by Simon Ager
In October 2011 I was asked to review of the website Language101.com and was given free access to all the courses on the site. I chose to have a go at Russian because I'd like to be able to speak it, and I have only learnt a little of it before.
I decided to focus on learning Russian during November and December 2011 using mainly Language101, but also some other online and offline material, and by listening to Russian language radio every day.
Language101 was set up by Brent Van Arsdell in 2007 and is designed to be an effective and fun way to learn languages online. It uses an SRS (Spaced Repetition System) to teach words and phrases in Spanish, French, Russian, Canadian French, German, Irish (Gaelic) and Danish.
The amount of material for each language is different - for example there are currently 66 lessons for Spanish, 48 for French, 42 for Russian and just 10 for Irish and 2 for Danish.
Each lessons consists of a short conversation, or series of phrases or words, or a song or a poem. The basic lessons include such conversational phrases as 'Hello', 'How are you?' and 'What's your name?'. Other lessons might teach you numbers, colours, dates, or focus on a particular situation, such as getting directions, shopping, staying in a hotel, eating out, and so on. You can listen to the all of the material together in some cases, or to each bit separately. The recordings, which are made by native speakers, are available at normal speed and slowly with each word pronounced separately.
There is a dictionary feature which includes translations and examples of usage - words in blue are included in the dictionary. You can add any of the words you look up to your study plan, which means they'll appear when you're using the SRS.
The SRS tests you on the words and phrases by giving you them in English and asking for the equivalent in the language you're learning. You try to say the phrase then click on the 'I've tried' button, or you can click on the 'I don't know' button if you don't know it or can't remember it.
The blue bar across the bottom is a 15 second timer that encourages you to answer as quickly as you can, though you can ignore this.
Once you're tried or failed to say the phrase, you can hear it spoken and see it written, and assess how well you know it - the options are Wrong, Some mistakes, Shaky, Good and Perfect.
Next you can listen to the phrase again as many times as you like before moving on to the next one. A literal word-by-word translation is also given of each phrase. This shows you the structure and word order, and gives you an idea of how the grammar works.
As well as the lessons, Language101 includes guidelines on how to use the site, and a number of articles which provide advice on language learning.
The Russian course also includes a lesson on the Cyrillic alphabet which shows you the printed form of each letter and the pronounciation.
If you complete all three levels of a language, which can take between three to six months, depending on how much and how often you study,
The system seems to work well for me, and there is a good selection of lessons for most of the languages covering practical and useful words and phrases, as well as some songs and poems - a feature that particuarly appeals to me.
Another feature that is very useful is that you can listen to phrases at slow speed with each word pronounced clearly and separately. When learning a new language it can be difficult to hear the individual words, at least until you've had plenty of practice listening to the language, so being able to hear the individual words is great.
The courses don't teach you grammar overtly, but the literal translations do give you a basic idea of how the words go together, and of some other aspects of the grammar.
This is an online course which can only be accessed via a computer, smart phone or other internet-enabled device. So it's not ideal if your connection to the web is unreliable.
You can get access for all the lessons at all levels for US$727. For US$527 you get levels 1, 2, and 3 for one language. You get two levels (1 and 2) for one language for US$377, and one level for one language for US$227.
The prices for a single language are simliar to those for Rosetta Stone, but Language101 seems to be much more effective course that covers a lot more material that you can use in ordinary conversation.
I have found it useful so far. This is the first time I've managed to continue using a spaced repetition system for more than a few days, and it seems to work well, especially if you study every day.
This Language 101 review is brought to you by Simon Ager, the author of Omniglot and who has studied quite a few languages. He speaks five of them fluently, can get by in six others, and has a basic knowledge of seven more.