What’s the best way to learn a new language? Unfortunately for most of us, the easiest path — start as a baby — is also impossible. Once you’re in your adult years, picking up a second tongue is much harder, but certainly worth the effort. Whether you aim for fluency or just enough phrases in French to let you get by on a visit to Burkina Faso, you’ll find the internet is brimming with resources. Not only does the web provide downloadable language software, interactive vocabulary drills and recorded lessons on YouTube, it also offers something particularly useful for learning a language: it delivers native speakers right into your home.
Whether it’s through personal Skype lessons, online language learning communities or digital classrooms, you can experience your target language in its everyday, idiomatic form. Some research indicates that listening to a language on a regular basis, even if you don’t understand anything you hear, helps you acquire that language later because it accustoms your ear to the cadence, rhythms, tones and sounds that characterise the language. So even as you research your choice of language course, tune into world talk radio on a site like SHOUTcast or TuneIn and let it play in the background.
Really learn a language
While most people take a few weeks or months to pick up enough language to survive a brief stint as a tourist, becoming conversationally adept or fluent in a language requires dedicated study. If competency is your goal, you’ll need to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible and back it up with lessons to help you read, write and expand your vocabulary.
Some of the companies that provide comprehensive language lessons — including the modestly priced Living Language (livinglanguage.com), the pricey Rosetta Stone (www.therosettastone.com.au) and the very pricey yet very intensive Berlitz (www.berlitz.com) — provide online chat rooms or live lessons where you can immerse yourself.
For those courses that don’t provide live chat with a native speaker — Pimsleur (www.pimsleur.com), Linguaphone (www.linguaphone.co.uk), Transparent Language (www.transparent.com) and Assimil (assimil.com) — you’ll probably want to find a chat venue to supplement the course.
Rosetta Stone is inescapable. It’s sold online, in bookstores and in kiosks in airports and malls. It has the biggest marketing push of any language course, but what’s it like to use?
The whole experience is immersive, with not a word of English spoken in the lessons. Those lessons adapt to address your weaknesses. The full-screen web site offers guided lessons in speaking, reading and writing, plus games and the Studio.
The latter is an online small group conversation room, with a native speaker as coach. You can schedule 50- or 25-minute sessions in the Studio and, with 30 languages to choose from, it’s one of the more comprehensive programs available.
Michel Thomas Method
The Michel Thomas courses are simply the most enjoyable way to learn a new language. The method makes connections and emphasises similarities between the languages (even Japanese!), so your English knowledge becomes a head start.
With Michel Thomas, you listen in on an actual lesson with two students at the same level as you. This makes the lessons very personal and avoids the mechanistic approach of so many other products.
There’s no rote learning or memorising. The message is: relax, let the teacher do all the hard work and you’ll reap the benefits. It’s available from www.michelthomas.com with prices starting at around $24, and there are a bunch of free apps for iPhone, too.
Ectaco (australia.ectaco.com) makes a range of language products including apps, translation software, talking dictionaries and electronic translators. The latter includes the iTravl line, which features speech recognition and voice synthesis, allowing you to speak a phrase and have it instantly translated into another language. This is wonderful for those who lack confidence in speaking or for dramatically expanding what you’re able to communicate. The iTravl also includes language lessons and a variety of tools for the traveller, and comes in bilingual and multilingual versions, ranging in price from around $500.
That all sounds great, but unfortunately, the Windows CE-based interface is dated and clunky to work with, the battery life is poor and the device is no lightweight. Perhaps you should take your smartphone on that trip after all.
Where’s the loo?
So you’re heading to Portugal for a fortnight with a week in the Philippines on the way. What will you need to get by? Well, as an English speaker you start with a huge advantage. Many people even in out-of-the-way places know enough English to make up for any linguistic shortcomings on your part.
