We often hear this question at the Van Pelt Reference Desk, where I work as a Research and Instructional Services Librarian.
Unfortunately, we do not have Rosetta Stone. They do not make available their product to libraries, for institutional use, at a price that we can afford. However, we do have some recommendations to those of you who are interested in this type of language self-study. On our campus, we have a lot of highly motivated students, faculty, and staff who study, travel, and build businesses overseas, or have plans to do so.
For those of you who have foreign language study on a to-do list full of goals, here are some solutions that are easy to fit into busy schedules. While none guarantee complete fluency, they in fact may be superior to widely requested Rosetta Stone software packages you may be familiar with from airport and mall kiosks.
I’m going to describe 4 services, three of which I often recommend here at Penn, as well as a new service that I have just begun using:
- DuoLingo – www.duolingo.com
- LiveMocha – www.livemocha.com (now owned by Rosetta Stone)
- Mango Languages – http://search.freelibrary.org/advSearch.cfm
(Scroll down to Languages databases. This requires a Free Library of Philadelphia card.
Sign up here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/register/getcard1.cfm)
- Memrise – http://www.memrise.com
As a librarian and avid language learner myself, I’ve actually tried out all of these products. I find it’s best to use multiple apps to study and learn. Depending on the language you study, there may be other helpful supplementary apps that provide quizzes and drills on verbs and grammar. You can use apps that focus on the trickier aspects of the language or vocabulary. A flashcard application (for instance, Quizlet – or the integrated flashcard functionality in LiveMocha) is often helpful in building vocabulary. I am also a big fan of the Conjugation Nation verb drill apps, (available to iPhone users only–sorry, Droid users) for Spanish, French, and Italian from the iTunes Store for $2.99 each. If you’re more of an advanced learner, you may want to supplement your drills with longer form writing or blogging. There are even foreign-language learning social network and blogging sites, like italki (www.italki.com) or Lang-8 (www.lang-8.com), where native speakers will correct your grammar and usage, after you write and publish a post in your target language. A tool for learners of less common languages or Linguistics scholars that may be useful is Forvo, where words and pronunciation audio clips are archived.
If you’re interested in learning more, here are some more detailed reviews of the solutions I mention above, links to the apps in Apple’s iTunes Store, and a description of what they do. After my descriptions you will find a comparison table that shows the languages you can study using these tools.
Languages: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian
This popular app and its complementary website has only been around since the end of 2012. It is one of the most well designed, fun, and efficient language learning solutions to come along in recent times, great for learners at all levels.
At this time, it covers only European languages: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian. It has a simple and intuitive design in bright colors. It is possible to log in from your phone, as well as from a laptop or desktop. The content is intelligent, structured, and regularly improved through crowdsourcing. Concepts of grammar are explained and demonstrated. Exercises are a mix of the type you may find in Rosetta Stone, with translation, listening comprehension, and pronunciation exercises. The app uses game elements, like points, levels, and a scoreboard, which are easy to understand from context. When playing as a game, you can invite friends and compete with them, or just view their progress. As you move through levels and achieve other milestones, users can share progress through Facebook and Twitter. A user can receives reminders that will encourage you to open up the app and practice a little each day.
For advanced and highly motivated learners, the app has something for you, too. You can continue to practice after advancing through all levels. There are speed rounds that you can use to earn additional points and keep vocabulary fresh. In addition, on the desktop version, there are translation exercises that involve translation of content in the language you’re studying into English.
The translation feature for advanced users is the only aspect of the service that tends to be frustrating. Non-native English speakers who attempt to render translations may be overly reliant on online machine translation that is sub-par. The non-native users often reject native speakers’ translations in favor of their own corrections, which overwrite other crowdsourced work with unnatural and incorrect English or erase it outright.
This may be a problem for DuoLingo’s business model, but not for the bulk of its users. The service is free and paid for by the content sites that populate the section of the site that provides translation exercises for advanced language learners. It will likely move to a for-fee model at some point in the future.
Conclusion: This is the most attractive, smartly designed solution out there and will satisfy a large number of users.
Languages: Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian (Bokmål), Polish, Portuguese (Brazil), Portuguese (Portugal), Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu
This is a social networking site has been around for over 5 years. Rosetta Stone acquired it earlier this spring. It offers a larger number of languages than any other site, for free. There is a subscription model, which includes “Active Courses” that feature video clips and offer access to paid language tutors.
Users create profiles and friend users who are native speakers of the target language. Exercises are similar to what you would find in DuoLingo or Rosetta Stone, involving matching games, listening comprehension and multiple choice, but they also involve a reading exercise for pronunciation and a writing exercise. The pronunciation and writing exercises are social. Native speakers then review and comment on your pronunciation, sometimes leaving you audio feedback with a greeting and correcting your reading or intonation. You will need a headset with a microphone, or a computer with a built-in mic, in order to complete the spoken exercises. You receive points for correcting other users’ English, and they receive points for commenting and helping you out. You can then rate comments, which when rated favorably, awards points to users who have given you helpful feedback. These also contribute to your “Teacher Score” which ranks how helpful you are.
It is also possible to create your own flashcards within the classic LiveMocha site, which I find useful, since there is a lot of new vocabulary that comes out in the written exercises, whether from a dictionary, Google Translate, or from other users’ comments.
The main criticism of LiveMocha is that the architecture of the site does not allow for much variation in the courses between the languages. There are some concepts and vocabulary that are not equally useful in all languages. Lately, users almost come to expect a mobile app that allows access to the system during commuting and other times conducive to study, and LiveMocha has yet to deliver on this frequent request.
