Is completely and fully learning a language online even possible?
By the end of this post, you’ll be able to answer these questions for yourself.
The Advantages of Online Language Training
For all the value it gives you, for the unparalleled insights into languages it offers, online training is remarkably cheap.
Just how cheap? Well, many sites give the whole shebang for free! And even if some sites charge a little, what they offer far outweighs what they’re asking for. Thank your lucky stars that you were born at a time when all this is possible.
To study a language properly, you used to need to enroll in a class, drive or catch the bus to that institution every day, mark your schedule and pack some food to go. Learning had so many attendant costs that it turned off many. Today, we really can’t blurt the “it’s too expensive” line because the cost of learning a language has sunk so low it’s now within the reach of everybody.
Technology has ensured that you can learn a language in your pajamas, on the bus or while having your coffee. The material is so ubiquitous that it’s virtually impossible to escape it.
So, no more driving to class, no more getting stuck in traffic on the way there. In fact, a traffic jam can be a boon for the language learner as they can spend it learning how to say “hello” in a dozen different languages.
Today, your classroom is your bed, or that spot where you stand on the train, or your place in line at the ATM, or even the bathroom. Online language training is so accessible you can have it anywhere, anytime. This virtual classroom never closes, never has holidays and never does lunch breaks.
There’s always something for everybody. You learn better with videos? You got it! You love listening to podcasts and looking so cool with those really big headphones? You got it!
You really have full control of your curriculum, how fast you go, what you want to study next, everything! You can assemble your lessons and mix and match elements from different programs, courses and media. You can do virtually anything so you have the most personal language program that meets all your requirements and quirks for learning.
No cookie-cutter solutions here. You don’t have to take those methods or approaches that don’t resonate with you. You’re empowered to chart a personal route to fluency.
Next, let’s see what’s available online so you can do just that.
16 Superb Sites That Provide Professional, Affordable Online Language Training
EdX is a leading online course provider, hosting university-level courses in a wide range of disciplines (e.g. science, business, psychology, philosophy). The site is associated with revered institutions like Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, and it has self-paced courses for English, Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish and Italian language learners.
The Italian Beginner Course, for example, touches on the four basic language skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) by giving you a mix of video, audio and written material. You have situational videos where you follow eight Italian students as they go about their daily activities, giving you a chance to hear authentic Italian conversations. There’s also a discussion board where you get the chance to hone your Italian by interacting with fellow students and discussing suggested topics.
EdX courses come free of charge, although you’ll have to shell out $49 if you want to go for a verified, instructor-signed certificate as proof of the work you’ve done. As with everything else online, the choice is yours. Click here to check out what's currently available on EdX!
The courses here are brought to you by the United States government, as part of the effort to encourage people to learn worldwide languages.
The site itself is pretty basic and a little dated, but what it lacks in interface it more than makes up for with the long list of languages it carries. Over and above major languages like Spanish, German and French, the FSI site also features courses in Amharic, Chinyanja, Fula and Hausa. So if you’re feeling hard-pressed to find material for lesser-known languages, then the FSI site is a good place to drop by.
The material here mostly comes in the form of audio files, so if you’re the type who delights in listening to lessons while relaxing on your bed, this would work just fine.
FluentU provides rich, engaging, video-based courses in French, German, Chinese, Spanish, English and Japanese—and will soon be offering Arabic, Korean, Russian, Italian and Portuguese.
FluentU houses one of the largest collections of language learning videos on the Web. It’s online immersion at the click (or tap) of “play.” The authentic videos come in all styles and formats—from hot music videos and movie trailers to news, documentaries and interviews.
While the Web is full of videos, FluentU’s are specially selected and armed with interactive features that are designed for language learners.
For one, videos come with interactive transcripts, which means that when you roll over any word in the subtitles, you’ll be given key information about it including its translation, meaning, pronunciation and in-context usage examples. So, not only will you be able to follow what the folks in the videos are saying, you’ll also be picking up a lot of vocabulary and grammar lessons along the way.
Take this learning a step further. Click or tap a given word twice, and you can add it to your personalized vocabulary lists or flashcard decks for later study and review. Enter the video’s learn mode to practice and reinforce all the vocabulary and grammar in that video. Every second of a video clip becomes an immersive learning experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or from the Google Play store to access material on your Android and iOS devices.
