Everyone and their grandmother is on Facebook.
Yep, you might have noticed that things are a lot different than they were ten years ago.
Being someone’s “friend” means being subjected to an endless stream of their vacation photos.
You can now arrange to have 1500 live ladybugs delivered to your doorstop without ever getting out of your bathrobe, much less leaving your house.
To put it simply, we are living in the middle of a revolution. A revolution that is fundamentally reshaping every aspect of our lives, a revolution that involves more cute cat pictures than any other revolution in the history of revolutions.
And just as the Internet has revolutionized the way people write reviews for everything from pirates to public bathrooms, so has the Internet revolutionized the way people learn languages.
The best part of learning a language on the Internet these days is the sheer number of resources waiting just a mouse click away. Combine that with the fact that you can mix and match them in any way you choose, and you’re pretty much sitting on top of the world.
You’re likely already aware of the more obvious resources, such as online language courses and programs, but believe it or not, the possibilities actually extend much farther than that.
The Internet offers many nifty tools geared towards specific needs—whether connecting with native speakers, practicing your writing or finding language learning communities—and those are what we’re going to focus on today.
So if you’re looking for some interesting resources to supplement or kick off your language learning, you’ve come to the right place—let’s take a look at some exciting new tools for language learning that wouldn’t be possible without this beautiful and weird thing called “the Internet.”
Why the Future of Language Learning Is Online
But is it really possible to learn a language online?
A reasonable question. After all, immersion is key in learning a language, and by “immersion” I don’t just mean immersing your face in your computer screen.
Here’s the thing, though: Books and traditional courses are very imperfect ways of learning a language when just used by themselves. Sure, online language learning is imperfect, too, but when you look at how many awesome tools are out there (we’ll get to that part in a minute), you’ll see that it’s actually a lot less imperfect than you might think.
I’d argue not only that you can learn languages online but that you should learn languages online, and that in a decade the Internet will be the only place to learn languages outside direct immersion (remember how much can change in a decade?).
In other words, I’ll bet good money that in a few years the question will be not “Is it possible to learn a language online?” but “How did people ever learn languages before the Internet?”
How can I be so sure? Partly because of the flexibility of online language learning (when learning a language over the Internet, you can create your own language learning regimen by drawing on however many online resources you want), partly because of the easy access to native speakers the Internet gives language learners (from language exchanges to online writing correction) and partly because the Internet lets you study language in entirely new ways (I’ll bet your high school Spanish textbook didn’t have any “interactive vocab games”).
But hey, I wouldn’t want you to take my word for it—which is why I’ve put together this list of some of the different kinds of language learning resources that simply don’t exist offline and some of the best examples of each kind of resource.
As already mentioned, the list below is focused on great resources for supplementing and supporting anyone’s language learning, resources that fill specific needs rather than offering a complete guided experience.
If you’re looking for a full-fledged online course, however, check out this list of the best language courses, or give FluentU a try for a one-of-a-kind structured but flexible experience that puts the best of online language learning in one place for you.
Once you give a few of the tools below a whirl, I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll come away agreeing with me that the future of language learning is online!
20 Unique Resources to Make You a Master of Online Language Learning
Online Language Exchanges
The best way to learn a language is to speak it. Having conversations with native speakers will teach you a language faster than any possible study technique. And short of buying a one-way ticket to a country that speaks the language you’re trying to learn, the best place to find native speakers to talk to is probably the Internet.
Through online language exchanges—partnerships in which you help someone with a language you speak in exchange for them helping you with one they speak—the Internet is connecting language learners with native speakers en masse in a way that just wasn’t possible in the analog age. So whether you’re looking to step up your written communication game or work on your spoken language skills, here are some of the happening places to get in on armchair language exchanges.
- italki — italki lets you search potential language exchange partners and set up an online language exchange for free. English speakers are hot commodities here. If you’re less interested in the teaching and more interested in the learning side of things, you can also search the paying marketplace to set up a conversation with a native speaker in the language of your choice or (for a little more money) start Skype lessons with a professional language teacher. (To shop around for the right fit, you can also do discounted trial lessons.)
- The Mixxer — The Mixxer is another good place to look for language partners at no cost. You can set up Skype exchanges or use your language buddy for written corrections. Language instructors can also sign up for “teacher permissions” to make language exchanges happen for an entire class.
- InterPals — On the written side of things, InterPals is the go-to site for getting connected with a pen pal in the language of your choice. Just be aware that although you can search specifically for language exchanges, InterPals isn’t specifically a language learning community, so while you might run into some other people looking to improve their language skills, you’re also likely to encounter some characters making propositions that have little to do with language learning (see InterPals Confessions for a window into the dark side of online pen pal networks).
