How to learn a foreign language without spending a cent

Last week at Far Away Places (my new travel blog), I shared some tips on how to learn Spanish fast. The short version: Hire a tutor. But what if you can't afford a tutor? What if you don't want to spend money but still want to learn a language? In this guest post from Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot, he shares tips on how to learn a language on the cheap. For more info, visit Benny's site, Fluent in 3 Months.

You don't need to spend a lot on books and software to learn a foreign languageWouldn't it be great if you could effortlessly communicate in another language? For many people, this seems like a pipe dream. We aren't going to wake up one day (à la Jason Bourne) suddenly fluent in a bunch of languages, and we can't download them into our brain instantaneously like they do in The Matrix. Such dramatic changes aren't possible.

However, it is possible for the average adult to learn to speak a foreign language confidently in a relatively short time.

I'm sure you've met people who have managed to learn a foreign language, either by growing up with it or learning it as an adult. The only problem is that we tend to think they had resources we didn't have: time, talent, and (above all) money. Surely it must have cost a small fortune for the courses they took, the software they bought, and the time abroad to study. It all seems out of reach for those of us on a budget.

Today I'm here to tell you that money has nothing to do with learning a language. In this article, I'll give you several steps to learn your target language and reach a good spoken level — maybe even fluency — without spending a cent.

It's time to start language hacking!

Finding the Right Mindset

I've been learning languages for about eight years, and can indeed speak several fluently now. I typically socialize and live my life almost entirely without using any English, depending on where I am and who I'm with.

However, at age 21 I could only speak English and had poor academic results in German from school. Learning a language seemed impossible.

  • I didn't have the right “genes”.
  • I had to work full-time so I simply couldn't spend all day studying.
  • I have a terrible memory for simple information.
  • I was too old (I heard from somewhere that 14 or something was a critical age limit for learning a second language, but it turns out this rumor is totally unfounded).
  • I had just graduated in engineering — “you're either good at Mathematics/Physics or you're good at Art/Languages” I told myself.

I was so sure of all of this that I managed to spend six months living in Spain without learning to speak any Spanish!

But then one day I had a Eureka! moment. I realized what had been holding me back all this time: My devotion to the excuses, not the excuses themselves. It was a fear to speak, a fear of ridicule, a fear of annoying natives, a fear of making mistakes and looking stupid.

Only fear kept me from learning to speak another language.

In meeting thousands of language learners over the last decade I can confirm that fear is why they aren't speaking — the actual excuses they give are what they lean on to justify that fear. But it's unfounded.

Once you learn the basics, start speaking to people immediately

After living in dozens of countries, I can tell you that most people across the planet have no interest in making fun of your attempts to learn their language. First, they're generally thrilled that an English speaker is even trying to speak their language. And second, very few people are that malicious. When you try your best to speak to a person in their native language, they appreciate it. People's focus is always on understanding and communicating, never ridiculing someone willing to try.

So, my top tip to learning a language is to deal with your fears. This is a psychological barrier, not a monetary or genetic or intelligence problem. Apply some of the other tips in this article, and try to use your new language at every opportunity. By doing this you'll see that all your fears are unfounded and even when you are speaking with just the basics, you can indeed do a lot! Each time you try, the fear starts to seem more illogical until it vanishes.

Learn the Essentials

Too many people who have a real desire to use a language get caught up in the learning stage and stay stuck there indefinitely. Too many of us are perfectionists, so we feel that you need to know all of the grammar and all of the vocabulary before you can “bother” a native with your stumbles.

So they get the biggest, fattest courses they can find. Perhaps that's expensive software, which in my opinion actually leaves a lot to be desired, (as you can see in my frank Rosetta Stone review) or maybe it's signing up to a classroom-style course. These systems use a ground-level-up approach of trying to teach you everything, and in doing so tend to teach you nothing that you can use right now.

All you really need to get started is a vague understanding of how the language works and some key phrases and essential vocabulary.

