Six months ago I posted my thoughts on the popular language learning sites Livemocha, Busuu, LingQ and Hello-Hello. Now I would like to review four other language learning websites that I have used recently. The previous four sites were “communities” where not only can you use their flashcards and exercises, you create a profile and interact with other languages learners on the site via chat or messaging. Mango Languages, LangMaster, LinguaTV, and Yabla are not communities but do offer just as much language input and are just as – and sometimes more – useful even without the social aspect. I am more interested in the actual language provided by the website and its pedagogical implementations rather than ways to get in touch with others. Interacting with native speakers is obviously the best way to learn, but you don’t necessarily need a language community website to find native speakers.
For the purposes of self-study when you cannot or do not have a native speaker to help you, I am looking for the most useful websites with regards to receptive and productive skills involving vocabulary. I am looking for authentic language with plenty of opportunities for active listening and self-testing – criteria that language acquisition research supports, and more importantly, criteria that I know works best in my own language learning experience.
Previously, I did not review Mango Languages because they only offer one demo lesson, and I didn’t feel as if that was enough to really see how the website works. Mango for Libraries, however, allows me to use all of Mango’s features for free by logging in with my American library card number. Check your library’s website to see if yours has a subscription.
Mango offers 9 foreign languages and 3 ESL courses for individual subscribers (and even more for library patrons – 21 foreign languages and 15 ESL courses) and each of the 100 lessons is based on phrases and dialogs rather than individual words. I like that you have the option of turning off the narrator since a lot of language programs rely too much on instructions in English. There are also keyboard shortcuts for advancing through the lessons, and you can choose the Main Lesson or shorter Vocabulary and Phrasebook Reviews. Grammar and culture notes also appear throughout the lessons but they are not the focus.
The main problem is that the entire program is mostly receptive. You simply listen and repeat as there are no real productive exercises for self-testing. There are often “quizzes/flashcards” in the sense that you are presented with one word or phrase and need to say (not type) the translation, but that’s not exactly effective self-testing. The recordings are obviously scripted and rehearsed so there is no real authentic language. Nevertheless, I have used it as a refresher for pronunciation and vocabulary but I most likely would not have used it if I didn’t have free access through my library. An individual subscription is $160 for 3 months per course.
I was initially impressed by LangMaster not only because their online lessons are completely free, but also because of the number of exercises and audio files available. For example, the Italian course includes: 125 chapters, 853 interactive exercises, 1,450 pictures and photographs, 117 minutes of sound, and 3,595 audio recordings. Even their software and listening programs are reasonably priced (13-27€) with a 14-day free trial plus Collins dictionary. The free online lessons are available in German, French, English, Italian and Spanish while the software also includes Russian.
There are plenty of opportunities for improving reading, writing, and listening skills and increasing your vocabulary. The lessons are completely in the target language so you may need to keep a dictionary open in another browser. There are cultural notes and grammar notes throughout but they are mostly examples until you get to the last chapter of each lesson, where there is a review explained in English (and which you can skip if you don’t care so much for grammar.) The recordings are mostly scripted but there are also some interviews with more authentic language, and examples of realia from the countries where the language is spoken (photos of signs, menus, brochures, etc.) Usually the transcripts are provided, whether in the same lesson or later on, so you can check your comprehension.
A few of the disadvantages to LangMaster are that it is only available in the four main foreign languages and the audio is only streaming so you can’t download it. If you like flashcards, there’s no built-in system to review vocabulary, but you could easily create your own Anki decks while working. In spite of these few faults, it is the most complete language program available online for free so I recommend it.
LinguaTV is a German company that offers videos with subtitles in 5 languages: English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. The videos are scripted and rehearsed so they are not quite authentic language, but they are helpful for learning basic vocabulary and phrases for everyday situations. The material is designed for beginners (A1-A2 level) and you can turn off the subtitles if you prefer. Grammar reviews and transcripts can also be downloaded as PDFs for each video, but translations are not provided. The quiz section has a variety of exercises including comprehension questions, crossword puzzles, dictations, fill in the blank, etc.
LinguaTV also has a community website called Lingorilla (in beta) where you can watch the first 9 videos in their Neu in Berlin German series, with transcripts and quizzes. They also have a section on learning languages with music videos but it’s not yet complete. Among their two websites and Youtube channel, quite a few videos are available for free so you can check them out before deciding to pay for a monthly subscription, in the range of 1-10€ depending on the language and course. I am a big supporter of using video and subtitles for teaching and learning languages, but these videos are somewhat limited in that they are not spontaneous, authentic speech.
Yabla is “language immersion through online video” and probably the most useful language website I’ve used so far. The videos come from a variety of sources, whether they are news reports, interviews, or just random scenes filmed in the country to illustrate authentic use of the language. Subtitles and translations appear under the video, which you can turn off if you’d like, and clicking on a word will search for its definition in the dictionary pane to the right. You can also slow down the play back so the speech is slower, or put it on a loop to repeat a certain word or phrase. Then you can choose the play game button to start the listening/cloze exercise and type in the missing word.
Currently, there are four languages available: Spanish, French, German and English as a Second Language. They’ve just added a new flashcards feature, and the Spanish & French sites also have blogs of language lessons on grammar and vocabulary. All of the languages have hundreds of videos available, and the French site does have some Quebecois videos as well. Monthly subscriptions are $9.95 a month per course, with discounts for 6 or 12 month subscriptions ($54.95 or $99.95) with a 7 day money-back guarantee. You can download many of the videos through the website or iTunes as well to take with you instead of watching them all online.
Some of the videos are similar to the authentic/eavesdropping videos provided in the Français interactif & Deutsch im Blick online textbooks from U of Texas-Austin, but the main problem with those videos is that many do not have transcripts available unless you are a language teacher (you must prove your credentials to the university) which means they aren’t exactly useful for those who are learning on their own. The textbooks were designed to be used in the classroom however, and not as self-study materials. The advantage of Yabla, even though it is not free, is that transcripts and translations are available for everyone so it is ideal for self-study.
Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.