In for a Penny: Learning a Language on a Budget, Week Four

In for a Penny: Learning a Language on a Budget,  Week Four

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks

So you’re learning a new language.  We’ve mostly focused on free or nearly-free resources that you can use to assist you in this process.   So now you find you are willing to spend a little money, but not a lot, or you need a little more assistance or you just need a little different approach than the free resources have available for you. What kinds of things are available to you?

Like you, I’ve been studying a few languages using mostly free, or nearly free resources I’ve found on the Internet, but sometimes I’ve wanted to use tools that simply weren’t available or weren’t as well implemented as they are in the “expensive” products.   This doesn’t mean you can’t get much of the same functionality in significantly less expensive products – you can!   Two areas that seem to require a little spending are mobile learning, and picture-based learning.

Mobile learning means carrying your language tools with you on your handheld device or phone.  I’ve already talked about dictionaries in week one of this series, but there are other mobile tools that can help you in your learning process.  Although they don’t all line up neatly into categories, let’s try to take a look at a few of them here.

Mobile Vocabulary Building
The folk at Lingvosoft, for example, have dictionaries and Flash card study programs (as well as learners and traveler’s bundles) for around 50 different languages.  I purchased some of their software for my Windows Mobile device and I really like it, although I wish there was a way to slow down the rate at which the flash card game advances!  The learner’s bundle, for example, cost me around $60 (on sale) and included a language dictionary, a picture dictionary, and the flash card vocabulary study program.  They are one of the better options for these things that I’ve found on the Windows Mobile platform and they are starting to release titles for the iPhone/iPod touch as well.  For those of you with older PalmOS devices, many of their products are available for that platform as well.  Their products on Windows Mobile cost more than their iPhone equivalents, but they are frequently on sale, so watch for the sales if you are going to purchase!

On the iPhone I bought the “My Words” vocabulary study programs from Innovative Language Learning.  Note: The link I provided takes you to their Spanish products page, but many other language products are available. The “My Words” apps are nice even though they run a little slower than I would like.  You get a new set of 10 words each day and you can put words you’ve learned into a word back for later review.   I just wish it would store that word bank locally!  I also like their Word Power program which, instead of getting new words daily had a fixed set of words stored locally.  The only problem I ran into with the Innovative products is that, when referring to local cities or countries, someone was supposed to edit the label with the name of that city or country and frequently didn’t.  Instead, although the actual words are under the label – the label says generic things like “(fill in a city in your country) when, in fact, it should have that city name there or something that didn’t make the program seem unfinished!  Now I want to try their Gengo picture flash cards!

Mobile Picture-based Vocabulary Building (Picture Dictionaries)
As I mentioned, Lingvosoft also offers picture dictionaries for numerous languages on Windows Mobile.   I found a few typos in the one I purchased, but overall, it was a very nice product and had a really nice cross-selection of vocabulary words to learn.   The audio was sometimes a little muddy, though. As a stand-alone product, they are running about $25-$30 each, but they are often on sale (half off as I write this).

Also in this category are some new items on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform from the folk at Eurotalk.  These programs are kind of a hybrid between a picture dictionary/vocabulary builder/flash card learner.   They offer a variety of categories and vocabulary words (although not as many as in the Lingvosoft products), but they include interesting learning games that help you retain the materials.  I received one language for review and purchased another language and they both have consistently excellent quality and production values, but I wish the vocabulary was a little more extensive than it is.   They are essentially mobile versions of Eurotalk’s Talk Now! product, with slightly different games – better suited to the mobile platform.   Despite the smaller vocabulary, these are among my favorite due to the attractive production and clear audio as well as games that are entertaining.  I think I may like them better than their desktop counterparts!  I’d really like to see Eurotalk extend their offerings for the iPhone to more advanced products as well.

Mobile Phrase Books
Again, the folk at Lingvosoft offer phrasebooks, this time for both Windows Mobile and iPhone.  The iPhone versions seem to offer the same content, but are significantly less expensive than their Windows Mobile counterparts and seem a bit more polished.

Also on both platforms are MANY phrasebook choices.  This is probably the most populated category for both platforms.  Doing a search for “phrasebook” on the AppStore yields more than 750 results.   It’s a BIG category, probably because it has the largest ready audience and phrasebooks are easy to produce.   I’ve purchased a number of titles in this category myself, and I’ve found some “brands” better than others.   Of the ones I’ve purchased, the ones I liked the most were the Lingvosoft ones (I mentioned I liked the iPhone one better than the Windows Mobile one), I liked “Spanish Anywhere” from AppAbove, the iTrek apps from Arctic Gerbil, and Survival Phrases – Spanish from Innovative Learning (and tied to SpanishPod101.com).

As you can tell, I’ve purchased quite a few of these phrasebooks, but I really think my favorite is the LingoPal 44 Multilingual phrasebook (they also have individual bi-lingual phrasebooks) from LingoPal Holdings. Although their audio quality sometimes isn’t always as clear as it could be, and the speakers sometimes speak too fast, it is attractive, nicely set up, easy to use, and has a fun assortment of phrases – not always what you’d find in most phrasebooks.   Watch out though – some languages change words based on gender – not only the gender of the subject, but the gender od he speaker – and Lingopal doesn’t warn you of phrases like that.  I ran into one and was immediately corrected!   That said, it’s still one of the coolest phrasebooks I’ve ever purchased!    So, in general, I’ve found that, with phrasebooks, you are going to have to look closely because they really can be a matter of personal preference.

