You can’t wait to get to the good stuff.
That’s right, I see you skimming search results on your laptop.
I see you, skeptical but hopeful, determined to find the best resource for learning a language out there.
“Come on,” you’re thinking, “What’s the best language learning program of them all?”
“What’s the most effective learning system on the face of the earth?”
“What’s going to get me fluent in the least amount of time?”
Well, you shouldn’t think like that.
When you seek answers to such general questions, you only sell yourself short.
You’re smarter than that, and you deserve better.
Choosing a Language Program: It’s About the Fit
You know what happens when you go searching for the “best” of them all?
You go on a wild goose chase where you find people who’ll swear on this program or that program. And on the other side of the aisle, just as sure of themselves, are people screaming, “Give me back my money!”
Most of the time, when you read reviews of language learning programs, just as with any other product reviews, you end up feeling like there’s a tug-of-war going on between those who think a certain program’s the best thing since sliced bread, and then another group who are completely dissatisfied.
The better question to ask would be “Which program is the best for me?”
Take the idea of “best” and focus it on yourself. Because there are different kinds of people in this world, and there’s no one super-awesome, super-scientifically-backed program that does everything for everyone.
Furthermore, there’s no program that contains all the resources you should be making use of in your language learning (books, movies, native speakers, etc.). The question really is what a particular program can bring to your personal learning journey.
Sure, every program has features that merits its existence. And for sure, many people will benefit from them. But how about you? What will work best for you?
So when looking for the best, don’t immediately go looking for what’s out there. Instead, get selfish and ask yourself, “What’s in here?”
In order to do just that, here are a few things you need to keep in mind while choosing the language learning program that’s right for you.
Price is a tricky subject. There’s no one way to determine if a program is priced just right.
Some programs price themselves out of the running because they’re simply out of your range. Others, when they’re too cheap, can make you feel suspicious. And when they’re free, there’s always the danger that you’ll automatically think they’re no good when they could actually be offering something more robust than some paid programs.
All of the above is worth taking into consideration as you consider programs based on your budget and what you think they’re worth. Again, you’ll have to determine this yourself, but it’s important to consider. Feeling you’re getting a good price will make you happy about your purchase, and can actually make you feel motivated about learning.
Medium of Instruction
There are different routes to fluency. Different types of learners will benefit from different types of media being used to teach a language. Are you an audio learner? Then podcasts could be your key. Do you absolutely have to see words in order to remember them? Then look to programs that fit that need.
Do you want it all? No matter who you are, a mix of media is probably going to be your best bet… but then is the price attractive enough?
This is the other side of the coin, and you’re going to have to balance this with price to see if you’re getting enough bang for your buck.
Going back to price for a moment, a free program could be free because it only scratches the surface and contains material for beginners, or material that you can find many other places. Or a program could be expensive because it promises to take you from absolute beginner to advanced level.
To understand what’s really going on with a program, focus on the depth of content. Read the “features” section of the program ad. But steer clear of words like “awesome” or “amazing” that have been purposely written to entice. Look for facts. How many vocabulary words are you supposed to be able to learn? How many hours of material are you given? What kinds of topics or content will be covered? How much personalization does the program offer?
Focusing on the actual features of the product while trying to stay neutral to the advertising will get you a reasonable picture of the program.
It would be ideal for you to learn speaking, reading, writing and listening in the target language. But because you don’t have all the time in the world, you need to prioritize which of the linguistic skills is most important for you.
If you want to speak a language fast, for example, then choose a program that focuses on developing speaking skills. Also consider, though, that simply learning to communicate some basic phrases in a language won’t help you to understand what another person is saying, so listening can be just as important in conversation.
“What do I want to learn?” Ask yourself that question and be specific as possible. Do you want to learn vocabulary? Then choose a program whose strong suit is exactly that. Do you want to focus on grammar? Then know that there are programs that are hardcore on that.
Also, you should take note of how you’ll be using the language. Are you a vacationer who needs to learn just enough to get by? Then gravitate towards material specifically made for travelers. Are you going to use the language for academic or business writing? Then stay away from titles like “Spanish Slang & Other Four Letter Words.”
Aesthetics is the general look of the program, whether it’s a physical book or CD cover, the fonts and colors used in an app. It’s also about the clarity of the audio or the attractiveness of the graphics.
Aesthetics is about beauty, good taste and ease of use.
Does the general look of the program appeal to you? Whether it’s the pages of a workbook or a computer screen, the look is often reflective of the thought and effort put into the program. It isn’t always the case that the more attractive the program, the better the content, but it’s worth thinking about how the two connect.
If, somehow, the look, format or structure of a program just does not appeal to you, then there’s no reason for you to spend hours slogging through material that seems a little off to you in the first place.
All that being said, let’s now review five famous language programs based on the factors we’ve just mentioned.
5 Smart Language Program Reviews for Discerning Learners
Based on the memory research of Dr. Pimsleur, which placed concepts like “spaced repetition” on the linguistic map, the Pimsleur language program is one of the most well-known and widely-used language products today. As with any program, there are those people who swear by it, and others who don’t so much. Let’s see how Pimsleur fares with the factors we talked about earlier.
Depending on the language, a single course (one level) can run you over $100. A comprehensive course usually has three levels, and some, like Spanish, even have five. Needless to say, this is one of the more expensive language programs around. However, you can lower the cost by buying more than one level bundled.
Audio CDs, software and downloadable files are available. Typically, 30 lessons, 30 minutes each.
Medium of Instruction
Pimsleur is an audio-based program—which is great if you’re a multitasker and want to learn a language while commuting, waiting for a friend or walking your dog. Less so if you’re the type who wants to see texts, faces or graphics while learning.
You’re advised to just stick to one 30-minute session a day. Following that, a whole level would take you about a month.
The lessons open with a conversation by native speakers. This dialogue then becomes the basis for the lesson. You’ll be brought up to speed with clever drills, prompts and repetition. You’ll not only learn new vocabulary, but also come to understand what the dialogue was all about.
The lessons are phrase-centric. Meaning you’ll not be learning just words, but bunches of them. Around five phrases will be introduced for each lesson, and some old ones will be reviewed later on. The lessons are interactive, meaning that you’ll not only be prompted by the teacher to repeat after her, but you’ll be asked to answer some questions, too.
The lessons are placed within useful context and situations to help you imagine how and when to use what you’ve learned. You’ll learn the basics in this course, like greetings and pleasantries. And if you’re a businessperson who travels, you’ll probably find the audio lessons quite useful for your purposes.
Pimsleur believes in “core vocabulary,” focusing only on the most useful and most common words in the target language.
The repetition in the lessons may be a double-edged sword for some: You get the phrases drilled into long-term memory, but this also drags out the lessons quite a bit.
Some grammar is explained from time to time, but you get the sense that it’s not really at the heart of the lessons.
Formal styles of communication are used in these lessons—like the kind of language you use if you’re talking to an elder or a complete stranger.
It’s obvious that this program hones in on your speaking and pronunciation skills. You’ll find plenty of opportunities to talk in the target language, albeit parroting the teacher. But as long as you perform the activities asked, your verbal skills will improve.
You’ll also really improve your listening skills, familiarizing yourself with the tone, melody and cadence of the target language, and be able to make out individual words with no visual prompts. You’ll get help with your intonation from native speakers whose dialogues provide handy contexts.
There’s not much to go through here in terms of the visuals, because hey, the system is in audio. But the sounds are sharp enough to hear the tonal rises and falls of the target language.
FluentU is the web’s largest repository of real-world videos specially designed for language learning. It carries hundreds of videos each for Spanish, English, German, French, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Russian and Korean—with a Portuguese program in the works.
The “Basic” plan is $15/month or $120 annually. This includes unlimited watching and listening of videos and audio. The “Plus” plan, at $30/month or $240 annually, has additions of unlimited vocabulary deck and PDF printouts. It also features quizzes that teach you new words via questions and prompts and keeps a record of your progress, making the whole experience as personal as it gets. You can try out either plan to see how it works for you with a free 15-day trial.
Medium of Instruction
FluentU uses real-world videos to teach a language. Depending on the video, this may mean a TV clip, a newscast, a commercial, movie trailer or an interview in the target language. The videos have been embedded with interactive transcripts that turn them from normal video clips to mini language lessons.
The dialogues, lines or narration in the videos come with real-time captions that allow you to follow along. So not only do you have engaging content, you also have learning support that makes that content digestible and highly meaningful.
FluentU has a wide variety of real-world video content and covers the full spectrum of language learners, from absolute beginner to very advanced.
