The Pros and Cons of Paid vs Free Language Learning Resources

currency around the globe
 

How much money do you spend on language learning products, books, courses or lessons?

You want to learn a language, but of course, you don’t really want to spend any more money than you have to either. With so many programs, courses, tutors and other opportunities it can be difficult to decide what the best course of action for you might be.

I’ve said many times that you can learn a language for very little, and I maintain that language learning should be quite affordable or at the very least cost effective. Unfortunately so many resources are neither of these things. So how do we determine if or when we should be laying down cash?





A few weeks ago I was checking out this article titled “Why You Will Not Learn Spanish for Free“, on Speaking Latino. Being a huge supporter of free learning I was more than just a little skeptical of what I would find. While still not perfectly in line with my own views on language learning I found that I actually agreed with a lot more than I had originally anticipated.

  

The points the article cites for why one won’t learn a language using free methods are:

  • Money is a motivator
  • Money gets you higher quality resources
  • Money can help measure your progress
  • Money saves you time

Lets take a slightly closer look at a couple of these.

Money as motivation

Well this one certainly appears to make sense. You’d think that if you dumped $100 on Pimsleur courses that you’d be more likely to use them than not, right? I mean you wouldn’t want to waste your money, after all.

Tell that to the monthly gym membership I pay for or the numerous language books or apps I never touch.

Motivation as a result of spending money is kind of a toss up and might be at least partially dependent on how much money you invest in something. If I decide to take formal language courses at a local university I could be looking at a class that costs me thousands. Rest assured I’ll probably show up for that one.

Still, this is kind of a subjective motivator and while it certainly makes sense that laying down a few more dollars makes you more likely to commit, speaking from personal experience this definitely isn’t always the case.

Resource quality

It would make sense that if you’re paying for a product it is likely of higher quality than its cheaper counterparts, right? I mean there’s a reason that we spend so much money buying designer clothing and organic food. We’re under the impression that the increased price tag in some way indicates a superior item in comparison to cheaper options.

There’s a reason the shirt you bought at Walmart fell apart and the one you bought from Gap didn’t.

Often this is quite true and you are in fact paying for quality however when it comes to language learning software the price tag is definitely not always the greatest indicator.

My favorite example of this is of course Rosetta Stone. For years Rosetta dominated the language industry owing largely to having a vast marketing budget and making itself far more visible than its competition. The program is quite expensive, costing anywhere from around $150 for a single level of a language to around $500 for complete packages. Educators buying bulk packages with teacher analytics tools can spend thousands.

So you’d think that this software, which is vastly less complicated than many modern video games that cost a fraction of the cost, had better pump out some serious results, right?

Wrong. There’s a reason you never hear about the biggest polyglot names or language bloggers writing about Rosetta in positive light. We’ve used it and it sucks. Its word/picture matching system and the difficulty that learners tend to have really engaging with it makes it one of the biggest money sinks in the industry.

On the other hand there are plenty of far more effective methods that cost absolutely nothing. 

All in all, this point is a tossup. Money is not necessarily a solid indicator of a product’s quality or effectiveness either, but then again neither are all free products worth a second glance.

Should we ever pay for anything?

Yes. While it is by no means 100% necessary and you absolutely can learn a language without spending anything, it isn’t necessarily always advisable. Sometimes spending a little cash does help.

What should I pay for, you ask? Lessons and tutoring. 

The absolute most important thing anyone learning a language can do is to speak it, listen to it being spoken and receive real time feedback from a fluent speaker, in most cases a native. This means that you really have to try to find someone who you can either work with in person or online via Skype or a similar program.

Luckily for you there are plenty of ways that you can go about meeting tutors for almost no effort and relatively low costs. iTalki is a site where you can network with tutors who dedicate their time and energy to creating lesson plans for you, to actually teaching you a language.

Some iTalki tutors are free, but most are not. Again, as with other language products this isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality. Tutors choose the prices they place on their time, usually somewhere in the $15-$20 per hour neighborhood, which really isn’t bad when compared to in-person tutoring services that often ask between $40 and $60 per hour.

