Tag Archives: languages

How to Learn A Language (Or Several) FREE!

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

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.

Live MochaLivemocha 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.

BabbelBabbel 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.

LinQLinQ 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.

BBC Languages

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.

MangoLanguages, which I covered in my previous post, also has a great deal of free material available.

A Great Free ToolMnemosyne

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.

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How to learn a language – are any of the commercial products worth the money?

Phrasebooks (jay.tong flickr)There are some things we here at Oz Traveller are implacably in favour of – extended drinking hours and nylon-wool blend jumpers. To this list you can, as of five minutes ago, add language learning. After all travel and language learning go together like budget carriers and exhorbatant overweight baggage fees.

But where the hell do you begin? There are some fantastic resources available to teach you a foreign language – all you need is the motivation and time(!) In this post I’ll give my completely unabashed views on a few of the commercial options going around, but soon I’ll do a series of posts on my real love – free online resources for language learning.


The prince of audio language teaching

PimsleurPrice: Around USD$200 per lesson level containing 30 1/2 hour lessons. Up to three levels available per language.

The set up: Audio-based system which is fantastic at teaching even the most stubborn mind the basics of a language – the phrases get in your head. Major languages have three levels which should get close to an intermediate stage. You don’t have to learn grammar – you’ll soak it up.

Cons: It turns out you do actually have to learn grammar, at least beyond the simplest rules. Vocabulary gets less useful in the final level – I mean ‘My niece is studying a professional training course; what the hell IS a professional training course? Even all three levels will only teach 500-600 words, enough to get around but a LONG way from fluency. But the biggest drawback – it’s excessively priced. Try ransacking your local library for a copy.

Michel Thomas

Michel ThomasThe eccentric German with an outrageous accent cajoles and berates you into learning a foreign language

Price: USD$25-50 per level with 3 levels available per language.

The set up: another audio series, Thomas, a German who made a fortune tutoring in foreign languages in LA. His thick, impossible to place, accent and crackpot delivery provides interest despite relatively dry material. He teaches basic grammar in an uncomplicated manner and then suggests you guess the vocabulary – ‘if you are not understood’, he often jokes, ‘think of it as “net-ball” and have another serve’. Comparatively, reasonably priced.

Cons: Shorter than Pimsleur and with much less reptition. At times Thomas sounds like a dodgy hypnotherapist – ‘just relax, here the teacher is responsible for the learning, not the student’. Not all levels provide transcipts, but they are available online.

The Rosetta Stone

Rosetta StoneBecause learning a language is like playing Snap!

Price: Around USD$450 for three levels

Software program which requires the user to match phrases, written and aural, with the appropriate picture. Claims to immerse you completely in the target language – there is no English. Containing a range of speaking, listening and reading exercises, the system is particularly effective at teaching nouns and adjectives. It’s fun – a useful computer game.

Cons: While the new version 3 is an improvement the software is still far from perfect. There is a new emphasis on useful questions and more conversational material (as opposed to version 2 which memorably taught phrases like “the boy is under the plane”), but it is still much more effective at teaching nouns and adjectives. Version 3 relies heavily on multiple choice but often only two or three options are presented and the answer is frequently too obvious to make the exercise useful. When the program introduces new phrases it can occasionally be difficult (at least initally) to decipher what the new material means (i.e. is the man beside the car or getting into the car). Because it teaches exclusively in the target language there are no explanations of grammar. Price, the cost represents a huge amount of money if the system doesn’t leave you feeling fluent.


Mango Languages

Languages 2.0

Price: From USD$15 per month to USD$110 per course for an annual subscription.

Online language learning site. Sentences are broken down into phrases with are colour-coded and then drilled individually. The sentance is then tested and later revised. It’s quite a good system, covering quite a few languages (Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Italian, Greek, Russian, Mandarin Chinese) with 100 lessons for each language. Mango LanguagesFirst fifty lessons of every lesson are available free with registration – very useful if you want to learn the basics of a number of languages.

Cons: Now a pay service. One hundred lessons are only enough the teach a tiny fraction of any language. I found it excellent for revision but I never had any faith the site on its own could teach a language in any meaningful sense. The pricing model is extremely expensive for a revision tool. If only they could find an advertiser supported model I’d love them. Lots.

Other Options

I’ve had a look at Routledge’s Colloquial series, Teach Yourself and Living Languages Ultimate Series all of which package a text designed for self-tution with a CD (or in older versions/more obscure languages cassette) containing some of the dialogue from the textbook. I marginally prefer Living Languages Ultimate Series – because it provides long passages of recorded audio – but it is available in much fewer languages than the other two series. I haven’t had the chance to use any of them extensively enough to give further feedback.

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[Photo jay.tong via Flickr]