I used to be a rabid consumer.
Maybe it was the fault of the culture, maybe it was because I’m also a raving bibliophile and it meant acquiring more books, maybe it was because I felt like I had to spend money to make any progress – whatever the reason, when I first started learning Japanese I threw paycheck after paycheck at the problem at the bookstore.
Any book, software or audio set that promised to have me speaking Japanese in no time at all got whisked off to the checkout line. Naturally, after having spent several hundred dollars on language courses, I was speaking fluent Japanese by the end of a few weeks right?
Yeah, you know better. All that stuff didn’t get me anywhere.
The truth is, you don’t need to spend a dime to learn a new language. Caroline and I successfully completed our entire 6 month Korean fluency challenge without purchasing a single thing. One of the main keys to our success was our use of three particular websites.
These three websites are all free to sign up and use and, best of all, can be used to learn any language as long as someone else out there speaks it.
The first resource is Lang-8.com – a free community of language learners where you can post journal entries in the language you’re learning and then have them corrected by native speakers.
After signing up for a free account, you write posts in your target language and correct the posts of people learning your native language. Easy.
Are you an absolute beginner and don’t even think you know enough to make a single post? No problem! Find some recent entries written in your native language by people who speak your target language and correct them. Before long, you’ll start getting friend requests (Caroline received around 70 in our first week using it).
Most of the people who send you a friend request are also learning your native tongue and would be more than happy to exchange Skype info. You teach them a little English, they teach you the basics of their language and most of the time you form a new, genuine friendship.
You’re not limited to reading your own posts either. You can go dig through tons and tons of posts written in your target language by other people and then corrected by native speakers. Not that you should have any shortage of reading material, what with the Internet and all, but it’s a good option if you’re bored of reading news and blogs in you target language.
Text is great, but if you want to be able to actually speak a new language you’re going to need to know a thing or two about pronunciation too. That’s where Rhinospike.com comes in.
Rhinospike has a similar community structure to Lang-8 – except instead of native speakers correcting the grammar in your entries they record themselves reading the text aloud and then post the recording up on the site.
Used in conjunction with Lang-8, that means you can not only get your entries’ grammar corrected, but also download a free recording of a native speaker reading it. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a large selection of recordings other people have had done that you can browse through and download.
There are a ton of potential uses for this. The most obvious is that you can have a native speaker reading your posts to compare your pronunciation to, but there are so many more. You can post articles, short book excerpts, news stories, vocab lists, all sorts of things and then download them to your iPod or whatever to always have native audio to listen to. You can write out little dialogues and then pretend that you’re one of the speakers, answering the questions rather than parroting back what the recording says. You can even record yourself on your computer right after the native speakers recording and compare to dial in on speaking with a native accent.
The pre-recorded library is, on it’s own, a fantastic resource even if you don’t request anything recorded for yourself. Glancing at it now there are 380 recordings in the Korean section. One of those is the first 633 of the most common words in Korean, and another is 310 of the most common verbs in Korean. If you’re looking for some good listening comprehension practice rather than worrying about pronunciation, just jump around to random recordings and see if you can figure out what they’re saying.
If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could download all the recordings to load onto your MP3 player and then just put it on shuffle.
I’m trying not to use the ‘last but not least’ cliche, but it fits here. Couchsurfing.org is the single best free resource available for learning a second language.
The key to learning a new language is, has been and always will be speaking it with native speakers. I guarantee you after one month a person who spends an hour per day chatting in their target language with a native speaker will speak better than a person who spends five hours per day digging working through textbooks. Couchsurfing provides a fantastic way to meet new friends who speak your target language.
There are three main options for how to go about doing this. The first is to travel. Unless you already travel a lot, or want to travel a lot, this will probably be the least useful to you. All you have to do is search by language spoken next time you’re looking for a couch to stay on while traveling. Tell the person up front that you’re learning their native language and would like to practice a little while you’re staying with them if that’s ok. Don’t expect them to give you an intensive course or anything, this is free remember, but usually people are more than happy to help.
The second option is to host people who speak your target language when they’re traveling to your city. Again, be upfront when responding to their couch request and let them know that you’re learning their language and would like to practice a little if they don’t mind. Chances are, they’ll want an opportunity to practice their English with you too.
The third option is to just do a search in your own city and then send a nice message to a native speaker in your area who has marked that they’re open to meeting for coffee that you’re learning their native language and would be interested in meeting sometime to chat about it. Not everyone will be interested, and some people may just chat with you over Skype instead, but you can often find someone who is cool with meeting up to chat.
Now, when traveling or hosting, don’t expect the person to spend a long time coaching you and giving you lessons, unless you’ve already agreed on something like that beforehand. The focus of the site is still to travel and meet new people, so if you’re hosting remember that your guest probably has things they want to do and see and if you’re traveling remember that your host has a life.
The real magic, in my opinion, happens long after you or your guest has left. In my experience, when you stay with someone or host someone in your house, you tend to wind up becoming friends. Not to cheapen the relationship, because I think the friendship is more valuable in the end than the end goal of learning a new language, but having a friend who speaks a language you’re trying to learn is the greatest way to make tons of progress quickly.
Have you used any of these resources in the past? Are there any others that you think I should have included? Share them with everyone in the comments!
Photo: Kuba Bożanowski