There are many completely free resources for getting these basics. A few of my favorite include:

    • Your local library for a book-based mini-course. I actually find these to be fine in many cases.
    • Your cell phone can actually be a great language-learning toolFor learning the top 1000 or so words, I like to use a great flashcard app called Anki. It's a free installation on computers (Windows/Mac/Linux), a free app on Android (called Ankidroid) and a free app on jailbroken iPhones (legally available in Cydia). The standard iPhone/iPod/iPad app is paid, however you can use the web interface instead for free via Safari (it's very light on data requirements). This flashcard app uses the Spaced Repetition System that has proven to be an extremely effective way to retain vocabulary. You download pre-made decks (of the most important vocabulary) on the desktop application and transfer them to your smartphone to learn while waiting somewhere to use time most efficiently, or to study directly on your computer. (J.D. uses Flashcards Deluxe for the iPhone, but that costs four bucks.)
    • If you feel you are finding it hard to memorize words, I have personally found that applying image association and sound association can be very effective to make sure you don't forget them. It takes some getting used to, but after a few tries it becomes second nature to learn vocabulary quicker this way. Also keep in mind that they are not all entirely new words. There are thousands of words you know already, especially in European languages.
    • Go through completely free online courses. Listing them here would be quite complicated, but one site that has done an excellent job of linking to some of the best online is Omniglot. Find your language in the list and scroll down to the bottom of its summary page to see the course links. Note that several will be (affiliate) links to paid products — you can get all the essentials you need from the free ones, such as BBC's and about.com's language overviews.
    • When you aren't sure of a particular word, no need to have bought a dictionary! Google Translate can help to give you the basic gist (I wouldn't recommend it for anything serious) and wordreference.com and other websites (depending on the language) have extensive free dictionaries for individual words with proper context explanations.
  • This may sound counter-intuitive, but I actually find that going through the shortest course is best when starting off. You just want an overview of the language — not the start of a very long and endless journey to find out everything about it. So after reading through and studying one of these online courses for just a few hours, and learning key basic vocabulary, focus entirely on learning phrases. Many of the courses linked to have some essential phrases included, but I actually find that learning a different set called conversational connectors can help you maintain the flow quicker in real conversations.

With just this handful of free tools, you can start learning the basics of your chosen language today.

Find People And Start Speaking the Language Immediately

Dazzle people with your new language skillsThere are hundreds of ways to learn a language, but I will tell you very frankly that if the goal is to speak it then anybody who tells you anything but to speak it right away is hurting your potential progress.

Studying indefinitely is a waste of time in this respect. The purpose of studying should be to improve what you're already saying, not to prepare to speak some day. (There are seven days in a week and “some day” is not one of them.)

The communicative approach of language learning involves using it naturally as much as possible and doing so immediately. Studying is a minor part of what you should really be doing. What you should really be doing is speaking the language naturally. And no, you don't have to fly to the country to do this!

First, see if you can meet up in person to practice your language. This is a powerful way to make a language a truly natural part of your social calendar and life. Here are several ways I've been able to make this happen:

    • Find a group that meets to practice the language on meetup.com — they can be very active in some cities for particular languages! There are many other learners here, as well as friendly natives in many cases. Nobody will ever judge you as they understand what you're going through.
    • Use Couchsurfing. This site is famous as a way for budget travelers to save money by sleeping on other people's couches. While staying with natives abroad can be a great way to learn a language, traveling may not be possible for you right now, but that's okay! Enter the site, sign up for a profile and attend the meetings that occur regularly in cities, perhaps including your home town. It's possible a native is passing through. But even better than this is to go to the Couchsurf page and only select your home city and your target language among search criteria. You'll be very surprised to see how many open minded people who speak the language fluently or as natives live just around the corner! Message them and invite them out for coffee.
  • Depending on who you know, you may be able to meet up with family members or friends who speak the language. They'll certainly be willing to help you practice! But otherwise be sure to ask in your local community: reading clubs, churches, sports clubs, classmates, work colleagues etc. You may be surprised to see that someone there speaks your language and would love to help out!
J.D.'s note: I've been learning Spanish for two months now. Over the past two weeks, I've begun to practice my new language skills with friends and strangers. One of my favorite interactions was with the gas station attendant, who patiently listened to my poor Spanish and offered corrections with a smile. It was awesome.

If you live in any major city you will find natives and fluent speakers of most languages if you look hard enough. They are definitely there! If you're really stuck, or live too far from such cities, there's another option: online (Skype-based) conversation!

There are many sites that you can use to find someone who actually wants to learn English who you can help, while they teach you their language. My own website, for example, has a forum section where plenty of people post the combination they are looking to exchange and many are finding a conversation exchange!

Other sites that can help include Livemocha and Busuu. These actually have paid course aspects that I really don't recommend to people, but their social connections to find native speakers are great and free!

Be Imaginative, Confident and Let the Conversations Flow!

So you've got the basics, found someone to speak to, and decided to put your excuses aside and attempt to enjoy the experience. There's still something missing though — what do you talk about when you've learned so little?

