How to Learn a Foreign Language in Your Spare Time

Since this is an article entirely focused on one topic, learning languages, I want to start with a non-obvious answer to the question  “why would you spend so much time learning a language?” 

The answer is that it’s often the only thing I have time and/or mental capacity to do. Between working full-time and an active family, there aren’t many opportunities left in the day for uninterrupted focus. Then, if there is a block of time, I’m often simply too tired to dig into something that requires my full attention. Language learning, as it turns out, is perfect for those times. As long as some preparation has been done beforehand, I can spend anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours opening up an app or some flashcards (see below for examples) and get in some solid learning. Interruptions are fine, having only a few minutes is fine. I can jump in, get a quick session done and go back to whatever else needs my attention. The best part is, it’s fun. Once I have a new word or phrase in my head, I’ll teach it to my kids or repeat it out loud a few times. I’ve found that it gives me the same kind of boost as playing an iPhone game.

So, apart from all the obvious reasons for learning a language (travel, communication, etc.) that’s why learning languages has been so enjoyable for me. Check out the resources below and give it a try, maybe you’ll find some of the same enjoyment.

Gabriel Wyner, my favorite language learning expert and the author of Fluent Forever, a must have book for anyone studying languages, has updated his popular learning technique. He wrote about it in an article called On Hacking Fluent Forever. Well worth the read.

 

And… here’s the big list:

  • I’ve started using Memrise heavily over the last few weeks. They’ve updated their mobile apps and website and it’s become a close second to Duolingo. Memrise is mostly free, thought they do have a premium plan. I don’t think the premium plan is necessary for learning, but I subscribed because I think they’re a great business, in particular, I am excited to see the results of their Membus Tour – currently on Kickstarter. Memrise was founded by my second favorite language learning expert, Ed Cooke (the link goes to his book on Amazon).
  • Have I mentioned that Duolingo has Russian now?
  • In addition to Duolingo and Memrise, I use Anki heavily. It’s a spaced repetition flashcard app that is free for computers with an (expensive) iOS version available as well. Check out Gabriel Wyner’s pronunciation trainer decks for the best Anki resource on sounding like a native speaker.
  • The Actual Fluency podcast is generally pretty good. It helps keep the motivation up.
  • The Chunking Express – this is a quick Economist article that can really make your learning more focused and effective.
  • There are a bunch of other language learning sites that are up-and-coming. Some are better than others, I simply haven’t had time to try them all extensively:
    • Readlang – Chrome extension that trains you by translating words to or from your target language inline then saves your translations to flashcards.
    • Verbling – native speaking tutors and lessons. ~$10 – 25 an hour.
    • Ling
    • Forgo – Cool, extensive and free pronunciation dictionary.
    • Bliu Bliu – language learning for intermediate learners.
    • Lingua.ly – learn by reading and translating articles.
    • CoffeeStrap – text chat with native speakers.
    • FluentU – learn by watching videos. Pretty slick translation interface.
    • italki – lessons from native speakers.
    • HelloTalk – language exchange for mobile devices.
    • Speaky – another language exchange.
    • MangoLanguages – good online conversational lessons. Expensive if you pay for it yourself, but most likely free through your public library. My favorite part is the feature that lets you easily compare your pronunciation with that of a native speaker.

In addition to all these there are scads of terrible mobile apps (and a few good ones). My recommendation would be to try the above before going to the app store. Also notice that nowhere in this list is a certain software that comes in a yellow box mentioned. I’ll leave it at that.

If that’s not enough, here’s another extensive, but somewhat unfiltered, list of resources.

As always, you can find me on Twitter @zzzmarcus and online at my website. You can reply to (or forward) this with feedback or questions and, if you reply in a different language, even better 🙂