When are Language-Learning Products Worth the Investment?

Posted on 04. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning, Product Recommendations

As a language-learning company, we at Transparent Language interact with language learners from all walks of life. Sometimes, we meet at conferences.  Other times, we communicate on social media websites. Every now and then we also meet a school instructor or librarian with a passion for language learning in our daily jaunts travelling back and forth on airplanes. The question we hear most often: what’s the best way to learn a language? Since every learner is so different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to acquiring a new language, so that question is nearly impossible to answer. Not too far behind in frequency, though, is another question: how can I learn a language for free?

language learning course

In the era of the Internet of things, languages are literally at our fingertips at all times. There has been an explosion of free language-learning websites and apps in recent years, and for good reason: the world is growing smaller and language proficiency is paramount. But an industry of language-learning products and services has also established itself, also for good reason: language learning is difficult and time-consuming, and high-quality tools can both make your experience easier and keep you on track.

So when does it make sense to invest in a language-learning product?

You want professionally-developed content that is both correct and relevant. Google Translate is free, but no one uses it as their main method of learning a language. Why? Because it’s machine translation. This lends itself to inaccuracies—will it know that you mean “hard” in terms of physical durability, or will it mistakenly show you the target language word for “difficult”? Going beyond just simple translation tools, there’s a number of popular apps on the market that maintain their zero dollar price tag by crowdsourcing content—a fine idea in practice, and it allows them to grow the number of language offerings quite rapidly. But the makers behind these apps may not be language teachers or experts in the pedagogy of learning a language, leading to quirky content like “I am a penguin” or “I have the small pig on my knees.” (True story, we’ve seen both of these in other language-learning apps.) While good for a quick chuckle, these nonsensical phrases aren’t preparing you to use the language in everyday life. In this regard, it’s worth paying for correct, quality content. A curriculum designed by professionals will equip you with the grammar and vocabulary that is most relevant to your needs, unless you are, in fact, a penguin.

You want native speaker interaction and feedback—with and from a trained professional. Quality content is the golden key to unlocking and building your repository of new words and phrases, but quality delivery of those materials should not be ignored. We may be a technology company at heart, but even we recognize that nothing replaces a classroom teacher. You can find language partners on free platforms, such as Skype, but how do you know they aren’t teaching you a dialect of the language only spoken in a remote part of the world? This informal exchange is perfectly fine for some learners, especially those at more advanced levels who can successfully converse with the casual native speaker and already have a solid base of language knowledge. But if you’re at the beginning stages, you probably need guidance (and patience!) from a trained instructor – someone who knows how to help you complete your sentences with words you don’t know and works with you to pronounce new words and phrases correctly. For this type of feedback,  online tutoring services with experienced instructors will provide the extra supervision and assistance that a casual exchange may lack. If you’re not up for spending money on tutoring services just yet, look for programs with native speaker audio paired with all learning materials.  These recordings will help you build your listening skills and master pronunciation, allowing you to embed new vocabulary into your memory.

You need structure to stay motivated. Speaking of guidance, learning a language takes a long time (you never really finish, actually), so you’ll want a method that keeps you on track. If you’re a self-motivator who can put together lessons for yourself and keep going month after month, more power to you! But if you, like so many, need a little extra push, a guided program with structured content can make all the difference. When you don’t have to search for new learning materials and methods, you save time and precious energy. Access to an all-inclusive online program with built-in activities for expanding your vocabulary, strengthening your grammar knowledge, and building your listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills is like a one-stop-shop for language learning. Many paid programs also have multiple means for accessing content, so you can learn at home on your computer or on the go with your tablet or phone. When you don’t have WiFi access, many paid programs will still be accessible and later sync up across your devices, a big benefit that free resources lack. This flexibility is crucial to getting in the habit of learning a language—when life throws you a curve ball you can still find a time and place to get in a few minutes of exposure.

You are looking for a language-learning database for your library, school, company, or organization. Searching for a resource that meets your own needs is difficult. Finding one that meets the needs of myriad people, be they your students, employees, community members, or costumers, presents a major challenge. If you’re searching on behalf of your organization, we’ve put together a guide to help you select the right database.