This is actually much easier than people think. A few weeks into learning languages I can have dozens of conversations, and it's because I try to use my imagination (no, I don't talk about the weather), try to be charming to balance out any minor slip-ups I'm making or simply laugh at them as not a big deal, and listen to the other person.

If you're worried that you won't be interesting enough for the other person, it's important to realize that sometimes to be interesting you have to be interested. Being a good listener will have the other person appreciate your company all the more, and with time you will be saying more and more.

I discuss many other aspects of how to get into this flow of imaginatively in initial stages in a conversation on my blog and summarize my favorite tricks in this video.

As complicated as it seems, when you let go of your hang-ups then you may discover that you had the ability to speak all along, as my friend Geraldine showed me by speaking in Spanish all evening the first time she tried.

Rather than being a genius and needing to perform advanced grammatical calculations, to really speak a language you have to actually learn to stop thinking so much, learn enough to say something first, let go of your ego, make a few mistakes and just let conversations flow!

No credit cards or wads of cash are necessary for this.

Give it a try — with enough practice you will improve so quickly that soon you'll start to wonder if you really couldn't speak the language before!

J.D.'s note: This is one of my favorite GRS guest posts ever, probably because I've been so into learning Spanish lately. But it's also because Benny is awesome. He and I met and chatted briefly in June, and then he spent an hour with my by Skype, answering my questions about travel and language learning. He's a warm, funny guy, and genuinely wants to help others learn. I think that's awesome!

 

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Nick
Nick
9 years ago

This post is right on, above everything else that I used to learn Dutch (and trust me, I used and still use a lot of things) the thing that helps the most is just talking and forgetting about the fact that you don’t speak the other language perfect. I amaze myself every day about some of the topics that I talk to people about in Dutch that I never practiced for or imagined myself talking about. I know from experience that it is way easier said than done to just forget about being embarrassed and fearful, but trust me, it… Read more »

Brian Carr
Brian Carr
9 years ago

These are awesome tips! My wife and I are taking a trip to Italy next year and one of the big things we want to do is make sure we can communicate with the locals, at least in broken italian.

My fear isn’t that I won’t be able to learn the language, it’s that it’s going to take me a ton of time. That being said, if it’s going to take me a while, I’d rather it not cost me a lot, too!

Allie
Allie
9 years ago

Another site to check out (when it launches) is duolingo: http://duolingo.com/ The idea is that you learn a language and translate the web at the same time. This from the same guy/research lab who figured out we could transcribe books to computer with captchas and tag pictures on the web using a game. I’m looking forward to trying it in a few months!

SB @ One Cent At A Time
SB @ One Cent At A Time
9 years ago

My Wife is learning Spanish in county community school, they charge $70 for 10 classes, but since it’s instructor lead, we don’t mind paying this fee. We do feel that instructor lead classes are a better option to self learning. Cost is also not that much.

My University Money
My University Money
9 years ago

This has always been an academic goal I’ve put on the back burner – to learn a new language and specifically Spanish. I have heard from many people that once you learn one language aside from your native tongue, it becomes easier with each progressive language, especially if they have similar roots like French and Spanish. That being said, I am definitely a member of your “someday” crowd. I should really set a goal. My foremost academic goal is to finish my masters degree in education while working full time the next two years. If I can re-direct that energy… Read more »

Benny Lewis
Benny Lewis
9 years ago
Thanks for posting this J.D.! 🙂 If anyone has any questions, let me know! I’ve just posted dozens of tips on my blog about travelling on the cheap, while the GRS audience will be checking it out. Thanks from Ireland!
Martijn
Martijn
9 years ago

A free app for the iPhone is WRTS; http://itunes.apple.com/nl/app/wrtsmobile/id342114051?mt=8 It’s Dutch, but contains other languages as well.

Kate Austin
Kate Austin
9 years ago

Perfection is the enemy of progress! So many people don’t progress in language learning because they are afraid to make mistakes. The person who makes no mistakes makes nothing 🙂

Definitely seek out opportunities to speak the language, maybe find a native speaker who is learning your language. With Skype this is easier than ever.

Visit language-tandem.com – a site where you can look for students of your language and set up practice, be epals or whatever.

Anne Cross
Anne Cross
9 years ago
Reply to  Kate Austin

Perfection is indeed the enemy of progress! I’m a language teacher (Italian and ESL) and the students who are willing to take risks and make mistakes are the ones who are able to communicate with others. That’s the goal of learning a language, right?

