The Best Language Learning Software?
August 17, 2016
Recently, we talked about whether or not it's really possible to learn a language online (for those who missed it, the short answer is: yes!). There is a catch, though. While it is possible to learn a language online, it's only possible for those who take advantage of their resources, practice as much as possible and use the right language learning software. Let's take a closer look at this software.
As many will tell you, there still isn't a best language learning program out there, but more and more programs are coming close. Instead of focusing on the best language learning software, it's better to take a look at what would make for the ideal language learning software.
By considering everything that is needed to learn a language quickly and effectively, it's possible to develop a list of the characteristics needed for the ideal language learning software program. This list can help to be your "checklist" when it comes to finding the perfect language learning software. Let's take a look at them.
The ideal language learning software should be:
1. StructuredNo great achievement ever happens over night, and learning a language is no different. In order to learn a language fast, you first need to make smart, realistic goals to help yourself organize your time and plan your studies. Your language learning software should help you do this by allowing you to set measureable daily goals and track your progress. It should provide an easy-to-use structure that helps you to achieve SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound) goals.
2. MotivationalThe more motivated you are to learn a language, the easier, more fun and faster it will be to learn that language. Your language learning software should help you to stay motivated. The best language learning software should be interactive, fun, engaging, and maybe even a little competitive to help keep you motivated. Ideally, it should include a way to connect with other learners (like a forum) to share in your language learning adventure. Connecting and communicating with others is a great way to keep us motivated and accountable for our language learning progress. It's also very important that your software tracks your progress so you can see your progress and feel good about yourself, which will help to keep you motivated, dedicated and on the right track.
3. InteractiveIt's nearly impossible to learn about science without entering a lab or learn math without solving any problems, and language learning is no different. In order to successfully learn a language, you have to roll up your sleeves and dig into all of the many aspects of a language, from reading and writing to speaking and listening. The ideal language learning software should help you to do this by providing a variety of interactive, engaging activities.
4. PersonalizedNo two language learners are alike, and the best language learning software recognizes this. Ideally, a language learning program should identify your native language and use this knowledge to help personalize your learning program. A native English speaker learning Spanish doesn't make the same mistakes and need the same lessons as a native Chinese speaker learning Spanish, and the best language learning software would identify this and personalize its approach. It should allow you to create your own personalized flash cards to learn vocabulary and grammar through repetition and ideally would also be able to identify and pinpoint your weak areas and make you repeat them until they are memorized.
5. Well-RoundedThe best language learning software should help you to learn vocabulary, grammar, and culture while listening, speaking, reading and writing. None of these elements should be neglected, and there should be a balanced amount of each in your study program. Ideally, there should be voice recognition technology to help you practice speaking and your program should include interactive listening, reading, and writing lessons. Vocabulary should be presented in context and you should be able to study it with tools that allow for its repetition such as flash cards or your own personalized online notebook.
It's amazing how many language learning programs avoid explaining grammar topics and neglect teaching culture, and I can't emphasize the importance of these two topics enough. The majority of language learners don't just want to memorize words and sentences, but want (and need) to know the grammatical rules to be able to form their own sentences. Similarly, culture and language go hand-in-hand, and understanding the culture of a people can help you to better understand and appreciate their language. Make sure that your language learning software explains grammar and teaches culture.
6. PracticalThe best language learning software should teach the most practical words and structures first. A common problem with many language learning programs is the vocabulary and grammar itself, which is often impractical for beginners. Instead of being presented with the words and structures beginners need to survive, they're often taken through a series of themes and forced to memorize dozen of impractical words and phrases. Many studies have proven that we only need
about 5% of the words present in a language to be able to interact in 95% of all situations, and the ideal language learning software would take advantage of this by helping you to reach fluency the practical way by learning the most practical and frequently used words, phrases and grammar first.
7. Easy to UseIt's tough to find time to study a language, and that's one of the many reasons why more people are increasingly turning to language learning software. It's very important, however, that this software is easy to use so that you don't need to waste much time learning how to take advantage of it. The software should provide you with help and advice, be easy to download, and provide free upgrades whenever the software is improved.
8. All-InclusiveYou won't be a beginner forever, and the ideal language learning software should include all levels according to a measureable scale, from beginner to advanced. It should also keep in mind that we all learn differently, and should cater to as many different learning styles as possible in order to accommodate every learning style. That means that lessons in all topics should include a variety of visual, audio, verbal, logical and even physical activities to help everyone to learn.
