Learning a language is like doing an extreme home makeover…
…on your brain.
Let’s take a look at some powerful language learning tools to help you in the construction process.
- Laying Your Linguistic Foundations: Listening Tools
- The Building Blocks of Language Learning: Vocabulary-building Tools
- The Mortar Between the Language Learning Bricks: Reading Tools
- Writing Tools to Help Furnish Your Language
- Touching Up the Paint: Pronunciation Tools
- Getting Wired: Tools for Connecting to Natives
- Making Sure You’re Up to Code: Translation Tools for In-context Language Learning
- Welcome to the Neighborhood: Cultural Learning Tools
- Enjoying Your New Mental Space
Laying Your Linguistic Foundations: Listening Tools
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
This insightful quote was popularized by the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and was intended as a general piece of life advice, but it’s particularly relevant to language learners who want to start constructing their new linguistic knowledge upon solid foundations.
There are a lot of reasons listening is vital for language learning, but first and foremost is that no matter how many phrases you memorize, you can’t do anything with a language until you understand the sounds that make it up.
There are many tools in the digital and analog world to help you down the path of listening proficiency, from video and radio to podcasts, music and good old-fashioned conversation. Here’s an assortment of listening tools to train your ear to the acoustics of your target language and start building on a sound foundation.
From Afrikaans to Vietnamese, Innovative Language has you covered with one of the best free podcast series for language learners on the web. This podcast series includes video and audio lessons that often focus on cultural aspects of the country or region that’s home to the target language, complete with vocabulary building exercises and helpful word lists.
It’s updated with new lessons every week, with material geared towards absolute beginners all the way up to advanced learners nearing fluency. You may recognize it from its podcast sites (for example, Portuguesepod101) These are the language-specific sites you’ll be directed to once you enter your email and pick a language. Here’s just a sampling of the many popular foreign languages they currently offer:
The material is made and presented by professional teachers, and it’s one of the most prolific and consistent language sites in the game. Although they have a paid version of the service, thousands of professionally produced audios and videos are given absolutely free.
You can benefit from this flood of language content regardless of your state of fluency—they’ve got something for absolute beginners as well as advanced learners.
One of the best ways to sensitize your ears to the sounds of a new language is by listening to its music. 8tracks is full of music playlists in any genre or language you can think of: Type your target language in the search bar at 8tracks and click go, or browse through the associated tags and artists that pop up as suggestions.
You’ll not only give your ears a glimpse into the sounds of your new language, but also open yourself up to new genres and artists you may not have had the chance to listen to before, giving you a new target-language hobby from day one.
Lyrics Training takes a karaoke-style approach to language learning with music. Choose your language, pick a music video and select a level from beginner to expert: From there, the game begins, and depending on the level you’ve selected, you’ll have to fill in anywhere from a handful of key words to every word of the lyrics as you sing along. Pick a time of day when your neighbors and roommates are gone, and learn by clumsily belting it out.
News in Slow
Makers of the “News in Slow” series, Linguistica 360 helps you train your ear and build your language skills through current events. Choose from French, Spanish, Italian or German and start listening to the day’s events.
Each episode includes a transcription in the target language with helpful vocabulary tips and explanations of the more difficult terms you encounter, a great way to build vocabulary in context while learning to recognize the sound and feel of the language.
The Building Blocks of Language Learning: Vocabulary-building Tools
With some good listening tools under your belt, your foundations are laid, and you’ve got some basic knowledge upon which to build the rest of your linguistic talents.
The next step is to move on to the raw materials of your construction, the bricks and mortar: learning foreign language vocabulary.
It’s hard to say exactly how many words you need to really speak a language, or what the best way to learn new vocabulary words is. Start out with some of these tools, and use your imagination to figure out which strategies work best for you.
This virtual immersion program uses native-level content to teach languages. Every video has interactive subtitles, which let you look up unfamiliar words instantly. There are also multimedia flashcards and personalized quizzes so you can review what you’ve learned and remember it later.
