I was really excited to try Transparent Language and their Essentials Course once I saw the impressive number of languages that the platform had to offer up.
With over a hundred different languages for you to choose from you can learn anything from Arabic to Armenian, Bengali to Buriat, Kazakh to Koasati and Tagalog to Turkmen.
While you can also learn more traditional languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese on the platform, it was the fact that they offered so many languages that are usually overlooked that really appealed to me. I mean, I hadn’t even heard of some of these languages before!
The courses are aimed at absolute beginners and each language course follows exactly the same path with almost identical exercises and activities for you to work through. The idea is that you come away having learned the essential basics which can help you survive in whichever country you’re heading off to visit.
While the various exercises will teach you to read, write, understand and speak various words and phrases in your target language, the grammar and the structure of the language is ignored almost entirely or is only included as an afterthought.
This means that you only learn to say or write words in isolation and so there is very little chance that you’ll actually be able to have much of a conversation after having gone through all the material.
The heavy use of repetition also makes it quite tedious to go through and after working through nine different exercises, you’ve still only have learned the words you were presented with in the beginning.
Basically, the whole course for each language amounts to an endless exercise in memorizing word lists.
Although you would almost certainly learn some useful words and phrases, I just can’t recommend using these courses as I don’t think they’re all that helpful.
The only time it may be worth checking out is if you’re looking to learn the basics for one of the more obscure languages it offers up. Even then, I wouldn’t be reluctant to use Transparent Language.
While the amount of content varies by language, all of the Essentials Courses have an almost identical format for you to work through.
The bulk of the content is found in the ‘My Learning Path’ section where you’ll find various units on topics such as ‘Organize Your Trip’, ‘Staying at a Hotel’ and ‘We’re Going Shopping’. While most languages seem to have eleven units (this is the maximum as far as I can tell), some such as Brazilian Portuguese do have less.
Each unit has around three or four lessons for you to work through with each of them having around six to nine lots of exercises on offer.
These usually start off with a ‘Language Comparison’ before you go through it more carefully in ‘Preview It’ before learning how to say it yourself in ‘Pronunciation Practice’.
After that come various exercises such as ‘Four Square’, ‘Pronounce & Say It’ and ‘Unscramble’ and these all take slightly different formats but the aim is to get you reading, understanding, speaking and remembering the same words and phrases from the start of the lesson.
Certain exercises such as ‘Dictation’ also help you learn how to write the words down. We’ll take a look at all of these in a bit more detail in the rest of the review.
The idea behind the Essentials Courses is that language learning should be fun, engaging and interactive and all of them are designed for beginners to start using immediately. While the main focus is on essential vocabulary and pronunciation, some grammar points are addressed as well under the ‘Browse’ section.
Let’s now take a look at what the lessons actually look like.
After you have signed up to the Transparent Language Essentials Courses (there is a two week free trial period), you are greeted with a welcome page that shows you your learning path.
At the top of the page, you will see the language that you have selected and if you click on that, you can always try out any of the other languages that the platform offers up. I decided to follow both the Portuguese and Russian courses to see what they were like.
There are no settings to choose from as all of the languages start off right from the beginning and the idea is that you can skip ahead if you want or slowly work your way through the learning path that they’ve come up with.
Both of the welcome lessons in Portuguese and Russian were exactly the same. They teach you how to say and understand both the following words – hello, yes, no, thank you and the name of the language you’re learning, so Portugues or Russkiy.
In this particular lesson, you are first introduced to each word with their English equivalent written alongside it.
This is the ‘Language Comparison’ part of the lesson and once you’ve taken them in, you click to go to the next section and an uplifting sound plays to indicate that you’ve completed it.
Following this is the ‘Preview it’ section where you see each word individually and it is read out by a native speaker.
Next up is the ‘Pronunciation’ section where you read and listen to the word before recording yourself saying it. A little speedometer kinda looking thing on the right indicates how well you did and you can also see the sound waves. I suppose this is so you can try and say the word as similar as possible to the native speaker.
