5 Ways to Learn a Language

Photo: mjp

You’re ready to hit the trails and soak up all the cultures the world has to offer…but you have no clue how to say please, no thanks, or can I have a steaming cup of strong coffee straight up. You slide into a mild panic about being overcharged for your hotel room or thinking you’re ordering kidney beans only to end up with a steaming platter of sautéed kidneys. True story. It happened to me in China — me and my Pimsleur dictionary. It’s not the dictionary’s fault, though. Its job is to cough up words for me, not show me how to use them. Still, lunch that day was a very illuminating experience!

The best way to avoid these kinds of situations is to tune up your language skills or at least get the basics down before you step on the plane. Here are some places you can get language lessons, from free to pricey.


A great place to start is at Livemocha. This online language paradise offers you a community of foreign language speakers, a wealth of online lessons and a great introductory quiz that lets you know what level you’re at and what class would fit you the best. I love it.

You can sign up for the free service, log in and start doing lessons immediately. The service relies on other members to check your work and, in exchange, you proof the work of other learners. You can also record audio and get feedback from a native speaker. The paid service offers more in-depth courses.


Another choice spot for language acquisition is the BBC. They offer a host of language lessons you can use online or download them for use at home. They also send out weekly emails and updates in the language of your choice. Sign up for French or German classes and start receiving podcasts and weekly lessons for three months. The website also has additional materials, such as news sources and crossword puzzles.


Want to brush up by yourself sans the Web, but still in the low-budget range? Grab some Pimsleur books and CDs. Not just good for dictionaries, this company has some of the best and easiest to use software around. Grab a set, load it onto your iPod, and get talking. The lessons start with the simplest phrases and work up to more complex ones. Each lesson also incorporates a review of the previous lesson. You might be able to find these at your local library. If not, you can buy these for around $20 to $25 new.

Rosetta Stone

A more costly do-it-yourself way is the Rosetta Stone. This system is super pricey at $220 per packaged set, but noted as wickedly awesome and amazingly effective according to people who have tried it. Based on immersion techniques, Rosetta Stone abandons rote memorization and tedious grammar drills in favor of teaching students how to use the language in real-life settings. Worth checking out if you can.

Groups and Events

For more face-to-face interactions, you can always find a local Meetup group in your area. In Seattle, for instance, I found groups for German, Indonesian, French and Spanish. Places like San Francisco and New York City offer a broader range of language groups, including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Arabic. Or you can start your own group. You never know who else is around wanting to learn the same language.

Yahoo groups, Facebook, and Twitter all offer different pages and sources in foreign language along with a chance to interact with native speakers in the language of your choice. Maybe you can swap language lessons with someone. You teach them English and they teach you French or Chinese. Ask around and see what you find.

Otherwise, your local community college, small language schools in your community, or Berlitz are great choices for gaining a few language skills before you take off.

So dust off the old books, fire up your neurons and get studying. The world is awaiting your arrival.

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Guest's picture

Thanks for the resources. These should be helpful in my quest to be fluent in Espanol by Feb 2011 (about 20% now). I especially like the Groups and Events suggestion - there's nothing like practicing with other people.

I'm also a fan of Tim Ferris' strategies for language learning.

Guest's picture

May I also suggest Lingq? While it's not available for all languages, the method espoused by Steve Kaufmann works on whatever language you're studying.

Guest's picture

Your local library may have some great resources too-audio books, classes, or online language learning programs, like Mango. http://www.mangolanguages.com/

Guest's picture

I heard rosetta is terrible, learning and remembering images doesn't teach you any real skills. I bookmarked those sites though.

Apparently the Assimil way works very well though, as well as just repeating after spoken text in the language you wish to learn. I suspect that will be quite hard at first, but after a while you'll get good at pronunciation AND listening. Sort of like how kids learn.

Guest's picture
björn brink

improve the collection tablespoons on a plane
Elof has the more
thinking **** planet - everything is here and more can be there!

ie, Thailand's beaches and subtropical and fine halvhumanoida cities

technique is also easier

reptiles go to the respective State

possibly the earth as a hunting and fishing

ang attack on the Trade Federation
eljäsrarna 's in milkyway
eljäsrarna with us
since the planet (we say of 1 billion years old) can go to nahoo (security value)

then clearly the sentimental allowed to return, etc. (like the earth sas section)

rated easily met six småtjejerna (which Niemeyer cloned, not far from torstensson) = ie that the Americans may have to do more with mkt warrior peoples

Birka Fleet Fleet
U.S. arm Hammers
Special Force SS Sieg heil

learn technique, while the time is (may yet be within 2 weeks)

Guest's picture
björn brink

urban planning

1. halvhumanoida Swedish cities

2nd ngr U.S. cities (good social conditions)

Guest's picture

I have been using http://www.saysomethinginwelsh.com for two months now and it has really been amazing. I have also paid for courses but I haven't learned nearly as much as I have on this course and I find it much easier to remember the course material.

For other languages I can also recommend the language books and CDs of Michel Thomas: http://www.michelthomas.com/ His programme has been used to teach celebrities, politicians and corporations all over the world.

Guest's picture
Cheap Yankee

I don't know where you're buying your Pimsleur, but even gently used off e-bay their programs cost $80 all the way to $245 for a 30-tape set. The "cheap" 8-lesson starter sets only teach you to say "Hello, I speak X language, not very well" and not much else. To learn enough to get to a "low intermediate" level of speaking (i.e., enough to order food, ask for directions, find a bathroom, etc.) you can expect to pay between $250 (gently used set of levels I, II and III off e-bay) to $600 (brand new from Amazon).

I'm not knocking Pimsleur ... I think it's no-holds-barred the BEST method for busy people on the go to learn to actually speak a foreign language and, if you can afford to cough up the cash to buy a language program, I recommend this be the one. However, because it is so expensive, I'd recommend first checking to see what levels in your language of choice you may be able to borrow via inter-library loan at your local library so you can give it a test drive and learn as much as you can free before coughing up any cash. I bought the Pimsleur Russian and Mandarin brand new in the box ($450 per language for all 3 levels if purchased at once versus $600 separately) from Big Red Garage, bought older (circa 1970's cassettes) sets of German I and Spanish I for $45 apiece off e-bay, borrowed French I & II for free from my local library, and also Italian I and II free from the library. I also borrowed German II free from the library, though it was a tiny bit different from my ancient 1970's cassette version (the older versions are a bit more formal).

(Yes, I speak "tourist" in 7 languages)

Most other language programs are utter and complete garbage. Rosetta Stone is fun, but only as a supplement after you've learned lots of vocabulary first. Before you invest in any language program, test drive a set from your library. There is no short cut to learning a foreign language except to memorize and practice it.

Guest's picture

this may not work for others, but it does for me

1) watch movies and dramas with subtitles. listen as you read, and you will be amazed by how much you can pick up within two months of doing this intensively

2) listen to the radio and the music in that language. ALL THE TIME.

3) traditional book learning

4) using internet sources to fill in gaps from the books.

Guest's picture

free courses (a little stale, maybe?) but, hey, they're free.



Guest's picture

Also check out http://www.chinese-course.com/ and http://www.antosch-and-lin.com/

It has some nice features like your own word lists, mouseover explanations, a loop flashcard feature, a text analyzer and a new text every week.