Wondering if online language learning is for real?
If so, you probably have a lot of questions running through your head:
Is learning a language online just some weird fad, or is it actually a thing that works?
Do people really start learning languages on the Internet, without classrooms, lectures or professors?
Can you seriously learn a language while sitting at home in your pajamas?
Good questions, you critical thinker, you!
The Internet is a wonderful tool for language learning, but like all tools, you must learn to wield it properly.
Think of it like a hammer: It’s incredibly useful, but if you’re not using it right, you could end up smashing your fingers.
In language learning, as in other areas of life, sticking to certain fundamental principles will help you avoid unpleasantness and regret.
Here, I’m gonna give you three simple rules to follow in order to get the maximum benefit from your language learning online.
But first, let’s reflect on how great it is to live in a time in which online language learning is possible.
Why Learn a Language Online?
The “classrooms” never close
Imagine a classroom that never closes. Now, that might not sound too great at first, but remember, we’re not talking about the dreaded classrooms of yore where a teacher is holding a stick, pointing at the board and about to call your name any second.
An online “classroom” is a language course, app or program that you can access anytime, anywhere—freeing you from the limitations of routines, schedules and geography. You now have more control over the learning process. You (and only you) decide when to learn, where to learn and how to learn.
Because “classes” never close, how fast you learn is up to you. You wanna be productive while standing in line at the ATM? Whip out your phone and learn vocabulary. Can’t sleep? Go online and play language games. You’ll be acquiring fluency without even thinking about it.
Imagine a teacher available 24/7, who teaches perfectly at 2 p.m. or at 2 a.m. Who doesn’t care how you dress. Who doesn’t give you an evil glare when you say (for the fourth time), “Can you please repeat that last one? I’m not sure I got it.”
Language learners a generation ago would have to free up a regular chunk of their day or week in order to get some lessons. Not anymore. You now have the freedom and flexibility to learn a language without missing out on other things you’ve got on your plate. Need to pick up a relative at the airport? No problem, you don’t have to skip class. Heck, you can go to class while waiting for the plane to land. Got a season finale you just can’t miss? No worries, go to class 40 minutes later—or, you know, after the monumental shock of the twist ending subsides.
Cheap or free: Your choice
Not only does online learning exist in a perpetual loop, but you’re given the choice of getting it all for free or for the price of a burrito. Yes, you have a choice of free and almost free. You may have to shell out some money. After all, language learning websites are still businesses—but because of the way their costs are structured, they can give out a lot of learning material for free, and a lot more for an affordable price. You can get lessons at prices so low you’re tempted to ask, “What’s the catch?”
In this age, when the saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is slowly giving way to “It’s a buffet all the way,” the ultimate winner is you, the language learner. Whereas before you’d have to spend so much in order to learn so little, today you can learn a truckload without breaking the bank.
Imagine reaching fluency in German, French, Spanish, Japanese or Chinese and skyrocketing your professional and personal life—at the price of a cupcake!
Something tells me that’s a pretty good deal.
Smart use of multimedia: Grandpa never had those
And here’s the kicker. Wait, are you ready? Here goes: Not only do online classes never ever close, and not only are they served for affordable prices on a silver platter, but some of them have been structured so that it feels like you’re just watching TV or playing video games.
In the age of modern language learning, it’s possible to integrate game and quiz formats, as well as video clips and cool visuals, into lessons. This enables you to become so engaged in different activities that you forget you’re already converting short-term to long-term memory.
Take FluentU, for instance.
In the time it takes classroom instructors to tape their handwritten visual aids on the board, you’re already done with a lesson or two. (Not even to mention that those visual aids often drop to the floor, contingent on the quality of the tape.)
Studies have shown that multimedia enhances memory and learning. So not only are you having fun, you’re also learning more effectively.
Grandpa never had the gadgets and programs you have at your disposal today. For the first time ever, we have the kind of tools that practically make learning synonymous to breathing.
Now that I’ve whetted your appetite for online language learning, I’m gonna give you three smart rules to live by in order to get the most out of these online opportunities. These three rules will not only lead the way to acquiring a new language, they’ll make sure that you acquire it in the most efficient, effective and cost-savvy manner.
Read on and separate yourself from the crowd.
3 Key Rules for Successfully Learning a New Language Online
1. Be smart with your options
When looking for language learning options, as with anything else, the Google search bar is like a portal to a humongous candy store. Once you hit “Enter” on that search bar, you’ll be taken inside a massive store that houses all sorts of candies, goodies and chocolates that would make the phrase “spoilt for choice” seem inadequate. You have gummy bears, gobstoppers, gumdrops and Gushers galore! You have candy canes, mint candy, chocolate candy and even vegan candies. Don’t forget the M&M’s, Hershey’s, Snickers, Twizzlers, Reese’s, Butterfinger, Twix and Babe Ruth.
Take a breather and pause. Don’t get overwhelmed. Know that you don’t have to go through all of these options or get all of them in order to learn your target language.
Because here’s the thing: Not all language learning materials are created equal.
You’ll have to pick and choose. Filter the materials and use only those that are right for you.
Here are some tips for choosing your material:
- Choose material that suits your learning style. If you’re an auditory dude, for example, then have a go with audiobooks and podcasts.
