Learning a second (or third, or fourth) language is a great. Not only can you learn to communicate with millions of people, but you generally become smarter, sexier, and more savvy about your own language.
Being a (former) classroom language teacher, I hate to say this, but here goes: traditional language learning is expensive and ineffective. However, if you combine a little motivation and discipline with the wealth of free materials available online, you can get a solid foundation in a new language without stepping foot in a classroom .
Creative Techniques for Language Learning
- Setting a language learning goal will help you progress faster (visiting a country is a great goal and a fun reward for your hard work).
- Using associative techniques is the most effective way to learn new vocabulary words.
- Look for material that holds your interest. If you’re bored, you won’t learn.
- Listening to and mimicking native speakers will reduce your learning time.
- Music is great. Scientists concur.
- Cramming is less effective than spaced repetition. 30 minutes a day always beats 4 hours 2x per week.
- Learn the 100 most common words first, then the 1000 most common.
- Learning an easy language first makes it easier to progress to harder languages.
Language learning is challenging, but it shouldn’t be painful. I hope these resources help you have a totally non-terrifying learning experience.
Free Online Language Courses
1. LiveMocha is like Facebook for language learners. LM features 50-60 hour graduated courses in most major languages. Some of it quite similar to the odiously expensive Rosetta Stone software. Best of all, you can find native speakers of your target language to practice with. They sell some courses, but most of the basic content is free.
2. The Foreign Service Institute offers a cornucopia of wonkish, government-created public domain language courses. Many languages are featured, though some have more complete course material than others. When available, you can download audio and .pdf of all the lessons. The .pdf files are all scanned and some of them are crooked…for some reason, this makes me like the course all the more.
3. Busuu.com is similar to LiveMocha; it is a social learning platform with picture-based vocabulary learning exercises. They also have a video chat application (even for their non-paying customers).
4. The BBC has a plenty of video and downloadable audio content in their Languages section. Understandably, most of the content is oriented towards European langauges.
5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open Courseware lets you view syllabuses from their language courses. Some courses have more content. The best part about this is you can use these as a model to design your own course of study.
Language Learning Tips, Tricks, and Hacks.
6. Tim Ferriss speaks German, Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin. In his post How to Learn any Language in 3 Months, he explains how he does it. Most important takeaways: word frequency lists and choosing highly interesting and relevant material. He also has a good post called Why Language Classes Don’t Work.
7. For a look at a pretty serious polyglot, check out Alexander Arguelles’ site or youtube channel. The videos are decidedly awkward, but he knows his stuff. The video of his daily linguistic workout is amazing (his morning routine consists of writing Arabic, Chinese, Greek, and some others). His language learning journal is a good idea for anyone who likes to keep track of things.
8. In How to Speak a Language In Two Months, Benny Lewis outlines his method for learning new languages. His main tips: learn all the vocabulary and phrases from a travel book, don’t speak English (or your native language), and set a lot of mini-goals. As an added bonus for all the tips on this site, Benny is a pretty funny writer.
9. The site How to Learn Any Language has a collection of tips and tricks for learning languages. My favorite part of the site is language profile section. They rate languages by popularity (hearts) and cacti. 5 cacti = a damn hard language (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic). They also have an active discussion board.
10. The Linguist on Language is a good blog with plenty of video content. He says (and I agree) that its better to learn a language before you study it; i.e. don’t worry about grammar at first, just build a foundation and learn the ‘music’ of the language.
100 Hacks to Learn a New Language in No Time is a great post with links for each hack. (Link removed by owner’s polite request. You can still google them).
12. Omniglot has a lot of information for learning other scripts and alphabets
13. If you have Skype, you can find plenty of conversation partners in your target language. Check out the Conversation Exchange or The Mixxer. If you’d like to see more places to find conversation partners, here is a good list.
14. The Flashcard Exchange has user-generated web-based flashcards for every subject imaginable, so you’re sure to find some for your target language. You can also access the flashcards on your iPhone.
15. Learning good pronunciation is crucial when studying a new language. Forvo is a site that claims to have all the words in the world pronounced by native speakers. Their stats are impressive: as of today, they have 413,784 words pronounced in 229 languages
16. Smart.fm is a social/learning website built around spaced repetition and a predictive algorithm that guesses what material you need to study and when you need to study it. Lots of resources here for learning Kanji and Hanja, as well resources for Spanish, French and German.
17. Youtube has millions of videos in hundreds of languages. Besides language lessons, you can find music videos and other clips; sometimes you can even find foreign-language videos with English subtitles. If I’m watching a music video, I pull up song lyrics and follow along.
19. Open Culture has a large list of podcasts entitled Free Foreign Language Lessons.
20. Google Translate is, in my opinion, the best and cleanest online translator out there.
21. For more study materials, don’t forget about your local library. Larger branch libraries usually keep material in stock. Whenever possible, look for books with interesting audio content.
Over to You:
- Do you speak any other languages?
- Can you share any tips or tricks for language learning?