How to Learn a New Language with Minimal Expense

One common question that readers send into the Reader Mailbag revolves around learning a particular language without a lot of expense. Most of the well-known methods of learning a language – classroom learning and Rosetta Stone, for example – are quite expensive and, for many people, only really make sense if you have an immediate and urgent need to learn a language for your career path.

What if you’re in a less urgent situation, though? Perhaps you want to learn Spanish because it will become more useful in your career path as you progress. Maybe you want to learn French because you’re planning a trip to France in a year or two. Perhaps you want to learn Tagalog to communicate with your extended family when they visit again next December. Or, maybe, you just have a strong curiosity about a language.

Whatever the reason, you have a desire to learn a language, but it’s not a need. Because of that, the expense of language learning options seems excessive.

Right now, I want to stop and mention that most language learning programs, classes, and tools do return value to people if they put genuine effort into the learning. Taking French classes at your local community college or using software like Rosetta Stone can be incredibly valuable experiences for people who are wanting to learn a language. If you put in the commitment, you will get a lot of value for your money.

However, not everyone has blocks of time available to schedule a class or the financial resources available to pay for Rosetta Stone or for a class at the local college. What do you do if language learning options are just too expensive for you?

My default recommendation in response to such questions is usually to push people toward Duolingo. Duolingo is a completely free tool for learning a number of different languages, mostly focused on European languages but gradually adding languages from other parts of the world such as Turkish and Swahili. Duolingo is completely free and, since it turns language learning into something of a game, it’s actually rather fun to use it.

However, Duolingo does have some limitations. For starters – and this is really the big issue – even if you invest the time to finish all of the lessons for a language on Duolingo, you’re not going to have mastery of the language. You’ll be at roughly the level of someone who has finished the first semester or perhaps the first year of rigorous coursework on the language. You’d be able to have a simple conversation with someone, but your vocabulary would be limited and the ability to exchange more complex ideas would be limited, too. Another problem is that Duolingo isn’t currently available for every language you might want to learn.

In short, if you’re starting from scratch and need to learn the basics and Duolingo is available for the language you want to learn, Duolingo is a stellar option.

What do you do, though, if you want to learn a language that isn’t in Duolingo or you want to keep learning a language that’s in Duolingo once you’ve completed it? In other words, what inexpensive and free resources are available for language learning beyond Duolingo?

Let’s dig in.

The first place to start beyond Duolingo is at your local library. Many local libraries offer full audio training tools for learning a specific language. These often include large CD sets that walk you through basic vocabulary and grammar along with written materials to supplement that training and teach you some elements of the written language. Depending on the size of your library, they may have such tools in many languages and may be able to request tools for other languages as well. This is probably the best resource available to you if you want to “cram” a language and don’t have the resources to buy audio courses.

Audio courses are strong at helping people master correct pronunciation of key phrases. They tend to be weaker at teaching the ins and outs of grammar of a particular language; instead, they often tend to rely on variations of known sentences which might not be grammatically perfect, especially if you’re trying to form sentences on your own. I’ve found that such audio work is best when you’re trying to master a core set of phrases for travel but don’t expect to be progressing toward natural conversation in that language.

Many libraries have courses that focus on the Pimsleur method, which is a popular method for self-learning when it comes to a foreign language. It’s essentially a clever way to maximize the usefulness of audio learning, but audio learning itself may or may not be the most successful method for you.

Another approach that your library can help with is reading well-known books in foreign languages. For example, if you’re learning Spanish, you might want to consider picking up the Harry Potter series in Spanish, something that your local library can help with. Doing this takes a familiar story and transforms it into the language you want to learn, meaning that you have a lot of context clues for figuring out what’s happening but you’re still absorbing the text of another language.

When you’ve progressed to the point of deeply understanding a particular language, reading literature and news native to that language is an incredibly powerful way to keep the language sharp and continue building vocabulary. Reading simpler books in that language is a great step in that direction, and it’s a step that the library can help with.

Memrise is a free online tool and smartphone app that can be used to learn hundreds of languages. It relies on a “flashcard” system where you essentially progress through decks of “flashcards” on your phone to build vocabulary and mastery of particular phrases.

I find that a “flashcard” system like this is incredibly good at building vocabulary, but not necessarily good at building the grammar needed to make sentences. Much like an audio course, the grammar you learn comes from repeating sentence structures and naturally absorbing how words fit into those structures. Memrise is best at building a large vocabulary and learning how they fit into a handful of sentence structures, so if you’re wanting to learn how to master simple situations where a wide vocabulary might be useful (like ordering food at a restaurant), this might be the best free tool for you.

Memrise may serve you best by being a “supplement” to other language learning programs and tools, providing a way to rapidly build vocabulary along with the stronger grammar learning strategies brought to the table by other tools.

Anki is another popular tool for language learning that has a lot in common with Memrise – they both rely on a flashcard system for learning.

So, why include them both in this listing? I like to compare the two with an analogy – Memrise is like a sharp pocketknife, whereas Anki is like a Swiss Army knife. Memrise is perhaps best at the specific task of language learning, but Anki is useful for learning almost anything that involves memorization and is far more powerful in terms of loading your own “flashcards” to study.

