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February 14, 2012 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Best (and preferably cheapest!) way to learn a foreign language?

In high school, I had three years of French (with the two MOST amazing teachers possible) and two years of German (one of the French teachers also taught German), as well as two years of Spanish (horrible teachers!) and two years of community college-level intro Spanish. I have lost my French and German notes from high school, which I intentionally kept as they were incredibly helpful, and I've recently decided I want to re-learn and possibly become fluent in a foreign language. I've always had a good ear when it comes to learning languages, but immaturity in high school and early college kept me from wanting to learn these things to the fullest extent and now that I've got free time, I want to better myself and learn something new!

What are some great ways you can learn a language? Not possible: traveling to a country which speaks said language, or anything very costly (unemployed and broke here!). I've tried to find some stuff via Google but most results are not useful as they're pushing a product which I've no idea if it works or not. I've heard mixed reviews of Rosetta Stone, and not really any info on other related products. Are there online things/tools/etc. that are fantastic (and not just generic question/answer stuff geared toward tourists)? Are there books I can get via the library or read online? Should I just audit some classes at the local university, or is there something I've not thought of yet? Merci, gracias, and Danke!
posted by PeppahCat to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 119 users marked this as a favorite
 
The BBC offers free online audio/video language lessons for a bunch of languages. I went through some of the German one and found it very helpful. It seems geared towards tourists traveling in those countries, so it might not get you to "fluent" but it's a reasonable start! You can also investigate your local library's selection of language tapes/cds (also books!) and see if any of them work for you.
posted by radioaction at 10:30 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


1. All of the public libraries around here have the audio kits for learning languages available for patrons to borrow. Depending on the library, this will either be free or a dollar or so for the lending period.

2. You could enroll in a class in a community college. This varies depending on your state, and would not be so cheap, but would provide one on one instruction. Sometimes you can audit a class for a reduced rate.

3. Around here, B&N has a French group that meets weekly for discussion. Good verbal practice.

4. When I was young, a friend knew a French guy and he would come to their house and give group instruction and practice for a nominal fee.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:32 AM on February 14, 2012


Hi, I'm a librarian and at our library we have a couple free resources at our library, maybe yours has similar options:

1. Online language-learning. We have something called Mango Languages, which is an online system with a ton of different languages and you can create an account so every time you log in, it picks up where you left off. There are beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels for all the common languages.

2. Informal language-practice groups. We only have this for Spanish, but maybe other libraries have other languages. Ours is called Intercambio. Spanish speakers come when they want to practice English with native speakers, and English speakers come to practice Spanish with native speakers.

So, call your local librarian and see what your options are. Can't get better than free!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:33 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


- The Foreign Services Institute language courses are public domain materials, with grammar, audio, and everything you could want.
- Other mefites have said good things about spanishpod 101
- A real live exchange partner is useful when you get to a conversational level. Check Craigslist, couchsurfing, livemocha, conversationexchange, polyglot club, or any number of local events that are targetted towards specific groups. You can do this in person, by email, or by Skype, to suit your schedule and skills.
- Don't forget your library! As well as books for learning languages, more and more libraries offer books - including children's and young adult selections - in foreign languages. You can also start with the International Digital Children's Library
- Lots more educational material to download at ERIC, courtesy of the US Department of Education

Don't forget to add a healthy dose of music in your target language, and once you get to that level, perhaps some blogs along with a translate-by-mouseover plug-in.
posted by whatzit at 10:38 AM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Start a romantic relationship with a native speaker of your target language!
posted by Dragonness at 10:48 AM on February 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


The stuff I'm about to mention is geared towards French, but I've done the same things for Spanish, too. So whatever!

My favorite intermediate French textbook is Personnages 4th ed. (by Oates/Dubois, from Wiley). It was assigned by my native-french and best-ever language prof, and when I lost my original I found an instructor's edition on Amazon for something like twenty five bucks! Keep in mind that this is without the workbook and the audio cds, but it does comes with access to web resources that I don't think you have to log into to use, however it's been a while since I've used that. At any rate, they were pretty helpful!

Listening to the radio is a great way to stay in touch with the cadence and intonation of a language, too. And it helps you develop a killer accent!

