It’s a classic travel fantasy: flying to another country to learn a language through a combination of classes and swanning around, ordering meals at sidewalk cafes, shopping at street markets, slipping into darkened theaters. Yet with much of the world under stay-at-home orders, that dream may seem more distant than ever.
But it’s not entirely. After all, it’s never been easier or more affordable to get help learning a language. And while you may be doing so from your living room, you can still dive in and meet native speakers. Even better, many first-rate language tools are free, or at the very least won’t break the bank. Here are some to get you started, wherever you are.
Apps and podcasts
When it comes to choosing a language app, your perseverance may be more important than the app itself. Here are a few that may inspire you to stick with it.
Babbel. This app offers straightforward lessons in more than a dozen languages, including Indonesian, Portuguese and Turkish. A beginner level French course, for example, introduces vocabulary words and then jumps into exercises: multiple choice questions, using words in sentences, spelling and speaking aloud. The first few challenges are free, but to go beyond those you must subscribe. Prices range from approximately $13 for one month to $84 every 12 months (but keep your eyes open for sales; a recent one had 50 percent off certain subscriptions).
CoffeeBreak. Lively podcasts from Radio Lingua Network offer free lessons in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Chinese and English. Each new episode builds upon what you’ve already learned. If you end up liking the podcasts, you may want to sign up for Coffee Break Academy’s online courses, some of which will take you by video to the streets of Spain and Italy. Prices vary.
Duolingo. This popular app is an easy and free way to get started learning a language — there are more than 30 available, including Irish, Norwegian, Hindi, Czech, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Greek, Romanian and Swahili. Bite-size lessons that feel like games encourage users to keep going with fill-in-the-blank, speaking and matching exercises. Algorithms determine when it’s time to practice certain words, and you can receive weekly progress reports.
Memrise. Charming (and memorable) video clips of people speaking everyday words and phrases make the lessons on this app feel fun and transportive (especially when a video is shot on a sunny day in Spain), as do breezy multiple choice and writing quizzes. Available for French, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Russian and more. A new “Immerse” tab in the app allows you to soak up the language through streams of video featuring native speakers. You can learn plenty for free, but a subscription to the “pro” version is required to access all features and courses. Prices from about $9 a month to $120 for life (the annual fee is usually around $80 but a recent offer brought that down to about $40).
YouTube. For a lesson on turning YouTube into your virtual classroom, check out “How to Use YouTube to Learn a New Language.” The Rome-based polyglot and language instructor Luca Lampariello walks viewers through his own learning process using short foreign language videos, subtitles, repeated viewing and note taking.
Easy Languages. Among Mr. Lampariello’s recommendations is the Easy Languages YouTube channel, which produces short videos recorded in the streets of countries around the world, along with subtitles in the native language and in English. Easy French, Easy German, Easy Greek and Easy Italian are among the offerings. More tips can be found on Mr. Lampariello’s YouTube channel and on his website.
TED Talks. For longer videos with subtitles, there’s the “Great TED Talks for language practice” playlist where, for instance, you can watch the Peruvian-born chef Gastón Acurio, creator of dozens of restaurants around the world, including Astrid & Gastón in Lima, speaking in Spanish about home cooking. To explore more talks in different languages, choose the “Languages” drop-down menu.
E-books, newspapers, magazines
When learning to read in another language, magazines with photos can be particularly helpful.
PressReader. One way to scan what’s out there is through a digital newsstand like PressReader, which has publications in many languages: Chinese, Danish, French, German, Indonesian, Korean, Russian, Swedish and Turkish, to name but a few. Select “Languages” from the navigation menu and tap on your language of choice to see what’s available, be it El País, Cosmopolitan Italia or Vogue Paris. It’s free to browse and read certain articles, and there are hot spots that allow complimentary access to full issues of publications (for instance, when you’re actually traveling again, you may find hot spots with free access in some hotels and airport lounges). But, in general, you’ll need to sign up for a plan (rates vary by market), be it pay-as-you-go or a subscription.
Project Gutenberg. Advanced enough to read entire books in another language? You can find free e-books in Portuguese, Dutch, and French by going to “In other languages” on Project Gutenberg.
All you need is paper and something to write with to make your own vocabulary flashcards. And you can get creative using them, too. In a TED blog post about language learning, Olga Dmitrochenkova, a translator, suggested labeling objects in your house in the language you’re trying to learn. What better time to give it a whirl than now? No one’s coming over to discover that you’ve taped an index card to your couch that says “divano.”