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

I love this post, even if learning a language is more a pipe dream for me than an actual priority right now. 🙂 One of my favorite experiences was when I was 21 and took an impromptu 24 hour trip to Paris from London by myself. I ended up bumping into a Parisian girl who was returning home after a summer of working as an au pair. She and her best friend ended up showing me all their favorite places in Paris, and although it had already been 4+ years since I last spoke my horrid version of French, I… Read more »

lawyerette
lawyerette
9 years ago

So true about the fear holding you back – think of how children learn to speak. They don’t worry about making blunders, which is good since they often ARE wrong (“You having fishes?”) but eventually they pick it up.

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago

Awesome post! I love languages, and why would one learn one if it wasn’t to speak with a native speaker? Benny’s right, there are few malicious people that are going to pick on your faults.

Jump right in and try to talk, you’ll be amazed with yourself!!

Vanessa
Vanessa
9 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

“Awesome post! I love languages, and why would one learn one if it wasn’t to speak with a native speaker?”

I have an interest in Spanish but I don’t necessarily want to speak it. I would like to understand it when spoken and be able to read it. I watch a lot of foreign language films, particularly Spanish ones. I’d like to understand the dialogue in it’s original language since sometimes subtitles are less than accurate. I would also like to learn Portuguese for this same reason.

Quest
Quest
9 years ago

This is a great post and came along at just the right time! I was about to spend a bundle on Rosetta Stone so that I could at least learn the fundamentals of a new language. I’ll be living in a completely different culture if things go according to plan and I really want to be able to communicate with the natives of that country.

El+Nerdo
El+Nerdo
9 years ago
Reply to  Quest

It’s good to have the fundamentals. You’ll learn a lot quicker if you have them. For the practice part, you’ll just need beer money.

imelda
imelda
9 years ago
Reply to  Quest

I believe livemocha.com is the same thing as Rosetta Stone, except free. Fyi.

Kevin
Kevin
9 years ago

You’ve got an HTML layout issue with this article. You’ve got a centering DIV tag right before the photo of the 3 people laughing over drinks, but the corresponding closing tag is malformed. The closing tag should be </div>, but instead it’s </div/>. The extra ‘/’ is causing the closing tag to be ignored, so the centering formatting persists for the remainder of the article, causing all following text to be centered instead of left (or fully) justified.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

Crap. Thanks, Kevin. I wish I’d spotted this before I left to the gym this morning. Instead, I didn’t get it fixed til noon Eastern. How embarrassing. 🙁

Mike Moyer
Mike Moyer
9 years ago

Benny, you’re everywhere man! I guess great information has no genre. Thanks for the post.

SF_UK
SF_UK
9 years ago

One thing I always do before going abroad is to learn a bare minimum of phrases – please, thankyou, numbers from 1-10, plus “do you speak english?” and “I have [insert medical condition here]” for emergencies. It’s amazing how much you can achieve with just these, from ordering food in a restaurant (“one please” + pointing at the menu) to buying cinema tickets (“7 please Romeo and Juliet” – a memorably successful ploy at a Finnish cinema where the only English-speaking teller was on her break) As I go along, I learn more words by listening, pointing, reading menus, looking… Read more »

Rory Rohde
Rory Rohde
9 years ago

Two other fun ways to help with a foreign language which you can also multi-task are movies and GPS. There are high-quality movies in every foreign language, especially Spanish and French. If you prefer Hollywood DVDs, almost all have subtitles. If you are watching a favorite movie for the nth time you probably have a lot of the dialogue memorized and you can try watching a dubbed version (or try it on your child when he wants to watch ‘The Incredibles’ for the 23rd time). All GPSs have many language selections. While the vocabulary is limited, you can learn a… Read more »

Joe+G
Joe+G
9 years ago
Reply to  Rory Rohde

I find it’s better to get an English language film and use the foreign language subtitles. Otherwise, you can confuse sounds…it’s better to see them written out without having to think about what’s being said. Once you advance, then watch a foreign language film with the foreign language subtitles turned on. You can match sounds with words more easily. When I was in the Netherlands for a couple of months, I learned more Dutch by simply watching a US TV show with Dutch subtitles than by doing much listening to spoken Dutch…plus it help my attention more than just hearing… Read more »

KS
KS
9 years ago

A fun post and dear to my heart. Benny mentioned the library for “book based” resources, but my public library in the U.S. had numerous tape/CD-based resources as well. My public library in Ireland now has free online resources too. A few years ago, I was going to Japan for work and used podcasts on my MP3 player to learn some phrases. There are TONS of online resources out there for many, many languages. I just did a quick search on “language resources” on ITunes as an example and came up with a list of free resources for French, Portuguese,… Read more »

Leah
Leah
9 years ago
Reply to  KS

I used the Pimsleur method to teach myself basic Dutch before I studied abroad. I got the tapes from the library, and it was awesome. I always recommend the library to folks wanting to learn a language. Now, I work with a little girl who can’t speak, and I’ve been working on learning signs from websites to help us communicate with each other

Priswell
Priswell
8 years ago
Reply to  Leah

We are using Pimsleur, too, but I’m really excited about Anki. I just installed it on our computers. I have a huge deck of (hardcopy) Sparknotes Study Cards I can load into Anki for vocabulary.

