Foreign Language Study: A Language Learning System

After nearly three years traveling Latin America I have achieved an advanced—though not fluent—level in Spanish (my estimations, not based on official testing). Currently I am in Brazil trying to pick up Portuguese and I estimate my current level to be low intermediate after three months here. I also studied Japanese some years ago and and I estimate I reached an intermediate level with that. So, while I have studied several languages now, having no true bilingual fluency I can’t really claim any special expertise. Still, I thought it might be a good exercise to think a bit about how to actually learn a language. This is my attempt to clarify and organize my own thoughts on learning a language as well as to provide a comprehensive set of resources to aid you with whatever system of study you pursue.

As for existing learning systems, plenty exist. Some are formal like Greg Thomson’s growing participator approach, Wendy Maxwell’s accelerative integrative methodology, social interactionist theory, and relational frame theory. Some systems are informal and often are found in various blogs (see below) and certain products such as the Language Hacking Guide. Finally, note that some systems are incorporated directly or indirectly in the various paid programs available such as Pimsleur, Speed Learning Languages, Rosetta Stone, Fluenz and Assimil (see below for details on each).

Are You Your Biggest Obstacle?

Regardless of what system(s)—if any—you choose to use, your unique learning style and personality will play an important role in your success. Certain personalities are fearless and outgoing enough to just start trying to speak with anyone and everyone they meet who speaks their target language. Then there are the rest of us, with varying degrees of timidity and fear of embarrassment and judgment. It is this fear and timidity that can drastically derail or, at least, slow down our language learning progress. The simple fact is that there is NO way to learn a new language without making mistakes: LOTS of mistakes. Yes, you will sound stupid. Repeatedly. But, here’s the thing. If you’re speaking with someone with whom you don’t share a common language, there simply is no other option. And, if you are speaking in your target language instead of a common language, you are almost certainly worrying for no reason about the other person’s opinion. The fact that they speak more than one language means they know all too well how hard it is. And, almost certainly they will be very happy that you are making the effort to learn their language. Think of things from another perspective. When someone tries to speak to you in broken English, for example, do you ridicule them and make them feel insecure or do you try to encourage their efforts. When you consider these thing you will quickly realize that what we worry about isn’t really what others will think, but what we will think of ourselves. Be as forgiving, understanding and encouraging to yourself as you would be to others!

It sounds easy to do but in fact is not; still, you must learn to overcome the biggest language learning obstacle: yourself.

Goals and Motivation

Everyone has different language learning goals. It’s not important what yours are, only that you have them and that they are concrete. In fact, what you need (in all aspects of life) are SMART goals. Specific. Measurable. Attainable/Actionable. Realistic. Timely. Saying you want to speak a language is not a SMART goal. Saying you want to master the present regular and irregular tense for at least fifty verbs after the first week is.

If you have a blog or are active on social networks, why not share your language goals with those who follow you. Be sure also to share regular updates on how you are or are not meeting those goals. It will help build a personal connection with your readers and it will provide an added incentive for you to meet your goals.

How Long Should It Take?

What is realistic in terms of actually learning a language? Well, that is a complicated question and depends a great deal on your goals and, importantly, how you define fluency or mastery. For an excellent look at this question, read Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton’s How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?

Another way to think about how long it will take you to learn any language is that doing so depends on three factors: the language itself, the social context in which you must learn the language and your individual learning aptitude. In considering your individual learning aptitude, three factors in particular are determinate: your ability to recognize, remember, and reproduce the sounds of languages; your ability to see grammatical patterns in a language; and your ability to remember easily and well. For more information on these important factors, see What? Me Worry About Language Learning?

Tim Ferriss, in his blog post, How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months, offers his opinion of the ideal learning system based on three elements (in order): Effectiveness (Priority), Adherence (Interest), and Efficiency (Process). These refer to the “what”, “why”, and “how” of learning a target language, respectively. In simple terms, you first decide what to learn, based on usage frequency (priority); you then filter materials based on your likelihood of continued study and review, or adherence (interest); lastly, you determine how to learn the material most efficiently (process). While you may or may not agree that this is in fact the ideal system, the concepts are useful in considering how long it will take you to learn your target language.

Learning Components and Order of Learning

Learning a language is a multi-headed beast consisting of at least the following six components: vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, listening, and speaking (pronunciation and practice). Culture is probably an important seventh component but tackling that here seems daunting so I will ignore it, though do keep in mind that slang, humor, levels of politeness, and yes, even silent forms of communication, often are importantly linked to the culture of the land where a language is spoken or originates.