I wasn’t completely convinced at how accurately they rated your pronunciation through the speedometer method but it was quite visually interesting to see in any case.
After this step comes the ‘Listening Recognition’ part of the lesson where you listen to a native speaker say the words you’ve just gone over and select the correct meaning.
In the following ‘Matching’ section you then have to match the Russian or Portuguese words with their English equivalent.
The final part of the lesson is the ‘Produce & Say It’ section where you see the word written in English and have to say it in the language you’re learning before clicking to hear a native speaker say it to see whether you’ve got it right or not.
Now while I liked that there were different elements involved in the welcome lessons, the first class did get a bit monotonous as they really hammered home these five words to you again and again and again.
As they were also identical to each other, it made me a bit worried that perhaps all of the hundred+ languages courses on the platform taught you exactly the same words and phrases in each language.
First up in Lesson 1 of the Russian course you have a ‘Language Comparison’ section where you can see the words and phrases you’re going to learn written in English and Russian.
After playing through the audios to hear what they sound like, the ‘Preview it’ section again shows you the words and audio of a native speaker saying them again plays. You then pronounce the words yourself and you can see how accurately you do.
Next up came a slightly different matching game called ‘Four Square’ where the words on the four squares flash up one-by-one before you and then turn over again.
After this, you are told to select the one which corresponds to the English word you are now given.
I did absolutely terrible at this memorization game and struggled to correctly identify phrases like mne nuzhna pomashch’ and ya pamuchil travmu. While I quite enjoyed the rapid pace, there was, unfortunately, no way of slowing it down which I think would have helped at least a bit.
Following this, you then have the ‘Pronounce & Say it’ section where you try and remember what you’ve just learned, saying it out loud before the audio confirms whether you’re right or wrong.
The final section of lesson 1 is a ‘Dictation’ part where you again listen to the words and phrases that you’ve just gone through and write them down. As you can tell, there is a lot of repetition involved and while each of the sections is quite similar to the others, there are some small differences.
The Brazilian Portuguese course begins slightly differently as you start off with a conversation where James, an exchange student, meets Flavio, a fellow student at the university. This teaches you introductions and gives you an idea about how people greet each other in Brazil.
To me, this seems a more logical start point than learning about accidents in the Russian course.
After this you again work through a ‘Language Comparison’, ‘Preview it’ and ‘Four Square’ before a ‘Sentence Unscramble’ where you put the words in the correct order. Next up is pronunciation practice, before you then ‘Produce & Say it’ and then write down all the words in a dictation.
The final step of the nine parts of lesson one is a ‘Conversation Practice’ section where you choose one of the two characters to play and you again record yourself saying the sentences. A cool feature is that you can then play back the whole audio and hear yourself seamlessly taking part in the conversation.
While the first lessons in Unit 1 for both Portuguese and Russian relied heavily on repetition, they did get you interacting with the material in a number of different ways with writing, listening, speaking, understanding, pronunciation and reading all featuring.
Let’s take a look at what some of the later lessons look like.
A closer look at later lessons in the courses
Continuing with the early Russian lessons, I was surprised to see how much information I’d actually managed to retain when it came to taking the first assessment.
These come up at the end of each unit and you get to see just how much information you’ve learned. The dictation part surprisingly wasn’t a complete disaster and I suppose the heavy use of repetition must have helped as I’d probably seen or heard each word or phrase about fifty times or more.
One thing that I didn’t like in these early lessons was that some of the vocabulary wasn’t that important and there are definitely a lot more useful words and phrases that could have been taught instead.
As an absolute beginner, I was a bit put off and demoralized having to work my way through words such as ’emergency’ which I really didn’t feel had to be included so early on.
Trying to read, perfectly pronounce and write ‘chrezvychaynaye praishestviye’ was the stuff of nightmares and it seemed that no amount of repetition would hammer it into my head.