H
H
9 years ago

Spot-on post! I have been “learning Spanish” for years now and I feel like I’ll never truly be fluent. But it’s fear that holds me back from attempting to talk to others in Spanish. 🙁

However…after I’ve had a few drinks, I become bold and suddenly I’m fluent in Spanish and will chatter non-stop to anyone who will listen. :p

Cat
Cat
9 years ago
Reply to  H

I feel the same! I’ve been learning Spanish for so long and really just learning words that I am not quite sure how to use! I practice sometimes but I tend to use the same phrases over and over and I do feel like I run out of things to talk about. Lately I’ve been listening to Spanish music. Then once I memorize the melody I look up the words to go with it and start singing along. Then I try and translate it with Google and see if any of the words make a connection for me. There are… Read more »

imelda
imelda
9 years ago
Reply to  H

Drinking is an almost foolproof way of immediately improving your fluency!

(although possibly the improvement is just in your mind)

Mel Lifshitz
Mel Lifshitz
9 years ago

I’m currently learning basic Japanese. When reading texts, I prefer to read the romanticized version because I can easily remember how it sounds.

Simone
Simone
9 years ago

We had a wonderful afternoon when we tried to speak Greek to an older man who was sitting just in front of his little shop. It was our 3rd day on Rhodes and our Greek was not much more than “hello”and “thank you”. He did’nt speak any English so we tried to communicate with the help of our small language guide. We used the phonetic spelling to say something we would thought of as something similar to Greek. He didn’t understand. Then we showed him the sentence in the guide. He found our personal version of Greek so funny that… Read more »

SuzyB
SuzyB
9 years ago

Follow this guy! Benny is real and genuine. I stepped away from his website for a while …probably that fear of being expected to speak thing… 🙂
I am headed back there now with resolve, but mostly renewed excitement. He really is genuine.

Laura+in+Cancun
Laura+in+Cancun
9 years ago

Great post! I took 7 years of Spanish in middle and high school and thought I spoke fluently. I didn’t REALLY learn the language until I moved to Mexico and started speaking Spanish 24/7.

Best way to practice is by chatting with native speakers, hands down.

Tracey+H
Tracey+H
9 years ago

I wish I’d read this decades ago. I learned French all through high school, but I was extremely shy about using it so I didn’t when we travelled (unless the other person’s English failed and then I’d pop in a French word). About 8 years ago, we travelled to a French country and I started using some French (but was still too worried about not speaking it perfectly). We returned to that country 4 years ago and then travelled to Quebec (Canada) and Paris, France and I’ve simply launched in and spoken French, trying to not be embarrassed when I… Read more »

Joe+G
Joe+G
9 years ago

As easy as it is to tell people “to just go out and find people to talk to” … it’s not always that simple. I have trouble starting up English conversations sometimes, so it’s not easy to chat someone up when you have a limited vocabulary.

And I have been laughed at by a foreigner for mis-hearing a phrase that I thought I understood. While these strangers weren’t trying to be mean, I was quite embarrassed by their insensitivity.

Leah
Leah
9 years ago

Great tips! I learned Spanish as a little girl, and my mom gave me some sort of word association computer game to help me. I will never forget that cabra means goat because I envision a cobra striking a goat 🙂 Figure out what works for you (visual cues, rhyming, etc) and use that to learn vocab.