9. PortableFinally, if you've decided to ditch the traditional classroom and turn to language learning software, you're going to want something that you can use as much as possible. You should be able to access your program anywhere, not just on a single computer, and your software should be available as both an app and a computer program so it can follow you wherever you go. That way, it won't be difficult to find even just a little bit of time to improve your language skills.
If you're hoping to learn a language online in the fastest, easiest and most enjoyable way, this is your software checklist. While the perfect language learning software may not exist yet, there are one or two programs (like my favorite: Rocket Languages) that come close by offering almost all of the items on this checklist and providing a structured, motivational and engaging way to learn a language online.
Choose your language learning software wisely, and you'll be one the right track to learning a foreign language.
This is a guest post by Andrea Reisenauer!
August 17, 2016
Thanks for this thought provoking and well thought out post Andrea Reisenauer. I agree with all of your points, and might add few more.
10. Be able to adapt to users with many different learning styles. Perhaps we should describe this as having "variety, and flexibility."
One of my favorite things about the Rocket courses I've taken so far is that I can use them them in many different ways to suit my mood, energy level, and goals of the moment. For example, when I'm in a highly structured traditional learning mood, I start at the beginning and rigorously follow the presented order of material using a strict and high bar for the ratings as if I were back in a university.
But, I have a great variety of "learning moods and modes" when I am on my own. Having spent decades at a rigorous university, if necessary I can stay in this first learning mode all day, (like 18 hours plus) but if I am free to chart my own course and nobody is watching, my enthusiasm for this can wane in as little as 10 minutes to an hour.
When this happens in these Rocket Courses, I "shift gears" and "rebel" and might randomly search through the whole course for something that looks interesting, or has a lot of short words and questions and blast through the flashcards as fast as I possibly can. Sometimes not even saying them out loud, just listening to the sound patterns.
Also, i sometimes lower my ranking standards so low it would count as "cheating" by Mode 1 standards but if my goal is to really to recharge my energy to stay engaged in learning the language rather than quitting and watching TV, or doing something, I rationalize to say "so what." I can retake these tests as many times as I want to, and this is all up to me how I want to use, and why.
Having spent so much time in highly competitive academic settings I have a lot of "unresolved issues" around testing, and can get bouts of "test anxiety" even with these tests where I'm self ranking, can retest, and no one knows. So to avoid stress, or any tangent psychological distraction the first time I go into a lesson if the sentences start to get really long, I shift to automatically ranking all the remaining questions as "Hard" so I can get a color dot on the dashboard as having completed a "First Pass" through the material with a finite time. Seeing the color dots fill in on the Dashbaoard is fun for me for some reason. So in a motivational "pickle" I'll pick out some easy sections or even temporarily lower my standards so I can feel a greater level of progress and accomplishment. Later when in a different mood or I've had first pass completions of a whole lesson or module I go back and re-rate all the exercises towards the highest possible standards but the problem areas are fewer and highlighted making the remaining challenge seem smaller and finite.
I find the Dashboard to be a tremendously useful tool in this regard both in terms of psychology and organization.
But, before I leave the "10. Playful Modes" discussion let me offer another example. Particularly with the new Chinese course I'm taking, the word sounds, and tone are so strange to me, in my "traditional learning" mode I would still be in Lesson 1 struggle to get the subtleties right. But, would have become discouraged and dropped out.
So, just to keep things moving, I switched to playful mode and decided to do all the Flashcards in a first pass in speed rounds making the Ranking criteria merely successfully saying the same number of words close enough to Rhythm. I also made my voice super confident like the ancient Chinese Generals in war movies.
I found this to be so funny I started laughing while doing it. So I did all the flashcards of the first seven lessons as fast as I without understanding any of them but with the goals of just being to hear and mimic the sounds and most importantly recognizing and repeating the tones.
Not only do theses kinds of sessions re-energize me by I also realized that for me the most distinctive thing about the forth Chinese tone was not the falling pitch but the staccato duration. And I actually then was also able to correctly learn the meaning of about 20 new Mandarin words in the next hour of slower more traditional study.
