The Best and Brightest Online Language Courses
Weighing one online language course against the many others.
Spending hours sifting through facts and making comparisons.
Only reading positive reviews that don’t tell you the real ins and outs of each course.
Wondering about scathingly negative reviews that are outliers among many 5-star reviews—but do seem to raise some good points.
And that, friends, sounds like a drag, doesn’t it?
Would-be language learners often put off trying to choose the perfect online language course because the above becomes so darn exhausting.
A fundamental fact is that time is of the essence for everyone. It’s just a fact of our super busy lives: We’re all crunched for time.
So, how best to cut through the clutter and choose the course that suits your needs? It just so happens there’s a good answer to that time-conscious question!
I can help you find the best method for your learning style—before you waste precious time on something that doesn’t work well.
Spend time learning, not looking!
What Makes an Online Course Worthwhile for You?
Let’s face it, we all have different needs—there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to almost anything in life. Language learning is no different.
That means you need to choose an online course according to your own unique needs and learning style. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Now let’s address the elephant in the room, discovering how you learn. What style are you?
Let’s find out!
Of course, the usual approach is to discuss classic learning styles, like visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Here, we’re only interested in teasing apart what’s best for you in the online language course market, which means we’re going to focus more on characteristics of digital resources:
Cost and the Cash-conscious Learner
Are you at a point in life where the day-to-day grind pays the basics and not much else? Are your purse strings tight? Just don’t feel like shelling out for anything you don’t have to?
There’s a fix for that—it’s entirely possible (easy, actually) to find a course that’s not a budget-buster! Many online language courses are free or very cheap.
Mobility and the Globe-trotting Learner
Not in one place for too long, are you? Do you always have a suitcase packed and that passport by the door? Never quite sure if you’ll have solid Wi-Fi? Or maybe you’re just always on the move in your hometown, commuting to work, hanging out in different places or going for long drives.
Then you need mobility in your course. Learn anywhere, anytime—and never leave home without your language lessons!
Gamification and the Competitive Learner
Some learners want concrete validation that information is actually being absorbed.
And some of us just like the thrill of playing a good game and seeing progress, right?
Good news! There are courses that play almost like video games. They have levels to track progress, dole out points, have bonuses to unlock and some even give out virtual awards. What’s not to love about that kind of fun?
Interactivity and the Interactive Learner
Videos, grammar modules and vocabulary tools that engage while teaching can be wonderfully effective. Yes, it’s amazing how much language learning takes place while you’re casually, passively watching a video—and the cultural knowledge gained is priceless.
But interactive learners, who like lots of hands-on practice to learn, will want to seek out courses with loads of interactive elements. By encouraging you to think, type, click and speak, interactive elements keep you in the game.
You’ll also want to seek out social tools like forums, tutors, language exchange partners and learning groups—or even a very responsive support staff.
Structure and Classic Classroom Learner
Classroom learning is still legit. After all, it’s what keeps brick-and-mortar colleges and universities in business.
Some people learn best the way their formal educations began: in a classroom.
Excellent auditory skills are a plus for classroom learning. A bonus? Most people who prefer this experience possess a hefty attention span which lends itself to drill-type exercises. Those skills worked when we were in grade school, and they still work now.
The Pros and Cons of 7 Leading Online Language Courses
Language learning is in part about community, understanding and socializing, so take some hints from those who have successfully done this.
Gather tips—but make your language learning experience your own!
Here, we’ll introduce you to seven of the leading online language courses that you can work with. You’ll likely recognize all these names because they carry some hefty online—and real-world—clout. The pros and cons are presented for each course, as well as a note about who the course tends to work best for.
Busuu declares “it only takes 10 minutes a day to learn a language,” so they offer short lessons and interactive learning with learners across the globe. Speaking and writing exercises are corrected by native speakers which encourages cultural interaction.
If you’d like to sample any of the 12 language courses offered, just sign in and look one over for free.
The classroom-style learners who also enjoy socializing with their peers—so will appreciate the forums—but can basically work solo.
