If you didn’t study a foreign language in high school or college, is it too late to do it now? Did you learn a language way back in school, but you can’t remember most – if any – of it?
Whether you’re interested in learning a new language or brushing up on your existing language skills, you’re in luck. The amount of affordable and free language learning tools makes it easier than ever.
I’m a bit of a language nerd. My undergraduate majors were Ancient Greek, Latin, and English, I have a TESOL certificate, and I’ve studied eight languages. Right now, I’m focusing on French and Welsh, and I’m using a mix of apps, in-person classes, online tutoring, and conversation groups to help build my skills.
Some methods are more effective and helpful than others, and some work best in combination with other learning techniques. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to spend beaucoup dollars to study a language. Here’s how you can improve your skills without spending a ton.
1. Use an App
Once upon a time, language learning software cost an arm and a leg. Programs such as Rosetta Stone promised to teach you a language the way you learned your first one – by interacting with the language in supposedly natural settings – but they came with a hefty price tag.
Fortunately, the language app landscape has changed considerably over the years. There are now plenty of programs that help you learn a language or brush up your language skills for a low price or even free.
Another advantage of using affordable or free language apps, apart from the cost, is that they provide a low-commitment way to see if a language floats your boat. You don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a software program, only to discover after a few lessons that you have no interest in learning the language or you dislike the program.
If you start a language program on a free or cheap app, you can bail on it or try out another language easily. You can also change apps if the one you start with doesn’t blend well with your learning needs or style.
While there are many language learning apps out there, the following are the ones I’ve used and found useful. They’re also either free or low-cost.
Of the language apps I’ve used, Babbel is my favorite. It’s also the only one that doesn’t have a free version. Luckily, Babbel occasionally runs specials to attract new users. I signed up with a 50%-off deal around the holidays.
You don’t have to jump into Babbel blindly. I tried out a lesson and decided the app was worth the annual subscription price. I’ve been using it for French and find its grammar lessons to be among the best I’ve experienced; they really show you how to use the language. Admittedly, if you’re grammar-phobic, this might not be the app for you.
Along with grammar, the app has speaking practice, listening practice, conjugation, and vocab review. I’ve found its speech recognition software to be pretty amazing. It transcribes what it thinks you’re saying, with occasionally hilarious results.
Babble also has a lot of levels and goes further than some other affordable or free language apps. For instance, Babbel recently introduced an “Advanced” level for French that’s entirely in French.
The one thing I found slightly annoying about Babbel is that the mobile app and Web version don’t seem to talk to each other. I started by using the Web version and later added the app to my phone. None of my lessons or progress from the Web version transferred to the app, even though my account stayed the same. That might not be a big deal for you, but if you regularly switch between the Web version and the app, it can be an issue.
Duolingo might be one of the most well-known language learning apps. It’s got the major languages (such as English, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Chinese), as well as less-common languages (such as Welsh, Czech, and Irish). The app also offers endangered languages, such as Hawaiian and Navajo. And for the nerds out there, it has Klingon and High Valayrian.
I started using Duolingo a few years ago to jump back into French and found it to be an effective way to advance quickly. The app uses short lessons to help you build up grammar skills and vocabulary. If you’ve already got some knowledge of a language, you can test out of particular lessons and skills.
One issue I had with Duolingo is that the app is good for practice and reviewing concepts, but it’s not so great at introducing new grammar or concepts. If you’re wondering why the language works the way it does or what you’re learning in a particular lesson, you need to go to the Web version of the program for an overview.
Duolingo also isn’t such a great tool for practicing speaking the language you’re learning. Some of the programs on the app, such as French, have speaking practice, but not all do.
One thing that makes Duolingo fun and slightly addicting is that it adds a gaming element to its lessons. You get a certain number of hearts at the start of each lesson. If you make a mistake, you lose a heart. Lose five hearts and you’re locked out of playing for the day unless you buy more with your collection of gems. You get gems for completing levels, not making mistakes during a lesson, and for a variety of other reasons.
The app has also recently introduced leagues and leaderboards, which let you compete with other users to see who can practice the most and build up the most XP (experience points). You may not think that competing with strangers would offer much motivation to keep practicing, but trust me, it does.
The basic version of Duolingo is free and is available on the Web and as an app for iOS, Android, and Windows devices. There is a paid version, as well, which is available as a monthly subscription.
While Duolingo promises to teach you a language, Memrise is more oriented toward helping you learn vocabulary. There’s less focus on grammar and more focus on ways to help you memorize words and phrases.