What strikes me as particularly difficult about learning a language is that there is no linear order to the learning components I listed above, even when it appears there might be. Take, for example, speaking. It might seem that this would come after learning the others and it is certainly true that your speaking won’t be any good until you have decent pronunciation, some vocabulary and a bit of grammar mastery. But, for most people those won’t really come without at least trying to speak as you go. Likewise, even if you can string together some coherent thoughts in writing or speaking, if you are trying to have a conversation and haven’t attuned your ear to the sound of the language you will again find great difficulty with communication. The importance of reading becomes much more apparent if you try to learn a language that doesn’t use the system of writing (e.g., the alphabet) that you are already familiar with. For some of these languages, that mandates that a basic study of the writing system take higher priority.

Vocabulary

I don’t have any deeply felt thoughts on acquiring vocabulary. Most Spanish language schools in Latin America focus on teaching verbs first (the various tenses). My teacher did this as well, but first she introduced a collection of useful vocabulary that she used continuously as we learned and practiced the verbs. As I grew slowly more confident actually speaking with that limited vocabulary and the newly acquired verbs and their respective tenses, I naturally sought out new vocabulary to complete the thoughts I was trying to express.

One thing my Spanish teacher did after I progressed sufficiently was to have me read a novel written in Spanish for Spanish language students. That novel was written using the thousand or so most popular Spanish words. That got me thinking that finding a list of the most popular words and focusing on learning those was probably a useful strategy. Finding such a list in your target language that also has sample sentences will also help you absorb some of the grammar. Keep in mind however, that frequency lists can vary significantly between written and spoken vocabulary and between languages.

Wherever you seek out new vocabulary, one very useful tool to manage the learning process is a spaced repetition system (SRS). By far the most popular, and free, is Anki (which means “memorization” in Japanese). Anki is a computer, web, and app based flashcard system that uses the power of “spaced repetition” to help you better remember words, phrases, or full sentences. Like other similar systems, Anki automatically schedules re-exposures to specific cards based on how difficult you rate them. Easier cards will be shown less often while those more difficult will appear more often. This makes your study time and energy far more efficient since you won’t have to waste your time going through items you already know. Perhaps one of the best features of Anki is that other studious users have already gone to the trouble of creating various flashcard decks that you can download. In fact, this is a great place to seek out lists of vocabulary to get started, even before doing a Google search. Another useful feature in Anki is the ability to include images and even audio with your flashcards.

Whatever SRS system you choose, don’t forget to study vocabulary in both directions. If you only study from the target language to your native language you will become good at understanding but may be at a loss to recall words when trying to speak. Anki can be useful here as you can choose the manner in which to study your flashcards.

Of course, if you are more old-fashioned in your approach, physical flashcards are always an option. Other electronic ideas for learning more vocabulary include word of the day services, studying the lyrics to songs in your target language, reading the subtitles for TV programs and movies, and reading (articles, blogs, books) in your target language.

If you use a paid program or software, vocabulary acquisition will naturally be included. Likewise, there are several resources on the Web to help with learning vocabulary. Some of the main learning sites have vocabulary as part of their learning offerings and a few sites focus on vocabulary, including Internet Polyglot, PhraseBase and LingQ. Finally, a couple of downloadable programs to consider (besides or instead of Anki) are Multi-Language Words Memorizer and EasyWords.

For more information about learning vocabulary, I recommend the interesting article, Myths About Vocabulary Aquisition by Jan-Arjen Mondria.

Grammar

Grammar is typically the least favorite aspect of learning a new language. There are even some who advocate ignoring grammar completely, though others simply suggest ignoring it until after you have developed a basic comfort in conversation. I think that, like many aspects of learning, the importance of learning grammar depends greatly on your language goals and your personality and preferred learning style. When I was studying Spanish, I met countless travelers who had a primary goal of learning as much as possible in as little time possible to make their travels easier. My goal, on the other hand, was to one day reach fluency. Clearly, grammar is much more important for someone with my goal. The simple fact is that studying grammar is a time-consuming process and one that possibly isn’t worth the effort if you don’t actually have the time or the desire to speak properly. Even if you do have the time, I would argue that learning any aspect of grammar without an associated opportunity to practice and use it is a bit of a wasted effort. In other words, match your grammar acquisition with your ability to take advantage of it.

Deconstruct It

In an article for Matador, 5 steps to learn a language in 3 months, Michelle Schusterman discusses advice from Tim Ferriss to deconstruct the language you are trying to learn before getting too heavily into other learning aspects. Translating a few simple sentences with an online translator can tell you a lot about your target language. Ferriss gives us these to start with:

  • The apple is red.
  • It is John’s apple
  • I give John the apple.
  • We give him the apple.
  • He gives it to John.
  • She gives it to him.

Basically, you use these sample sentences, along with a few more to follow, to deconstruct a target language, which can help you to see the big picture, especially if that language has a basic grammatical structure different from English. For example, Japanese and Korean (similar grammatically) follow a subject-object-verb word order (“I the apple eat”) as opposed to the subject-verb-object order for English (“I eat the apple”). If you’re a native English speaker, SOV will be harder than the familiar SVO, but once you learn one your brain will be formatted for new SOV languages.

