In a previous post I evaluated some of the leading commercial solutions for learning a foreign language. In this post I’ll suggest some of the best free websites for learning a few basic phrases or to get you on your way towards fluency. After all, why pay for something you can get for free?
Basic Travel Phrases
LingvoSoft Online Phrasebooks is an excellent service that teaches phrases in around 40 languages. With 3000 phrases in 15 categories for each these languages this site can teach you all the basic phrases you’ll need and many more. What’s even better is that each phrase is presented in flash card format with audio in what sounds, to my ear, like native speakers. Several languages (for instance Arabic and Farsi) are additionally offered in a Romanized format which can make identifying the sounds easier. Great for quickly learning a bunch of useful phrases before you leave.
Let’s say that 40 languages aren’t enough for you; maybe you’re off to Senegal and want to get up to speed in Wolof or want to learn some basic phrases in Cornish or Asturian (yes, I did spell that correctly). TravelLang offers phrases in no less than 80 languages so this is the site. Not as pretty or clean as LingvoSoft’s offering, nor are there as many phrases for each language. It does, however, offer audio for each phrase (although the recordings sound more amateur) and is more than enough to learn a few basics in the many languages offered.
World Nomads, principally a company peddling travel insurance aimed at backpackers and gap year travellers, promotes itself in a few innovative ways, one of which is to offer a series of podcasts teaching key phrases in a number of languages. As well as the ‘classics’ like French and Spanish a good range of Asian languages are available. Only one podcast of around fifteen minutes duration is offered for each language. However, they are offered in a convenient mp3 format and scripts are provided. ‘Good morning’, ‘how much’, ‘help!’, numbers from one to ten and ‘beer’ are incorporated into a narrative which highlights some useful cultural tips. Unfortunately the vocal acting is somewhat… limited and the stories a bit naff. I would prefer more opportunities to repeat the phrases after the native speaker, but if you are after something to listen to on the way to work or while working out these will do the job.
Free Language Learning Sites
If you want to learn more than just to parrot the most useful phrases there are some really great sites for more serious study. Before you go out and spend a packet on a bunch of audio CDs, or even language classes, check out some of these sites. Many integrate social networking aspects and take advantage of Skype to match you with native speakers of the language you want to learn who are interested in learning languages you speak – the ultimate quid pro quo!
FSI Language Courses may not look much (it doesn’t even have a logo!) but it contains a wealth of content. The site contains digitised versions of courses developed by the Foreign Service Institute of the American government and which are now public domain. Contains material for an impressive range of languages, including many that are more obscure. The most popular languages generally offer audio in mp3, but for some languages only the text in pdf format is available. Some of the material and methods may be showing their age a little (with a strong emphasis on rote learning) but this is an excellent resource. New material is constantly being added and I cannot praise this project or those who develop and maintain it too highly.
Livemocha provides excellent free language lessons in Spanish, Mandarin, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese and Russian. The lessons themselves are the equal of any product – free or commercial – with learning, reading, listening and ‘magnet’ components. The magnet section is particularly useful: the user places the component words in order to recreate phrases. The social practice and feedback system is also innovative: giving users the opportunity to complete set exercises which are then rated and commented upon by native speakers. Biggest, and perhaps only, drawback at the moment is the fact that the selection of languages is (comparatively) limited. Get in quick – it appears set become a charge for use service when it moves out of beta into full release.
Babbel is a site I have only begun to explore. Offering lessons in four languages – Italian, German, French and Spanish – this site has some nice features. Phrases are associated with user-submitted images (which in my experience are excellent in terms of both quality and expressing the phrase being taught). The site allows the user to choose which ‘package’ (e.g. topic) of vocabulary to learn, creating a very user-centric and customised experience. Learning tasks include associating the spoken phrase with the appropriate image and typing the first letter of the phrase associated with the image. Even more impressively the vocabulary, once chosen and learnt, is added to the users’ ‘My Vocabulary’ package and revision is automatically recommended after a set period. Once again, a social aspect of the site encourages interaction with native speakers.
LinQ operates on the basis of matching public domain literary works with public domain audio recordings of those works and free online translation services. Selecting a text provides the user not only with the text in the target language but also with an accompanying reading. Clicking a word or phrase in the text allows the user to receive a translation, which is then added to the user’s vocabulary library for future revision via the site’s flashcard function. It’s a very good idea for intermediate or advanced speakers but at the moment it seems a little clunky in its execution. The social aspect to the site (which requires payment) allows users to submit written material for correction and to participate in speaking ‘events’ with native speaking tutors.
The BBC’s website allows you learn a good deal of French, Spanish, Italian and German, and a smattering of Mandarin, Greek, Portuguese, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh at the British tax payer’s expense. The ‘Steps’ programs are quite good introductions to the basics of the big four European languages, with a relentless focus on dialogue useful for a short trip away.
Mnemosyne is one of many flashcard software programs I have tried and in my opinion it is by far the best and simplest to use. It is free, open source and a great tool for memorising individual words or whole phrases. There is support for all sorts of scripts, images and audio. The algorithm is very effective at ensuring graduated review.
Frankly I’m blown away by the free sites for learning languages, which are frequently as good as, and occasionally light years beyond, the commercial alternatives.
I’d love to know about any great free language learning resources I haven’t covered here or if you have a comment about any of the sites and tools mentioned in this article.