Want to learn another language? (particularly Spanish?)

Back between November 2012 and Feb 2013, I immersed myself in at first a casual, and later an intense course of self-study of Spanish, and at the end of that was able to stumble my way through basic conversations. I was far better at understanding what I read or heard than actually building the sentences needed to reply in my head and saying them.

I have put all the language learning resources that I found (and found useful) on the Resources page of this site, but for convenience, here they are as well:

www.duolingo.com (highly recommended, but limited to 5 languages as of Sept 2013)
www.memrise.com
www.livemocha.com
www.newsinslowspanish.com (partially free)
www.newsinslowfrench.com (partially free)
http://www.learner.org/series/destinos/
http://radiolingua.com/shows/spanish/coffee-break-spanish/
www.spanishpod101.com (partially free)
www.reddit.com/r/languagelearning
www.ankisrs.net
PolyGlot Browser Extension (Free / Google Chrome only)
10 Easiest Foreign Languages for Native English Speakers to Learn

Spanish Only:
www.spanishdict.com
http://www.lossimpsonsonline.com.ar/capitulos-online/espanol-latino/temporada-2/
http://www.seriesyonkis.com/serie/futurama
http://zachary-jones.com/zambombazo/
http://www.elmundotoday.com/

The primary one I recommend, but which only has 5 languages presently, is DuoLingo (Free) – features French, Spanish, Portuguese, German or Italian (more languages coming).

Another service that I will mention is MemRise (free) which features many more languages, but this is primarily just word/phrase memorization, you don’t really get grammar/sentence structure and you don’t know which dialect the audio clips (recorded by users of the site) are in (and there’s no quality control) so imagine trying to learn English and having one clip be with a Boston accent, another with a London accent and another with a Texas accent, all with varying sound levels and microphone quality. Duolingo is uniform in pronunciation (though is a simulated voice). The upside to MemRise however, is that it’s not just for learning languages, it’s for learning almost anything – the periodic table, capitals of every country in the world, practicing for your SATs, and more! So it’s certainly worth checking out.

I wrote a long and comprehensive review of the main (free) services I used, originally on Reddit (/r/LanguageLearning), but I am re-posting it here (scroll to the end of this post). I rated each service on the following criteria, on a scale of 1 to 10:

  • Efficacy on improving reading skill
  • Efficacy on improving writing skill (including proper grammar and sentence structure)
  • Listening comprehension improvement
  • Efficacy on speaking/pronunciation
  • Overall usefulness

Now, I should note this is biased toward MY personal learning style. I’m primarily visual, which I think is a big part of why my reading/word recognition has lasted so long without practice. Secondarily I am an auditory learner. So just keep that in mind when you read my reviews.

LEARNING SERVICES DETAILED REVIEW:

I guess it’s worth noting here that my experience will obviously be different from those who learn differently than I do. I learn best by real hands on. Show me, tell me, then let me try it for myself. I seem to be apt at picking up new words quickly and retaining them easily, and I know this is not the case for everyone. I do know that when I am listening to a language and I hear a new word, I want to see how it is spelled, and ideally hear it isolated by itself as well.

UPDATED – DEC 30 – Added another excellent Spanish resource

FYI the number ratings below are based on my opinion/value to me mostly, I’ve tried not to be too self biased so take with a grain of salt and think of it like this – if you read this and feel similarly to me/learn the same way I say I do, then the numbers will be more applicable to you

Alright, I suppose I’ll cover these in the order I found/tried them.

Memrise

Vocabulary builder at best, while some courses have audio for pronunciations, it has become painfully evident that if you only know words and not any grammar or proper verb conjugations, you will be no better than a dumb foreigner who knows how to say select words, and no one will likely be able to help you if you go to another country. (Now that I have tried Anki, I prefer it, with the exception of the lack of audio in most of the available community shared decks)

Pros – vocab building, depending on the course you can get a variety of words (ie household objects, verbs, directions, body parts) or get specific stuff.

Cons – very limited and one dimensional. Anki is better if you want to go the spaced repetition/memory building route.

  • Reading 3
  • Writing 3
  • Listening Comprehension 4 (at least native speakers are on there)
  • Ability to speak 4
  • Overall usefulness 4 (unless you just want to know words, then I’d rate this higher, but it’s 4 for me, it got me started)

Duolingo

Pretty good for teaching you to read a language, and write/listen to a lesser extent. I have spent the most time on Duolingo but am at a point now (2/3 through the Spanish course) where it is more frustrating than helpful, because I understand 90-90% of the sentences without peeking at word meanings, but alot of sentences don’t translate literally, or even semi-literally. Or just because of the ordering of words Spanish uses (and that their grammar tends to, from the English perspective, create alot of redundancy that is difficult to back out when translating (ie all the se lo and te verb a ellos stuff). One ironic pro/con is the computer voice – it is at least consistent which helps me alot, but because it’s not a real voice, I mishear alot of words or they blend together (ie when there’s an a followed by a verb or noun beginning with a vowel, the a gets lost in the pronunciation so you kind of just have to know it’s there). I’m glad there is the voice, even though it’s fake, but I have seen the idea of crowd sourcing audio and I think that could work, but then you have the problem of different dialects/pronunciations. I know there is a difference between Mexican Spanish and Spain Spanish for example. I did briefly work on the French and German courses and I do plan to return to them, I enjoyed both (though the French is made even harder because plurals often are pronounced the same as singulars and the computer voice is absolutely zero help in that case)

But I will say if you want to mostly be able to read, but to a lesser extent speak/understand, then I recommend this one as one of the top 3.