KevinMzansi
KevinMzansi
9 years ago

Great tips, Benny! When I lived in the US, my local library also had stacks and stacks of language courses, from which I learnt the basics and then went to do immersion language courses in Peru, Argentina and Brazil. The best progress is definitely made when you are interacting. I think I received the most practice from chatting to taxi drivers in Lima! The best teachers in the language schools were always the ones that made you want to speak and by extension, the most social students made progress the quickest. Your grammar and reaching for vocabulary may be horrible… Read more »

Perry
Perry
9 years ago

For those in Paris, the famous English bookstore Shakespeare and Company has events specifically designed to help French/Anglo speakers. A group composed of both French native speakers wanting to improve their English and English native speakers wanting to improve their French meets weekly. I just dropped in and attended, but I think it is better to make arrangements ahead of time. During the two hour meeting, they read an article in English and comment on it in English for an hour. Then they read another article in French and comment on it for an hours in French. Since everyone was… Read more »

AddDoc
AddDoc
9 years ago

Howdy! (how do you spell Howdy! with a Spanish accent?) Maybe having my equal but opposite perspective may help. My original language was Spanish, I grew up in Puerto Rico, and English was a required subject starting in Kindergarten, but of course it was taught as a foreign language. Thus, when I came to the states at age 25, I could read and write it very well, I could understand some…and spoke it horribly. I learned to identify “the look”, when people had a hard time understanding what I was saying and I learned to slow down. It’s gotten better… Read more »

Priswell
Priswell
8 years ago
Reply to  AddDoc

When you start dreaming in a language that you’re really starting to get it.

Jane
Jane
9 years ago

I completely agree that fear is a great hindrance to learning a foreign language. I’ve studied many languages over the years, and I definitely found my perfectionism got in the way of freely speaking the language. This is a very big hurdle to jump over. Having said that, I don’t think you can ever be “fluent in 3 months” like his blog purports. Hopefully that is just a catch phrase and he doesn’t really think you can learn a language that quickly. I studied German at my university for four years, including one year living in Germany and taking classes,… Read more »

Caroline
Caroline
9 years ago
Reply to  Jane

I think that what happen is that the better you become, the more you see that you still have a lot to learn!

I think that maybe this is why you wouldn’t describe yourself as fluent but some people would after few months.

Sophie
Sophie
9 years ago

Many libraries also have online software you can use to learn as well– Mango Languages and Byki Online both have nice websites and apps you can use to learn tons of different languages. This in addition to the print material and courses on audio! Many also have conversation groups where you can try out your language skills in a low-key setting, and maybe even find someone with whom to practice.

lisa
lisa
9 years ago
Reply to  Sophie

Hi! Most all USA libraries have an online Language learning courses. They now have Mango & used to have Rosetta Stone. Ask you local libray about online resouces.

infogumshoe
infogumshoe
9 years ago

Also check with your public library for online language training available anytime from anywhere.

My local library (in Alberta, Canada) offers “Mango” which has training in 36 different languages including: Arabic (Levantine), Czech, Danish, Farsi (Persian), French, French (Canadian), Hindi, Irish, Spanish (Latin America), Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

They use to offer another online product called “Tell Me More” (AKA “Auralog”).

The public library also probably has MP3, CD or DVD sets for language learning.

librarygirl
librarygirl
9 years ago
Reply to  infogumshoe

The libraries in Suffolk County, New York also subscribe to Mango. I have yet to meet the person who didn’t immediately fall in love with it.

AngelB
AngelB
9 years ago

I’m learning French right now and something that has been very helpful to me is to check out children’s DVDs from the library. Most have audio tracks in English, French, and Spanish. Since they are geared toward the young set, the language is usually pretty clear and the same phrases are repeated frequently so you can start to pick up on them. Plus, there are usually lots of visual clues to help you decode what’s being said.

True the story lines in Bob the Builder aren’t especially gripping, but I learned all sorts of everyday phrases that way.

Jane
Jane
9 years ago
Reply to  AngelB

My students(international schools) used to learn English through Sesame Street. When we moved to China I put my children in front of the local Chinese children’s show. By the time we left (18 months) they could converse in two dialects and Tagalog. When we moved to the middle east- they did the same. They picked up Arabic and got better in Tagalog. I was too lazy and let them do all the talking for me. The thing about learning a language before 14… the rule of thumb is IF a person learns a new language from a native speaker before… Read more »

Suba
Suba
9 years ago

My library has online language courses (Mango language s/w) available for everyone. This is in addition to the print and media that you can check out. Our library also has conversation groups for practicing.

Also the “FSI language courses” (google that for the link) has a lot of public domain courses.

nolandda
nolandda
9 years ago

This truly was an excellent guest post.

20 and Engaged
20 and Engaged
9 years ago

I want to learn several languages. I learned sign language in high school and really immersed myself into learning it (finding deaf people to speak to, signing while speaking English, etc). I’m going to definitely give these tips a try.

Aaron
Aaron
9 years ago

Another great post from Benny. I am excited that more and more people are being opened up to the idea of learning another language. Thanks for your great work in this area and thanks J.D. allowing Benny this platform.

