If you’ve traveled anywhere where you don’t speak the local language, you’re aware of the challenges you can face: trouble negotiating taxis and transportation, not understanding directions, ordering the wrong food. It’s always helpful to have a few phrases in the local language. But, what if you want to go beyond “hello”, “thank you”, and “please”? Or maybe not knowing the language has stopped you from heading to a dream destination? It doesn’t have to.
There are no shortcuts for learning a new language. It takes time and effort. But, it’s useful to have tools to help you acquire new language skills, and ideally tools that don’t break the bank. Below is our roundup of free or inexpensive tools and resources for language learning on a budget.
Language Learning Websites and Apps
There are plenty of websites and/or apps that make it more entertaining to learn a new language, or just automate the process.
Duolingo was developed by the same guy who created those maddening CAPTAs that distinguish real people from computers. Most people don’t know that the CAPTAs are actually used to digitize old books, and one of the ways that Duolingo is funded is by offering crowdsourced translating to companies like CNN. Duolingo uses an entertaining game approach to learning a new language, and can be quite addicting. Some of the phrases are not the most useful (one of my favorites is “the spider drinks milk”), but it’s an entertaining way to learn new vocabulary.
Memrise uses many of the same methods that Duolingo does, including audio and translation in two directions. It may not be as entertaining as Duolingo, but it will still teach the basics.
Cost: Free, for basic services
Bussu offers online lessons in a variety of languages, and offers the option of reaching out to other community members via chat to help them out with their language learning. They also offer a premium option (for pay) that gets you expedited correction services and additional exercises.
Cost: Free (kinda)
Live Mocha online community allows you to get feedback from people who speak your new language, gives you the opportunity to help others to learn your language, and lets you connect with language partners to practice. The site uses a point system, where you can use your points to “purchase” lessons, and lets you earn additional points by reviewing the work of students who are trying to learn your native language. You can also buy points, or beans, to get additional lessons without having to work for them.
Remember creating flashcards in school, with a question or word on one side, and the answer or definition on the other? Anki is a flashcard app, which can be used to create your own flashcards (for anything, not just language vocabulary). There are a number of freely available decks of language vocabulary for download, so you can randomly quiz yourself on your phone.
Cost: from $39.95
Tired of bland vocabulary lessons? Gritty Spanish has censored and uncensored versions, letting you learn Spanish through listening to real, urban conversations.
Reading books and memorizing vocabulary and conjugation is fine, but you need to practice speaking in order to learn a language. These communities are filled with people wanting to learn a new language, and you can connect with them online.
Wespeke has a bit of feel of a Match.com for people who want to practice language with other people online. You fill out your profile, which includes your age, the language(s) you are interested in learning, your interests, and what sort of things you like to talk about, and you are matched with other community members.
We haven’t explored them all, but Lang-8 displays the longest list of languages to learn that we’ve seen (Sanskrit? Swahili?). They take the unique approach of having users of the site post entries for translation by other users, and allowing you to translate/correct other users entries in your natural language. They also have a “Make Friends” option that allows you to meet online with other members of the community.
The Mixxer advertises itself as an online community which connects language learners around the world so that everyone is both student and teacher. The site is relatively simple, and people connect to speak via Skype.
Exchange A Language partners you with someone so you can learn each other’s language. You connect and speak with them via chat, messaging, or Skype.
My Language Exchange allows you to find a native language speaking partner in their online community who is learning your language. They host your online practice, and have lesson plans and text chat rooms. They also have some simple but entertaining games like hangman or word match to challenge your newfound vocabulary.
Work with a Tutor
Verbling allows you to find a language tutor based on the language they teach, the language they speak natively, and their availability based on a calendar of days and times. The tutors set their own rates, which are typically hourly, but many offer packages as well, including some specialty packages like “Survival Spanish”. Some tutors offer a free trial lesson to get you started.
Italki hooks up students with tutors who can offer standard tutoring, or customized tutoring such as needing to pass a specific test. The site uses italki credits, which you buy directly from the site (at 10 credits per 1 US dollar) which you use to pay the tutor of your choice.
Do you find meeting strangers online a little creepy? Or, maybe you just want to get away from your laptop or phone and meet people in person? There are plenty of meetups in cities around the world that focus on language exchange.
Meetup.com is the leader in setting up face to face gatherings, for far more than just language learning. That said, there is a huge community of language learners having regular get-togethers in cities around the world. Just log in, search for your current city and language, and you’ll likely find a group.
Conversation Exchange allows you to practice your second language by meeting up with native speakers living in your area. If you can’t find a local speaker, they also offer the option of finding people for correspondence (sort of a Pen-Pal) or using chat software.
Children’s Books in Another Language
If you’ve picked up some basic vocabulary, but aren’t quite ready to read War and Peace in Mandarin, you can try some simpler options, by reading children’s books.
Offers Children’s books in a variety of languages online, mostly under Creative Commons licensing.
Children’s books in Spanish
Little Bilingues promotes French-English “bilingualism” for kids. They have a series of children’s books to read in French, for free.
Use a Browser Extension
For multi-taskers, these Chrome plugins will use Google translate libraries to automatically translate random words on any webpage you are browsing. You can specify the percentage of text to translate, and the plugins make it easy to look up the meaning of a replaced word. The below links are to the Chrome Web Store for the (free) plugins
Get a Girlfriend/Boyfriend
No link here, you’ll have to figure it out yourself. And, no guarantees that it will be “on the cheap”. In researching this article, many people who are fluent in a second (or third) language attributed their success to meeting and having a relationship with someone who spoke another language. The immersion aspect, combined with the need to speak with and understand another person, can be powerful motivation for learning. After all, you’re learning the language of love….
Curious about just how fluent you are? The common European framework is a standard measurement for determining your fluency in every language.
Benny, who refers to himself as “The Irish Polyglot” has traveled the world and uses a unique method to learn languages quickly. His book “Fluent in 30 Days” is an entertaining read.
Final Word on Language Learning…
These cheap tools are helpful for acquiring language, but the bottom line is that becoming fluent requires a lot of practice, and that you actually speak, not just memorize vocabulary and play games. So, our best advice is to go out there, smile at people, and try to talk with them in their native language!
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