52% of Online Language Learners Consider Classic Offline Learning as More Efficient

First of all I would like to thank Bernhard Niesner and Adrian Hilti of busuu as well as the team at IE Business School who took the time and made the effort to set up a survey and then shared its results with the public.

Data is still a scarce resource in education 2.0 and getting some from one of the most successful startups is really valuable. So, let’s take a closer look on the outcome.

The busuu.com Language Barometer 2011 survey was filled in by 16.000 busuu community members coming from over 150 countries. Therefore we ought not forget but have to keep in mind that by nature the data is biased.

As busuu members are already learning via the Internet and also filled in the survey on their computers it should be quite obvious that the classic methods like books, classrooms and CDs don’t come out as winners, right?


The classic methods of language courses abroad 32%, traditional classes 4%, books 2% and CDs 3% still take home 41%. If we then add the 11% of the personal teacher, classic methods are still seen as being most efficient by a total of 52% of their learners.

Remember, it’s not a survey amongst people from Mainstreet with various different backgrounds, it’s a survey amongst busuu members. I find this pretty astonishing.

On the other hand, even busuu was too modest in its analysis, saying that 37% of the users preferred online learning. Looking at the chart I can see at least 44% of busuu’s users preferring online learning plus an additional 4% who learn mobile which would sum up to 48% of the learners prefer to learn online / mobile.

The 11% who prefer learning with a teacher could also be part of the online “coalition” although this might be covered in the 7% video chat / Skype already.

Breaking the numbers for online / mobile learning down we have

  • 24% Web 2.0 / Interactive Online Learning
  • 13% Individual Online Learning
  • 7% Video Chat / Skype
  • 2% Mobile Apps
  • 2% Podcasts

What I find very interesting is the fact that only a mere 24% of the busuu users think, learning in a web 2.0 environment, e.g. services like busuu, is an efficient manner to learn a language.

Now there are different possible interpretations for all of that. One is of course that busuu users see the service as an additional service to their overall effort of learning a language. Next, we have some aspects that are actually part of the busuu community like 7% Video Chat, 2% Mobile App and 2% Podcasts which would add up to 35%.

Still, that is far away from being the most efficient method and only 3% more than the 32% of users who said that Language Courses abroad are still the most efficient method to learn a language.

Self paced / individual learning with 13% and learning with a personal teacher with 11% are also pretty interesting. That basically means a surprising 13% don’t care about the community aspect of busuu and prefer to learn on their own with flashcards and courses provided by the service. 11% still prefer the personal guidance of a teacher, I think this could be interpreted as 1o1, not group lessons.

To sum this first part of the survey up, only 48% of online learners believe that learning on the Internet or using mobile devices is the most efficient method to learn a new language. 52% of online learners see learning on the Internet as a part of their overall efforts but see classic methods like learning abroad or with a personal teacher as more efficient.

Adding a grain of salt to finish this post off. Communities seem to attract a certain, balanced mix of demographics.

In this survey specifically

  • 35% of the participants are between 16 and 25 years
  • 22% between 26 and 35 years
  • 36% between 36 and 60 years
  • 8% are 60 years and above

Let’s say the total of 101% is due to nonchalant rounding.

As a result we basically get the same almost 50/50 ratio between the younger and older busuu learners as you can see in the different preferences of web based and offline learning methods. As the older users grew up learning with those traditional methods it might influence their verdict and we can find the reason why they consider the traditional methods as more efficient.

The nagging question that came up for me is actually a sociological one. Do we tend to prefer learning using the tools and methods we grew up with? Or even a back in the olden days things used to be better mindset?

Taking one of my use patterns as an example. I still prefer buying cook books in their paper version because I can touch and smell the paper. Sure, I grew up with books and yes, every time I move I freak out packing all those books in boxes. It would be more logical to take the recipes from blogs and watch videos and get a lot of that stuff completely for free. Still, most often I see an interesting book I buy it.

I don’t want to say that cooking is quite the same as learning. On the one hand, cooking is a sensual experience. On the other hand, I studied abroad twice and it was truly a nice experience. However, more for the social experience than for the learning and I don’t think that it boosted my performance dramatically. At least, I don’t see it as the one and only way to learn a language in an efficient way. But again, I am someone who can learn on their own quite successfully, so a fine self paced course is always an attractive option for me personally.

I think someone growing up now doesn’t have this emotional connection with a traditional book but maybe with his iPad. I keep my affection for books but at the same time I build new relationships with certain devices. Therefore I think in 10 to 20 years surveys around this topic will show a clear preference for online/technology based learning although I think that the percentage of learning abroad might stay pretty stable.

As you can see, surveys like this always lead to more questions than they answer! In the next part of my analysis I will dig into the reasons why people learn a language and how much they are willing to spend.