Duolingo is easily one of the most popular language learning website-slash-apps on the planet with its number of registers users at 120 million strong. It offers free, bite-sized lessons in some popular languages including Spanish, French, German and Italian (but sadly there are no Chinese or Japanese courses yet).
Duolingo teaches and tests skills in listening, reading, writing and translating. You can even get some speaking and pronunciation practice here.
All the lessons are “gamified,” so there’s a variety of game-like challenges given to train your different language skills. As you go, heart-shaped meters tell you how much “life” you have left in the game. You gain “experience points” (XP) every time you finish a lesson, and you can use these to unlock bonus games and cool new packs of vocabulary to learn.
When you answer a question incorrectly, there’s instant feedback during the challenge which will point out why you made a mistake and how you can improve. Still confused? Check out the forum discussion below, where natives and learners alike discuss each question and its answer.
YouTube. Hey, it’s not just for Vine compilations, viral videos and cute cats chasing laser pointers. It’s also a melting pot of language learning videos.
Whatever tongue you’re trying to learn, chances are, there’s a native speaker with a dedicated channel for it. So whether it’s German, French, Spanish or Chinese, somebody has uploaded videos to get you up to speed.
And if it’s cultural insights into the language you’re interested in, YouTube is practically unbeatable in this regard. There’s no shortage of native speakers, pointing webcams at their faces, explaining the nuances of their mother tongue like no textbook can. They can take you places and teach you phrases you’ll find in no language program.
In YouTube, you’ve got the total amateur, semi-professional, total professional and even big language learning companies converging to give you lessons non-stop.
Keep in mind that, if you love the YouTube method, FluentU pulls a great deal of its video content from this site and makes it even more approachable for learners.
Apple wanted the giant media library to contain “everything you need to be entertained.”
It might as well have said, “Everything you need to learn a language.”
iTunes houses what’s probably the largest collection of language learning audiobooks and podcasts in the history of mankind. It continues to grow as more and more language content developers make their voices heard via the media.
If your idea of learning is donning your earphones while busying yourself with something else, then iTunes provides you with endless choices. German podcasts? French audiobooks? Spanish songs? Forget cassette tapes. With iTunes, you can download lessons and learn vocabulary on the go, or pick up useful phrases on the plane before landing in your destination country.
How do you pronounce the Swedish auto brand Koenigsegg?
Forvo has the answer.
It’s the largest pronunciation database online, with the goal of having all the words in the world pronounced by their respective native speakers.
For the language learner who wants to attain native-level fluency and neutralize their native tongue’s accent, this is an indispensable tool. You can compare how you pronounce a word with how a native speaker does it. You can even take a listen and compare how different dialects and accents from different regions pronounce the same word in the same language.
Like, how do you really pronounce the word “potato?” Find out here!
Since its inception in 2005, Innovative Language has become one of the leading language learning content providers today, offering fun and effective lessons in over 30 different languages. Just to give you a taste of what’s available, there’s:
It focuses on featuring audio and video material made by professional teachers, and it’s one of the most prolific and consistent language sites in the game. They teach grammar, vocabulary, everyday conversations, real-life situations and culture. So, basically, you’ve got all your bases covered.
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.
In the old days, when you needed to memorize vocabulary, you would resort to flashcards. You’d take out a cardboard, a pair of scissors and some colored pens. Today, all of that’s digitized and you’ve got apps like Anki.
Anki means “memorization” in Japanese, and what an apt name indeed. It’s the leading flashcard application today, and language learners can take full advantage of its unique, multimedia features by having videos, images and sound on their digital flashcards. The vocabulary decks you make can be shared, and you can study with decks made by other learners.
Anki uses a little something special called spaced repetition. Cards don’t appear randomly, but according to your mastery of them. Those that you find difficult (because you often give the wrong answer for them) will show up more often. Those cards that you consistently answer correctly will appear less often. This means you’re focusing on the specific parts of the deck that needed more study—and you’re not overstudying terms you already know.
With Memrise, you can take your pick of 100+ languages.
The app can make any time of the day or night the right time for learning, combining all the different types of media (images, videos, sounds, texts, etc.) to make it very hard for users hard to forget a word.
Say you’re learning the Spanish word, el gato (cat). You’ll have all the sensory inputs going for you—an image of a cat will appear, you’ll have a written pronunciation guide and you’ll listen to an audio file so you’ll hear how el gato is actually pronounced by natives.