- Speaky — Speaky is a relative newcomer to the language exchange scene and as such is a little more obscure than some of the others on this list, but it has some slick features that make it worth looking into. Like an online dating service, Speaky has a “matchmaking algorithm” that tries to pair language learners based on common interests. Instead of relying on Skype, Speaky provides language exchange tools you can use from your browser or even from your phone if you download their Android app.
- CoffeeStrap — CoffeeStrap matches you with language partners based on shared interests and provides software for having conversations using text, voice or video. Built into this software are tools for tracking your language learning progress, and according to the developers, future versions of the software may actually use the content of your conversations themselves to find your most compatible conversational partners.
Tips for Using Online Language Exchanges
- Try out online language exchanges with as many different people as you can. The more people you talk to, the faster you’ll learn. You’ll also find some people who seem like better “matches” for your learning style, so try to hang on to them!
- Keep a list of any questions you can’t find answers to that pop up in your regular language learning so you can bring them up with a language exchange partner.
Online Language Tutors
Language exchanges are a good way to get talking with native speakers, but if you want some more focused lessons and are willing to pay up, you might want to think about getting in touch with an online language tutor, too. With sites offering online language tutoring, you can browse marketplaces of freelance language tutors, reading reviews and comparing prices, to find the best match.
- Couchteacher.com — Couchteacher.com is an open marketplace for online language tutors. Lessons typically last 30 minutes over Skype, and payment is through PayPal. It’s also easy to sign up as a teacher if you want to hawk your language teaching wares.
- Verbling — Verbling offers both one-on-one tutoring and small group lessons. Private lessons typically last 60 minutes. The process for becoming a teacher is slightly more involved than at Couchteacher, but there’s still a large pool of teachers at different rates to choose from across many languages.
- Wyzant — Did you know that you can find local tutors online too? Wyzant allows you to see who’s available for tutoring in your region. Not only will you be able to connect with tutors online, you may well find someone who’s willing to tutor over Skype or Google Hangouts. Plus, you’ll always have the option to meet up in person, if that’s something you’d like to do!
Tips for Using Online Language Tutors
- If you want to get into the whole Skype learning scene, plan ahead how you want to balance your time between online tutors and online language exchanges. You might find that it works best to start with an emphasis on Skype lessons and then move towards doing more language exchanges as you become more advanced.
- Most tutors will offer free trials—take advantage of this option and look around for a good fit!
Online Writing Correction
You know that crowdsourcing works because the Internet is overflowing with kind souls willing to write Wikipedia articles, translate texts and otherwise work for free. But did you know you can put these folks to work helping you learn a language online—by having them edit your writing?
One way to get input from native speakers on your writing is to get an online language exchange going at one of the sites listed above. However, if you have something you’ve just written and want to get some feedback on it without going to the work of setting up a language exchange, you can just upload it to a free online writing correction service and wait for a volunteer to get back to you with edits—usually within a few hours to a few days.
Online writing correction services provide a narrower learning experience than online language exchanges, but they’re a great way to get your writing looked over by a native speaker on the fly, especially if you’re trying to learn a language on a busy schedule. Of course, they only work because of altruistic netizens willing to do a little good old-fashioned volunteer work, so when you have a chance, try to return the favor and correct someone else’s writing, too!
- Lang-8 — Lang-8 is the most popular place to get your writing corrected online. They have a broad and active user base covering dozens of languages, so you’re likely to get a quick turnaround once you’ve made a post.
- Correctmytext.com — This is a more recent arrival to the online writing correction scene. They have fewer users, fewer languages and slightly longer turnaround times than Lang-8, but they have a cool unique feature—when you submit a text, you can request to have a native speaker record a spoken version of the text in addition to editing it. Plus, given the smaller user base, your contributions will definitely be making a difference here if you want to help out on the correcting side of things.
Tips for Using Online Writing Correction Sites
- Try keeping a regular language learning journal and uploading some of the entries for feedback.
- Follow up on any corrections you have questions about!
Online Vocabulary Tools
One of the hardest parts of learning a new language can be getting all that new vocab to stick in your brain. On bad days, it can feel like you’re trapped under a mountain of unfamiliar words.
True, with some smart vocab learning strategies you can cut back on the amount of learning by rote needed, but in the end, building up a full vocabulary in a new language just takes a certain amount of repetition.
Luckily, though, a new generation of online language learning tools are taking the pain out of vocab learning, one new word at a time. It turns out that learning vocab is a lot easier if you let your computer do the planning so you can focus on the actual learning.
