Why would anyone send their kids to learn from “Señor” Smith when you could actually have them learn with other native speakers and in ways that are fun and relevant to them? Enter the world of virtual language learning. It really is a great time to be alive! For the first time in history, language learning requires merely an Internet connection (and maybe a bit of dinero, but not necessarily). Services are often free, customizable, video- and audio-enabled, and incredibly easy for children to use. Removing the barrier of space, you don’t need to go to another country to interact with a native speaker. As Rosetta Stone says, and I agree, immersion is the best way to learn a language. In absence of true immersion, get the next best thing: access.
Sitting in your room with a book isn’t going to help. I taught in Japan for several years and prior to arriving, I tried to study a few key phrases to prepare. My Scottish friend was much more diligent than I was and studied Japanese for several years on his own, using mostly textbooks. After he arrived in Japan, he was so excited to start speaking Japanese, but having hardly heard it spoken aloud, his pronunciation was terrible and his vocabulary was dated 20 years. The guy was crushed! (Note: While in Italy, I tried my hand at some Italian using the Italian Slang book in the picture above and got laughed at. Lesson learned.)
Textbooks are great as a supplement, but they’re not going to teach you how to communicate. They’re flat, stagnant, and outdated. Unless you’re interested in pursuing Latin (something I really wish I had done when I was younger), try out some of these virtual online options where you can get direct feedback on pronunciation, grammar, writing, and vocabulary or phrases.
These are just the free ones, of course. There are hundreds more that are high quality online language learning solutions, such as Rosetta Stone and Living Language, which would be great to pursue after you’ve played around with a few languages on the free sites and decided which language you want to commit to.
|LiveMocha||38||Learn by first watching a demo, then breaking it down into pieces, and then practice. Emphasis is on communicability.||No||Both. The free version gives you a great taste; they also have private tutors and paid courses available.|
|Byki||15||Flashcards, quizzes, and exposure to native speakers, dynamic modification of flashcards to errors in pronunciation.||Yes||Both. The free version is a good starter. You can also buy full software.|
|Babbel||11||Multi-media courses are interactive and focus on keeping language interesting. Constant review and feedback, both from program and other native speakers.||Yes||Both. The free version is enough to get a feel for the product. They also have a good subscription model for unlimited learning.|
|Busuu||12||More an online community than others, they have units that include vocab, dialogues, and phrases, with PDFs and podcasts in the paid version.||Yes||Free. Super cool feature is the ability to video-chat with other users. Maybe a little scary, but true immersion, right?|
Language is a living experience. Reading a textbook is great for visual learners, but doesn’t help at all with speaking. Textbooks used in conjunction with online communities offer a comprehensive solution. For those looking to actually speak and experience another culture, make use of the real-time tools of audio and video connections.
Do so with caution, of course. Consider your children’s ages when finding the right solution for them. The services listed above may or may not be appropriate for your child. So why does learning online just make sense?
With online learning, you can go at your own pace, focusing on the areas of language where you’re interested. If your kids are interested in Japanese at the moment, but don’t want to be worried about learning the four alphabets they use, focus instead on the speaking component and if they stay interested, start learning to read kana and kanji.
Many of these products, more often in paid versions, constantly switch between reading, writing, speaking, and listening, allowing you to evenly develop each area of language ability. This changing emphasis also keeps it interesting and keeps you engaged. Personally, I tend to skip over the writing portions since my interest is usually to chat with someone in another language, not write them an email…!
For kids stuck in public school, online learning creates opportunities for short spurts of learning on a more regular basis, rather than having 60-minute classes twice a week for a very disjointed learning experience. Further, in these classes, due to their sheer size, often there is very little talk time and the emphasis is on writing and reading. Easier to implement in a classroom of 30 kids, but incredibly inefficient and ineffective. How many of us actually remember the Spanish we learned for three years in high school?
Finally, online learning actually connects you with native speakers in a safe environment. Save for the military family that moves around every 2 years, it’s hard for most Americans to find people in their target language to interact with. Hearing actual native speakers talk not just increases your pronunciation accuracy, but teaches you “non-linguistic” language, such as pausing, listening sounds, non-verbal agreement or disagreement, and so on. The more exposure you can get from an early age, the better. Kids don’t learn language better; they just have fewer things to worry about. They don’t have car payments, travel schedules, grocery store trips, or other responsibilities to distract them. They just absorb. Take advantage of that while you have the chance; they’ll thank you later. There are obviously many more products out there. In the next post, we’ll look specifically at mobile apps and language learning. It’s such an opportunity, especially for homeschool families on the go. With mobile technology, everyone can learn together while you’re in the car, hanging out at the library, or bopping around town.
What are you using to learn another language? What language are you learning and why? Leave your comments below.
About the Author
Christa Johnson is focused on helping new parents get started with homeschooling. She writes about homeschooling strategies and successes, including the latest research in the field. She is the founder of No Agenda Homeschool, which provides practical tools to start homeschooling with confidence.