It seems like at least 80% of the people I meet here in Europe are at least bilingual, and more than a small percentage of them speak more than four languages. I’ve met at least five that speak seven or more! Meanwhile, in the United States, being bilingual in one of the four majors (Spanish, French, German, Mandarin) is seen as a job asset, and being a polyglot is rare if not unheard of. I blame our school system, and also the fact that most American citizens speak English – the #1 desired language in the world, even if it is slightly confusing with all of its mismatched socks. Through, though, trough, and tough don’t rhyme but pony and bologna do. Try teaching that to a 10-year-old who already speaks four languages. My little Catalan ‘guapa’ finds English a bit confusing, and, if I think about it long enough, so do I.
However, I genuinely enjoy learning languages, even if I can only claim fluency in one. I find the ins and outs and reasons why a language says what it says interesting. I like learning that we get our English days of the week from Norse/German gods (Tuesday = Tyr/Tiw, Wednesday = Odin/Woden, Thursday = Thor, Friday = Frigg/Freya), and hearing similarities across languages elates me, as does seeing dissonance (the Spanish don’t really have an accurate translation for “awkward” – probably because they didn’t meet me when they were actively making up words). And science has proven that we think more critically and rationally when thinking in a non-native language, which as an emotional person, makes me desire to always speak in a second language. Case in point: I cried during Marley & Me… and the Notebook… and Vampire Diaries (not proud of that last one). If they would’ve been in Spanish I probably wouldn’t have cried, and if they’d have been in German I would’ve been laughing because I’d have had no idea what was going on.
In my time of trying to teach myself other languages I’ve amassed a small army of bookmarks and apps, and I’ve curated the best and brightest for all y’all (which is Southern lingo for the total of three people that follow me and randos that find me via Google – shout out to Russia). I’ll rank these in order of ease of use.
Languages available: 16 for English speakers with more coming!
Best for: Vocabulary and writing.
Duolingo is probably the most famous of the language learning apps, primarily because it works and it’s free. The app isn’t very production-heavy as far as speaking goes – nothing beats getting out there and trying to speak to people – but Duolingo can definitely get you to the point of where you’ll understand basic sentences, can easily ask simple questions and begin to have conversations. If you stick with it, they start giving you a “fluency” reading, which doesn’t mean much except that you should be acing your vocabulary lessons. If you finish one of your languages, consider “laddering” the next (i.e. using the language you just learned to learn the next one), which is a great tool to make you think more critically about both languages. Best of all, the app gives you incentives to keep going and you can connect with friends to build some sort of accountability. Connect with me here to keep me motivated.
FSI Language Courses
Languages available: 48 including Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, and more interesting ones like Twi and Kirundi.
Best for: Passive learning of pronunciation and listening skills.
This is a public domain site curated via the Foreign Service Institute of the United States government. It contains audio for all the available languages and written work for some. Given that it’s free it’s not super interactive, but it’s a great thing to download and listen to while on a run or in transit. It’s a bit dated – most of the recordings are older and not overly interesting (the first Swedish one teaches you how to say each vowel a million times) – so you definitely just have to stick with it and absorb the pronunciation, rinse, repeat, etc.
Languages available: Tons, but you can only work on one at a time.
Best for: Everything, though given that it’s not scripted, you may be learning language according to the people. Mostly conversational, less business.
HelloTalk enables you to message and chat with native speakers of your target language via your cellphone for free. It’s one of those magical things that technology has made available to us with a few clicks of a button. Mavis Beacon could come up with Duolingo, but HelloTalk is a bit more complex. You are only allowed one language at a time without paying, so choose wisely, but you’re able to interact with countless numbers of people – some of which may not speak your target language. (FYI: Asking random men how to say “I love you” in their language is the fastest way to get 12 offers of marriage in 24 hours. Sorry, Dad.) You can translate their responses right there in the app, easily send voice messages to explain pronunciation, and they can correct your texts super easily. Best of all, if it’s a language that doesn’t use the Latin script (ex. Mandarin, Arabic, Greek), you can transcribe the words into a phonetic version. It tends to be time-consuming, so blocking out a half an hour a day to do it and then keeping it silent the rest of the time is probably your best bet.
Languages available: Dozens, in varying levels of completion.
Best for: Learning grammar, reading, common phrasing.
WikiBooks is a compilation of thousands of free books, and their languages section is quite extensive. While most of these are still in progress, those that are half-finished already have a good basis for kickstarting your knowledge. Each lesson has a different theme and contains phrasing for situations you may encounter with that theme. Online connectivity is required, so this isn’t the easiest thing to reach for when starting the language learning, but if you like reading Wikipedia pages in your free time (Food and I once went on a two-hour spree researching maximum security prisons) this might be a good way to waste your time in a positive manner.
I’m certainly not saying this is an end-all, be-all list. I have a dozen other websites and apps flagged, but this is what’s worked for me thus far. Apps such as Babble and Busuu are not as effective or as free as Duolingo, sites like FutureLearn and Coursera have just been irritating in the past, and the endless Reddit pages that I’m subscribed to are mostly jokes about learning other languages. Youtube can be helpful, and listening to the news while reading the subtitles (both in your target language) is great, but nothing really beats just going and talking to someone – even if you mess it up a million times. And if you throw back a few glasses of wine before doing the talking, chances are all the embarrassment you’d usually feel when being corrected will simply evaporate.