Beginner’s Guide to… Learning a language at home
By Hannah Bullimore
I have a secret. OK, maybe not a secret but something that I’m a little bit embarrassed about and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Here goes…I’m useless at languages. I didn’t even finish my GCSE in French. I love to travel, I love learning a few phrases for the trip but once I’m there I just can’t seem to get the words to form.
Since Covid-19 has happened, the best coping mechanism for isolation I can come up with is being productive and using the time wisely. Now, I know that this approach is not for everyone. Many of you will feel that the best use of time in isolation is relaxing, trying to stay calm and not panic.
But for those of you who are like me, I decided that I wanted to use this time ‘wisely’ to begin learning a language.
After some thorough research and testing different resources over a series of weeks, here is my guide to learning a language at home (even if you’re hopeless at languages).
Choosing the Language
This was a tricky one but, I think, important. As a newbie language student, I didn’t want to pick something difficult and despite my desire to learn Italian as I hope to spend more time travelling there, I already have some (very basic) French so decided to go with that.
For newbies or the language-phobic, we need to pick something we have a chance of learning. I remember a friend at university who decided in her first year to try and learn Japanese, she was overwhelmed before the October week and the level of difficulty quickly killed her excitement for the task.
Therefore, pick a language you have a chance of learning and that you’re excited to learn.
The online learning industry is booming which means there are a lot of options to choose from when trying to learn a language online. I’ve picked three of the most popular and tested them all, here’s what I found.
An American online platform that offers free language classes, this is a great way to dip your toe in the language learning pool without spending a penny. There is a premium option, but I never felt as though I needed to upgrade.
There are 37 language options for English speakers and the platform is easy to use on the app or through the website. I would say that I ran out of hearts a lot more quickly on the app, while the website allowed me to keep learning for longer.
Duolingo is colourful, easy to use and friendly. It’s been designed with students who are easily bored in mind and the modules are short and sweet. As a free option within a usually pricey market, it is a great way to begin learning languages.
- It’s free. There’s no shame in saying this is a big pro.
- It keeps you interested. Short lessons and quick modules mean you’re learning at pace and feel engaged. It also doesn’t become too difficult too quickly, so you don’t feel overwhelmed or disheartened.
- It feels as though you’re learning. Each time, you remember more vocabulary and each lesson nicely builds on the last.
- Because it’s free there are ads at the end of each lesson and plenty of pop-ups asking if you’re sure you don’t want to go premium.
- The lessons can feel too short. I can move through five or six lessons in a sitting and while it’s nice to have that pace, it can feel as though it’s too simplistic.
- There’s barely any speech recognition. So far, after using the website for ten days, I’ve only been asked to speak once and this worries me as someone who struggles with pronunciation.
- You can run out of lives. Both the website and the app use hearts when you’re a free user, which means if you make enough mistakes you’ll have to wait to access the site again. This can be frustrating and disheartening, particularly if you simply made a typo.
One of the biggest names in online language learning, Babbel offers fourteen languages on their app and website. Babbel has a variety of payment plans, starting from £4.75 per month for 12 months which totals £57 charged annually. There’s also a three-monthly option which is more expensive per month but allows you to pay less upfront.
I enjoy using Babbel, it’s easy to use with lessons taking a similar structure. The app and desktop site are similar so there’s great consistency. The only problem I encountered was that I couldn’t get voice recognition to work on my laptop, no matter how many times I followed the instructions on the website.
- Flexible payment plans. You can choose how long you want to sign up for, unfortunately, there’s not a monthly subscription for ultimate flexibility but there is a 20-day money-back guarantee and a trial period. I think signing up for a set number of months and knowing the money has been paid is a good motivator.
- Well-structured lessons and great format. Babbel is easy to use and it teaches useful phrases, concentrating on what you would need to know to communicate in your chosen language.
- Grammar focused. There are plenty of pauses to explain why words are constructed in certain ways and how tenses and feminine/masculine words work.
- Voice recognition. Although I had no luck with the desktop site, the apps voice recognition works really well and helped me feel more confident speaking the words aloud.
- There are a variety of extra features including check-ins, vocab tests and online forums.
- The lessons take a similar form, the same images and names are used throughout and the same orange screen can become boring.
- Lack of conversation. I’ve used Babbel for quite some time and while it’s really enjoyable, I’m not sure when the leap comes for moving from the website to talking to real people.
I think it’s fair to call Rosetta Stone the original language learning platform. It offers 24 languages and as well as options to sign up to just one, you can also choose the unlimited subscription if you fancy trying multiple languages.
Rosetta Stone is the priciest option with prices starting at £9.96 a month, but only when signing up for 24 months and paying £239 in one go. The 3-month option is £16.33 per month and is £49 charged every three months. You can also choose lifetime access for £299.
I enjoyed using Rosetta Stone. I found the website easier to use than the app as words appeared too small on my iPhone. The voice recognition was also easy to use and seemed accurate. I enjoyed the lessons, but the truth is that I just can’t see why Rosetta Stone is so expensive. There’s nothing that makes me want to spend the additional money compared to the other options.
- Great speech recognition that works quickly and is easy to set up.
- Easy to use website. The lessons are engaging, interesting and move at a nice pace that makes you feel as though you’re learning without feeling overwhelmed.
- With similar, more affordable options on the market, it is difficult to get past the huge price tag of Rosetta Stone.
- The app needs work to match the website as the text is too small and this is a common complaint on their reviews.
Overall, I would choose Duolingo to begin learning and see if I’m dedicated enough to invest in a paid-for service. Once I’m certain, Babbel would be the winner for me simply because it’s affordable and works.