Conversations: First look

Background: why I was looking for new resources

In participating in the Language Jam I finally gave up on many language learning resources. I realized that I like very specific kind of resources that are sort of similar to how Finnish school books used to be when I was in school (well, I assume they are still similar). As in you have a text which you listen to and translate, there’s a vocabulary at the end of the chapter and a glossary for the whole book in the end of the book. The texts are planned so that there are a few grammar points which are explained with examples from the text.

I’ve come to realize that all kinds of apps are useless to me, because I just don’t use them. And if I do, I feel like I’m not learning much. Same goes with flashcards: I find they can be useful, but only if I make them myself and as physical copies. For me it’s more the act of writing things down that commits the words to my memory. And while I can use something like the Colloquial series, what I dislike in it, is that there is only small dialogues and a lot of grammar and the grammar part introduces a lot of new words. This makes the grammar separate from the text and makes it harder to learn.

So while I’ve looked and looked, I feel like lot of the free resources in the internet is promising a lot, but not delivering much. I’ve been using iTalki tutors, which has been great, but I’m introverted enough that the lessons can be draining, even when I like the teacher. Also, it can take awhile to find a teacher that works for you. For German I finally found a teacher who was perfect for me (Isabella), I liked her, which meant it was easy to speak with her and she was actually good at explaining grammar and concepts, which is not the case with all tutors. Often you need to try several, before you find the one that really works. So, I want resources to learn on my own. This way I can also get more out of the lessons I pay for.

And, well, I’m kind of always on the lookout for new things that might work for me.

Why Conversations?

I’ve been listening to Olly Richards’ I will teach you a language podcast for a long time now and I feel he has a similar view on how to learn languages than I do. Well, I skip some advice that I’ve notice don’t work for me (like any kind of flashcard system), but in general I’ve got some good hints and I’ve learned a lot what works for me. For awhile now, he’s been talking about the new Conversations courses he has worked on with native speakers of the course languages. This course is available in 6 languages: Japanese, Chinese (including both Mandarin and Cantonese), Italian, German, French, and Spanish.

I’ve found the course interesting since the day I heard about it the first time, but the price ($97 per language) made me think before buying. However, the more I heard about it and after reading Shannon’s review on Eurolinguiste, I decided to get the Japanese version. This, because while there is quite a lot of intermediate Japanese material, I’m not quite intermediate yet. What convinced me was that it looked like there was quite a lot of text/audio and not just a tiny bit of it, but like a proper discussion. Also, Shannon criticized certain vocabulary choices (like buying a drill), but to me there won’t be a perfect vocabulary and while a tourist won’t necessarily need to know the word for drill, if you move into the country, this might be the exact vocabulary you need.

After buying the Japanese, I got an offer to buy the rest of the languages costing $100 (=$20 per language, Cantonese not included). Because I still need to work on my German and Spanish, I’m interested in Italian and I know I will learn Chinese some day, I decided to take this offer. While this was a bigger one time investment, I now have the materials and can study them as much and as often I want.

So what do you get?

I’ve only taken a quick look so far. I listened to the first lesson in Japanese, but it is quite difficult for me, and I definitely need to study it more. Since I already speak French quite well, I decided to take a look at the French transcripts. From the Japanese I knew that the first audio took about 5 minutes, which is quite a significant amount of material. There are 20 lessons, so you will have more than 1.5h of audio per language. The level is not a beginner level, although I feel you can also use it quite early, you just need to do more work. Depending on you and your motivation and learning methods, you might want to wait until you’ve learned more, but for me, I think this is perfect right now.

You get a short introduction how to use the material and the basic instructions are collected in five step listening process:

For German and Spanish I think I can use it more as instructed, but for Japanese, I think I will use it more as a textbook: translating the text on my own and then listening to it and learning new words. The material doesn’t include grammar, so for grammar points you will need other material. I would skip the full translation as much as possible. I get that it’s somewhat needed in a self study material, because sometimes you understand the words, but still don’t understand the sentence. But I think ready made translation won’t help me learn.

My thoughts so far

I just had a quick look at the materials, but so far I’m super happy with Conversations. The only improvements I’m thinking are adding more languages and also more stories. The only thing I’m worried about is, that it looked like the story is more or less the same in every language. Which I get, but especially if one wants to use these in several languages, this might get boring at some point. However, it might make a new language easier to learn, when you already know what happens. If one would add grammar to these lessons, this would be super useful resource, but I get that that’s not the point of this material.

I will definitely start using Japanese right away and I think I will also use this for German and Spanish already. The material is very well prepared, easy to read and for Japanese I love that the texts are written in real Japanese, with furigana. This way if you don’t know kanjis, you can still read the transcript, but the writing is actual Japanese instead of romaji.

So far my thoughts are overwhelmingly positive. I will write more, when I’ve actually used the material and can say how useful it has been.


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