Related Links:

  1. The busuu.com Language Barometer 2011
  • Anonymous

    Although it’s only guessing, I’m sure not even half of these students were using e-learning just a few years ago, so your sociological question of learning format change is an important one.

    And I underline, as you said, that it all depends on the particular learner. I can’t stand following recipes in the kitchen, nor do I advance as well while learning language in a classroom (and this coming from a language teacher!!!). I’ve always learned through tutoring and then expression in live conversations while abroad. I thus feel spoiled because I just can’t find a pace/activity level I’m content with in the classroom.

    Thanks for the share. Cheers, b

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      italki went online in 2007, busuu, Babbel and Livemocha in 2008 etc so yes, it’s pretty new. On the other hand, in Internet years, they are now established ;).

      As I said in my interview on the Edtech Insider, the interesting part for learners is the growing choice of platforms, service and hence the ways to learn. Overall trends are tech based vs real life / human powered, I’d say.

      See you tomorrow :)

      • Anonymous

        tech-based vs real life… hmm… good food for thought! I definitely have an opinion là-dessus.

        Will study up on your VRT presentation so I can be super hip and in-the-know manana. Catch ya at the good ol’ Atlantique. :)

  • Hansi

    It’s no surprise for me, that many people would prefer language courses abroad + personal teacher (43%), I would have expected an even higher percentage. But you missed one important point: going abroad and/or personal teachers cost a lot of money, MUCH more than online learning with busuu and many people just don’t have the possibility to pay a teacher or to go abroad.
    I find it interesting, that books+CD’s+traditional classes are together less than 10%!!!!

    Using your cooking example: would you prefer buying a cook book or having a personal lesson with Jamie Oliver? If you decide to have the lesson with Jamie Oliver (=personal teacher, maybe very expensive), would that mean, that cook books (=online learning) are only the second choice?

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      As I said, I will focus on how much people spend and what they spend their money on in the next post. There is simply too much information in the survey to cover in just one.

      I would prefer to have personal lessons with Jamie in addition to his asynchronous content, e.g. reading his books and watching his shows, which I did of course :). In this case it’s maybe not so much about the actual outcome / learning but the experience.

      The question of something being second choice is then again a personal preference. It’s the same that new, successful companies like http://www.topspinmedia.com are taking on in the music business. There are different kind of layers in each market. In the music industry it can go from I like the band and buy their CD over I buy the limited edition and every best of to I buy the $1000 backstage meet and greet with schwag and everything.

      Like I tweeted the other day based on this survey, the average live time value of $1000 of a busuu user is less what my students spend on my personal 1o1 teaching per year.

  • http://twitter.com/bnleez bnleez

    Without knowing the details of the study, my first reaction to this analysis is that macro findings say very little. A micro-analysis that reveals specific demographics would provide a deeper description. Even the question itself leads to ambiguity. For example, I could choose books as my first choice and podcasts as my second. But these choices do not indicate degree – do I think books and podcasts will help me about the same in the future or do I think there will a be a big different between the two? And what does each learner interpret as “efficient” learning? And the socio-economic aspect of this analysis is not phase 2 but rather an essential part of the main analysis, again at the micro level.

    Your question is a legitimate on: “Do we tend to prefer learning using the tools and methods we grew up with?” Was this question part of the study? I’ve seen literature that supports the notion that we tend to teach the way we were taught, so I would suspect the same goes for learning over time. Regardless, since everyone learns differently, it’s hard to draw conclusions even if we know we tend to stick to the same tools and behaviors as we’ve done in the past.

    I’d be interested in knowing how learners currently take advantage of learning affordances now (to learn another language) and how do they forecast learning affordances in the future. A third question addressing past affordances would also provide a historical perspective.

    Human behavior (e.g., learning) is simply too complex to generalize quantitatively in an analysis of this type – there are simply too many concomitant variables at play. The amount of detail what is required to draw any sound conclusions would require detailed information, information that I suspect Busuu is not willing to provide. :)

    Note: It’s been my belief that efficient and engaging learning (and the teaching that allows this to happen) looks about the same whether being delivered f2f, through blended courses, or at a distance.

  • ChinaMike

    I looked at the website of this survey and I found a couple flaws that make me uneasy. First, and most importantly, the questions were not published. Without access to the individual questions I can’t evaluate the significance of the answers. Second, it appears that some of their questions could have been hiding data that could lead to a different interpretation of the results (but I can’t be sure because the questions weren’t published). For example, the highest percentage of people were “interested” in classes abroad. How many of these classes would be taught using traditional media? Most? If so then the media used in these classes could/should be lumped in with other media.

    In fact, what stands out most is how this survey could be comparing apples and oranges. Books can be a part of a course, as can a CD, as can online training. To some people, all of these elements could be a part of a single “individually crafted learning plan”. In their published graphic it appears that everything adds up to 100% thus making it look like online learning comes out number 2 and everything is in opposition to each other. But as a teacher I feel that these learning approaches/media are, over a period of more than one year, typically more compatible (and combinable) than they are mutually exclusive.