There’s a free option which uses flashcards, writing exercises and corrections from native speakers. Additionally, the premium option isn’t overly pricey but helps you reach some great ends. The site claims that 22.5 hours of their premium course equals one college semester of language study.
Socialization is emphasized using community forums. You can chat with other learners to stimulate those vocabulary and conversation skills.
This course is too structured for anyone who likes more freedom and immersion. The language used here can feel formal and textbook, rather than natural and authentic. You won’t get much in the way of authentic resources here, so you won’t necessarily feel immersed in the way modern native speakers use their language.
Plus, the free option isn’t mobile, which may not suit everyone.
Babbel’s foundation is the idea that language learning occurs best when we just begin to speak a language so that’s what they do, they get the words flowing! Speech recognition technology helps get pronunciations on point. Learners choose from a variety of topics, ranging from business to travel, among other things.
The main focal areas of this course are lesson modules, vocabulary practice and social learning (where you can hook up with friends and fellow learners online).
Feel free to check out one of the dozen courses available from Babbel before deciding if this option appeals to you, like the courses for Spanish, French, German, Russian and Italian.
The interactive learner who benefits from short bursts of learning.
The first lesson in every language is free and the individual lessons are short (10-15 minutes) so they fit into any schedule. It’s a mobile method taught by native speakers, so pronunciation is on point.
For most offered languages, the modules cover a lot of ground, from the basic language lessons to business language, culture, travel, geography and tongue twisters.
While there’s a nice feature for recording your voice, it still needs some development to achieve full accuracy.
Since this course is quite immersive, the avalanche of vocabulary that you’re exposed to right off the bat might feel overwhelming for some learners, especially those who are more classroom-oriented.
The language you’re learning might have more lackluster material than the most popular languages—English, Spanish, German, French, etc.—so the free course is worth your while to take.
FluentU is real-world language learning, based on the premise that learners learn most easily when offered rich, engaging, memorable and authentic experiences. If a subject interests you or if it touches your heart, you’re more likely to retain whatever knowledge is gained by that lesson.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The program currently offers six language courses (English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese) to learners, and five more are in the works. FluentU can also be used from iOS or Android devices with the app. If you’d like to see how this course works, take a peek.
Any learners with a globe-trotting, culturally-conscious, interactive learning style. It’s gamified and addictive.
Learning is done through language immersion via native videos, so the world comes to the learner. It’s culture on your doorstep, no travel required!
The real-world video content is beyond fun. Who doesn’t want to be entertained while they’re learning? It’s a natural way to learn a language, through immersion via video that does not include dull, repetitive lessons. And you’ll almost feel like you’re procrastinating while checking out movie trailers, music videos, interviews, comedy skits, YouTube channels, cartoons and more.
There’s something for everyone, with videos on all sorts of topics, so this course appeals to all personalities and language levels. The cost is reasonable, and you can try it for free before you decide if it’s right for you.
There are courses which provide direction and structure in the less advanced levels, but after the intermediate stage you’re left to your own devices.
This is also a highly immersive program, so you’ll find yourself swimming in new vocabulary and grammar every day. You’ll likely encounter a lot of vocabulary and grammar that you won’t fully learn how to use properly for a good while—which is good for some, but perhaps not all.
This can be an amazing way to gain exposure and familiarity with a language, but can admittedly be challenging for classroom-type learners who need more structure and guidance.
Looking for fun? A cute little green companion bird who’ll nudge you toward a daily language learning commitment? Then Duolingo may be what you’re after!
The course uses the theory that daily language learning is the way to go, and they’re making it fun to show up day after day. There are points for returning and completing lessons, and the daily streak (how many days in a row you’ve shown up for study) is a challenge unto itself.
Would you like a little taste of a course? No problem! There are 21 to choose from. Choose a language and take the placement test to see where you fall.
Gaming types who crave immediate success or results.
It’s also a good fit for those suffering a time crunch. With just a few minutes a day to invest you’ll still get results and build a solid learning habit.
The course was founded in 2012 by Luis von Ahn who was determined to make language learning available to everyone—that’s why it’s free.