By using FluentU, you automatically get the benefit of this type of learning through spaced repetition, multimedia flashcards and a personalized vocab-tracking experience.
By helping you track your progress, space new words in a way that facilitates learning, pair words with images and so on, online vocab software makes studying vocabulary faster and funner than ever before.
- Ba Ba Dum — Ba Ba Dum offers a set of straightforward vocab games that involve getting points by matching images with words. You just have to visit the site to play, although you can also set up an account to track your progress.
- Memrise — Founded by a neuroscientist, Memrise is best known for its flashcard system, which includes mnemonics on flashcards and uses tricks like the “spacing effect” (repeating flashcards fewer times over longer intervals to help you learn more efficiently). Using Memrise’s flashcards is a great way to let your computer steer your language learning to help you learn more quickly.
- Anki — Anki is a powerful flashcard program that, like Memrise, uses spacing techniques to help you learn more efficiently. You can also set priorities on words, add as many “sides” to each card as you want to test different kinds of information and synchronize your cards across multiple devices. Getting set up with Anki requires actually installing software on your computer, but the extra effort getting started comes with more degrees of freedom in terms of how you want to organize your language learning.
- Byki — Before You Know It (Byki) is a flashcard program available in both a free and more comprehensive paid version. The underlying learning algorithm can be a bit less flexible than Anki in terms of adapting to your progress, but some might find that Byki’s interface is easier to get used to.
- Lingro — Lingro is a nifty dictionary for online language learners that lets you load a website and click on words you want to look up. Once you’ve selected a word, you can add it to one of your word lists for later review.
Tips for Using Online Vocabulary Tools
- Unlike paper flashcards, electronic flashcard programs like Anki and Byki let you create audio flashcards, too—take advantage of this feature!
- Like writing correction sites, online vocab tools are a godsend for people trying to learn a language on a busy schedule—they’re a perfect on-the-bus language learning activity.
- Hammering home new words through repetition is very helpful, but it’s also important to use the words in context. Online vocabulary tools and language exchanges complement each other nicely—the former is great for familiarizing yourself with new words and getting them to stick while the latter is a chance to use them in a real-time communication setting. Use these tools to double-team your vocab learning, and try to coordinate between them so you’re covering new words in both settings.
Online Language Learning Forums
The Internet puts us in touch with all sorts of people we’d never otherwise have any contact with. If you’ve ever read the comments section of an online news article, you might not consider this greater access to humanity necessarily a good thing. But even if it means tolerating the occasional troll, the connecting power of the Internet can help you find like-minded communities of language learners.
Being in touch with other language learners is a great way to pick up new language learning tricks, keep up with what’s happening in the language learning world (especially on the Internet, with snazzy new online language learning tools popping up almost daily) and get input on any questions or problems that arise on your language learning journey.
- UniLang — UniLang has a general language forum as well as a wide array of forums dedicated to specific languages.
- Linguaholic — Linguaholic has a general language forum and several language-specific forums as well as forums for things like talking about teaching language, discussing language apps, finding a language exchange partner and so on.
Online Language References
You know, you can find anything online. And for language learners, that’s really, really useful. All the information you could ever want to look up is now just a few clicks away (I’m exaggerating a little, but not much). Here are some of the references out there that every online language learner should know about.
- Forvo — Ever wonder how to pronounce Backpfeifengesicht? Just head over to Forvo, the go-to site for pronunciation lookups. Forvo has such a comprehensive collection of people saying words in different languages because it uses the crowdsource model—users contribute audio clips which then get rated for quality by other users. So if you want to do a good deed and immortalize your voice by uploading it into cyberspace, try adding a few pronunciations of your own!
- WordReference — Here’s the site that makes it possible for you to reliably check out word definitions without lugging around a huge, thick dictionary with you. WordReference lets you look up words in a variety of different language pairs and gives you all sorts of helpful extra information, including conjugation tables for verbs.
- Omniglot — Omniglot bills itself as “the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages,” a description that isn’t just hype. Their site contains everything from alphabet references to phrasebooks. They even have a fun idioms reference page, where I picked up this gem, a Mongolian equivalent of “bless you,” which I fully intend to use next time someone sneezes in my presence: бурхан оршоо бутын чинээ сахал урга (God bless you and may your mustache grow like brushwood).
These references alone should be enough to convince you that the future of language learning is online—without the Internet, you would need an absolutely massive book to hold all this information, plus mountains of accompanying CDs for all the audio data from Forvo.
Throw in online language exchanges, writing correction sites and vocabulary games, and I’ll wager you’re really starting to see the advantages to online language learning.
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