Learn a Language Online and on Your Own

First the bad news.  I’m not going to tell you learning a language is easy, it isn’t.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably selling you something .  You may be able to “speak” a language in a few months, but if you want to reach a level where you can read, work, live and study in the language, it’s going to take longer.  For most languages, the time to become truly fluent is five months to a year of dedicated study.  For English speakers, check out the Foreign Service Institute’s guide if you’re curious about where your language falls.

Hopefully, you didn’t stop reading, because there is a lot of good news.  Can you think of a more useful skill that virtually anyone can acquire in six months?  I did it, and I’m not being falsely modest about my abilities, either.  I was awful at French in high school, I mean really really bad.  No blaming the class either, the teacher was great.  Everyone else in that school learned French, just not me.  Despite this, I later decided to learn Spanish for my career and spent six months in Guatemala.  It was intense, but after six months I understood a completely new culture, could communicate with millions of people throughout the world, and read and write well enough to enter a Latin American Literature graduate program at the University of Delaware.

More good news, you no longer have to live abroad to immerse yourself in a language.  Everything you need to practice is online and probably free.

Getting Started

Get a textbook or at least a grammar guide.  I know it isn’t sexy, and I know new commercial textbooks are ridiculously expensive, but you need something to explain how to form the past tense, if the adjective goes before or after the noun, etc.  Besides, your textbook doesn’t have be new or even commercially sold.  Odds are pretty good there’s a free open access book that’s just as good, if not better.  Here’s my quick list, but there are many more.

COERLL Spanish Grammar in Context – http://grammar.spanishintexas.org/
Spanish 001 PSU – https://psu.pb.unizin.org/spanish001fa16/

Communication Beginnings – http://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/BookDetail.aspx?bookId=502
Athabasca University – http://eslau.ca/e.php

Français interactif – https://www.coerll.utexas.edu/coerll/project/fran{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c}C3{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c}A7ais-interactif
Liberté – http://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/BookDetail.aspx?bookId=194

Deutsch im Blick – http://coerll.utexas.edu/dib/

The Fun Part

If you’ve read this far, I’ve hopefully convinced you that learning a language requires a major time commitment, and there’s no avoiding learning some basic grammar.  Like a lot of things, the hardest part of learning a language is getting started.  So you have your textbook and you’ve looked through the introduction, maybe learned greeting or even a few basic sentences, now it’s time practice.  Anything you do in a foreign language is helpful, so pick things you enjoy.  Just try and be sure to practice all four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.


Got Netflix?  Netflix is our first global on demand TV station, so they have lots of multilingual content, especially their original content.  Depending on how you watch, you can either set the language of the audio and subtitles before you start the program or via an icon bottom right after you start.

No Netflix, no worries.  The web is full of sitcoms from around the world.  Sneer if you like, there’s no better language learning tool than a predictable yet enjoyable sitcom.  If you’re learning German, search for MediaThek.   Otherwise YouTube is the way to go, search for “Episode” in your language of choice and filter for length.


Find a language partner.  Especially for English speakers, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone who is looking to practice their English in exchange for equal time helping you.  At Dickinson College, we created “The Mixxer”.   We use it for our own students, it’s completely free and pretty self-explanatory.


The whole web, whatever you like.  If you’re just beginning, you may want a little help, though.  There are several plugins that will translate a word with one click.  Google Translate (free), Readlang (free but limited), and Word Reference all have one.  I prefer Word Reference since it provides a dictionary definition.  Your call.


Remember “The Mixxer”?  It has a writing section, too.  Write a paragraph or two, submit, and a native speaker will correct it.  Return the favor and correct someone writing in your native language.  You can also send written messages back and forth if you prefer a penpal.

Todd Bryant is the language technology specialist at Dickinson College.  You can follow him on Twitter @bryantt


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