The hardest part about learning a foreign language is starting. No, wait, it’s keeping up with it. Okay, there’s certainly something to be said for both. But most of us these days just can’t seem to find the time to attend those classes, let alone go spend some time in a foreign country to practice.
Fortunately, you don’t need to hop on a bus to some faraway locale to start learning the foreign language you’ve been dreaming about. Today, you can get started right from bed. Best of all, it’s affordable. So before you tell yourself “I just don’t have the time or the budget this month” check out these 5 ways to learn from home anytime. And remember, even a few key phrases can open a lot of doors on your next adventure!
The most obvious and the most widely used (for good reason) method today is apps. The thinking is, if you’re going to have your phone with you at all times, you might as well practice your vocabulary while you’re, say, waiting at the grocery store.
The most famous is undoubtedly Duolingo. By combining the most delightfully addictive elements of games with cleverly designed language learning, Duolingo goes beyond most language learning apps by putting just as much focus on finding ways to motivate you to continue learning as it does on teaching you grammar and vocabulary. That’s not a bad thing, most people who’ve tried learning a language know that discipline is key.
Memrise is another top app that has an interesting approach. Understanding that association is one of the most powerful memory tools we have, it actually uses fun memes to create unexpected associations to help you remember. The result is not only that you remember more, but you have a lot more fun in the process. There’s also plenty of gamification, not too unlike Duolingo.
Another app worth mentioning is Lingualift. This app distinguishes itself by making actual language tutors available for when you have questions. Obviously for this reason it’s based on a subscription model, but if you’re someone who always has questions about exceptions or other use cases when learning a language, this might be the app for you.
The only element of app language learning to be aware of is the “studying the test” phenomenon. That is, you can get really good at answering questions for in-app quizzes but blank when you have to actually practice speaking. All that is to say, don’t only rely on apps, it’s best to use them for motivation and learning vocabulary while also combining your app studies with one or more of the other techniques listed below.
2. Online Courses
If you’re someone who doesn’t respond well to the gamification that apps offer, or just does better when working with a teacher, online courses might be your best option. There are two basic types: pre-recorded video lessons and live courses. The pre-recorded type are far more common. This can be everything from free videos on Youtube to the thousands of language courses available on Udemy.
If you’re interested in something free without too much commitment, obviously Youtube is a great resource. But many of the formal services also offer free trials. The big thing to consider here is your motivation. Ask yourself, are you more likely to stick with learning a language if you’re paying for it? Or, are you more likely to practice your verbs if you have an instructor checking in on you?
If you’ve got more self motivation than you know what to do with, then you can focus on how you learn best. But if you need that motivation, consider trying online courses that mimic more traditional language classes.These are generally full blown online courses offered by language schools and universities. The classes will generally try and replicate the experience of learning a language in a traditional classroom, with live lectures allowing you to interact with professors and fellow students alike.
LingQ is somewhere in the middle between less interactive video lectures and full-blown digital classrooms. Rather than putting you in a group communicating with an instructor, it has many of the same features as the language learning apps mentioned above while also encouraging learners to help each other.
There are also other free resources like the Foriegn Service Institute’s classes. The FSI has trained tens of thousands of Americans to fluency in dozens of languages, so you could say they know a thing or two about language learning. The best part is that they’ve made their lessons available for free online. Similarly, the Peace Corps also has a huge trove of free language learning classes and materials available.
Of course, the most effective way to use all kinds of online courses is alongside real-world practice. Fortunately, in today’s world, you have nearly endless opportunities for that. Whether it’s podcasts, online streaming news, or even just following a youtuber, there are too many chances to interact with real native speakers to miss out on.
The first step, though, is to consider your experience level. If you’re just starting out, you’ll probably want to find something simple or specifically designed for language learners. But once you’re at an intermediate level, you can start to explore a bit and focus more on what type of media you find interesting anyways. Personally, podcasts are a favorite of mine because of how easily they can be integrated into your daily routine (cooking, cleaning, commuting, etc.) Just be aware, if you go the traditional news route, you might end up learning to speak like a newscaster (something people will likely point out). But sometimes that’s just the step you need towards becoming fluent.
Even if you don’t understand everything they’re saying, getting used to the “music” of the language can help a lot with understanding. By hearing how people phrase things and the grammar they use, you can develop a sense of what “sounds right” even before you know the technical reasons for why it’s said one way and not another. Best of all, this technique is as affordable as it gets: free!
4. Online Video Chat
For self-motivated learners whose primary interest in language learning is connecting with people from other cultures, this is a great option. There are tons of free language exchange websites out there where instead of paying, you help another learner with your own language. With literally hundreds of thousands of users to choose from, you have options even for far less well known languages.
The big difference here is that you’re much less likely to learn the more technical side of a language’s grammar. That’s why this language learning technique works best when you’re past the beginning stages and when it’s paired with some more formal study. But if you’re, say, taking an online class, this is a fantastic way to supplement your learning by gaining insights into how real native speakers actually speak.
After all, there are some things about a language a formal teacher (especially a non-native speaker) just isn’t going to teach you. The same goes for generational differences. A teacher in their 40s or 50s isn’t likely to prepare you for a casual conversation in a happening nightclub where slang abounds.
Or, if there’s a particular region or cultural tradition of a country you’re interested in, you can use these services to find someone who loves that as well. So, if you’re interested in traditional dance, winemaking, or history, you can chat about your passions with someone who’s ready to teach you all the potentially obscure vocabulary you need. Best of all, this makes it more likely you’ll make some real friends in the process.
Yes yes, it’s a cliche, but there’s perhaps no better way to learn a language from home than by simply falling in love with a speaker. Granted, setting this one up is slightly trickier than the previous 4 suggestions (but hey, there’s always Tinder). But if you need the motivation to really and truly learn a language, a deep love of another human being and the accompanying desire to understand their culture is about as good as it gets.
Plus, being that foreigner who can strike up a chat in the native tongue of that cute guy or girl at the bar certainly can’t hurt. Once you’ve found that special someone, something as simple as “could you teach me one word a day?” can make all the difference. If all goes well, you’ll soon be ready to make a great impression with the in-laws.
Ready to get out of bed and try that language?
Even if you’ve only got the first few phrases down, it’s never too early to get out and build that passion for discovery. So, book a fast and affordable bus trip to your favorite destination. Whether it’s German in Vienna, Italian in Venice, or (if you’re feeling extremely ambitious) Hungarian in Budapest, there’s no reason not to get out there and explore a bit.