Just to hammer the vocabulary into your memory, you’ll be tested many different ways. You’ll be shown a picture of a cat and have to select the correct word from a list. Sometimes you’ll be given a scramble of letters and you’ll have to figure out what the correct word is based on the image.
Like Anki, Memrise will adapt to your mastery of specific words, making the things you’ve learned always pop up for review in a manner that’s fresh, timely and essential. The app will come at you with all sorts of angles and games to make the learning not only fun, but also really effective. It’s a must-have flashcard app for every language learner.
Quizlet is a “gamified” flashcard app that can be used to memorize a whole lot of different subjects, not just languages. The app has been a study buddy for those bound to take exams like the SAT, ACT and GRE.
But it’s in the learning of languages that Quizlet shines brightest, supporting over 18 different languages. After all, it was initially coded by Andrew Sutherland when his French teacher required that he memorize 111 animal names.
You begin by creating your own set of material or picking from the database of cards created by fellow users. There are three modes you can choose from: Cards Mode, where you study traditional flashcards with translations accompanying the vocabulary, Learn Mode, where you type in the actual answers, and the Game Mode, where you play games and pair up words and pictures.
The popular language exchange site italki brings teachers and learners together.
Signing up is a breeze, and then you’ll be able to look for native speakers to converse with (for free), tutors and professional teachers. You can make some cool friends (again, free) or book some paid lessons to start face-to-face learning via Skype.
Those who want to teach can create a profile and make themselves available to anybody interested in their specific language of instruction. As a language learner, you can help others by offering conversation in your mother tongue in exchange for conversation in someone else’s native language (namely, your target language). For this latter option, no money is exchanged, only languages—thus the term “language exchange.”
This one is hosted by Dickinson College, and everyone’s both a student and a teacher.
No need to be shy. To find your language partner, contact several users and tell them about your availability and your target language.
The site is navigable in nine languages, so you can explore it easily even if your first language isn’t English. One more excellent feature of the site is that it displays the people who are presently online, specifying their native language and the languages they’re seeking to learn.
Give The Mixxer a try, and you’re sure to find a kindred soul.
“It all starts on Easy Language Exchange,” touts the home page.
And it could very well start there—learning a language could, I mean. The site gives you the chance to find your partner right on the very first page. Simply pick from a list of 22 languages to get started. You’ll find plenty of people to practice Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic and Chinese—no sweat.
Here you can choose from three different ways of corresponding with your language buddy. You can do the penpal route, if you want to improve your reading and writing skills. Select the other two, the audio and video conversation options, for richer interactions.
Authentic Language Sites
The Web is bursting at the seams with authentic content in all world languages.
There are sites, blogs, videos, audios, games, social media accounts and more run by the native speakers of almost any language. These sites are authentic by virtue of being curated by natives, and because they’re intended to be read by fellow native speakers of the language.
For example, you might opt for a YouTube channel run by an Italian fashion guru speaking to fellow Italians, a blog by a Spanish lady who chronicles her daily life for friends and family, a 5-minute cooking lesson by a German woman for all German mothers pressed by time or a Japanese news segment that was originally broadcast to Japanese audiences.
You’ll notice that the language learner isn’t the intended audience. Truly authentic content is made for native speakers. There’s no slowing down of pronunciations, no conscious use of simple words to accommodate language beginners, no lessons on usage, grammar or vocabulary. The native speaker simply lets words flow from their mouth with full confidence that they’re being understood by their audience.
Now, contrast this with a textbook, where each word and its function in the sentence is explained. Or compare this with a Spanish-language podcast for beginners, where the speaker artificially slows down their speech, clearly articulating each syllable so the listeners can catch up and follow along.
The language learner can benefit from studying material that isn’t meant for learners. You can actually hear what Italian sounds like when it’s being used by native speakers to communicate with each other. There’s no sugarcoating. It’s language in its natural habitat, not in the sterilized air of a language classroom.
What do native speakers read in their own language? Those are your sources of authentic material. For example, if you’re learning Spanish, then go for Spanish magazines, Spanish shows and Spanish news.
You have just been immersed in the flood of language materials, lessons and support online.
Indeed, you can learn a new language by training online.
Many people have done it, many are doing it.
So the only question left is, what are you going to do about it?
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.