Learning Languages Online

Are you interested in language learning? If you’re reading this site, then probably yes. However, I’m sure that you’re not aware just how much the internet can help you in learning languages. Here are my favorite resources that can be used for any language. For language-specific materials, click on the language in question on the left sidebar.

First, to get a taste of a language, I normally read its article in Wikipedia and I look over the most important phrases in this language – http://travlang.com/languages/ is a great resource for that, even though it’s full of ads, because they have resources on lots of languages and even made native-speaker recordings. There’s also a much more complete phrasebook, which is almost like a course, available from 50languages.com. For the really obscure languages, this online “language museum” can give me a first impression of the language’s sound.

The internet is good for much more than just getting a first impression though. You can also learn languages completely for free online; there are lots of free online language courses. Of course those are often not as good or not as complete as commercial courses, but there are also great and really complete courses online, for example the course in Modern Greek from Kypros.org with more than 100 lessons, the German course by Deutsche Welle, or this Korean course put online by Sogang University. (This blog post won’t try to be a comprehensive listing of available good online courses, my other site tried to do that.)

Sometimes there are even online courses that used to be (or still are) sold commercially. For example, the American Foreign Service Institute allowed many of its language courses from the 60s to be published online at this site. And there’s an awesome commercial multimedia course in Modern Greek (including video!) here, made available for free. LiveMocha is a website that offers courses for a whole bunch of languages, but they are pretty bad. The best webpages are those that only teach one language, for example Lernu for Esperanto – this has to be the most awesome most complete free language site ever! Would that more languages had sites like this! I’ve also recently come to appreciate Duolingo, which uses a unique approach to teach French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German.

Apart from complete courses, the internet also offers great tools. I shall list them according to their learning goals. If your goal is…

A bigger vocabulary: www.yourdictionary.com/languages.html lists online dictionaries for all languages. You don’t want to learn all the words of a dictionary though, so have a look at the Unilang.org basic wordlists with around 600 of the most common words for any language (select category “Unilang Basic Wordlist” and choose your target language). There are also various topical word lists. If you’re not sure how to use a word, or how to say something correctly, www.tatoeba.org is a multilingual database of phrases, in which you can search your word. For memorizing words, definitely try out the free open-source software Anki, which is much better than commercial programs. It’s cross-platform and even available for mobile phones.

Grammar: There are online grammars (for example the complete official reference grammar for Esperanto) just like there are courses, but there’s not one page good for all. Let me just mention Verbix.com, which can conjugate any verb in more than 50 languages. Also, be sure to read my blog post on how to learn grammar.

Pronunciation: if you don’t know how to pronounce a foreign word, Forvo.com has a huge database of recorded words for many languages, mostly done by native speakers. If you however need to know how to pronounce a complete phrase or even a complete text, go to Rhinospike.com instead – there you can request that someone should make a recording for you (for free).

Reading comprehension: the best way to learn how to read foreign texts is – to read them. If they are beyond your level though, for example if you try to read a Mexican newspaper after only studying Spanish for 5 hours, use a browser plugin that adds translations to all words, so that you can rapidly move your mouse over the text and start to understand it. It’s much faster than looking every word up in a dictionary. You can use these to read not just your own texts, blog posts or foreign newspapers online, but also lots of literature for example – this is a great collection of links to sites that have online literature in lots of languages, such as the Project Gutenberg. And if you prefer somewhat simplified texts, there are some websites for that as well, collected here. Also LingQ has simplified texts in a bunch of languages, and an in-built on-click translation system to boot. Parallel texts (here and here) are also very useful to beginner and intermediate students – there, one column is in the language you’re studying and another column is in your native language, but both feature the same text, so you can compare meanings and constructions across languages.

Listening Comprehension: first, there are podcasts that propose to teach you languages, such as GermanPod101, where I’m project manager, or any number of them available through a quick search on iTunes. Most of these are for beginners or lower-intermediate students. If you’re beyond that stage, there are foreign-language audiobooks (books that are read to you). Audiobooks are becoming popular now, but often they’re expensive. At Librivox.org you can find open-source free audiobooks in several languages, and there’s a more complete listing of such sites here. If your listening comprehension isn’t good enough yet though, you could try listening to an audiobook in a foreign language while reading along in your own language – a lot of words will become clear and they will enter your vocabulary with little effort. This method is called Listening-Reading (see explanations by the inventor) and some resources have been collected for it at Bilingual-texts.com, or you can mix & match your own with the literature and audiobook links above. If you’re a bit more advanced, you may also like to listen to something while reading along in the same language; for example some news sites offer recordings of the news as well as transcripts of them. Or you can watch videos in your target language with subtitles in your language – Dotsub collects subtitled videos online, or there are always DVDs. If your DVD doesn’t have the subtitles you want, you may find some at OpenSubtitles.org, and of course the internet is also your friend if you’re looking to get movies in your target language.

Writing: to get better, you should write a lot in your target language. That’s why I like the service at Lang-8.com, where native speakers correct your foreign-language texts for free. Busuu.com is similar, though it’s only good for a limited number of languages. In exchange, they offer courses and ideas what you could write about.

Speaking: even if you live in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, you can speak your target language every day. How? Use italki (or one of many similar websites) to find partners who will talk with you via Skype. They will help you learn their language and you will help him learn yours. Normally you speak half an hour in one language and half an hour in the other, but this can change if your level of language knowledge is different. If you however don’t have the time to do the exchange or if you’re still unable to talk at all, you should find a paid tutor on italki as well or at Myngle. Compared to a random native speaker, who cannot explain things or empathize with your situation as a learner of his language, a tutor is often a better choice, especially if you’re not very advanced yet. The advantage of online tutoring is that you can easily find many native speakers of your target language and choose the best teacher from among them, while in your city there may only be one qualified teacher, or even none. I also like online tutoring because it saves me the time I’d otherwise spend commuting. Here’s how to use tutors to reach conversational fluency asap.

The rest: if you have a question about a language you’re learning, if you don’t understand the grammar, need help finding websites, are looking for a good textbook or don’t know how to learn efficiently, there are special forums about language-learning that will provide answers. For grammar or vocabulary questions about a particular language I typically recommend the Unilang forum because it unites native speakers and students of lots of languages, including very obscure ones. For questions about language-learning in general, new study methods or evaluations of textbooks / language programs, I recommend the how-to-learn-any-language forum.

Don’t forget to have fun learning languages!

P.S.: If you know other great free websites for or about language learning, please let me know!