7 Questions You Have To Ask Before Buying A Language Product (#3 Is Vital)

How to buy language products

The challenge that most of us often face when buying books or resources to learn a foreign language is not that there isn’t enough available.

The problem is that there’s so much out there that it can be tough to decide what’s good and what isn’t.

And a lot of it is frankly rubbish.

There’s actually very little innovation too when it comes to language learning products.

Most of it’s a reinvention of the wheel so to speak; the same content or same approach packaged up and presented a little differently.

This is why I’m always happy to endorse products like Earworms MBT and Glossika a lot on this site – they’re both good examples of ‘thinking outside the box’ and presenting something entirely innovative and backed up by sound research.

But putting solely innovative approaches aside, how do you actually tell if something’s worth your time and money?

Here are 7 questions that you should always ask yourself before you go ahead and purchase anything for learning another language:


1. Are you paying for a brand name?

This holds true for anything you buy – make sure you’re getting your money’s worth and not just paying a lot for a well-known brand.

Rosetta Stone for example is a household brand and because of how well it’s known they can continue to keep a high price tag on it because people trust/assume that it’s the be-all and end-all of language learning.

It’s not necessarily a bad product but just very overpriced for what it is.

Never assume that a high price tag reflects the quality of the product.


2. Are there several dialects of this language and if so, which one is this book, program or audio series in?

Usually a product will say from the outset what the various dialects are and which one it uses but it’s worth doing a bit of research to see if it suits your needs.

Good products will go a step further and include dialect varieties but this isn’t always possible.

If you’re heading to a particular country or region, make sure the product will equip you with a dialect that will enable you to communicate with local people in their local dialect.


3. Does it make an exaggerated promise?

Does it claim to be able to teach or help you learn a language in a few days, weeks or months?

Does it promise fast fluency or use gimmicky words like ‘master’?

Avoid it.

Anything promising you a way to ‘get fluent quickly’ is no different to a TV commercial promising you six-pack abs or pyramid marketers telling you how to make 6 figure salaries from home overnight.

I can understand the temptation for businesses to make claims like this in getting people’s attention but the truth is it’s an outright lie.

Yes, a lie.

Languages take time and hard work and even the most diligent, focused individual is not exempt from this fact.


4. Is the audio spoken by native speakers?

Whether it’s a book, CD or software package it should come with dialogues for you to listen to and repeat.

Make sure you find out if it’s spoken by native speakers.

Some products aren’t (e.g. Michel Thomas) and this is an instant deal-breaker for me personally. I would never purchase something that was recorded by anyone who isn’t a native speaker, no matter how good they are (the same reason I won’t take lessons from non-natives).

If it’s not stated on the product then you might have to do a bit of research to find out.


5. Is the text transliterated or in the original script or both?

This is important for languages that don’t use a Latin alphabet.

Ensure that the text includes both the original script and a transliteration.

Although it might help with your pronunciation in the early stages, you’re not going to improve reading the alphabet if it’s all transliterated into English letters for you.

If it has an alphabet, learn it!

With the exception of languages that use characters (e.g. Chinese), you really have no excuse for not spending a couple of days to learn the alphabet properly.


6. Does the material provide useful, relevant dialogue?

Stuff that you actually need and use.

Most products go through the usual standard topics such as introductions, directions, airport/hotel, ordering in a restaurant, etc. but you should always make sure it’s got plenty of relevant material for you to use.

I never work through books from start to finish myself – I always go through and find what I know I need personally.

It’s your job to go through a book and make sure it has all the expressions and vocab that are most relevant to you and your situation.


7. Is there a freely available online alternative?

This is a really important piece of advice.

Most expensive language products are actually unnecessary unless you’re learning a language with limited resources.

Check the content of the book, software package or audio series you’re thinking about buying and then do a search online.

For a lot of languages you’ll find the content is already freely or cheaply available.

Only pay for it if it offers you something you can’t find elsewhere for nothing.


What would you add to this list?


This was written by .

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How Arabic Words Made It Into The Chinese Language

How Arabic Came To China

Today’s guest post comes from accomplished polyglot Judith Meyer.

She runs a blog called LearnLangs and was also the organizer for the Polyglot Conference in Berlin this year.

As I mentioned recently on Facebook, Judith’s running a fundraising campaign at the moment to get help putting together a really impressive tool for learning Mandarin Chinese called LearnYu (if you ever wanted a Duolingo-esque tool for Mandarin then this might be what you’re after).

The campaign still has just under 2 weeks left and I’m sure she’d really appreciate your support.

Click here to check it out.


I still remember a high school history class on what might be called the Islamic Civilization – the series of Arab states and caliphates that experienced a Golden Age of Science while Europe lived in the Dark Ages.

Starting around 622, Muslim scholars were encouraged to travel the world, learn what they could in every country and write about their findings in Arabic.

They created the basis for modern mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine.

Through the spread of Islamic Civilization, their traders, their technological achievements and the Muslim faith, a lot of Arabic words have entered foreign languages.

In English, you can find words like ‘alcohol’, ‘coffee’, ‘sugar’, ‘cotton’, ‘sofa’, ‘guitar’, ‘algorithm’, ‘alkaline’ and more.

