Are You at a Disadvantage Without Formal Language Training?

by Josh Frazier
Posted on 1st May 2013

Research has already demonstrably proven the many benefits of language learning to young children: improved cognitive abilities, maths and language arts scores, and even science hypothesizing skills. American High school students who study language score better on the ACT and SAT, and they go on to perform better academically in college than their peers. What you may not know is that adult learners can also gain from multiple-language instruction, even if their days of formal, classroom-based education are far behind them.

Studies have shown bilingual adults succumb to memory loss and dementia slower than monolingual people. Even if the adult never becomes fluent, the mental exercise required in language learning is enough to produce positive results. Scientists from the University of Kentucky also found bilingual adults are able to take the lessons they've learned in tackling a new language and apply them to other areas of their lives.

In a provocative Jan. 20, 2012 piece for The New York Times entitled "What You (Really) Need to Know," former Harvard president Lawrence Summers asserted that language instruction has ceased to be essential with the progress in machine translation and the rise of English as "the global language." Such utilitarian thinking - that learning a foreign language is beneficial only to the extent it is profitable - overlooks the many powerful rewards a learner earns on a personal level. Moreover, this school of thought ignores the concept of motivation, a key component of second language learning.

proper motivation can be more than enough to offset a lack of formal training

When the rewards for learning a second language are monetary or involve social gain (what Summers seems to envision), it's called instrumental motivation. A student with integrative motivation, on the other hand, enjoys the people and the culture of the language he's attempting to learn so that he can at least be familiar with and possibly integrate into that culture. Guess which results in a more successful experience, from proficiency in the language itself to pronunciation that's closer to native speakers. If you said integrative, give yourself a pat on the back. Give yourself another one if you can imagine into which group most young students - who've been forced to take a foreign language class and picked one at random - fall.

In other words, the proper motivation can be more than enough to offset a lack of formal training. Ken Stewart, the 2006 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year, went so far as to call the desire and drive to learn a language "the single-most determining factors in achieving fluency." Researchers have even postulated that what makes picking up a language later in life more difficult is not brain plasticity but a tendency to tune out sounds one's native language doesn't feature. With the right stimulus, the brain can be retrained.

All that being said, you'll still need the proper tools to work with. As a distance learner, you have the advantage over schoolkids that you can seek out resources that allow you to immerse yourself in that new language, which many formal classroom settings do not do. Immersion programs can help you learn languages with the same brain processes as native speakers, as well as help you retain the information longer than from a classroom setting.

Rosetta Stone

Easily the best-known name in DIY foreign language learning, Rosetta Stone utilizes a technique it calls "dynamic immersion." To try and replicate the environment in which you learned your primary language at an early age, dynamic immersion uses repetition of vivid pictures in everyday contexts. The TOTALe PRO version for lifelong learners provides live sessions with native speakers and "up to three other learners."

While this tool gets the immersive pedagogy right, it misses on the aspect of integrative motivation. A sample video of Turkish language instruction showed multicultural people - apparently none of them Turks - reading books and drinking water. The context of the language within the culture was lacking. The software will work best with beginning learners who are not in a rush to master a language before traveling to a foreign country, for example, as the training style tends to move somewhat slowly.


Assuming the language you want to learn is one of the six it offers (including English), Yabla and its "language immersion through online video" is a solid (though pricey) choice for lifelong learners looking for immersion software. The videos include real news reports from the country of the language's origin and original videos shot on location and featuring native speakers using authentic tongue. As the video plays, subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen in two languages. You can slow the speed, go back, and skip ahead, plus click on words to see definitions.

Yabla scores in the culture immersion department, but the $9.95 a month pricing may turn off some students. There is also no way to interact with native speakers, so you would need to supplement your learning with another program to do so. And, of course, if you want to learn Arabic, Russian, or Portuguese, you'll have to look elsewhere, but for French and especially Spanish, Yabla is a great option.