You also never learn how to connect the vocabulary together. So, you’ll learn ‘I want to buy’, ‘hungry’ or ‘bread’ but not how to say ‘I am hungry’ or ‘I want to buy bread’.
In fact, all the words and phrases that you see at the beginning of the lessons are actually all that you will come away learning each time. You don’t ever get to see them used in context or in a sentence, only in isolation. While there are lots of different exercises to work through in each lesson, this essentially means that you could simply sit down and memorize how to write, read, say and understand them without working your way through the various sections.
While the vocabulary in the first unit seemed a bit random to me, the other ten units that make up the Russian course are all geared to helping you learn practical words and phrases as the units look at such topics as ‘Getting Around in the City’, ‘Dealing with Money’ and ‘Eating Out’.
Unfortunately, every unit follows almost exactly the same format so while there are a couple of different types of exercises that pop up from time to time such as ‘Recognize & Write It’ and ‘Multiple Choice’, they pretty much all amount to the same thing.
Indeed everything essentially boils down to memorization and repetition.
Grammar, for instance, doesn’t come up at all and we aren’t actually taught how the Russian language works in practice, we just simply memorize the words and phrases that were given at the beginning of the lesson.
Disappointed at what the core lessons amounted to, I started exploring the rest of what the platform had to offer and under ‘Browse’ I found a huge list of General Vocabulary.
The various sections had useful words and phrases for everything from verbs, adjectives and grains (?!) to Helper Relationship Facilitation (?!), buying tickets and languages.
While these weren’t particularly interesting to go through as they featured all of the same repetitive exercises as before, it was good to see that there was more than just the core lessons available.
I also stumbled across some grammar points and an explanation as to how the Cyrillic alphabet works and what each letter sounds like.
While these were better than nothing, the resources could have been improved upon and I was surprised to see that all of the grammar was tucked away, hidden and out of sight.
The ‘Grammar Tips’ as they are called are nineteen videos which are forty seconds to two minutes in length and while they at least give you some pointers on how Russian works, they don’t delve into much detail, are quite dry and boring and seem more like an afterthought than anything else.
I did however quite enjoy using the Alphabet Explorer which is a game that teaches you the Cyrillic alphabet.
Under ‘Browse’ there is also a ‘Grammar Reference’ section and here you can find a bit more (not much though) information on conjugations, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives, etc.
Whereas the main core units had lots of parts to them, albeit all being very similar, these grammar references had a very stripped back feel to them and it seemed that they’d felt obliged to add some grammar points but hadn’t really put their heart into it.
The fact that the only grammar on the platform is hidden away under ‘Browse’ and not included under ‘Learning’ also seems to indicate this.
Unfortunately, the Portuguese course ended up being almost identical to the Russian one in terms of how the lessons were presented, the vocabulary included and the endless repetition that you were expected to go through.
Again you just learn the words and phrases in isolation without learning any grammar at all or how to break down and actually use the words in another context.
The words and phrases that were used were also very similar to the Russian course with the only real difference being that each lesson started off with a very short dialogue and terminated with you taking part in that very same conversation.
The only other difference was that there are only seven units in the Portuguese course for you to work through in place of eleven in the Russian one.
Under ‘Browse’ there was again the huge list of General Vocabulary, Grammar Tips and Grammar References, all of which again appeared to have been very much an afterthought. The brief explanations they gave you on prepositions or adverbs again felt incomplete and as if they had been lifted from a particularly dry and boring textbook.
There were however a couple of extra additions for the Portuguese course under ‘Essentials’ and here I found an e-Workbook and a Portuguese Essentials Reader.
The former actually seemed to tie everything together as the vocabulary from the core lessons were used, it made reference to the grammar points and advised you to watch the grammar tip videos before working through some written exercises that it gave you to do.
While it did essentially add up to a very very basic textbook, I was surprised that it wasn’t more prominent on the platform and that it was again tucked away out of sight. Strangely it also made reference to eleven units although only seven exist on the platform.