Lastly, we want to leave you with one very essential piece of information: no one resource—free or paid—will teach you an entire language. Finding the right mix of resources is important. (That’s why we offer so many free resources, too!) Like we said, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Some learners may do just fine exclusively using free resources or conversing with Skype partners. But for the average learner, just starting out on their language-learning journey, the extra guidance, structure, and guaranteed quality of an online program or tutoring service may be worth it. After all, knowing another language really is priceless, right?

If you’re looking for a robust resource, but you’re not quite ready to take the plunge into paid learning, we invite you to try Transparent Language Online completely free for one week, no strings (or credit card info) attached.


Transparent Language Online

Hacking Pronunciation in Any Language with the IPA, Part 2: Vowels

Posted on 02. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning

Jakob Gibbons writes about language and travel on his blog Globalect. He often shares his experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is his specialty.

Learning words and how to put them into sentences is certainly the first step in learning a new language. But once you’re ready to say those sentences out loud, those endless hours of vocabulary and grammar drills aren’t going to get you very far if no one can understand what you’re saying. Pronunciation is too often the highest hurdle for the aspiring language learner, even though it doesn’t need to be.

In my last post for Transparent Language, I wrote about using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to crack the consonant code in a new language. In this post, we’ll use the same tool to navigate the infinitely more frustrating and confounding group of speech sounds: vowels.

Vowels matter.

While I’m traveling I meet people of all different language backgrounds, and a few conversations seem to repeat themselves in nearly every country. One of the most tiresome is one I often have in English with Romance language speakers, and it always goes something like this:

Spanish/French/Italian guy: Ahh, so you’re traveling through [country name]? What kind of places will you visit? Big cities? Mountains? Forest?

Me: Well I really love beaches. I grew up in Florida and I just really appreciate a good beach.

Spanish/French/Italian guy: OOOH-HO-HO, yes yes, we aaallll love a good beach, my friend! *wink, elbow nudge*

This is because, to my Mediterranean friend, the words ‘beach’ and ‘bitch’ often sound identical. Spanish, Italian, and French all lack the distinction between the tense vowel /i/ in ‘beach’ and the lax vowel /ɪ/ in ‘bitch’, leaving me forcing an overly-toothy fake smile and chuckling at a word joke that I’ve heard a thousand times (and is also not really a word joke, or any kind of joke).

Finding (and pronouncing) a good beach

If you want to avoid accidental rudeness or embarassing dad-like humor, take a look at the IPA vowel chart. Its trapezoidal shape is an abstract representation of the shape of your mouth: the corner at /i/ represents your top lip, /a/ the bottom, /u/ the top of the back of your mouth, and /ɒ/ the opening of your throat.

What the vowel chart depicts is where the highest point of your tongue is in making any of these sounds.


Let’s take the sounds in the English words ‘too’ and ‘see’. Make the vowel sounds: ‘oooooooo’ /u/ and ‘eeeeeeee’ /i/. Now, if you alternate back and forth between them – oooooooeeeeeeeeooooooeeeeeee, sort of like the sound of an approaching ambulance – you’ll feel your tongue moving, like it’s doing the wave in your mouth. At /u/, its highest point is in the top back, and at /i/ it’s highest in the top front. The sounds in ‘too’ and ‘see’ differ only slightly in their physical articulation: /i/ is more fronted and /u/ is backed.

The IPA vowel chart shows you how to produce any vowel sound by combining its main ingredients. While there are some other, slightly more complicated aspects of vowels (like tension and nasalization), here we’ll focus on the three principal parts:

Frontness: When you move from /i/ to /u/, you’re going from front to back. It’s the same difference between the /æ/ in ‘sad’ and the /ɑ/ in ‘saw’. The horizontal position of your tongue in your mouth is called frontness or backness, and it’s super intuitive: front vowels are made with the tongue curved up in the front of the mouth, and back vowels are made with that high point in the back, closer to the throat. When the peak of your tongue is somewhere in between these extremes, it’s a central vowel.

Height: If frontness is the X-axis of vowel articulation, then height is the Y. If you move from /u/ to /ɑ/, from the sound in ‘too’ to the one in ‘saw’, you’re now descending vertically, from high to low. Just like frontness, this one makes a lot of sense: high vowels are made higher in the mouth, and low vowels down low. The middle ones are called mid vowels.

