There’s no denying it.
Technology just makes things easier.
Did you ever have the experience of hearing a song that just blew you away…and then not being able to find out what it was?
It was frustrating, even painful. But now we have smartphones!
With the right app, your phone can tell you what’s playing in the grocery store, a hipster cafe in Brooklyn or your sibling’s car (which can be annoying when you don’t want to admit you have the same taste in music).
Unsurprisingly, technology offers the same convenience for language learners, only in a far more significant way.
It can take thousands of hours to learn a foreign language.
Obviously, that’s a lot longer than it takes to write down some lyrics and type them into Google. So there’s already a lot more potential for saved time.
But technology provides more than just time-saving resources. It provides learning opportunities where previously none were possible.
So if you’ve been feeling trapped lately, like you’re sure there’s a way out of the language maze to real fluency but you can’t seem to locate it, then here you are.
These are the language learning tools that will blow your path to success wide open.
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Sweet Deal! 15 Online Language Learning Tools That’ll Make You Feel Like a Kid in a Candy Store
Old-school learning: Tools for a free college education
While the United States tends to have a fairly flexible university system, allowing you to learn from many disciplines, for many of us it’s impossible to pack in everything we want to learn in a few years. And while you can always go back for a second or third round to earn your master’s or Ph.D., many of us don’t have the time or money to do so. Especially not for subjects that we love dearly but that remain hobbies.
Thankfully, we have other options. That wonderful thing we call the internet has gone above and beyond once again. This time it has become a platform for resources that offer a free college-level education. Let’s look at how these resources can be useful for language learners in particular.
First off, we have Coursera: Teachers, classmates, lectures, homework and group discussions, all online.
The courses offered on Coursera are run by professors from world-renowned institutions, and it’s even possible to earn a certificate from many of the courses if you want to pay.
Coursera, another big name in online education, also maintains a Language Learning section under its online catalogue. Many of the courses will be geared toward beginners, like First Step Korean, and others will engage more generally with language learning, like the Miracles of Human Language course from Leiden University.
And it also offers a multitude of classes that are in foreign languages, and for advanced learners, learning about something that you’re interested in through a foreign language is an excellent way to boost your skills.
On Coursera, there are currently 122 classes taught in Chinese, the second most common language after English, and a long list of other languages trail after. Spanish has 79 classes. French has 41 classes. You get the idea. There are a ton of classes out there for you to try. You can even learn about entrepreneurship in Khmer!
Much like Coursera, edX is an open platform for a smorgasbord of different classes that include video, teachers and fellow students.
It’s actually one of the biggest MOOC websites out there. It was created by Harvard and MIT, two very famous and expensive universities in America. You can find a lot of college-level courses here, created and taught by actual professors from top universities.
EdX has a few more language courses than Coursera. Mandarin is there as well as a Spanish class offered by the Polytechnic University of Valencia. There’s also an AP French class offered by a high school if you’re willing to go in for that.
On the flip side, edX has fewer classes that are in foreign languages, but there are still a significant number. There are 44 classes in Spanish, the second most common language after English. You can also learn astrophysics in French and seismology in Chinese.
Compared to Coursera, edX is slightly more focused on the sciences than the humanities. EdX also feels slightly more challenging than Coursera at times, with faster pacing and questions that come straight from on-campus problem sets, but hey, that might be just what you need.
The best part? You can actually earn college credits on EdX, through Arizona State University, and most of the courses have certificates you can get for completing them. It’s not free, but it’s cheaper than being in an actual college.
MIT OpenCourseWare is a great option for language learners. OpenCourseWare provides lecture videos, tests and homework assignments. The only thing you’re really lacking is a teacher. The site more than makes up for this, though, in the sheer diversity of courses available.
All of the most common languages learned today are there: Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish, German and even Portuguese. There are also more advanced levels for each language.
For example, there are seven different classes for Chinese, so you’re not stuck with nowhere to go once you’ve finished the beginner course.
With all these courses on hand, all you’ll need is a little determination to get a world class education in the language of your choice…for free!
Tools to animate your education
But perhaps old-school learning isn’t quite your thing. Listening to lectures? Memorizing for tests? Come on, hasn’t anyone come up with a workable alternative?
Funny you should ask. Within the past decade or so, a slew of different language learning programs have been unleashed upon the market, just waiting for the would-be polyglots of the world to take advantage of them. Here are the best.
Duolingo is one of the most intuitive and popular apps out there. It aims to teach you the language in a way similar to how a child would learn it. Grammar is usually not explained straight out. Instead, the exercises gradually build and build until you go from saying “I like apples” to translating entire documents on the Duolingo website.
The only drawback is that the app is aimed mostly at beginners, so it might not be as much help if you already have a strong base of knowledge in a language.
FluentU allows you to select a video in the language of your choice and watch it with optional subtitles in your target language or English.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Too many difficult words? You can simply pause the video and get a translation for any word that appears in the subtitles. FluentU keeps track of all the words you’ve learned, so you can always be assured you’re spending time on the areas you need to work on. It also provides material for every level, from complete newbie all the way up to native.
If you like the idea of learning a language with the same content native speakers watch, but with a multitude of help right at your fingertips, you can start using FluentU on the website right now, or better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
If you’re looking for an app that will get your conversation skills going, you may want to check out Mango Languages. This app provides lessons centered around various topics, such as love, travel and law, that help you get the feel of real conversations in your target language.