The Essentials Portuguese Reader also referenced eleven core lessons and gave you some more written comprehension exercises to do as well as some short dialogues to read and analyze.
While these did at least progress in difficulty, unlike anything else I’ve seen on the platform, they were again quite short and it would be more worthwhile working through a proper textbook than using it to learn Portuguese.
All in all I came away quite disappointed with Transparent Language as the courses were very monotonous to work through and I wasn’t all that impressed with the material which they looked at and how they introduced you to each language.
I was impressed though at the number of different exercises they had and of course the amazing range of languages they covered. Indeed they not only offer up courses into English but some of them are also available to Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese or Arabic speakers to work through.
Having said this though, I think the platform would only really be useful to someone who was interested in learning one of the more obscure languages that they offer up and even then you would only really learn the very basics.
I didn’t find it very fun or useful to work through and while it is fairly well-designed and sleek to use, it was the content at the heart of all of the lessons that was the main problem.
All of the lessons and activities basically got you memorizing the same words and phrases, over and over again in a very repetitive manner and so even after working through nine exercises you’d still only have learned the same words as at the beginning.
For the price quoted, I really don’t think that they are offering ‘radically better language learning’ and you would definitely have to use a textbook or two and sign up for language classes if you wanted to get anywhere decent in your language of choice.
As such I think you are better off looking elsewhere for your language learning needs.
Plans and prices
One of the best things about Transparent Language (apart from all of the amazing languages it offers up) is the fact that there is a free two-week trial period where you can sign up and try all the languages you’d like.
This is absolutely great as you can then decide for yourself whether it suits your language learning needs without parting ways with any of your cash or giving away your credit card information.
If you do decide that you like it, then it costs $24.95 if you pay month-by-month and $149.95 if you sign up for a whole year. This, however, is for just one language but it does include the grammar lessons, core Essentials units, vocabulary lists and alphabet lessons that accompany it.
If you want access to all of the 100+ languages and all of the resources that accompany each course it will set you back a little bit more. This then works out at $49.95 a month and a whopping $249.95 if you sign up for the whole year.
While I do appreciate the fact that they’re giving you access to so many different languages and so many often overlooked ones at that, I unfortunately don’t think that it is worthwhile buying a subscription and that the prices are borderline insane.
This is because I found the material itself to be quite lacking and I don’t think I would even use it if were free.
I would really only recommend it to people interested in learning one of the rarer languages that they offer up and even then I think it would mainly only be useful for learning basic vocabulary as I don’t think you would even learn how to form a basic sentence structure from it.
While I still am impressed at the sheer number of languages that Transparent Language offers up, I have come away a bit disappointed at what the courses themselves actually involve.
The activities, for instance, could be great if they simply mixed up the material a bit and actually taught you some grammar and how to form a sentence. By sticking to the same words and phrases over and over again, it gets very repetitive and monotonous to work through and you only really learn how to use each of them in isolation.
Indeed the fact that it teaches you to read, write, speak and understand the material through the activities they offer would normally be pretty impressive, it’s just a shame that they don’t actually teach you the structure of the language itself.
As such it is very hard to recommend using the Transparent Language’s Essentials Courses and I really think the only people who could possibly benefit from it are those looking to learn the basics of a language like Tajiki, Dari or Denesuline.
This post was originally written by Alex – an amazing freelance writer and experienced language learner.
It was edited by me – Nick Dahlhoff.
I’m the creator of All Language Resources. I’m not a polyglot who speaks 20 languages, in fact, I’m currently struggling with Mandarin. I’m not here to teach you how to learn a language – countless people are more qualified to do that than me. But, I have tried out an insane number of language learning resources. I want this site to remain the most comprehensive and least biased place to figure out which courses, podcasts, apps, websites, etc. are worth studying with. To learn more about myself, the site, or our reviewing process, check out the about page.