Language Learning Networks

The next best thing to flying halfway around the world to converse with native speakers of a foreign language is to connect with them over the Internet through sites like Busuu, Livemocha, Lang-8, and MyLanguageExchange. Each has its own system of instruction, but all of them offer a way to communicate with native speakers via audio, video, text, and/or instant message. Each of them can also be used for free and three may be upgraded with a paid subscription, although most users opt to stick with the free versions.

With millions in investment funding and claiming 25 million users, Busuu is the most established of the bunch. It only offers instruction in 12 languages but it does make available smartphone apps with vocabulary, audio and video recordings of native speakers, and interactive tests. Busuu arguably has the most active, helpful members and a search tool for finding them and thus provides your best chance to connect with a speaking partner you'll want to stick with throughout your language learning journey.

Livemocha may only have half the members of Busuu, but it offers three times the language instruction and does more to drive home the community aspect of learning. Users may chat directly with others users based on a ready-made script or in freeform, have practice exercises reviewed by the community, and review others work to earn points that can be used toward premium services. Users can pick their partners based on their listed numerical reputation on the site, feedback they've left other people, and even age and hobbies.

The glaring hole in Lang-8's system is that speaking is left out of the equation. Before you write it off, however, you should know that what it does cover - writing, more specifically blogging - it does very well. Create a journal in which you write in whatever language you're learning, submit it, and it comes back with comments and corrections from native speakers. (Obviously, don't get away any private security information, and don't be more personal than you're comfortable with.) When you do your duty as an editor, you'll get to learn about the personal experiences of someone in the culture you're learning about. It's totally free to use and you can log in with your Twitter of Facebook accounts if you choose.

With just 1 million users, MyLanguageExchange beats Lang-8's several hundred thousand but falls far short of the Busuu and Livemocha communities. Still, the site has cool features like the "Club Library" where you users can share the slang and informal words from their native languages you wouldn't pick up in a classroom. The site advises beginners to start with email (pen-pal) communication and work up to text and audio-visual chat later. Customer service has received some poor reviews, so as with the other language providers, stick with the free option and you won't have any buyer's remorse.

Which community you choose to use will depend largely on personal preferences and the quality of users you're able to meet on each site. Livemocha and Busuu are very similar but Livemocha can connect you with knowledgeable tutors for hire, so students looking for (and willing to pay for) dedicated help should choose that site. Lang-8 is advisable for learners looking to be truly social and improve their foreign language writing but is not a great fit for beginners looking to start from square one. And learners looking for other students or speakers of rarer languages can do well on MyLanguageExchange, although they might have to sort through some abandoned accounts before they find a helpful partner.

Language Immersion for Chrome

For a free, easy way to turn your Web browsing into an immersive foreign language experience, Google offers Language Immersion for Chrome. This extension translates English words and phrases on a given Web page into one of 64 languages, from a few here and there to half the page or more, depending on the level of difficulty you select. Click on them, and they revert to English. Although it shouldn't be considered anything more than a supplemental learning tool for those using another system to master a language, Language Immersion is a fun way to expose yourself to a second language in a setting in which you otherwise would not be gaining any foreign language ability.


It's not immersion software, but Duolingo is an exciting creation of Carnegie Mellon University that teaches you a new language by having you translate the Web. Prove you have at least a basic knowledge of a language - which Duolingo helps you acquire with fill-in-the-blank, pronunciation (with voice recognition), and other exercises - and then you're off to translate a Web page on a topic of your choosing. Your answers are compared to others and you earn points as you go along. Not only do you get to freely benefit from material developed by a provider of "formal" education, an independent study found that Duolingo was even more effective than a university course.

So, are you at a disadvantage if you miss out on "formal" language training? Absolutely not. There has never been a better time than now to be a lifelong learner, with the sheer volume of resources already existing and being released every day that make self-guided learning, even in the languages, possible. With the ability to virtually immerse yourself in a new culture, coupled with the inherent motivation of lifelong learners to expand their horizons, you've got everything you need. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, in any language.

Josh Frazier is a student finishing up his communications degree and spending his free time getting some real world experience by helping out and contributing to, where this article was first published.