Language 2.0 - MoneySense

Language 2.0

A new website lets you learn languages the old-fashioned way — by chatting with native speakers.

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From the May 2008 issue of the magazine.

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Learning a new language is tough. Reading and writing exercises are worthwhile, but you’ll never learn a language properly unless you can talk to native speakers. That usually means shelling out thousands for a pricey immersion course or expensive travel.

But there’s a new solution, and for now, it’s free. Livemocha.com, a website that launched last September, combines interactive computer tutorials with social networking. You can learn online at your own pace, and when you’re ready, you can chat live with the site’s 200,000 users, who represent more than 200 countries from every corner of the world.

It’s a good idea, but many websites fail to deliver on good concepts, so I signed up to test it out. I wanted to shake the rust off my high school French, plus see if I could pick up a little Mandarin.

On the lesson side, I found 160-hour courses in Spanish, German, English, Hindi, Mandarin and French. The lessons were thorough, relevant and fun. The advanced French and beginner Mandarin courses I enrolled in included games that tested my listening, reading, writing and speaking abilities.

On the technology side, the site was robust. Chatroom audio was clear and didn’t lag, allowing me to hear the tiny nuances in similarly-pronounced Mandarin words, such as “four” and “death,” which are both pronounced as “si.” The video wasn’t DVD-quality, but its resolution was acceptable, and frames didn’t skip.

But ultimately it was the other users on Livemocha who made the site worth visiting. Livemocha is a bit like a Facebook for language learners: you can write a personal profile, upload and view photos, plus create buddy lists filled with friends. Users were respectful and friendly for the most part — although there was the occasional odd encounter. At one point I received a message from a woman in China soliciting my interest in beginning a “love relationship” (her words), and I also got a chat request from a Senegalese user who turned out to be more interested in learning about the two female friends standing beside me in my profile picture.

Despite such distractions, I generally found that having a large community of like-minded people to ask for advice kept me focused and motivated. By the end of my French course, I had refreshed my vocabulary and I could write sentences that didn’t read like they came out of a fifth grader’s notebook. I just wish this site was around when I was struggling to pass Mme. Coustemont’s French class in high school.

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