Besides basic grammatical structure, many languages require feminine and masculine distinctions in vocabulary as well as direct (“the apple”) and indirect objects (“John”) and their respective pronouns (“him”, “it”). The placement of these objects and pronouns can also vary.

Pay attention also to verbs, which in some languages are conjugated based on speaker (both according to gender and number). Likewise, the equivalents of prepositions can get tricky quickly. Finally, the first three sentences expose if the language has what Ferris calls the much-dreaded noun cases. What are they? In German, for example, “the” isn’t so simple. It might be der, das, die, dem, den and more depending on whether “the apple” is an object, indirect object, possessed by someone else, etc.

Ferriss recommends following the above sentences with a few negations (“I don’t give…”) and different tenses to see if these are expressed as separate words (“bu” in Chinese as negation, for example) or verb changes (“-nai” or “-masen” in Japanese), the latter making a language much more difficult.

Finally, here are a few more useful sentences:

  • I must give it to him.
  • I want to give it to her.
  • I want you to give it to her.

These sentences are useful to see if auxiliary verbs exist, or if you must change the verb endings. According to Ferriss, a good short-cut to independent learner status is to learn conjugations for “helping” verbs like “to want,” “to need,” “to have to,” “should,” etc. In Spanish and similar languages, this allows you to express yourself with “need/want/must/should” + the infinitive of any verb, at least when only one person is performing an action in the sentence. Thus, learning the variations of a half dozen verbs gives you access to all verbs. For talking about situations where one person needs/wants another person to do something, the dreaded subjunctive might appear. That will be shown by the third sentence above. Languages where these auxiliaries are expressed as changes in the verb (e.g., Japanese) instead of separate words (e.g., Chinese) may cause some problems for beginners.

You won’t get a mastery of grammar by a quick deconstruction exercise but you will get an idea of what you are up against and what to pay more attention to as you learn.

Listening

Obviously, listening is a key aspect of communication in a foreign language. The opportunities to expose yourself to the sounds of your target language are numerous in today’s digital world: music, movies or television, exchange partners and podcasts. The latter can be especially useful as there are many designed specifically for language learners. iTunes users can navigate to the “education” category of the iTunes Music Store. Other listeners can browse popular podcast databases like Odeo, the podcasts page of So you want to learn a language or The Podcast Directory. One well-known podcast company is Innovative Language Learning, which offers podcasts and lessons in the xpod101.com naming format (e.g., spanishpod101.com) for 22 different languages. Typically, the podcast is free but extras, including downloadable transcripts, require a paid membership. Another similar company is Radio Lingua Network, which has the same business model and offers podcasts for 20 languages with the One Minute brand (e.g., One Minute Portuguese) or other brands for certain languages (e.g., for Spanish they offer Coffee Break Spanish and Show Time Spanish, both of which I have used and recommend). One note about podcasts: just like blogs, many podcasters start off with good intentions but end up only producing a few before being discontinued, so check how many lessons are available on a podcast before you subscribe.

Online videos also offer an excellent change to improve your listening skills. You can find a great many on YouTube (just do a search for “learn Portuguese” for example) and a smaller selected collection on the video courses page of So you want to learn a language.

Reading

Reading in another language is a fantastic way to improve your vocabulary and grammar too. Depending on the source of your reading material you can get exposed to different levels of politeness in a language as well as standard vocabulary, slang and idiomatic and colloquial expressions. Great sources for reading material are newspaper or magazine websites, comics and books in your target language. I can’t recommend highly enough purchasing an e-Reader like the Amazon Kindle. Besides the incredible convenience Kindle provides, the big advantage for reading in another language is the ability to purchase a dictionary for your target language and set it as the default so that when you select an unknown word the definition automatically is shown on the screen. I have been using my Kindle in this way for multiple Spanish books and now I am starting to use it for Portuguese.

If you don’t have or want to invest in an e-Reader, I recommend you check out The Polyglot Project, which has pulled together a library of foreign language content for you to work with, starting with classic literature from all over the world. You can work on your Italian by reading Dante’s Inferno, or your Spanish by reading Don Quijote, or choose any other language and learn it from the best writers that language has to offer. Reading is made easier by a translation tool that will help you learn new vocabulary without interrupting your reading flow. Just double click on a word and the English translation will briefly appear and then get out of your way so you can keep reading.

If you are reading online websites or emails from penpals you can use Google Translate or your favorite similar service. There also exist downloadable programs for your computer (see Dual Clip and Transmiti) as well as browser addons to help you translate words and phrases on the fly (see below).

If you are someone who likes to focus on reading when learning a new language you might find the Assimil and/or Byki offerings worth considering (see more below).

