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What To Look for When Buying a Language Software?

When shopping for language software, it’s important to get an accounting of the program’s available features. The content and features of each software vary to a good degree. As such, you’re bound to get something different with every package. And what works for one person may not necessarily be what works out as a strong fit for you.

Before you can compare language programs, you’ll need to know what exactly to look for.

Here are some ideas to get you started on your research language software.

What All Language Software Share?

All language learning programs, of course, will have things in common. For the most part, they’ll all have audio courses (because it’s important to hear new words), vocabulary builders and built-in basic tools (like dictionary, translator and thesaurus). Those are the bare essentials, after all. Beyond that, titles can vary immensely.

What Language Skills Are You Looking to Develop?

Most language programs restrict their instruction to speaking and listening. That’s because reading and writing can be particularly difficult, especially for people raised in Romanic languages.

Unless you intend to read and write a new Language, then focus on software that concentrates on building your speaking and listening skills. That’s all you need, after all. They will be cheaper and less bloated with unnecessary features, making them ideal for your goals.

For those interested in reading and writing, there are some resources out there available to you. From my investigation of language software offerings, though, they’re severely limited. While I haven’t tried those software-based reading and writing training, I’m guessing the learning curve will be a tad steep, too. Make sure to consider the kind of time you’ll invest in this compared to classroom training with a qualified instructor. If you have unlimited time to learn reading and writing (i.e. it’s an optional skill), then software will be fine; if you’re under time pressure, though, having a real-life instructor might prove more helpful, especially for speeding you through the process.

What Do You Need Out of the Language Course?

Do you want basic conversational skills for next year’s business trip to Tianjin? Are you looking for enough language skills to be able to haggle with merchants in Shenzen? Do you want to get as fluent as possible for your planned permanent move to Guangzhou? Or do you just want enough survival language skills for finding your way from the airport to your company’s staff offices in Beijing?

The software you want to get will depend on your answer to the above. Different language software can prepare you for different levels of fluency. A software designed to teach your survival language skills, for instance, won’t be the best for those looking to learn Languages for business meetings next year. After all, doing business in any country — especially an exotic culture like China — entails customs and behaviors that a survival language software just won’t prepare you for. Remember: a big part of learning a language involves learning the culture and choosing a program built for specific purposes (e.g. business, school) will often cover that.

What Language software Features Do You Want?

Language Video Learning

Do you prefer seeing people’s actions while they speak a new Language? I do. I especially prefer video for phrases and sentences I memorize for practice. Physical gestures and facial expressions help me figure out exactly what’s going on, making the learning process just a tad more complete than just hearing the words. If you’re the same way, you will want to make sure that your language software offers video lectures, on top of the audio option. Chinese, in particular, is a tricky language to learn, so visual cues can help immensely.

Language Audio

It was a surprise, but there are, apparently, still language software with audio that don’t automatically let you transfer the audio lessons to your mobile player. There’s not a lot of them (I only found two so far), but this is probably one feature you’d like to make sure exists, especially if you plan to listen to lessons while on the road on your smartphone.

Language Smartphone App.

If you spend most of your screen time on a smartphone, you might want to get a software with an accompanying smartphone app on top of porting audio to mobile. So far, though, I haven’t seen anything substantial. Given that I’ve seen that feature in software for languages like Italian and French before, I’m sure there’s probably one out there with exactly that option.

Language Audio/Video Lessons

Yep, there are some software that offer actual remote tutoring as part of the course. There are limits, of course, but having a trained bilingual tutor to bounce questions off against (even for limited periods) can be very helpful to your learning efforts. There are also courses that offer chat tutoring as the primary mode of lecture, with the software components acting as supplementary resources. While these are obviously great, you might want to watch out for the costs (even live online tutors aren’t cheap, of course).

Language Speech Recognition

This is a very common feature in many language software. That’s why I’m surprised to see quite a few of the Language training programs I’ve looked at not have this feature. Maybe incorporating the technology for
Language speaking isn’t quite as easy. Still, I’d recommend you get one with speech recognition support — that’s the only way you can really practice with a computer and know that your pronunciation is on the right track.

Language Tests and Quizzes

Aside from in-field interactions, nothing can help measure your ability to measure what you’ve learned so far than tests and quizzes. That’s why I find some form of testing feature (even a simple pre-made flashcard system) a necessity in almost any language software. Not all titles will have them, though, so make sure you check the features list for them.

Language Games and Interactive Exercises

This is an optional feature that could be valuable, depending on the implementation. I’ve seen them offered in several language titles and I actually found them useful for the most part.

Language User Forums.

While this isn’t directly a part of the software, having a user forum allows the customers of a Language training program to have a hub where they can discuss their progress. It’s immensely helpful and has been one of the most significant value-added features a company can provide its customer base.

