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Learning a Foreign Language: Finding a Method that Works for You

Social networks and hundreds of smartphone applications have created more options than ever before for the aspiring language learner. But the sheer size of the market also means that it’s more difficult to find the best product for your learning method.

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Americans might be notoriously monolingual when we’re compared with the rest of the world, but we don’t want to stay that way.

The market for language-learning products and services in the United States was estimated to be $4 billion in 2010, according to Nielsen. That includes a 24 percent decline in sales since 2007, but a 28 percent increase in the number of users, which reflects the fact that in the past 4 years, consumers have migrated to smartphone applications and the Internet to learn languages in more-convenient and less expensive ways.

Now, you can become a member of a social network and find a free peer or a paid tutor to teach you via webcam in almost any language. You also now can download hundreds of smartphone applications that provide flashcards and interactive games for practicing vocabulary and memorizing useful phrases. That’s in addition to the many software packages and online programs that still exist for sharpening language-learning skills.

But because so many options now are available, it’s particularly challenging for a consumer to figure out what works best for him/her, according to Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium, which studies technology that’s used for learning languages.

“It’s almost impossible to sort through what’s out there,” agrees consumer Elizabeth Colarik, who is working toward fluency in Spanish through a daily 5-hour program. Colarik, who works for U.S. Agency for International Development, sought to supplement the daily program. “After a while, I just gave up and used the materials my program recommended.”

Among smartphone apps, some are free, but the most expensive ones cost $100. Social-network sites also range from free to $150 per year for access to study materials and an additional $10–$55 more per hour for a private tutor, depending on the language and the course level. The most expensive classes are in languages that are considered more challenging, such as Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin.

But the price of language-learning products and services has little correlation with their quality, according to the language experts and consumers with whom we spoke. Many products, regardless of their price, are ineffective at best and downright inaccurate at worst, according to Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which is a research laboratory that focuses on learning through digital technologies. And the market has no consumer-protection standards to ensure that companies aren’t claiming educational benefits falsely.

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“So many people buy materials to learn languages and get screwed,” says Andrew D. Cohen, who is a professor of applied linguistics at University of Minnesota. Cohen is fluent in 12 languages and has researched and written extensively about how language skills are acquired. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s just repackaged out-of-date materials,” he says. “And many of these services don’t provide any research or set guarantees to back up their claims.”

Unfortunately, it’s a buyer-beware marketplace where no single product works for every type of learner.

SITE SURVEY. Social-network language-learning sites began to appear in 2008. They’ve gained millions of users in the past 3 years because of the increased availability of faster Internet connections and cheaper access to VoIP services that let you chat face to face. These sites connect students and teachers from different countries and provide interactive lessons and forums.

All of these sites give you a choice between working with paid tutors and learning from other users. If you want to learn French, for instance, a site could connect you with a 30-year-old resident of Paris who wants to improve his/her English, and you could help tutor each other by trading lessons as compensation. All sites encourage users to grade each other’s assignments by rewarding them with points, which are redeemable toward the site’s pay-only services. You get more points if the users rate your tutoring as helpful, so you have extra motivation to be as helpful as possible.

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