson was half an hour long, and you were meant to do one lesson a day. You repeated sentences out loud as they were taught, and then were quizzed over and over in various ways. It was not rote learning and grammar was explained as needed. There was also an optional lesson for learning reading. Having recently visited the website, they've grown to include computer software that looks similar to Rosetta Stone. I have no experience with this program. The CDs and MP3s still exist.

Pros:

  • It works
  • Fast results
  • Convenient for on the go

Cons:

  • Cost
  • Self-motivation

Personal Experience: I liked this learning method. It's easy, the vocabulary actually sticks in my head afterwards, and there's an obvious daily dose to obtain. You feel like you've actually learned something after the first lesson. There's a reason the first lessons are so much cheaper than the latter lessons; they want you to give it a chance before they demand the big bucks. Of course, the further into the language you go, the less obvious your progress becomes. It's very obvious when you go from 0-10 vocabulary words, not so obvious when you go from 200-210. I'm not entirely convinced the 'advanced' lessons aren't really teaching more 'intermediate', but you do make continual progress. It's a slow process, but you do feel like you've properly learned what you've learned in the end.

Source

Classroom

Method: Varied. Usually, a single teacher will lead a classroom full of students using a lesson book and various classroom materials. It can also involve one on one tutoring or online lessons. The method used depends on the teacher, the class, and the materials available.

Pros:

  • Individual attention from a teacher
  • Opportunity to ask questions
  • Community
  • Access to learning materials
  • Motivation

Cons:

  • Possibly extremely costly
  • inconsistent results, some classes are better than others.
  • Possible difficulty in finding a class for your language
  • Possibly high cost for failure

Personal Experience: My best and favorite language teachers did not leave me with great fluency. This was not always their fault. My Latin teacher taught us all how to find the information we needed, whether we'd memorized the vocabulary and grammar or not. She was a great teacher and it was not her fault that at some point early on, I started memorizing the vocabulary for the tests. By the time I realized my mistake, it was far too late to fix it. My Chinese teacher only had a month to give us as much information on Chinese as she could. My memory of that class is filled with painting bamboo, tai chi, and making dumplings. I don't much remember the actual Chinese. Considering there was no way we'd actually learn Chinese in a month, I applaud her alternative methods.

A classroom's success depends upon the teacher, the materials, and the student. If you can go to France to learn French from a native teacher, surrounded by French speakers, then I'd say that would probably be preferable to any computer method available. If you can only study a language once a week from a tired out teacher who teaches by rote, then you're probably better off with self study. The best thing a classroom offers face to face interaction, peers, and an expectation by someone other than yourself for you to study and show up.

Conclusion

Still don't know what program you want to use? Don't choose! Several of the options are free, and those that aren't often have a free first lesson. Try them all for yourself. There's nothing wrong with studying a language from several different angles. In fact, it's recommended. If you're serious about learning, then come at the language from every direction you can imagine. Look up YouTube videos, find newspaper articles, read wiki pages in your target language, listen to the radio (radio broadcasts can be found from all over the world; unlike television and movies there aren't the same copyright laws to keep them away from you if you live in the wrong country. Unless you're really unlucky where you live.). Learn in as many ways as you can. Ultimately, the program that works is the one you can stick with to the end.

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    • Walid Dino profile image

      kaddour bencherif mohamed el amine 2 years ago from Mostaganem, Algeria

      yeah that's right...great articles here.hehe