Babbel (and others) and the Advancement of Foreign Language eBooks

A lot has happened in the past few years in foreign language instruction. It’s a global world and thanks to the Internet, you can be taught a foreign language by native speakers from anywhere in the world. You can converse with them and other learners from the comfort of your own home with just a minimal investment in hardware and software.

For a number of years there have been computer apps and, more recently, mobile apps that have dramatically improved and enhanced the instructional process, but they don’t necessarily replace the need for good instruction in basic grammar or other reference material. That said, they are often an excellent supplement to other instructional or reading materials, but I maintain that they seldom stand well alone – not even the best of the titles, because they are better as active learning and (arguably) difficult to simply research or reference specific things, unlike a good basic grammar book or even a dictionary.

During this same period, eBooks have been gaining traction, but foreign language instruction books have been kind of slow to make the migration to eBooks.  I think there are a few factors at play here.  To start, I think that there additional challenges converting them (multiple character sets, lots of special formatting, graphics, etc) as opposed to plain fiction or non-fiction titles, which require usually only a single character set and very little special formatting which makes it easier to adapt them to a wide variety of formats and screen sizes.  So they cost a bit more to make at the outset.  What compounds that problem is the fact that there is also a much more limited audience for them than there would be for a bestselling novel.  In the bookstore these titles almost always cost a lot more than bestsellers, but eBooks have been pretty resistant to higher priced titles.  So these challenges can make the break-even take longer to reach. As a result, until recently, many foreign language instruction eBooks were simply poor-quality PDF scans, or barely converted texts where the “special” characters are often presented as poor graphics or simply incorrect.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many of these poor quality books I have run into over the past few years.

I am happy to say that I think we are finally starting to see that change and the eBook revolution is finally making itself known in the area of language instruction.  And the potential advantages are tremendous.   Let’s take a look at a couple of players in this market.

One of the more interesting of the newcomers is Babbel.  Babbel are the folks behind one of the better language learning sites on the web,   They have started to release language instruction eBooks through the Apple iBooks store. They currently have two books available – Learn Spanish: Beginner’s Course 1, and Learn German: Beginner’s Course 1.  Their eBooks are fully interactive, integrating audio snippets right into the book as well as exercises to reinforce the basic instruction being provided in the reading material.   Use their books on a current iPad with its high-resolution display and the result is phenomenal.  Although I found a few audio misplacements in their first title, German, their next title, for Spanish learning, had no problem that stood out and I found that they have been very responsive to the concerns I had with their first book.  I have only two wishes for improvements in Babbel’s offerings: First, I wish their books were longer than they are.  It seems like you only get started and the book is over. Second, I wish that the Babbel books (and their website) would expand beyond the languages they currently support, because their content and approach is excellent and wonderfully accessible.

The fact that you have the audio right there where you see the written dialog makes a huge difference.  No fumbling for a CD or your MP3 player.  No exiting the boundaries of the book at all.  You can stay focused on what you are learning.  Babbel also includes exercises within the book.  They have leveraged the available authoring tools very well in providing a rich learning environment where the add-ins enhance the book and the learning experience rather than distract from it.

The possibilities of eBooks are extending even to existing print titles.  One of the popular series of language instructions books are the “Teach Yourself” series.  They offer titles in a wide number of languages.  Many of their titles became available in a basic eBook form in the past year or so.  These are reasonably good versions, but sometimes the content didn’t completely match the current printed version.  They also generally don’t offer any easy way to obtain the audio that is easily purchased with the print versions.  Lastly, they often include tables that are not well scanned and difficult to read on smaller devices.  Even on a current iPad you can see the limitations of the scan and forget the idea of text searching!

Recently, however, even these titles are starting to be properly “enhanced”.  They are finally making use of text in different colors and embedded audio (and sometimes video) to present their material, again permitting you to stay in the book and not lose your focus.  The texts are fully searchable and truly do offer enhancements over the print-only versions, especially if you are reading them on a high-resolution tablet like the current iPad.   Finally – these things are coming of age!  There is a bit of a fly in the ointment, however.  These titles are available on Amazon (as Kindle Enhanced Editions), but they only work on “i” devices – iPods/iPads/iPhones.  They don’t work on the desktop versions of the Kindle software, nor on Android devices, and most surprisingly, they don’t work on true Kindles!  So if you thought that the Amazon ecosystem was platform agnostic, you were sadly mistaken because it is not.  Amazon attributes at least some of the differences to publishers, but I really believe the bulk of the limitation is in the Kindle software itself.  Audio/video differences shouldn’t be that difficult to accommodate.   It’s not like they are trying to support a programming language like Java or Flash!

So, as you can see, things are finally progressing nicely in the area of foreign language eBooks.  These early steps into the arena make me really excited.  I’m hoping to see even more video content and interactivity going forward and for the joy to spread to all the major platforms!

Babbel titles are available at the Apple iBooks store for $8.99 each (search for Babbel), and the “Teach Yourself” books are available at Amazon (as Kindle Enhanced Editions) at prices ranging from $35-$65 each (search Amazon for “Kindle Enhanced TY”).

So what titles are you hoping to see?  Are you using any kind of enhanced books for learning? We want to hear from you about how these new types of books are enhancing your learning!

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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.