The Language Market Puts Money Over Innovation

It's only May, but already this year I've received several free copies of foreign language-related products, and the only thing asked in return is that I review the products on my web site — and I will give each of them an honest, fair review. But as I see more and more new language learning products, I'm constantly reminded of one of my biggest complaints: everyone is competing in the easy space.

When you look at the offerings of all makers of language learning products, they all start to look the same. Everyone is offering materials for people who want to learn Spanish, French, Italian, and German. Those who have been around a bit longer will probably have added Portuguese and Chinese. Maybe Arabic. Maybe Russian. Maybe. And after those, the field starts to get very narrow.

In spite of large numbers of people who speak Korean, Polish, Japanese, Greek, and Turkish, it is very difficult to find materials to help the new speaker learn those languages. And finding materials for Ukrainian, Catalan, Macedonian, Swahili, Kazakh, Norwegian, or anything else can start to seem nearly impossible — particularly for anyone who is not currently living in one of those places.

The root of this problem is obvious, of course. If we follow the popular saying, and "follow the money", it is clear that the languages getting the most attention are those with the largest potential consumer base. The motive is clear: These companies are not making these products because they want to help you learn, they're doing it to make a profit.

Before I continue, let me be clear: I have nothing against people earning a profit in return for providing a good service. But I do question the quality of that service when its primary motivation is profit.

Yes, it is entirely possible that some of these products may have risen out of someone's passion for the Spanish language. But I have my doubts about how far that passion continues once they make the switch to offering French. Especially when Portuguese is always so late to the game. And if a product was born out of a passion for German, why aren't Dutch and Afrikaans the next products to follow?

With all the big players fighting over the same four popular European languages, there is still a lot of room left for someone who is passionate about Czech to be the first big player with a product in that space. The same goes for Amharic, or Bulgarian, or Tibetan. And with so many Indian people around the world speaking only English, I'm sure there is a huge market for first-generation immigrants who want to learn Hindi.

All of these opportunities are being missed. Even Rosetta Stone, who have the most recognizable name in language learning, usually only offer their entry-level product, and for only a handful of these peripheral languages. Meanwhile they offer as many as five lesson levels for popular languages like Spanish.

My point is this: The motives are clear. These companies (or at least most of them) are not making these products because of their passion for helping you learn; they are making their products because they want your money. And that is the fundamental reason why bloggers like me spend so much time recommending alternative ways to learn.

Don't waste your money on products that don't have your best interests at heart. If you're going to spend your money, spend it wisely. Find companies and people who are passionate about helping you. Use products that are designed with your best interests in mind. In fact, you might be surprised: some of the best products cost very little, and many are free!

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Good points. The issue is that these big companies have huge overhead, so of course they need to watch the bottom line. The opportunity isn't even necessarily for a company to come in and compete in the less-desired language space. The opportunity is for native bloggers in those countries to create products for the western market. A company with a payroll can't profit from a language like Polish or Ukrainian or what have you, but all it would take is 1000 sales for a $100 course and and individual person in one of these countries could change their lives. Hopefully some of these people are reading your words and take action.

  • If they are or if they aren't, I'm taking action myself. I've got a few huge projects going on behind the scenes... maybe I can be that guy with the 1000 sales you talked about. :)

  • My passion is Thai so I see this often. The products I do write about have the same passion as I do.

  • A French company, Assimil, have made a lot of courses for a wide range of languages, including Breton, Norwegian, Finnish, etc. I wonder if this exists for English speakers though.

  • Yeah, Assimil offers a lot of good materials, but I think they're only intended for French speakers. (Not 100% sure about that though.)

  • I think there's a huge untapped economic potential in the long tail of lesser covered languages, so your projects sound quite intriguing.

  • I am so happy that you've written this! I have been talking about this for years now. For example, why is it that Italian language learning products are far more abundant that Turkish language learning products? Italian has roughly 62 million native speakers and that number is declining around the world while Turkish has more than 84 million native speakers and is growing rapidly. Nothing against the Italian language, very people would argue that it's not a beautiful language. I'm just making a point.You would think that with such a big demand from the U.S. State Department for fluent speakers of Pashto, Urdu, Arabic and Dari there would be numerous materials available in those languages. Again, nope! 

  • Agreed. If you can get a hold on a niche you'll be making a lot of dedicated and passionate language learners very happy and more than willing to contribute to your paypal account.

  • There are Assimil courses for English speakers. I have the Russian/English one. These courses were originally written by an actual polyglot, so the passion shows.

  •  Their English catalog pales in comparison to their French one, though. I wish they'd offer more of what they offer in French to English speakers.One of the explanations I've heard is that the French translations are highly idiomatic and they don't have the English expertise to translate all the courses available. Whether that's actually true or not, I don't know...

  • Is that true for the English courses written in the 50s also? That version seems to have more content. Maybe the English version is simpler because they think making everything simple will make it easier to market to Americans.

  • Randy, well said!  I was thinking about this recently as well.To take a different angle on your comment about earning money, it will be easier for a business to make money that sells Korean, Polish, Japanese, Greek, etc. learning aids, than it will be for one that sells Spanish, Italian, English, French.As a business owner myself, I would MUCH rather have a large slice of the small pie available for the taking, than have to fight hard for a sliver of a big pie.@Kevin, great comparison of the Turkish and Italian populations, I never knew that.

  •  I completely agree, there's some big opportunities.  Too bad I can't start a new project now myself!

  • I disagree with you!
    Of course these people are developing these resources/teaching aides in order to make a profit. But the market i.e. you and I will decide if the product is good enough and if it isn't the company is dead.This doesn't mean that there isn't alternative ways that might bring you knowledge and skills faster.https://www.native-translato...

  • Just for anyone that is interested: Assimil's catalogue from Spanish > X and German > X are also quite substantial :)

  • well said!!

  • So you're expecting a company out of the kindness of its heart to make a product where there isn't a clear market?I'd happily welcome a decent product in Czech, for example, heck even a semi-decent product would be a step up, but as long as most ignorant or lazy expats hover around beginner level, companies are not going to risk investing in a product where there's no clearly defined market.Sure, a trailblazer might come along, and shake up things, but that trailblazer will need to invest a lot of time and money in creating a course which only a small market will buy.

  • Yep. Well said. I'm learning Indonesian. 4th largest country (population wise) in the world. Economy humming along very nicely thank you. Sooo close to Australia and what is available in the book shops? French, German, Italian. Oh, perhaps Chinese. Almost nothing (if not actually nothing) on Indonesian despite the fact that it is taught in schools here having been voted Language of the month for a while by our knee-jerk government. What resources there are available are aimed at kids and have liberal sprinkling of,"if you are not use go ask your teach" references. Great. Time to start networking with some Indonesians and roll out some resources...

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