Language Learning On a Shoestring: The Cheap Fluency Guide
It’s hard to separate languages from money.
All around the world, people are paying top dollar for access to language education.
In most places, that means English classes—anything from English immersion preschool to business English refresher courses.
In the English-speaking world, there are instead news articles and magazine ads that try to entice you to go abroad or learn from home.
Doing so, they say, will increase your lifetime income by tens of thousands of dollars.
Whether or not you’re planning to learn languages for the economic benefit, though, you probably want to minimize your costs up front.
When it seems like language learning is a matter of financial investment rather than of putting in the time and effort, it might make you wonder whether it’s even worth it.
But did you know you can learn languages without breaking the bank?
Below are resources and tips for doing just that—along with a couple of reasons why spending a little money might not be a bad idea.
Language Learning On a Shoestring: The Cheap Fluency Guide
Tip #1: Get Professional Courses On the Cheap
Did you know you can access or download complete, professionally-made language courses for free?
I’m not even talking about the free beginner-intermediate app courses like Duolingo.
Some publishers make courses and release them absolutely free of charge online—either stand-alone or to promote other material:
- Routledge, maker of the “Colloquial” course books, offers the companion audio files to each book free on their website. So if you can get a copy of the book used or at a library, the audio companion is yours to explore.
- A European organization called 50Languages (formerly known as book2) has produced a complete introductory audio course in—you guessed it—fifty languages. Each course is broken up into 100 lessons, with every line recorded slowly and clearly by native speakers.
- Rounding out the selection of complete courses, there are dozens of older FSI, DLI, Cortina and Peace Corps courses that have entered the public domain and are freely accessible with their audio intact. They’re available at The Yojik Website.
Keep in mind that these courses aren’t necessarily without their drawbacks. For example, the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) and DLI (Defense Language Institute) courses were mostly developed by the United States government in the 1960s and 1970s to prepare diplomats and military personnel for placement abroad.
Due to their age and target audience, the language taught is rather formal and perhaps outdated. Not only will you never learn how to ask for the WiFi password, it’s likely that all the dialogues will use the formal pronouns. You’re definitely going to have to supplement these courses with other, more modern material.
However, despite these slight disadvantages, the pedagogy behind the courses is sound. They were designed to be used in a classroom setting and are extremely thorough. If you have the stamina to stick through a few hundred hours of grammar and vocabulary drills, these are the courses for you. There’s a loyal following of language learners online who adore these high-quality free materials.
Some of the other courses above are designed to be more basic and may not cover everything you need to learn.
However, even after you’ve finished whatever free language courses there are online, you can still find a whole world of free language content just waiting to be used. One of the most overlooked places for this is likely right in your hometown.
Even the tiniest public libraries usually have at least moderate collections of foreign language material.
Take a trip over there (or use the online catalog) to see if you can find some famous name-brand courses—not to mention some page-turners in the Foreign Literature section.
Tip #2: Take Advantage of Free Trials and Discounts
There’s another category of resources that can give you a lot of content for little or no money.
I’m talking about paid language learning websites here. But why do they make an appearance in an article like this?
Because many sites offer free trials or limited free access to their content. And pretty much all of them have extensive blog or advice sections with tips and tricks for learning languages.
Aside from that, not all paid language learning sites cost a lot—you can often take advantage of cheaper plans that give you limited access, and depending on what you’re looking for, this can be more than worth it.
Take FluentU for instance.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Glossika is another prolific website with a language course count pushing 60. Apart from an extensive blog and free PDF section, this audio-based site offers a 7-day free trial for major languages and unlimited access to minority or endangered languages. So this might be a good site to check out if you’re learning an obscure language.
Tip #3: Explore Global News Content Online
Since you’re reading this post, you’ve likely already started looking to explore how to learn a language with resources online.
But some of the best may barely even register as language resources at all.
News sites like GlobalVoices, BBC.com or NHK World may seem at first to be completely unrelated to language learning.
However, each of these sites translates their content into more than a dozen languages to reach a foreign audience. GlobalVoices even has the links to the translations conveniently located above every article!
Major newspapers in cities all over the world now have multimedia websites with hundreds of hours of audio or video content to keep the intermediate or advanced learner occupied.
By downloading and formatting these translated articles into side-by-side parallel texts, you can quickly check the meaning of an article while continuing to expose yourself to natural, authentic native content.
Tip #4: Connect and Share
The internet was built to connect people.
And you can ride that connection straight into a new language experience.
Online Language Exchange
There are two major players on the field of online language exchange right now: WeSpeke and Hellolingo.
Both of these are full-fledged social networks that function similarly to Facebook or WhatsApp.
HelloLingo is the third iteration of a vibrant online language exchange community dating back to the mid-2000s called SharedTalk.
It’s reinvented itself a few times, but the core concept remains the same—connecting people through text and voice chat so that they can help one another learn languages.
WeSpeke is more of a rounded-out social experience, where you can search for people with the same interests or background as you and add them as friends. In addition to text and audio chat, video chat is built right into the platform!
On both sites, you simply register with your native language and the languages you’re looking to learn, and browse around to find people with the opposite language profile.
Since English is so important worldwide, native English speakers often find themselves swamped with invitations for free practice!
Online Language Learning Communities
And outside of these specialized exchange websites, you can also find enormous communities of language learners online.
One of the largest active forums for language learners can be found, naturally, at language-learners.org. Its biggest section is the language log page, where members keep regular diaries of their progress—usually learning three or four languages at a time.
There are also regular forum-wide challenges, including the Free and Legal Challenge. That’s exactly what it sounds like: learning a language only using legally available free materials.
Lastly, if you’re more the social media type, the Polyglot Club Facebook group is one of the largest language-themed Facebook pages.
Facebook moves much faster than a traditional forum, but as long as you stay on top of it, you can use it as a hub to share tips, resources and even set up impromptu language exchanges.
Tip #5: Spend Money to Save Money
Sticking to free resources can be a great challenge. But there’s often an opportunity cost associated with tracking down free online files or waiting for a conversation partner to appear online.
And that cost is time.
If you’re a busy learner or financially motivated to learn a language, there comes a point when spending a little bit of money on the right thing can get you pretty far pretty fast.
For example, if you know exactly what you need to learn, then it makes a lot of sense to buy a course tailored to your needs.
Perhaps you’ve got a job working retail and you notice that you’re losing potential sales because you can’t communicate with Chinese customers looking for cosmetics.
Buying a course for business or retail Mandarin could be a direct solution to your problem, and you’ll likely see benefits much faster than if you started with a free general course.
You may also consider hiring a specialized tutor as an alternative to free language exchange.
On italki, you can search for professional, experienced tutors who specialize in specific areas of language education like test preparation, business and more.
If your future immigration or job prospects hinge on demonstrating foreign language proficiency, a bit of money spent on an exam-focused tutor could pay off big later.
Whichever way you slice it, learning a language without dropping serious cash is an appealing prospect.
It takes hard work, but in my view, the best resources for learning are the ones that you’re passionate about or fascinated by.
Once you can dive into the wealth of native-language content online, you’re just about set for the rest of your language learning journey.
And when your level gets high enough—maybe you’ll be the one making the free resources!