When I was a high school student learning Spanish, I simply couldn’t afford expensive language-learning programs to supplement my studies. Back then, even simplistic audio CDs with workbooks—a format I honestly don’t mind—started around $50 or $100, but that would be for just a few lessons. Oh, how times have changed. But can a little-known, online-only, multi-sensory language-learning program that’s also very inexpensive be any good? For Babbel (from $12.95 per month), the answer is yes.
I’ve been exploring Babbel’s courses for a few weeks, focusing on German but dabbling in Spanish and Italian a bit to get a sense of how much different courses vary. Considering I had never heard of Babbel before I started testing it, I approached the online language-learning program with more than an ounce of skepticism regarding quality of the content. Boy was I in for a pleasant surprise.
I’d put it on par with Living Language (Platinum) ($179 per year, 3.5 stars) in many respects. I like Babbel’s core content better, as well as the ability to pay per month and quit any time, but I also can’t deny the huge value-add in Living Language’s unlimited real-time Web classes, hosted by trained instructors. Babbel doesn’t have that.
Another online-only program that’s comparable is Duolingo (free, 4 stars), an Editors’ Choice for its ability to deliver outstanding and challenging language-learning content for free, although it’s limited to just four languages. Budget-conscious learners who can’t find their language of choice in Duolingo (which has Spanish, German, English for Spanish speakers, and French in beta) should give Babbel a whirl, but be sure to take the free trial offer first to gauge the quantity of content for your tongue, as it varies drastically. For more program suggestions, see “The Best Software for Learning a Language.”
Babbel is available in Dutch, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.
That’s not quite so many languages as offered by the highly interactive Editors’ Choice Rosetta Stone version 4 TOTALe (with even more languages offered if you search beyond “version 4″), or the mostly audio program Pimsleur Comprehensive. If you’re looking for a language that’s not in high demand, try either of those programs.
Quality and Quantity
As mentioned, Babbel’s quality exceeded my fairly modest expectations. I have yet to encounter an error, poorly designed feature, or truly lackluster exercise. Even in competing programs, like Living Language, I came across a few boring mini-games or long stretches of text that I would ultimately just skim. Babbel keeps most of its reading material to tight segments that enhance and reinforce concepts as you learn them.
The overall structure makes sense, too, and progress markers mostly do their job of tracking your work (more on those two points on the next page). All the audio content sounds fine, with the occasional microphone plosive here and there. It’s not music-studio grade recording, but it’s not low-fi either.
Quantity of content, on the other hand, varies by language. If you’re looking to learn Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, or German, for example, you’ll find much more content than if you’re working on Dutch, Indonesian, or Polish. Luckily, you can take up Babbel on its free trial to make sure what’s included matches your learning level, and if you do subscribe to the service and still find that it’s not what you expected, you can leave after a month having only shelled out about $13.
A big selling point for Babbel is price. The online-only program offers three subscriptions: $12.95 per month; $26.85 every three months; or $44.70 every six months.
Compare that with Tell Me More, which charges $199 for a three-month Web pass, or Living Language’s $179 price for year-long access, and Babbel seems like a great bargain. With Living Language, you also get to take as many 30-minute webinar-style classes with a live teacher as you can cram into a year. That’s a huge value-add and should be something conversational-level learners should consider.
Babbel doesn’t have instructors on hand for personalized teaching or feedback, although an active user community does seem to help answer questions learners have about spelling, grammar, and basic fact checking (my favorite was a German studying English who asked if “chocolate cake” as two words was a typo in Babbel, because he had also seen “cheesecake” as one word, which to him made more sense).
One final price comparison for those keeping track: Rocket Languages Premium, an Editors’ Choice, costs $99.95 for lifetime access to the website, with some downloadable content included.
In structure, Babbel breaks away from some of the tradition terminology—courses, units, lessons, activities—while still adhering to the general principles.
Each language differs, but here’s what you’ll find in Italian, as way of example:
In the Italian language section, you can choose from New, Beginners Courses, Words and Sentences Italian Grammar, and Specials. Within any of those areas are more options. For example, Specials has 11 subcategories, including, “Listen and practice,” “Express training,” “Refresher course,” “Italian for holidays,” as well as “Yearlong course: Stage 1.” Choosing the Refresher course brings up yet another list (“Al ristorante,” “The verb ‘essere’,” “Dillo educatamente!” etc.) but at least here there’s a button at the top called Set as Course.
Select this button, and Babbel adds the course to your accounting, meaning it begins tracking your progress as you work through all the sub-sections and adds all the components that you should complete to an individualized “courses” section. It’s a little awkward to describe this structure, but when you go through the motions, it all makes perfect sense.
Before you begin an individual lesson, Babbel will ask whether you want to proceed with or without speech recognition. In all the language-learning software I’ve tested that has it, speech recognition never works flawlessly. With Babbel, I had a few misfires trying to get the microphone to register properly, and repeatedly calibrated the sound. Once it took, however, it worked without any more hitches or glitches.
The speech-recognition exercises tend to come first in any lesson. The program may show you a word or phrase on screen, while playing audio of a native speaker reading it. Then a microphone icon on the screen will indicate it’s your turn to try saying the same thing. Babbel processes your input very quickly and spits out a number if you’ve passed muster. A passing score is above 50 on a scale of 1 to 100. If you fail, you don’t see a score at all and have to try again. You can click to skip forward if you’re really stuck, but the program won’t automatically advance you to the next screen until you pass.
Other activities focus on writing and spelling (e.g., complete the sentence), grammar, listening, and reading. As I advanced through the program, I uncovered new modules that I didn’t see in earlier lessons, which helped keep my motivation high. It can be a drag to be two months into a language-learning program and feel as if you’re drilling through the same modules only with different content.
As you complete lessons, you’ll see green rectangles fill in on an overall progress tracking bar on your account dashboard. One point on the progress markers: If you quit a lesson midway through, the system does not mark it as “in progress,” but rather as completed (green). If you restart an abandoned lesson, you’ll begin not where you left off but back at the beginning. Lessons aren’t very long, taking maybe four to seven minutes to complete, so the inability to track your progress to finer degree is more annoying than problematic. You can always blow through the lesson a second time.
While Babbel has other areas of its site to explore, notably user forums, subscribers can also use the free mobile apps for iOS and Android, as well as a Windows 8 app coming imminently. However, if you don’t have any of those operating systems, you won’t have any offline content, like PDF study guides or downloadable MP3 files. Some other programs, Rocket Languages for instance, provide MP3s, downloadable games, and PDFs study sheets and workbook exercises. If you’re content using apps, however, Babbel certainly has more than enough content to keep you busy.
For a lesser-known, inexpensive, and online-only program, Babbel provides high quality language-learning instruction for 11 languages. The total amount of content varies by language, but having flexibility in its monthly subscription model allows new users to try the program without losing much if they find it’s not right for them. It’s one of the most affordable online options, although it does not include real-time Web classes with a live instructor. I’d still first recommend first my favorite free program, Duolingo, but if the language you want to learn isn’t there among its limited selection, Babbel is a worthy option.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc