Over 20 years ago, I attended a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the technology of language learning, where I was witness to wonders, especially for that time. Researchers there were developing branching interactive programs for what we now know as DVDs that put language learners right in the middle of the action and gave them choices for developing a story in the language they were studying. Therefore, especially given the impressive state of today’s video game technology, I suppose I was expecting miracles from online language-learning programs.
Imagine my disappointment to find that most of the program activities are fairly low tech and, worse, made up of “page-turners,” material you can just as easily find in a book. Moreover, few of them use the immersion method, which consists of making near-exclusive use of the target language so that the learner gets into the habit of thinking in the language instead of translating. Limitations notwithstanding, online language learning also offers some rather nice benefits, especially if you choose the right program.
To give you an idea of how these systems work, let’s take a quick tour of one of the better and better-known Internet language programs: Livemocha (www.livemocha.com).
Livemocha is one of the most comprehensive online programs and, therefore, a bit more complicated to navigate, but well worth it for what you get.
It offers two kinds of language courses: Basic and Active. The Basic series includes 101, 102, 201 and 202 – beginner through intermediate levels. These courses and membership are free. As their name clearly states, they are quite basic and perhaps serve better as supplementary material than as independent coursework.
The premium paid courses are the Active series. Active Spanish includes beginner through upper intermediate levels and includes the following features:
Video dialogs – You watch a brief video and then answer questions orally and/or in multiple-choice format. You also have the option of employing subtitles or seeing a translation.
Grammar exercises and drills – These are the same old page-turners, but some people really need them.
Reading – You read some sentences or a paragraph in Spanish and answer true-or-false questions about it in English (at least in the beginning).
Writing – You are given some information and then asked to write about it. Then you submit it to a native speaker. (Don’t worry; the early ones are easy.) I did it and immediately got three replies.
Role play – This is a really good feature, and truly interactive. The program first provides a comment in Spanish, for which you record an answer. Next, you create your own conversation. Then you listen to your recordings. If you don’t like what you hear, you have the option of redoing it. Finally, you submit your conversations to a native speaker and wait for feedback.
In addition to all this, you can click on a button marked “Practice” and choose from Vocabulary Courses, Video and Audio Clips, Flashcards, Writing Practice and Speaking. The following activities can also be purchased with virtual tokens, available for 10-12.5 cents each, depending on the quantity purchased (the activities generally cost between 1 and 15 tokens each):
Webisodes – Videos about the daily lives of two couples.
Phrase Arcade – a writing exercise that gives you the vocabulary words, asks you, for example, to “describe a rainbow,” and then offers one or more games to play. You can also purchase tutor reviews for this exercise.
Finally, as you make progress, you can earn Mochapoints. The more points you have, the more weight or credibility will be behind your submission review or other contacts you have with Livemocha members. Eventually, Mochapoints may become an exchangeable currency on the website.
Reasonable and competitive, Livemocha prices for Active Spanish are as follows: one full year with expert reviews, $149.95; one full year, course materials only, $99.95; one month with expert reviews, $34.95; one month, course materials only, $24.95.
In addition, the site often publishes special price offers, some of which are extremely good, and, for those willing to pay more, Livemocha has qualified private instructors available to tutor online.
As for my charge that these programs are low tech and lack immersion techniques, I thought it only fair to give Livemocha the last word. Here is a summary of their reply:
“Livemocha structured coursework is vital, but can be limiting if you don’t support other ways of learning socially. … Active Courses are … an innovative blend of old and new technologies. … That’s why we’ve plugged video learning, role play, motivational feedback and community interaction into content. … While many language solutions offer lessons that could be found in a traditional environment, … Livemocha pairs learners together to create a teaching and learning environment. Members of the Livemocha community aren’t simply logging in to chat with a native speaker in a language they don’t understand; they are completing coursework they then submit to the Livemocha community for feedback and further instruction.
“… Livemocha has created a collaborative learning environment with three levels of interaction. First, is person on the street – someone you may interact with … if you were visiting a foreign country. … The next level is those who … themselves are experts in their language. They could be teachers, tutors or have a degree in that specific language. … Lastly, Livemocha has private instructors where they have vetted credentials of teachers in many different languages.
“… Our members requested to have translations available in their own languages. So in the spirit of creating a product consumers would actually feel comfortable using, we settled for both. For instance, when watching a video in an Active course, you can choose to view the transcript in either language (or both!).”
So there you have it. In the last article of this series, I will provide you with a list of other programs you might want to explore.