Essays & Confessions/Work/Life Balance

All The Money I Wasted Trying To Learn A New Language

By | Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I love Japanese. I love learning it and using it. It began as a hobby, then developed into a passion and a slight obsession. I’ve now been studying Japanese for over 11 years, and have an MA in Translation. It’s a skill I’ve invested a lot of time and a lot of money into — some of that time and money was spent well, but a lot was also wasted.

I wish I’d known back then what I knew now; I could have saved myself a lot of headaches and a lot of money. I hope this advice will help others learning or looking to learn a language.

Money Wasted on Textbooks and Dictionaries

To put it simply, I have bought a lot of textbooks for over the years that I have never used. I picked them up because they’re the books that “everyone recommends.” I should have realized that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good! One year for my birthday, I got a pile of about 10 textbooks and dictionaries. I used about three of them!

Dictionaries are the worst offenders (especially grammar or kanji dictionaries). Why look it up in a book when all the information is free with a simple google search?! As a beginner, I think you really don’t need to spend any money on textbooks for ANY language. There are so many free resources online for beginners that you can find with a simple Google search.

My favorite is Memrise, a website and app that has thousands of free flashcard decks for any language. It comes with spaced repetition and you can make your own custom vocabulary decks! You can pay for a yearly subscription for Memrise, but you don’t need to to get the most out of it. If you do want to pay for it, though, I suggest playing around on the app until it pops up with an offer for a half price subscription, dropping it from $60 to $30 for a year.

Also, simply Googling “Beginners ___” can come up with some great results! For Korean, for example, there’s an entire free website called How to Study Korean that reads like a textbook, but it also comes with vocabulary lists (in excel and Memrise) to help you learn a lot of words. And it’s all free!

Most textbooks have limited space for large amounts of vocabulary, which is why online resources for beginners are often better.

Money I’ve spent on language books: over $400

How much of that I wasted: over $250

Money Wasted & Not Wasted on Apps

A great alternative to textbooks, besides free online resources, are apps. There are lots and lots of apps for different languages. (I already mentioned Memrise, which is free and covers a huge array of languages.) Some apps are free, some are not. Some are really great, but others are not. And what works well for one person won’t always work for another.

For the apps I have spent money on, I haven’t regretted it. That’s because they often offer free materials or a free trial period, then you have to pay to unlock the rest. There have certainly been many times when I finished the free materials, and then deleted the app because it wasn’t working for me. That’s why I don’t regret spending money on an app that I think is top quality and that I’ll use on a regular basis.

Another thing to be careful of is yearly or monthly subscriptions. Like a gym subscription, if you’re not using the program regularly but paying regular installments for the privilege of having it on your phone, it’s probably worth deleting it.

In fact, I would strongly suggest against using apps that require subscriptions to begin with. These types of companies (ones that cover a wide array of languages) are mostly after your money rather than useful long-term study tools. The quality of them is often not as good as some free resources out there. Just because you’re paying for something, doesn’t mean it’ll be high quality.

My biggest tip for using apps is to keep one or two that you like and use regularly. Downloading every app under the sun for your language doesn’t help. Feeling like you need to do all of them turns learning into a chore, and the materials each program covers can vary drastically. Focusing on one or two helps hone your skills and helps you learn faster.

Money Wasted & Not Wasted on Teachers

I’ve had some good teachers and some not-so-good teachers over the years. It’s actually really hard to tell who’s going to be a good fit for you and who isn’t. Everyone is different; your learning style will be different from someone else’s, and each teacher will vary! What works for one person won’t always work for another.

When I started studying Japanese, I worked with a private teacher once a week at about $24 an hour. It took me two years to study what I could have learned in 10 months with a good teacher. (That’s about $2,688 spent on lessons learning what I could have learned in $1,120 worth of classes!) She was good and kind, but she didn’t push me. There wasn’t any homework, and I didn’t study outside of lessons. I would have made much better use of my time and money if I had studied outside of class as well as in class.

