How to Learn a Foreign Language for Free

By   

There's a joke that goes, "If you speak three languages you're trilingual, if you speak two languages you're bilingual, and if you speak one language you're American." Your desire to learn a new language may come from a wish to fight that stereotype, prepare for an adventure abroad, or communicate better with your family or that of a significant other. No matter the motive, you now must figure out how to start. And that, in itself, can be daunting.

Two common issues new language learners face are overpaying for a program and finding the most effective approach (learning styles, after all, are very person-specific). A local community college may be the answer, but we wanted to find solutions that fit adult learners with already busy schedules. So we looked for cheap computer- and smartphone-based language programs.

Don't Overpay.

Searching for the perfect program can lead you down the rabbit hole. With so many options available, it's easy to get stuck before you even start. And that's a sure path to failure. One thing for certain, though, there's no need to pay hundreds of dollars for a language program (the one in the yellow box, for example).

Instead, start with one of the many free beginner language courses. There's BBC Language and numerous other options listed at Omniglot. If you'd prefer a mobile experience, Duolingo uses a gamified system and friendly competition to encourage study, and also offers a free companion app. The website Fluent in 3 Months also maintains an up-to-date list of free online language resources.

Don't overlook your local library, as it's likely to have books and tape or CD courses available to borrow. Some library systems have gone high-tech and license the Mango Language program, which offers multi-level courses for use with a browser or mobile app; check here to see if your local library has done so.

Increase your vocabulary and retain what you've learned with free flash-card programs. The cards alone can't teach the language, but they are an essential tool. To make this learning aid even more effective, pick a program that uses a Spaced Repetition System (SRS), which has been shown to increase retention. Anki is a free online SRS-based system that also has a free Android app; the iOS app costs $25. Some apps are developed for specific languages, such as the Pleco app (free with in-app purchases) that focuses on Mandarin and Cantonese.

Learn Quickly and Efficiently.

Immersion is key to quick language learning, but generally hard to realize without a plane ticket. Online video chats are a decent runner-up strategy, and free options like Skype and Google Hangouts make speaking to someone on the other side of the world easier than ever. Finding that person can be the hard part. Livemocha and Busuu, both of which offer free introductory language courses, enable such connections by pairing two native speakers who are interested in learning the other's language.

Language immersion is also possible during your free time by listening to music, watching movies or TV, and even tuning in to the news in your target language. The iTunes and Google Play libraries offer foreign films (for a fee), as do many streaming subscription services, such as Netflix. Podcasts subscriptions are often free, and Tune In is an excellent source for finding free access to radio stations around the world. Streema is another directory of free-access international radio and TV stations.

Although we're focusing on free technology-based approaches to language learning, going offline is also a critical immersion technique. Finding or creating a local language practice group that meets regularly will reinforce what you're learning by getting you talking. Don't worry if there aren't any native speakers around; other novices will have a similar vocabulary and converse at a pace that's easy to follow. Plus, everyone will be forgiving about mistakes and accents.

Meetup is a simple platform for finding or creating a group and only charges hosts a nominal fee. Couchsurfing, which is well known for helping travelers find a place to rest their head for a night, is also helpful. Consider hosting foreign travelers at your home or attend a Couchsurfing meeting to connect with foreigners living nearby or traveling through.

If the point of your language learning is to improve communication with a relative, close friend, or significant other, ask that person to speak to you in the other language as much as possible. It can be a bit trying on everyone in the beginning, and conversations will be much slower, but over time the extra practice really pays off.