Lingualia (free) is something of a newcomer to the language-learning arena, but it’s a very compelling program if your needs just happen fit what it offers. For starters, it only teaches two languages: Spanish (for English speakers) and English (for Spanish speakers), although it does have a placement test that starts you out on the appropriate level, which I rarely see in free programs. Second, Lingualia is heavier than many language-learning software programs on reading and old-fashioned grammar, which may or may not suit your needs. Finally, Lingualia is only available on the Web and in an iPhone app, and in both instances, you have to have an Internet connection to use it. But it’s free, and that’s a pretty big deal.
Some learning programs, such as Rosetta Stone version 4 TOTALe and Fluenz cost a hundred bucks or more per unit. Among free language-learning apps, only one I’ve tested has been exceptional, and that’s Duolingo, a site I continue to use in my personal life. Duolingo has more languages than Linguaglia—French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, and English—and it pushes you to speak and translate, too, which Linguaglia does not. But in Duolingo, you can’t easily jump ahead to an appropriate level. You can only test out of each level one at a time. Lingualia’s placement test simply starts you where you need to begin.
Lingualia’s content is fairly compelling, with many reading excerpts drawn from real-world Web pages. For example, one exercise had me reading in Spanish about the different types of outdoor tourism across Spain’s various regions. That material is a lot more interesting that the kind of learning that’s restricted to single words and single sentences. It does suffer from some repetition, as most language-learning software does. And it does not include any speaking/voice-recognition modules. The emphasis is much more on reading. Come to think of it, I never came across any writing exercises either—only a few exercises in which I recreated a sentence by ordering words that were provided, or spelling short words and phrases from a list of provided letters. Overall, it might be a good way for English speakers to learn or improve their Spanish, but it depends on what areas of the language you need to practice.
The Lingualia Program
To use Lingualia, you need an account, which takes little more than signing up with an email address and password, or authenticating through Facebook. You’ll be asked whether you want to learn Spanish or English (or both), and during setup, you can also create a user profile with as much or as little detail as you care to share.
From that point, you can either opt into any one of Linguaglia’s levels of study (A1 being the beginner level), or take a placement test that will determine the starting point that’s right for you. I took the Spanish test and landed in the A2 level, which turned out to have more challenging material than I would have expected.
The first two times I tried to take the placement test, however, I hit a snag. The audio failed to play on both a Mac and Windows computer. This stopped me in my tracks because a few of the testing questions rely on you listening to a spoken word and choosing from a list which word was spoken. The third time I tried Lingualia’s placement test, I had no problems and have had none since with the audio. I’ll chalk it up to a bad day.
Once you enroll in a course level, you can’t add more levels in that same language, so you can’t dabble in the different levels. In many ways I think this is the right way to handle a learning program, as it’s much more distracting and confusing for me if I can skip around, as Keewords.com (free) lets you do.
From there on out, you work through the exercises as they are presented to you. Units comprise about five lessons, and each lesson takes somewhere on the order of 10 to 20 minutes to complete, depending on your abilities. At the end of the unit, you have to pass a checkpoint to move forward. The checkpoint contains a number of exercises you’ve already completed in the lessons, but I often found minor changes to the questions or answer sets that kept me on my toes. For example, I read the same paragraph about whether Spain should allow segregation between boys and girls in school at the high school level, but the question I was asked to answer about this paragraph changed, so it wasn’t just a matter of me having to recall the previous answer. I actually had to read the paragraph a second time to make sure I was getting the right information for the question at hand.
Some of the exercises aren’t as well structured as those in Duolingo. For example, Duolingo lets you replay any audio clip at a slower speed, and when you do that, the narrator more clearly pauses between distinct words to help you parse whatever you cannot understand. In Lingualia, the audio always plays at the same speed, with no option to slow it down. On the other hand, Duolingo’s audio clips are an automated, robotic voice, whereas Lingualia has recorded human voices, with varying accents and all.
When I practice my language skills in Duolingo, I spend a lot of time writing, whereas Lingualia emphasizes reading to a much greater extent. In fact, the only writing I’ve done in Lingualia has been to piece together words from a suggested batch of letters, or sentences from a suggested batch of words. Similar exercises appear in Living Language Platinum and the Living Language iPad app, and in all these instances, I really missed typing. Duolingo does has a few of these same “piece together a sentence” exercises, but it appears more commonly in its Duolingo mobile apps, where typing is tougher due to having a smaller screen. The Duolingo Web app actually asks you to write.
I do like that Lingualia has actually challenged me, though. I found the readings in particular pushed me to figure out meaning through context more than straight translations look-ups. I also like that in the A2 level Lingualia keeps almost all of its instructions and explanatory text in Spanish, too. The immersion has benefited me tremendously.
Lingualia offers some community aspects, too, although I did not find anyone who seemed to be using them much. The community engagement seems low. I found users who, like me, were studying Spanish and started following a few of them, but only one person had made any progress on her course at all.
One neat feature that I would love to see get more use is a “challenge” module, in which you compete against other learners to complete exercises accurately and quickly (the regular content does not put any time limits on how quickly you must answer questions). I opted to play an asynchronous session against a “ghost” opponent, but one has yet to be found. Seeing as the community isn’t really active, I would like to see more independent games and additional modules included that allow for more independent exploration beyond the core lessons.
Lingualia Dos and Don’ts
Do use Lingualia if you are an English speaker looking to study Spanish, but don’t rely on it solely as your only source of practice. I think it actually makes for a nice complement to Duolingo, our Editors’ Choice for free language-learning, because of how it brings in more contextual reading, while Duolingo fills in the content that Lingualia misses—a strong community aspect, speaking exercises, and writing exercises. If you’re looking for a program that holds you hand through the paces a bit more, you may need to pay for something more, in which case I recommend Rosetta Stone or Rocket Languages Premium.
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