Our materials serve language learners on widely-varying linguistic levels. For example, there are clips that tackle basic subjects like numbers, days of the weeks or colors. There are also interviews and vlogs that provide authentic and immersive content for advanced learners.
Because of the interactive transcripts, you can not only pace your learning, you can choose what you want to learn and how much you want to know. When you hover over the words in the captions, you get a full menu of information on that word including translation, meaning, pronunciation and usage. So you not only get a vocabulary lesson in context, you learn everything else about that word.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos, including movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover over or tap on the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “quiz mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
With the FluentU system, you’re given access to “big picture” (video) and the details (interactive captions) at the same time. Because of the pairing of videos and interactive transcripts, you’ll be learning different skills. You’ll learn vocabulary—vocabulary that’s embedded in a memorable visual context. Your ears will become more attuned to the target language as you listen how native speakers take their language for a spin.
And using the transcripts, you can get plenty of speaking practice talking along with the video clip. You can also pick up gems of grammar as you dive deeper into the words through interactive features.
The FluentU interface is smooth and instinctive. You’ll get the sense that the team that developed it had you, the language learner, in mind.
The videos are not only technically sound, they’ve been meticulously handpicked with language learning in mind.
The explanations are written to be helpful and informative, but not to the point of being overwhelming.
There actually is a Rosetta Stone, which is a stone slab containing inscriptions in three different languages, including Greek. This stone slab became the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Why don’t you pay it a visit in the British Museum? But for our purposes here, we’re looking at the Rosetta Stone language learning software, one of the biggest names in language education today.
Depending on the target language, prices of comprehensive courses (three levels) hover around the $150-$200 level. This includes a CD with software you need to install on your computer.
You can now also purchase access via subscriptions ranging from three months to two years.
You also have the option to purchase in-product live tutoring from native speakers.
Medium of Instruction
The biggest thing you need to remember about Rosetta Stone is that it’s a target-language-based undertaking. Meaning, no, you don’t get any translations or English at all. Proceedings are to take place in the target language and you’re going to have some figuring out to do. (Plenty of photos are provided to help you.)
Text and audio are in the target language. Rosetta is immersive in that sense.
Rosetta Stone is a software program that contains audio-visual lessons. Think of it as a superpowered flashcard application. Expect to see plenty of pictures.
Because of the pictures proffered, you’ll find yourself able to decipher the meanings of the words without any translation. For example, in the Spanish program, you will see lápiz being paired with a clear picture of a pencil. No translation will be needed to catch the drift on that one. (And then later on, the Rosetta Stone software program will make a game out of it, by asking you to pair the picture with the word and vice versa.)
Not a whole lot of vocabulary will be taught, because like Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone also only carries “core vocabulary.” For vocabulary fare that goes beyond words like “man,” “book” and “table,” you’re going to have to do your own research outside the Rosetta Stone interface.
One of the most useful features of the program is that it gives you access to native speakers of your target language. Book sessions and you’ll be in for a live tutoring experience from competent and patient coaches. And get this, they stick to the script of talking (and teaching) in the target language. So, no English.
This, by far, is the most immersive element of the whole program, and I encourage you to utilize every minute of those sessions.
Because everything is done in the target language, your skills of comprehension in the target language are greatly increased. You’ll be able to negotiate meaning and learn the language without being encumbered by the slow process of translating one word to another.
You’ll also hone your listening skills in the target language. In addition, your pronunciation skills can get a boost from the speech recognition feature, where you can actually compare how you speak with a native.
And, as always, Rosetta Stone is great for learning vocabulary. You’ll always have a visual component (pictures!) with which to remember words.
Rosetta Stone does excel in beauty and form.
The installation of the software is pretty straightforward. The interface is very instinctive and approachable. You won’t lose your way as you progress along the course activities. If you’re looking for true target language immersion, and don’t easily get disoriented when you don’t hear English for a few minutes, then this one’s for you.
And unlike some language programs that aren’t particularly clickable, Rosetta Stone is pretty responsive and interactive.
The pictures are professionally taken, and some of the best in the field of language learning. These visuals can practically embed themselves into your memory.
Audio-wise, Rosetta is clear and crisp, and allows you to hear very specific sounds of the target language. Surprisingly, while you often may think of this program primarily for its visuals, you may find it compares favorably to other programs specifically in terms of audio.
Assimil programs are produced by a French company and are big in Europe. Assimil is a favorite material of many translators and polyglots including Luca Lampariello, the fellow behind the site The Polyglot Dream.
