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Tech tips 219

Learning Languages: Online, and on Your Own Time

By Scott Nesbitt - Sunday, May 24, 2009

pullquoteLearning a foreign language seems to be on the to do list of a lot of people. And their reasons for learning a language are as varied as the languages many of them want to study.

urduWhile there's no denying that being able to speak a foreign tongue is beneficial, would-be language learners often run into a few obstacles. They might not have time to attend formal or informal classes. They might not be able to afford language tutoring. Or classes for the languages they want to learn might not be available where they live.

Though the Web can help you get around those problems. Using any of the many sites out there, you can learn the basics (or more) of a foreign language online and on your own time.


Getting going

Effectively learning a language, like picking up anything else, depends heavily on mastering the basics. It's not always fun, but it is essential. These sites can help you.

One of the better known language courses is the one developed by the Foreign Service Institute to teach American diplomats, government agents, and consular staff the rudiments (and a bit more) of the languages of the countries in which they'll be stationed. You don't have to be employed by the State Department to take advantage of these courses. Nor do you need to spend hundreds of dollars to get the home edition. You can download public domain course textbooks and audio files that you can play on you MP3 player or iPod of lessons from the FSI Language Courses Web site.

The site contains over 30 courses, with more being added. Not all courses are complete. Some are lacking all of the MP3 files, while others only have the texts. On top of that, some of the references in the material are dated – remember that these courses were originally developed in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the day-to-day vocabulary and grammar hasn't changed in that time.

englishSomething a little more modern is Mango Languages. The service is completely Web based – you can use it anywhere, and all you need is a modern Web browser and speakers or a set of headphones. Mango Languages breaks its lessons down into chunks that are easy to memorize. The lessons start out simple. For example, the first lesson covers the basic greeting in the language that you're studying. The lesson then builds on variations of the basic greeting. You're not only learning something useful, but also accumulating vocabulary that you can use later.

Mango Languages also offers grammar and cultural notes, quizzes that are interspersed in lessons to help you remember the content, and help with pronunciation. There's a lot packed into Mango, but it comes at a price – a three month course costs $160.

Lying somewhere between FSI Language Courses and Mango Languages is Travlang Language for Travelers. As you've probably guessed from the name of the site, it offers basic vocabulary and phrases that someone traveling to a particular country will find useful. The vocabulary and phrases are divided into the following categories: Basic Words, Numbers, Shopping/Dining, Travel, Dates and Times, Directions, and Places. All of it is easy to learn and useful.

You get not only the words/phrases in your languages and the foreign languages (say English and Portuguese), but also audio. The site also offers quick quizzes to test your knowledge and help you remember what you've learned.


Getting social

Studying on your own is tough. It's hard to maintain your motivation and to test your skills if you don't have any interaction with others who speak or are learning the same language that you are. That's where Livemocha comes in. It's a free site that's billed as Social Language Learning. Livemocha encourages you not only to learn, but to practice.

frenchHow? First, you go through the various lessons for the language or languages that you want to study. The lessons are a mix of audio and visuals that give you a grounding in the basic vocabulary and grammar. Then, when you feel confident, you can post written and/or spoken exercises. The exercises are short, but they let you practice what you've learned. The social part comes in when you ask others to critique your exercises. Usually, the comments are quite constructive. They'll point out your glaring mistakes, and usually encourage you to keep at it. You can also arrange text and voice chats with other Livemocha members to get some live practice.

Even with online social networking, you'll find that from time to time you'll need to have face-to-face interaction with another person. If you don't have friends or family members who speak the language that you're studying, then you might want to check out Meetup.com.

Meetup.com blurs the lines between the physical and the online world. On one hand, it's an online community for people with similar interests. On the other hand, members of the site have regular gatherings called meetups (hence the name of the site). As you've probably guessed, there are Meetup groups in most major cities, and smaller ones too. And there are groups for speakers and learners of various languages. Even if you can get out only once or twice a month, a Meetup group is a good way to practice you budding language skills.


Becoming one of the pod(cast) people

Podcasting is an interesting phenomenon. Some people call it blogging out loud. It's a great platform for presenting reviews, ideas, opinions, and polemic. MP3But it's also tailor made for learning languages. And, as you've probably guessed, there are a lot of language learning podcasts on the Web. One of the great things about language learning podcasts is that you can download them to your desktop computer or laptop computer, or carry them around on your MP3 player or iPod.

Arguably, the best known language learning podcast is ChinesePod, put out by a company called Praxis Language. ChinesePod, as you might have guessed, is for learning Chinese – specifically Mandarin. There are episodes that are aimed at learners of all skill levels: from outright beginners to advanced students. Best of all, the folks behind ChinesePod have fun with the material. That makes learning fun, too. ChinesePod offers free lessons, and a range of subscriptions. The subscription plans offer more, obviously, like PDF transcripts, review audio, and study tools.

ChinesePod has been so successful that Praxis has created a number of spin offs, including SpanishPod, FrenchPod, and ItalianPod. They follow the ChinesePod model, both with content and pricing.
Some other popular language learning podcasts include Learn French by Podcast, JapanesePod 101, Fumetti (for learning Italian), and Pukka German. You can find a long list of language learning podcasts here.


How effective is this?

It all depends on you. If you're motivated, then the sites discussed in this TechTip can help you get a grasp of a foreign tongue. It will be a lot of work, and to be honest they're not a perfect substitute for language classes or for regular interaction with others who speak or are learning the language that you're studying. But if you don't have time to do that, working with these sites (and others like them) are the next best thing.

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