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How to learn a language on the Internet

I made the decision to learn Korean last year. I don’t live in Korea and have no reason to go there, so it was just a whim. Still, it’s been a very rewarding experience, and I can now speak, read, and write much faster than I thought I could.

I’ve been able to do that because there are so many apps and online services out there that I can use. Since I didn’t have easy access to native speakers or in-person classes, I spent a lot of time in the beginning looking for resources on the internet and trying as many as I could find. Here, I’ll briefly talk about what I thought of each one and whether or not I’d recommend it for the price.

It’s important that I say the following:

I’m interested in languages, but I’m not an expert in them. Even though this article is about what I’ve done with these products, it’s just one data point. What works or doesn’t work for you could be very different.

The language you use a product in can often change how good it is. Like I said, I’m a language nerd, so I’ve used many of these services for more than one language. I’ll talk about those experiences here, but the best way to find out if an app will work for you (as is the case with most things) is to try it out for yourself.

This article is written for people whose first language is English (because I am one). If you are fluent in another language, make sure you look into other options for people who speak that language.
In addition to these, you should look for resources that are specific to the language you’ve chosen. Reddit is a good place to look for these. There are subreddits for many languages where people who are learning that language can share what they’ve been using.

One more thing before we get started. My main piece of advice for online language learners like me is not to put all your eggs in one basket (at least, at the start). Using several apps at once has not only helped me remember what I’m learning, but it’s also given me a bigger picture than I would have had otherwise. Common phrases in most languages can be said in more than one way.

For example, in English, you can say “Hey,” “Hi,” “Hello,” etc., and different courses may teach you different ways. Some sources may also quickly explain ideas that others explain in more depth. I think you should have a variety of ways to learn, at least until you’ve found one that you’re sure is complete and works for you.

So, here are some apps that I’ve used.

PIMSLEUR costs $14.95 a month or $134.95 a year for audio-only lessons in a single language. Audio and video exercises in one language cost $19.95 per month or $149.95 per year. Audio and video exercises in all languages cost $20.95 per month or $164.95 per year.

A picture of the Pimsleur app showing a lesson being played.
This is a lesson with sound.

A screenshot of the Pimsleur app’s Quick Match exercise. There are four different ways to say “There are 450 km” in Hangul, which is written below the English phrase.
This is one of the few exercises where the romanizations can be turned off.
Pimsleur is a course that is almost entirely made up of audio. You should listen to a 30-minute audio track every day. You can do it more often if you want, but every day is the best. The track puts you in different roles, like a tourist asking for directions, a customer ordering beer at a restaurant, a shopper haggling over a price, or a worker setting up a lunch with a coworker, and has you play that role in a simulated conversation.

Your made-up conversation partner talks to you in the target language, you answer in that language, and then a native speaker says the right answer, which you repeat a few times after them.

The (English-speaking) narrator will occasionally teach you new words and phrases, which you’ll also have to repeat a few times. As you learn more phrases, the conversations you have with yourself get more complex.

Pimsleur is by far the best resource I’ve ever used to learn how to say words. People often tell me how good my accent is in the languages I’m learning, and Pimsleur is the reason why. The app makes you repeat words and phrases over and over again right after a native speaker does it. Even though this can be boring, it is a great way to improve your pronunciation.

If you want to learn survival phrases for a trip, Pimsleur is also a very practical choice. The first phrases Pimsleur teaches you are common tourist phrases like “Do you speak English?” “Excuse me,” “How much does this cost?” etc. It also helps you quickly learn a lot of words. I learned most of the Korean words I know now from Pimsleur.

Reading and writing are missing from Pimsleur, which is a big problem. There are some extra reading exercises in the app, like flashcards, short quizzes, and a few games, but they aren’t very complicated.

Some of the games in the Korean course use romanizations instead of Hangul, while most other Korean resources try to get you away from romanizations as quickly as possible.

Even though this is a problem with Korean, it shows that even Pimsleur’s written materials focus more on speaking than on reading and writing. Pimsleur works best as an audio programme. If you also want to learn to read and write, you should use something else in addition to Pimsleur.

Pimsleur also takes a little more time than some of the other tools you might find. It needs 30 minutes a day, and that’s before you use the flashcards and other features of the app.

It can be a nice companion on the way to and from work, and there’s a special screen for use while driving, but that’s about all my brain can handle at once. I know people who listen to Pimsleur while they cook or clean, but that’s never worked for me. I forget things unless I can focus on Pimsleur for 30 minutes at a time.

The last problem is that Pimsleur costs a lot of money. If you can’t afford it, that’s fine. You can still have a great time learning a language with the resources listed here that cost less. I will say, though, that if you have the money and time to pay for just one resource, I strongly suggest that you pay for this one.

Other materials spend more time on grammar rules and complicated mechanics, but I haven’t found anything else that teaches so much useful information so quickly. At the beginning of my journey, I tried a lot of expensive apps, but this is the only one I’m still paying for.

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