Language Software Checklist: Does It Cover What You Need?

If you’re going to pay for language software, it’s a good idea to figure out if it’s exactly what you will need.  Here are things you want to know to make sure.

What level is it aimed at? 

If you’re a beginner, you wouldn’t want software that assumes some amount of basic familiarity with the language.  Those who have a foundation, on the other hand, will probably not be served by more 101 lessons.  You want to know the level of speaking ability the software is designed to work with.

What applications is it best for? 

Some language software is geared towards general use, while others are aimed for more specialized applications.  If you want to use the target language for business, then one whose material covers mostly language for tourists probably won’t serve you as well as you’d like.

Does it cover reading and writing? 

Most language software are aimed towards speaking and oral comprehension.  As such, if you intend to learn reading and writing as well, you have to invest in a software that’s designed to cover those areas.

Do you want to memorize phrases or do you want a deep understanding of the language? 

If you want a deeper grasp of the language beyond memorized vocabulary, then a software that goes heavy on grammar lessons might be more along your lines.

Different people require different approaches to learning.  Chances are, you’ve been clued in to this long ago, after spending loads of time taking standardized lessons through many years in school.  If you want to maximize the benefits you reap from your language software, you better make sure it takes the kind of approach that plays well to your strengths.

How is the material presented? 

Some language software favor interactive exchanges, while others will have you sitting down for a lesson that’s followed by exercises.   Neither of those approaches is better than the other, but you’ll probably work best with one, depending on your personal preferences.

How is the pace? 

If you’re a slow learner, a software that aims to rush the student through fluency probably isn’t the best match.  On the other hand, a slow-paced learning program can end up boring you if you’re the type to pick things up at a faster rate.

What kinds of learning mediums do you work with best? 

Is it video, audio, text or a combination of all three?  Some people work best with video, while others can find it distracting.  Make sure you try the software first and see how the presentation works for you.

Language Software Checklist: Cost-Effectiveness

In an ideal world, all of us will have dedicated language tutors walking us through the intricacies of a language.  Suffice it to say, though, that a scenario like that will probably be out of reach for majority of people.

One of the biggest issues for many language learners is cost: how much money will they need to spend in order to adequately learn a language?  Not everyone has bottomless pockets, after all, so finding the balance between cost and results is something you should concern yourself with.

Cost-effectiveness is one of the reasons students cite when they choose language learning software over other mediums.   You pay once and you get yourself a tool that you can use many times over.  Plus, not only are most current language software comprehensive, they’re usually optimized for really learning a language, given how flexible software can be.

Before you commit to a language program, factor in the cost and the likely results you can glean each offering.   The most expensive language training software isn’t always going to be the most effective for you, so do your research and take trial offers whenever they’re available.

How about settling for the cheapest?  Well, that’s your call.  Most of the time, though, you’re trading in effectiveness for cost, considering the amount of effort that’s likely been put in low-cost language programs.

Is It Ok to Use More Than One Language Software?

One thing I’ve seen among over-eager language learners is the tendency to pay for multiple software and online services when first embarking on a language learning journey. If you’re the same way, you may want to hold on to your credit card a little and begin rethinking this strategy.

No, I’m not going to knock you for your zest to learn. Instead, I’ll point you towards the unnecessarily messy start you’re getting yourself into. Say, you bought two language software, a membership to a web-based program and two books. Do you realistically believe you can cover them all and still have time to practice?

Instead of trying to consume everything, we actually suggest focusing on one (at most two) of your materials. Why? Because they can end up confusing you. Since these are separate programs, they like come with different lesson structures and learning plans, so it’s possible that one will just end up messing with what you’re learning from the other.

Additionally, most language learning software tend to progress by what it assumes is your advancement using their learning program. If, since you’re using three or four materials, you’re actually learning differently, you might up either getting bored or confused the next time you jump from one to another.

If you go this route, you’ll likely end up getting overloaded by vocabulary, since different programs tend to introduce different things. While nothing’s wrong with a larger stock of words, it could be the last thing you need, especially since language learning requires more than memorizing vocabulary.

Interactive Features In Modern Language Software

The idea of learning a language using software can seem overwhelming. You’ll be going it alone, after all, with no one to ask for help. Because of this lack of other people to exchange ideas with, plenty of modern language software are designed to be interactive.

Different software titles have different ways of injecting interactivity into their process. That’s why it’s important to survey the field a little before committing to a specific title. What works for one of your friends may not work the same way for you, after all. If you want to get an overview of what to expect, here are some ways modern language software are integrating interactive elements:

Interactive practice.  Traditional lessons involve sitting through lectures. Practice-based software, on the other hand, put practice sessions as the single core priority. You learn a phrase, then the software drills you on it multiple times; then you move on to a new related one and so on. This approach actually recreates the feeling of interacting with a speaker, which makes it effective for a lot of people.