In truth, I have used Anki very effectively to memorize things besides languages quite well and find it to be an incredibly useful tool. In the future, because of my familiarity with Anki, I would be much more likely to turn to it than Memrise for absorbing vocabulary in a new language. Having said that, if I were starting from scratch with both pieces of software and was focused on just language learning, I would probably choose Memrise. It really depends on what you want out of the tool – do you just need a tool for one specific purpose, or do you want something that can handle a lot of things?

HelloTalk takes a different approach to language learning. It facilitates an anonymous conversation with a native speaker of the language you’re trying to learn, a native speaker who is also trying to learn your native language. Through basic conversation, you gradually teach each other your native language.

The advantage of HelloTalk is that real conversation with people is an incredibly powerful way to learn a language. The desire to communicate clearly and effectively with other real people is a powerful motivator, and having other people see what you’re struggling with and directly help is also very powerful. However, you’re sometimes limited by simplistic conversations, especially at first. What tends to happen is that you find good conversational partners at your level that grow with you over time as long as they stick with it.

This is a great supplement for your preferred language learning strategy, but it’s not a strategy on its own. You’ll need to be using a more robust tool outside of HelloTalk to get the maximum value out of HelloTalk. That being said, it is definitely one tool you should have in a larger repertoire of language learning tools if you’re trying to learn a language on your own and are approaching it seriously.

Podcasts are a wonderful free tool for learning a new language. Podcasts are simply free audio recordings that you can download at your convenience; many of them are episodic, with new episodes being released on a regular basis. There are so many different podcasts out there that use so many different techniques for learning languages that you should try several just to see what works. All are free; all you need is a podcast app on your smartphone to listen. (I recommend Overcast for iOS and BeyondPod for Android.) Here are a few of my favorite free podcasts for language learning.

News in Slow… is a weekly podcast in which a news report of current events is given by a native speaker in that language, but it is spoken at a fairly slow rate so that language learners can understand it more easily. This is a great intermediate step for people who are building vocabulary and building toward being able to speak and understand the language natively. Listeners can rely on context clues – their understanding of basic world events – to understand what the speaker is saying and the speed is slow enough to allow listeners time to process and understand without losing track. For people who have already built up a basic vocabulary and grammar – like people who have completed the lessons in Duolingo for a particular language – these are a fantastic next step.

Spanish Obsessed with Rob and Liz is a great Spanish-focused podcast that’s actually split into a number of different series depending on your level. The style that the hosts provide here is very inviting and the fact that you can “grow” with these podcasts to more advanced levels is also wonderful.

30 Minute Italian with Cher Hale is my absolute number one language learning podcast I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately… the host stopped with the podcast in 2016, though the archives are still available. If you’re learning Italian, I implore you to start this one from the beginning. It is magnificent in terms of the language being taught, the friendliness of the host, the interesting side tangents that the shows take… just everything!

If you want to drink from the proverbial fire hose, here are a ton of podcasts on language learning that are available for free. You can dig into ones that are available for your language at your own convenience. Some will be good – some not so good.

The final tool I wanted to mention for free language learning is Google Translate. This tool is exactly what it claims to be – it allows you to type in sentences in your language and translate them to another language.

The advantage of Google Translate is the utter flexibility of it. It’s very useful for almost any language you want to learn. It allows you to try out vocabulary and simple sentence structure and see if you’re right.

The disadvantage is that Google Translate isn’t perfect. While it does a pretty solid job of giving functional translations for words, sentences, and phrases, it can often miss a lot of the nuance, especially in more complex sentences, and it can occasionally mis-translate words with the same spelling (though this has become rare as the program has become more sophisticated in recent years). This can result in some awkward translations on occasion.

Still, Google Translate is an invaluable free tool when you’ve reached the point of forming sentences and thoughts on your own in another language or you simply need help finding a particular vocabulary word on the fly. It’s like a translation dictionary in your hands with the ability to handle simple sentences as well.

With these tools combined, you should have everything you need to learn a foreign language of your choosing. However, there is one final element that’s absolutely vital in all of this: you.

Without a strong internal commitment to learn a foreign language, you won’t learn one. It won’t come to you like magic. It takes time and commitment and consistent effort. Sitting at home dreaming about learning French isn’t going to teach you French. Talking about how you’re going to learn Italian “soon” isn’t going to teach you Italian. You’re not going to become a master of Turkish by doing one or two Duolingo sessions.

With all of these tools available, the real factor that matters in all of this is your commitment. If you truly want to learn a new language, make a daily commitment to language learning. Block off thirty minutes or an hour to actively learning the language in some fashion, whether it’s doing Duolingo lessons on your phone, running through some flashcards, listening to a podcast, doing an audio lesson, or reading a book. Find what works for you and do it!

For me, actually scheduling blocks of time for learning in my personal calendar works best. When I am learning something new, I literally block off an hour each day for it. You can block off half an hour or whatever works for you, but make that time sacrosanct. Don’t turn it into something you can brush aside on a whim. If you later decide that learning isn’t a priority for you, accept that and delete the commitment, but until then, make a daily commitment to learning. Given the wide variety of free tools available, access to learning resources is relatively secondary.

Good luck in your language learning journey!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.