A survey of language-learning tools for the do-it-your-selfer

The good, the mediocre, and the downright misleading

Over the past several years, I have tried self-study products for 15 different languages. Some were great, some were okay, and some were terrible.

The directory of reviews on this site contains my thoughts on everything from books and dictionaries to flashcards and multimedia applications, as well as information on related resources such as websites, cultural organizations, events, neighborhoods, and so on that might be of use to the solo language-learner.

There is not universal agreement about how best to learn a language. Individual differences in learning preferences, lifestyle, motivation, and other factors complicate the formula. Classes are a great idea for many people. They just don’t happen to suit me. And my methods and preferences will not necessarily suit others.

I Have a Grammar-Book Fetish

I Have a Grammar-Book Fetish

Some people learn languages more easily, some less easily. Some people are more oriented towards oral learning, some more towards visual/written input. I am very grammatically oriented, so I like hard-core grammatical explanations, but others are not comfortable with grammar. In studying languages, it is important to accept your individuality—and then try to outsmart your limitations.

In the course of my self-study efforts, I have come to a few conclusions:

1. There is a lot of junk out there. Effective marketing and distribution strategies are not proof of language-learning effectiveness. It is time-consuming, brainpower-demanding, and expensive to develop products that really, truly take into account the significant needs of the self-taught language learner who is sitting there alone without a teacher to answer his or her questions.

2. It is rare—bordering on impossible, in my opinion—for one self-study offering to give you everything you need. If you are going to study on your own, therefore, you are probably best off with more than one source of information. I frequently go with a combination of Pimsleur audio lessons, grammar books, a guide to the writing system (for languages with different writing systems), a dictionary, and vocabulary aids (such as flashcards or VocabuLearn audio lessons). 

3. That means you might have to spend some money—though that is not necessarily the case. Libraries often have good materials you can borrow, and anyway, some of the best products I have encountered have been quiet, unassuming little books with no gimmicks or electronic capabilities. 

4. A corollary of #3: Whiz-bang multimedia technology does not always advance the learning process. If you can’t afford the most expensive product out, do not despair! There are plenty of alternatives, and they may in fact be better ones.

A Mere $6.84 on Amazon.com Can Buy You a Whole Lot of Arabic Knowledge

A Mere $6.84 on Amazon.com Can Buy You a Whole Lot of Arabic Knowledge

5. Life is busy, so multitasking is helpful. I have studied while running, while running errands, while doing dishes, while waiting for appointments, while traveling. Not only do you get more studying done that way, but in my case, having a language book or audio lesson with me at all times has dramatically reduced my levels of grumpiness when waiting in line, dealing with canceled flights, and confronting other life events beyond my control.

6. One should regard with suspicion any products making absurd claims about the extraordinary ease and speed with which you will learn a new language. It is a fundamental truth that meaningful learning involves pain. 

7. Having a specific deadline or goal can help keep you motivated and interested. The goal could be fluency in Spanish before you relocate next year to Buenos Aires for work, or basic proficiency in Arabic before you meet your future Arabic-speaking in-laws. Or it could be something lower-key, like the ability to order a drink in Greek next Monday night from the cute Greek bartender at your local bar.

8. Most people can’t just pick up at a moment’s notice and move to other countries to develop their skills, but you can try, where possible, to use your own surroundings as a kind of language lab, finding native speakers to practice on. I have it easy here, I know! New York City, after London, is the most multilingual city in the world—but there are plenty of opportunities in much smaller cities and towns around the globe. 

And now, a few notes on the directory. First, it is not a comprehensive one, because it focuses on things I have used and places I have visited myself, and I am just one person. I intend to add to it, but it has many holes, I know. 

New York City: Urban Language Lab!

New York City: Urban Language Lab!

There are many good products out there that I haven’t tried, sometimes because I didn’t know about them, sometimes because I didn’t have easy access to them, sometimes because I didn’t have time, sometimes because a given company didn’t respond to a request for review copies.

Also, my reviews are biased towards the American marketplace, simply because I happen to live here. I would love to consider more products from other English-speaking countries, as well as products based in some European languages.

Please keep in mind, as you read reviews, that I am approaching each language as a student, not a scholar. I cannot evaluate the correctness of most texts or audio lessons in terms of their ability to replicate for learners the best true habits of native speakers. That is beyond my knowledge. I am simply evaluating their usability as a learner.

Prices shown in the directory are almost always official list prices, which is important to know since you can almost always find things cheaper than list—in many cases much cheaper. 

Should you live in or be visiting New York City, I have included information about certain neighborhoods where you can find concentrations of particular languages. The neighborhood information is painfully incomplete, and I hope to add to it in the future. If you are venturing off for language adventures in unfamiliar parts of this or any other city, please use good judgment, and be safe!

Studying languages has provided me with great intellectual and personal joy. I hope it does, or can do, the same for you. Happy language learning!