7 Questions You Have To Ask Before Buying A Language Product

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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7 Questions You Have To Ask Before Buying A Language Product

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?

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Hello everyone! I agree with most of the points. The psychology says that in order to value something it can’t be given to you for free. Valuable materials cost a lot of work and resources and can’t be free. There are tons of crapy dictionaries and learning books in bookstores. Don’t buy them. Ask Google, which is the best and spend your valuable resources for it (of course don’t overpay!) and order through Amazon, for instance. If there is a book in .pdf on-line free to download, yes download it, look at it, evaluate, but buy the original one if you have made your decision to learn from it and spend dozens or hundreds hours on it. It is a matter of a good feel and a good “energy flow” between you and the authors.



Hey Donovan, it may be helpful to offer a list of easily accessible or free resources in this post. Also (unrelated to this post) was wondering what your notes look like when you were learning. The structure of the notes helps you when integrating the information. I am just now begininng to learn Iraqi arabic and am on the hunt for a good journal for notes. I know that I took organic chemistry twice because my notes were so horrible that I did not want to look at them. A huge difference (got a B) after the second time of taking nearly identical notes, obviously. Anyways people could be ahead of that learning curve if you gave them a structure to replicate as far as notes are concerned. Just a few pages as an example with simple note taking suggestions like “keep a page for..” or “make sure to date your entries” (you may only remember, when in the process of learning, that you got a lesson from this person or learned some bit of information on a certain date) . Never forget to cite sources in your notes so you can find them again. It would be nice to see the notes you started at 18 and how you structure your written notes now, could be inspiring to begginers like myself.



I partly agree with Ronan. Free online resources can be very confusing for the beginners. Because, firstly, they don’t always have a direct focus that learners and focus on. Secondly, there are often too different choices and “methods” on the web and we wouldn’t know which one to trust.

But then again, the variety of physical products on the market can be dazzling too. Simply being a physical product doesn’t guarantee its quality either. In the end, we must all make up our mind and decide to stick to one course or another (same with choosing teachers).



I have mixed feelings about #7.

Sure. Why would you want to pay money when there is a very nice alternative that doesn’t cost anything? However, for languages like Japanese, which is very popular and heavily saturated in terms of the language learning products, I personally experienced and have seen other people being overwhelmed and trying to find out “the” best book/website/podcast/etc. That results in a lot of time being wasted. So I am more for the idea that a learner should limit himself/herself with a couple of physical books and accompanying recordings, of course, in the beginning. But, I don’t really like how Genki is revered as the Bible and presented as a one size fits all solution among the Japanese language learners.



I’m with you buddy, the only 3 resources I used were a J-E dictionary site, a J-J dictionary site and the tae kim grammar guide (for quick reference), you really don’t need anything else. I didn’t knew that genki was so overrated, personally I think it’s basic textbook that tries to ‘fill in’ content by making long explanations and exercises about things that are actually pretty simple and straightforward. The stories are also boring and everybody talks like an idiot. I remember that when I started I just picked up the first piece of Japanese that seemed interesting and started looking up the grammar and vocab on the fly, it was a bunch of Call of Duty videos on youtube, I liked that game a lot back then.

Least but not least try to avoid Japanese learning forums, they’re huge time wasters and have a toxic mindset. They’re obsessed with ‘mastering’ the language and are self-conscious about their language ‘level’ and everything they do, thus they end up spending hours on pointless discussions (in English) and make everybody else feel like shit about their knowledge of the language.



Right on topic Donovan. I especially agree with #7. I have a booklet I did about the Only 6 Tools you need to learn Spanish and they’re all free online. I’m about to convert it into a 21-day course as well. There’s so much available for free that is great quality, especially in the more common languages, that the days of hundreds of dollars spent on software or learning tools are behind us. Great article, as always.



Well,although I do agree with you about the native speaker, I DO like Michel Thomas German somewhat so far... I am on Beginner German disk 1 lesson 6 so I can only give a first impression. .....It is like listening to your grandfather and the presentation is different than the Pimsler so it rests my ears. Micheal Thomas has NO written texts but I take notes anyway since he does spell out any new verbs. The thing I hate is that he tapes his students’ mistakes......this drives me crazy and I dont know if I will continue because of this.!!!!! I really don’t think I would use Micheal Thomas for Italian,Spanish,etc but I assume his Polish(native tongue),Russian and German must be native speaker.Does anyone know how many languages he knew since childhood? My son is trilingual in English,French and Spanish.He learned the first 2 since the cradle and the 3rd one at age 5. I would consider all 3 his *native tongues*

Pimsler German also has a downside in that there are no written texts but with lots of research I found some notes for the beginner lever .
I listen to the *tapes* on my ipod as I taxi my kids around town and wait for them during their sports or when I go biking. I try to take time to make some notes via Micheal Thomas(this is relatively easy since the lessons are 4-8 minutes!!) I also read the Pimsler German notes before I listen to the dialogues.
I used Pimsler for Spanish and am on lesson 72 (Level 3 lesson 12/30 ).The entire dialogues can be found online thanks to some kind soul .Pimsler,however,does not want you to use any visual materials so the pdf may disappear at any time

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