Aaron

Caroline
Caroline
9 years ago

Watching tv, especially with subtitle, is a great cheap way to learn another language. Reading a blog too!

The challenge is to find something interesting that you can easily understand.

Also you still need to have a lot of motivation because it is not always easy… I spend a lot of time helping chinese student to learn French and even if they are working very hard (and I am doing my best too!) It does take time and effort.

Shelly
Shelly
9 years ago

Our preschooler did a year of German immersion classes last year and now speaks with a perfect accent (as judged by German grandparents) and understands/speaks German at her age-appropriate level. So for kids, two thumbs up for this method, though it’s pricey. As an added bonus, I’ve been reading German kids books to her for two years and my understand of German and vocabulary has expanded at a much more natural level than when I took the two years of college classes about 25 years ago. They’re MUCH more enjoyable than the reading material your given in classes. I’ve found… Read more »

Shelly
Shelly
9 years ago
Reply to  Shelly

Also, YouTube has many videos. The German preschool recommended this method, and my daughter spent many hours watching My Little Pony online in German this summer.

Cortney
Cortney
9 years ago

I heartily agree that the fear issue holds many people back. I have been on both sides of this. As an ESL teacher in Japan, it was so incredibly painful that my students so carefully measured every single little word, out of fear of making a mistake. They knew a lot of English- I mean, really, a lot- but they were so insecure about it that I had to virtually trick them into distractions so that they would speak more confidently- playing games that got them laughing and talking, for example, or joking about pop stars, etc. (these were conversation… Read more »

imelda
imelda
9 years ago
Reply to  Cortney

Man, tell me about it. I’m an ALT here, and it’s a common joke that you can have a perfectly comprehensible English conversation with a Japanese person – on paper. But when it comes to actually SPEAKING, my students are incredibly shy. I’m friends with an older woman here who has never had more than high school level English – but she USES it. For most of my first year in Japan, we spoke mainly in English. I think she’s at a point in her life where she doesn’t care about being shy or perfect, and it makes such a… Read more »

imelda
imelda
9 years ago

Knockout post. I think he is absolutely on the money here, with everything. Once you learn the basics of a language – even notoriously difficult ones like Japanese, which I’m learning now – just run with it! I wish I did more of it myself. I live in Japan and rarely speak the language. And I wonder why my skills are so bad after 1 year? My listening abilities are off the chart, of course, because I hear it everywhere – but speaking-wise, no matter how many classes I take or textbooks I work through, I won’t get better until… Read more »

saro
saro
9 years ago

I speak Dari (Persian) because I grew up speaking it but now I want to ‘up my game’ and learn how to read at a higher level than 2nd grade and add to my vocabulary. Any tips?

Melecio
Melecio
9 years ago

Good post. I’m a Spaniard trying to improve my english. In the last years I’ve improved a lot my reading and understanding abilities just with free or inexpensive resources: watching movies or tv series with english sound and english subtitles, reading articles on the internet and reading books in English (I’ve found it’s very cheap to buy second hand books, including the shipping costs from England to Spain) I’m not fluent speaking, though. I haven’t had much chances to practice spoken english and as the article says, for me is very common to be affraid of not speaking properly. I’m… Read more »

lady brett
lady brett
9 years ago

on the subject of fear – me and my brother spent about 4 days in mexico some time ago. at the time, i knew enough spanish to confidently communicate if i didn’t mind looking like a fool. my bro didn’t say more than 2 or 3 words…until one night, when we had been out drinking. he was really, really drunk, and started speaking fluently mediocre spanish out of the blue for the rest of the evening. i think he forgot that he had forgotten all of his spanish. also, one of the most helpful phrases i know is “once more,… Read more »

lady brett
lady brett
9 years ago

oh! also, if you are nervous, and you have the chance, converse with children! they are likely much closer to your fluency, and tend to be very understanding and accepting of quirks and mistakes =)

imelda
imelda
9 years ago
Reply to  lady brett

That’s interesting – I’ve found it’s almost impossible to converse with children in a language I’m unfamiliar with. They don’t enunciate, they don’t speak slowly, and they often get grammar wrong in ways that can throw off a learner.

