Learning Italian has always been on my bucket list. I’ve traveled to the romantic country of Italy once before, and while it was a wonderful experience, I couldn’t so much as order a coffee in the foreign language. I hated feeling like just another American tourist.
Speaking a second language doesn’t just make international travel easier. According to Science Daily, a Tel Aviv University study suggests that children who speak a second or third language test better for cognitive abilities. Moreover, learning a new language has been shown to help slow the aging process in the brain.
With all those benefits, you can almost justify the $700 that Rosetta Stone software costs. Almost. But before you hand over that chunk of money, here are seven ways to learn a new language – or brush up on that Spanish class you took in high school – without spending a dime.
How to Learn a New Language for Free
1. Read Online Newspapers
My Spanish teacher recommended this to me in high school, and I still read Spanish language newspapers online today. It’s a great way to learn about current events in a different country, and if I don’t know a word, I can look it up easily on an online dictionary like Word Reference, which translates other Romance languages as well.
My favorite online newspaper is Clarin from Argentina, but you can find a free directory of global newspapers thanks to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Recently, I’ve been looking at La Repubblica to begin learning Italian. This website also has videos so you can hear the language being spoken, as well as “read” the accompanying news article.
2. Watch Movies with Subtitles
During the summer before I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, I tried to watch movies with English subtitles as much as possible. If you’re learning a new language, you know that sometimes phrases don’t translate literally, so subtitles can help.
Watching movies in another language and reading the subtitles in your native language will help you get used to hearing native pronunciation. Likewise, hearing the dialogue in your native language and reading it in the one you’re learning can facilitate on-the-fly translation. You can also turn on closed captioning for television programs in other languages so you can hear the words and see them simultaneously.
This isn’t always an option for more obscure languages, but you can hone your skills on more common foreign languages at a community center. I volunteered with Hispanic children in my area and helped teach a Spanish-only preschool class. Although my Spanish wasn’t perfect at first, I definitely felt more comfortable speaking as the year went on.
Refugee resettlement programs help people from all over the world start a new life in the host country; why not offer to help translate for a new neighbor? Most cities have multicultural community centers. Check idealist.org or VolunteerMatch.org to get connected.
4. Take Free Online Courses
If you just want to learn enough of one language to converse, try free courses online. BBC Languages has the most comprehensive list of free courses I’ve found. From French to Urdu, you can access their audio and video clips. BBC also hooks you up with foreign-language TV and radio programs, in addition to a mobile app and tips through email. Livemocha is also a popular online database. According to the Seattle-based company, it offers 35 languages to more than 9 million members from over 200 countries around the world.
5. Download Podcasts
I used to plug in my iPod during my daily commute to work, and I tried out several different free language-learning podcasts. For Spanish, you can try Notes in Spanish, or for other languages, try the Coffee Break series. The Coffee Break program focuses on grammar more than conversation. Notes in Spanish, however, features a dialogue which teaches more vocabulary than grammar and is usually more interesting. Ben (a native English speaker) and Maria (a native Spanish speaker) are a fun couple, and I looked forward to learning from Ben’s mistakes.
6. Watch Foreign Soap Operas
If you’ve ever watched an American soap opera with the sound off, you know that you can still follow the action pretty well. That’s because soap opera actors are overly dramatic in their facial expressions and gesturing. It’s no different in other countries. Watch a soap opera in a foreign language with the sound on but the subtitles off, and you will be forced to use context clues to help you understand what exactly they’re saying. A lot of people find that this is one of the most effective methods!
7. Find a Conversation Buddy
There’s no better way to learn a foreign language than by speaking to someone who’s fluent in it. Call your local English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom, and ask if they have any students who speak the language you are trying to learn. If so, find out if that person would be willing to meet with you in the ESL facility a few hours a week. They will speak their language, you’ll speak English, and you’ll have to learn how to communicate with each other by – you guessed it – learning each other’s language. The first few meetings will be awkward, but slowly and surely you’ll both start to get a lot of the experience.
Learning a language can make international travel easier, help you get into college, open doors to meet new people, and make you more marketable in the job market. Although it may seem intimidating to learn a whole new language, everyone has to start somewhere. With free tools such as podcasts and online courses, you can start learning a language for free. Then you can invest in more advanced programs rather than regret wasting money on a language you don’t like.
Have you started learning a new language? Have any of these free methods worked for you?