Many language bloggers also offer their services directly through their sites, usually for very reasonable prices. You can check out a couple examples here at Little Kiwi Linguist, Fluent Language and 5-Minute Language. While you’re at it you should also check out one of my favorite new resources for language enthusiasts; The Digital Language Collective where you can find dozens more language bloggers, resources and of course reasonably priced tutoring.

It’s also important to remember that tutoring is often the livelihood of many very hardworking teachers in the language industry. By spending $20 here and there you are not only taking advantage of the human element – something you need – but also allowing them to keep doing what they do.

Here’s what I pay for

I spend very little money on language learning products, but there are a few things I really don’t mind shelling out a little bit of dough for that I still find to be cost effective solutions.

In addition to paid tutoring I would suggest paying for:

  • Some mobile apps. Most don’t cost anything but occasionally an app runs a $2-$5. Not really a big deal
  • Books. I’m not really the biggest fan of language texts but there’s an enormous supply of both eBooks and audiobooks available online for relatively cheap through services like Kindle and Audible. Print language booksare also available on Amazon and elsewhere.
  • Pimsleur audio courses. You can read more about my experiences with Pimsleur here, but suffice it to say that I find it to be a cost effective program for new learners just getting started on a fresh project.
  • Buy a good print dictionary. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Travel expenses. This one is extremely expensive and there’s really no way around it. You don’t have to travel to learn a language, but if you can you really, really should.
  • I pay for Memrise premium. It gives you tools to help maximize your study performance and track various statistics to help you improve your learning. It’s nice but by no means necessary for everyone.

Conclusion

As much as I preach the pursuit of free or very cheap products, sometimes spending a little money is in your best interest. Again, can you learn a language without spending money? Sure. Should you? Probably not, entirely.

There are things you can do to mitigate expenses but you’re going to have a very hard time avoiding all costs, especially when it comes to tutoring, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

What do you think? What kind of language products or services are you willing to spend money on?

 

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  • When it comes to learning a language for real, never but ever be a penny pincher. I take lessons of Polish since my goal is having a working competence of the language 🙂 . I also combine it with free methods: tv, music, et al. I have also suscribed to some lifestyle magazines in Polish which the yearly suscription fee was like buying 2 magazines in Poland 😀 . There are free ways to learn a language, but as many people say, language learning is 80% commitment and 20% methods.

    • Agreed! As always i endeavor to keep things as cheap as possible, but yeah, sometimes money can buy you quality. Thanks!

  • Hi Brian!

    Here in Germany there is an “I don’t want to pay for anything”-mentality. It’s really strange – people are willing to pay huge amounts of money for handbags, shoes, cars or jewellery but are not willing to spend a cent on language learning products or on tutoring or coaching. I teach at a language centre, a language course with 15 lessons (1,5 hours each) costs around 50 euros – and you won’t believe it that there are people who think that this is too expensive!

    I find that quite strange – I think that you have to pay for quality content and quality lessons, and there is no different if it’s an online or a traditional course. If somebody works for you on a product – dictionary, app, course, … – he should be paid. Nobody would like to work without getting money for it.

    The same persons who are not willing to pay a single cent for a product however say that they want to get regular pay rises at work, they want to be paid for everything they do.
    So – what should we do? We as teachers, bloggers and authors can’t always defend ourselves. I have to make a living, so people have to pay for my work. If I need a plumber or a computer specialist I have to pay him, too. The same for other things: If I need a tourist guide (book) I have to pay for it. Why don’t people want to pay for a language product?
    That’s strange, isn’t it?

    That’s of course only one side of the medal – the other side is that paying money could mean a higher motivation, but if I’m talking about that today, my comment will become longer and longer and longer …

    Christine

    • I think you’re absolutely right Christine. Nobody wants to pay money, especially for things that aren’t as immediately gratifying – and I suspect that’s the problem you’re encountering. Buying a car gets you a car right now, as does a handbag or shoes or anything material.