As a language learning tool, Duolingo turns a hammer and box of nails into a game you’ll actually enjoy playing. That pushy little green bird will coach you through the days you really don’t feel like working on your linguistic construction project, and you’ll come out of them having perfected new words and phrases that you’ll continue to strengthen as you build up layer after layer of vocabulary.
Another of the most popular vocabulary-building tools on the web, Memrise is the DIY flashcard tool that lets you personalize your language learning. Mix and match vocabulary lessons ranging from basic color and number words to phrasal verbs to different ways to say “I love you,” and make your own “mems” as you go, selecting pictures and other mnemonic devices that you custom-make for your own brain.
Anki is most famous for popularizing the Spaced Repetition System or SRS method of vocabulary learning. Anki is open source SRS software that you can download to your computer or use on your phone in app form, downloading any of the over 80 million available pre-made flashcards, making your own or doing a little of each.
Anki uses an algorithm to track your progress and knowledge of each vocabulary term you study, helping you prioritize which words need a bit more repetition and which can go on the back burner for now, helping you repeat your drills until you’ve mastered the vocabulary.
The Mortar Between the Language Learning Bricks: Reading Tools
Once you’ve got some words to build with and a sound understanding of the speech sounds that make them up, one of the best ways to cement your knowledge is through reading.
Reading in a foreign language is one of the safest and most stress-free ways to explore the meanings of those words and how they’re used, as well as to continue building new vocabulary in context. These reading tools will help you develop a foreign language reading habit that ensures your construction holds together as you continue building.
Wikipedia for the most part remains an undiscovered treasure trove for language learners. With millions of articles available in 295 languages, it offers contextualized target language reading replete with images and links that allow you to clarify things you don’t understand by reading about them in the language you’re practicing rather than reaching for a dictionary definition or a translation.
Pleasure reading shouldn’t be limited to your mother language. Feedly is an RSS tool you can use to create your own customized content streams, with daily updates from blogs, online magazines and other digital content in your target language. You could create different feeds for different languages or divide them into categories like Spanish periodicals, Korean film blogs and news in Farsi.
Amazon Foreign Language Books
In addition to all the free e-books available across the web, Amazon has a robust foreign language books section that’ll help you find the right reading material without breaking the bank.
Search for a title or just by language, and be sure to download a free sample of the book before buying it, so that you can read a few pages and make sure it’s both at your reading level and something you’ll actually enjoy swiping through.
Writing Tools to Help Furnish Your Language
When it comes to your literacy in a foreign language, you’ve gotta use it or lose it.
Learning a language through reading books sounds like heaven on earth for some bookworms, but if you really want to pull your freshly-mortared language together, you’ll need to put pen to paper. Writing in a foreign language, much like speaking, helps solidify some of the connections you’ve made while listening and reading, and it gives you a safe space to trial-and-error your way through new words, phrases and grammatical constructions. Here are some tools to help you get started.
Lang-8 is an online community of natives and learners where you can practice your writing and get feedback and corrections from those who know the language best. Write a few lines about what you did today, or maybe some musings on a movie you’ve recently seen in your target language, then publish it and wait for the natives to come.
Don’t forget that exchange goes both ways: Earn points in the community by helping others and suggesting improvements on their writing in your native language!
HelloTalk is a mobile app that lets you connect to native speakers of your target language and learners of your language via text. Once you find some conversation partners and start chatting, you can take advantage of the app’s integrated translation and transliteration functions (for those learning an unfamiliar writing system), and use the in-app function to hear the pronunciations of the words you’re being texted.
Foreign Language Journals
For many learners, a foreign language journal or just an unstructured space where they can try out their language is the key to learning through writing.
You can start your own page on a site like Tumblr or start a WordPress blog where you scribble random thoughts and make up your own writing exercises. Adjust your settings to keep it private if you’re feeling shy, or go public and actively solicit comments and feedback from speakers of the language.
