10 Secrets to Learning a Language Without Spending a Nickel

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I was in Mexico on vacation recently and regretted, for the umpteenth time, not having put more energy into learning Spanish. It’s not difficult for English speakers to learn, I’m told, and I love communicating in Spanish, even with my rudimentary skills.

Ads for instructional tools imply that buying products can make the job of learning a language easier, and no doubt they do for some. I’ve nearly succumbed to Rosetta Stone’s advertising campaigns. (“He was a hardworking farm boy. She was an Italian supermodel. He knew he would have just one chance to impress her.”) But, being a DIYer, I think of all the other things I’d like to do with that $499.

Is it really possible to learn a language for free, I wondered? Happily, I’ve found it is. 

I got tips from David Renton, a native speaker of English who also speaks German, Spanish and Catalan – all self-taught, and from a variety of other sources.

When classrooms are “impossible”

Catalan?” you may ask. It is one of Spain’s official languages, originating in Catalonia, a proud region in northeastern Spain whose capital is Barcelona. Catalan isn’t a language you hear every day in Northern California, where David, a semi-retired business attorney, lives.

After David and his partner bought a vacation home in Catalonia, he immediately set out to learn Catalan. I visited him and watched David chat easily and loquaciously with shopkeepers, neighbors and elderly men hanging out in the cafes that surround the village square.

“How did you do it?” I asked. He has tried the classroom route, he says, but he finds it “impossible.” He prefers free-style, independent learning, using some of the free and very cheap resources available, including apps, online programs, library books, videos, podcasts, Skype conversations, newspapers, homemade flashcards and online communities.

Here are the 10 best tips and techniques I’ve found from David and others for learning a language for free:

1. Get out of your shell

Watching David use Catalan enthusiastically with everyone who crossed his path taught me what I believe is the No. 1 rule for learning a language: Start communicating with people immediately and often.

I understand a bit of Spanish and a couple of other languages – enough at least to understand what’s going on around me. But I shy away from trying to speak. As a result, I don’t progress.

Self-taught “language hacker” Benny (Brendan) Lewis – he sells his books and products on language learning and blogs at Fluent in 3 Months: Unconventional Language Hacking and Travel Tips from Benny the Irish Polyglot — hammers home the importance of not waiting for perfection before you start speaking a new language.

“Learn a few phrases and then use them,” he urges readers.

Their extrovert personalities may give David Renton and Benny Lewis an edge. But the rest of us have much to learn watching how they just wade in and talk, refusing to fall back on English when they’re stuck. Their delight in connecting with others, even a little and even awkwardly, makes learning interesting and inspires them to do more.

2. Stop thinking you’re too old

Short-term memory declines with age, true. Nevertheless, age is not an impediment to learning a language, according to the U.S. State Department.

The Foreign Service Institute teaches new languages to staff members who will be stationed abroad. A paper, “Lessons Learned From 50 Years of Theory and Practice in Government Language Teaching,” at the Georgetown University website, says that age, “in FSI’s students … is compensated for by increased experience, which actually helps in the language learning process.”

3. Focus on 120 or so most-used words

Anne Merritt, who describes herself as a South Korea-based instructor of English as a second language, says one way to get a jump-start with a new language is to concentrate on learning a basic tool kit of words. Just select the 120 or so words you use most. Merritt writes, in The Telegraph:

Linguists say that to “get by” in a language, such as directing a taxi or asking for a phone number, it takes a vocabulary of about 120 basic words. It’s a manageable goal, and a firm foundation for beginners.

4. Learn clusters of related words

Rather than memorizing numbing lists of unrelated vocabulary words, Merritt advises memorizing lists of related words and concepts.

There’s no special way to do this. Just group words that seem related to you and drill yourself in them. “Learning, say, types of weather in one lesson, and parts of the body the next, works in tune with your brain’s natural system for classifying information,” Merritt says.

Also, focus on learning commonly used word combinations and phrases like “nice to meet you,” “turn left” and “do you know.”

5. Repetition, repetition, repetition

“I believe the secret to language learning is just repetition, repetition, repetition,” David says.

Our brains require repeated exposure to new words and concepts in order to learn and retain. That’s why flashcards work. To make a set, write a word or phrase on one side of the card and the translation on the other; take them with you wherever you go and practice your material repeatedly.

