Looking for a way to boost your brain power? Why not learn a foreign language?
Research from the National Education Association shows that speaking a foreign language enhances knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, sharpens memory, strengthens listening skills, and improves reading comprehension. One study found that students scored significantly higher in math and language arts after one semester of foreign language study 90 minutes per week.
In this post, I’ve compiled 10 of the best free online language learning resources that you can use to kick off your foreign language studies.
If you are already studying a foreign language at school or independently, you can use these resources to supplement your studies. Keep in mind that the best way to gain conversational fluency in a second language is to converse in person with a native speaker.
1. FSI Language Courses
In the late 1950s and early 60s, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute developed a number of foreign language courses to train diplomats and other government officials. These courses (complete with textbooks and audio) are now in the public domain, and thanks to the work of several foreign language aficionados have been uploaded to the web and are available free of charge. Currently, there are 44 languages represented. I have used and personally recommend the FSI Spanish Basic Course. There are four levels of material with audio to accompany each lesson (every word of Spanish in the textbook is spoken on the audio, and the audio is broken up into short 25-30 minute segments). You can find the FSI courses here and at the backup website here. If you enjoy the FSI courses and are looking for resources for less commonly studied languages, you might also want to check out the Peace Corps language courses found here.
This free language-learning website offers Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian courses for English speakers. Duolingo is set up like a game where you unlock levels and win badges by learning new words and grammar. You also have the option of competing against friends. Another great feature of Duolingo is their “immersion” section where you can practice translating texts from your target language into English. Duolingo explains that while you read and edit articles, you help them translate the whole internet one piece at a time. Visit Duolingo here.
At Busuu you can study twelve different languages. The free membership grants you access to a wide range of interactive language learning materials and helps you connect and chat with native speakers worldwide (you can also upgrade to a premium membership for a small fee for access to more features). Join Busuu here.
4. Live Mocha
Live Mocha offers courses in over 38 different languages. Most of the lessons are available free of charge. In addition to the standard courses, Live Mocha is built like a Facebook specially designed for foreign language learners. You can add friends, chat with native speakers, and receive feedback on texts that you write in your target language. Check out Live Mocha here.
Lang-8 describes itself as a free language exchange social-network. Used by native speakers from over 180 countries, this website is one of the best ways to practice your writing skills. After joining the site, you can write short entries in the language you are learning. Your journal entry will appear to native speakers of that language, who will leave you helpful feedback and point out any errors. In return, you can help edit other user’s entries that are written in your native language. Sign up for Lang-8 here.
6. BBC Languages
The BBC has created a number of free language learning resources, primarily targeting French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Chinese. Check out their interactive video dramas in French, Italian, and Spanish. These dramas are a great way for beginners to supplement language study with a fun interactive activity. Visit BBC Languages here.
You can read my extensive review about Memrise here. Memrise was originally created for language learners, and is a great way to supercharge your vocabulary learning through flashcards. The free website uses interactive flashcards augmented with mnemonics and the spacing effect to boost the speed and ease of learning (Wiki). Create your own set of flashcards in Memrise or choose a set that has already been created by another user. Sign up for Memrise here.
8. Free Language Learning Podcasts
Language learning podcasts are one of the best ways to improve your listening and comprehension skills in your target languages. Podcasts are usually audio-only, though some might have accompanying transcripts or worksheets. You can find a wide selection of free podcasts from beginner to intermediate to advanced in iTunes. Check out the iTunes language courses page here.
9. Free Video Courses
Video courses are another fun way to immerse yourself in your target language, especially if they are designed like a TV show. I’ve been able to find free video courses in French, Spanish, Italian, and German. These courses teach a foreign language in the context of a fictional story. If you know of other free courses like these, leave a comment and I’ll add them to this list. The French and Spanish courses are produced by Annenberg Media. You can buy accompanying textbooks, workbooks, and audio for the courses, but all of the videos are available online for free. Check out the Spanish Destinos course here (or here), along with Nuevos Destinos here. The French in Action course can be found here. For those studying German, Deutsche Welle offers a range of different learning materials, including this telenovela. For Italian, check out this 2-level video course L’Italiano in Famiglia and the slightly more advanced Italian video course In Italia here.
10. Native Materials
Once you’ve learned the basics of your target language, it’s time to start introducing native materials into your study time. The great news is that many native materials are absolutely free. Most foreign newspapers have websites, libraries often have sections devoted to movies or audiobooks in foreign languages, and you can stream foreign language music from free radio stations or services like Grooveshark. Here’s a great list of foreign language newspapers.
Of course, no foreign language course can ever completely prepare you to speak with natives of your target language. The only way to truly be able to speak a foreign language is to practice speaking it. One of the best websites to find native speakers that you can practice with is iTalki.com. Language tutors on this site often charge as little as $6 per hour or you can pair up with native speakers absolutely free to start a language exchange (you can help them practice your native language and they will help you practice yours).
What foreign language are you learning or planning to learn? What resources have you found helpful for your language studies? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.
All the best with your language learning adventure!