How I got here
I’m old enough now to know my best and worst tendencies. For example, when I play silly phone games like Angry Birds, I’m the kind of person that needs to get a full three stars on a level before moving onto the next level. I’m a completionist; a missing item in a set drives me wild. If something is too hard, I learn it until it isn’t, or until I simply give up on the thing altogether. This is the opposite of my passion for discovery, preferring to forge ahead to discover new ideas before applying rigor to old ones. I was always the person reading one chapter ahead while sitting in class. Some might have said I was the annoying overachiever, but my grades were never great because I simply wanted to know more, not necessarily know things well.
When I moved to Germany, I knew that this wouldn’t be sufficient. Learning German for use in every day life would need some study. Even though I had studied the language a bit before moving, I was basically starting from scratch. English speakers often stumble on German’s case system and compound nouns. These didn’t bother me much, but I wanted to start with the basics. I didn’t want any gaps in my knowledge.
I could navigate my everyday life for the first year of living in Berlin pretty well, but Berlin is a terrible city for immersive language learning. English is commonplace, and I have found that even when I speak German, I get a reply in English in return. In the Summer of 2019, I found myself wanting to buckle down and do more than just use Duolingo to learn German. I wanted lessons, feedback, and rigor. I wanted to have my skills tested and obtain certificates that could show my progress. I wanted to track my progress. I started taking lessons at a language school in Berlin. I began with A1, the most elementary German lessons possible, and began taking classes several times a week. A1 was not so hard, and I progressed quickly and passed my telc certification in October of that year. I completed the A2 class in person as fall turned to winter, and, since the A2 certifications are not useful for immigration or employment reasons, proceeded to take B1 class in-person when the COVID-19 Pandemic hit. I had probably taken quarter of the first B1 course when everything shut down. In any case, I had a vacation scheduled in the US during the Spring of 2020, and I arrived at Dulles Airport only hours before they closed the border to travelers. With much more serious issues happening in the world, I stopped taking German lessons and my skills decayed by a lot. So I made a resolution that I would pick up my education and resume a push to get a B2 certification before 2021 came to a close.
In early 2021, Lingoda offered a promotional sprint offer. By signing up in advance for enough credits to take one course per day, and by taking one course per day, at the end of the sprint, a participant could get a partial refund. I decided to join the 90-day sprint, even though I knew my schedule would not allow me to meet the goals of one class per day. (In fact, I missed it on the second day by oversleeping). Because my skills had lapsed, I decided to begin anew with A2 content. There were some grammar points I had not yet mastered, and I felt like my speaking wasn’t good enough to be on the next level, despite having completed an A2 course in-person a year prior.
In keeping with my contradictions, I felt like I wanted to finalized the A2 course while also challenging myself to get my B1 certificate by mid-summer. I finished most of the Lingoda course by April, when I returned to the US to get my COVID vaccines, and had a small handful of classes left to take. I recently finished those courses off while studying for my B1 test, marking 100 hours spent learning German over Zoom.
How it holds up
As with everything virtual in the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom lessons are lacking a little something. Lingoda’s courses have a single teacher and up to five total students. The students come from all over the world, which is great, and the students' skill levels sometimes aren’t aligned with the difficulty level of the course. Lingoda’s program provides each class with a slideshow document that you can download ahead of time if you’d like. Most courses involve the students reading material off of the slides, with some interactive portions, some vocabulary portions, and some quiz portions. Each lesson has a small “homework” assignment at the end, though this is optional and the instructors will never have time to review it if you did it. However, an answer key is provided. The slides are rarely information-dense; they’re not suitable for printing out, and they lack concrete structure, such as a vocabulary list at the end or a grammar recap. Throughout a level, the stories involve many of the same characters. I find that this does help somewhat to retain continuity throughout a series of lessons.
Copyright Lingoda, reused without permission under fair use
Online courses provide more opportunity for distraction. I have found myself drifting off on Twitter when other students are speaking. Moreover, it’s clear that Lingoda doesn’t pay teachers a stipend for investing in proper A/V equipment. Some teachers' audio setups are downright awful. After a year-plus of pandemic learning, this is disappointing.
