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Livemocha: Social Learning

By allychevalier

Livemocha's "social learning" approach to foreign languages has garnered a lot of buzz, but is it warranted? A look at what Livemocha is, how it works, and whether it's really all that effective.

It's a big world, and not all of it speaks English. Maybe you want to learn a little Mandarin to impress that cute Chinese chick three Livemocha seats up, maybe you're thinking Oktoberfest would be a bit more entertaining with a little German to go along with the lederhosen—or maybe you just want to meet some cool people who speak cool languages.

Livemocha just might be for you.

Livemocha is a website riding the globalization wave in a very different style from your typical e-learning program. Think Facebook meets Rosetta Stone. Completely ad-free, spam-free—and most critically, cost-free—it's revolutionizing the way people are learning languages on the internet.

Just like with many sites, upon signing up you type in your interests to a little profile form; favorite books and movies and so forth. Added to the usual gauntlet, however, is your language resume. See, the deal with this site is trading your mastery of your languages for that of other members: You seek out other members who are fluent in a language you want to learn, and who wish to learn a language you happen to be fluent in, for instance. As long as there's one language in common, communication is bona fide. One of my first conversations on the site was one in (admittedly stilted) English with a Russian about Nabokov's stylistics. I like Nabokov, she likes Nabokov, I speak English, she learns English. Let's talk.

Since then, I've had conversations on a huge variety of topics—9/11 conspiracy theories, the economics of India-Pakistan relations, comparing bubblegum between Germany and the US—in just about every single language I could conjugate a few verbs in. Just everyday talk between two curious people results in a simply fantastic amount of learning on so many levels: You learn a language, you learn a culture, and best of all—you learn people.

It's a wonderful premise, one that goes straight to the reality of what many people really want out of a language. It's not the French of Maupassant or the Spanish of Cervantes. It's teaching everyday, conversational language, as spoken by native speakers, and it's not doing it through the conjugation charts and textbooks that scare so many away from learning a language.

That's not to say that it's all just talk. Livemocha also provides a variety of 'courses' to help you along, from the very basics of a new alphabet to basic conversation. A typical lesson will begin with themed flashcards, presenting the written word or phrase with the pronunciation and a corresponding picture. Surrounding this is a “tip” section, where user-provided and -ranked notes on the grammar and pronunciation may be found, as well as a translation section. Review sessions follow, quizzing using the same combination of pictures, writing and listening. Following this is usually the composition and/or recitation of a passage, which is put up for critique by other members. The feedback they provide has been, in my experience, altogether friendly, helpful, and tolerant of a beginner's mistakes. This process repeats at your own pace, steadily progressing with greater difficulty. Throughout it all the interface is engaging and easy to use, and the site is simple to navigate.

Livemocha isn't perfect, however. Occasional typos in the lessons translate into incorrect learning, and though native speakers will often correct them in the “tips” feature or complain to the administration, none of the issues I've seen have been attended to yet. Learning “by feel” and not through a formal textbook means that complex structures often remain malignant mysteries. For instance, you're left on your own to try and find the patterns of when to use être or avoir in the French passé composée, which is no mean feat when you get to the sheer malice of indirect objects and inversion. Also, there aren't many lessons currently available, and they stop short of advanced use of the language, even for popular choices like English or Mandarin. The chat program is also a little clunky, certainly usable but not quite as user-friendly as the rest of the site (the user response to this is to simply offer up their MSN and/or Skype aliases for use instead.) Recently the site has been hinting at “premium” programs that would cost money to access, which might just make the slippery slope to mediocrity for a minority of free features.

The Verdict

There's the same disclaimer with using Livemocha as there is with any method of learning a language: It takes time, and a lot of it. Just punching through lessons and a few conversations with native Turks isn't going to get you around fluently in Istanbul. However, Livemocha certainly teaches, and it teaches in such a way that the time passes a little more quickly than with 501 Russian Verbs. Nonetheless, if you're really serious, I would recommend using Livemocha and its “social learning” approach as a supplement, not as a standalone method to learn a new language. After all—a language isn't all talk.