13 Free Tools to Help You Learn a New Language — Without Going to Class
I’m envious of those who are bilingual or trilingual -- heck, even quadrilingual.
Learning a second language has just never been my thing. I think I was scarred by the puppets my kindergarten teacher broke out in an effort to teach us basic Spanish vocab.
Or maybe it’s due to the fact that I solely passed my required foreign language classes in college because I sucked up to the professor. (Yeah, and I’m not ashamed either.)
But now that learning a language isn’t mandatory, it’s appealing to me. So I’m taking on Italian, so I can at least order another glass of wine when I travel there next year.
The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language
In addition to the more obvious reasons (travel and attractive mates with great accents), learning a foreign language can pay off.
And if you know German, you could earn 3.8% more (versus that 2% average).
Freelancer recently ranked the top 10 fastest-growing online job sectors of 2016’s third quarter, and jobs that require German language skills made the cut.
Part of the reason? Brexit. Apparently Berlin Senator for Economics, Technology and Research Cornelia Yzer warned British companies about the aftershock of leaving the European Union.
“[Berlin] is very much now the focus of many European businesses, cementing the recent confidence in Berlin and Germany as a European hub of innovation,” Freelancer concludes.
13 Resources to Help You Learn a New Language for Free
Perhaps the best news out of all of this is you don’t have to schmooze your college professor (and pay loads in tuition). Instead, you can use these free resources to tackle your desired foreign language.
We found 13 ways to learn a language for free -- and boost your earning power.
Bussuu claims to be a globally-leading, language-learning app with more than 60 million users learning 12 languages through interactive exercises.
You can access free flashcards and writing exercises.
However, if you’re willing to splurge, it offers a premium membership starting at $5.41/month. You’ll get all of the above, plus access to quizzes and official certificates, travel courses, mobile apps, grammar exercises and a vocabulary trainer.
It boasts that 22.5 hours with the premium version equates to a semester of college classes -- which sounds a lot less painful than going to an actual class.
With more than 800 ratings on the iTunes store, the app has a 4.5-star review.
With a motto like “Learn a language for free. Forever,” Duolingo (also available in app form) captures my heart. In fact, several of my co-workers recommended this app.
You can learn on your own or with friends. Either way, the learning part is gamified.
That little fire emoji at the top keeps you motivated by showing you how many days in a row you’ve spent learning your language of choice. And the hearts symbolize your lesson lives; when you’re out, you have to start over.
Each lesson provides you with speaking, listening and translating challenges. You’re graded instantly -- and given feedback for improvement.
It’s your game, so jump into one of the 21 languages.
Italki stands out from the others in that it connects you with native speakers. So rather than talking to yourself, you can talk with a real person.
You can also opt to pay for a tutor. Or you can utilize the free chat service where you’ll still be able to connect with native speakers.
To do this, just sign up (I used Facebook), then select your languages, time zone and preferences. Make sure to click “No,” not interested in finding a paid teacher or tutor. Select community in the top toolbar, and navigate to discussions. Here, you can practice and/or ask for advice.
4. iTunes U
The idea of iTunes U is to “bring your classroom together on iPad” and professors use the online platform to deliver lessons to students.
However, you can have access to these lessons, too -- for free -- if you have an iPhone or iPad.
Download the app (if it didn’t already come standard on your device). Search the language you’re interested in learning, and up pops free podcasts, videos and educational materials.
You might even have access to homework assignments, which allows you to closely follow the courses -- but at your own pace and without a looming grade on your transcript.
When you get tired of reciting words to a screen, check out Meetup.
Search by your location and interest to find a group of people in your community with similar interests. In this case, you’ll want to search by “Language & Culture.”
“When we get together and do the things that matter to us, we’re at our best,” the website states.
In my area, I find “The Saint Petersburg Italian Language Meetup” with 77 Italian speakers. Perhaps it’s bold, but once I nail down some basics, it could be fun to check out!
Memrise -- also available in app form -- boasts at least 200 languages and over 300,000 courses.
Each course has a fun garden theme. When you start out, you’ll see an empty pot with a seed. As your language skills grow, so will the little flower.
Because I’m set on learning Italian, I select a “Learn Basic Italian” course. I’m presented two words: “hello” (caio) and “I would like” (vorrei). A man says them aloud. I click through, and, after those two words, I’m quizzed.
If I’m struggling to nail one down, I can click “Help Me Remember.” I’m given a variety of ways to remember it, submitted by users. I like this one, which reviews the basic words I’ve learned so far:
that coffee (del caffè)
please do my favor! (per favore)
Eventually, I’m asked to type the words out -- so I know I can’t do this too mindlessly.