Pros – teaches you to read, in my opinion very well. You do get an idea for what to listen for in sentences, so it does build some hearing comprehension and you can practice your accent.

Cons – gets harder the further you go, not just harder sentences, but the translations get more finicky (which I understand they are always trying to improve). computer voice has be more harm than help at times.

  • Reading 10
  • Writing 5
  • Listening Comprehension 6.5 (it’s a decent start)
  • Ability to speak 5
  • Overall usefulness 7-10 (depending on your intend ie only reading ability or reading/writing/speaking)

SpanishDict.com

Video lessons with some listening/writing/multiple choice test practice. I started using this site after getting about 1/3 through the duolingo course and it does a great job of explaining alot of quirks of the language and how in Spanish they don’t say “it is raining” they say “it is doing/making rain”, and it’s not “I am 20 years old” it’s “I have 20 years of age”. That’s just how it is in Spanish, but duolingo doesn’t explain this so you’re left wondering “why do I have age and why doesn’t the weather be?”. But I have found this site an excellent supplement in addition to duolingo, for a slightly different perspective and filling in the gaps left by each other.

Pros – the tutor speaks very clearly and explains things in a very nice, easy to understand way (ie they make it make sense without making you feel dumb). Exercises are good, if a little simple/sometimes redundant.

Cons – I feel a bit tired and bored sometimes after watching the longer videos, and I don’t really feel that completing sentences within the video itself is the best thing for me. I don’t seem to do well at them, I do better at the post-video writing exercises.

  • Reading 7
  • Writing 5
  • Listening Comprehension 9
  • Ability to speak 9
  • Overall usefulness 8 (if you want to learn Spanish I definitely recommend this, I wish there was a French version).

LiveMocha

Found this one just over the Christmas break.

What I find annoying/disappointing about this one is I find all the exercises fairly tedious, because there is SO much repetition of really basic things. However, it sneakily does alot vocabulary building without you really realizing how much you’re getting. Probably the BEST (but also sometimes hardest on the sense of progress) feature is having actual natives review/offer feedback on your attempts (Spelling, grammar, pronunciation). That is definitely where LiveMocha shines. I have been making a concerted effort at paying careful attention to pronunciations (hence I’ve noticed the difference between south american and european Spanish) and I try to pronounce things correctly as much as possible. Some people are very nice, while others will be very strict and harsh and chew you out for getting the gender wrong on one thing.

Pros – supports several languages, interaction with natives to get real valuable feedback. But you may need to wear a helmet on your pride. I like the speaking exercises the most. You’ll build vocabulary quickly (without having to try as hard as with Memrise) while getting the other stuff too.

Cons – review exercises (to me) can be very tedious.

  • Reading 5
  • Writing 7
  • Listening Comprehension 8
  • Ability to speak 8
  • Overall usefulness 8

Anki (free software, not an online service, but pre-built user databases exist online and are downloadable)

This has replaced Memrise for me, because it’s customizable, and offline. I used it to make a deck for verbs and verb forms and to make a deck of single words that tend to be scattered through sentences (basically what we call the F.A.N.B.O.Y.S. in English – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, etc). What I still need to do is add audio/images in some cases, but I like it because I abandoned Memrise due to much of the content of its courses being largely redundant/too basic for my purposes, so now I can make my own courses and study on my time, and I can control which words I need to be tested on a little better (ie if an easy word comes up I can banish it for 4 days, whereas on Memrise easy words will come up sometimes half a dozen times before it realizes that you get them and stops bugging you).

I still need to explore this one more but I’m enjoying it right now.

Pros – customizable, easy to use, quick, can edit on the fly, can add pictures and sound clips, pretty easy to tailor to your learning style, uses quick keys. Also – I read that you can “hack” this to use sound bites/screen caps from tv shows, movies or animes that you are already familiar with that feature subtitles (or not) and it will randomly play clips that you put in the database (this takes more technical fiddling, I read about it but never actually tried it), and you can pick the right “answer”. Supposedly a great way to learn words/phrases particularly in Asian languages (where individual symbols can mean entire phrases/sentences and not just single words). If you’re feeling ambitious, give this a look/try.

Cons – can take time to weed out the good pre-built databases and customize them to your liking (or just build your own), the timing options for timed repetition aren’t always ideal, but the pros for this service vastly outweigh the cons.

