One of the biggest excuses that people like to offer up when asked why they choose not to learn a foreign language is that they don’t think that they will ever have cause to use it. They indicate that they have no plans to travel or live for an extended period of time in the country of their choosing.
Thirty years ago that might have been a slightly more credible excuse. This however, is the 21st century and the world is shrinking every month.
With globalization on the rise it is becoming more and more common to meet an international, multilingual audience of foreign language speakers.
Your excuse that you won’t run into anyone to talk to is becoming more and more invalid.
The great thing about this globalization boom is that not only will you experience increased opportunity to speak to native speakers, but the tools that allow you to do so have never been more readily accessible.
Learning a foreign language online, for free, has never been more possible than it is today.
I’m dead serious, and no, I’m not talking about formal courses. I’ve outlined a few of the ways that you can learn a language using only your computer, mobile device, and the wonderful cat exploiting data sponge that is the Internet.
1.) Free reading material.
A couple months ago this blog posted a poll that asked visitors about their favorite language learning programs, software and methods. Surprising to me, the overwhelming favorite was just books. People just plain prefer books – be they physical or otherwise – over software or audio programs.
Book resources are great because you can usually find everything you need at a local library and most of the major book retailers carry a decent selection of language learning material – at least for the more prominent languages such as French, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.
Did you know that you could find a reasonable selection of free language learning texts online in eBook format? No need to get off your butt!
Most mobile devices these days, if they don’t come pre-loaded with the app, will allow you to download a free Kindle reader that is compatible with iOS and Android and probably everything else. You can also download any number of other free eBook or PDF readers and take your free books with you anywhere you go, thus not restricting you to sitting in front of your computer all day.
2.) Free Language Learning Courses
I’m not talking about online classes at your local community college – though many of those do exist. Those certainly aren’t free under most circumstances and the idea of having a formal language class conducted online without direct learner/teacher contact makes my skin crawl and is best reserved for students desperate for extra credits but no serious interest in real language learning.
In case it hasn’t become abundantly clear from my multitude of posts on programs such as these – these free online courses rock in so many ways.
Memrise allows you to choose from a few hundred different languages ranging from Malay to Azeri to Basque and everything in between. Nowhere else have I ever seen such a vast array of languages free for the taking. It’s true that the quality of the courses can vary somewhat as all of the content is user created, and if you’re studying a minority language this can make things more difficult. Regardless, Memrise is my number one choice of tools for brand new language learners looking for a taste of something new, as well as experienced language nerds looking for some review or expanding their vocabularies.
Duolingo works very similarly. It doesn’t use the same mem system as Memrise but it does come with an extraordinarily high quality course for each of several major world languages. It doesn’t give you the same selection as Memrise either, but if you’re looking to learn French, Spanish, Portuguese, German or Italian you cannot afford *not* to use Duolingo!
In fact, there are more people using Duolingo actively than there are foreign language learners in all school systems in the United States.
Duo also comes with a great collection of reading material.
Both of these programs can be utilized at your computer as well as your mobile devices. They’re fun, engaging and while nothing is perfect, these come as close as free language learning course platforms can really get and are in my opinion superior to anything I’ve come across with a price tag.
You could make your own; scribbling words in your horrendous handwriting on the back of a 3×6 flashcard until your hand falls numb or you run out of paper, but nobody has time for that.
Think of the trees!
Good thing that with that modern marvel we call the Web nobody has to anymore.
My favorite flashcard app is without a doubt the brand new web app from Lingua.ly. This super lightweight, super easy and super convenient little gem of a plug-in allows you to browse the web highlighting almost any word that you come across in the language you’re learning; translate it, store it, hear a spoken recording of it, and then come back and study it until it’s cemented in your brain.
After building a sizable deck of cards this way you can even ask the program to find you brand new reading material based on the words you’re studying, making for a highly personalized learning experience. You can even take it on the go with your phone or tablet.
There is seriously so much win in this web app that I wrote a post all about it, just for you.
But Lingua.ly isn’t the only free flashcard app going around. A quick search on the Google Play or iTunes stores will dredge up a multitude of free programs, many of which are also available for your computer such as Evernote ‘s flashcard app or the beloved Anki, free for your computer but the mobile app does not appear to follow suit.
Finding the right flashcard app for you shouldn’t be a nightmare and it shouldn’t cost you a dime. Great paid flashcard systems do exist, and they aren’t expensive if you do feel like shelling out the cash, but you wanted free, and I’ve got free.
4.) Videos and Podcasts
And how could we forget about the wonderful world that is YouTube. It has entertained us for years and despite those infuriating ads that make us want to reach into our computer screens and spit hellfire every which way for making us wait an additional 15 seconds, it remains one of the best free language learning resources available to us.
What YouTube has to offer is something that you can’t really find with any other language learning program – a totally natural listening experience. By this I mean that you can easily find foreign language videos wherein the speakers are simply talking to one another in normal, every day tones in authentic settings about every day topics.
Many podcasts don’t focus on a classroom-esque setting. While there are plenty that are essentially free language lessons, many others function more like video diaries for their creators and simply seem to consist of every day life, conducted in a foreign language and narrated by a native speaker or another learner.
YouTube is a portal to an utterly massive bank of music or book readings performed or read in the language of your choosing. It’s also one of the few places that you can often find music or audio clips from endangered languages or rapidly assimilating cultures.
For your convenience, and because I’m awesome, I’ve already built you a compilation of really cool YouTube channels belonging to various prominent polyglots and linguists as well as several active podcasts.
The list is always expanding so if you have any favorite language learning videos or podcasts, or perhaps work of your own that you’d like showcased, please get in touch!
5.) Skype/Video Chat
All of the other strategies are great, free methods to help you learn a language, but without this one they are all somewhat meaningless.
The essence of language is communication, and unless you’re just learning a language so you can understand your favorite foreign language bands or movies, or you just want to be able to read, you can’t afford to not speak to other learners or natives.
I know – this one is hard. It’s scary as hell to start up a conversation with someone you’ve maybe never met before, from another country, when you know your language skills suck or that they don’t speak your own native language.
Rest assured it’s not as bad as you’re expecting.
Sure, you’ll get butterflies in your stomach. You’ll feel like an idiot. But it passes really quickly when you realize that nobody is out to get you and that you’re actually having fun. Chances are your learning partner is aware of your language skills and is either a teacher and used to and interested in teaching learners or a language exchange partner who probably feels equally nervous to show you his or her own skills.
Skype is probably the most popular resource for these sorts of language exchange. It’s free, easy to download and set up and lots of people use it. It is certainly my preference.
Alternatively you can use Google Hangouts, a more chat room oriented experience for those looking for a larger, perhaps less personalized language learning platform. Google Hangouts is also free and pretty easy to use.
Both of these programs – and others – are available on mobile platforms as well.
One way to make video chat less intimidating is to turn off the video. You don’t have to have a webcam and you don’t have to show your face. Any and all smartphones or tablets come with built in microphones that allow you to speak and listen but not be seen. Most laptop computers also come with mics included and if you’re a desktop user purchasing a headset or standalone microphone, such as this, really isn’t super expensive.
If you are looking for an inexpensive webcam there are several available for very little on Amazon.
I can’t really stress the importance of this last one enough. In fact you could forego the first four strategies entirely if you regularly speak to human beings.
A serious language learner uses every strategy available but there’s no reason that most of those strategies can’t be free or mostly free. The Internet brings us together in ways that would have been unfathomable a few decades ago and opens the floodgates to information and learning for those willing to reach out and take it.
So what strategies do you like to use to reduce the costs of your language learning goals? Tell us about it in the comments!
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