It’s a classic travel fantasy: flying to another country to learn a language through a combination of classes and swanning around, ordering meals at sidewalk cafes, shopping at street markets, slipping into darkened theatres. Yet with much of the world under stay-at-home orders, that dream may seem more distant than ever.
But it’s not entirely. After all, it’s never been easier or more affordable to get help learning a language. And while you may be doing so from your living room, you can still dive in and meet native speakers. Even better, many first-rate language tools are free, or at the very least won’t break the bank. Here are some to get you started, wherever you are.
Apps and podcasts
When it comes to choosing a language app, your perseverance may be more important than the app itself. Here are a few that may inspire you to stick with it.
This app offers straightforward lessons in more than a dozen languages, including Indonesian, Portuguese and Turkish. A beginner level French course, for example, introduces vocabulary words and then jumps into exercises: multiple choice questions, using words in sentences, spelling and speaking aloud. The first few challenges are free, but to go beyond those you must subscribe. Prices range from approximately $13 for one month to $84 every 12 months (but keep your eyes open for sales; a recent one had 50 percent off certain subscriptions).
Lively podcasts from Radio Lingua Network offer free lessons in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Chinese and English. Each new episode builds upon what you’ve already learned. If you end up liking the podcasts, you may want to sign up for Coffee Break Academy’s online courses, some of which will take you by video to the streets of Spain and Italy. Prices vary.
This popular app is an easy and free way to get started learning a language — there are more than 30 available, including Irish, Norwegian, Hindi, Czech, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Greek, Romanian and Swahili. Bite-size lessons that feel like games encourage users to keep going with fill-in-the-blank, speaking and matching exercises. Algorithms determine when it’s time to practice certain words, and you can receive weekly progress reports.
Charming (and memorable) video clips of people speaking everyday words and phrases make the lessons on this app feel fun and transportive (especially when a video is shot on a sunny day in Spain), as do breezy multiple choice and writing quizzes. Available for French, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Russian and more. A new “Immerse” tab in the app allows you to soak up the language through streams of video featuring native speakers. You can learn plenty for free, but a subscription to the “pro” version is required to access all features and courses. Prices from about $9 a month to $120 for life (the annual fee is usually around $80 but a recent offer brought that down to about $40).
For a lesson on turning YouTube into your virtual classroom, check out “How to Use YouTube to Learn a New Language.” The Rome-based polyglot and language instructor Luca Lampariello walks viewers through his own learning process using short foreign language videos, subtitles, repeated viewing and note taking.
Among Mr. Lampariello’s recommendations is the Easy Languages YouTube channel, which produces short videos recorded in the streets of countries around the world, along with subtitles in the native language and in English. Easy French, Easy German, Easy Greek and Easy Italian are among the offerings. More tips can be found on Mr. Lampariello’s YouTube channel and on his website.
For longer videos with subtitles, there’s the “Great TED Talks for language practice” playlist where, for instance, you can watch the Peruvian-born chef Gastón Acurio, creator of dozens of restaurants around the world, including Astrid & Gastón in Lima, speaking in Spanish about home cooking. To explore more talks in different languages, choose the “Languages” drop-down menu.
E-books, newspapers, magazines
When learning to read in another language, magazines with photos can be particularly helpful.
One way to scan what’s out there is through a digital newsstand like PressReader, which has publications in many languages: Chinese, Danish, French, German, Indonesian, Korean, Russian, Swedish and Turkish, to name but a few. Select “Languages” from the navigation menu and tap on your language of choice to see what’s available, be it El País, Cosmopolitan Italia or Vogue Paris. It’s free to browse and read certain articles, and there are hot spots that allow complimentary access to full issues of publications (for instance, when you’re actually travelling again, you may find hot spots with free access in some hotels and airport lounges). But, in general, you’ll need to sign up for a plan (rates vary by market), be it pay-as-you-go or a subscription.
Advanced enough to read entire books in another language? You can find free e-books in Portuguese, German, Dutch, French and other languages on Project Gutenberg.
All you need is paper and something to write with to make your own vocabulary flashcards. And you can get creative using them, too. In a TED blog post about language learning, Olga Dmitrochenkova, a translator, suggested labelling objects in your house in the language you’re trying to learn. What better time to give it a whirl than now? No one’s coming over to discover that you’ve taped an index card to your couch that says “divano.”
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