There are, of course, advantages to digital flashcards. For instance, the ones from AnkiApp, a mobile and desktop flashcard app, can include audio pronunciation. And the app uses artificial intelligence to help you make the most of your studies with a form of what’s known as “spaced repetition,” which involves selecting cards you need to work on, and when. You can create your own cards or download premade cards and synch them across your various devices. A deck in French, for example, has crucial words and phrases such as “Another glass of red wine, please.” (If AnkiApp sounds appealing, you may want to give Quizlet a try as well. You can make flashcards or browse language study sets with digital flashcards that are fun to flip and toss, timed matching games, writing exercises and tests.)
Brush up on vocabulary while scrolling past photos of your friends’ dogs with Instagram accounts such as French Words and Days of Deutsch. You can do this on other social media platforms like Twitter, too. But the visual nature of Instagram — in one Days of Deutsch post, figurines kiss beneath “der kuss” — makes the words from these language-learning accounts stand out, and hopefully sink in. (It’s also smart to follow foreign language Instagram accounts about subjects that interest you.)
And if you can’t phone a friend, why not make a new one? You might think this would prove tricky while at home, but there are plenty of ways to meet and study with others online.
For instance, thousands of people use iTalki for language lessons with native speakers via video chat. Enter the language you wish to learn and you’ll see a list of teachers and their hourly rates (you can find professional teachers in the $8-to-$20 an hour range, with discounts for a trial lesson). To help choose an instructor, watch teachers’ introductory videos, read about them and their teaching styles, browse reviews and look at their availability calendars, making it easy to begin.
If you’d like to find partners for a language exchange, set up a profile on MyLanguageExchange.com, where members from around the world connect to practice writing and talking with one another. Basic membership is free.
For years, Benny Lewis, the polyglot author of “Fluent in 3 Months,” has extolled the benefits of beginning to speak the language you’re studying even before you’ve developed a robust vocabulary (his books and the language program he founded aim to help students do this; you can learn more on his website). Writing on the entrepreneur Tim Ferriss’s blog several years ago, he busted myths and offered advice and resources for getting started speaking, including using Alexa’s top sites ranking in countries around the world to discover popular foreign language television stations, newspapers, social media sites and more. Just go to Alexa.com/topsites/countries and choose the country with the language you want to learn.
Alexa and Amazon Echo. Speaking of Alexa, forget asking her to add tofu to your grocery list. Instead, ask her to teach you a foreign language. Search the word “language” on Amazon under “Alexa Skills” and learning options turn up, including Daily Dose by Innovative Language, which offers instruction in more than 30 languages, among them Chinese, Hebrew, Russian, Korean, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian and Vietnamese. Short audio lessons revolve around spoken dialogue and breaking it down line-by-line.
Should you really want to immerse yourself, you could change the language on your smartphone. Apple’s Siri can be set to speak a different language. So can Google Assistant. And unlike humans, the assistant is available any time day or night.
Foreign language films, television and radio
Listening to foreign language radio and television programs is a time-tested way to improve language learning. And nowadays, it’s a breeze to find programming from all over the world.
Netflix. How many people have learned how to say “good evening” in Japanese thanks to binge-watching “Terrace House” on Netflix? The hit Japanese reality series that follows young strangers thrown together in a house, begins each episode with “konbanwa.” You can’t help but pick up everyday vocabulary and slang while absorbed in budding romances and soothingly slow dinner conversation.
To find a series that appeals to you in your chosen language, try Netflix’s International, K-dramas, Spanish-Language and Anime genre tabs. Or just type the language you want in the search bar — Japanese, French, Italian. You’ll find foreign-language films in other places, like Amazon Prime, as well.
If you prefer news programs but aren’t sure where to start, search the web for a particular country’s news stations and you’ll turn up sites like Germany’s ZDF Heute and NHK World — Japan, which also happens to offer delightfully engaging (and free) language resources, like downloadable hiragana and katakana tables, videos, illustrations and interactive exercises to help you learn words and phrases used in daily life in Japan. More broadly, on the BBC’s website you can explore short introductions to more than 30 languages, like Arabic and Chinese, with basic phrases.
News in Slow. Newscasters speaking a bit too quickly for you? Consider News in Slow, designed for those practicing Spanish, French, Italian and German. You can listen to streaming news and culture programming at a pace that aims to be just right, whether you’re an intermediate or advanced student. Several minutes of the podcasts and some of the online course material is available for free, but for full access you’ll need a subscription. Standard subscription: from approximately $15 to $23 a month, depending on the language.