I enjoy the instant feedback of the lesson and the game-like nature of it all. A little vine grows each time I get something correct. I’m hooked.
6. My Languages
No matter how obscure the language might be, you can probably find it on My Languages. The website hosts 95 languages, including Armenian, Icelandic, Mandarin and Yiddish.
Each language is broken down by lessons, which vary, but some examples include adjectives, alphabet, colors, food (very important), numbers, phrases, time and weather.
Inside each lesson, you’ll find various words. For example, I click on Cantonese “body” and find various body parts: head, hair, ear and others. The English word appears above an icon, then I see the Cantonese word. I can click the icon and hear a voice repeat the word to me.
There’s also a radio option that allows you to listen to a live Cantonese broadcast.
7. Open Culture
This website is a little different than the ones above because it aggregates a whole bunch of free resources for you to check out.
Open Culture is host to resources for 48 languages and contains a goldmine of information. For example, one of the resources under Japanese linked to a free video series on iTunes U where a college professor teaches you how to draw more than 150 kanji characters.
The site is less structured than the others, so perhaps this is a fun resource to browse once you feel as though you’re getting the hang of a language.
Listening to a language is a huge part to conquering it. For example, I could easily mispronounce ciao. Then what happens when I get to Italy? I sound like an idiot.
“Podcasts are one of the first places I turn when I’m starting in a new language,” writes Benny Lewis on his website, Fluent in 3 Months. “Podcasts give the opportunity to listen to your new language being spoken. As you listen, you’ll learn correct pronunciation.”
Lewis is known for his ability to become conversationally fluent in three months. He recommends these free language-learning podcasts.
The Guardian also put together a list of 10 podcasts it recommends.
Lately, I’ve been listening to Coffee Break Italian from Radio Lingua Network, which features various languages.
9. Public libraries
I can’t guarantee your public library will have the resources you’re looking for. And you’re going to have to leave your house. But as a former English major, I feel obligated to give public libraries a nod.
You might be able to find language books, audio CDs and DVDs. If your library doesn’t have what you’re looking for, ask your librarian to search your district's catalog. You should be able to take out an interlibrary loan.
Also ask about free access to online platforms such as Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur.
This is real adventurous. TalkTalkBnb is similar in concept to Airbnb. Except it’s free -- and language focused.
You can choose to travel or host, but either way, the idea is to meet -- and talk with -- locals.
“We’re hoping to create a large international language-learning community, based on practice and sharing. Our ambition is to connect thousands of people from all countries, for cultural exchanges and travel,” the company’s site states.
The relatively new community covers more than 100 countries and 80 languages.
11. Word Reference
Word Reference is a solid online translation dictionary. It’s similar to Google Translate, but you might find it more reliable.
You can search simple words. For example, I translate “run” from English to Italian and find the correct word, plus various tenses -- as well as how it’s used in a sentence.
This site won’t necessarily teach you the language, but it’s a good reference if you just want to look up a word.
12. The Yojik Website
Although The Yojik Website is not tied to any government entity, it hosts more than 600 Foreign Service Institute courses -- which is a government entity.
These are the courses the U.S. government uses to train foreign affairs employees. According to the website, the “old” courses are all public domain -- which is good for you.
However, you might notice some missing languages. Either way, it’s a neat place to check out.
It might be especially helpful if you’re traveling since some lessons cover the country’s culture and government.
Our editorial intern, Jacquelyn Pica, is a student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She desperately wanted to learn Japanese, but found out she couldn’t get credit for the course, so she opted to learn a different way -- and for free.
She uses YouTube.
“YouTube videos are always free, and it’s important to hear your language actually being spoken as well,” she says.
Pica discovered the Innovative Language Learning Channel. It has 35 channels, each dedicated to a different language.
She also recommends Easy Languages, which teaches you phrases via interviews with native speakers.
“It’s an awesome way to hear how native speakers say certain phrases,” Pica explains.
And if you’re like Pica and want to learn Japanese, she used the Japanese Lesson channel to teach herself both Japanese character systems.
“It can be scary for beginners to learn all of the characters,” she says. But this resource helped her do it.
Your Turn: What’s your favorite, free way to learn a new language?
A big grazi goes to editorial intern Jacquelyn Pica, who shared her language-learning experiences with me and helped with the extensive research. She plans to hold me accountable in my foreign language endeavors.
Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. After recently completing graduate school, she focuses on saving money — and surviving the move back in with her parents.