March 22, 2018

Library Linguistics

More and more, libraries strive not only to be spaces for researching subjects of interest to their patrons but to offer options that let users learn new skills, whether they’re physically in the library or not. One area in which mobile learning through the library is making headway is language learning. Many online lesson providers offer programs through libraries that patrons can use in the building, at home, or even while waiting in line for a cup of coffee.

In our first language learning survey, which gathered information on language learning programs from 337 public libraries nationwide, LJ asked public librarians around the country what they’re doing to help patrons study a foreign tongue. From picking up enough French to order dinner on vacation to improving English-language skills to shore up job prospects, all sorts of language learners are learning in libraries to hone their abilities.

The survey found that librarians and vendors alike are starting to see a transition from thinking of language learning services as a luxury item to something that libraries need to provide for their patrons. “People used to think of learning a language like something you do so you can speak Italian on your honeymoon in Tuscany,” says Chris Vander Groef, manager of library sales at Rosetta Stone, which cosponsored the survey with LJ. “It’s become a thing you need to have for education, for your career.” While librarians surveyed told us that travel was still the most common reason for new language learners to put the library’s resources to use, less leisurely concerns followed close behind. Communicating with neighbors and community members and improving employment prospects both earned nods as popular reasons that patrons worked to learn a new language at their library. With that in mind, language learning software providers are taking the wide array of patron motivations and needs into account in their programs, striving to ensure that their products are useful to both casual and dedicated students, no matter their impetus for picking up a new language.

Librarians in the survey identified adults as the most likely users of language learning materials they provide and noted that in the past three years, the materials had either maintained a steady—and fairly high—degree of popularity among library users or seen increasing demand.

Who’s learning what?

Respondents told LJ that Spanish was the most in-demand language to learn, with English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) coming in second. Lessons in French, Italian, German, and Mandarin Chinese also saw strong demand among library users. The popularity of European languages suggests that many people are still using language learning software to pick up some phrases for travel. That’s how Charlie Matthews, director of the Rodgers Memorial Library in Hudson, NH, uses his library’s subscription to language service Transparent Language. “For those of us who want to be able to order a glass of wine and find the bathroom, it’s a great ljx140801webchantchart1atool,” Matthews says, though he also says that vacation learners like himself are in the minority. Most patrons, according to Matthews, are working with the software to improve their skills in English.

LJ’s survey shows that offering ESOL classes is a priority for many librarians but that systems often have a difficult time meeting the challenges inherent in arranging and administering those programs. “[English as a Second Language] especially is an enormous problem,” one librarian told us. “Too many people in need and too few resources.”

ESL programs are one of the most commonly cited places where librarians thought their institutions could do better. While 91 percent of respondents told us that their library offered ESOL materials, just 61 percent said their ESOL program is satisfactory. “We basically just have ‘getting by’ materials to help with simple requests,” one librarian said. “We would like to be able to offer more of everything for ESOL,” another responded, reflecting one of the most common “wish list” sentiments noted in the survey.

Language tools for libraries

According to our survey, the most commonly available resources for sharpening language skills at a local library are traditional. North of 90 percent of public librarians surveyed offer patrons books on language learning and audio tools, methods of learning language that have been around for years and will probably be familiar to anyone who took a high school Spanish course or two.

Online language learning programs are also among the most common library offerings, according to the survey. More than 80 percent of libraries surveyed offer their patrons access to online language courses like Mango, Pronunciator, Rosetta Stone, and others, making them the third most popular method of teaching library patrons new languages. “That digital trend, as in other areas of publishing, opens up intriguing business models for both consumers and institutions, and we will be working with our partners to explore those options,” says a spokesperson for Simon & Schuster (S. & S.), which distributes the print and online versions of the august Pimsleur language learning system. Databases, language guides, and audio resources dominate library language learning offerings, with programming being a much less common option. Fewer than 20 percent of librarians who responded to our survey said they provided programming for language learning, including conversation clubs, bilingual story times, and ESOL programs.


Those who do offer programming often feel it is a supplement rather than a mainstay. North Carolina’s state library consortium NCLive will provide members across the state access to the Pronunciator service beginning in January, but Durham County Library was an early adopter of the service, bringing it in earlier this year. According to collection development librarian Jan Seabock, the service forms the backbone of Durham County Library’s language learning plan. “Some of our branches offer story times in languages other than English,” Seabock says, “but our foreign-language database is our primary tool.”

While almost two-thirds of librarians surveyed describe themselves as satisfied with their library’s current language offerings, many had plenty of suggestions and wish list items to make things better, from improving collection development for foreign-language titles to one-on-one tutoring capabilities. For many cash-strapped libraries, subscriptions to online language learning tools are high on the wish list. The thoughts of one respondent—“I wish we could afford Rosetta Stone products, as they are requested, but we do not have the money to provide access”—were echoed by many others.

Also of note, more than half of the libraries that offer online language learning services license them independently for their branch, rather than via membership in a larger consortium. Librarians we spoke to told LJ that purchasing databases through consortia or state libraries help defray their costs. Most vendors price licenses for individual libraries by circulation volume, while consortia pricing is determined differently.

Online offerings

For librarians looking to bring language learning software into their library, there are lots of options:

• Rosetta Stone, perhaps the most recognizable brand of software for learning a different language, inked a deal with ­EBSCO Information Services earlier this year to bring it to libraries using EBSCO’s distribution base. The move marks a return to libraries for the brand, which had previously discontinued library services.

• Mango Languages offers a service geared toward libraries, featuring a mobile app, foreign films, and user-paced lessons, alongside special lessons meant to act as crash courses in foreign languages targeting librarians themselves.

