I’ve always been fascinated with learning new languages, ever since I saw the movie Boondock Saints where the Irish brothers talk in several different languages together to confuse people. Aside from my failed 100 pushup challenge, it’s about the most badass thing I could think to do. So of course, I had to tackle it.
Just one problem: my language-learning budget is currently around $0. I used to spend a ton of money on language learning. When I lived in Alaska I took university classes and paid an online teacher to give me one-on-one lessons in French. I can still speak at about an advanced beginner/intermediate level, although I’m a bit rusty.
While I did spend a lot of money on language learning, I’ve now realized that it’s possible to learn a language for far less than I paid. It might take you a bit longer, depending on how you learn it. Or, if you do decide to spend money on more premium classes, I recommend making sure it fits in your budget before you splurge.
With that said, whenever you learn a language, there are four key areas you need to focus on: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Each one of these is a specific skill that you need to work on.
Take French, for example: one of the most frustrating things about French is that the oral and written version seem to me, a native English speaker, as almost two separate languages due to French’s weird pronunciations.
These are my favorite resources that will help you focus on each of these areas.
Learning For Free (Or Super Cheap)
Although you need specific practice with the four major elements—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—you also need to have some knowledge of the words.
You can do this just by jumping in with native speakers and winging it, but I’m a shy person, so I prefer to study up some before talking to people.
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My favorite tool for learning general vocab is Duolingo. It’s a free platform that sets up language learning as a sort of game, and it’s really fun! So far, I’m 21% fluent in German (my next target language), although I can’t understand a damn word people say most of the time. But I can still pick out bits and pieces, and for the price, you can’t beat the value you get!
For writing practice, my favorite tool to use is Lang-8. It’s a platform where you can write a short essay (or even just a sentence or two) to practice your writing skills. Then, other native speakers of that language can come along and correct it using some neat editing tools. After they’re done, you’re sent an email, and you can see all the corrections they did.
I’ve never had a problem getting a text edited by a native speaker, and sometimes people are very helpful and descriptive in their explanations! The only catch is that you’re expected to correct the texts of other people who are trying to learn English. Still, it’s not too difficult.
There are several options for listening practice. I really enjoy podcasts, and you can find podcasts for almost any language you want to learn on the Itunes store. Many of them are geared to language learners, such as my favorite French one, News in Slow French. Innovative Languages also produces a whole host of free language learning podcasts.
Most of these types of podcasts will try to sell you a subscription with bonus material, but you don’t need to pay for it to listen to the basic podcast.
Another great free resource that I wish I had more time to take advantage of is vlogs. You can probably find them in just about any language, especially ones with a large population of speakers. Cyprien is one of my favorite French vlogs. I just wish I knew more of what he was saying.
This can be the toughest one to find. This involves finding a real, live human being that you can speak with. I know there are sites where you can practice your pronunciation, but frankly, they’re no match for speaking with a real person and thinking on the fly. This is where you really start to understand and think in your new language.
So, where to go? I have two good suggestions. You can find a meetup group in your hometown. This works great for me now that I live in a big city, but back when I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska (the 2nd largest city in the state, but still technically “the boonies”), there were none.
The second place I’ve found great speaking partners is on Italki. It’s a fantastic language learning platform that’s free to join and has all sorts of bells and whistles, including a really great community. You can do specific searches for types of language partners, email them, and set up a time to chat.
Some people even work out a system to completely learn a language for free where you find someone learning your own native language and practice each for 50% of the session. So, I’d find a native French speaker who wanted to learn English, and we’d practice both and give pointers in our areas of expertise.
I don’t have any out-of-this-world pointers here. Find a book and read it. You can go to the library, find one online (I’ve found the English and the French version online before and opened them in two tabs), or buy one.
There are neat books out there especially for language learners where the English version of a text is on one page, and the other language version on the opposite page. These are especially helpful to quickly see what the heck they’re saying without spending half an hour searching around in a dictionary.
What About Lessons?
I mentioned Italki above as a free tool to find language partners, and that’s one of its best features. But, Italki was primarily created as a teaching platform to match up students and teachers, and this is where it really shines.
You can search for teachers by country, gender, time zone, and price. Some teachers charge a very high rate (especially if you want to learn an uncommon language like Finnish…sigh), but for the more common languages like French and German, it’s pretty easy to find someone that’s affordable. Italki has even more tutors than teachers, and these people generally charge even lower rates because they’re not necessarily following a specific outline.
If you have room in your budget and it’s important to you, I highly recommend Italki to learn a new language. Plus, if you use my referral link and take a class, your account will be credited with 100 points (called ITC [Italki Credits]), worth $10!
As soon as my budget has more room in it, I’m going to start learning German!
A Final Note
Hopefully these resources will help you start or move further on your language-learning journey, even if you don’t have a lot of funds. For even more free resources, check out top language hacker Benny Lewis’s guide to 40+ free language learning resources.
Do you want to learn a new language? What’s holding you back? Leave a comment below!