Good luck! What you're doing is awesome!
posted by Chutzler at 10:52 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you want a refresher on your previous language studies, I highly recommend language learning podcasts. I haven't had great luck learning a language from scratch that way, but it's great if you already know a little and want to remember or expand your knowledge.

I've had good luck with stuff from the folks at Radio Lingua, but there are lots and lots of them out there.
posted by Sara C. at 11:09 AM on February 14, 2012


I'm a fan of Stephen Krashen, whose thing is comprehensible input. That is, in his theory, we learn languages because we hear and read things that are easy enough to understand (not with 100% perfect comprehension but enough to get the gist of things), and by doing a LOT of it.

So: if you're just starting out, things like Pimsleur and Mango Languages, which you should be able to get at the library. When you gain some more facility in the language, you can read picture books, comic books, blog posts, listen to Youtube videos. There's a surprising amount that's available for free on the web, if you're learning a common language.

Anki is a really good spaced repetition flash card program, and it's free.

I've heard of people having good luck finding conversation partners on Skype, but I haven't tried it myself.
posted by Jeanne at 11:21 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Start a romantic relationship with a native speaker of your target language!
posted by Dragonness at 10:48 AM on February 14 [2 favorites +] [!]



That does have some pitfalls, you could end up speaking like a member of the opposite sex, for example the dreaded Gaijin peto category.
posted by kanemano at 11:45 AM on February 14, 2012


The BBC language website is really great, and in fact some of the About.com language/grammar pages are much better than you would think. I listen to Europop music at work, which has actually helped somewhat with my French; here's a very long and good list of all kinds of streaming radio channels from France, from hit songs to politics. Some foreign channels also stream video online, so you can see different kinds of things, and maybe look out for streaming documentaries or other kinds of media.

If you're located near a larger city, google around for local interest groups and Meetups. Many cities have cultural centers for a particular country's heritage, and they often have programs and classes where you can hear languages being spoken. In DC for example there is a church and center with masses in Italian, along with programs, events, and classes. There are also many meetups for low-key language-based interactions like a coffee hour or drinks. See if your local university has events like film showings or lectures that are open to the public for the language you're interested in. Your public library may also have foreign films with foreign subtitles, which I love to watch because then I can really match the words to their sounds. You also might be able to put up flyers to see if you can swap tutoring in English for tutoring in another language, if the university has a lot of foreign students.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:58 AM on February 14, 2012


If you have a commute, I've found the Pimsleur courses to be a nice adjunct to studying. They are meant to be auditory, so I don't think you would use them on their own. But, they were a good support for when I was learning some Czech and trying to improve my Italian accent. I know our library has a number of them. Yours may too. They key is to speak out loud!

If your target language is French, I highly recommend RFI's "Nouvelle en français facile". Very good for listening comprehension. I wish I could find something similar for Spanish and Italian.

The FSI courses are good if you're disciplined about working through them. The repetition may seem mind numbing, but you'll never forget your sequence of tenses again. LOL.
posted by robabroad at 12:32 PM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Someone already mentioned livemocha and I wanted to second that. It's the only free tool that I've found online that has been really helpful in my quest to learn Romanian (which is a language that very few people seek to learn). There is a system of peer reviews where you submit your answers to basic coursework and a native speaker will review it. In return, you are asked to review the work of others in your native language.
posted by verdeluz at 12:35 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"you could end up speaking like a member of the opposite sex, for example the dreaded Gaijin peto category"

Yeah, Japanese learners in general have a real problem with this. When I studied it with a female teacher, I suspect I was learning a more feminine form of pronunciation and general word shaping.

But a much worse problem was that she simply would not tell me when I wasn't doing it right. She was always "oh, you're doing so well!" Finally there was one session where I'd been sick for a few days, hadn't studied much, didn't know the vocabulary, I basically knew damn well that I had not done "well" in any meaningful sense of the word. But she was still just as effusive in her praise of my wonderful scholarship. Really punctured my bubble too.
posted by Naberius at 12:37 PM on February 14, 2012