You may have noticed that I haven’t said much about Android apps.  The reason is that the market for Android apps isn’t really very well developed yet.  That said, there are a few titles that may be of interest to Android users.  Card Lingo is a flash-card based vocabulary tool.  OpenLanguage Companion (also available for iPhone) allows you access to your OpenLanguage account (limited free or paid subscription).  Right now they are only offering Chinese, but they look like they are going to offer more languages soon.  There is also Language Aid (which I couldn’t find much info on) and Language Mate – a multi-lingual phrasebook.   Again, although the choices are slim for Android right now, but I would imagine they will expand soon as the number of Android devices out there increases.

Now turning to the desktop, there are some similar options that extend further your ability so study a language.

Desktop-Based Vocabulary Building
Looking again at Lingvosoft, for example, they also offer desktop-based (Windows only, unfortunately) versions of their dictionaries and Flash card study programs (as well as learners and traveller’s bundles) also for around 50 different languages.  Byki is another company that  offers free versions of their vocabulary building programs. The free versions are lead-ins to the purchasable programs, but still pretty useful in their own right.  I like the Byki one a lot, but it was a little clumsy to install and add vocabulary lists to.   Byki has around 70 languages on their site and their deluxe versions (which add more words, and pronunciation training) cost around $50 (I haven’t tried the deluxe version).

Picture-based Vocabulary Building (Picture Dictionaries)
We’ve seen that Lingvosoft offers picture dictionaries for numerous languages on Windows Mobile and these are also available for Windows.  Again, Lingvosoft doesn’t appear to offer their any of their titles for Macintosh at this time.  I’m hoping, with the release of their phrasebooks on iPhone, they may offer some of their titles for Macintosh as well since the additional development required would be minimal.

Again in this category we see titles from the folk at Eurotalk.  Just as we saw with their mobile uTalk apps, the Eurotalk offerings are kind of a hybrid between a picture dictionary/vocabulary builder/flash card learner.   The more advanced programs are more oriented toward teaching phrases rather than just vocabulary words.  For the beginner, they have a children’s picture dictionary suitable for beginning adults too) and their Talk Now! programs (equivalent to their uTalk on the iPhone).   At the next level, they have Talk More! and Talk the Talk!    Moving into intermediate/advanced levels they have Talk Business, World Talk and Movie Talk.   All of which present the material in very entertaining ways and are available for both Windows and Macintosh.  As a Macintosh user, I’m a really big fan of companies that offer decent quality products on both Windows and Macintosh OS X.

The people at Eurotalk were very nice in providing me their software for the purpose of including it in my discussions here.  I really enjoy working with their products, but I did find a few glitches in one of their Talk Now! products.  At one point, the program cut off the beginning of my own voice recording every time (you record it to compare to the native speaker).   You can work around this by delaying a few seconds before you start speaking, but still it was a little glitch.   I also found that a few letters of the alphabet were missing in a product that used a Cyrillic alphabet.   I will say that both times I contacted tech support (without telling them I am reviewing the titles) and they were very gracious in taking note of the errors I ran into and they even sent me an updated disk to see if it happened to solve my recording problem (it didn’t).

That said, the desktop versions are like the uTalk mobile app – very polished – very entertaining.   Again, I really enjoyed working with these applications!  If I had a real criticism, other than the glitches, it would be that I think there’s too big a gap between the Talk Now! and the Talk More!  products.  There needs to be something in between the two.  You really need to have a little more basic language understanding when you just to the Talk More (and above) products, I think.   That said, most of their packages are under $40 and even their higher end bundle is still under $200 – at the entry point of Rosetta Stone level 1.   Overall, an excellent value!

Also in this category are the products from Instant Immersion.   These are very popular and have sold many many copies.  I see them available in the bookstores all the time.  They are often placed next to the Rosetta Stone products and advertised as “comparable” but less expensive alternatives.   My sense of things, based on reviewing the packaging and reading LOTS of online forums and reviews, is that these products, like the EuroTalk products, are more geared toward vocabulary (and phrase) building.   Rosetta Stone is a little more in depth than that.   Is it worth the price differential?  Maybe, maybe not.   Rosetta Stone costs hundreds of dollars – even in it’s most basic package.   Instant Immersion levels 1,2,&3 (all in one package) retails for around $35 – a good value as well!

Desktop-based Phrase Books
This category isn’t as popular on the desktop as it is on mobile devices.  This is probably because phrase books are all about convenience and that’s more suited to a small book or a mobile device.  That said, other than the phrases you can learn from the products I’ve already mentioned, there are a lot of Internet resources for common phrases for travelers.  Omniglot, for example, has an interesting collection of phrases in many different languages.   There are also foreign language phrase sites by ehow, and commonusefulphrases.com.  These are just what I found by doing a quick google search for “foreign language phrases”.  Even Fodors offers some basic grammar for a few languages and a PDF file download for travelers.

As you can see, there are a lot of things you can use if you want to spend a little money, and still not break the bank!  What I’ve talked about here today is far from a comprehensive list of offerings, either!  I’m finding that the strategy that is working best for me is to build a foundation on the free resources that are out there, but be ready to supplement them when you have special needs or desires – like taking your learning with you on your mobile device.  There are things you can do, reasonably, to supplement your learning and not go bankrupt in the process.

Next time around, we’re going to take a look at what you can do when the language you want to learn isn’t necessarily easy to find resources for.   Some vendors offer more language choices than others – some we’ve already mentioned!  Additionally, there are online resources for less-spoken languages as well, but  few helpful hints for how to search for them can go a long way!  Come back next week and see what I’ve found!

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About the Author

Christopher Gavula
Chris has been a COBOL programmer, a desktop support technician, network engineer, telecommunications manager, and even a professional musician. Currently, he is focused on deploying Voice over IP technologies in a large, corporate setting. He started working full-time at the tender age of 14, even before there were PCs, and will probably be working and trying to finish “just one more project” as he’s lowered into the grave.