Some days ago my friend Vikrama Dhiman asked me via Twitter
I want to learn French. How many classes do you think one can pick it up in – writing plus speaking. Business Level.
The answer is, of course, more complex than 140 characters, so I gave it a thought as I actually get this question or variations of it at least once a week. Well, what I came up with is the Kirsten Winkler guide to learning a new language from scratch in 2011.
Be aware that this guide is only suitable if you are a self motivated learner. I am pretty sure Vikrama falls into this category as he is a coder. Learning a programming language and working with it on a daily basis is comparable to learning a language and speaking it, hence as he has managed to learn one or more coding languages there won’t be a big problem with learning French, at least not from the motivational side which is naturally the crucial point in self paced learning.
Here is the thing. In 2011 you will learn 90% or more of the time on your own, 10% or less with a tutor. The stress is on the word learn and we will talk about practice later on.
Absolute Beginner to Intermediate
2011 gives serious language learners two huge advantages, they can save on time and money all by signing up for one of the four options below. All of those are pretty close in the features the services offer, so it largely depends on personal taste which one to choose. I am not going into all the details of each service, I will just highlight what I think are the major differences.
Rosetta Stone version 4 TOTALe
For me still the most comprehensive offer on the market. You have the online component, you get the CDs for your PC, so you can also learn offline, there is a mobile component, live coaching and lots of service aspects like the motivation team. As we all know, it’s also the most costly option.
Less known than its freemium competitors since it has turned premium, Babbel comes closest to Rosetta Stone when we talk about features. Voice recognition, desktop client and mobile applications are some to mention for sure. Another interesting component is the review manager which gives the learner a detailed overview about the learning progress.
Livemocha Active French
A well-priced alternative based on Collins material you can join Livemocha’s CEO Michael Schutzler on his adventure of learning French. He just finished level 1 with 100%. You also had the alternative to start with the free Livemocha courses first that are supposed to take the learner to a lower intermediate level alreday. What I am missing here is a mobile component which I think is crucial today.
Probably the most edgy community from a design point of view and either you will like it or not, 1.5 million users do like it apparently. Again, you can start for free with the in-house developed courses of Busuu and then switch to the PONS powered premium sections. One key element for learners is the recently launched MyBusuu study guide which allows you to set personal goals / dead lines when you want to reach a certain level.
All of the four options above include interaction with the community that is, yet again, another crucial part. You need to get your language activated as soon as possible. The writing exercises, corrected by native speakers and the option to chat with people from France needs to be a part of the learning from day one.
Where is the teacher / tutor?
Now, where is the teacher / tutor in all of the above? Well, I really don’t see the need for a teacher here. All products do a great job guiding the learner through the first steps. I left this 10% or less as an option if there was a problem that cannot be solved by either the software or the community but I think that chances are high you won’t need any intervention by a teacher / tutor.
Another key component is to get yourself familiar with the culture. That can be easily done by watching French TV via Internet. Every French television station either streams live or offers videos of their favorite show formats on demand. You could for example talk about those shows with your French conversation partners on the communities.
That said, a learner should be able to reach a decent intermediate level of French, or any other romance language, in 3 to 6 months, depending on how much work he / she puts into it.
In the second part of learning a language, e.g. from intermediate upwards things change slightly. Whilst maintaining regular practice with partners on the community and learning new vocabulary etc you add a teacher / tutor at this point.
Build your own supports
Vocabulary learning is one of the key factors throughout the entire learning process. Even in your native language you will come across new words from time to time. Therefore, the learner should build up his/her own vocabulary deck with applications like CoboCards, HeyLango or a bunch of similar services that will work on mobile devices but also can be printed out on paper.
The learner can also add photos and mp3s with the correct pronunciation to the cards. A great service to get those personalized mp3s is RhinoSpike.
Look for “serious” teachers
My advice would be to get an independent one who might cost more per hour but if the learner chooses the right one it will pay off by faster and less stressful progress. And at this level a maximum of two 30 minute or 45 minute lessons per week were sufficient as they should concentrate on well defined topics only, no fuss. The higher the price per lesson, the better the service should be including last minute cancellations without fees, convenient times for the student and “extra” minutes, e.g. 30 minute lessons should not include small talk, that’s extra time.
To me, the best place to start looking for a teacher is either Google or TeachStreet. Both are great filters for teachers / tutors who teach for a living. Google will bring up teachers / tutors with a website, e.g. they put effort in their business and are somewhat tech savvy, a good sign for taking lessons via the Internet. TeachStreet requires them to invest money in order to get listed, e.g. they are willing to put money on the table to get a student which again is a good sign for being serious about teaching professionally.
To boil it down, the same mechanism that works for teachers works for students: price as a filter. If a teacher is willing to put money on the table for hosting a website or getting listed at a service like TeachStreet chances are high that he/she is serious about teaching languages as a business.
Another option is to find a teacher / tutor on the language learning communities. There are actually quite a few who correct the exercises for free which speaks louder than words about their passion to teach others a foreign language. Some of them are retired language teachers with a lot of experience. Hence, it’s worth asking them if they would be interested in teaching 1o1.
Another thing I highly recommend when taking lessons with a teacher is to insist on a fixed course structure which can be a classic text book. Either the learner buys one he/she likes or the teacher should be able to recommend one to the learner. Having such a book as basis of the live lessons it will provide the learner with a clear path and also exercises to work on between the lessons. I won’t recommend courses based on “own material” at this stage.
Another important factor when choosing a teacher / tutor to work with are the common interests. If you have the goal to use French for business like Vikrama you need to find a teacher who is able to talk about business, e.g. has an own interest in the topic or at least can adapt to the needs of the student. Talking about other things in life is of course nice, too but won’t help the learner reaching his/her goal. Therefore the learner should check that fact at the beginning.
The longer the learner and teacher will work together the less important the structure will become as grammar topics will be covered and learned sooner or later. At this point the lessons should turn into conversations where the learner brushes up his/her knowledge with more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structures. And thus after about 12 months the learner should be able to reach a level where he/she speaks with confidence in a business environment. The trick will be that even if the learner does not know the exact term, he/she is confident enough to phrase his/her thoughts anyway.
This post does not include applications like MindSnacks or Voxy as I focused on French here. If you are learning Spanish though you should definitely add those two mobile apps to the list of must haves.