This is done by listening to recorded conversations of native speakers, breaking down the conversation so that you understand even the smallest part and then working your way back up so that you could have that conversation yourself.
But it doesn’t end there. Mango Languages also strives to cover all elements of language learning (including pronunciation, vocab, grammar and culture) so that you’ll have a high potential for being a well-rounded language learner.
Another option that’s great for learners of any level is Memrise. Memrise uses spaced repetition to help you keep those pesky vocab words in your head, minimizing the amount of time you have to spend staring at a list of words you need to know.
The courses are also user-created, so things as exotic as languages from the Elder Scroll video games or Lord of the Rings have a spot on the site.
If you’re really into gamifying your language learning, give MindSnacks a go. The interface is cute and entertaining, allowing you to really enjoy the time you spend learning vocab, grammar and spelling.
Each mini-game included in the app is unique and focuses on a different skill, so you get anything from learning word recognition while keeping a fish afloat to identifying antonyms with the help of a Bigfoot lookalike.
If you’ve heard of any pay-to-use language learning program, it’s probably Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone strives for that old ideal: immersion. Everything that you’ll be learning will be in your target language.
For instance, when you learn the word for “cow” in Mandarin, you’ll only see a picture of a cow with the Chinese above it, not the English word. The newest version of Rosetta Stone also comes with a personal teacher included in the price who you can have a 50-minute session with at the end of each lesson.
You may still have Rosetta Stone stuck in your mind as that yellow box in the airport, but it has come a long way in recent years to integrate online language learning. Rosetta Stone includes online classes, games and mobile apps, hopping on board with a lot of recent language-learning trends. Recommended for long-term learners rather than quick phrase-building. It’s available for many languages, including:
Be sure to take a look at the Rosetta Stone offerings in your language today, and don’t rule it out based on price alone—you’ll get your money’s worth in terms of polish, professionalism and effective language lessons that seriously stick in your brain—for good!
Pimsleur has a much stronger auditory focus than some of the other programs above. Much of language learning with Pimsleur means listening to a conversation and then repeating parts of it, gradually building up knowledge until you can recall the phrases that have been said when prompted.
Pimsleur does come with a reading component, too, but this is secondary and not heavily focused on. The audio is the huge selling point for them—you can use this program to learn easily and effortlessly, wherever you go. Many people use this program for learning while driving!
Just let the teachers guide you from basic phrases to complete sentences. It always prompts you to listen, repeat and respond, making it highly interactive. Each new lesson builds on the previous ones, cleverly weaving what you’ve already learned into new concepts. All in all, this program can help you make a seamless transition from newbie to fluent, with plenty of time and practice.
The creators of Fluenz take a somewhat different methodological approach from more immersion-heavy programs, insisting that adults learn faster when they get the grammar explained to them in their own language. That’s the main thing that sets it apart from some of the programs above. That, and you’ll have a pre-recorded instructor onscreen at the beginning of each lesson.
With so many language learning programs to choose from, it’s hardly a question of whether there’s something for you. It’s just a matter of finding out which one you like.
Online language reference tools
Okay, so you’ve got your big guns. Your power drills and your chainsaws. But sometimes you just need a little piece of sandpaper and nothing else will do. That’s your reference tools.
The reference tools from the old days seem to be gathering dust. When was the last time you saw someone flip through a real, physical dictionary? But online, reference tools are as important as they ever were.
The best inter-language dictionary tends to be specific to each language, but the best pronunciation dictionary for every language can be found in one place: Forvo.
Having trouble grasping the sound of a specific word? Just seen a new word and have no clue how to pronounce it? Just load up Forvo and type the word you want to hear in the search box. If they have it—and they have most common words for a large selection of languages—you can listen to audio recordings from a variety of different speakers, each one with their country of origin clearly labeled.
Whether you’ve just started a new language or are well on your way to being fluent and just looking for some new tools, give Open Culture a once-over. The Open Culture page on language learning provides access to great reference resources as disparate as help with writing the Russian alphabet to links to the Foreign Service Institute’s textbook for Amharic.
Maybe you’re not looking for language learning tools per se. Is what you want more of the bread and butter of language? Places to read, watch and listen to source material at your level? Then you’ll enjoy the following sites.
One of the prime resources for source material is BBC Languages, which provides access to news, television and games in a variety of languages. Having a morning cup of coffee and need a nice morning radio program to fill the background? They have it. Want to have a peek at what French speakers in Africa are watching when they watch the BBC? You can.
But if reading is more what you’re looking for, then you’ll want to head over to Lingua.ly. This unique website functions by finding a selection of reading options based on the vocabulary you want to learn.
All you have to do is select a word pack and the site will return reading material that includes the vocab you’ll be studying. The site is updated regularly, so you’ll be reading news stories from the same day while you practice.
To someone new to the game, all these resources can be a bit overwhelming.
Maybe you’re even tempted to just chuck the tech and go back to good old blood, sweat and tears.
But bear with it. Give a few of these tools a go. You’ll find a handful you like, and some you even love.
And before you know it, you’ll be wondering how you ever learned without them.
This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you
can take anywhere.
Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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