In a way, Assimil has similarities with both Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone. It’s like Pimsleur in that it’s audio-based, and it’s like Rosetta Stone in that the audio is exclusively in the target language.
Depending on the language course, the program can be had for around $60-80. Included will be downloadable audio files containing the lessons, with an accompanying workbook.
Medium of Instruction
As mentioned before, Assimil is audio-driven, although it comes with a book that contains transcripts of the dialogues as well as translations of them. Only the target language is heard on the audio files.
Explicit grammar explanations only come every once in awhile and they are but little footnotes in the workbook. The method is sentence-centric. Meaning you’ll be learning vocabulary and grammar in the context of dialogues and the conversational to-and-fro of sentences.
Each lesson can be finished in 30 minutes. The course comes with 100 lessons, with each lesson covering around five pages in the workbook. The lesson typically opens with a staged dialogue, which gradually gets longer. The sentences also become more complex as you move along through the course.
The first 50 lessons are known as the “passive” wave because they involve plenty of listening and attuning yourself to the intonations, inflections and flow of the target language. In the second wave, from the 51st lesson on, exercises and reviews of past lessons are integrated, and the learner moves into a more active role from here on out.
In the 100 lessons, you’ll learn about 2,000 words.
Your listening skills will really be developed in this course. And because of the dialogue format, you’ll start to get a feel for conversations in the target language. You may not actually get to B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as promised by the folks behind the program, but you’ll definitely be able to communicate with native speakers in everyday situations.
Also, by experiencing appropriate contexts for vocabulary, you’ll retain a considerable number of words in your long-term memory.
Audio-wise, the recordings are clear and you won’t have any problem hearing what’s being said. Speedwise, the speakers enunciate well and even seem to purposely slow down, especially in the early parts of the program.
The accompanying workbook admittedly may not be a big hit with some learners. The pages can come across as somewhat cluttered, and don’t offer much in the way of color.
That said, this is a great way of packing in practice if that’s primarily what you want. The accompanying workbook is fat with useful content and gives you an insightful behind-the-scenes look at what you hear in the audio. The precise translations provide a welcome relief for learners who may find “audio-only” or full immersion a tad bit challenging.
Duolingo has plenty of world languages under its belt, with more under development. It claims it’s the most popular way to learn a language with its millions-strong userbase. It’s easy to use as an app, and its first compelling feature might be its unbeatable price.
Free. You won’t shell out a single dollar for Duolingo. (The company makes money through a crowdsourced translation service.)
Medium of Instruction
Duolingo lessons are not really lessons, but a bunch of activities done one after the other. The modules take you on a series of tasks you need to perform, like pairing words with their correct translations, or sequencing words in order to come up with a grammatically-correct sentence. By performing the activities, the idea is that you’ll embed the lessons and words into your long-term memory.
Duolingo has a “game-ified” philosophy when it comes to language learning. The whole interface looks like a game where you earn points for correct answers. The progress bars gives you a visual indication of your performance, and the program gives you a heads-up on the specific words and areas that need improvement.
Because of the nature of the exercises and activities, there’s also a limit on the things that you can learn through Duolingo. The program is great when it comes to learning vocabulary with “spaced repetition” technology, and decent when it comes to grammar explanations. It’s also great at deconstructing language into its word components.
In summary, it’s a good basics course, but cannot really be a standalone source for someone who wants to learn a language. Duolingo is best as a supplement to more robust content.
Duolingo allows you to practice your reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. But don’t expect to become fluent just from using this program. At best, it scratches only the surface of these skills.
For example, more focus could be given to really speaking the language, instead of just enunciation. In Duolingo, you’re only asked to repeat what you hear, and there’s really not a strong communicative component.
But that said, your basic skills do get a workout.
I have only great things to say about the interface of Duolingo. The graphics, colors, fonts, animations, icons, etc., are all synced to give you an experience that’s so smooth and so instinctive, you begin to wonder if the thing is really actually free.
Duolingo is one of the most visually “zen” programs I have seen in the field. Kudos to those behind the great design.
So there you have it! Five different programs, five different sets of strengths and focuses. All you have to do is match them with your needs and you can have something that works for you.
Again, there’s really no objectively “best” language learning program out there.
Only what’s best for you.
And the great thing is that you get to decide what that is for yourself.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.