Pronunciation

According to Chuala, a free online user-created pronunciation dictionary, you need to hear the sounds that aren’t in your language 50-100 times before you can distinguish them. While a lot of your pronunciation improvement will come with practice and general exposure to the language, there are some things you can do when self-studying to improve your pronunciation. First, many language software programs include pronunciation so make sure that if you decide to use such a program (online or offline) that it is included. Additionally, some online communities, especially Livemocha, allow you to record yourself speaking a language and get native speaker feedback. Alternatively, if you have text and are wondering how it should be pronounced, submit it to Rhinospike. Finally, depending on the language you are studying, there may be an online dictionary that includes recordings of the word entries. A great resource covering over 280 languages is Forvo, which claims to be the largest pronunciation guide in the world. If the word you are seeking doesn’t yet exist on Forvo you can request it and another user will pronounce it for you.

A couple of other pronunciation tips: If you enjoy singing, try learning some songs in the language you’re learning. This is a fun way to improve your pronunciation and vocabulary. When meeting with a language exchange partner, try reading some material out loud and ask the partner to correct your pronunciation.

Speaking

One of the best things you can do to get speaking is to meet native speakers and practice with them. Of course, this is a bit easier as a traveler in a country that speaks your target language, though doing so in your home country is not necessarily difficult, especially if you live in or around a large urban area. One great resource for practicing languages around the world is Meetup, a site that brings together people with similar interests for in-person meetings. You can search by language or city/postal code to find a nearby group. I have used Meetup for both Japanese and Spanish and was very happy with the practice I got and the new friends I made. My groups contained mostly other learners but also some native speakers (often married to a learner, for example).

Another very useful resource is CouchSurfing. Though many only know it as a site to find a place to stay, it is also a fantastic community and resource for meeting new people. Many cities have various groups, with some including one for language exchange. Even if there is no language exchange in your city, simply go to the main group for that city and post a message offering an exchange.

Other travel related communities, such as WAYN, as well as facebook and other social networking services can help you find language exchange partners as well. Finally, there exist multiple websites focused on, or at least offering, language exchange partners, which I list below. I haven’t personally used any of these so I can’t state which, if any, are the most useful.

English Speaking Partners?

Keep in mind that while you may think it a good idea to have a partner who speaks great English, you may in fact feel more comfortable making mistakes when practicing with someone who is not such a great English speaker. You will also have to work a bit harder to communicate without having the backup of just switching to English and in the long run this will be very helpful.

Learning from Other Non-Natives

One thing I have learned is that it is often easier to understand other non-native speakers when trying to learn a language. In fact, interactions with these folks can be less intimidating and more comfortable than with native speakers. One great thing I did when taking Spanish classes in Guatemala was to attend a twice-weekly conversation club of other Spanish school students at a local bar. The group was a mix of various levels and nationalities. Besides being a great way to make new friends, it was good to notice the mistakes others made and reflect on whether or not I was also making those same mistakes. It was also good to be able to teach lower level students some things I had already mastered and to be able to ask higher level students questions of my own. And, it was always interesting to see what different vocabulary or phrases others used compared to my own preferences. The point: don’t assume that you have nothing to gain from talking with other students of the language.

Writing

The importance you place on writing in your target language will depend greatly on your specific learning goals as well as the difficulty of the language being studied. Writing in languages that use a variation of the English alphabet will obviously be easier, though diacritics will definitely complicate things. Other languages like Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese, for example, use significantly different writing systems that can in themselves take quite some time to learn and will thus limit the speed of your writing skills improvement. For such languages there will also be a distinct difference between writing by hand and electronically as the ability to recall a Chinese character, for example, is not the same as the muscle memory required to write that same character. In any case, you can practice your writing using the popular Livemocha or Lang-8 sites or you can find language exchange partners on the sites listed above.

Language School or Private Tutoring?

Whether it is a good idea to take formal classes, either as part of a language school, local university, or with a private tutor, depends on your budget, schedule and learning goals. Keep in mind that these days many schools offer Skype lessons so you don’t necessarily need to travel to your destination country to learn from the native speakers and schools there. In fact, it may be much cheaper to take Skype lessons from a school in another country than to attend a school in your own town. Also, be aware that sometimes you can find free courses in your travel destination offered by various private or church groups, the government or the local schools.

My advice about exchange partners who aren’t fluent English speakers applies equally to your language teachers. My Spanish speaker never spoke in English. She claimed she doesn’t speak it though I am not convinced. Regardless, she had the experience and discipline to never try. While it certainly made some aspects of learning more difficult at the beginning stages I am convinced in the end I benefited greatly and progressed much more quickly than if I had the crutch of asking her questions in English every time I was confused or lost for a word.

If you decide that paid online tutoring or lessons is worthwhile, try doing a basic online search for language schools in a country where they speak the language you want to learn. Alternatively, check out the sites iTalki, LingQ or eduFire.