Omniglot Writing Systems
Particularly for those learning a language with a non-Latin alphabet, Omniglot’s Writing Systems resource is a spectacular place to start. Familiarize yourself with the new script and find links to online resources for learning it, or just keep the page bookmarked for reference as you get started writing or texting with some of the other tools mentioned here.
Touching Up the Paint: Pronunciation Tools
Pronunciation is a tricky part of language learning: It’s important to be easily understood, but it’s easy to get so lost in perfectionistic phonetic details that you lose sight of the bigger linguistic work in progress.
An accent wall or some contrasting throw pillows in your house might add a pleasant pop of color, but when we’re talking about speaking a foreign language, accents sometimes draw the kind of attention that makes us feel less confident in our speaking and leads to making more stress-induced mistakes.
You don’t need to amaze the natives with your perfect pronunciation, but you also don’t have to buy into the myth that adults can’t learn languages as well as kids in the pronunciation department. Intermediate and advanced learners who feel like they’ve got a handle on everyday communication in their target language can use some of these tools to touch up their foreign language accent.
Sounds of Speech
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is one of your best resources for learning about the many different speech sounds that make up the world’s languages, and Sounds of Speech is one of the best tools for practicing it.
The University of Iowa’s Sounds of Speech tool is an excellent interactive visual guide to the mechanics of the mouth, demonstrating exactly how you need to move your tongue and other speech organs to produce specific consonant and vowel sounds, helping you get past the uvular R’s and ambiguous mid-vowels that otherwise trip up your tongue.
Forvo is an exhaustive online pronunciation dictionary, and it belongs in your bookmarks bar no matter where you are in learning a language. Just search the word that’s giving you trouble and listen to user-provided pronunciations from native speakers.
Getting Wired: Tools for Connecting to Natives
At the end of the day, language is about communicating—what good is your new language if you don’t have anyone to speak it with?
As you finish up construction on the language you’re learning, be sure to find a place for yourself in its community of speakers. There are plenty of online tools for finding a language exchange partner, but here are a few to get you started.
If you want something a little more formal than your casual language exchange, Verbling is a good place to start looking. Here you can search for professional native teachers, schedule classes with them, and make a schedule and personalized lessons as you go. It’s not free, but you’ll find it’s a good bit cheaper than most in-person professional teachers, and you can go to class without getting off the couch.
You’ll be able to explore hundreds upon hundreds of online language teachers and find exactly the one who’s right for you. When you search, you’ll get to search based on prices, availability and even the other languages they speak—so if your native language is Chinese or German, you can find a teacher to instruct you in that language. Plus, the technology here makes accessing tutoring sessions extra smooth! You don’t need Skype or another third-party program. It’s all here!
WyzAnt is an incredible resource for locating stellar language teachers near you. This site is professional and polished, and it features well-educated and well-qualified tutors in your local area. Why not start by seeing who’s close to home? You might even find someone you know in your community who can teach you! Then your new language classes can take place at your favorite coffee shop or at your house.
HiNative lets you casually reach out to native speakers of your target language with the simple questions you never really know how to ask. Is this word masculine or feminine? How come this word is spelled differently sometimes? It’s like carrying a no-strings-attached native in your pocket, and it’s great in a pinch to answer those pesky questions that otherwise keep you up at night.
Speaky is one of the biggest free online language exchange communities, and you’ll find it offers many of the same benefits as similar sites that charge a monthly fee. Use it to find and coordinate Skype exchanges with native speakers of your target language, and be ready to help them with learning your native language as well.
Sites like Meetup aren’t necessarily meant for language learners, but you’re bound to find many linguistically like-minded individuals who are either your neighbors or travelers passing through your community. Meetup is often host to either a general language exchange meetup or sometimes a slew of language-specific meetups depending on the size of the city.
Couchsurfing events also often include regular language exchanges, plus the handy user search tool allows you to search for speakers of a particular language in your area who you can meet up with for a coffee and a multilingual chat.
Making Sure You’re Up to Code: Translation Tools for In-context Language Learning
There are all kinds of technology hacks for learning a language that can help you navigate your linguistic construction site, but keeping that translation app on your phone’s home screen might not be the best one. Relying on translation to build up the foundations and basic structure of your language is a bit like building your house with duct tape and paperclips.
