Every now and then, a brand new language learner will come across some resource.
And then, they’ll ask, “is this any good?” on some random internet forum.
And then people drop in to give their opinions like… “I hate it,” “I love it,” “Eh, it’s okay,” and “I never used it but I’m going to give my opinion anyway.”
Who do you listen to? And how would you decide if a resource is any good?
Well, you’ll find out in this guide.
Part 1: Things You Gotta Understand About Learning
There are things you need to know about yourself.
Yes, before you can make an honest assessment of a language learning resource, you should probably learn… how… people learn first. Why? Because once you know how to learn the right way, you’ll instantly spot resources that “aren’t good.”
Now, how do we learn? Well, let’s take these facts and keep ’em in mind.
- On forgetting.
- You WILL forget 70% of what you learn after 1 day.
- (the human brain is not a computer that just saves things instantly)
- But if you come back to repeat tomorrow, you forget less.
- You WILL forget 70% of what you learn after 1 day.
- The brain works on a “use it or lose it” basis — just like a muscle.
- If you’re not learning or practicing consistently, you’re losing.
- You need rest, good sleep, breaks, and time to just be bored.
- So your brain can process things in the background.
- You need specific goals.
- Like, what do you want to do today? This week? This month? Learn 100 words, learn the alphabet, put in 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week. Whatever the goal is, it has to be specific and not something vague like, “I want to be fluent someday.” Otherwise, you’re not going to learn anything.
- Ever wondered why you’ve been “trying to learn a language for years without much to show for it?” It’s probably because of this — no goals or wishy-washy “I want to be fluent someday, sigh” goals.
- You need endpoints.
- As in, “I’ll walk away after 30 minutes and come back tomorrow.” Good for your brain and makes work manageable
- You need a roadmap/curriculum.
- So you know 1) where you’re at, 2) what else you have to learn, and 3) where you are in the grand scheme.
- You have short term and long term memory.
- Learning is all about putting things into your long term memory
- Passive learning doesn’t help you learn new things.
- No debate about this.
- You only learn “fast” when it’s similar/based on what you already know/have done.
- As in, Spanish is similar to French and Italian, so Spanish speakers can learn Italian easier than others (non-romance language natives.)
- Or, if you can dance in one style and understand rhythm, you can probably dance in another style.
- If you know one programming language, you can learn another.
- You learn slow/struggle when you’re learning something that is new to you.
- Like learning Thai or Chinese for an English native.
Who said so? The forgetting part comes from German psychologist, Herman Ebbinghaus. Our friend Hermann mapped out the “forgetting curve” that shows how quickly we forget and how to boost our memory by spacing out learning. Long story short, we forget fast. But with every repetition, we forget less and less and retain more and more. However, none of this happens in one day. This happens across days and weeks. And, you can say he kicked off spaced repetition learning that you’ll see in modern language learning tools.
So, now that you know all of that… And knowing that you naturally forget everything the next day:
There are a few logical conclusions you’ll arrive at:
- This stuff doesn’t take a day… unless you’re a genius
- Worrying that you “just don’t understand it” is pointless because again — this doesn’t take a day.
- Cramming for hours for one day doesn’t work – you’ll forget it all the next day anyway.
- You’ll need to come back and review and practice consistently.
- With every repetition, your memory gets better (the neural connections in your brain gets stronger)
- If you forget things, that means the neural connections are weak…and you need more practice.
There’s more to know about the brain, but I think knowing just how fast you forget is an important step to work from.
Once you know this, you’ll know how to approach learning to avoid forgetting.
And you’ll avoid learning programs that don’t actively encourage or allow repetition.
Part 2: What a Good Language Program Should Have
Now we can start answering the question, “Is <insert program> any good?”
So, let’s start with learning methods that work. And by work, I mean, backed with scientific studies and used by teachers. Not learning methods that some blogger (like me), some programmer or some YouTube guy came up with.
Now, you don’t need all of them, one or two may be enough within a program.
Rake a look.
- Why you need this: Whatever you learn now, you will 100% forget tomorrow or in a week. It’s the repetition that sears things into your long-term memory. So, either a program offers repetition or you do the repetition (which is a lot harder to do)
- Spaced Learning
- Why you need this: Again, you can’t study things in one day and that’s it. You need to “space” out your learning over time for best results. Come back tomorrow and review X. Come back in 3 days and review X. Come back in 6 days and review X.