I once wrote an article, Tips for Choosing a Spanish School, which might prove helpful if you decide to study in a private language school. Summarizing briefly, the important factors to consider are the teachers employed at the school (and how they are treated), the system of teaching used, the other students you will study with, lodging and/or homestay options, availability of specializations and certifications if required, price, location, and activities.

Re-activating a Previously Learned Language

When busy traveling, learning a new language, and just plain living your hectic life it is easy to lose a facility with a previously learned language. This is where I find myself with my Japanese. Honestly, I haven’t returned to Japan or really used it much in about five years so I am pretty worried about it and I have no personal experience or thoughts to impart. However, Tim Ferriss does in his blog post, How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language.

I did try to do a short Japanese language exchange with someone from Coushsurfing in Buenos Aires and found it fun, though challenging and frustrating at times. Naturally, I didn’t do anything Tim recommends before starting so I can’t evaluate his tips’ effectiveness, but I can recommend the concept of doing a live language exchange before heading back to a place you will need to speak the language.

Learning Products and Software

There seems to be a wide difference of opinion on the value (both educationally and financially) of paid language learning products. Whether using a paid language learning product or service is worthwhile will depend a great deal on your personal circumstances. How do you prefer to learn? What is your current level? What are your learning goals? What is your budget for learning the language?

As for financial value, that seems to be an important consideration for many. For example, Rosetta Stone is probably the best known program on the market and is also fairly expensive (somewhere between $400 and $800). However, if it is a program you find helpful enough to avoid all or part of a paid course or tutoring, it may be worth the price. On the other hand, if you are planning to do everything on your own and you are on a round-the-world backpacking budget, the price will probably seem prohibitive.

Another issue to consider is your personal discipline. There are so many free study materials available on the Internet and I have already discussed numerous ways to find language exchange partners. So, it might seem to some ridiculous to spend money to learn something a dedicated, disciplined person could do for free. Well, naturally, not everyone is so disciplined. For many, paid products will bridge the gap. For others it will just sit on the shelf unused. Understand your own discipline before deciding.

Below I list some of the more popular multi-language products on the market today (in no special order), though also check out Top 10 Language Courses for a good overview and comparison of some of these programs.