If you are looking to learn French, French In Action is great. This used to be on public TV all the time - it may still be. You can watch all the episodes for free online here.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:49 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fantastic info, gang! Thanks! Marked some as best so I remember to look into things this evening lol. I never thought of looking for podcasts for some reason. I really like the sound of Livemocha too...am thinking that may be the first place I go!
(I will pass on the relationship with a foreign language speaker...my Fiance wouldn't like that much. ;P)
posted by PeppahCat at 1:40 PM on February 14, 2012


For French, you can find an Alliance Francaise group. They get together and have guest speakers or events and alternate with conversational groups. There are native speakers and people just practicing their French.
posted by la petite marie at 6:15 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Michel Thomas language courses might interest you. Again his emphasis is on listening and speaking rather than writing or grammar theory. His courses work by building up modules of useful expressions on the basis that, once you have these sorted out, it becomes possible to assemble your own sentences at the sort of speeds you are going to need for conversation. I once made an FPP about his quite interesting background.
posted by rongorongo at 1:57 AM on February 15, 2012


Find a native speaker of the language that you are interested that wants to improve his/her English and offer free English lessons in exchange for lessons in their language. You could meet weekly say for an hour and a half and spend 45 minutes speaking English and other 45 speaking French/Spanish. Win-win situation for both parties.
posted by rundom at 2:34 AM on February 15, 2012


Others already mentioned the idea of using podcasts, and I would second that. One that I use personally to polish my Spanish skill is Notes In Spanish, they provide the content in various levels from total Beginners to Advanced, and focus mostly on everyday language. The podcasts can be downloaded for free, (transcripts and extra content is paid)
posted by rundom at 2:56 AM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not long ago I decided I do not like the standard way of learning a language: learning vocabulary, doing grammar exercises, taking language courses. Flash cards are dull and I learn vocabulary better by using it; grammar exercises don't help you much with talking spontaneously; and more often than not, language courses are not worth the money because they focus on grammar (which you can learn by speaking) and you only get to speak for a few minutes.

So right now I try to learn Italian heretically by watching Italian TV series with Italian (!) subtitles and by doing a language tandem with a native speaker. It's not easy to find foreign language DVDs with subtitles for the hearing impaired, but it's possible for the languages you mention. TV series are better than movies because they are predictable (so you can focus on the language rather than the plot), they have a fixed set of characters and they often reveal something about the country they are from. Watching "Frasier" in French is no good because all you learn are Americanisms. I also look up every word I don't know in Italian. This slows you down at the beginning but you'd be surprised how small the lexicon of you typical TV show is. As to finding a tandem partner, you're lucky because many speakers wish to learn English, and it shouldn't be a big difficulty to find someone (in a largish town). As a start, check the country's cultural institute (Goethe institute, Instituto Cervantes) or a local university for a bulletin board. Meet regularly!

I guess this method requires a certain facility with dealing with foreign languages, but given your years of French, Spanish and German you should have that. Also buy a grammar book if you want to look something up, but in my experience that's rarely required. After some time you should be able to read children's books, too. Spend time in the target country in some way that requires to speak the language (though that's not always easy).
posted by faustdick at 9:29 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh and I can recommend suitable T.V. series in German if you like - let me know.
posted by faustdick at 9:33 AM on February 15, 2012


One of my favorite online resources for Spanish (and French when I get into it eventually) is the set of RadioLingua podcasts. I've been listening to Coffee Break Spanish and Show Time Spanish. If you pay, you get bonus episodes and transcriptions.

Also, for a dictionary, it's hard to beat WordReference. It has great verb conjugation charts, and surprisingly thorough definitions for something that's free.
posted by tatma at 10:38 AM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd be curious to know about resources for getting access to foreign language TV series with English subtitles. Either streaming, available for download, or R1 DVD. I've studied Spanish, French, and Italian in the past, but honestly anything would be of interest.
posted by Sara C. at 11:37 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, also, SisterHavana mentioned French in Action. WGBH produced Destinos too, a similar idea for Spanish, which can be viewed online from the same site.

It doesn't seem to have been updated in a while, but you might like So You Want to Learn a Language. It's a curated aggregation of online learning programs.

I keep remembering things to suggest and then I can't edit the post...
posted by tatma at 1:55 PM on February 15, 2012


From my experiences working on my French:

Project gutenberg and librivox both have free foreign-language material.

I bought the $80 Kindle recently and loaded it with a bunch of public-domain French lit. If you install their (free) French dictionary then you can do quick lookups from the text you're reading.

