Deciding to learn a language is a breath of fresh air.
There’s nothing quite like the excitement of starting out on a language adventure, whether you’re learning a brand-new language or returning to one you studied previously.
You’re ready for anything that comes at you, and your mind is open and free.
Now where to begin?
There are plenty of things you can take into consideration when looking for a learning resource.
But these days, it’s hard to narrow things down—it seems like everybody’s coming out with a new language course.
And chances are, you’re already aware of many of the popular ones, but you want to know which are the smartest, most straightforward options that will really deliver and not distract you from the important goal of actually learning your language.
Sure, you can fork over big bucks for one of those colorful packages of software and books. But it would probably be ideal if you could start learning right away without having to deal with the order and set-up processes, and maybe not even pay anything right away, either.
In other words, you really don’t want to waste your time or money.
And you definitely don’t want to ruin that awesome fresh-air feeling by having to spend weeks wading through iffy material and fretting over bad decisions.
That’s why we’ve put together a list of the top places to take accessible, free or affordable online courses (some of which include offline material, too!) for the serious, budget-minded learner.
But before we look at these, let’s look at a few pieces of advice for how to get the most out of these online courses.
What You Should Keep in Mind When Starting a Foreign Language Course
1. Manage your study time by managing your leisure time.
Like every journey, language learning starts with a single step: beating procrastination and distraction. No matter what you do in life, time management is crucial.
When you’re learning a new skill, it becomes even more essential.
When you ignore language learning, your progress really does slide backwards. But sticking to an exact schedule can be tricky sometimes. So how can you take control?
The key is to always keep language learning at the back of your mind. Turn your goofing-off time into language time. Personally, I’ve developed the habit of mentally keeping an eye on what I’m doing online to see if it’s beneficial in some way.
For example, if you’re slacking off watching cat videos, try searching for cat videos in your target language! Then get back to your actual course as soon as you can. It’s important to allow yourself time to relax away from studying, but if you can develop a small voice in your head reminding you about languages, you’ll never be too far away from your language learning goals.
2. Be consistent with your study time.
Just like all the gyms in January, most online courses tend to be packed during the first few weeks of the year.
Slowly, everyone stops attending. It’s possible to have a valid reason to miss class, but, speaking from experience, sometimes the reason is as simple as being lazy.
Sure, having made the decision to learn a new language is fantastic. Sticking to it regularly, however, is far more important.
Everyone who’s learned a language to fluency can tell you that they only got there by sticking to their studies. You’re not going to learn anything by cramming for a week and then slacking off for a month.
Be realistic with your goals so they can be easily achieved consistently. It’s far more effective to study just half an hour every day instead of for three hours on Sundays alone.
3. Do your assigned coursework or the work required by your goals.
This might seem obvious, but it’s important, especially since many of the courses below require you to hold yourself accountable for your own schedule. We all know that homework is boring and that we don’t like to do it, but it has its purpose—to seal what you’ve learned. Plus, completing it is often a huge confidence booster.
If you hold on to the three points outlined above, you’ll give yourself direction and avoid becoming overwhelmed. But in case life has happened and clashed with your routine, just remember that you can always get back on track.
The hardest part is beginning. Once you take that first step of writing an answer or checking a definition, you’ll find that you suddenly have the momentum to continue.
Now that we’ve established the key elements to succeeding in an online foreign language course, let’s look at your best options.
Foreign Language Courses: The Smartest, Best and Free-est
Some of the resources below offer multiple course options, and some of these options vary depending on the language you’re studying. Get ready to dive in!
As you might be able to guess from the name, this is a resource aimed at people wanting to memorize words and phrases in their target languages. It uses a great spaced-repetition algorithm to remind you of what you’ve learned just before you’re about to forget.
Memrise offers user-made and professional vocabulary courses in heaps of languages.
You can sign up free and upgrade for more features, like chatbots, if you like. For widely studied languages like French and Chinese, you’ll find tons of courses that help you with specific vocabulary for official placement exams.
And even if you’re studying more far-flung languages, you’ll likely be able to find the most common words with native speaker audio to help.
Vocabulary review and learning is where consistency really shines, so make sure to study your words every day!
Coursera offers online courses from the best universities in the world. There’s something for everyone here, from business English to Chinese for the HSK.