Ru
Ru
9 years ago

I go to a university with a lot of students from outside of the UK. When I was younger I learnt French at school, and after making friends with a girl from Paris and a Swiss-French speaker, I was hoping we could hang out, maybe chat a little in French and I could get some feedback and get back into learning the language. Well, they both just laugh at me whenever I attempt to speak it, even if I’m saying something correctly. It’s mean, and I’m supposed to take it in good humour, but if I say a word in… Read more »

Benny Lewis
Benny Lewis
9 years ago
Reply to  Ru

1. I had the same problem with Parisians myself: http://www.fluentin3months.com/closed-minded/ They are terribly unhelpful to learners – hang out with Quebecers, Belgians, French from other cities, Africans etc. instead and you’ll have access to very helpful French speakers.
2. I had to go to speech therapy when I was growing up, as explained here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/destiny/
Fear is rooted in excuses. Let go of them and the fear will dissipate. Over half of the planet speaks more than one language, there is no valid excuse.

Katie
Katie
9 years ago
Reply to  Benny Lewis

How unfair! I’m a French teacher in the US, but lived and worked in France for a few years. There are plenty of lovely French people (yes, including Parisians). I’ve witnessed many Americans who laugh at non-native speakers’ efforts. The French are generally quick to correct, but this is a part of the culture and is not considered rude, but rather a way to facilitate conversation. Those girls are just immature, and it has nothing to do with their being “Parisian” (one is Swiss, remember). Their reactions are probably from a place of fear- they don’t know exactly what to… Read more »

Nick
Nick
9 years ago
Reply to  Katie

I agree with you there. Parisians have a bad rap but almost all of them that I have met are genuinely nice. I wish I had the problem of people correcting me all the time. In Holland while speaking Dutch a lot of times people with just switch to English (almost everyone here speaks it) like you never even spoke in Dutch to them in the first place. That I consider to be very rude, this doesn’t happen to me much any more but for a lot of beginners it certainly does. My advice, just stick with the language and… Read more »

Ru
Ru
9 years ago
Reply to  Benny Lewis

Thanks for your input, I read your links and they’re great! Also read through another few pages, including the crybaby one, and bookmarked your site. What is it with Irish guys wanting to learn Spanish so bad? I am friends with a wonderful man from Dublin who walked across a huge chunk of Spain. I think one of my problems is focus; I look at a country and go “oh Cuba, I should learn Spanish and go there for jazz and rum cocktails!” or say “I should learn Polish, it would give me an edge in the jobs market” or… Read more »

Leo
Leo
9 years ago
Reply to  Ru

To #69 Ru – Don’t give up. I’m Portuguese and started to learn German at 18, stopped and restarted at 26 again. The German accent is very difficult to pronounce for a Portuguese because the sounds are very different. Although I don’t have any speaking disability, there were words that took me lots ans lots of practice to pronounce, I had to repeat and repeat and repeat. (Also, I can’t memorize the sound If I can’t write the word.) I got my best reward when, in a more advanced stage, I could read books aloud and, even without understanding what… Read more »

Priswell
Priswell
8 years ago
Reply to  Ru

I have a speech impediment, too. I had speech therapy when I was a kid, so most people don’t hear it, but in Spanish, I have to “speech therapy” myself all over again.

Christian
Christian
9 years ago

If anyone’s interested in learning Vietnamese, check our our web site, http://www.everydayviet.com – We offer free short videos (also accessible on YouTube) about every day phrases in Vietnamese.

Bethann
Bethann
9 years ago

I very much enjoyed this article and it’s pushed me to go ahead and start seriously learning Spanish. I suggested it to my 8-year-old daugther and she said “Yeah, we can learn together!”. I asked my 3-year-old if he wanted to speak Spanish and he said “Hola Boots!”. So, I guess we’re going to try to figure out something easy and simple to get started with. They already know colors and counting to 10, along with a few simple phrase like What’s your name, hi, bye, very good, very little. My daughter has actually picked up a little due to… Read more »

Kathy
Kathy
9 years ago

I found when I wanted to learn spanish some fantastic free podcasts that I downloaded and then listened in my car trip to work which taught me a great deal. Coffee Break Spanish was the podcast and I think they also do a variety of other languages. I was also able to subscribe to SpanishDict.com to send a word a day which is terrific as well. Just thought I’d throw in these few free things I found great. Kathy

Sarah @ Move Me Abroad
Sarah @ Move Me Abroad
9 years ago

Learning a new language is possible for anyone and just requires some confidence and perseverance. LiveMocha is a great free resource online and you can chat to native speakers if you wish. Spending time with someone who speaks your target language is definitely the easiest way, as I found out when living in Portugal.

Sid
Sid
9 years ago

Also check out FSI: http://fsi-language-courses.org/Content.php

Free courses used by the State Department in educating and training its personnel.

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