  • Reading 5
  • Writing 4 (or less if you don’t input your own stuff)
  • Listening Comprehension N/A (haven’t had a deck with sound yet so unless you’re saying the words out loud as they come up…)
  • Ability to speak 2-3 (again depends on verbal practice)
  • Overall usefulness 6 (good self studiers will get alot more from it)

Babbel (not free, but very cheap and I’m just going to touch on it briefly)

I used this one briefly a couple of days ago. You do get to try it for free, so it’s worth mentioning. I did a grammar/verb tense exercise which involved giving me fill in the blank sentences to put the correct pronoun and verb tense. This is something I’ve been missing in all the other places for the most part (SpanishDict offeres it in various lessons but admittedly I’ve been lazy about doing them because their exercises are short and I want more). It’s only $13/mo on the most expensive plan so to me, I think it’s definitely worth at least a one month trial. It does seem to offer an approach that is just different enough from the others that it does test what you’ve actually learned. I have been learning from 4-5 different sources and I do feel I am getting a very good all around experience, this would add to that.

Pros (from limited experience) – seems to offer lessons in a unique way to complement your learnings from other sources. Tests you on if you know how to complete a sentence in proper context which is the one thing I feel I’ve been missing. Also supports several languages.

Cons – does not offer english translations for everything so you can’t always know if you were right or if something meant what you thought. Also – there are apparently concerns over the billing practices of this company, so user beware.

  • Reading 6 (loses points for not giving translations after you’ve answered)
  • Writing 5 (fill in the blanks isn’t really great writing practice, but did force me to get the right tense/spelling)
  • Listening Comprehension 5 (I forget how much audio there was, but there was some)
  • Ability to speak 5
  • Overall usefulness 7

I give it a 7 because I feel it has alot of potential for me, I’ll probably come back and update this after I’ve used it more (edit: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2411398,00.asp). I know with the plethora of free services, why would I pay for one? Well like I said, every service has it’s niche and Babbel does fill one, cheaply. I could get alot out of it in just a month. I just went back to check and I see that the free trial consists of only ONE lesson (of your choice), so you get a very small taste of it, but it was enough to convince me it was worth risking $13 for more so that should tell you something. For the record, I never enrolled for the paid service (after researching the billing complaints).

SpanishPod101.com

Also not free, but they have a deal where you can get 7 days worth of access to their premium content for just $1. I took the deal and it worked out awesome! for that $1 I was able to download their entire course through iTunes (all 11GB worth!), so I have everything even after my premium status ends. I’m extremely pleased with the service even so:

  • they have lessons based on levels, but you can still get something from every lesson no matter your level
  • they have realistic example interactions/conversations, explain regional vs general idioms and they also often give examples of things like differences between (ie) creer & penser or enconter & saber.
  • each episode has a conversation, then they slow it down, then they go back to normal speed and translate after each person’s line, and give some extra context, they also have specific vocab for each lesson and break that down too
  • transcripts in both languages
  • they have a vocab and grammar section at the end plus a final review
  • practice exercises
  • episodes are tpyically 10-15 mins each.

My Recommendation:

  • Start with Duolingo if you want to learn one of the languages it supports (now up to 5 – Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, more on the way)
  • If learning Spanish, I HIGHLY recommend also doing SpanishDict.com and spanishpod101.com lessons at the same time. Fortunately there’s very little overlap (for redundancy which I hate) except for verbs/pronouns/grammar which are important and good.
  • If learning another language, LiveMocha is a great secondary tool, but be prepared to have the natives dissect your writing/speaking. If you want to REALLY learn properly and impress the natives, put in the effort even if it takes longer.
  • Anki for vocabulary building and custom practice of whatever you think you need more help to remember (the fact that it’s custom puts it SO far above memrise in my mind, customizability is ALWAYS good, you can trim the fat and refine your learning)

Final Recommendations:

  • Best for Reading Duolingo
  • Best for Writing LiveMocha
  • They are kind of tied for the last 2 categories.
  • SpanishDict + spanishpod101 for listening comprehension and speaking (if you’re learning Spanish)

Final Tips: * Immersion is DEFINITELY key. Read, write, listen and speak a little every day. I have literally been doing this every day for basically just 2 weeks and I am actually kind of shocked at how far I’ve come.

We’re very lucky to live in a time where so many free resources are available and if we know our learning style we can quickly excel.

Hope that helps, if you have any questions, feel free to email me:
adam@curiositycrossroads.com.

2 thoughts on “Want to learn another language? (particularly Spanish?)

  1. Stephanie

    Hi Adam!
    This page is amazing, I will defiantly be using it. I know I told you that learning a second language is a goal I’ve been wanting to invest in. Spending money on expensive software (which I have been advised on various occasions is the most efficient way to learn a language) was not on the top of my priority list. I will definitely be utilizing theses wonderful free resources/tools you have provided us with!

    I knew there were valuable free resources out there, thank you for displaying them for everyone to freely access.

    Reply
  2. Adam Em

    Thanks Stephanie, I really hope my recommendations can benefit someone other than just me (that would indicate that I did my research well and wrote my review effectively), and if you do find success, I encourage you to come back and share (or feel free to email me privately if you’d prefer). Then this can help others as well 🙂

    Reply

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