If you’re more advanced in a language and are looking to beef up your vocab, Memrise is a bit better than Duolingo. Its methods are also more helpful when it comes to memorizing and absorbing the language.
The free version of the app lets you learn new words, review words, and play a game called “Speed Review.” Speed Review shows you a word and multiple definitions. Select the right definition quickly, or you lose a heart. Tap on the wrong definition, and you lose a heart. If you lose three hearts, the game is over. It’s stressful but also fun.
Like Duolingo, Memrise has free and paid versions. I’ve only used the free version, but the paid version gives you more listening practice, as well as more practice with words that are challenging to you. Memrise is available as a monthly subscription, or you can save a bit by purchasing a quarterly or annual subscription. You can also choose to pay a one-time, reasonable flat fee for a lifetime subscription.
Mango is another language learning app that charges a subscription fee, but you might get free access to it through your local library.
Mango has more language options than Memrise or Babbel, but its teaching method doesn’t appeal to me as much. There’s a lot of repetition in Mango, and while repetition is part of learning a language, it can become annoying or boring.
When I was studying Greek, I found Mango to be more helpful than Duolingo because it breaks down the language and explains grammatical concepts in the middle of a lesson.
The program also has a cool speaking feature that lets you compare your pronunciation to that of a native speaker. It won’t correct your pronunciation for you, though.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Mango has over other language learning apps is the number and selection of languages it offers. Want to learn Scottish Gaelic? It’s the one app I’ve seen that offers it. It’s got all the popular languages, plus some less common ones.
The same is true of Icelandic, Azerbaijani, and Igbo. Mango also lets you learn older languages, such as Ancient or Koine Greek, Shakespearean English, and Biblical Hebrew.
2. Work With a Tutor or Instructor One-on-One
While apps can be useful language learning tools, they may not be enough to help you master a language in a meaningful sense. I look at language learning apps as helpers. They can help strengthen your vocabulary and grammar, but when it comes to learning how to use a language like a human, they fall flat.
A tutor or instructor to help you identify where you’re struggling, give you useful pronunciation pointers, and guide your studies. More importantly, they can act as a conversation partner and give you real-world practice speaking the language you’re learning and listening to someone else speak it.
Working with a language tutor or instructor doesn’t have to be a pricey endeavor. While you can spend a lot of money on a fancy tutor, there are also more affordable options.
I found my current Welsh teacher on Meetup. She offers lessons online via Skype and charges a pretty reasonable rate. The price is based on the number of people taking the lessons. When it was just me, the hourly rate was higher. Now that there’s another person in the session with me, I pay less.
Another resource worth trying is Verbling. It’s an online language learning platform that connects language learners with teachers, and it offers a lot of languages. Rates vary depending on the teacher.
Don’t choose someone just because they have a low rate. The most expensive tutors might not be the best ones on the platform. Take a look at tutor reviews and star ratings and read what other learners say about them. You may also have the option to book a free trial with an instructor to see if you’re a good match before you decide to move forward with them.
3. Take a Language Class
You don’t have to enroll in a course at a nearby college to take a language class. College classes, even those at public or community colleges, are pricey. And college-level language classes may not be that valuable or helpful. They tend to be large, especially at the beginner level, and you don’t get that much practice speaking the language.
I took a terrible French class when I was an undergraduate. Instead of getting to practice speaking one at a time, we all merely repeated what the professor said in unison. There was no way to hear ourselves and little chance to correct pronunciation mistakes.
You can find plenty of high-quality classes that cost a lot less than a college course, especially if you live in or near a major city. Depending on where you live, there might be a society nearby that offers classes in your language of choice. In college, I took a Swedish class at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia. Now, I study French at the Alliance Francaise in Philadelphia.
Some organizations are dedicated exclusively to teaching languages. For example, FluentCity has online courses and lessons in languages including Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, and French. Options include group courses and private instruction. The group courses are cheaper, but the private lessons give you more opportunities for one-on-one instruction.
Pro tip: There are also several online courses that allow you to learn a new language. Look into edX.com and Coursera. Both offer programs through some of the world’s best universities and companies.
4. Find a Conversation Group or Buddy
Taking a course or working with an instructor helps you practice speaking and hearing a language, but it’s not the same as having a real-life conversation. If you can, it’s helpful to find a conversation partner or group to practice your language with. Even if you’re a beginner and can barely introduce yourself in the language, it can be worth it to find someone to practice with. And practicing with a partner or group is free of charge.
