How to learn a language – are any of the commercial products worth the money?

Phrasebooks (jay.tong flickr)There are some things we here at Oz Traveller are implacably in favour of – extended drinking hours and nylon-wool blend jumpers. To this list you can, as of five minutes ago, add language learning. After all travel and language learning go together like budget carriers and exhorbatant overweight baggage fees.

But where the hell do you begin? There are some fantastic resources available to teach you a foreign language – all you need is the motivation and time(!) In this post I’ll give my completely unabashed views on a few of the commercial options going around, but soon I’ll do a series of posts on my real love – free online resources for language learning.


The prince of audio language teaching

PimsleurPrice: Around USD$200 per lesson level containing 30 1/2 hour lessons. Up to three levels available per language.

The set up: Audio-based system which is fantastic at teaching even the most stubborn mind the basics of a language – the phrases get in your head. Major languages have three levels which should get close to an intermediate stage. You don’t have to learn grammar – you’ll soak it up.

Cons: It turns out you do actually have to learn grammar, at least beyond the simplest rules. Vocabulary gets less useful in the final level – I mean ‘My niece is studying a professional training course; what the hell IS a professional training course? Even all three levels will only teach 500-600 words, enough to get around but a LONG way from fluency. But the biggest drawback – it’s excessively priced. Try ransacking your local library for a copy.

Michel Thomas

Michel ThomasThe eccentric German with an outrageous accent cajoles and berates you into learning a foreign language

Price: USD$25-50 per level with 3 levels available per language.

The set up: another audio series, Thomas, a German who made a fortune tutoring in foreign languages in LA. His thick, impossible to place, accent and crackpot delivery provides interest despite relatively dry material. He teaches basic grammar in an uncomplicated manner and then suggests you guess the vocabulary – ‘if you are not understood’, he often jokes, ‘think of it as “net-ball” and have another serve’. Comparatively, reasonably priced.

Cons: Shorter than Pimsleur and with much less reptition. At times Thomas sounds like a dodgy hypnotherapist – ‘just relax, here the teacher is responsible for the learning, not the student’. Not all levels provide transcipts, but they are available online.

The Rosetta Stone

Rosetta StoneBecause learning a language is like playing Snap!

Price: Around USD$450 for three levels

Software program which requires the user to match phrases, written and aural, with the appropriate picture. Claims to immerse you completely in the target language – there is no English. Containing a range of speaking, listening and reading exercises, the system is particularly effective at teaching nouns and adjectives. It’s fun – a useful computer game.

Cons: While the new version 3 is an improvement the software is still far from perfect. There is a new emphasis on useful questions and more conversational material (as opposed to version 2 which memorably taught phrases like “the boy is under the plane”), but it is still much more effective at teaching nouns and adjectives. Version 3 relies heavily on multiple choice but often only two or three options are presented and the answer is frequently too obvious to make the exercise useful. When the program introduces new phrases it can occasionally be difficult (at least initally) to decipher what the new material means (i.e. is the man beside the car or getting into the car). Because it teaches exclusively in the target language there are no explanations of grammar. Price, the cost represents a huge amount of money if the system doesn’t leave you feeling fluent.


Mango Languages

Languages 2.0

Price: From USD$15 per month to USD$110 per course for an annual subscription.

Online language learning site. Sentences are broken down into phrases with are colour-coded and then drilled individually. The sentance is then tested and later revised. It’s quite a good system, covering quite a few languages (Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Italian, Greek, Russian, Mandarin Chinese) with 100 lessons for each language. Mango LanguagesFirst fifty lessons of every lesson are available free with registration – very useful if you want to learn the basics of a number of languages.

Cons: Now a pay service. One hundred lessons are only enough the teach a tiny fraction of any language. I found it excellent for revision but I never had any faith the site on its own could teach a language in any meaningful sense. The pricing model is extremely expensive for a revision tool. If only they could find an advertiser supported model I’d love them. Lots.

Other Options

I’ve had a look at Routledge’s Colloquial series, Teach Yourself and Living Languages Ultimate Series all of which package a text designed for self-tution with a CD (or in older versions/more obscure languages cassette) containing some of the dialogue from the textbook. I marginally prefer Living Languages Ultimate Series – because it provides long passages of recorded audio – but it is available in much fewer languages than the other two series. I haven’t had the chance to use any of them extensively enough to give further feedback.

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[Photo jay.tong via Flickr]

3 responses to “How to learn a language – are any of the commercial products worth the money?

  1. Another great language learning resource to look into is is an interactive, multi-media focused language website that offers educational language videos, addicting language flashcards, an active online community, forums and one-on-one language tutoring via video chat.

    Check it out at

  2. Pingback: How to Learn A Language (Or Several) FREE! « Oz Traveller

  3. Just wanted to let you know that Pimsleur courses are less than $200 currently on our site, so if you’re ever in the market, check us out. Best of luck with your studies!

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