      Learning a language takes time, sometimes a lot of time. There’s also the fact that it implies work. Learning a language is difficult for most people and unfortunately I imagine you have a hard time proving to anyone that their money would be well spent ahead of time. Even with customer testimonials most people are not especially warm to the idea of acquiring a new language because it takes time and effort.

      I totally agree that money has to be made if you’re offering a service, which is why I stand behind those who would pay for courses or even just tutoring. Most tutors I know don’t charge an arm and a leg for their services and genuinely care about improving the lives of their learners.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Brian, we agree with your points and conclusion, except that we have come to believe that money is actually a weak motivator for a long-term project such as learning another language.
    Whoever coined the term “Rosetta Stone effect” was on to something: The sunk cost of a few hundred dollars diminishes in importance compared with more weeks of boredom ahead. But, because you don’t want to acknowledge your mistake you’ll still recommend it to your friends…
    Getting into a “learning habit” with free programs and once you “got it”, then upgrade to a high quality, comprehensive classroom or online course, live or online tutor, etc. , may be the best approach for serious learners. The latter choices will further depend on learning style, availability, time, money etc.

    • I actually hadn’t heard of the “Rosetta Stone effect” but I completely agree with it. It is boring, relatively ineffective and the worst; potentially serves as a crutch that can actually hinder progress by luring learners into a false sense of accomplishment despite finishing what essentially an over priced computer game.

      Like I said, money is an iffy motivator. I’ve payed for so many things in my life that I don’t use. Magazine subscriptions I don’t read, video games I never play, books that collect dust on shelves and even language products I may have spent a few minutes with and more or less shelved indefinitely.

      Part of why I do prefer to recommend free products though is because the majority of my readers are between 18 and 34, a demographic that sadly, these days, while more interested in things like languages and travel than ever before, is the least likely to be able to afford to do so. Most of my friends, or I for that matter, can’t lay down hundreds of dollars on a program like Rosetta or Rocket or even in many cases Pimsleur (which I think is cost effective, but still not free.)

      Thanks for commenting, as always!

  • StellaBarbone

    I piddled around with French on my own for years and then made real progress when I started working with a tutor. I already had a solid foundation of grammar theory, vocabulary, and oral comprehension, but I really needed the opportunity to speak and be corrected. I’m not sure that I would have benefited as much from the tutor earlier in my studies though.

    • Well, I maintain that real human interaction, even if it’s not with an actual tutor, is going to be the most beneficial strategy for most people. There are hurdles to be overcome though – such as fear of speaking and the fact that if you’re engaged in the average language exchange the person you’re working with isn’t usually a teacher.

      And that’s fine, and languages exchanges are always to be encouraged, but they aren’t always going to be enough in and of themselves.

      Tutors aren’t usually especially expensive. Native (or at least fluent) feedback is essential.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Anthony659225

    I think part of the problem with some of the free language courses is that it’s not language teachers who are running the show. It’s computer types: programmers, software developers, and the like. Lingua.ly, for example, puts the definitions of words in alphabetical order rather than in an order based on frequency of usage. Thus, a rarely used definition can be listed first, and a more common, everyday usage comes last. I don’t know whose idea this was, but it certainly could not have been a language teacher’s. And even Duolingo, which I think is a pretty good tool, has issues. Isn’t the term “crowd sourcing,” where lessons are put together by volunteers? Maybe not, but the point I’m trying to make is how volunteer teachers are vetted. When I read user comments about a particular Duolingo sentence, for example, it is not uncommon to see someone who is fluent write, “we would never say this in France” or “no Italian would use such a term,” and so on. And it makes me wonder if the teachers are actually fluent. But, I plan to continue to use both lingua.ly (which has the potential for greatness) and Duolingo. I think their virtues outweigh their drawbacks. I also use Memrise. In short, as you have often pointed out, Brian, it’s wise to cobble together various free sites so that the strengths of each can compensate for the weaknesses of each. Finally, I wish Khan Academy would start offering language study. My experience with Khan Academy so far is that the lessons and videos are of very high quality. I think Khan Academy would vet a volunteer language teacher.

