Language Schools

Why Learning a Language Online is a Terrible Idea

Jessie Beck

A Washington DC native, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before ending up at Go Overseas as Editor / Content Marketing Director. She has since moved to work at Asana.

Learning a foreign language has quite a few obvious perks. It open doors to new opportunities and can help you integrate and make friends during your time abroad. In the months and weeks leading up to your journey abroad, and even after you've arrived, you may add brushing up on the local language as one of your "to-dos". But how should you go about it? Obviously, the internet will be one of the first resources you turn to, and with so many free podcasts, open source classes, and other instructional websites, I don't blame you. However tempting this is though, resist!

While we now rely on the internet more and more now for independent research and education, there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn't use the internet to learn a language. Wonder what they are? Then read on!

Real Advancement in a Language Comes by Practicing

Obviously, you will have to do some vocabulary memorization, and reading up on grammar (in which case, the internet can be a fantastic, free resource). There's just no way around it, but this should be seen as supplementary to your goal of actually learning how to speak a new language. Experts suggest studying for short 15-20 minute bursts and putting more energy toward speaking, writing, and even thinking in your new language.

You Won't Challenge Your Linguistic Problem Solving Skills

No one should underestimate the importance of knowing how to describe and talk around a language point they don't know. It's an incredible handy skill for real life situations where you will/probably won't have easy access to a dictionary to fill in your gaps of knowledge (like working in a foreign language). Relying on the instant access of the internet doesn't help us build this skill or our confidence to communicate with however much or little language we have already acquired.

Online Programs are Rarely Holistic Educational Tools

I can't personally speak to Rosetta Stone's long term effectiveness, and it really does a good job in solidifying vocabulary but it isn't as effecitve in teaching you how to use the vocabulary. This same problem exists for numerous online language learning applications.

To really learn a language, you need to give equal attention to vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking, and listening, which many online programs won't do. Again, a fine resource, but you shouldn't expect Rosetta Stone alone to make you fluent in a foreign language the way an immersive study abroad experience would.

You Need to Speak to Really Learn

Doing worksheets will only teach you how to fill out more worksheets, and reading a book will only teach you how to read. I'm assuming that your main goal is to speak fluently, so get a tutor, make friends who know the language you want to know, heck, you can even talk to yourself while driving, but most importantly, don't sit silently behind a computer! Get talking however you can.

You'll Build Confidence and Get Feedback Speaking with a Person

A computer won't encourage you or look confused when you have totally blundered through a new sentence. Humans, on the other hand, will. If you are practicing with a friend or language partner, rather than a computer, you will immediately know if what you just said makes sense (or doesn't). When it does, it can feel incredibly rewarding and motivating to continue on to more challenging conversations.

You can go off track with a human to make sure you learn the language points most immediately necessary for your needs, but not so much with computers.

Learning with a Person Lets You Personalize your Lesson

With online courses, you are following a pre-outlined series of lessons that don't allow for tangents or spontaneity. (The same could be said for most live courses too, actually).

If you are learning with a tutor, friend, or by chatting with people you meet while studying, volunteering, or teaching abroad, it's easier for you to cater your lesson to your needs. You're able to interrupt the person at any time and say "I don't understand" or insert a new word you picked up.

In short, you can go off track with a human to make sure you learn the language points most immediately necessary for your needs, but not so much with computers. It's hard to reenact day to day conversations and interactions when its forced with a Siri-like online persona or Youtube video strangers.

Online Resources Don't Always Teach You the Most Natural Way to Say Something

Having now studied three languages, and spent several years teaching English abroad, I've definitely seen my share of weird, antiquated, or just unnatural sounding dialogues in resources "made for language learners". All to often, it seems that the people developing language learning resources have chosen the easier to explain way of saying something, not the most natural.

All languages are in a constant state of transformation, with new pop culture references and idioms slipping in all the time. Even with the literally thousands of language learning resources available online, nothing beats an actual human to make sure you're learning the right way to say "cool" and avoid awkward, though technically correct, phrases.

Online Resources May Separate Language from Culture

To truly know a language, you also need to know the culture surrounding it. Idioms, gestures, and the way language is used are all part of this. Unless you have found a particularly good online resource, it's unlikely that you'll be learning these essential aspects of your new language. For example, when I learned Malagasy I could have used a website to learn "you are walking" but I never would have learned that making this obvious statement works as small talk in Madagascar had I not been immersed in the culture and language, observing how people actually use it.

Instead, try enrolling in a immerse language course like Global Work's French immersion course or any of these amazing Spanish immersion courses abroad. Not only will you come away with a better understanding of how language and culture intertwine, but you'll gain an irreplaceable experience while you're at it!

The Internet Can Only Take Your Language Learning So Far

No matter what strategy you end up using in the end, ultimately you are going to have to be the one to motivate yourself and invest lots of time and dedication to your language learning. There is no magic program, website, teacher or strategy that will magically make you fluent in just a few weeks, months, or whatever.

Don't expect to become fluent with just a few hours of practice each week, or with some fantastic, snappy app. These make for useful supplementary resources but you're going to have to put in the elbow grease to get to the next level of language learning. Whether you're tackling tones while learning Chinese or mastering the art of Italian body language while studying Italian, ultimately, those resources will only take you so far.

It's More Fun to Talk to a Real Person!

In the end, you're not learning a new language to talk to a computer, but to make friends and communicate with real, live people. So why not start now? You're never going to feel like you are 100% ready to start using your new language anyway, so you might as well hit the ground running. If anything, at least it will be fun and make for some memorable moments try getting that online!

That said, the internet and online resources do have their place in language learning. Online dictionaries, flashcard sites like Anki, podcasts, and smartphone apps are helpful but they should NOT be your primary mode of language learning. Instead, get away from your computer screen and out in to the real world. Immerse yourself. Start learning to speak by speaking. Meet new people, observe how they use the language. And most importantly, don't be afraid to make mistakes and have fun!