Lately I’ve been using several language learning communities online to see what they offer and how expensive their pay materials are. Personally, I was most interested in finding sites that offered free audio flashcards for learning vocabulary (preferably with pictures) and less so in finding a teacher or language exchange partner. I just wanted to learn some vocabulary (and how to pronounce the words) online since my main focus on learning languages in the beginning stages is to simply understand what people are saying, and to be able to say a few phrases to get around while traveling. I don’t worry so much about forming grammatically correct sentences or having long conversations just yet.
A few of the sites I came across were solely for finding teachers, some did not offer any or much free material, and a few were almost exactly what I was looking for. Another aspect of modern language learning that I was hoping to find on these sites was portability – if they offered downloads of audio and text so I did not have to sit at a computer with an internet connection in order to study. For those of us who work all day long at a computer, the thought of only using a computer to study languages isn’t exactly enticing. For these reasons, and the fact that I was focusing on German and Italian, my top three choices are Busuu.com, Livemocha.com and Lingq.com, while Hello-Hello.com gets an honorable mention (but mostly because they don’t currently offer German.)
Busuu and Livemocha are quite similar in that they offer free audio flashcards, but Busuu is slightly better because they have more vocabulary. Plus they now have keyboard shortcuts so that you don’t need to keep clicking with the mouse in order to go through the flashcards. Almost all of the flashcards have a sample sentence to go along with the vocabulary word (though pronunciation is only for premium members) and the same is true of the dialog section for each vocabulary topic.
There are 4 levels for each language, A1 to B2, and some categories focus on grammar (simple past tense, adverbs, modal verbs, etc.) but they are only available to premium members. Currently, there are only a few languages available: French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. You can change the site language instead of using English however, so that you can learn/review two foreign languages. (I use the site in French to learn German.)
You can mark flashcards that are you not sure of to review later, but it is a multiple choice quiz of 10 randomly chosen words instead of the actual flashcards. Other multiple choice quizzes in each category are also free. For premium members, you can submit writing and speaking samples to be corrected by native speakers and also create personalized revision exercises. There is also a chat function called busuutalk that lets you talk to friends on the site while you’re learning, or you can simply send them messages.
As for portability, you can download a PDF and MP3 of each lesson if you are a premium member. For the free version, you can download only a select few files, but when you first sign up, you have 7 days as a semi-premium member so you can discover more of the premium advantages.
Premium prices: 1 month is 12.99€, 3 months is 29.97€ and 6 months is 47.94€ for access to all languages
Livemocha offers a lot of the same advantages as Busuu, as well as more languages (currently 35!). It is the largest language learning community online, so it is probably the best if you are studying a less common language. A major difference concerning the flashcards is that the translation is not automatically shown. However, there are tips from other users in the right sidebar that often show the translation instead of simply providing tips, whether you want to see it or not. I’ve noticed that even with a language specified, it will show tips in any number of languages, which is nice if you are a multilingual lover but perhaps a bit distracting if not. One problem I had with the German flashcards is that the article was not given, so there was no way of learning whether the noun was masculine, feminine or neuter. Luckily many users have submitted this information in the tips, but it would be extremely useful to have in the flashcards themselves.
Same as above, there are some quizzes available (matching, listening, create sentences, etc.) as well as writing and speaking submissions to be corrected, but they will only be reviewed by a “qualified tutor” if you pay. For the free version, anyone can review/correct your work. If you want to mark a flashcard to review later, you have to wait until the end of the flashcard deck and then check them off. Sets with more than 8 cards will automatically be added to the publicly available Flashcard Sets so that other members can use them.
Concerning portability, you can download PDF, MP3 and MP4 video files for each lesson if you pay. For non-paying members, you can download the first unit from each level. Livemocha also sells Travel Crash Courses in Spanish, French, Mandarin, German or Italian for $9.95 (for a 90 day subscription), but there are no free materials to review first.
Premium Prices: this depends on the language, but for German it is $9.95 per month (or $19.95 with qualified tutor); or one-time payment of $49.95 for 6 months (or $99.95 with qualified tutor). Unfortunately, you cannot just pay one monthly fee and have access to any language you want, but you can change the site language to learn German in French, for example.