Engagement-based.  In this approach, the software engages multiple senses using a variety of media to teach the language, such as live video, animation, sound and more. I’m, personally, not that big on it (I find the amount of things going on confusing), but a lot of people I know have found it very effective.

Games and modular approaches. While these types of language software can cause linear thinkers to zone out, non-linear types tend to gravitate to it. With clever games and unorthodox teaching styles, it can be a fun experience if you’re the type to appreciate those.

Getting Rid of Unrealistic Expectations with Your Language Software

Everybody has expectations when they first use a language software. It’s only natural. Make sure you keep your expectations in line with what learning software can actually, though. Otherwise, you can end up disappointed or, worse, unmotivated to pursue learning any further.

  1. Expect to work. You won’t magically learn the language just because you’re using the best learning software money can buy — you’ll have to work to develop your abilities, just like when learning martial arts or calculus or some other new skill.
  2. Expect to practice. Sitting through hours of lessons will help you absorb the knowledge. Fluency, however, comes with practice, so you’ll have to use the language if you want to really internalize the skill.
  3. Expect to reap what you sow. The more effort you put in, the more skills you’ll acquire. While the amount of time you devote to learning will matter, so do other things like planning, using tools (e.g. journals and flashcards) and sustained practice.
  4. Expect gradual improvement. No matter what anyone promises, you’re not going to gain fluency in 10 hours of lessons. Stay realistic — expect gradual improvement and you won’t be disappointed. As long as you’re better now than you were yesterday, you’re doing fine.

Are There Any Free Language Learning Software?

“How come when I look up to find language learning software online, all I keep finding are paid resources? Isn’t there anything free?”

Actually, you probably just didn’t look hard enough. Fact is, there are dozens upon dozens of free software that you can use to learn languages. Sure, some of the very best will probably require you to pay up, but a lot will be willing to help you out at absolutely no cost too. So how should you go about finding them?

Trial Versions. You probably aren’t going to find a complete language learning software for free. After all, developing those teaching modules and programming them costs a lot of money. However, many of them do offer free trial versions, especially ones that give the first two to three lessons for free, complete with audio, video and practice modules. If all you’re looking to get is a head start in language learning, these “trial” lessons will probably be very worth your while.

Vocabulary software. 
Similar to full language software, you can also get some of the more full-featured paid vocabulary software with trial versions. With so many good and free vocabulary software in many languages, though, we suggest trying to exhaust them first before looking to buy one. At the least, I would look for flashcard-style software and a multiple-choice testing vocabulary tool.

Word translators. Not only are many of these types of software free, you can find free online-based alternatives too.
Multilingual dictionaries. Like word translators, you can usually get this for free, unless it’s one of the less-popular languages out there.

Are free tools considerably inferior compared to paid ones? In the case of language software, free tools usually aren’t inferior – they’re just less featured and less comprehensive. For some people, that will be enough, though, so I suggest trying it out.

Language Learning Software Reviews

Should you trust website reviews when it comes to language software? My personal opinion is, yes, you should. But only to a certain degree.

Not all the information you will find on the internet is accurate. Literally anyone can put up a website at minimal cost, not to mention practically anyone can register to post reviews on Amazon. Chances are, some reviews you find will be honest and real, while others will fall either as marketing fodder, affiliates trying to make a buck, jokers with nothing better than do, or severely misinformed individuals.

If you really want to know if a language software is what you want, your best shot is to field test it. That’s why we appreciate language programs that offer trial and “freemium” versions — being able to work with the software will give you a better idea than any number of reviews would.

To save you time when choosing which software to field-test, you can use the reviews as guide by filtering them with these three questions:

  1. Is the website trustworthy? If it isn’t (or it’s unclear), you might want to look for reviews somewhere else.
  2. Does the review sound fair? We all have a good sense of when a review is legit — it sounds objective, professional and fair. Fake ones tend to show their true colors by being too focused on one side of the scale or being so poorly written you’re wondering whether some dude put it together while in a drunken stupor.
  3. Can you find information that backs it up? Look at multiple reviews and see whether they say the same thing. If they line up, there’s a good chance the reviews are legit. If they don’t, then something shady is likely going on.

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About Sally Morgan

My name is Sally Morgan, I'm American and currently a Language Teacher in New York State Schools for French and Spanish. I have studied Foreign Languages, translation and teaching at the Columbia University in New York. I lived for 3 years in Europe including France, UK and Italy.

I am a passionate linguist and love how speaking another language opens the doors of communication and therefore a whole world.

Please ask me any questions below

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