  • Anthony659225

    Brian, I wrote a comment for this topic and it is no where to be found. VERY FRUSTRATING. I use disqus, so is the trick not to exit disqus until you approve the comment? Thanks.

    • I apologize for that. Disqus is set to automatically send any post with a link in it to an approval folder. It sends me a notification via email but I haven’t checked email in 4 hours – obviously. I allow it to do so because at least half of the comments I receive are spam that include a link to paid services that are either not relevant or not helpful to readers, and it’s up to me to sort out the ones that are legitimate.

      Your comment has been approved. Lingua.ly is both the name of their site and a URL, which many people don’t see to always realize.

      I have gone ahead and whitelisted you, so this shouldn’t be an issue again.

      • I wish Disqus had an app. I have no idea why they don’t, but it would make management so much easier.

  • Anthony659225

    Thank you, Brian. There is no end to the mysteries of the computer. I had no idea that including the name of the website would trigger some kind of spam alert. Anyway, it’s nice to know that I can be a part of future discussions. You put out a boffo newsletter, and I get great satisfaction from knowing that I’m part of a language-learning community.

  • I hadn’t really thought about the fact that so many products are not created by linguists, polyglots or other languagey individuals, but are more or less the property of designers with dissimilar notions.

    Crowd sourcing usually implies donor funding, I think, but it does also occasionally include user design input. Duolingo has its own professional teach for program design but they do use “crowd sourced”, I suppose you can call it, content for their reading supplements. These are somewhat subject to human error.

    Memrise does this too as all content is user created. While typically with Memrise the good content floats to the top whereas the bad content sinks, you do still occasionally come across human error.

    I actually had never heard of Khan Academy.

    Thanks for your comment! Sorry about the lingua.ly link fiasco.

    • Anthony659225

      Some human error is certainly tolerable, especially when the virtues far outweigh the vices. As I said, I have no plans to abandon using any of the sites. And, I have a great deal of respect for those putting those things together. All in all, they are providing valuable services to learners all around the world. As for Khan Academy, it’s an astounding achievement. I’m using it mostly for math. My goal is eventually to be able to do a bit of calculus, a subject that I flunked many years ago as a very immature and easily distracted undergraduate. But KA also offers tutorials in Art History, Music, Econonomjcs, and so on. I encourage you to check it out. It’s free, of course, making all that it offers even more impressive. Alas, it does not offer language study. Not yet, anyway.

  • LinguaJunkie.com

    I think you’re approaching, or rather framing, this from a very narrow scope.

    The question shouldn’t be whether to pay or not – but whether the resource legitimately provides results and value to you. Sadly value can be subjective.

    You have people that vehemently reject textbooks for the sheer nature of medium and that they can’t get you to “speak” a language. However, there’s different value that lies in books – should you look for it. Few people do.

    You can complain that a language class in school isn’t helpful because you’re only taking tests, doing homework and listening to the teacher yak. BUT are you pulling value from the class? You have a real native speaker standing in front of you – you should be talking to them at every opportunity.

    Actually, that’s the case with every language resource you can do a review on. You can slam it for its negatives without looking for value. It’s like looking for the perfect resource that doesn’t exist. I don’t know about Rosetta – never used it – but my opinion was pretty much shaped by reading what others have said, like you. Possibly a good thing. And probably a bad thing because they’re dictating my choices. Then again, I’m no fan of matching pictures to words for such a hefty price.

    You shouldn’t be telling people what to pay for. Let them find the value. Or at least, push the value of each resource. There’s no one silver bullet.