When learning Swahili, I noticed a lot of Arabic vocabulary, from ‘wakati’ (waqat = time) to ‘fikiri’ (fakara = to think). ‘Safari’ is a Swahili word in English but the Swahili word is itself based on the Arabic ‘safara’ (to travel). Same thing in Indonesian on the other side of the globe: ‘waktu’ (waqat = time), ‘kursi’ (chair) and ‘adil’ (‘adl = fair, just) are just some of the words I recognized from Arabic.


So how did Arabic fare in China?

Muslim traders settled in China as early as 616 AD and by 1000 AD, most import/export was in the hands of Muslims. Yet Chinese is notoriously resistant to adopting foreign words, often opting to translate the concept rather than instruct people in how to pronounce foreign syllables.

Arabic words that more or less kept their sound in Chinese include:

coffee 咖啡 kāfēi via English
guitar 吉他 jítā via English
sofa 沙发 shāfā via English
emir 埃米尔 āimǐ’ěr from Arabic
bedouin 贝都因人 bèidōuyīnrén from Arabic
imam 伊玛目 yīmǎmù from Arabic
mullah 毛拉 máolā from Arabic, possibly through Persian
muslim 穆斯林 mùsīlín from Arabic
islam 伊斯兰教 yīsīlán jiào from Arabic (jiào means ‘religion’)

Note that Chinese Muslims sometimes prefer the translation 清真 qīngzhēn for ‘Muslim’ and 清真教 qīngzhēn jiào for ‘Islam’.

The characters mean ‘clear and true’.

By contrast, Chinese people may refer to Muslims as 回族 huízú (Hui people). The character ‘hui’ means ‘to go back’ and is thought to be rooted in the word for the Uyghur nation of the 8th and 9th centuries.

Today, Hui people are recognized as an ethnic group in China, but really they are all Chinese nationals who belong to the Muslim faith, independent of their ethnic make-up. Huízú include descendants of Silk Road travelers but also Cham/Vietnamese Muslims and Tibetan Muslims.

Concepts that were translated for Chinese include:

gazelle 瞪羚 dènglíng (“staring antelope”)
giraffe 长颈鹿 chángjǐnglù (“long neck deer”)
chess 西洋棋 xīyángqí (“Western Qi”, where Qi is used in the name of Chinese chess, Weiqi/Go and other strategic games)
saffron 藏红花 zànghónghuā (“Tibetan red flower”)
harem 后宫 hòugōng (“back palace”, the place where the emperor’s wives lived)
hookah 水烟 shuǐyān (“water smoke”)
jihad 圣战 shèngzhàn (“holy war”)
minaret 尖塔 jiāntǎ (“sharp pagoda”)
alchemy 炼金术 liànjīnshù (“refine gold technique”)
chemistry 化学 huàxué (“science of changes”)
algebra 代数 dàishù (“substitute numbers”)

I love how Chinese often makes me think about concepts because the names are more meaningful – or the meanings are more readily accessible – than in Western languages. That’s why I have studied Chinese for 10 years already and it’s my favourite language to learn.


I always knew that I wanted to learn Chinese

Those characters irresistibly lured me.

As a child, I drew up my own character-based script but I still craved the real thing; I was just too afraid to learn Chinese on my own and I didn’t have any role models of successful language learners among my family and older friends.

In my case, what made a difference was Esperanto.

When I was 14 I read a popular science book about linguistics that included a chapter on planned languages and it mentioned that Esperanto was both the most successful and the easiest planned language. Knowing that, and with the new-found resource of the internet at my hands, I enrolled in a free e-mail-based Esperanto course.

Five non-intensive months later, I was able to read and write anything in Esperanto, but more importantly, I had gained the confidence that I could indeed learn a language in self-study and I had developed the habit of doing so.

Through self-study, I greatly improved my English, Latin, French and Italian, which I was learning at school, and asked a friend to start teaching me some Modern Greek.

Finally, in 2004, when I saw an ad for a Chinese-learning competition for high school students, and I was in my last year of high school, my goal of learning Chinese changed from “someday” to “now”. I always liked a challenge.

It was a long trek though.

At that time, Chinese learning materials still very much followed traditional methods. I couldn’t remember any character beyond the most common 600-800 and also had a lot of trouble acquiring conversational abilities.

It got to be so frustrating that I all but paused my studies for a few years.

In 2009, with a lot more language study experience under my belt, I took up Chinese again and managed to learn 2500 new characters in one year. Since then, I haven’t dropped Chinese again. I’m currently taking a class in Modern Chinese Literature.

I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how to make learning Chinese easier.

The approach I came up with involves applying machine intelligence to the teaching of Chinese, letting the computer figure out which words or grammar points are easy or hard for you and providing optimal support.

I think the resulting course is quite amazing and might just revolutionize how Chinese will be taught in the future.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

If you like it, please support the development of more lessons, because paying the Chinese teachers, audio editors and so on is getting too much to be my hobby expense and I’d really like to make the course available for free for everyone. This site also gives you a quick overview of what is so innovative about the course.

If you want to read some of my language-learning advice, I normally blog at Learnlangs.com.

Good luck with your studies!


This was written by Judith Meyer.

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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