Recently the team at Babbel, an online language-learning system, asked me if I would be interested in reviewing their site.
I was glad to. I had tried their service out before but hadn’t really spent much time with it. I’m studying German pretty intensely, so this was a good opportunity to really see whether I liked their service and hopefully see some improvement in my Deutsch skills.
(Before I go on, I want to mention as I do in all my reviews that I have no affiliation with Babbel whatsoever. I did, however, receive three free months of access to their site. Despite the gift, I tried my best to remain impartial for this review.)
Let’s put the bottom line up front:
I wholeheartedly recommend Babbel. It is a very well put together language program that helped me see a noticeable improvement in my German. I wouldn’t rely on Babbel alone for your language studying, but instead I think it could be a valuable part of a balanced language routine.
Now let’s back up and look at the details.
What is it?
Babbel delivers language courses completely online, both on its website and as an app. From what I can tell, it has courses for thirteen languages right now.
It costs, as of this writing, about $13 (USD) a month if you go month to month, with prices almost half that if you buy a year package.
How I used it
I’ve been studying German for a couple years on and off. I’m not a beginner, but I have a long way to go.
I used it daily for a month and finished courses 3 through 5 of the German’s beginner’s courses, as well as half of course 6. This was a total of 52 lessons.
I mainly used the website, but I also tried the app on the iPad.
I also tried out a Spanish lesson to verify that the instructional delivery is the same for different languages. (It is.)
The instructional method
You progress through a series of courses, each of which contains a series of lessons.
Each lesson is made up of the following:
- New vocabulary words
- A dialogue
- Grammar instruction
- Review and drilling of what you’ve learned
The entire lesson functions well as one cohesive unit, with the new vocab and new grammar showing up repeatedly throughout.
Each lesson takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
The instruction reminded me of a traditional foreign-language class, but a little faster paced and more organized. You get an explanation, you do some exercises, and you are quizzed. Then at the end of the lesson you are given a numerical grade–for example, “51 out of 58 correct.”
In addition to lessons, Babbel has a Review Manager, which I’ll discuss in the next section.
Pros and Cons
Babbel has a ton going for it:
- User experience – As a piece of software, it’s intuitive, its design is attractive, and I didn’t see any bugs.
- Content – I’ve used a lot of language learning software in my life. Babbel’s actual content is far and away the best I’ve seen. What I mean is, you can tell that its development team includes experienced language teachers who know the real-world needs of language learners. Most programs wouldn’t teach you “baking powder,” for example. But I laughed when I saw that word in a Babbel lesson, because I distinctly remember being in the German supermarket two years ago and needing to know precisely that word, and not having any idea how to ask anyone for it. (An employee thankfully spoke English and I was able to bake my son’s cupcakes.)
- Explanations – German grammar is tricky, and some books I’ve bought to help me have not really been that helpful. The grammatical explanations are as good as or better than anything I’ve come across elsewhere.
- Review Manager – The Review Manager is a bank of the vocabulary words you learned in the lessons. It drills you on these words, over and over again, using principles of spaced repetition. It’s very effective in committing words to your long-term memory.
- Pacing – The lessons are paced pretty well. You progress much faster than you do with some other programs, such as Rosetta Stone, but not so fast that you’re sacrificing any retention.
Babbel isn’t perfect, though. There are some cons:
- It can get dry. The problem with traditional instruction is that it feels like instruction. At times, Babbel felt like I was sitting in a classroom, but not nearly as bad.
- No addiction. Some language learning apps are set up like a game, while Babbel is set up more like instruction. I never felt the compulsion to “beat” anything, so I never felt any addictive drive to keep coming back. (The app version made a “ding” sound when I got an answer right, and that gave it more of a game feeling. At least I felt like I was accomplishing something as I was going through.)
- Some words in the lessons are ridiculous. Like I said, the content is for the most part fantastic. But sometimes Babbel tried to teach me words that just cracked me up. Here’s my favorite: Aufenthaltsgenehmigung – Residence permit. 22 letters and seven syllables. I understand that it might be an important word for an ex-pat in Germany, but that’s pretty tough to remember as part of a beginner’s course.
- Not enough volume. In my opinion, there’s just not enough volume in the Babbel lessons to drive acquisition. This isn’t a deal breaker, though, and I’ll discuss this more in the next section.
Is it worth the membership?
I think if you’re a serious language learner, Babbel is great and totally worth the $13 a month. In a month, I saw a definite improvement in my German skills, particularly my understanding of grammar.
I have to bring up the elephant in the room: How does Babbel stack up to Duolingo, another language-learning website that I like and that is completely free?
Well, there’s no comparison.
I mean, there’s literally no comparison. Babbel and Duolingo are so different that there’s no reason you can’t use both. Babbel does good things that Duolingo doesn’t, and vice versa. Think of it this way. A foreign-language major at a university goes through twenty or more language textbooks and several instructors before he graduates. If you’re trying to learn a language, why would you think that you have to use only one app?
Also, even though I don’t think that Babbel exposes you to enough volume of language, this is a problem inherent in all courses, even traditional classes. It’s still a good tool, and if you’re following the Language Master Key template, Babbel would be a fantastic “learning activity” to supplement activities like watching TV and listening to the radio.
Have you used Babbel? Are you going to? Let me know what you think in the comments.