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So you would like to learn a foreign language for your travels or just for fun. It’s a great way to exercise your brain and get insight into another culture too.
For a long time, immigrants to the USA gave up their languages of origin to become American. Only a small elite stayed in school long enough to study French and the classics, or ever needed to learn any other languages for work. Everyone else was too busy with the practical matters of life to learn a foreign language.
Along came WWII, when American men sent to war learned to appreciate the difficulty of being in a foreign land without a language in common. They came back to the GI Bill, which funded college educations for them. This grew colleges to take more high school grads, who realized they had to learn a foreign language and might as well start in high school.
By the time Sputnik freaked out the world, the USA was a world power and could use people with foreign languages again. Then along came the Internet and Baby Boomer retirees looking for sunnier climes. And now we have more people who actually want to learn a foreign language.
I don’t have a lot of money for that!
Relax, all the resources in this post have free services, and none of them are affiliate links. Some have a higher level of services for a few dollars a month; I’ll give you a heads-up there. Some of these resource websites have a variety of offerings, not just courses, which can enrich your learning experience.
Of course, if you WANT to spend money, there are plenty of places to do that too. They are good for some things, such as when you really want to be sure of learning New World instead of Old World Spanish or French, or absolutely need to have a native speaker on Skype. Don’t get me wrong, I love native speakers as teachers, even though they sometimes don’t understand our questions. And speaking Quebecois will not make you the toast of Paris.
OK, enough already. Bring on the resources!
First up is Duolingo. An online site that is mobile-compatible, Duolingo makes its 15-minute lessons into games that allow you to earn points for learning your words well. They teach speaking, reading and listening skills, so listening should come along as well. In real life, though, most of us beginner types want the native speakers we meet to talk slowly anyway, no matter what method we learn by.
Duolingo offers lessons in 31 languages, including made-up ones like Esperanto and Klingon, as well as natural languages from Irish to Swahili, Hebrew to Korean.
Duolingo is worth a look if you are starting out in your chosen language or want to brush up on one you learned long ago. The lesson format encourages daily practice, so plan on doing at least a couple of lessons a day. Duolingo gives you an estimate of how many hours of lessons work out to equal a semester of language instruction in college, too. If you are diligent, you can do a semester in a little over a month for many languages.
For those visual learners, Memrise offers a different type of lesson format, giving you picture cues to help you remember vocabulary. There are free and paid versions of Memrise lessons, the difference is in the availability of extra learning supports to paying customers.
Memrise offers videos of native speakers in its lessons, which are available for Apple and Android devices so you can take them anywhere, even offline. For languages, they offer not only European Spanish but also Mexican Spanish, and Portuguese for both Europe and Brazil, plus an array from Arabic to Mandarin Chinese.
Memrise also offers other courses for SAT preparation, and a variety of academic subjects in case you decide to brush up on math or science.
More free language lessons here…
Busuu has a free tier and a paid one with more bells and whistles. Busuu, from England, says its lessons get you a semester’s worth of language training in fewer hours than Duolingo. With Busuu your free lessons will not travel with you, though paid ones will. A few dollars a month make all the difference.
A more freewheeling approach is available from Learn a Language where you can get lessons in the language you want but also “survival” expressions and slang, so you can understand more of what is going on when you visit where it’s spoken. They offer audio/video interactive experiences, verbs to learn, and other enhancements. They even have a game. This one will be useful mostly as a home service, since they aren’t set up for phone apps. But it’s free!
Casting a wider net
Open Culture is a huge site with all kinds of offerings, from books to courses, in a wide variety of interests. For language learners, they offer a whopping 48 languages. The lessons vary. Some are videos of university teachers presenting lessons, and others are mainly texts.
Open Culture offers the US Foreign Service Institute lessons, the texts, which are well set up but not as fun looking as some other methods of learning. In their defense, though, they taught a lot of diplomats how to get along in countries they never dreamed of going to.
So if you are more studious, the FSI lessons might be a good fit. There are also some very conversation-oriented lessons, depending on the language, that might appeal to you.
Live Lingua has paid lessons via Skype with native teachers, but this link takes you to their public domain sources. They will supply you with materials from Foreign Service Institute, Peace Corps language training programs or the Defense Language Institute, my alma mater.
Expect text-based lessons with audio files to listen to that go along with the text. At DLI we memorized a little play every day and performed it rote first thing in the morning. You probably wouldn’t do that at home, but you may find that these public domain lessons will help you with a very practical set of vocabulary and constructions, good explanations of grammar, and cultural information.
And for fun, even more.
Check out the BBC for fun and interesting aids to language learning. This page has links to help with grammar, pronunciation, finding courses, and even BBC World Service broadcasts in a number of foreign languages to listen to. It’s great practice to listen to target language news. Plus, being British, they have a whole section on the various British languages, such as Manx, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and more. So if you’re into the Old Tongues, this is the place to go.
So, from on-the-go techies to stay-at-home traditionalists, there’s plenty of free language learning help on the Internet. This is just a sampling but I hope you will find a way to learn your next language that fits you as well as helps you save for the trip.
What will be your next language? Ancient Greek? Klingon? Spanish?