LingQ is different from Busuu and Livemocha because it is based on texts rather than flashcards. You begin with sentences or dialogs completely in the target language and listen to the MP3. Mouse over a word you don’t know and the translation will appear. Click on it and you can add it to a flashcard set that you can review online and that will be e-mailed to you. Even for non-paying members, you have access to several texts and MP3s in Russian, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Portuguese, French, German, English, Spanish, and Japanese.
The main idea is just to listen and read along to the language and learn from constantly being exposed to it. The focus is not on being perfectly correct, as non-native speakers can record and upload texts too. However, you can submit your writing to be corrected if you are a paying member and have conversations with native speakers through Skype. The variety of lessons available is large for most languages since anyone can import materials.
Free accounts can create up to 300 LingQs (flashcards) and import 5 lessons, while paying accounts are unlimited. Subscribers get points that they can use towards the writing corrections, conversations and courses that teachers sell. Even Free members can print the texts and download the MP3s, though I would like to have a download PDF and listen online function too instead of always having to play the MP3 in another program.
Premium Prices: $10 per month for Basic; $39 per month for Plus; $79 per month for Premium. You can also make a one-time payment for a 6 month subscription starting at $60 for Basic.
Hello-Hello currently offers only three languages – Spanish, French and Brazilian Portuguese – but German, Italian, and Mandarin are supposed to be added in a few months. Hello-hello is based on dialogs so it is more similar to LingQ than Busuu or Livemocha. There are 3 levels of 10 lessons each. Each lesson begins with simply listening to a dialog (without the text provided yet), but since the site uses the Quicktime plugin instead of an MP3 flashplayer, it doesn’t work in Firefox (at least not on any of the 5 computers I tried it on).
The second part is listening again to the dialog, but this time reading along with the transcript of the target language. Third, you can read the dialog in the target language with the translation into your native language. Then you can listen to the dialog line by line and repeat each sentence and finally you listen to the dialog line by line and type the sentence that you hear.
In the Build your Vocabulary section, you can mouse over underlined words to see synonyms or other useful vocabulary related to the theme (with pronunciation) and you have the option to add words to a flashcard set. Then you can do multiple choice quizzes to review the vocabulary. Other practice sections include recording the given dialog, writing your own dialog and recording your own dialog, all to be corrected by community members. As with other communities, there is of course a friends area where you can chat or send messages.
Right now Hello-Hello is in beta so it is completely free to use. I don’t know when they will be changing over to a pay system, but then levels 2 & 3 will only be available to premium members, so you might want to take advantage of it now!
I don’t know if it’s possible for one website to be perfect for learning languages. I’m pretty happy with a combination of the four sites I reviewed, but there are of course other great sites that are useful. For example, if you want native speakers to correct your writing for free, then Lang-8 is best. If you want native speakers to record a text for you for free, then the site Rhinospike (that Street-Smart Language Learning provided a nice review of) will be helpful. If you want to watch subtitled videos in your target language, then try FluentU or Yabla. If you are just looking for language teachers or exchange partners, there are plenty of sites available: Myngle, italki, My Language Exchange, etc.
Other sites that I looked into, but that didn’t have enough free content to really get a feel for the site and how it works include Mango Languages, Bab.la, and Babbel. Mango offers one sample course of the first lesson, which is just basic greetings, so I can’t really say how in-depth the other lessons get or how useful it really is. Bab.la doesn’t offer audio to free members for their flashcards, which is what I was specifically looking for, but other parts of their site can be helpful, such as the dictionary, quizzes, forum and survival guides that you can download for free. With Babbel, you can only choose one sample lesson for each language and then you’re stuck with it, so again, it’s difficult to see what the other lessons are like and if they’re worthwhile.
In the end, I think I will try Busuu’s premium content for a month and see if I like it. How about you? Do you use any online language learning communities? What’s your favorite and for what reasons?
Update: Review of Language Learning Websites II: Mango Languages, LangMaster, LinguaTV, and Yabla
This post was originally published in March 2010 so some functionalities of these language learning websites may have changed.