    Maybe Busuu would be willing to publish the questions along with the results.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=690186985 Bernhard Niesner

      Dear Chinamike,

      the questions of the answers are published in the chart title – hope that helps.

      Regarding your other point – well it´s obvious that many language learners will combine different methods for language learning. Even if “language courses abroad” seems to be “most efficient”, it doesn´t mean that people just travel abroad for a summer course without having had any e.g. lesson or online course before.

      But in order to make the results clearer – we decided to make ony one answer possible (most efficient) – but this doesn´t mean that those tools are exclusive.

      Best regards,

      CEO of busuu.com

      • ChinaMike


        Thank you for responding to this. It could be because I am in China but I still can’t find the link to the questions. Maybe Kirsten could publish the link in the “related links” section above when she gets back from her beach vacation.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=690186985 Bernhard Niesner

          Sorry, still not sure whether I understand your question. If you go to our blog, you see all the graphs which contain the question as title of the chart. Like this one for example: http://blog.busuu.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/currently.jpg

          I assume that even in China you see those graphs, right?

          Didnt know that Kirsten is on the beach but she well deserves some break! 😉

          • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

            It’s possible that China is blocking the embedded pictures. They do it with the videos for sure.

          • ChinaMike

            Dear Bernhard,

            Thank you for your patience. Now I understand.

            It looks like, based on these results, that the first question only permitted people to only give one answer. Did your question start by specifically saying, “please give only one answer” or did the questionnaire lock after one question was answered?

            When I read the question I assumed that multiple answers would be OK. This question would definitely confuse me since, like I mentioned before, one approach (Skype) could accompany many different tools (books, podcasts, CD-roms, private teachers). In this situation, how should I answer the question?

            (oh, course, as you can probably tell, I am rather easily confused)

            I am also curious why you feel that a personal teacher is a tool. I wonder if this thinking is typical of most on-line schools. Do you personally envision teachers as tools?

            As a teacher myself I advertise myself more as a leader or a guide rather than a tool. This is also a function that as yet books, CD-roms, MP3s, and interactive exercises cannot perform nearly as well as I can. Indeed, I think, by lumping mechanical devices in with teachers and them asking people to choose the “best tool” that the question becomes a leading question since many people might be reluctant to group teachers in with tools.

            An interesting question in this regard might be:
            Where can you receive the best guidance about how to learn a language:
            1. A language teacher 2. A web 2.0 web-site 3. books 4. Other learners

            (forgive me for putting teachers first above. That is my own personal bias showing)


            Please rank these things in terms of their importance to you as you go about learning a language.
            mobile devices
            Online web sites
            private teachers
            group classes
            non-native language partners
            native speaking language partners
            Flash cards

            I hope this mild criticism serves to inspire you since you are performing a great service by publishing this information and we can only hope the questions get even better in the future!!!


            China “the tool” Mike

  • Anonymous

    I will give you a choice, free of charge,
    1) 6 months in Cordoba studying Spanish (or St. Petersburg studying Russian etc.)
    2) 6 months online studying Spanish (or Russian etc.)

    Which do you prefer? 1) or 2).

    The interesting thing is the low interest in traditional classes (4%). Since the learners would likely get traditional classes in their study abroad, it is the chance to live abroad, not the courses of instruction that are favoured by 32%.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      Good point, Steve. On the other hand we don’t know as traditional classes could also be lessons in high school or college :). I would love to dig deeper into this data…

      For your horse head offer, I would take 6 months in Shanghai, studying Chinese. Besides that I would take a self paced course on the Internet and download an application for my iPod. Maybe some language exchange via busuu, depending on the time.

      I believe that culture and immersion are important for me to learn a language. It worked pretty well in Canada, NZ and France for now.

      The thing is that I want to progress faster than in a traditional class or in a course abroad. Therefore I need to do things besides that, otherwise I lose interest. The class would provide me access to a teacher I can then ask specific questions and some extra practice / revision.

      • YvonneTse

        Kirsten, you say 48% prefer online/mobile learning. however, since all respondents are online learners (busuu users at least). if the survey is done on the street open to everyone, the reality of mobile/online learners will be less for sure.

        As a language enthusiast, I have tried out so many sites and concluded that online/mobile learning can NEVER be a dominant source of learning. ultimately, human beings need to use the language to learn it – just like babies. So the best part of busuu is the chat and the interactive corrections.The rest helps really minimally. And even a chat or the writing can never replace a real native speaking friend.

        Btw, Shanghai is not the best place to learn Mandarin, as the locals speak Shanghainese 😉 kind of like learning French from a Spaniard, although I can’t deny that there are many who succeed in learning Mandarin there.

        • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

          Yes, just asking online learners was one of the flaws. But that was exactly what I found interesting: that “only” 48% of them preferred the method they were apparently using.

  • Melanie

    Why is everything now an “either/or” question? Clearly, the combination of real world and digital is the optimal user experience (allowing the benefits of both). In fact, fewer and fewer people are only engaged in one side or the other. Companies who offer real-world teaching need to start supplementing their curriculum with mLearning practice tools. And, companies who create mLearning tools need to collaborate and partner with “real world” educators and facilities. Those who converge these efforts will be the long term winners, as will their students.

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=690186985 Bernhard Niesner

    Dear Kirstin,
    as always – many thanks for covering this study in a such an in-depth way.

    I really enjoy reading your thoughts and followed the discussion below – although I really don´t agree with your “main conclusion” that “52% of Online Language Learners Consider Classic Offline Learning as More Efficient”.

    Why? As mentioned below in the common section, we used the “either/or” question type in order to make the results clearer (of course this can be questioned – but we are not doing a PhD here, we wanted to keep the questions and answers as simple as possible).

    So for me it´s obvious that people will combine many of the methods mentioned in this question. Due to this reason, summing up the % of the different types, does not lead us necessarily to the preference of the average language student (as you were doing). To come to the conclusion you have made, we should have asked whether people prefer online language learning to offline language learning – something definitely to be included in the Language Barometer 2012! 😉

    This question (from my point of view) has to be analyzed on an individual answer basis. And there lies for me the BIG finding of this survey. As lingosteve points out very well below – obviously people prefer a sunny Spanish course in Malaga to an online class (if you can afford one)… But what I believe is most exciting, is the fact that the second most preferred choice are web 2.0 language courses – something, which didnt exist 3 years ago (and there of course I completely agree with your “biased” argument – if you ask on the street (and not our users) probably the % would be less). That only 4% prefer professional classes, 3% CD-Roms and only 2% prefer books is also highly interesting for us.

    For me it´s groundbreaking that this new form of online language learning is considered the second most preferred choice among language learners.

    Thanks again for your thoughts – and we will definitely take into consideration your comments (and those of the discussion below) for the next year´s study!

    CEO of busuu.com

    • http://kirstenwinkler.com KirstenWinkler

      Bernhard, thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts!

      You ask why the title. Well, of course there is a bit of link baiting in it, I could also have written “Majority of Online…” but thought that would be really far off :).

      The question with simple questions is that the answer will leave room for interpretation. As I said, I find it astonishing that only 24% of your own users say that busuu will be the most efficient tool for them in the future. That can mean that they think busuu is great for learning up to intermediate and then I need to switch to real lessons. But it could also mean everything else.

      I agree, as I wrote in the post, that (language) learning will become a candy shop or construction kit and that learners will pick as many different options and products as they like.

      Summing up the different % leads not to the overall preferences of language learners, it leads to the preferences of busuu users, I agree. That’s what I wrote: “Remember, it’s not a survey amongst people from Mainstreet with various different backgrounds, it’s a survey amongst busuu members.” I agree, I did not emphasize this later on in the post and switched to online learners, my bad.

      I would have been shocked if less than 24% were preferring other methods than busuu, as I said, even 24% seem to be quite little for me. On the other hand we can add the 2% from mobile, the 13% from self paced and 7% from video chat as these are all parts of busuu. Again, we don’t know if the participants were thinking about busuu products here, but I am pretty sure they did.

      Time is on your side, the following years will naturally shift towards online learning. If you had the time it would be great to ask 100 random people on the street the same questions, even better, 100 in each age group. :)

  • Sjbeercock

    A “one way or the other” attitude is the weakness here. Blended learning, depending on the level/number of students, fills some of the teaching and learning gaps in both environments. Blended = balanced in this case.

    Often where online lessons fail, f2f lessons succeed and viceversa. For instance, there is usually a moment in an online lesson where the students haven’t grasped (or I haven’t explained well enough) a certain concept. No matter how hard I try to explain it in another way, they remain confused. This is where the extra control I have over the f2f lesson helps me clear up the confusion of the online “misunderstanding.”

    However, there have also been online text chat lessons where 10 lower intermediate students produced over 1,200 exchanges in less than 2 hours. That would be highly unusual in a f2f lesson. Not only, but the online student output is then discussed during next f2f lesson thus adding real time spontaneous student production for class analysis.

    Given that there are so many advantages to both traditional f2f and the more recent online learning. They should not be seen as alternatives but more like complements to each other; the output in one environment often is food for the other. It may take a whole generation of students and educators to experiment and learn how to get the most out of blended learning/teaching before they become truly effective.

    We must keep trying and not be too influenced by the results of any survey whether they are extremely positive of negative.