Anyone can learn a language without enrolling in an expensive course or traveling to another country. I’ve taken many language classes throughout my schooling- Spanish and German to intermediate levels and Russian and Italian to beginner levels. I’ve even taken a class to learn how to teach English as a foreign language. And though I’ve only ever been fluent in English, I wanted to write this post because I’ve recently rekindled my interest in German and have been teaching myself at home for free. I would like to one day be fluent, so I’m using a method that is efficient and effective for me, and am therefore learning much more quickly than I ever did at school. (Though I did love my college German classes).
Here are the free tools and methods I’m using and what I think of them.
This is a free language learning app that is like a mini Rosetta Stone. It looks nice and with minimal effort you’ll be able to grasp some beginner words and concepts pretty easily. You’ll go through levels and earn points like you would in a video game, and you’ll be able to unlock a few extra lessons as rewards.
The major downside to Duolingo is its inefficiency. You’ll be spending more time typing out English translations and trying to remember how to spell words in the target language then you will actually learning new things. Since its an app that is based on the concept of testing, you will be kept at a very slow pace so that you can prove to the program that you know the correct answer. You can test out of a lesson to move on (you’re not allowed to skip ahead this made the app basically useless to me as an intermediate level speaker as I wasn’t allowed to get to the new vocabulary without spending hours and hours and hours testing out of beginner lessons) but testing out, if you actually know the material, takes just about as long as completing the lesson in the first place. So while you’ll be able to learn some of the basics with Duolingo, you’ll be spending a lot more time doing so than you would with other methods. A LOT more time.
The value in Duolingo and the reason I like it enough to put it on this list is its ability to get people excited about language learning. It makes it so simple to see and feel that you’re making progress and is such a nice looking program. If you do nothing else or you’re hesitant about your own abilities or the time you’ll be able to commit, then just play around with this app every now and then. It may give you the confidence to try something more effective later on.
If Duolingo is something you’re interested in I recommend reading through a free introductory lesson to your chosen language online beforehand and learning both pronunciation and a few basic words, like I/she/he/it/we/they/us, to be, and a few standard phrases. Unlike Rosetta Stone, Duolingo starts quickly and it can be hard for someone who’s never seen the language to get through the first few lessons.
Once you’ve got the basics down and you can understand sentence structure and pronunciation, use the free flashcard app Anki (you can also download it for your computer) to build your vocabulary quickly. This is one of the single most efficient ways to learn new words- you can learn and remember hundreds in a week with only fifteen minutes per day.
The app, although horrendously complicated to use if you go outside the pre-programmed settings, is the most powerful and perhaps the most popular flashcard app that exists. Its based on the concept of spaced repetition, so that when you are shown a flashcard, you are able to select your level of understanding of the card via a choice of two to four difficulty levels on the bottom of the screen. If you mark it as easy, the card will show up less often in the future. If you mark it difficult, it will repeat more often until you remember it and then you’ll be able to mark it as easy later on. Spaced repetition ensures that the next time you see a flashcard you marked as easy, if you sill find it easy, it will be even longer until you see it the next time and you can devote your time to more difficult flashcards.
Another wonderful thing about Anki is that, in addition to making your own flashcards, you can choose to download one of the many decks that other people have uploaded to share. I found a great intermediate level German deck this way, so I was able to get started learning right away without having to spend any time picking and translating my own words.
Still, memorizing alone wont help you learn how sentences are put together and wont let you understand the correct usage of words, which brings us to our next point.
Reading novels/ The Little Prince
Supplement your studies with lots of reading. I chose to begin with Der Kleine Prinz (The Little Prince), which is a 94-page book written for adults but reads like a childrens book. It is extremely popular and therefore has been translated from French, its original language, into almost any language you could want to learn. And while buying a copy isn’t necessarily free, it is very cheap for such a great learning tool- you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for just a few dollars.
For any novel-reading endeavor, it will help your understanding if you have read the book at some point in English. Harry Potter is another excellent choice and is also widely used by language learners as it too has been translated into many languages. If you choose a novel you haven’t read in English or your native language first, it will help if you read a synopsis in advance so you have some idea of where the story is headed.
