Have you ever been paralyzed by a huge, overwhelming amount of options?
Think back to walking around a candy store or toy shop with mom.
“Just pick one,” she tells you.
You know from her tone that she means business. You look at the wall of colors and imagine taking every last candy or stuffed animal home with you.
Then it kicks in—the pressure of having to choose only one from the unbelievably many.
That’s the same feeling language learners have after pressing or tapping that “search” button on Google. It literally gives you millions upon millions of sites to choose from.
Obviously, you don’t have time to go through all of them because, hey, you’ve got other things to do. Like work. Go to the gym. Fix your meal. Watch “Game of Thrones.” Write an interesting Facebook status. Obsessively read your ex’s posts from 2009 onwards.
Unlike when you were a kid, you know from experience that there aren’t really that many valid choices. In this case, not all language learning websites are created equal. In fact, far from it. They all promise to be the best, but only a chosen few really deliver.
So how do you know that the web page staring back at you is an awesome learning service and not from one of the many wannabes who are all talk? That’s what this post is all about. It looks into the DNA of language websites in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.
What are the hallmarks of an awesome language learning site? Here, we’ll go through the list and look into some examples that exhibit signs of true greatness.
Read on—you’re about to save yourself a whole lot of time filtering through learning program options.
Language Practice Online: 9 Telltale Signs of an Awesome Language Learning Website
1.The website is easy on the eyes
This is the first thing that you notice as soon as the webpage loads. Staring back at you is the right mix of colors, graphics and fonts. Nothing is jarring and you get a refreshing feeling. It’s professional and polished.
It’s not crowded with ads, widgets or unnecessary “calls-to-action.”
There’s a healthy balance of text and pictures. The colors, fonts, logos and graphics placements work harmoniously together to give you, the learner, all the vital information you need.
You want to start a new lesson? Want to learn some vocabulary? You know just where to click. You want to go to the forums? You know exactly how to get there.
Everything is instinctive and effective. That’s the first mark of a great language learning website.
One site which really exhibits this characteristic is Babbel, which offers courses for learning 14 languages. From the first page to the 100th, its simple clarity ensures that you have a pleasant experience. The images, fonts and elements are exactly where they’re supposed to be, making you feel that you’re also exactly where you’re supposed to be.
If you find yourself on Babbel again and again, know that it’s because it has been designed to feel inviting.
2. Lessons are systematically arranged
This is where the course developer puts their fingerprint on the website. They decide what specific lessons are included and the best way of presenting them to learners.
Interesting side note: Many homemade websites are produced by enthusiastic native speakers, but a native speaker isn’t necessarily the best person to design and organize language lessons. Sometimes somebody who has been in the shoes of the adult learner—or somebody with professional training in languages—might have more insights on the second language acquisition process.
Lessons should be arranged so that they naturally build on each other. Meaning, a lesson on greetings won’t be followed immediately by a lesson on verb conjugations. On the other hand, a lesson on counting can be boosted by noun work—so that after knowing the word for “eight,” a learner gets to connect it to objects in phrases like “eight candles,” “eight oranges” and “eight balls.” After the lesson on nouns, a simple foray into adjectives may follow so that the student can learn how to say even more specific phrases like “ten little kids.”
Structuring lessons is an art. There’s no one “correct” way of doing it, and there are several ways of building things up. They can be sequenced topically or functionally, always starting from the easiest and gradually increasing in difficulty.
You’ll know that the lessons have been successfully arranged because you won’t experience any jarring bumps along the way. Lessons instinctively meld into the subsequent ones and you just find yourself knowing a little more than you did a few minutes ago.
With these two, you hardly experience any drastic changes in the difficulty level. One lesson seamlessly flows into the next. For example, they have a smart way of overlapping new vocabulary words with old ones so that while you’re “reviewing” the old words, you’re also being “introduced” to the new ones.
3. Lessons come alive through creative use of multimedia
This is the technological equivalent of using differently colored and sized balls (tied to a string) to explain the Solar System.
Multimedia can make vivid the abstract, make interesting the boring, make memorable the mundane. So instead of memorizing el gato as the Spanish term for cat, you might be presented with an audio pronunciation and cute pictures of a cat to accompany the text—and maybe even a video of him chasing after a laser pointer.
This kind of dynamic learning system not only captures the interest and attention of learners, but it also holds it long enough to embed lessons into their long-term memories. This is what’s called “learning.”
FluentU is one of the best multimedia creatives around. With real-world videos that range from movie trailers, concerts and music videos to cartoons, vlogs and newscasts, it offers you the unique ability to become fluent by watching authentic content produced by native speakers of your target language.
Who would have thought one could turn such entertaining, unassuming clips into mini language lessons? With FluentU’s interactive captions and active learning tools—like multimedia flashcards, vocabulary lists, Learn Mode and more—you get to experience authentic language immersion online.
4. The examples stick in your brain
One of the clearest signs of a great language learning website is how memorable its lessons actually are. How well do those lessons stick around after the user has signed out or the computer has been switched off?
Can the learner actually remember the lessons beyond the online learning environment?
As mentioned above, a website can do this via the creative use of multimedia. That’s a big factor, and the rich context of FluentU‘s content really helps the lessons work their way into long-term memory storage.
But there’s another factor at play here—an often-overlooked opportunity to make the lessons really, really stick. This would be the perfectly chosen example.
In the context of language learning, this might be an example sentence or a usage example. Throwing examples around is easy, but providing one key example which vividly encapsulates the lesson is much harder than it looks.