The courses for languages for non-Roman scripts are not designed well enough to be go-it-alone solutions. They require legwork. You are on your own learning how to write and read. For this, it’s possible to use another app, like Memrise (see #4, below).
|Language||Issue in LiveMocha|
|Arabic||Requires knowledge of Arabic alphabet and writing system.|
|Bulgarian||Requires knowledge of Cyrillic alphabet.|
|Chinese||Shows both the Chinese character and the pinyin, or romanized, display.|
|Farsi||Volunteers have provided some transliterations, but these do not always display reliably. Requires knowledge of Perso-Arabic writing system.|
|Greek||Volunteers have provided some transliterations, but these do not always display reliably. Requires knowledge of Greek alphabet.|
|Hebrew||Requires knowledge of Hebrew alphabet and writing system.|
|Hindi||Volunteers have provided some transliterations, but these do not always display reliably.|
|Japanese||Displays a mixture of its phonetic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) and Chinese characters (kanji), with an option to view Roman transliteration (romaji). You’re on your own learning to write each of these.|
|Korean||Requires knowledge of Hangul, the Korean alphabet.|
|Russian||Requires knowledge of Cyrillic alphabet.|
|Ukrainian||Requires knowledge of Cyrillic alphabet.|
|Urdu||The course is fully romanized. The script is not included as part of the course. Romanized Urdu is commonly used in communicating online or via IM with native speakers, but to read Urdu texts and media, knowledge of Perso-Arabic writing system is required.|
It is important to turn off the chat feature while on the site, or you may receive unsolicited chat requests from other users who want to IM or chat through a microphone.
Conclusion: LiveMocha offers many services now, including private language tutors and real-time classes. It continues to grow and has just been through a major re-design. On the site, there are large segments of active users who are Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese speakers. As an English speaker, if you are studying these languages, the amount of feedback and friend requests you receive can be surprising, and amazingly fast. For more advanced languages, especially those with non-Roman scripts, you may need to supplement LiveMocha with other introductory materials to help learn handwriting and language keyboards.
3) Mango Languages
Languages: Arabic (Levantine), Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Mandarin), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dari, Dutch, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Pashto, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian, Slovak, Spanish (Latin American), Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese
This is a subscription online language-learning system that the Free Library of Philadelphia provides. If you have a library card, you can use it. This system also has a companion app for both iPhone and Android phones. Note that you need to have set up a Mango account through the Free Library before you use the app.
The Mango Languages desktop version is visually attractive with phonetic spellings and grammar that is mapped out in differently colored text. The interface is much heavier on graphics. For courses in less common languages, the voices of the speakers are clearer and better quality than many of LiveMocha’s courses, whose production was crowdsourced and seems to have been put together in a piecemeal fashion.
In Mango Languages, there are notes that explain grammar and cultural information. You can record your pronunciation and review, using a feature called “Voice Comparison.”
Conclusion: Mango Languages courses may provide a starter lesson for unfamiliar languages, but do not go as in-depth or provide the kind of social interaction and support that you would find using LiveMocha, or the incentives and automated messages of encouragement that you find with DuoLingo (or Memrise, described below).
Main languages: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese.
(Note: Crowdsourced content is available for many other languages, listed in the table at the end of this post. Depending on the language of study, some of the material may be more useful as supplementary learning, rather than a starting place.)
Memrise is a flashcard-centric learning system that includes a lot of language-related content uploaded to it, including non-European languages and languages with non-Roman scripts. The idea is that users supply and choose images to accompany the presentation of a flashcard, so that there is a mnemonic device associated with the vocabularly to be learned. In the parlance of the site, these images are known as “mems.” The image content that makes up these “mems” is crowdsourced, and for this reason, seems highly variable and possibly comparable to what a user may find on other flashcard sites such as Quizlet.
The site refers to new vocabulary words as “seeds,” and you “plant” them in your short-term memory, which the site refers to as your “Greenhouse.” When you’ve encountered a word enough times, it becomes fully grown and moves to your “Garden” (i.e. your long-term memory).
The aim of this language is to make practicing and exercises fun, along the same lines as what DuoLingo sets up for its users. Memrise also just recently released an app version. The point system and recurring cheery messages of praise one receives for advancing through the app can make it into something of an addictive habit.
The order in which the “courses” or units appear is arbitrary, so it takes some hunting around to find the most useful courses. You may want to sort by the most popular courses and browse through the choices. Some of the audio files with less common languages may also have been crowdsourced or provided from non-native speakers, so this is also something to keep in mind, but over time, there will likely be more content, which will hopefully rise in popularity rankings according to its usefulness. User-generated lessons that are insubstantial or which don’t follow any particular language-teaching model may be evident by the lack of attention they receive.
As time goes on, substantial language content may be built up here for less studied languages, so even for linguists and anthropologists, Memrise–in combination with Forvo (the language pronunciation audio guide)–could become a powerful tool, even when language learning involves complex grammatical rules and different writing systems.
For students of Chinese or Japanese, instead of, or in addition to, Memrise, you may want to consider Skritter, a site that provides flashcards that focus on writing strokes that are part of Chinese characters, practice of tones required for Chinese pronunciation, audio playback, and practice defining words using characters.
Conclusion: This solution is nearly as attractive as DuoLingo, but not as systematic, since it does not seem to be as carefully moderated. DuoLingo, on the other hand, has product managers who, at least at the present time, are revising their materials based on user suggestions and improvements. Memrise is the type of solution that may be most attractive to language learners who are not focusing on European languages, to independent and experience language learners who may need less guidance with grammatical concepts than others. The number of options here is surprising and will likely continue to grow. For learners who are already committed to other products, Memrise can serve as a source of supplementary material. For advanced language students, linguists, or anthropologists required to learn a language in the field, you may also want to even consider contributing your own lessons and course material to share with others.
A comparison table: Which service offers which languages?
Table last updated: 6/5/15
(via Free Library)