This is where our learning methods will first intersect. First I read a page and try to understand as much as I can. Then I go back and begin picking out new vocabulary word by word and translating it online. For each new word, I make a flashcard with Anki. Next Ill use Anki to memorize the new vocabulary. Finally, I go back and re-read the chapters I’ve studied for and I am able to understand a great deal more than the first time around. I also get the opportunity to see the new words in context, which is a very important part of committing them to memory and understanding their usage. I also pretty much blatantly refuse to memorize gendered articles (der/die/das) with my nouns because I hate them, so I while I don’t use articles in Anki, I get to see the correct articles immediately when I read, which gives me a gut feeling about them. I prefer this to memorizing. For these reasons, my own Der Kleine Prinz flash cards are much more effective for me than the intermediate German flashcards I downloaded the first time I used Anki, because I get to use the words I learn right away.(FYI, I’m uploading these flashcards to Anki as I make them so that anyone can use them. Just search Anki shared decks for Der Kleine Prinz.)
In case reading and translating and re-reading and re-reading and re-reading wasn’t enough, I’m also listening to the audiobook version of Der Kleine Prinz (which I found for free on Youtube). Listening comprehension is a separate skill from reading comprehension, and for me its the harder of the two. I find it more difficult to keep up with the pace of a native speaker then to go through the book sentence by sentence and take my time to make sure I understand everything. But it is necessary for learning pronunciation and inflection, as well as comprehension.
Listening is not a passive activity by any means. Far from the urban legend that you can play tapes while you sleep to absorb new information, you’ll need to actively try to recognize words and phrases and it will take a lot of mental energy. Your brain will feel tired at the end.
Audiobooks have the added benefit of being multi-tasking sort of things, so while they do require that you pay close attention in order to get any benefit out of them, you can listen to them while driving, cleaning, cooking, or anything that ties up your hands but doesn’t take up much mental energy. On the same note, podcasts are another excellent language learning tool and there are many available. Unfortunately for me I’ve never understood how to use them or how to find good ones (though I’m not really interested in trying), so Ill leave that to you if you’re interested.
Another thing I like to do when I’m feeling too tired to read, translate, or listen to something that is difficult to keep up with, is watch kids programs. Sesame Street (Sesamstraße) in particular. The language is at a beginner-intermediate level so I am able to understand what is going on in each skit. That means that I don’t have to devote so much mental energy to understanding the plot and I can focus on learning new words and sentence structure. Since it is an educational kids show, they speak slowly and clearly and repeat important words throughout each skit.
Another great thing about Sesame Street and other kids programs (I also watch the Magic School Bus/Der Zauberschulbus) is that the actions going on in each clip are very closely related to what is being said. Blockbuster movies will have tons of dialogue in nondescript scenes: two people can be talking in a plain, generic room for minutes at a time and if you don’t understand what they are talking about, you’re fresh out of luck. With childrens shows, there will be props and gestures used constantly to reinforce what is going on and make everything clear and easy to understand.
Do a google search to find out what the best childrens shows are for new language learner in your target language, or see if your favorite English or native language show has been translated into your target language, which will help because you’ll already know whats going on.
The next step would be finding someone to help you practice your speaking. To avoid the costs of a tutor, you can do what many others do and find a native speaker of your target language who is looking to practice your native language, and spend time speaking to one another. If you cant find anyone or don’t know where to look, http://www.reddit.com/r/LanguageLearning is a good place to post a question so that someone can point you in the right direction, though you’ll need an account (free).
For more reading on this subject, try the following:
Here is an interesting article about measuring the time it takes to become fluent in hours rather than years.
I also really enjoyed what Zane Claes did here he tracked and graphed his progress in learning French through reading novels, taking into account the time it took him to finish each chapter and the words he looked up on each page. The results are really interesting.
Finally, though this post is pretty simple, it is motivational because the author shows massive improvement in a short time through reading the Harry Potter novels.