Rounding: It’s not all about your tongue – the lips get the final say on what vowel comes out of your mouth. Starting again from the same /u/ sound in ‘room’ and moving to the /ʊ/ in ‘rum’, your tongue stays the same, and it’s your lips that do the talking. Rounded vowels are made with puckered lips, like /u/ and /o/ in ‘too’ and ‘toe’ in English. Unrounded are all the rest, with relaxed lips.

Figuring out new vowels

Knowing where your current vowel inventory takes place in your mouth is sort of interesting, but isn’t immediately helpful: unlike their simpler consonant cousins, vowels aren’t precise enough to just ‘get’ by figuring out something as concrete as place and manner of articulation.

When I’m working on a new language, I start by identifying the vowels I lack, finding their closest equivalents in a language I do speak, and then figuring out the difference between that vowel I’ve already got down and the one I’m reaching for.

If you order an omlette du fromage in Paris, that du shouldn’t really sound like your English ‘do’. This is a high, front, rounded vowel in French: /y/. As an English speaker, there are two easy paths to ordering your omlette with native-like precision.

The first and maybe more natural path is starting with the vowel that it sort of sounds like in English: the /u/ in ‘do’. So what’s the difference between ‘do’ and du? That’s right: frontness! Push that already-rounded /u/ sound in ‘do’ right to the front of your mouth, and voila.

The second is the less intuitive but easier route. French rounded /y/ is, believe it or not, nearly exactly the same sound as /i/ in English ‘eat’. The only difference is rounding. If you eat meat in the street with rounded lips, then suddenly you’re dining roadside with a heavy French accent, because you’re using the same sound in du.

Vowels are notoriously hard to get right in a foreign language, and are often the source of the giant NOT FROM HERE sign that falls out of your mouth every time you speak. But with the IPA, a little studying, and some practice, you can have a nice conversation about the beach without offending a single person in the room.

The last step toward perfect pronunciation in a foreign language is phonetics, the infinitessimal details that define native pronunciation. In my next post for Transparent Language, I’ll share how you can use the principles of the IPA and phonology to pin down why your ‘perfect’ pronunciation isn’t quite perfect.

How to Teach Grammar Through Technology [Webinar]

Posted on 25. Feb, 2015 by in Company News, education, Events, Language Learning

At Transparent Language, we don’t just support learners of a foreign language, we support teachers, too!  That’s why we started our Education Webinar series earlier this year. We’ve received so much positive feedback from attendees—and requests from educators unable to attend—that we’re repeating the series in early 2015! Up next: how to teach grammar through technology. You can preview the webinar slides and register to join us below!

What is the purpose of learning grammar?

The ultimate goal of many language learners is to communicate with others, so why bother sitting down with something as dull and dry as grammar? Consider this: the better our knowledge of grammar, the clearer we can speak, and the more likely it is that we will be understood. Grammar allows speakers to communicate clearly, but also form more complex, compelling sentences, resulting in more rewarding interactions in the language. And even if your goal is to speak at a high level, the ability to read and write in a language is paramount for proficiency. Having a strong knowledge of grammar helps develop these skills.

Beyond the practical, learning grammar can be fun. (Gasp! We know.) Identifying patterns and making connections can be exciting and motivating. We all want that “ah ha!” light bulb moment, and exploring the logic and grammar of a language is a great way to achieve that.

What are the elements of an effective grammar lesson?

Any effective grammar lesson should include four components:

  • First, learners need to internalize the new rule or concept in an input activity, such as reading a blog post that includes many examples of that grammar pattern.
  • Second, learners need to engage with and practice using the rule in a conscious-raising task, such as highlighting each example of the grammar rule in that blog.
  • Third, learners should demonstrate their understanding of the rule through some kind of output activity, such as writing their own blog article using the rule.
  • Finally, learners need to receive feedback on their work, either from their peers, their instructor, or both.

How do I incorporate technology into grammar lessons?

This part is better left explained in person! Want expert tips from a 20+ year veteran teacher of French and Spanish? How about sample lesson plans that use technology to teach grammar? Join us at our upcoming webinars:

Monday March 9, 2015 7:00-8:00pm EST

Thursday March 26, 2015 4:00-5:00pm EST

Have questions or comments before, during, or after the webinar? Connect with us on Twitter using #TLedwebinars.