• Pronunciator offers lessons in 80 languages conducted in more than 50 tongues, meaning that, for example, Spanish-speaking patrons who want to learn a new language like Mandarin Chinese, can do so in their native tongue without having to go through English as an intermediary.

• The Library Ideas product Rocket Languages offers interactive conversational lessons in a dozen languages, striving to offer users an approximation of a casual chat in a new language.

• Recorded Books distributes the online language tool Transparent Language, long a standby for U.S. government employees and members of the military, which includes courses for over 90 languages and English for speakers of more than 25 languages. (Transparent Connect instructional services, available for an additional charge, allow students to engage in video chat with tutors when they need one-on-one training.) Recorded Books also offers audio lessons in the form of the time-tested Pimsleur method, which has been helping people learn to converse in new languages for more than half a ­century.

Among librarians who do have access to online resources, there was a high level of agreement on what tools those programs should provide and what aspects are seen as most valuable. At the top is ease of use, which more than 90 percent of librarians surveyed describe as “very important.” In addition, librarians wanted a vast number of languages to be available on the software and several different ways to learn those languages in one package.

Going mobile

Librarians also wanted ­patrons to be able to access those resources when and where it was convenient for them, rather than needing to come to the library in person.

ljx140801webchanttable2aVendors are taking note of that emphasis on mobile. The convenience of a mobile platform has a lot to offer language learners, says Roberto Valdez, marketing director for Mango Languages. He points out that mobile apps have the potential to turn any wait in line into a short lesson in a new language. “Because language learning is a constant exercise if you really want to improve,” says Valdez, “it’s great to be able to pop the phone out when you have 15 minutes and have a lesson.”

Patron demand is high for mobile features that let them learn languages on the go, says Mark Rex, language selector and librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library, which subscribes to both Pronunciator and Mango services. Mobile access to lessons is one of the things Rex looks for in language software. Along with the flexibility that mobile access provides, Rex says, he judges new software by how many languages it lets people learn and “the in-depth quality of the database and how much you can do with it, in particular with learning vocabulary in an audiovisual way.”

Interaction and more action

New technologies also allow language software to act more as a teacher than as just a tool. Pronunciator, for example, can listen to the tone and pitch of how students say a given word and respond to it, letting them know if it’s spot-on or in need of some practice. Programs that adapt to their users learning speed and style are a priority at Mango as well, where Valdez and company are working to develop tools that respond to their users, guiding them through lessons at a speed that’s comfortable for them, instead of one that is set by developers.

Lessons that don’t feel like lessons are also coming into vogue in the industry, and several vendors are working to add entertainment elements to their products. Both Mango and Pronunciator incorporate foreign-language films into lesson plans, subtitling the dialog and color-coding parts of speech to assist students.

Of course, different people learn differently, and it may take some testing to find the right product for a given patron. “It’s not uncommon in langage learning for people who are trying to do it to try all kinds of different methods,” Recorded Books VP of business development Jim Schmidt told LJ.

Language learning for librarians

Patrons aren’t the only ones using language software to pick up new language skills. Some librarians are using the same programs to sharpen their communications skills and improve their interactions with library users who may not speak English well but who still need to avail themselves of the services the library provides.

Emily Grace LeMay, a Rhode Island children’s librarian, says that using Mango’s free Spanish for Librarians tool has helped make her more conversant with her Spanish-speaking patrons. “One of the problems of learning a language is you can spend a lot of time learning things you may never say in real life,” May says. Instead of overdoing the basics, Spanish for Librarians offers users a way to dive right into essential phrases that can help patrons who come in with imperfect English skills find the resources they need.

Room to grow

With vendors handling the advancing technology that teaches languages, the biggest challenges for libraries could be before and after the lesson itself: getting the word out about their language offerings effectively and tracking their use. The most common method of advertising language programs is a listing on the library website, with distinctly analog word of mouth coming in just behind it. Barely more than 50 percent of ljx140801webchanttable3alibrarians responding to our survey use social media to promote their language learning programs, and less than half mention the services in their newsletters.

Comments from one children’s librarian illustrate how public perception of library offerings can lag behind the reality: “parents will initially ask for a study guide ‘book’ for their child. Once they see what is available through our databases, they usually choose that option.” Another staffer told us that while language learning materials have historically seen heavy use, “it’s more difficult to let the public know about the online language resources.”

Once patrons do find out what’s available, three-quarters of libraries offering language databases track either the number of sessions that patrons complete, or how many hours they work on lessons. But just over 20 percent of those surveyed don’t track usage of those databases at all, while numerous others told us they don’t know what their institution’s tracking policy is, or if data is being collected at all.

As language learning becomes a core service at more and more libraries, librarians will need to better target efforts to raise awareness of these resources and assess their effectiveness, so they can get the word out to where it is most needed—in many languages.

This article has been updated to clarify the services offered by Transparent Language.

This article was published in Library Journal's August 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. Nice article! I was wondering if you could share your source for the following research:
    “Most vendors price licenses for individual libraries by circulation volume, while consortia pricing is determined differently.”

    I have not heard of vendors selling by circulation volume, but rather usually population served or library card holders. This intrigues me – and I would like to learn more about how the circulation volume model works. Can you share any specific libraries (or vendors) that do this?

  2. Where can I get a copy of library journal’s public library language learning survey 2014?

  3. This article was especially of interest for me as someone who lives in Toronto, Canada. More than 50% of the residents here were born outside of the country, so ESOL is a high priority.

    Also, thank you for the helpful outline of language learning software – though I’d definitely be interested to see a critical evaluation of the services in the future.