One FANTASTIC website that I love is italki. You can find teachers from all around the world who teach all kinds of languages and at reasonable prices (between $15-$25 an hour for a good teacher). All the lessons are done over skype, so you can find a teacher that works well for your schedule, and you don’t even have to leave the house! Another thing I love about italki is you can find speaking partners to practice with. That means you can make friends and practice your language for free at the same time.

If you’d rather not have a private/online teacher, then join a local class. Group classes tend to be cheaper than a private one-to-one teacher. If you live in a city (especially one with a college), you’re more likely to find classes open to the public for the language you want to learn.

If you’d rather study through a more organic way of learning and practicing your language, there is always Meetup. Meetup is great for finding people interested in the things you are, and many places offer Meetups for language learners.

But what if there’s no Meetup for my language? Well, why not make your own? I would suggest you look around for programs and teachers that work well for you. Find a teacher who focuses on what you want to improve (i.e speaking, reading, passing an exam, etc.) and one that fits your schedule. Also, study outside of your lessons so you learn faster and save money in the long run.

Money wasted on teachers: $1,568

Money Wasted on my MA

My biggest waste of money was on my MA. This wasn’t in Japanese (exactly) but translation. I went to the school because it had been one I’d heard about before and was pretty prestigious and well-known for being a language school.

My biggest mistake was not doing my research and comparing schools and different programs. I figured all translation programs would be the same, and had no idea what to look for in a good program. I could rant about my MA all day, but to sum it up, it didn’t teach me two important things: 1) how to translate (we only practiced), and 2) how to make money and function as a freelance translator. These are two pretty big things you hope to get from a program you’re spending thousands of dollars on. The point of an MA is to help you further your skills and career, so for a program to fail both of those was a big disappointment.

I am now taking another translation program at another school to supplement what my MA missed. This program is a certificate program, but it has better contents and is cheaper! Another great thing about this program is that classes are done in the evening, so I can work during the day. This is why it’s important to shop around and weigh the pros and cons of different courses and programs. 

Money I spent (and wasted) on my MA: about $20,000

Money NOT Wasted on Studying in Japan

If there is one thing I have never regretting splurging on, it’s going to study in Japan. Going to the country you’re learning the language for and attending a school there is a fantastic use of your money! It’s not just the amazing experience of living in another country, but also helps boost your language skills exponentially. Language is so heavily rooted in culture that if you want to go beyond basics, you have to live in the country to connect how language and daily life go hand in hand.

In Japanese, for example, the kind of language varies depending on your relationship to who you’re talking to. The best way for me to learn that was to live with and watch how Japanese people did it.

Many people think that they need a certain level of language to study abroad, or that it’s only studying at colleges and is too expensive, but that’s really not the case. Many countries offer language schools for short and long term study. It’s really a matter of researching and finding a program that works best for you.

Give yourself plenty of time to plan, and you can spend that time putting money aside to cover the costs.

I’ve studied in Japan three times, and every time I planned and saved for one or two years. They were for fairly long-term study trips that ranged from 4-9 months, and I couldn’t work while I was there.

As I said, many language schools offer short-term (1-4 weeks) language programs and offer plenty of time to go sightseeing so you can experience the culture.

Money not wasted on studying abroad: about $10,000 (over many, many years)


I’ve enjoyed studying a language immensely, but money and time can be two huge stresses sometimes. I think it helps to ask others for advice, but sometimes you need to use common sense. If you don’t think a book/app/teacher/program will work for you, don’t waste your money on it.

Think about how you learn best, and do some of your own research. You might find some hidden (free) gems online for websites that can’t afford fancy SEO or advertising. And practicing with native-speaking people in meetups or online is a great (free) way to learn and practice a language fast!

Jennifer O’Donnell is a bilingual administrator and Japanese to English translator. She has been studying Japanese for over 11 years and helping others learn it through her website Japanese Talk Online for over 3.

Image via Unsplash

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