Learn a language for free: the five best websites
By Anne Merritt
7:00AM BST 05 Aug 2013
Websites, apps, e-books, online study communities, and translators can be great assets for language learning. But there are so many materials online, and so much range in quality, that learners can waste a lot of time testing new sites to find the perfect fit for them.
Language study is not a one-size-fits-all hobby, and no single style of learning will appeal to all learners. Some prefer lots of visual aids and sleek graphics to hold their interest. Some like the motivation of quizzes, scores, and games so they can track their learning and compete with themselves. Some are drawn to grammar, while others prefer listen-and-repeat exercises.
We review five free online language learning resources to find the best fit for different types of language learners.
These language lessons feature new vocabulary and phrases supported by dialogues, writing exercises, audio recording options, and the chance to network with other language learners and native speakers on the site for some real-time practice.
Pros: This site offers a well-rounded approach to language learning, with study options for reading, writing, listening and speaking. Also, the Busuu app options allow learners to take their lessons or review materials on the go.
Cons: Features like grammar-focused lessons, video units, and printable PDF files are only available through the paid Premium membership. However, I received a free 7-day trial of the premium membership after registering with the site.
Best for: Learners with some understanding of the language already. My beginner lesson in German immersed me into full sentences and dialogues, without much practice in sentence-building or pronunciation first.
Previously an invite-only site, Duolingo is one of the most well-rounded study resources that you can get for free. Learners study vocabulary and build it into simple sentences though reading, writing, listening and speaking, with grammar tips along the way. There s also an Immersion resource with authentic reading materials and a translation option for difficult passages.
Pros: The graphics of this site keep learning organised and interesting, even on the app. Lessons are presented as a flow chart where users can see where their vocabulary can be recycled and build upon in future lessons.
Cons: So far, the site only offers study material in six languages, all of them European.
Best for: Learners who need a bit of structure in their lessons. The Tips section of each unit gives strong, succinct grammar explanations. Grammar notes also pop up during the lessons to point out new concepts like articles and conjugation.
Foreign Services Institute
The American Foreign Services Institute offers their language learning materials for free personal use. Though the site is basic, bear in mind that these materials are high-quality, designed by professional linguists with the goal of learner fluency.
Pros: An impressive resource for lesser-studied languages, especially African tongues like Igbo and Shona. The audio recordings, while a bit fuzzy, are well organised.
Cons: Compared to the graphics of the other sites, the materials seem austere, with simple black-and-white PDF texts. Also, the lessons are organised around grammar and repetition, which some learners dislike.
Best for: People who learn best with the structure and rules of grammar-based study. These lessons could also serve as a great supplement to listen-and-speak material.
Livemocha s lessons are broken down into target skills, with reading, writing, listening and speaking each studied separately. This site describes its method as whole-part-whole, in which lessons present new material, break it down for the learner, then reassemble the parts so the student can apply what they ve learned.
Pros: Lessons are available in over 35 languages. While the premium membership isn t free, users can earn credit on the site by tutoring other learners. This involves editing their writing or giving feedback on audio recordings.
Cons: Like a dating service website, you may be inundated with friend requests and tutoring requests, especially if your native language is one that s widely studied. Be prepared to sift through a lot of learner profiles.
Best for: Learners who want networking options for their studies. Livemocha allows learners to access virtual classes or book an online session with a private tutor. The online community is a Facebook-style networking page with chat options and friend suggestions.
This site uses mems , which are mnemonic flashcards that use your pre-existing knowledge to help remember new vocabulary. The Portuguese mem for yo quero, for example, showed a man in a shop saying to the helpful clerk, you care! Ohh!
Pros: The site is accessible and the method is clear and valid. The mem feature is a clever and original one. Users can even load their own original mems onto the site to help other learners.
Cons: Because the mems are all user-generated, there s a range in quality.
Best for: Visual learners, who will be naturals at the mem method.