But just as a sad sidenote, even though it's my own software account and no one has access to it, I went back and changed the Green Easy ratings to Red so in case the Rocket language teams are so bored they have nothing better to do than secretly listen to the quality my recordings they might think I was "cheating."
I do similar things with all the other learning modes. In my German courses I will typical to the hear it sections up to 27 lessons in advance before finishing the Write it sections of even first lessons.
11. Playfulness - so I already covered this some of this in point 9, Some of my colleagues popularized the idea that children and animals learn best by "playing." If you watch kittens constantly playing rough and tumble games, pouncing and stalking one another it becomes apparent that they are practicing the hunting and fighting skills they will use as adults for survival.
I experience the great variety of learning modes and Dashboard flexibility as an enormous playground with lots and lots of toys that allow me to play a bunch of different kind of games. A benefit is that I can remain engaged all day long when I have the opportunities.
I was going to go on, but I'm typing this in my swimming pool where I listen to the audios while doing my swimming exercises, and a dramatic thunderstorm has descended upon us. We have a screened in cage which I tell my girlfriend should act like a "Faraday cage" us. But since it is not grounded when the lightning gets close I gotta go before theories of physics are tested in real life. I hate it when that happens.
Thanks again for this great article
August 17, 2016
I agree on all counts.
I don't want to say what is the best language learning software and what isn't the best language learning software, because one, that can be subjective based on the individual. As stated, we are all unique, and what works for one person may not work for another and two, I don't want to sound biased and sound too negative, but I will say this. I love Rocket. Rocket Languages does everything that I've ever wanted out of learning Japanese, and so much more.
One of the language learning software that I used throughout college was horrible in terms of organization. They would just throw a bunch of "tourist" Japanese words at you and essentially say "memorize this" without any real explanation on why you use those specific words. Under the examples, they would also have a combination of hiragana, katakana, and kanji to be authentic, but they wouldn't explain what any of those meant! You literally have no idea how to distinquish between the three different writing forms of Japanese!
The stuff that you learn in the first disc is actually pretty decent. Colors, time, days of the week, food, body parts, family, etc. The basic stuff that a lot of Japanese speaking programs have. The method that they implement to memorizing the material is a flashcard game similar to memory (where you are shown a bunch of cards and have to choose the right one after it is flipped over).
For an introduction to Japanese for someone who has no real knowledge of the language, it was decent. Disc 2 adds on to this a bit with a couple more words to memorize, but still no real explanation on why to do this. But once you move on to the 3rd disc, now you have no idea what's going on, as the next disc starts speaking a bunch of Japanese, and you are expected to choose the right answer (similar to Rosetta Stone). But the problem is that you were never taught conjugations, verbs, exceptions, or even the writing system in Disc 1. There is a speaking portion, but only to record your voice and playback. You aren't really having "conversations", just repeating everything back like a parrot. So even after all of that study, you still don't know a thing!
And that is what frustrated me about using that Japanese software (I still have it in my house). It was cheap when I bought it (about $50 USD), and it came with 4 different discs, but there is no real transition between all the learning material. No forum to converse with other members. No teaching of stuff that would be essential (like actually writing the language) or when something is appropiate (such as using kudasai or onegaishimasu). I studied hard and I still felt like an amateur that didn't know a thing!
But with Rocket, I am learning everyday! Even when I go back over a previous lesson, I pick up something new that I didn't know before due to learning a new word or material in a later lesson. I can shift my focus from memorization to mastering writing the language. Questions that I do not understand I can ask at the forums, where I am helped by tutors and other members. Now granted, Rocket is not perfect (but then again, nothing truly is), but it comes really close IMO
August 17, 2016
Hi Trutenor - Thanks for the vote of confidence in Rocket! We have certainly tried to use modern thinking on e-learning and pedagogy to make our courses as effective as possible. As always, it's a work in progress...
August 18, 2016
One of the main things that I feel Rocket has over the competition are the cultural lessons. Most language learning software will just "cut and paste" the general script (Such as directions to the hotel, traveling to the hotel, checking into the hotel, and directions to a restaurant near the hotel), but Rocket actually diversifies the topics and caters them to the specific language.
For example, I'm studying Rocket Japanese, and I have run into two different lessons on food. One on tea, and one on sushi. Both types of food (and drink) are a cultural aspect of Japan, and I respect that Sayaka (as well as Kenny and whoever else assisted behind the scenes) brought that trait over in the lessons. It really helps to make my learning feel more "unique".