  • The Speed Learning Languages course was developed by the U.S. government to find the optimum method of teaching diplomats, government officials, etc, a foreign language. There are over 90 hours of study via audio lessons with accompanying text, covering four levels. From what I can gather this program is excellent and very thorough but also requires more discipline to use as it is basically text and audio. Thus, if you are looking for a more interactive and fun experience this might not be it.Pricing: A two-unit lesson and two-unit practice collection is $179. For two collections (four of each) the price is $197.
  • Rosetta Stone is the best known product for learning a language and generally has a good reputation though its is often criticized for its high price. I personally have used it before and liked what I saw, though I only used the introductory levels so I can’t speak to anything about how it handles more advanced levels. For one review, check out Matador’s look at the Rosetta Stone TOTALe product (part II and part III). You may also want to know more about how the TOTALeTM compares to the previous versions of Rosetta Stone.Pricing: Depends on the number of levels. Typically one level is $179, two levels $299, three levels $399, and five levels $499. Purchase of any level package seems to include three months of online access but you can also purchase one year of online access separately for $299.
  • Fluenz is a lesser-known competitor to Rosetta Stone and offers fewer languages (currently Spanish, Mandarin, French, Italian and German), but some consider it a superior product. I haven’t done a lot of research on this product, but my understanding is that while Rosetta Stone offers a learning experience similar to how children learn languages, Fluenz offers an approach more suited to adult learning styles, specifically focusing on explanations that show us how the parts fit together to form a larger whole. If interested, you can read a comparison of Fluenz and Rosetta Stone.Pricing: Depends on the language, but typically either $398 or $498.
  • Pimsleur is a self-study program based on the method established nearly 50 years ago by Dr. Paul Pimsleur, though it wasn’t first marketed to the public until 1980. The programs are based on a few key principles:
    Graduated Interval Recall. Dr. Pimsleur’s research on memory was perhaps one of his most revolutionary achievements. He discovered that if his students were reminded of new words and information at gradually increasing intervals within a set amount of time, each time they would remember the word or information longer than the time before.
    Principle of Anticipation. In real-life communication you are required to understand what is being said to you and to “anticipate” a correct response. It’s an intricate thought process that most of us take for granted when speaking our native language. Dr. Pimsleur’s research demonstrated that by initiating this dynamic “input/output” system, that new connections are formed in the learner’s brain.
    Core Vocabulary. Pimsleur courses are designed to teach you to understand and speak your new language in a relatively short time. Extensive research has shown that effective communication in any language depends on mastery of a relatively limited number of words. Trying to learn too many at first actually slows the process.
    Organic Learning. The Pimsleur® Method centers on teaching functional mastery, understanding and speaking right from the beginning.Pricing: There are different options available but for one program (there are usually multiple for each language) a CD option is $345 and a MP3 is $120 with a bundle of two CD options costing $495 and two MP3 options $230 while three CD options costs $695 and three MP3 options $335. You can also buy MP3 lessons in 5-lesson increments, each costing $21.95.
  • Michel Thomas consists of audio CDs (usually ten in a bundle) and a full transcript book. No games, videos, PC or online interactivity. The course is quite short at about eight hours. One interesting aspect of this approach is that along with the instructor on the audio are two students, a British male and an American female and you hear their contributions along the way (apparently the British student tends to lag behind). I think the idea is to simulate a real classroom environment.Pricing: varies depending on the course from $14.95 for a one-hour introduction to the method using 50 words to $75 for the master class option (only in selected languages) and $120-135 for the total and perfect packages.
  • Rocket Languages seems to focus on offering a course filled with games and activities, but according to one review I read the program seems to lack a clear or complete approach to actually learning a language. It seems that the lessons are basic and consist mostly of hearing an English sentence, then the same sentence in the target language and then a blank space for you to repeat before hearing the sentence in the target a last time. This hardly seems to be breakthrough learning science. Apparently however, the program does excel in marking progress and offering evaluative tests.Pricing: $99.95 for the instant download option or $299.95 with free shipping for the 20-CD package.
  • Mango Languages focuses on practical conversation skills for common traveler situations, especially words and phrases that will be the most valuable in common, real-life situations for each specific language and culture. Each lesson covers four key language components—vocabulary (taught through conversation rather than just a list), pronunciation (includes the ability to record your voice and see how your pronunciation compares to the narrator’s), grammar and culture. Check out Matador’s review of Mango Passport for a more detailed assessment.Pricing: $79.Note: Since Mango has a focus on selling to libraries there is a chance that a nearby library has a copy you can use for free. On the site you can even find a library locator.
  • Babbel claims to be a comprehensive system for learning languages, offering fun, multi-media methods and the opportunity to exchange with a community across three platforms: online, on your mobile (iPhone, iPod Touch or on iPad only it appears) and your computer (PC or Mac). Babbel offers learning material from beginners’ courses and vocabulary training to grammar and practical phrases. The system detects your level and suggests a selection of courses that correspond to your interests and knowledge.Pricing: $12.95 for one month, $8.95 per month ($26.85) for three months, $7.45 per month ($44.70) for six months
  • Assimil is a French company, founded by Alphonse Chérel in 1929. It creates and publishes foreign language courses, which began with their first book Anglais Sans Peine (“English Without Toil”). Since then, the company has expanded into numerous other languages and continues to publish today. Their method for teaching foreign languages is through the listening of records or tapes and the reading of a book with the text that you are listening to, one side native language, one side foreign language. This method is focused on learning whole sentences, for an organic learning of the grammar. It begins with a long passive phase of only reading and listening, and eventually adds active exercises. Most books contain around 100 lessons, with the active phase starting on Lesson 50. Assimil is useful for a particular type of learner: one who enjoys reading and places more importance on passive skills, listening and reading than active skills.Note: Apparently, the majority of the languages are available through French only.Pricing: ranges from 8.90 € for just a phrasebook to 18.90-22.90 € for just the With Ease book to 64.90 € for the With Ease book and audio combination. Some languages have specialty products, like Business French, for example which are priced separately.
  • Byki.is a powerful and personalized language-learning system, designed to advance your new language proficiency by expanding your vocabulary reservoir. In addition to being presented in an engaging flash card interface, the system also tracks everything you learn, automatically presenting the appropriate material at just the right intervals – ensuring that the material you’ve covered is successfully locked into your memory. There are free and premium versions.Pricing: $69.95.

Learning in Other Ways

In an article about learning Spanish, Lukas Gohl offers a few good ideas for learning a language in less traditional ways. In particular, try taking a non-language class that is offered only in the language you are trying to learn. Spanish guitar? Dance classes? Capoeira? Ikebana? Naturally, this is easier if you are traveling or living in a place that speaks your target language, but sometimes it is possible in other places as well.

Is there a large group of native speakers (for example, a large immigrant community) where you live? If so, consider volunteering or working with an organizations that works with this target demographic.

In The Most Effective Method for Learning a Language Alone, Dave MacLeod explains his system for studying languages, which basically consists of finding an audio recording in your target language that has a corresponding text version. Book/audiobook combinations are ideal. Then, you listen to the audio over and over, writing down what you hear and checking it with the written version for accuracy.

Useful Tech Tools

Thanks to the age we live in, multiple excellent technology tools are available to help you master a new language. One of the first places to look is your browser. Go to the Language Support category for Firefox addons and the Language & Translators category for Chrome extensions.

