Is online language training right for me?


“Guess what? I’m going to learn Spanish online, in my lunchbreak”.

Sound familiar?

As a business language trainer, I’ve seen so many of my students going through the same dilemma: “I need to learn Spanish/German asap but I’m far too busy and there’s not enough budget or time for language classes. What do I do? Is online training the way to go? Will it work for me?”. If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be mulling over the same thing.

I am unashamedly a believer in the power of the human touch when it comes to successful language learning. And I’ve seen it work for busy people in business. However, with more of us leading more geographically mobile working lives it is also fact that classroom-based learning isn’t always practical, and, indeed, may be overkill. And online language training and language apps really do work for some. Quite often it’s a combination of the two that hits the spot.

But where does this leave you? Let’s consider this a bit and turn it to you.

As I tell all my students, the best starting point is for you to get your language learning tick list sorted. Ask yourself:

  • Why do you need to learn this new language?
  • Are you learning for business or more for simply ‘getting around’?
  • How you think you learn best – are you a visual learner, a competitive learner?
  • Do you prefer a more structured approach or are games more likely to draw you in?
  • How much time can you dedicate to learning each week?
  • What’s your budget? What’s your timeframe? 

Refer to these answers in your research and bear them in mind in the following…

Next, let’s look at you, yourself, the individual. What is best suited to you?

Let’s kick off by giving you a 5-point personality test. Are you:

  1. Self-motivated: if you find it easy to motivate yourself, the online option could work. In my experience, motivation is one of the first things to go, whatever method you choose, so if you are a procrastinator by nature, online learning isn’t for you.
  2. Highly-organised: if you live your life by your diary and work your study into that, it could work for you. If you are a bit of a butterfly, it’s unlikely to.
  3. An introvert: if you feel intimidated by face-to-face discussion, particularly in a foreign language, you may excel better with online training, to learn and grow in your own space. Extroverts are more likely to miss and need the human feedback.
  4. Familiar with another language: if you are learning a language for the first time, or struggled with languages at school, I’d avoid starting online. Online courses tend to be lacking in the kind of structured support you’ll need to get you off on the right footing. For novices, I’d recommend trainer-led learning.
  5. A technophile: you must be prepared to navigate through and interact with software and programs on your own. If you struggle with technology, get frustrated by it or don’t like it, you are likely to be better off with a human trainer.
    OK, so if you’re still reading, you’ve got through the personality test. You’re over the first hurdle.

The next thing we need to do is to weigh up the pros and cons of learning languages online.

OK, so what are the downsides of online language courses?

Relevance: the linguist Steve Kaufmann stresses the importance of compelling content – we tend to forget most things that aren’t of interest or relevant to us. Online courses are, by their nature, generic, which may be less likely to engage you. With a language trainer, particularly 1-1, your course can be adapted to your personal needs and goals from day one. Decide how relevant the content needs to be for you to engage properly.

Minimal interaction/feedback: is your business, as the Germans would say, ‘wettbewerbsfähig’ (competitive), and would you even know if you’ve just pronounced that correctly? While online courses are becoming somewhat more sophisticated in their ability to give some feedback on performance, they still fall down when it comes to guidance on pronunciation.

Many people struggle to speak a language properly without that human, face-to-face contact. Your trainer knows YOU, your weaknesses, your fears, your needs and can guide and correct you every step of the way.

The whiplash factor: how many of us made a new year’s resolution this year to go to the gym and went once, possibly twice, before giving up? Those of us with a personal trainer may be more likely to go back to the gym than those without.

With the best will in the world you need a lot of self-motivation and patience to learn a language on your own. Your online programme won’t praise you for getting your homework right, or chastise you for blaming it all on the dog when you’ve not done it.

Despite some downsides, online training has a lot going for it too. When used in the right way, it can be beneficial. According to Statista, the number of us learning online in the UK has more than tripled in the last 10 years – so there must be something in it.

What are the benefits of studying languages online?

Cost: some online language training courses such as Duolingo, Busuu and Livemocha are free, while others like Rosetta Stone or Transparent Language Online will cost £100+ for a short beginner’s course. Compare this with a cost anywhere upwards of £800 for group or 1-1 business language training classes, getting you to a basic proficiency level in 20 hours.

Flexibility: let’s face it we are all busy people and of course this way YOU get to choose when you learn and whether it’s for 5 minutes a day or an hour. Just make sure you set aside regular slots in your diary otherwise it just won’t happen.

Privacy: if you’re anything like me when I first started learning languages, I was self-conscious and terrified of making an idiot of myself in front of my class mates. As long as you sign up to an online course that will offer some form of feedback (e.g. Rosetta Stone or Busuu), this may work and will not initially put you on the spot, allowing your confidence to build.

BUT – don’t forget, if you are to get anywhere with your new language you will need to let yourself loose on those natives. I never really progressed properly until I’d started boring the socks off any native speaker I could find! Both here and abroad. So step outside your comfort zone!

Variety: there is now a wide range of online courses and language apps to suit different kinds of students with varied learning objectives and styles. If you’re into games DuoLingo is a popular, fun language learning app; linkQ is good for building your vocab; and Rosetta Stone offers more sophisticated feedback and structure than many online courses.

Once you’ve weighed up the options and pros and cons it ultimately boils down to why you are learning this new language? What are your objectives?

When is it ok to use online language apps or courses?

If you are looking to get to a basic level in a new language, to hold relatively simple conversations, to get from A to B, and to show your clients and colleagues you are making an effort, a well-structured online course could do that for you.

Online apps can be great for vocab building or as a supplement to language classes but they are unlikely to help you discuss sales forecasts or negotiate good purchasing rates any time soon.

When is trainer-led learning a better idea?

If your objective is to get to a high enough level in a language to be able, for example, to conduct business meetings, participate in workshops or be involved in sales negotiations, unsupported online training isn’t likely to cut the mustard. In this case, at least when you have some basic language under your belt, you’ll be better off with a trainer who can accelerate your learning and focus it on your business objectives.

Now… it’s over to you

Whichever learning path you take, there are two things to ensure; a) the objectives in your tick list are being met and b) that you are having a bit of fun along the way. If you’re not having fun, something’s definitely going wrong.

Still Give us a call any time for advice. And we promise to make it fun!

Call Rob Shimwell, for he is the guru, on + 44 (0) 1793 513321.

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