For the past three years I’ve been trying to learn Japanese, and I’ve tried every strategy I could think of—watching Japanese TV, chatting with sushi chefs, attending an expensive community college class, and so on.
I’m still far from fluent, but I can read pretty well and occasionally understand Japanese jokes.
Luckily, some of the best tools for learning a new language are absolutely free.
Get started now picking up Swahili, Slovakian, or Hindi, and soon you’ll be picking up people who speak those languages.
Here are ten free tools.
Not all are equally valuable; at the end of the list I’ll reveal the hard truth about what works best.
Google Translate (on the web or a free app) is a vital accessory to the rest of the tools.
You can’t really learn from it directly, and sometimes its translations are terrible, but it will get you out of plenty of tough spots.
Unlike dictionary apps (which are also widely available and often free), Google translates whole sentences and paragraphs.
At Meetup.com, you’ll likely find a language group meeting regularly in your town.
For example, I sometimes drop in on the weekly Seattle Japanese language group. (Some groups charge a nominal membership fee.)
These groups are fun but vary in value to the language learner. They tend to attract people who want to learn English.
That’s great, but it means you can get away with speaking a lot of English and learning nothing other than what kind of food the person across the table from you likes.
Anki is a free flash card app available for PC, Mac, Linux, and Android. (The iOS version is $20.)
Volunteers have created decks of flash cards for dozens of languages; Japanese is especially well-supported.
Anki uses what’s called a Spaced Repetition System; when you miss a card, it shows you that one more often until you nail it.
For boning up on vocabulary or learning new alphabets, Anki is unbeatable.
Byki and other free stuff at the public library
Your public library may offer free online access to Byki, a set of language learning courses, or similar offerings.
And they probably carry Pimsleur language CDs. If you imagine a stereotypical language tape (“the pen is on the table” … “le stylo est sur la table”), you’re thinking of Pimsleur.
Where Pimsleur excels is at teaching native pronunciation, because you have to ape native speakers over and over.
Plenty of bloggers write about learning languages, which is fine for motivating you, but I’m talking about blogs written in the language you want to learn.
Once you’ve learned enough of the language to Google up a blog on a topic you’re interested in, dive in and start reading.
Stay away from that Google Translate button as long as you can stand it.
Online language exchange
Several websites help people meet up via Skype to practice each other’s language.
My favorite is The Mixxer (I swear, it’s not adult-only, despite the name).
If you want to learn Italian, say, you can find an Italian speaker who wants to learn English.
Set up an appointment to Skype for an hour, spending 30 minutes on each language.
Keep a Google Translate window open as you talk, but make an ironclad rule not to let any English slip during the Italian portion.
On the same website, you can write a blog in your target language, and people will pick apart your mistakes in a very polite and encouraging way.
Getting corrected is no fun, but it’s hard to stop making little mistakes unless someone points them out.
University language exchange
Many universities pair international students up with native English-speaking students, alumni, and random members of the community.
Every week I meet up with my language partner, an economics major from Tokyo, and we follow the 30-minute Japanese, 30-minutes English protocol.
You can find plenty of free podcasts designed to teach you assorted languages.
On the best language podcasts, you’ll hear native speakers talking about an interesting topic, speaking clearly using elementary syntax, and offering tips on how to speak colloquially and not sound like a textbook.
One great example is Copenhagencast, for learning Danish.
Well, obviously. You sit and watch four-minute videos at work anyway.
Why not do it in your target language?
Books and comics
This is, I think, the most underappreciated tool in language acquisition.
Find a book or comic in your target language that you’re dying to read. Read it.
When you get stuck, look up a word or phrase on your phone and jot it down to study in Anki.
I’ve spent hours reading a favorite Japanese comic series about food-obsessed newspaper reporters in the 1980s, and as a result I use plenty of phrases that make me sound like a female reporter from the 80s.
It never would have occurred to me to jump into actual literature if I hadn’t read the book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages by Kató Lomb, one of the world’s greatest polyglots.
Lomb was fluent enough to interpret in ten languages—and we’re not talking about all the Romance languages, but tongues as different as Hungarian, Chinese, and Russian.
Lomb’s book is funny and inspiring, and the ebook is free.
The sad truth
The language learning methods that offer the biggest, quickest rewards are the ones that embarrass you in front of other people and/or hurt your brain.
We all know this.
You can’t listen to Pimsleur tapes as you fall asleep and get fluent.
The Mixxer is totally free, and you can probably start chatting with a language partner today.
You’ll feel like a total fool. So will your partner. Correct each other. Laugh at yourself.
Buy a book you enjoy in your target language. Buy Harry Potter in German or Fifty Shades of Grey in Korean.
Read it. Do twenty cards every day in Anki.
Does this sound like a self-pep talk yet? It should.
I still struggle sometimes in simple interactions in Japanese.
But I get a little better every week, and it doesn’t cost me a dime.
Unless you count those occasional trips to Tokyo.