However, once you’ve built something that more or less looks like a language, it can be an invaluable tool for checking and expanding your knowledge.
In general, simple machine translators like Google Translate should be taken with a huge dose of caution: They’re stripped of the kind of context you find in a visual dictionary, and machine translation is always an approximation at best. The urge to copy and paste into the magic decoder is strong enough that we all succumb to it in moments of weakness, but there are better options for translations that don’t damage the structural integrity of your language learning. Here are a few good ones:
Linguee is an online translator that offers contextualized translations that take into account the many different phrases and shades of meaning that can be applied to a single word.
Type your query into the search box and you’ll receive two columns: the language you searched in on the left, and the target language on the right. Each will include the same sentence or paragraph in both languages, giving you the extra context to make sure the word you’re translating doesn’t mean something totally off the wall.
Bab.la is similar to Linguee in its use of in-context definitions pulled from across the web. It also offers a few handy extra tools like a verb conjugator that will help you explore different forms and uses of the new words and phrases you’re learning.
Linqapp is the social translation app that lets you go directly to the source and get a native speaker’s take on your translation query. Despite all the advances in language technology in recent years, machine translation still usually isn’t up to the challenge of providing descriptive idioms and native-like turns of phrase that capture nuance and connotation. Instead, turn to Linqapp to get a digitally-enhanced human translation.
Welcome to the Neighborhood: Cultural Learning Tools
Culture is inseparable from language. Whatever language you’re learning, it’s a living, growing thing, and there’s no better way to learn about its life and those of the people who speak it than through target language media like TV, movies, journalism, literature and the other products of the culture that gives meaning to the language in question.
Cultural learning is an abstract thing that can be hard to pin down in concrete terms, but there are a few tools that can help you learn more deeply about the meanings behind the words and better appreciate the cultural benefits of being bilingual.
Streema is a website and app that provides free online access to TV and radio stations in over a hundred countries around the world. Popular world languages spoken across many countries will have a wealth of stations available, but even less widely-studied languages like Amharic or Zulu are available on Streema: just browse through the Ethiopian and South African TV channels until you find something in your target language that takes your interest, and tune in to what the locals are watching.
BBC Languages is one of the biggest online repositories of free language learning material, including not only free lessons and foreign language cheat-sheets, but also links to real media like TV shows, newspapers and blogs that native speakers are regularly following.
Other international news outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and Euronews that serve linguistically diverse publics across the globe also frequently offer streaming news and other media resources that language learners can easily make use of to inject some current events into their language learning.
One way to get insight into what matters to speakers of your language is to see what websites they visit most frequently. Alexa is a web tool that ranks the authority of websites, and it offers a list of the most popular websites by country. You’ll see many of the same usual suspects across the globe (Facebook, Wikipedia), but keep an eye out for blogs and other media sites that you can read, listen to or otherwise consume to get a feel for your target language in action.
Bonus: A Good VPN Service
Many countries offer public television stations freely online for their citizens, but that means you’ll need to access the content from a local IP address. Look into some free and cheap VPN (Virtual Private Network) services and install one that’ll let you change your web browser’s IP address at will, convincing those servers halfway across the world that you’re really logging in from within the country, and get online and oh my god this is almost over now.
An easy way to set up a VPN and magically change your location to Germany, France, Korea or any other country of choice is by installing HideMyAss! VPN on any of your devices—this one works on your computer, smartphone and internet-enabled TVs and game systems.
Enjoying Your New Mental Space
Just like any construction work, your linguistic remodel is going to be a messy process with lots of ups and downs and mental debris.
But don’t give up out of frustration: Just remind yourself that it’s worth it, and unlike a real home makeover, you’ll start reaping the benefits of bilingualism long before you close up shop and finish the job.
Taking advantage of the best language learning tools available and using them to learn a language efficiently will give you a smooth path forward and leave you feeling well-equipped for the next linguistic challenge.