After Spanish and Mandarin, I started learning my 5th language online this year: French. I set a goal in 2023 to reach a basic understanding of the pronunciation and grammar and be able to have simple conversations.
Learning a language yourself is dauntingly complex and requires constant self-motivation. There is no single all-in-one app, and it’s crucial to find the right resources and methods to practice.
In this article, I want to share how online language learning online has never been easier and discuss my experience and recommendations for learning resources.
Before we get started, I want to quickly recommend those of you with previous knowledge of any other Romance language to learn French in that language. Personally, knowing Spanish makes a lot of the similarities (both vocabulary and grammar) obvious and thus easier to memorize.
I started with probably the most popular app for free language learning. While it’s great to have a free version of language lessons small enough to fit into every day, I quickly decided that it won’t get me very far to really learn the language.
I mostly disliked the impractical vocabulary that is taught in early lessons. Why do they teach me all animal names before I can greet and introduce myself? l really like the dialogue lessons though where you can actually pick up some practical phrases.
My conclusion of Duolingo is that it’s best fitted for casual language learners who want to pick up a few new words. I believe it can help extend vocabulary, but for my taste, the lessons are too slow-paced.
To be fair, I didn’t try it extensively because the free plan seemed very limited. I liked the focus on authenticity by having local people teach the words through videos. But it seemed too unstructured to me for really learning the language vs. just picking up a few words.
I decided on Babbel because it has a more didactically thought-through curriculum, but still has small lessons.I got a good deal for a yearly subscription for 39 Euros (definitely sign up for the newsletter and wait for a good offer). The price might have been especially good because we were in Spain when signing up for the newsletter, but the usual newsletter deal seems to be around 50–60 Euros for 1 year.
The lesson quality is definitely much better and more practical than Duolingo.
I like its spaced repetition review system (I prefer flashcards), and how it slowly introduces more complex grammar with short explanations.
What’s missing for me though is a way to quickly review the grammar concepts (literally just a list with the short explanations) for quick reference. That’s so easy to implement, and I really wonder why users have not asked loud enough for this.
I also really like the dialogue part of each lesson, which like in Duolingo teaches some authentic phrases. Moreover, they have different speakers and introduce different accents.
To me, it’s a big pity though that there is no easy way to just review the dialogue after finishing the lesson. Again, this must be quite simple to change.
Furthermore, what I’m missing are lessons that teach the fundamentals of how the language works. I want to learn the basic rules of pronunciation. French pronunciation is not intuitive and the lessons just teach you how a word is pronounced but never the rule behind it. I’d appreciate some general rules of how people speak and form sentences. I’ve already noticed a big gap between written and colloquial French.
On the plus side, I really like how they occasionally pop up some tips where they compare the French to Spanish grammar or just little nice to knows.
In conclusion, I think that Babbel is a good learning source, but it’s definitely not complete. It’s lacking grammar material for review, general knowledge about the language, extensive exposure to spoken content (like on YouTube, podcasts), and an opportunity to practice speaking yourself (language tutor).
To be fair, Babbel actually offers language lessons which are priced separately, and I still want to try them out.
The hype about Chat-GPT also got me to try it and a better platform focused on language learning called Langotalk.
To try it out, you can use Chat-GPT (3) for free and install the Voice Control as Chrome extension for voice input and output.
Langotalk provides the voice input and output out of the box and provides a better UX with preset role plays and grammar tutor. I also like the ability to click on your sentence to perform a grammar review, even though it would be even better if this would be automatic. Langotalk is more fun and has better UX than pure Chat-GPT, but you will also need to pay 80 Euros per year to be able to nicely use it.
In general, I’m quite impressed with how good these language models already are for learning, and it is a great way for people to get started speaking when they don’t yet feel confident. Also, it’s amazing that you can get language feedback, which is often awkward to get in real life. At the moment, they are mostly a fun way to practice through different role plays, but in the future, I could imagine them advancing to language teachers. Not in the sense of replacing humans, but in the sense of making language learning assistance more accessible (anywhere, anytime, at low cost). Teachers are valuable because they learn your level and mistakes over time and can provide feedback on how to improve. They are your companion on the learning journey, helping you work through course materials. I think that AI tools could become such a learning companion in the future. Human teachers then have their main role in providing high quality feedback, motivating students, embedding them in a good learning environment with other peers and providing human, fun interaction. AI tools are not to replace humans, but to complement.
🔗Language immersion: YouTube, FluentU, Podcasts
I think that early immersion into the language is important for listening comprehension and developing a natural way of speaking.
YouTube has a number of great channels for this: here are two recommendations that were also recommended to me:
Bilingual subtitles are especially helpful for a beginner. I’m still an early beginner (A2) and the content can be challenging, but if you take the time to pause and write down new expressions / vocabulary you can actually learn a lot from them.
FluentU is another platform that seems to be great for finding content appropriate to your level, while also providing helpful tools for learning new vocabulary. I haven’t used it in a long time, and not yet for French, but it’s something I plan to try.
Lastly, language learning podcasts are also great when they provide transcripts. I’d look out for those that mostly speak French and maybe only explain a little bit in English. Unfortunately, many beginner podcasts speak mostly English, which to me seems beside the point. I haven’t yet found a good beginner podcast, but let me know if you have one!
There is no single app to fully learn a language. I’m a little bit surprised that there is no total beginner app for French that seems as comprehensive as Hello Chinese for Mandarin, though. It combined the good of small-sized lessons like in Duolingo with good grammar content and review.
As a self-learner, you will need to organize your learning to make sure you cover all skills: listening, speaking, and writing (in that order, imho).
Learning apps like Babbel provide a good vocabulary and grammar foundation but lack some grammar / general language understanding and quick reference to recap grammar concepts.
For listening comprehension, make sure to listen to authentic content on YouTube and podcasts as early as possible.
Speaking and writing are the most difficult skills to practice since you need external feedback, but new AI tools provide a great way to get started.
At the moment, I’m exploring ways to extend the usage of powerful AI tools beyond role-play conversations. If you find that interesting, let’s talk!
Also, what is your experience learning languages online? I’d be happy to hear from you :)
Thumbnail image created with BingAI and personal edits.