Simply sign up, pick a course, and enroll. There are both free and paid options, and an opportunity to try a paid course for a week for free.
The more well-known courses tend to come with a price tag, but it’s a fraction of what it would cost to actually attend that university. This way you get all the benefits of the world’s best professors, all from the comfort of your home.
FluentU offers flexible, personalized and customizable courses that are easy to use. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language lessons that meet your needs.
You can sign up to start using FluentU right away, try it free for two weeks before deciding if it’s right for you and study multiple languages at multiple levels under one convenient plan.
And FluentU isn’t just about watching videos! It creates bottomless quizzes for you to work your way through as you study the vocab from your chosen videos, and gives you the option to explore your language further through interactive captions with definitions, memorable images and example sentences.
Because FluentU has a robust framework for learning but feels casual, it’s great for staying motivated and keeping to your goals. You can even keep track of your study streak and adjust your learning goals for each language.
MIT OpenCourseWare is a website hosting MIT course materials free of charge, permanently. You can read course notes, read over the exams and even watch recorded lectures without having to sign up or enroll.
Because it’s a resource repository, you don’t get the benefit of a course completion certificate, however, for the independent language learner looking for something new, this is a great opportunity.
The online courses include some major languages, go back more than fifteen years, and often cover fascinating related and cultural subjects well beyond just language. Have a look at “French Photography” or “Communicating Across Cultures”!
If you think you would enjoy a Peace Corps member explaining how to make your conversation in Arabic more fluid and natural as opposed to textbook, or learn about typical Chinese foods while listening to a stroll across a food market in the southern provinces, this is the site for you.
Open Culture contains a wealth of free, varied resources for the language learner—audiobooks, online courses, movies and textbooks, to name a few.
This is essentially a gigantic collection of tons of different resources across the web that will enable you to learn a new language in whichever way you please.
Udemy works for both learners and linguists who can monetize their expertise through creating and selling their language courses.
Sign up is mandatory, but enrolling and progress is at your own pace, and while not accredited, Udemy does offer certificates of completion.
Udemy offers full-length paid courses and many shorter free options, so if you’re after a free language refresher or are willing to invest in your language learning this might be the right option for you. There are even refunds available if you find a course not to your liking.
One of the best parts about Udemy is the number of diverse options you’ll have for teachers. Many different teachers with different styles offer courses, so you’ll have tons of options to figure out how you learn best.
Word2Word is a connection hub for language lovers that gives you access to a huge database of information on world languages.
The design is a little bare-bones, but don’t let that stop you. To use it, you just have to go through their list of resources and find what you need.
Right near the top is a list of free language courses that dwarfs any other list found online. You’ll find links to resources for a truly staggering number of language courses, as well as dictionaries, pronunciation guides, foreign newspapers and more.
Duolingo is one of the most popular free language learning apps and a great resource for people either starting a new language or refreshing an old one.
Both the website and the app are easy to navigate and fun to use, so your study time will feel more like a game than a chore. Duolingo is designed to be fun, competitive and educational.
If you already know your way around the language, you can use the placement test option to start at the right level. If you’re a novice, you can work your way down the skills tree from the beginning.
Users are asked to translate sentences back and forth, transcribe the target language and match pictures with vocabulary words. Both the desktop and mobile versions offer courses for English speakers to dozens of languages, with more constantly in development.
Edx is another resource for free online language courses from the best universities. A quick sign-up process will get you access to tons of different courses.
These courses can be either audited for free, which means you can learn all the material in a stress-free environment and receive no certificate, or you can choose to receive a verified certificate at the end of your course for a small fee.
EdX is a great opportunity to take advanced courses in your target language as you push your language learning beyond the basics into academic and expressive language use.
Remember, in order to truly profit from a language course and avoid becoming overwhelmed, you have to manage your time effectively, become a procrastination-fighting champion and get hooked on completing your assignments regularly.
Completing your work and accomplishing your goals will bring you a sense of pure joy. Languages are fascinating in and of themselves, and mastering one is a true achievement that you should be proud of.
Always keep learning and always keep growing.
Yassir Sahnoun is a content strategist, writer, polyglot and co-founder of WriteWorldwide. You can learn more about Yassir at YassirSahnoun.com.
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