I find that most of the teachers are adequate. Some are a joy to learn from. Others, less so. Within any given lesson chapter (8 lessons), it’s likely that you’ll experience five or six different teachers, at least at the elementary levels (A1/2). It may be different as one’s level increases. In terms of course content, some courses are great and worth paying attention to. On the other hand, I’ve had lessons where I spoke only two or three times during the entire session, aside from introductions. This was not very enjoyable nor was it a good use of my time.
Online learning can be done from the convenience of anywhere. There is no requirement for you to have your camera on during the lesson, so I have taken the occasional lesson from my phone while out and about. This makes it much easier to fit into my day. On the other hand, the lack of a rigorous schedule can be frustrating. Lingoda’s interface for booking classes is poor, and it’s hard to book classes more than a week or two in advance. It doesn’t feel like the company is investing much into product innovation and the interface really exhibits some of the worst of the popular design patterns of the modern internet.
Is it worth it?
Lingoda’s biggest benefits are its flexibility, its downloadable lesson material, and relatively low cost. After completing the A2 course, I’ll be proceeding directly to the three-part B2 course (150 hours). I estimate that, factoring in a summer holiday, I will complete this course in about 20 weeks, or right around the end of the year. If I am a little more aggressive about my learning, using some weekend days to do some deep binging of German studies, I can probably still meet my goal of achieving B2 German by the end of the year. I also plan to work through the B1 material, mostly as a review to fill in gaps that I have missed. I strongly prefer the in-person courses, particularly the ones that have textbooks that can provide more detailed exercises to build skills. I am a person that learns through repeated application of ideas when it comes to learning languages. I like having textbooks and workbooks to go through, and teachers I can talk with directly, where body language and other communication strategies help learning. However, I don’t predict a return to in-person education until 2022. Thus, I’m happy enough with Lingoda’s offering, when coupled with other learning strategies, that I don’t want to find something new at the moment.
I also did some research looking to see how Lingoda’s teachers are paid. After reading Yuliya Komska’s excellent piece on the true cost of cheap language education, I don’t love the idea of supporting language programs that don’t pay fairly for the labor of their teachers. Is Lingoda part of the gig economy? I couldn’t find any good information one way or the other.
Moreover, although Lingoda is accredited under Akkreditierungs- und Zulassungsverordnung Arbeitsförderung (AZAV), the certificates they offer upon completion of 90% of a course are not valid for immigration purposes. In other words, a Lingoda B1 certificate does not suffice for obtaining permanent residency.
Does it work?
I think the classes help. I’ve started developing strategies to help my learning. I’m taking notes with each class, which helps my focus, but not per se my retention. One of the challenges with the online technique is that it’s basically over at the end of the hour; I log off and do something else, and need to identify ways to reinforce the material from the preceding chapter. In other words, attendance isn’t enough.
However, it’s clear that something is working. I recently passed the Goethe Institut B1 certification test, despite having never completed a B1 language course. I had done some studying and some review, but for the most part the bulk of my education was through after-hours Lingoda courses at the A2 level and some Duolingo. So the classes are definitely moving me in the right direction. The classes themselves are not enough to serve as certification prep. But they provide a foundation, and by supporting the coursework with speaking practice, taking practice tests, and reading, the tests are not so challenging.
I want to complete the B2 course and at least the B1 grammar courses with Lingoda before the end of the year. I will likely plan to take the B2 certification test in early 2022, after my personal development budget at work resets. (My employer gives me money for language lessons and a pair of days off each year for learning and development). I am nearly finished with the German Duolingo course, and will finish that within the next few weeks. I plan to invest energy into more speaking and conversational practice, and spend more time listening to German media without subtitles. This should move me to a place where I can achieve B2 within the next six months. After that, I’ll explore whether it’s worth it to invest in C1 lessons with Lingoda or elsewhere. I think it is going to depend greatly on the COVID-19 situation. My preference is absolutely for in-person education, and I think that if I want to cross the threshold to achieve fluency I will need more private tutelage.
All in all, I think that given the circumstances with the world, Lingoda’s been decent for the money. But if I had the option for in-person classes, I would absolutely take those instead.