For the more mobile crowd, I must admit I am behind the times and don’t own a smartphone so I can’t speak to any specific wonderful apps in that regard, though I am certain they exist (I have, at least, read good things about TripLingo, Quick Locale, and Localized Apps). Make sure to check the Education category on iTunes, Android Market, or your favorite app store. It might also be worth a look at Reference and/or Travel categories for similar apps (likewise for browser addons).

In addition to adding programs, addons and apps to your computing and mobile gear, one learning tip is to switch your default language for those devices to your target language. Certain tasks will be more difficult at first, but you’ll learning new words and phrases that you might not otherwise come across.Try doing the same for the online services you use regularly, such as facebook, gmail, etc.

Other random tech tools that seem worth considering:

Language Learning Sites and Resources

There are some very useful websites that can help a great deal with your language learning efforts and I have already listed many of them. Still, before listing the rest I will point out my three absolute must-have sites.

  • Google Translate – Yes, I am aware that it, like any electronic translation service, is imperfect. Still, as a basic dictionary and a more robust translator, it is invaluable when trying to read and write in your target language. I especially like how it will remember several languages you might work with frequently and how you can quickly switch between the two you are currently using.
  • WordReference is a fantastic site. It is part dictionary, part forum. Native speakers from all over the world (Spanish is especially well represented) monitor the forums so you can ask for word usage clarifications. This is especially helpful as sometimes according to the dictionary there are multiple ways to say something when, in practice, certain words or phrases can not always be used in all circumstances. When you search for a word on WordReference, first you will be shown the dictionary result and then below any forum threads that reference that word. Before posting your own question do a search as it is quite likely someone (indeed, multiple people) have already asked your question.
  • Verb Conjugators. OK, this isn’t one site in particular as you will have to research the best option(s) for your target language. But, when trying to learn a language, it is often the verbs that give us the most trouble. A good conjugator can really aid your efforts. I personally like Conjuga-me for Portuguese verbs and 123 TeachMe for Spanish verbs. If you need a place to begin, check out Verbix which can conjugate verbs in more than 60 languages.

Dictionaries and Translation Tools

As I mentioned above, I love Google Translate and WordReference. An alternative to Google for translating entire webpages is Lingro.com, which takes any webpage and makes all the words clickable. When you click a word the translation pops up. For my Japanese studies I like Rikai.com, ALJ and any of the variants of Jim Breen’s dictionary. You will have to experiment to find a favorite source for your target language, but this collection of 50+ Dictionary & Reference Sites might help.

Learning Lessons

Here is a small collection of useful free lessons on various languages. For a more complete listing check out the So you want to learn a language e-books and video courses pages.

  • About.com guides. About.com is a collection of more than 900 topic sites, each run by an appointed guide. The thing about About.com is that the guide makes all the difference. Some are excellent and some not so much. I personally have found Gerald Erichsen, the guide for the Spanish topic site, to be excellent.
  • BBC Languages is a great general resource with videos, pronunciation guides, words of the day and many more resources. Comprehensive online courses can be found for French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, and Greek, with slightly briefer introductions to several other languages. This free service is a good option for starting a new language from the beginning as the curricula are well designed, complete, and easy to follow.
  • Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Language Courses is the home for language courses developed by the Foreign Service Institute, which are now in public domain. These are basically textbooks for learning each language on offer, though some do include associated audio components.
  • MIT OpenCourseWare
    The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made a great effort to supply all of its course materials online for the free use of MIT students and the global internet community. The Languages and Literatures department features courses in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, French, German and Spanish in addition to many interesting literature and culture topics. While the usefulness of the materials provided varies depending on the course, they all include a detailed study plan to aid the self-learner in structuring a home course.
  • Open University, Utah State University (Chinese only), and Carnegie Mellon University (French only) are other universities offering their language courses for free online.
  • Word2Word. This site can help you increase your vocabulary. It also contains lists of online dictionaries, videos on Youtube and other language learning tools. One useful feature is the chat rooms on offer in multiple languages.

Community Sites

Below are what I understand to be the most popular or, at least, most widely mentioned community sites for language learners. For a more detailed listing, check out 70+ Online Language Communities and Resources.