- Feedback from a Teacher
- Why you need this: To catch your mistakes, put you on the right path, and explain things in a way you understand.
- A Community:
- Why you need this: There’s a reason why no-one gets fit from working out in the comfort of their home. You’ll want to be around other people doing the same thing for the best source of motivation.
- Active Recall & Tests & Quizzes
- Why you need this: Testing yourself — and racking your brain trying to remember X — these is one of the best ways to boost your memory. In order to remember, you must remember.
- Starts with the Foundations of the Language (like grammar)
- Why you need this: You can learn phrases and words all you want. But if you don’t know the rules of how to string them together, you’ll forever talk like a caveman.
- Level Assessment
- Why you need this: Before you can start learning anything, a teacher would need to know how much you know already… in order to teach you at a level that’s right for you. Otherwise, you’ll be a beginner in an intermediate level program and you won’t understand “nada.”
- You Feel Discomfort
- Why you need this: If you’re not struggling, it’s too easy, too fun and you’re not improving. There must be struggle – whether it’s you trying to remember a word or you getting embarrassed while speaking with a native.
- Active Learning
- Why you need this: Active meaning you’re writing things, saying things, trying to remember or figure things out. Which means you need tests, quizzes, flashcards, people to talk to you, and such.
Then, there are other factors that make a resource good.
- Money Back Guarantee
- Obviously, you’d want your money back if you bought something and didn’t like it.
- Does What It Promises
- Does the program promise you’ll speak a new language? Well, that’s not too far-fetched of a claim. Anyone can hear a phrase, repeat it, and then that’s considered “talking.” But, what if it claims you’ll be speaking like a native in 15 days, 9 weeks, or6 months? Well, not sure if it’ll live up to the promise.
- More Actual Learning than “Having Fun”
- As much as we want to have fun, if you’re having a blast and giggling through your language lessons, I can 100% guarantee you, you’re not learning anything. Again, see the whole need for discomfort up above. This is why no-one really learns through watching TV shows (UNLESS they rewind it 100s of times and have a pen and paper on hand) or cute translation and vocabulary matching games.
Part 3: What Makes a Resource Bad
So, what makes a resource bad?
- Passive learning:
- Example: Just listening, reading, and swiping through an app.
- Why it’s bad: As mentioned above, without the actual “effort” and “struggle,” you won’t learn much. Passive learning, at best, is only good for reviewing information you already know… and not for learning new words and grammar rules.
- Lack of Teachers/Academic Oversight
- If an app/program wasn’t built by a teacher or has some academic oversight who know how to teach and how we learn (see above), then you’re not learning with a reliable resource.
- Offers NO Proven Learning Methods:
- Like repetition, spaced learning, active recall, testing, and all of that jazz written up top.
- If it’s All Fun & Games
- Again, see above about active vs. passive learning.
- Promising That You’ll Learn Languages Like a Child
- You’re not a child and you can’t learn like one. That’s a marketing gimmick.
Part 4: What Doesn’t Matter
- Free vs. Paid
The internet is full of learners who hate paid resources because, “why not just download it for free?” Well to that, I hope you don’t get paid for your work either when you grow up. But that aside…
Price isn’t a deciding factor on whether a resource is good or not. There’s good free stuff and bad free stuff. There’s good paid stuff and bad paid stuff.
For example, Anki is free and is a wonderful spaced repetition learning flashcard program.
Then, there’s a certain un-named free app that has you doing “fill-in-the-blank” quizzes and matching games… which may teach you some words… but definitely won’t get you speaking a language anytime soon.
Similarly, you have a certain paid software that’s pretty much just “matching games” while promising that you’ll learn language like a child.
And then, there are paid programs that work quite well – they’re built on solid teaching principles.
At this point, you might be thinking…
“Alright, introduce me to some “proven” programs.”
To which I say no. The point of this guide is to equip you with an idea of:
- How we learn and don’t learn…
- What teaching methods work…
- And how to tell the difference between promising resources and the bad ones.
You should do the thinking yourself. Besides, I have plenty of promotions on this site with my preferred recommendations.
– The Main Junkie
P.S. If someone smarter than me has more insights on “how we learn,” “effective learning techniques,” and what doesn’t work, go ahead and leave a comment. I’m but only one Lingua Junkie.