Cost: Mostly free (some Premium, optional content)
Languages: English, French, German, Hindi, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish
The most important aspect of learning any language is practice, practice, practice. However, for many students just beginning their journey on the road to fluency, practising outside of the classroom can be nearly impossible. Even assuming he or she can find another person to practice with, the fear of sounding stupid or making a mistake often paralyses students. As a result, few students get the critical practice they need outside of the classroom.
LiveMocha aims to change the way students speak a language. A combination of both textbook and social networking site, Livemocha is making it easier for students to practice with native speakers by encouraging their users to make friends with those looking to learn their native tongue. Livemocha does a good job matching say, English students looking to learn Spanish with Spanish students looking to learn English. How does it work when its all put together? The answer is, surprisingly well.
The website’s design is well polished and clean. It is incredibly easy to sign up for the website: simply select which languages you speak and want to learn, and then all you need to do is make a username, a password, and, optionally, add some new friends or enroll in one of their language courses. Set-up is extremely easy and only takes around five minutes. After registering, students can immediately jump into a course and begin practising their skills. The site has few ads, and only asks you if you would be interested in purchasing their “premium” lessons when you sign up for a course. (The premium versions include exercise feedback from certified tutors, mp3 lesson downloads, and live tutoring sessions, but are not necessary to complete a course.)
There are a wide range of courses available, including classes available in English (including a TOEFL test prep course), French, German, Hindi, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. All courses save Icelandic offer multiple levels of classes for the student to choose from, from “crash course” travel classes to courses on irregular verbs. The units are wisely kept small, with only around 6 lessons per unit; this makes going through the courses a quick affair. However, these courses are insufficient for achieving fluency. Even at the top level of courses offered by LiveMocha, a student will only be able to have simple back and forth conversations about the present and the past. They do a good job in teaching students the groundwork of a language, but those looking for an all-in-one site that will teach them to speak, read, and write a language fluently will not find it here.
All courses are made up of four sections: Learn, Review, Write, and Speak. The learn section helps build vocabulary by showing a word, playing an audio file of a native speaker saying that word, and showing a picture to help reinforce it; the student can go back and forth through the cards as many times as he or she likes. Outside of Chinese, users of languages with non-roman scripts, such as Japanese or Korean, will notice that the courses do not add a roman script, so students should may want to review the basic alphabets for those languages before actually beginning the lessons. Review offers the same pictures used in the Learn section, but this time the student has to identify either which word is being said by a native speaker, match a word with a picture that displays the meaning of that word, or choose which of several words best fits the picture displayed. This simple system serves to cement the vocabulary in mind before the next exercise, writing. Writing asks students to write a short paragraph about a chosen topic: describing people, places, or things, for example. Finally, in Speak, users are asked to record themselves reading their writing sample out loud. (Unfortunately, the recording can only be done through the website itself, meaning a microphone is required to complete courses with audio components.)
The writing and audio parts of the lessons are then critiqued by native speakers of that language; students can ask specific users to comment on their entries as well as the general public. The response time for ratings is not very long; within a couple hours, I had 2 unsolicited critiques on a Spanish 101 entry. However, the helpfulness of these critiques is utterly dependant on the reviewers; while one comment I had was extremely helpful, correcting typos and giving me some valuable tips on my writing, another was simply someone who gave me a few stars (LiveMocha’s rating system) buy didn’t bother making any comments at all. This makes it all the more important for a prospective student to try to find native speakers of your target language that you can swap critiques with.
Each lesson also has 4 optional exercises: Read, Listen, Magnet, and Quiz. The first three options are simply repeats of various aspects of the Review system. Read gives you a word and asks you to identify which picture displays the meaning of that word, Listen gives you an audio sample and asks you to identify which word is being said, and Magnet gives you a picture and asks you which of four options best fits the picture. The fourth option, Quiz, is a new mode that gives you a word and asks you to translate what it means out of several options, while at the same time racing the clock. These options give a student some variety in vocabulary drills.
Supplementing their courses, Livemocha offers Flashcards and Extra Practice exercises. Flashcards allow the user to create their own sets of flashcards to review and quiz themselves over. Happily, the LiveMocha community has been astonishingly active in this category, creating dozens of flashcard sets for the prospective student to use. Languages that aren’t covered in courses also have flashcard sets, although some languages have many more than others. A student looking to learn a language not covered by the courses available by LiveMocha probably will not find enough value in the flashcard section to use the site entirely because of it. Extra Practice offers more writing and audio exercises to students to submit, a welcome edition considering that the writing and audio sections are easily one of the most valuable parts of the LiveMocha experience. For students looking to improve their English language skills, there is also an English tutoring option, but be warned that the tutoring is not free, with the costs varying depending on how much a student wish to use it.
Students are also heavily encouraged to review other’s submissions, earning “mocha points” for doing so. Mocha points are mainly used to help track your progress, but also have a valuable sub-system: teacher points. Teacher points are earned by reviewing others’ submissions, which makes finding new people to exchange critiques with much easier. The social aspect of the site is easily the best reason to go to it, and LiveMocha appears fully aware of this: a new option to actually teach a language is coming soon. If users can create their own lessons (or even courses), it could add plenty more value to an already worthwhile website.
Perhaps the best option, though, for those looking to find friends, is the ability to chat on site with fellow learners and native speakers. One can chat – live! – with another live person, and the site even provides suggested dialogues for a prospective student to practice, although he or she is freely allowed to shoot the breeze as well. This is by far the most compelling reason to use the site; this tool will help a student achieve a level of fluency sooner than anything else on LiveMocha. Even after completing the courses, students can continue to build their vocabulary and practice their writing (and, if they and their chat buddies have microphones, speech) through chatting, which will help students not only feel more comfortable talking in their new language, but actually help them begin to think in their target language – a key element of fluency.
For those looking to begin learning the first steps of one of the offered languages and make some friends, LiveMocha is a great place to start. The lessons, particularly the writing and audio segments, give a prospective student a good foundation in learning a language, but its the social networking element that really makes this site worth going to. LiveMocha is especially recommended for students just beginning to enter the intermediate stage of their language, where they know quite a bit of vocabulary, but need to practice writing and speaking it. The highlight of LiveMocha is its amazingly active community; from quality feedback on assignments to chatting with a new-found comrade about soccer, the site offers a lot of education for those who like making friends. In fact, anyone looking to learn a language or practice their language skills can find something worthwhile on this website; so long as you’re looking to learn one of the languages LiveMocha teaches, I recommend making a free account and giving it a try.
(This review is based on the free version of LiveMocha. No premium content has been rated.)