As others have said, your local library may have DVD's, CD's, books, comics, kids books, etc., in foreign languages. Check their online catalog's search forms--you might find there's a language field hidden somewhere.

I've listened to a lot of Radio France podcasts. People who talk on the radio tend to speak more carefully and correctly than (for example) movie characters--which makes it a bit easier to hear.

I try to find stuff that I really absolutely love reading, watching, or listening to. Language courses never seemed much fun to me. (OK, I do remember enjoying French in Action when I saw it as a kid.) It's nice to have some reference works around to explain something you've seen, but you wouldn't want to read that stuff.

Comics were a fun entry-point for me, and amazon.{ca,fr} will ship to the US. But that's not a cheap habit.

And google around (or try meetup.com) for local conversation groups.

My French is still far from perfect, but I've enjoyed myself. You will too!
posted by bfields at 4:52 PM on February 15, 2012


Seconding French in Action - and check local used bookstores for used copies of the textbook, workbook, and study guide. You can find them online pretty cheap.

There's a similar course called Fokus Deutsch - it seems to have disappeared from the learner.org website, but you might still be able to find DVDs at your library, or used. In fact, I think several episodes are up on YouTube. McGraw-Hill has Fokus Deutsch textbook info.

While you're at the library, see if they have a copy of How to Learn Any Language, by Barry Farber. I especially liked his short chapter listing the tools he recommends (textbook with grammar, dictionary, phrasebook, newspaper, reader, audio course, flashcards).

Bonne chance!
posted by kristi at 10:21 AM on February 16, 2012


Many French newspapers are available online for free. At my modest level of French I enjoy reading some of the regional publications because they have a less florid style than those from Paris - for example Midi Libre. An additional bonus is that many papers now allow people to make comments online. That is a pretty good way studying local culture and expressions.

Finally a shout for Google Translate - it is possible to use this tool to cheat oneself out of learning a language - but it is also a great way of providing a basic translation (at beginner level) and of giving yourself a translation-accuracy checking exercise when you are more advanced.
posted by rongorongo at 3:14 PM on February 16, 2012


Addendum: I recently discovered (possibly here?) Presseurop, a sort of European "Presseschau" or press-aggregator. They have articles of general interest from major European newspapers, and they are of high quality. They have a focus on European politics, economics (etc) of course. The best thing about it is that the articles are translated into many EU languages, including the ones you mention. As far as I can tell, the translations have a high quality also. They have an Android app which I use; I typically switch back and forth between the app and the WordReference.com app, which happens to have a decent Italian dictionary.

As to T.V. series, you need to (1) discover them and (2) purchase them on DVD. As to 2, Germany has an excellent local Amazon so you can order the DVDs from there. If you watch on you computer and use VLC, I don't think you have to worry about region codes (and the series will probably be code-free). I'll quickly mention a few series in German: Heimat, Monaco Franze, Liebling Kreuzberg, the mini-series by Dieter Wedel (check IMDB). All of these are good. Perhaps crime series Derrick is of interest as well? (It's not excellent T.V., though).

I don't think any of them have English subtitles though. It's better to have subtitles in the original language, though, anyway; that way you learn the words directly (though as I said above it slows you down). Sometimes you'll be able to find English-language subtitles on, say, OpenSubtitles as well.
posted by faustdick at 7:52 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sara C, for Italian, check out La Piovra, Commissario Montalbano, Don Matteo. All of those are available on DVD. I know for a fact that La Pivora is avaialble with English subtitles, and it's not expensive either (and very good!).
posted by faustdick at 7:55 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can't recommend apprendre.tv

It is the French language learning site of the French TV channel TV5 and has lots of exercises and native French videos. It also teaches without resorting to using English or any other language - try the exercises in "7 Jours Sur La Planète" which update every week with recent news articles from TV5 converted into language learning exercises. Great stuff.
posted by inbetweener at 4:47 AM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I meant I can't recommend apprendre.tv enough... :-P
posted by inbetweener at 4:48 AM on February 18, 2012


If you want to learn German, I have found the free online courses from Deutsche Welle to be excellent.
posted by molecicco at 7:24 AM on February 20, 2012


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