One site which hits the mark on this level is Duolingo. Besides containing eye-catching images, it often gives perfect grammar, vocabulary, sentence and usage examples to illustrate the rules and principles of language. With two words, the Duolingo system can teach the whole concept of “gendered nouns.”
Users learn this right away when they go onto the site or app. They aren’t just needlessly entertained or given some silly things to play around with. You get started on the serious work right away. Good thing it all feels like a big game!
This mix of key content and fun presentation is probably why it’s considered one of the best language learning websites today.
5. It repeats itself…in different ways
Repetition is at the heart of learning because nobody ever gets something as complicated as language in one pass.
The best language learning websites know this. They make use of repetitions in order to drill lessons into the long-term memory. But there’s a caveat—mere repetition can also be the fastest way to bore students.
Therefore, awesome websites look for techniques to present the same subject matter in different ways, attacking it at different angles. The reason for this is twofold.
First, this obviates the boredom inherent in dry, tedious and harmful repetition. Second, it covers a wider range of learning styles.
For example, not everybody is a visual learner, so there needs to be a way for auditory learners to get in on the action. Kinesthetic learners learn best when they see movement or when they themselves move and do some physical activity (like typing).
The site which exhibits these traits and more is Busuu. With features like dialogues, writing exercises, audio recordings and relevant images, you can be sure that there’s something for different learning styles. Nobody gets left behind. You can choose to write, listen or look.
6. Fun tests and drills challenge your knowledge
How do you know that you actually learned something? When you ace the drills and earn brownie points from these language learning sites, of course!
There should be some kind of feedback system that tells you, “Nope, you haven’t really learned this topic yet, buddy! Why don’t you review, then give this drill another shot?” or “Well done! You’re definitely ready for the next lesson. Why don’t you do just that?”
These tests and drills function as psychological pats-on-the-back, making learners feel that their efforts are actually going somewhere. Plus, when they’re creatively incorporated into the learning process, they become so fun that they often reach the point of being addictive.
One of the sites that best incorporates creative tests and drills well is Memrise. Actually, with Memrise, you don’t even really know that you’re being tested. Unlike standard teaching methods where a series of lessons come first, followed by a test covering all those lessons, Memrise intersperses the tests almost randomly.
These lightning tests come and go, and they come in different formats. You don’t have to finish a whole block of lessons before you get tested. And if you get the answer wrong, you’ll know very quickly that there’s more work to be done on that word.
FluentU‘s unique Learn Mode teaches you vocabulary and phrases through video-based questions which take your learning history into account. You can either do these personalized exercises video-by-video, or you can revisit a longer list of compiled language later to review it all at once. (And all of the reviews use spaced repetition software, of course, to make your study time efficient!)
7. It connects you to a community of learners
You can learn so much from people who have the same goals. You’re already in the same boat, so why not talk and help each other get there? Fellow language learners hold profound insights that may be the key to your language acquisition.
The people behind the best websites, often language learners themselves, know this. They prepare comfortable “couches” for everybody, serving as attentive hosts to language learners the world over, setting up forums and language exchange opportunities that link learners and native speakers.
One website which does this really well is Livemocha.
Livemocha has a language community built into its system. Members help each other not only by “language exchange,” but also through volunteer work correcting practice exercises done by others. If you’re a native speaker who loves to teach your language, Livemocha gives you a platform to help as many people as you can.
8. It’s constantly improving
The Japanese have this concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement. This is always in the DNA of the best language learning websites. Their creators don’t go on vacation once the site goes live.
Nope. The people behind these sites are reading the pulses of their users. They actively seek feedback from language learners. They go to forums and ask: What works? What doesn’t? What functionalities should be added?
With this kind of site, you’ll always see something new. There are always projects in the pipeline. Improvements, app launches and new content are always part of the to-do list.
New languages are added over time. New features are integrated. New team members come in. Lessons are sharpened and polished. The texts are re-written. Blogs articles are fresh and warm like each morning’s bread.
Sites like Duolingo, Busuu, Memrise, Livemocha, Babbel and FluentU do this all the time. 24/7. Nonstop. It’s really no wonder that they’ve reached the heights of language learning excellence.
9. It points you to other resources
As mentioned previously in #7, the best sites don’t isolate you. In fact, they go out of their way to connect you to everybody. They also go out of their way to point you in the direction of other websites that might be of help.
The best language learning websites don’t think that they have all the answers. They’re acutely aware that it takes a whole village to teach one person something as sophisticated as language.
Two websites that excel in this area are FluentU and Fluent in 3 Months.
FluentU’s blog isn’t only full of practical tips and techniques, it’s simply brimming with useful external links that connect you to some of the best language learning resources out there today. You want to meet the great polyglots of the world today? FluentU takes you to their doorsteps. You want to know the best books? The best courses? FluentU leads you there.
Another site that does this is Fluent in 3 Months. It has a review section, for example, that lets readers know what’s good and bad about various language learning products. They actually test drive the courses, websites and books for you! So how about that?
There you go, nine telltale signs that the page you’re on is from a website that’s a cut above its peers.
If you ask me, what ties all of these nine signs together is the general importance that they give to learners like you. They make sure the site is easy to navigate and easy on the eyes because they’re thinking of you. They make sure the lessons are engaging because they want you to learn. They connect you to a community of learners so that you won’t feel alone.
The best language learning websites have your best interest at heart. If you sense that you’re in the presence of one, sign up and remember your password because that site’s gonna take you places.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.