Meanwhile, though I haven't taken any of the other Rocket languages, I have a feeling that Rocket French might instead have more emphasis on wine, cheese, and crossaints. Rocket German would probably talk about beer and sausages. Rocket Spanish would be the tricky one, as the Spanish in Mexico is different from the Spanish in El Salvador compared to the Spanish in Spain. Would the food category be on tacos (Mexico), or pupusa (El Salvador)? But it doesn't matter, cause whatever food was selected, it wouldn't be sushi or crossaints. It would be a food that was based on the Spanish speaking language in some shape or form. Stuff like this shows that Rocket actually cares about the culture of the people, and isn't just generalizing everything into one pot.
The other thing that Rocket seems to get right are the forums themselves. With these forums, all of the users of the Rocket programs now have a voice to present not just their issues, but ideas as well. I actually feel like my words can make an impact, and once I am no longer a "beginner" and have successfully passed the JLPT1, I'll probably still continue to stick around and study, and share my experiences with anybody new who shows up, since this place is so warm and welcoming.
But forgive me for the wall of text. Time to go back to Katakana writing...
September 6, 2016
Hi, I'm not saying that there is a best language learning program out there but I would vote Rocket Languages and Duolingo as very good websites for learning languages on. Sincerely, Brittany
September 7, 2016
Hey Brittany! Yeah, I remember hearing a lot of good things about Duolingo. I wanted to give it a try, but since they didn't have Japanese, I turned the other direction. Perhaps once I put a bit more emphasis on my Spanish learning, I'll give them a try. And that actually brings me to a point of language learning that Rocket does right for the most part.
Variety. How often have you wanted to learn a foreign language, only to find that the language you wanted to learn wasn't covered? When I was in high school, I wanted to learn Japanese, but since my school didn't carry Japanese, I went with Spanish. I easily passed the class without really trying, but what was slightly disappointing is that though I did really well, my heart wasn't completely in my studies because it wasn't Japanese. I also remember a language learning VHS series growing up called "Muzzy". But they didn't have Japanese, so yeah...
Don't get me wrong. Spanish is awesome. I loved learning more Spanish (I first started learning when I was about 10 years old). And learning Spanish in high school has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made in my life. But there are so many options for learning Spanish (and other European langauges) that I could have easily learned it later or via another method. One thing that I've tended to notice when it comes to learning foreign languages is that emphasis is almost always placed on European based languages (particuarly in the United States. Can't really comment elsewhere in the world). Spanish, French, German, and Italian are like the "core four" options for language learning(Muzzy being a prime example). Anything after that tends to be tricky.
When I mean variety, I don't necessarily mean that a language program should have a wide bit of options (since I don't want my Japanese to be a watered down poor translation of what's used for European languages). What I mean is that there should be more options to learn languages that aren't the "core four". Its like wanting ice cream but having to pick from vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry and like it if you want ice cream at all.
October 23, 2016
Hi Brittany! I agree with you -- I actually use both Rocket and Duolingo for learning French. I use Duolingo in the morning to "wake up my French brain", then do my Rocket lessons in the afternoon/evening to stretch my brain some more (the joys of being retired :) ).
One advantage to both systems is that both have Android apps, so I can do my Duolingo on my tablet while having breakfast, and Rocket when the mood strikes me and I don't feel like sitting down at my laptop. Both also have pretty good voice recognition (Rocket's is a bit better, but it's close), so both can be used for practicing accents and conversations.
They also complement each other in that Duolingo stresses more basic vocabulary building as you go along, while Rocket (in my mind) stresses the total conversational/cultural use of the language. It also doesn't hurt that Duolingo is free to use, so it doesn't break the bank to use along with Rocket.
October 23, 2016
Duolingo is cool, free, and really useful. I did their German course prior to doing the Rocket courses.
Memrise also has some excellent courses which focus more exclusively on vocabulary building. I'm up to about 500 of the 750 entries in their HSK Level 1 course, which I am taking concurrently with the Chinese course here which is much more focused on sentences, and discussion. The two complement each other well.
October 23, 2016
Thanks, David! I hadn't heard of Memrise -- I'll have to check it out.