One way to find a conversation partner is to tap your network. A few years ago, one of my friends told me that one of her friends was looking for someone to speak French with. We began meeting weekly and did so for about two years before she moved to France. We’ve kept up our chats and now connect over Whatsapp. Since she’s been in France for a few years (and married a person whose native language is French), her language skills have far surpassed mine.
Meetup can also be a great resource. Depending on where you live, you may find one or several conversation groups on the site. Some areas also have language exchange meetups where you can practice your skills with native speakers – who, in turn, get to practice their English skills with you.
Duolingo also offers in-person language events in certain areas. In the Philadelphia area, for example, there’s a French group that meets somewhat regularly, either in person or on Skype.
It might take some digging, but you’re likely to find at least one person who’s happy to speak with you and help you build up your language skills. If you’re both studying the same language, you’ll get the opportunity to support each other, and it won’t cost a thing.
5. Seek Out Additional Resources
One of the best ways to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it and the culture around it. While that can mean traveling to a country where the language is spoken, there are plenty of other, more affordable resources to help you immerse yourself in a language.
Head to YouTube
YouTube can be an amazing resource for language learners. I’ve found videos that break down how to pronounce some of the more unfamiliar letters in the Welsh alphabet and some that explain the finer points of French grammar engagingly. In my French studies, I’ve found that Francais Avec Pierre has some fun and informative videos, for example.
Bear in mind that quality on YouTube can be hit or miss. For every fun and useful language video you come across, you might stumble across two or three terrible ones. Luckily, you can just hit “stop” on the video and move on to the next one if you come across a real turkey. You can check out the comments before starting a video to get an idea of whether it’s worth watching or not.
If you like to read, one of the most exciting parts of learning a new language is being able to read books in that language. Once you can read in a language, you can compare the original with the English translation or skip the English translation entirely. You also get access to books that never had an English-language translation.
Finding books in the language you’re studying can be a bit tricky. Depending on the language, your library might have plenty of books available, or they might not have many. I’ve found that the Philadelphia library has a lot of titles in Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. It has some titles in French, but they tend to be older books; recently published French-language novels are hard to find unless they made a big splash.
I tend to stock up on books when I go to France, but that might not be an option for everyone. A more affordable and convenient method is to look on Amazon. I’ve seen reasonably priced French-language novels on the website, in both print and Kindle editions.
I’ve also come across some French novels at locally owned bookstores. Some places are willing to special order books for language learners, but the price tends to be high. You can also check out well-stocked used bookstores in your area for foreign language novels and other books.
Netflix is full of movies and TV shows in other languages. Additionally, many English-language programs are dubbed into other languages, giving you another chance to practice listening to your target language.
Once you reach a certain level with a language, you can switch off the English subtitles. For some programs, you can turn on the foreign language captions to give you even more language practice. I’ve done that with several French TV shows. Reading the captions in French while listening to the language helps me practice a lot more than listening to French while reading English captions.
Listen to the Radio or Podcasts
For many people, getting practice listening to a language is a big challenge. One way to beef up your oral comprehension is to find a radio station in your target language. Podcasts can also be useful.
TuneIn puts a wide range of radio stations, in many languages, at your fingertips. You can also look for the national radio station of a country that speaks the language you’re studying and see if it offers an app or online streaming.
If you’re looking for free articles to read in your target language, head to Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia is published in a wide variety of languages. While some languages have fewer articles than others, you’ll likely find something to read through.
Do You Need to Travel to Learn a Language?
Some people will tell you that the only way to learn different languages is to spend time in a country where that language is spoken.
But you don’t have to leave your home to become proficient in a language. That’s especially true if you live in an area with a large population of people who speak the language you’re studying. What’s more important to focus on is creating opportunities for you to speak, hear, and read the language. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking French in France or to your neighbor in Philly.
That said, traveling to study a language can be great if it’s feasible for you. In some cases, it can help you throw yourself into the language and reach your goals. And it doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. For instance, there are several Welsh language intensives that expose you to the language for eight hours per day for two-week sessions and cost about $100. If you’re nerdy enough, getting to spend two weeks studying for about $100 might be a good excuse to pack your bags and plan your summer vacation.
To find a language course in a country that primarily speaks that language, do a Google search using phrases such as “learn (language) (country).”
If you want to learn a new language or improve your skills in a language, start by downloading a free app. Set aside anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour per day to practice the language to see if you enjoy learning it and if you have the room in your schedule for studying.
If all goes well with the app, you can jump in further by working with a tutor, attending a class, or joining a conversation group. Find a way to use the language as much as you can in your daily life so that you get the most real-world experience practicing it and make speaking it a part of who you are.