- Choose material that suits your particular level. If you’re an absolute beginner, you’ll lose steam and motivation when you start off with intermediate level material. Then you’ll be thinking, “Maybe German’s just not for me.”
- Choose material that engages your target skill. Do you wanna speak, read or write your target language? If writing is your desired skill, then check out e-books that teach you the fundamentals of grammar and punctuation.
- When reading reviews of materials, lop off the 1 and 5 ratings. Meaning, don’t trust so much both the glaring and scathing reviews. Focus instead on the 3 ratings that talk about both the positive and negative aspects of the product. This way, you can better gauge if the material is suitable for you.
2. Be smart with your time
In this age of perpetual distractions, you need to carve out time solely dedicated to learning a language.
If you go fishing for the secrets of the language learning superstars, one of your major takeaways will be the consistency with which they dedicate time to just learning the language. They commit a regular block of their online time to learning and honing their target language. It’s not that they’re geniuses. They’re just better at blocking out distractions and focusing on their goals.
You need to do the same and carve out time for the sole purpose of getting your Mandarin right.
Notice that you’re using the same gadget (phone, tablet or computer) for language learning and for doing a host of other things like catching up with friends, researching homework, giving in to the temptation to check out an ex’s profiles, reading the funniest blogs or hunting for the best prices.
In addition to the infinite number of language offerings online, there’s also an infinite number of things you can do with the Internet. You can chat, edit your Instagram pics, write comments on Facebook or get lost ever deeper into YouTube.
All of these take precious time away from learning your target language.
Solution: Instead of letting these other activities become “distractors,” why not integrate language learning into your daily routine?
In addition to the regular block of time solely dedicated to your target language, you can increase your learning efficiency by embedding the target language into your regular online activities.
Here are some ways to do it:
- Change the language settings of your phone to your target language. Do the same with your Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts. It will seem awkward at first, but you will soon be having the complete Facebook experience in French.
- Watch YouTube videos that both interest you and are in the language that you wanna learn. You’ll gradually be attuned to the rhymes and rhythms of your target language.
- Follow the Instagram accounts of people speaking your target language and read the comments on their pics. You’ll get to see how native speakers converse in their language.
3. Be smart with your network
Some people think that online learning is lonely, that it’s just you in your pajamas in your room, slogging through your target language.
You do have a language learning network! (You just have to start using it.)
One of the best things about online learning is that you suddenly realize you are not alone. There’s a whole earth full of people out there who have the same goals as you, love the same target language you do and make the same grammar mistakes you make.
You’ll also realize that there are truly millions of people who want you to succeed in your endeavor—native speakers who’ll patiently write long answers to your linguistic and cultural questions, who’ll excitedly get on Skype to hear you butcher their language and be compassionate enough to guide you to correct pronunciation.
There are communities upon communities online who are ready, willing and able to pull you from any sticking point in your journey, pat you on the back and say, “That’s alright, try again!”
When you feel like it’s just you, know that there’s an army of language learners, native speakers, tutors and teachers who’ll make learning a language a personal, cultural and uplifting experience. You just need to tap into this vast resource.
Here are some ways to do it:
Take advantage of online forums. You can find online language learning forums in a lot of different places online.
Fluent in 3 Months is run by Benny Lewis—the globetrotting Irish polyglot who loves to tell people that it’s okay to make mistakes. The forum on his site is tremendously helpful and is one of the most closely-knit groups online.
Busuu is considered the largest social networking site for language learners. It’s one of the best places to hunt for native speakers, especially for rare languages.
Duolingo is a social force in online learning. Go to its forum and ask away. You’re bound to land friendships with like-minded souls there.
Livemocha is a community of language learners. By helping others, like serving as a language partner for someone practicing your native tongue, you can earn “points” that allow you to unlock more and more content pertaining to your target language. So by helping others, you’re also helping yourself. That’s what networking is all about.
Don’t just be a lurker, though. Open up! Be active in forums and write your questions or share your experience. You might even be surprised at how kind and funny other language learners are.
Find as many language partners as possible. You have plenty of options for language partners, so don’t be shy!
italki is one of the most famous language exchange sites and covers all of the major languages.
Interpals is a good place to find language partners if you have international romance in mind. If not, then you can at least gain a friend on the other side of the world.
My Language Exchange touts itself as the largest language exchange site online. With members in 133 countries and practicing 115 languages, you’re bound to find what/who you’re looking for.
Conversation Exchange is one of the earlier language exchange sites. It’s a no-fuss place that allows you the option of chatting or video chatting with your language partner. Simply answer the two core questions of language exchange: What language do you speak and what language do you want to learn?
To get the most out of your language exchange experience:
- Be prepared when you Skype. Write a bunch of topics and questions beforehand so awkward pauses can be minimized. Clean your room a bit, too. It’s just polite!
- Be generous with your help. Assist others who wanna learn your native tongue. Be kind and you’ll have language partners for life.
That’s it! Now that you have these three smart rules to live by, you can get started with online language learning, and you can expect to see your linguistic confidence, fluency and efficiency skyrocket.
Share these rules with your fellow learners.
They’ll thank you for it.
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