Despite that, it’s only common courtesy — and much, much more fun — to have at least some basic phrases practised in advance. Can you please tell me where to find a bathroom? I’m sorry I don’t speak Portuguese/Tagalog; do you speak English? Excuse me. Thank you. Those phrases are a good start. Another 40 and you’re probably pretty close to covering the basics, especially if you have a phrasebook or language app to fill in the gaps.
You also need to learn the likely responses you’ll hear. If you ask for directions, for instance, it helps to understand the local words for left, right, up, down, over there and so on. Similarly, it pays to be able to count. One useful site to check out is Bab.la, which has a handy guide to making complaints in 13 languages. If you’re travelling to a land where they use a different alphabet, it’s also useful to be able to read, at least a little.
Earworms musical brain trainer
Earworms is a strange name for a product with a twist. The Earworms series of Rapid Languages puts words and phrases to catchy beats and music. Words uttered repeatedly by silken-voiced speakers, alternating in English and the target language, gradually build into phrases, while a pulsing background beat drives the content into your brain. The method is remarkably effective for picking up enough language to get by as a traveller.
Originally available as audio books from www.audible.com, you can now also get Earworms apps on iOS and Android, or as a combo CD and phrasebook from www.earwormslearning.com.
Choose your approach
Dr Pimsleur’s non-immersive approach uses carefully timed repetition of newly acquired words to fix them in your brain. There’s an extensive range of beginner and comprehensive courses.
Intensive, one-to-one or small group study with a certified language tutor online. You’ll pay handsomely for the privilege.
Words, words, words. Byki teaches language by building up your vocabulary. Byki Express, the free version, is available in an impressive 70 languages.
Not into the osmotic immersion approach? Fluenz teaches grammar and syntax, and builds up your understanding of the language and its context.
LingQ mixes a bit of vocab, conversation rooms, personal tutors and writing practise. Many lessons are free.
Join a conversation
Being monolingual is so passé, declares Livemocha. The site gives you the opportunity to rectify this by conversing with some of its 13 million members or by taking group or individual lessons. Basic lessons are free.
Run by Rosetta Stone, SharedTalk provides text and voice chat exchanges. Hook up with a language partner or two and start talking or develop some penpal relationships.
Review a lesson and then practise with a teacher in an online classroom or over Skype. ChinesePod is designed — and also priced — with busy business people in mind.
A community of ordinary folk who meet up via Skype to teach one another. The ‘Users Online’ box shows who’s available and the languages they speak.
Can’t find a local to teach you Swahili or Dutch? Myngle provides one-to-one conversation lessons online, on your schedule, for around €20 per lesson. You even get to choose your teacher.
Hear & be heard
When you learn a language, it takes time for your brain to accustom itself to the alien sounds that make up that language. You’ll find learning much easier if you get yourself a quality headset microphone so you can listen closely, and if your course includes recording and correcting your pronunciation, be heard clearly.
Looking up words
Need a quick translation? The web is filled with foreign language dictionaries. Do a search for Spanish dictionary or Azeri dictionary and you’ll find great sites like www.spanishdict.com and azerdict.com. For translating slabs of text, use Google Translate at translate.google.com.
A guide in the hand
Gadgets are great, but sometimes the most useful language tool is a good, old-fashioned, printed phrasebook. Riffling through the pages is often faster than using an app. Lonely Planet has a range of phrasebooks, which includes a lot of rarely available languages including Tetun (East Timor), Bengali and Pidgin. For extensive travels, their multi-language phrasebooks lighten the load.
At school, many of us were taught to strive for a perfect accent when learning a language. Don’t bother with that! You’ll do much better focusing your efforts on intelligibility rather than perfection and diving into conversations without worrying overly much about your accent. After all, we interact in our native tongue with non-native English speakers all the time and the communication flows smoothly despite the different accents.
Take the free trial
Before forking out a week or month’s salary on a language course, try the free trial if one is offered. If you can’t stick with the trial in a disciplined manner for a week or so, it’s probably not worth signing up for the full course.