Merritt tells why repetition works:

The goal is to transfer the short-term knowledge of new vocabulary into your long-term memory. Review is essential – in the first few days or weeks after learning new vocabulary, recycle those words and you’ll entrench them in your memory.

Some language-learning apps use a technique called spaced repetition system (SRS) that relies on exposing students most often to difficult material and less often to easier stuff. It’s an update on the flashcards approach. It’s used, for example, in free language courses at Memrise, an online learning community.

Anki, a free (a small donation is encouraged), downloadable program, uses “intelligent” flashcards. Flashcards Deluxe is an iTunes Store flashcard app that costs $3.99. Check user reviews before making a purchase. Don’t buy an app that hasn’t been reviewed.

6. Use TV, videos and podcasts

“Watching TV and videos is the key, as you can connect words with pictures,” David says.

Quick Internet and YouTube searches confirmed how easy it is to find audio and video programs — instructional material as well as other broadcasts in your target language. I searched “Croatian TV” and “Swahili language TV,” for example, and found lots of videos. The British Broadcasting Corp. has new websites and video broadcasts in numerous languages. Look also for online TV channels in your new language.

Sources for free podcasts:

  • Benny Lewis explains how to use the iTunes store (you don’t need an Apple device) to get free podcasts in the language you’re studying.
  • OnlineDegrees.org lists its favorite podcasts for learning Spanish, Italian, French, Mandarin and Japanese.
  • OpenCulture.com lists language-instruction websites and downloadable audio tools for 40 languages – all free.

7. Practice with strangers

The Internet offers a wealth of opportunities to connect with strangers who’ll speak their native language with you, often in exchange for you letting them practice their English with you. Let common sense be your guide, of course, when connecting with people you do not know.

Here are a few places to start:

Basically any modern social networking website (including Facebook; by searching for your city’s name + the language and then clicking “Events,” but especially by clicking “Groups,” e.g., French in London) can be searched for meet-ups that may include particular language meetings. And if they don’t, then take the initiative and create one! Or contact the members individually (without spamming or being a creepy guy only contacting girls) that are a part of a language interest group and ask that person if they want to meet up for an orange juice or coffee (or a beer if you must) and speak in the target language.

8. Use online language-learning sites

A search will bring up many sites with teaching tools in various languages. Add “free” to your search to narrow the list. Vet the ones that look good by doing a search for the site’s name and “reviews.” These four sites receive consistently good reviews:

9. Avoid memorizing pairs of opposites

A favorite teaching technique — asking students to memorize words along with their opposites (black and white, day and night, happy and sad are examples) — has been discredited, Merritt says.

The problem is, when words are learned so closely together they are easily mixed up, she says. Study the more common word first, she advises, and once you’ve got that down learn its opposite.

10. Don’t understand? Guess.

Benny Lewis shares another of his lessons: If you don’t understand what someone is saying to you, guess. Really, what he means is extrapolate — make an educated guess from the context of the conversation and words you do recognize.

If this sounds scary, consider how, when you meet someone who’s new to speaking English, you expect mistakes. You consider them natural.

Lewis explains more here and offers a video of himself conversing in Arabic after what he says was two months’ study. He pauses and stumbles but keeps going, determined not to lapse into English. It’s a nice illustration of the early stages everyone must work through in speaking a new language. Using determination and flexibility will keep your early conversations from falling apart, expanding your opportunities for learning.

What are your tips for learning a language without spending money? Share your comments and favorite sites and apps with us below or at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Da

    Thank you for your secrets. I especially love the sites. It is such an inspiration and great help for people who want to teach themselves a foreign language. Once again, many thanks.

  • Kenneth Isgrigg

    I used to travel to France every spring with my job as an aircraft mechanic. My first year, I started having coffee with the French mechanics in the mornings, and trying to use a few new French words every day. I also engaged other travelers in the airports, train stations and motels. Within the first few years, I was fairly fluent. Now, fifteen years on, I read and write French and keep in touch weekly my friends via text, tweet and Facebook. I have never paid a dime for a program or book, and I have found that the French people are very accommodating if you are willing to put forth the effort. And along the way, I taught them quite a lot of English!