    And language learning is not free. From one side, someone has put in effort into an app or ebook and would like to put food on the table. On the other hand, you’re also spending TIME – which is irreplaceable to me – so there’s that. You can choose to throw money to hasten the process (again, that depends on you, your motivation, and if the resource even works) or do it for free, but you’re still spending time.

    Anyway, over to free and your POV. In my opinion, I think it’s better to start for “free” as a beginner and learn the basics instead of throwing down cash. If you can maintain consistency and develop habits, you should invest in something valuable. Otherwise, you dump money on a book and think you’ll use it – but end up avoiding it because of your motivations and overall desire (your fault). Too many beginners do that (I have some untouched books and apps).

    Well, that was a long comment.

    Cheers!

  • Anthony659225

    I enjoyed reading your response, linguajunkie. You made some excellent points, especially that a language learner gets out of ANY language teaching method what he puts into it, no matter how “imperfect” the method may be. For example, Rosetta Stone touts their way of learning as a way to escape “boring” exercises and rote memorization, two features of language learning that, to me, have much value and that aren’t boring at all. If a student takes a class that uses a textbook (most still do I imagine) and where the teacher requires vocabulary and verb conjugation memorization, so be it. It’s up to the student to work and to take advantage. As for the focus on freebies, the websites themselves should shoulder the blame for a lot of that. Duolingo, for example, says outright: “Learn a language for free. Forever.” So, there you are. Yes, they have to eat, but they’re the ones making the offer. And that’s what is so remarkable about many of these free sites. They put out a quality product that requires no payment from their users. Why they do it and how they can afford to do it is a discussion in itself. Maybe it’s partly ideological, that learning of any kind should be provided gratis to the world’s citizens. Or maybe some are working on ways to eventually monetize what they are doing. Maybe a little of both. I don’t know, but I do know — in this particular situation, anyway — I have no guilt about getting something for nothing (except for the cost of my time, as you said). Duolingo et.al. made the offer. And yes, Khan Academy must have a few bucks. I know the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of its donors. But I’ve donated money to KA, too. Mere grains of sand compared to Gates, of course, but I have such a fondness for KA that I wanted to help. Because of me, maybe they can buy a few more paper clips and some rubber bands.

  • This post is spot on. The two biggest investments I make in my language learning are 1) Pimsleur which is one large upfront investment and 2) lessons which are inexpensive, but add up over time. Spending money hasn’t, for me personally, had any effect on whether or not I study but I always think it’s a good idea to invest into materials you like so that you enjoy your study time.

  • Thanks for mentioning my article Brian. It’s great to get a debate going.

    I think it’s important to highlight that some great tools do not require any investment, if that’s not an option for the learner. I happen to think that Memrise is a fabulous tool, and last I checked (a few months ago) the premium version, which I paid for, doesn’t add anything to my Memrise experience. When people ask, I tell them to stick to the free version even if they can afford to spend the money.

    Also, italki has some extremely powerful options for free, such as natives checking your writing, answering specific questions and finding language partners. I find my readers sometimes lash out at me because I mention parts of italki being free and all they fixate on is the paid portion. Italki’s free options alone make the website a fundamental learning tool.

    Also, money as a motivator doesn’t always apply, as you mention. A monthly gym membership is a great example, although I would say that a one-time fee (like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur) is much less a motivator than a regular, recurring fee, where you regularly see the expense / waste if you do not use the tool or service you pay for. This one also depends largely on the individual.

    The other important part of money as a motivator as I see it is “What are you willing to give up to make this happen?” or “How motivated are you to get the money to pay for your trip to France and study French?”. Will you cut down on dinners out, get an extra job, work some overtime, etc.

    Thanks again!