It’s interactive and fun, almost like playing a game rather than doing coursework. The method is to teach by context rather than memorization so there’s some cultural references, which always make a course interesting.
It’s known to be extremely effective in getting total newbies off the ground—and keep them hooked—with its addictive, fun method. It will give you structure and introduce you to a ton of diverse linguistic topics.
Another fun fact? There are six additional courses “hatching,” meaning that they’re in development, including Klingon!
The program lacks a solid grammar base, something that might not appeal to a classroom-type learner. It’s not super helpful for learners at the high-intermediate, advanced or nearly-fluent levels.
While it provides an awesome bare-bones framework to drive your learning, it doesn’t go very in-depth into any topic. You’ll just get a taste of each grammar point or vocabulary theme, but you’ll need to seek outside resources to really, truly learn any given topic.
FSI (Foreign Service Institute) Courses
The FSI has been around a long time so they’ve got a boatload of languages (40+) offered. If you’d like to see how they’re structured, this is a great example of the way they’ve got things formatted.
Independent workers who don’t mind sorting through what does not seem necessary to their study. Also great for classroom learners who enjoy and benefit from drills.
The courses were developed by the US Foreign Services to train diplomats. They teach basic comprehension and speaking.
On a personal note, I became basically conversant in German in 28 days using the courses. They were a bit dry in spots but they work. I plan to use more of the courses available. Why not? Free and they work? Yes and yes!
The courses are in the public domain so they’re free. There’s a huge assortment of languages and most languages have enough material to provide a solid learning opportunity.
The courses aren’t new, so there are some out-of-date social references. If you’re bothered by retro, these aren’t the courses for you.
As noted earlier, the materials can be formal and dry, so it’s not a great choice for the interactive learner, or someone who craves the bells and whistles of gamification.
Using speech recognition software, native speakers and an immersive curriculum, Rosetta Stone teaches by building on vocabulary in an orderly method. The program is available in 28 languages, including but not limited to: Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Chinese. If you’d like to give it a go before committing, they’re down with that.
Classroom learners, but also those on the go—a handy, high-quality mobile app can be downloaded.
This is an organized method of learning, relying on vocabulary building.
There are pronunciation checks which help correct your language SNAFUs as they occur.
And there are several options for purchasing the courses, including subscription and downloads.
This coursework isn’t ideal for learners who dislike traditional classroom settings.
Another personal note? I’m currently taking the Irish course and progressing nicely despite having no prior experience with this language. The vocabulary-building facilitates rapid learning and the voice recognition response feature makes getting pronunciation down a snap.
Will I be able to chat it up in Dublin in six weeks? Time will tell!
Fluenz’s foundation is the thought that adult language learners learn best when they can relate a new language to the one they already know. They focus on lining up the structure (vocabulary, syntax and grammar) of a new language to English.
The coursework at Fluenz includes six languages and they offer the option to try before you buy.
Classroom learners who like structure but want to be able to take the course on the go.
This course’s favored theory of learning is based on that of a typical, English-speaking classroom, using English as a foundation for learning new languages. This means that the course will feel quite familiar for native English speakers who learned a foreign language in their middle school or high school, with a teacher who used English to explain some things.
The new language exposure will feel similar to what’s already worked for you in the past.
Once the program is installed, it’s not necessary to be connected to the internet. Additionally, there’s an app for phones so language learning is mobile.
Downloads begin at $177 so, while it’s a very comprehensive program, this isn’t for a budget-conscious language learner.
It’s also not the ideal choice for anyone who favors a more immersive method of learning, where you’re surrounded by authentic language and constantly bumping into new linguistic challenges. It will probably feel like too much structure for a learner with this preference.
In a Nutshell
So there they are, the top online language learning courses all laid out—pros, cons and everything in between. There’s no need to waste precious time doing research or weighing facts and figures. The legwork is done, and now it’s up to you to move forward with your language learning dreams!
Identify your language learning style, then choose the course best suited to your needs.
Charlemagne said, “to have another language is to possess a second soul.”
So go for the new language, gain “a second soul” …then maybe a third and fourth.
The possibilities are limitless—what are you waiting for?