Comparison of different language learning systems

By Joyce T. B.

My family and I all needed to learn enough German to live in a German-speaking country. So I've just finished several months of looking through a variety of online systems for learning German, besides watching my children use other systems: Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Mango Languages, Deutsche Welle, Duolingo, Anki, and Memrise. After all that, I came to the conclusion that German-Flashcards was actually going to be the best use of my time and money.

Rosetta Stone is probably the best-known of the systems, and the usual pros and cons have been discussed endlessly. It's great at getting people using the language and saying useful things, but even with the writing-intensive version turned on, it doesn't provide enough analysis for people who want to understand why they're saying what they're saying. It also assumes that the user doesn't mind staring at a computer screen for long stretches at a time and deciphering visual scenes. For me, this doesn't work well. It's also expensive (hundreds of dollars).

Pimsleur is not online, but it too is a well-known and expensive system (even more expensive than Rosetta Stone). It does well allowing you learn on the go, but vocabulary is limited, analysis is limited, and much of the course is unsuitable for minors ("Would you like to come to my house and have a whiskey?") It's sometimes hard to hear the endings clearly, so that handicaps the grammar learning. Buying the whole series would have cost over $1000 list price. I had bought 3 of 5 levels, used, at a price I have never seen since. So I've learned just over half the material available, but there is no way I would be able to continue, especially since the public library has stopped carrying it.

Mango Languages is the new pick of the public libraries, due to its multiple-user licensing. It does alright for beginners, but it doesn't get a user to a fluent level. Its interface is a bit annoying, and I'm not totally convinced that it has a good implementation of spaced repetition.

Deutsche Welle offers free online courses aligned to the European Common Language Framework. That's a plus, but it only presents fixed lessons and exercises, and doesn't used spaced repetition at all, so retention is relatively low. It is also very finicky about typing, so you need to do things like type the right number of spaces between words.

Duolingo is the latest fad. Its developer gave a TED talk about it, and the business model is very clever, but the product is so far from mature that I am amazed that anyone keeps using it. The lessons are full of errors because no expert has vetted each item, since the items are automatically generated. The system is set up to collect people's comments and questions and host a discussion about the questionable translations, but I am only a learner discussing with other learners, so I have no confidence that what I am learning is actual correct German. Many or most of the "Discuss this item" discussions consisted of the blind leading the blind, and in fact I know enough German to know that some of the statements people made were just plain wrong.

GermanPod is worse than useless -- it comes with extraordinarily aggressive marketing, and it provides vocabulary lists with no information about the gender of nouns. That means they aren't thinking about what language learners need. The speech also sounded like it was recorded by non-native speakers.

Anki and Memrise are both primarily spaced repetition for vocabulary learning.

Anki is very powerful, but it is primarily set up for people who are ready to sit down and make their own pile of electronic flashcards. This requires that you know what you need to learn; unfortunately, knowing what to put into flashcards is a big part of the knowledge that I am missing. I don't know what vocabulary words should be higher or lower priority, which kinds of verbs I should learn first, what kind of info I need to include on each flashcard. Anki does have shared decks that others have made for their own individual purposes, but they're pretty much just a heap of words, and it's hard to know how to start.

Memrise avoids some of these problems by having created a friendly interface. I do like that it makes listening easy. But lots of its exercises don't provide much learning; the drills spend a lot of time on things that aren't challenging enough to be useful for learning. There is too much time spent on multiple choice questions between obvious options, so it wastes a lot of time.

So that leaves me with our friendly German Flashcards. It provides accurate translations, both word-by-word and meaningful idiomatic translations. It starts you off easy and gets harder as you are ready. It can easily be used on a smartphone or on a computer. It provides noun genders. It allows you to implement your own spaced repetition, which is actually handy. I was skeptical of that at first, but I've been won over as soon as I thought about all the times in the spaced repetitions systems when I got an answer right or wrong due to a typo, and then the item is assigned to come back to the top of the pile at the wrong time. The fact that German Flashcards allows people to choose their own repetition interval isn't a bug, then; it's a feature. The interface is easy and friendly. I wish it had an off-line version, but that's another whole project. The exercises / flashcard quizzing formats are well-designed. The pronunciation in the sound files is excellent and fluent, unlike many others. And, there's the possibility of adding notes in the the premium version. So, I'm itching to get the upgrade. Hopefully that will happen soon!