  • Maha

    I believe that what is mentioned in your post is true! I don’t say that all free sources are bad, but money really brings you better qualified ones. A tutor will give his best if he sees a reward, other than that you might not get the best benefit. I haven’t tried the website iTalki yet, but I have tried a similar free version called Livemocha, which depends on the idea of teaching your native language and learning a new language from a native speaker at the same time. It’s really cool. Maha

  • pir

    At this point in my language learning I’ve whittled my requirements down pretty well, and I sure wish I had known what I know now way back at the dawn of time. 😉

    Money doesn’t work as a motivator for me. Actual motivation is pretty much entirely internal; I love languages, I love learning them, I love learning about the associated cultures, and that’s all the long-term motivation I need. I never spend enough money for it to really hurt me if I were to waste it; I’m otherwise frugal — all I ever buy are language resources, books, and music. And I don’t really consider any language resources wasted; even my one Rosetta Stone course wasn’t the worst thing I ever spent money on (I had fun with their speech recognition, however embryonic it was). I bought it second hand (which was possibly illegal, but screw shrink-wrap legalese) because it was just too expensive — that one I would probably have regretted at full price, but it wouldn’t have motivated me to stick with it. Sticking with something that sucks just throws my good time after bad money. I stuck with the language, just not with RS.

    But I am definitely willing to pay for: A native speaker to tutor me on pronunciation early on, an experienced tutor now and again to firm up knowledge I mostly acquire on my own, a frequency dictionary, a solid reference grammar, a decent learner’s dictionary at the start and an excellent monolingual dictionary once I can handle it. I used to buy Assimil courses, but I don’t anymore — they were well worth it before the rise of the web. Now I can find the audio resources I need online (I’ve not yet learned a rare language for which this would be difficult). Later on I usually buy foreign language fiction as well. But I spend a lot less money these days than I used to. I do not ever pay for classroom or online courses, or in-country intensive courses — I’d like to do the latter, but that’s usually simply not in my budget; gotta stick with iTalki and InterPals.

    I am using Memrise and DuoLingo right now for the first time, and would actually pay for Memrise if they didn’t seem to me to take away useful aspects of the program lately instead of improving it. I would not pay for DuoLingo because I think their pedagogy leaves much to be desired, their gamification mostly leaves me cold, and the actual benefit I get comes from the comment sections, which are crowd sourced — I contribute there in turn instead. Most online for-pay language teaching courses I’ve checked out don’t give me anything I can’t do better for myself.

  • Chiming in a year later… I couldn’t agree more that price doesn’t always reflect value of language learning tools. In my opinion, Rosetta got away with charging a fortune because (painting broad strokes here) their target demographic is a generation that tends to associate higher prices with higher quality. Similar to the way wine companies would raise prices when a product struggled because the average consumer would perceive higher value.

    Fortunately, today’s language-hacking thought leaders can call BS and alert their cronies quickly since feedback is ubiquitous these days. (And we listen!)

    My two cents in this fairly well-covered discussion thread: It’s worth it to pay only when the benefits are clear and experienced quickly.

    I agree with the sentiments that people treat many language-learning purchases as sunk costs (either because that’s how a sunk cost should be treated by definition, or more likely, because language learning is hard work, and people throw in the towel early if they’re not experiencing direct pay off. Also, I loved Ulrike’s description of “RS Effect.”) I hide my guitar because I feel guilty every time I see it, the same way many cringe with buyer’s remorse if they catch a glance at the big yellow box of CDs covered in dust.

    When you have a taste for the payoff though, it’s extremely rewarding, and you’re willing to spend. Whether or not the product was built by an educator or technologist, if the learner isn’t experiencing the benefit (usually quickly), the product won’t be used repeatedly. To quote a great user experience designer, Sean Gerety, “The technology you use impresses no one. The experience you create with it is everything.”

    I agree that learners need to piece together their own learning management system of tools—and at the end of the day, it comes down to how motivated the learner is—but I think applying the lessons is key in order to experience benefits. If the goal is to effectively communicate with native speakers, for example, how will users comprehend any clear benefit until they’re actually speaking with native speakers?

    For our language exchange website, we found that users are willing to pay if it means they will have real conversations with native speakers. They value time and experience, and want to connect with other people who share the motivation to use every minute wisely and speak, perhaps similar to those who pay for online tutors.