  • Busuu is a language learning community with many learning topics, photos and interactive learning lessons. Plus, there is interactive video chat and exams where you can test your progress. Busuu offers free basic options but charges for complete courses or advanced options.
  • iTalki is an online destination for learning foreign languages. iTalki connects people from around the world in a friendly community to learn from each other and helps people meet online to do free language exchanges or to connect with teachers for paid online lessons. In addition, iTalki has many free language learning features, such as questions and answers, group discussions, and multimedia materials for self-study. iTalki is both a social network and a marketplace. The social network helps bring people together to communicate and learn. The marketplace gives students, teachers, and companies the ability to transact online.
  • Lang-8 is another community of learners that write and correct for each other. It lets you write a diary and be corrected by natives. It’s free.
  • LingQ is a learning community with features like writing correction, group and one-on-one chats, tracking learning goals, tutorials, dialogues and tons of audio with transcripts. You can also find a personal tutor on the site and meet other learners. A free account gets you five lessons and 100 LingQs (basically the ability to look up and save new words and phrases) per month.
  • LiveMocha is the world’s largest online language learning community, offering free and paid online language courses in 35 languages to more than 11 million members from 196 countries around the world. Livemocha allows people around the world to help each other with language learning, and provides members opportunities to learn and practice new languages together. You can buy tokens or earn them by helping other members. These tokens are used to buy individual learning activities (prices vary). Alternatively, you can purchase full access to all courses for $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year. Active courses are only available for English, Spanish, French, Italian and German though basic courses are available for many more.
  • Rhinospike is an online language learning community tool that lets users around the globe connect and exchange foreign language audio files and get any foreign language text read aloud for you by a native speaker. Here’s how it works: submit some text that you want read aloud in a foreign language; record your voice for an audio request in your native language; download the audio file for your submission.

Specific Language Sites

OK, this is a bit of self-promotion, but I happen to run two websites for language learners. The first, Yookoso!, has been around a very long time and is for those trying to learn Japanese. It is basically three things: a personally edited (and vast) collection of the best resources available online, a place to access my personal notes from the Japanese courses I have taken over the years, and perhaps most popular/useful, a collection of mailing lists and RSS feeds to receive a new kanji character or mini grammar lesson each day. The grammar lessons are done in conjunction with the very useful jgram site, which I also help to maintain.

The second site I run, dado que, is for Spanish language learners. Like Yookoso!, it is also a hand-selected directory of useful resources, and also has some of my notes. In addition you will find the entertaining and useful novel, Noche Oscura en Lima, Peru and a fairly complete grammar guide.

Besides my sites, undoubtedly each language has some sites catered specifically to learners of it but listing those here is impractical. Do a search on your own or check out the So you want to learn a language specific languages page for a detailed collection of resources by language.

Blogs and Other Sites about Learning Languages

As I mentioned, there are a fair number of people who blog generally about learning languages, rather than about one specific language. This is a very listing (in alphabetical order), but if you want to see even more, check out the general resources page on So you want to learn a language or this collection of the top 100 language blogs. Also, for a free e-Book collection of tips gathered from dozens of “youtube polyglots, hyper-polyglots, linguists, language learners and language lovers,” download The polyglot project.

Articles about Learning a Language

In addition to some of the specific articles I referenced previously and the good language learning advice you can find on the blogs I have listed, here are some more, weightier articles for those interested in knowing more than a casual amount about language learning.

GOOD LUCK!!

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23 Comments

  1. Verbling (http://verbling.com/) is another resource I forgot to include. It allows you to instantly connect with native speakers around the world through live video, times each language interaction, offers topic suggestions and allows you to rate the exchange.

  2. Thanks so much for mentioning my blog in your post. I read your entire article with great interest. I am impressed with your clarity and thoroughness. It must have taken you ages to research all this! Thank you for sharing this in-depth, well-researched and helpful information in such an easy-to-read format. I've been a language teacher since 1994 and I learned lots of new information from your article. Bravo.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I did indeed spend a lot of time on this post and it is always nice to get feedback saying the time you invested was worthwhile! I was especially happy to find your useful article and was more than happy to reference it. The topic is so huge that I am sure I didn't do it justice, but hopefully it is a decent overview and maybe others will find this and add their own thoughts and/or links to other useful articles and resources as well.

  3. Plenty of useful information here, Jeff.
    Must have taken you a while to put that one together! 🙂

    Thanks a lot for mentioning The Mezzofanti Guild. Much appreciated!

  4. Holy awesome post.

    I'll definitely be re-reading this when I get home from work and can take the time to fully digest all of the delicious information contained within this post.

    Thank you!

    Also, thanks for the shout out to Look Out, Knock Head! Much appreciated. 🙂

    Best,

    Mike

    1. Thanks. I don't post regularly on languages so I tried to put it all in one. I'm not sure if it was wise or not, but hopefully it will be helpful to some.

  5. Wow. I will soon begin learning my third language so this post is like finding buried treasure. I see many familiar sources and tools but enough new ones to keep me busy for days. Thank you!

  6. One site I came across recently, Nulu (http://www.nulu.com/), is like an audio news service, collecting various news articles and turning the core content into mini dialogues which you can listen to while following along with the text. If you don’t know a word or phrase, you can hover your mouse over it and see the English translation. It only supports Spanish and I don’t know if there are plans to expand to other languages, but I like the concept and the format.

  7. I've already learned Spanish as my second language and looking forward to learn Italian as a third language. Regarding that purpose this post provided me huge inspiration within me. I really appreciate this enormous post.

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